Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Listening to Miles

Mostl of what people say about Miles Davis concentrates on his place in the history of music. You know, he was there for the earliest recordings of bebop, for the birth of the cool, for the invention of modal jazz, for the beginning of fusion. The guy was so mercurial, so forward-thinking, so determined to keep pushing the music in new directions.

All that’s important to know, but it can be easy to forget that in between all those high water marks, Miles Davis simply made breathtaking music. Jump back to April 21, 1961. I was 2 and a half years old at the time, but luckily, the tapes were rolling at a little jazz club, and I can listen to “Friday Night: Miles Davis In Person at the Blackhawk, San Francisco Complete” any time I want. (There is a Saturday Night release, too, but I can’t listen to that one until I actually buy it.)

This was a couple years after Miles made history with “Kind of Blue” and a couple years before the classic mid-sixties Quintet pushed his acoustic music as far as it could go without going electric. In other words, this was as non-historic a period for Miles as we can ever find. Most short histories of jazz skip right over these years, as if they didn’t exist. (In fact, most histories of music in general like to ignore the years between 1959 and 1963, mainly because the stuff you can actually listen to from that time has a nasty tendency to destroy every neatly structured theory of stop and start musical history you’ve ever read. That period was no more dead and empty than any other. It wasn’t all Fabian, you know.)

While John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were taking all the great leaps forward, Davis was, well, not exactly consolidating his gains so much as simply seeing how far his ideas could go. Listen to “Walkin’,” one of his most famous tunes, played here at a speed much more akin to serious runnin’. Miles jibs, jabs, punches, ducks, dances, and basically uses all the other boxing metaphors I don’t know because I don’t follow that sport. Now, you can say a lot of things about most of the music Miles Davis made in his career, but you won’t very often say that it sounds like he’s having fun, that it’s really all in the spirit of playfulness. On this performance, he sounds downright giddy with the things he can do.

I can’t forget to point out that his interaction with the rhythm section of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, honed by several years of live performance, could make anybody giddy. The swing never leaves this thing, even as Chambers and Kelly bounce ideas off each other, prod Davis and in turn are prodded by him, and generally zip in and out of the forefront whenever he gives them a chance. Tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley – one of a string of major-league players who sat in the chair in between John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter – may not have been with them as long, but he’s clearly inspired by the company. His solo on “Walkin’” is blistering and hard as a feather, if that makes any sense. He’s not boxing. It’s more like he’s throwing a javelin for several miles, and playing notes that follow its flight path up and down in the air.

Davis was recording a lot more modal material, but live, he was sticking to familiar hits and standards. That doesn’t mean he was sucking up to the crowd. Take the version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” from the same show. Right from the beginning, he assumes the audience knows what he’s playing because the arrangement is lifted from the studio recording he’d done a couple years before. So, he doesn’t bother to play the whole melody. The empty space at the end of each line, the part where you would be singing “Bye Bye Blackbird,” is startling at first, then riveting. What will he replace next? Once the solo starts, you’ll know he’ll replace virtually anything and everything, with a soaring burst of muted notes that recall the rhythm of the original melody, but not often the tune. He and Kelly are virtually mind-melded on this one, too, which makes Mobley’s brief contribution even more remarkable, as he shifts gears to a harder feel and Kelly is right there with him.

Two CDs capture the complete performance of three sets from this band on this night. The release about two years ago is part of Columbia Legacy’s ongoing amazing remastering of Davis’s catalogue. Back in the 60s, when these albums were originally released, they were cut out of sequence, and missing many of the tunes performed. Now, you get tremendous sound and every bit of the music. My recommendation is you avoid any Miles Davis CD issued before 1999, and snap up every one of them issued after that. Learn the history because it’s fascinating to know how one thing led to another. But, listen to all the music because it’s so full of pleasure, and spirit.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Roddy Doyle's Latest Novel

I can’t imagine Louis Armstrong driving a car. I’ve listened to his music all my life, I’ve seen him on TV, I’ve read enough books to picture what he looked like on stage, in the studio, eating, sleeping, talking with friends, smoking reefer, even having sex (with some discrete fades to black in my imagination). But, driving a car, a mundane action that all of us do, is beyond my comprehension. The Louis Armstrong of my mind never performed any mundane actions.

Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, “Oh, Play That Thing,” includes scenes of Louis Armstrong driving. They’re actually rather comical scenes, with Armstrong running all over town trying to dump his no longer useful friend at a place he can at least be welcome. He hits a woman with his car, as if his eyes can’t even picture the action of driving, either. Don’t worry. We aren’t faced with the image of the 20th century’s most important musician being charged with manslaughter. She’s fine, though he comes close to hitting her a second time.

Doyle is still most famous for having written “The Commitments,” from which the motion picture of a few years back was made. But, I’m better acquainted with his previous novel, “A Star Called Henry,” of which “Oh, Play That Thing” is the sequel. In the last book, we followed the complicated life of Henry Smart from birth through his 24th year, and found him participating in the chaotic convulsion that was the Irish Republican revolution. Henry killed, not necessarily out of conviction, but because it was the role he filled most easily. He was a character who could not be resisted, so naturally enough, Doyle kept telling his story.

Unfortunately, Henry Smart makes a far more believable representative of Irish history than American. Part of that, I realize, is my lack of familiarity with the Irish experience. I know a heck of a lot more about bootleggers, jazz, and the Depression than I do about the origins of the Irish state at the end of World War I. So, I can spot the coincidences, the unbelievable bits, the Zelig moments which seem forced just for the sake of having something famous come into Henry’s life.

That doesn’t mean this novel is unreadable. It’s actually a lot of fun in a lot of ways, especially once you decide to toss realism out the window. If Henry Smart and Louis Armstrong are going to turn to a life of crime, breaking and entering into Chicago mansions to steal silverware which can be easily fenced for cash, why shouldn’t they very soon stumble into a home where Smart’s long estranged Irish wife and daughter happen to be employed as live-in help?

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first two sections of the book are the strongest. Henry’s attempt to establish himself as a plucky young entrepreneur, with a business in advertising via sandwich boards, in the New York City of 1921 is both riveting and hilarious. It’s not his fault, exactly, that he gets involved in the death of carrier pigeons owned by Owney Madden, one of the most notorious gangsters of that day and place, but there it is.

Escaping to a small town with a character mostly known as “The Half-Sister” (not his, but that of another minor character), the story shifts to detailing confidence games. She is a fortune teller, he is a water seeker and dentist. With no experience behind him, Henry applies the same pluck which made him so successful as a hit man, and pulls teeth with wild abandon. Oh, this section is enough to make you sick, but it’s really, really funny, too.

Then comes Chicago, and suddenly we’re out of the realm of Henry Smart making his way in the world, and into the realm of an Irish immigrant falling in love with African-American life and music. Yeah, maybe it could happen, but I doubt it. Too often, Henry’s descriptions of Armstrong’s music read too much like the work of modern jazz critics, and not at all like the less intellectual readings of those on the scene at the time. As brilliant as “West End Blues” is in retrospect, I’m not convinced anyone on the scene knew it was so much better than everything else that had come before. Of course, Henry becomes Armstrong’s right-hand man, the White man he needs to give Armstrong a chance to move tentatively into the white world.

From there, the coincidences flow, and Henry becomes re-involved with characters from “A Star Called Henry” and the earlier sections of this novel. Reunions and loss are the stuff of Henry Smart’s life. (For those who remember the original novel, there are even ironies such as Henry ending up losing a leg while saving his son from death; Henry’s father only had one leg.) Eventually, he ends up ready to die, only to find himself at the feet of a great American mythmaker. We’re supposed to see Henry’s American experience as leading inexorably away from control of one’s life as an original on to becoming a part of the great American imagination of itself as something big, huge, constantly expanding, and good. But, we know it’s a myth, we know his role here is to be near death portraying a dead man in a story improving on the reality of the past.

(I once said I’d always be a spoiler in these reviews, but I can’t bring myself to name the mythmaker. How about I just say he’s a famous director of Westerns?)

I’ll read more Doyle, but I hope he doesn’t return to Henry Smart. I don’t think this character could do anything else; he barely makes it to the end of this book, by which time he’s close to 50 years old. We’re already close to a historical Forest Gump, albeit one with some street smarts. Unless Doyle intends to have Henry meet Gump, let’s leave any plans for a third volume on the drawing board.

By the way, there is a fascinating bibliography at the end of all the books Doyle referenced to assemble the accurate details of American life in all the places depicted here. I think there are several listed here I’d like to check out myself, in addition to the half-dozen I’ve already read.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

How much outrage do you need?

1. A fifteen-year-old girl has sex. Okay, that’s something we don’t like to see, but it’s fairly common. Just digging around quickly on the net, I found a study in England that said 18% of girls under 16 had had sexual experiences, and one in the U.S. which said roughly 25% of all students in their 10th year of school (presumably that’s sophomore year in high school) have had vaginal intercourse.

2. A fifteen-year-old girl hooks up with several different boys around her age for sexual experiences without relationships. Now, this one is something that gets people riled up, but I’m not personally convinced it’s really happening much. TV crime shows have used it several times in the last year or so, though, and I’ve heard people gossip about it. It’s always been common for teenagers to exaggerate their sexual experiences, and it’s unfortunately been even more common for teenagers to really exaggerate the experiences of other teens, especially girls. How many of you heard about the girl in your high school who was intending to fuck every boy in school before the year was over? The same survey I cited above said that for 2/3 of the teens having sex, their last encounter was with their regular boyfriend or girlfriend. I’m not saying “One Tree Hill” is the most in-depth reporting on any subject you could find, but the recent experiences of Brooke and Felix attempting the “friends with benefits” plan showed that it’s quite capable of being one-sided even if it does happen.

3. A fifteen-year-old girl, after learning that sex really doesn’t mean much, moves on from hooking up with boys her own age to trading blow jobs on older men for expensive clothes. I’m not saying there aren’t men out there who would do it, but I think they’re a lot rarer than you’d think. I suspect that, no matter how provocatively a teenaged girl dressed, she’d have to hit on dozens of men before she got a bite, and even then, the man’s ego would probably turn for the worse as soon as he realized she wanted him to spend $800 on a dress for her. And never mind the insane idea that a middle-aged man working in a clothing store would pop into the dressing room for a quickie (or even more absurd, whip out his dick in the back room for a blow job while purportedly doing inventory). Guys are pigs, don’t get me wrong, but there is a point beyond which the penis can’t take most of us. At least not without liberal doses of alcohol, which are hard to come by in shopping malls.

4. A fifteen-year-old girl moving up the trick-turning ladder to become a full-time hooker charging $1500 per act while being pimped by the desk clerk of a classy hotel. You know, it never really occurred to me to ask a desk clerk for anything other than the location of the ice machine, but I’m fairly convinced prostitution does occur in many hotels. Still, it’s probably a ridiculously stupid clerk willing to pimp out somebody who looks less than 25, because a certain level of discretion is necessary to pull off that sort of transaction in the first place. With customers willing to shell out that much cash for an orgasm – and really, how could one be worth even half that amount? – you’re looking at a glitzy operation that doesn’t allow the sleaze to get too dangerous. But if they did, boy, I could get pretty worked up about that.

5. A fifteen-year-old girl who manages to get one of her johns, a doctor by trade, to fall madly in love with her, move to her city, diagnose her with AIDS (from all the dangerous sex she’s had in the last six to nine months), and provide her with medicine. Now we’re getting into some truly outrageous territory, and I don’t see how we can get any worse.

6. Fortunately, the producers of “Law and Order SVU” were able to see further than my limited mind, and add the final outrageous twist, the level of hell which did indeed lead to this young girl getting killed in this week’s episode. How about a 15-year-old girl who has done all the above being recruited to film pornography and thus potentially infecting other actors which leads to the director bashing her over the head with a tripod? Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be sexual. This is the inevitable result. We should all be very, very afraid.

All the crime shows these days have to trump each other in the outrage department, and they do so by piling twist after twist, miserable level of depravity after miserable level of depravity until we feel that everybody in the country is at risk. (Actually, mostly, the people at risk on these shows tend to be upper class, which is something I find interesting; I guess, however, that Americans love to imagine themselves better off than those who have all the bucks. Even if we still fear the same fates, we at least can comfort ourselves with knowing that all that money couldn’t help them.)

“Law and Order SVU” is particularly guilty of pushing sexual fears on an unsuspecting public, and spends an inordinate amount of time convincing us that children are in terrible danger. If they’re lucky enough to escape being molested, they have to worry about their own lack of control regarding sex. The episode this week drove this point home about as far as it could go.

One of the favorite techniques in this kind of fear-mongering is to show the surviving friends of teenage sex victims acting in a cavalier manner. Actually, all crime shows have agreed that virtually nobody interviewed by the police on TV should ever exhibit any fear or concern beyond a desire to move quickly through the experience and get back to their real job or class. Even more, I suppose for the purpose of making it harder for us to know what to believe, every single person interviewed on a crime show is a liar par excellence. They can come up with perfectly believable stories spun at a moment’s notice from whatever question the police ask, and even, if necessary switch to a back-up plan if the cops dig and find out the last story was a lie.

So, the dead girl had a best friend, who did everything except the porn career and maybe the AIDs. (After going through all that, she decided she had to draw the line somewhere, worried about what people might think if a movie was seen years later. I guess it’s good to plan ahead a little bit.) The day after her best friend was found dead, this girl was found in the back of a clothing shop with the aforementioned middle-aged worker giving him the aforementioned oral sex. Hey, I guess a girl needs something new to wear to a funeral. The rest of the episode, she leads the detectives to the truth a step at a time, as they wear down her repeated promises that “Really, this is what happened.”

The idea was to establish not the specifics of the case on this episode. Instead, we should all worry about our kids, even those of us who don’t have any. It’s not like when we were young, nosirree. Kids today have no morals, no ability to discern right from wrong when it comes to sex. Everything is meaningless to them. Once that Pandora’s box is opened, there’s nothing possible but pain and heartbreak for the parents.

This sort of message gets hammered at us all the time on these shows. And yet, I keep watching, because I find the actual mechanics of it all entertaining. I enjoy the intensity of the chase, the interplay of Detectives Stabler and Benson, the witticisms of Finn and Munch (though I do bemoan the way Richard Belzer’s character has been watered down since the glorious days of “Homicide: Life on the Street”). And, I guess I tell myself that I can see through all their bullshit, and know that sex really isn’t as bad as they make it out to be.

I wonder if we’ll ever get to move back towards nuance and realism in crime shows. We’ve become so used to the constant twists and turns, the spectacular nature of evil on display, and the infallibility of the detectives who always, through hard work and determination, capture the bad people. That stuff is fun, of course, but it would be nice to have it not work so hard to scare us away from understanding people’s real needs and desires. Convincing us that teenagers are a sexual thought away from multiple partners, AIDs, a porn career, and death is not a necessary corollary to making an exciting TV show.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Fellini, Doris Day, and Making Babies

Digital video recorders (already Kleenexed into the world as Tivo, no matter what brand you may have) are the greatest things in the world, except when they aren’t. I don’t blame the technology so much as the damn TV networks looking to regain control by running shows just a couple minutes longer than they say they will. And that’s the reason I missed the ending of “I Vitelloni,” the 1953 masterwork by Federico Fellini. I set up to record the movie as scheduled, and it ran long. How much longer it had to go, I can’t say, though I know for a fact that I missed the final scene.

Here’s the capsule summary as found on the otherwise incredibly useful Internet Movie Database site (www.imdb.com): “A sensitive character study of five young men trapped in a small town on the Adriatic. Their discontentment and restlessness lead them into a variety of activities, not all of them admirable.” That’s remarkably like summarizing “Julius Caesar” as “Emperor and his subjects don’t always agree, and ultimately there is war.” Yeah, that’s what happens, but so much is left out.

I’m not at all familiar with Fellini’s pre-“La Dolce Vita” output (though I think I saw “La Strada” once, but I don’t remember). This is a much more naturalistic movie than I usually expect from him, but there are plenty of trademark wild crowd scenes thrown in. The opening ten minute sequence is full of herky-jerky cuts, tight close-ups as people move rapidly around the central figure, long shots of frantic dancing, and plenty of overlapping dialogue. And, then, there’s the Carnivale sequence a little more than half-way through, when the same sort of thing happens with costumes and masks and giant papier mache heads. Nobody can capture frenzied party scenes like Fellini.

Today, we easily recognize these young (at least young as defined in 1953 Italy; at least one character states his age to be 30) main characters as prototypical slackers. Nobody works hard, save Leopoldo, the playwrite dreamer. Instead, these guys drink a lot, wander the streets, flirt with girls when they see some, and occasionally dream of leaving their small town for the glories of Rome.

Fausto has the most ambition; he seems to get excited by every woman he meets, and sets his goal to have sex with each one in turn. We first meet him putting the moves on a young lady who rejects him. Then, we find out he’s impregnated Sandra, the sister of his friend Moraldo (apparently Fellini’s autobiographical stand-in). Their shotgun marriage doesn’t end his womanizing, and in fact, the connecting thread of the movie is his constant attempts to regain favor in his wife’s eyes. Assuming I didn’t miss much at the very end, all does seem to be forgiven when the screen finally goes blank.

There’s lots more, of course. Riccardo (played by Federico’s brother Riccardo), is the most pathetic character, living off his sister with his mother until the sister leaves with a shadowy married man. His drunken ramble at the end of the Carnivale sequence is gut-wrenching to watch. Leopoldo has an encounter with a homosexual actor which is painful, as well. At first, he thinks he’s finally being taken seriously as a writer; eventually, he realizes he’s only being taken seriously as a cute young man.

Richard Linklater would have liked these guys, I’m sure, but he wouldn’t have invested such energy in telling their story. As with any Fellini flick, the fun is in the camera work and the acting, not to mention the pacing, which can roll along at an ambling speed before shifting into whirlwind mode at any time.

Because my viewing ended at the moment when Sandra forgave Fausto, I was left with the impression that lying to his wife worked for the guy. So, imagine my surprise when later that night, we watched “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out,” a 1968 sex/corporate culture farce, and darned if the same thing didn’t work for Doris Day’s husband.

You’ve seen these mid-to-late 60s comedies starring Robert Morse and an interchangeable cast, right? They’re all a blast, thanks to the set-em-loose while the cameras are rolling professionalism of the veteran actors. They’re all equally among the most blatantly misogynistic movies ever made. You’ve got to appreciate Doris Day’s magnificent body language – nobody ever walked in a huff with more flustered huffiness – at the same time you’re wondering why her character never read any Betty Friedan. Of course, in the moral universe of these strange flicks – all of which, by the way, seem to have the exact same artless direction and semi-hipster musical score, not to mention, at least one short sequence with the kind of hippy Jethro Bodine hung out with when he smoked crawdads – even if they had a feminist inkling, the women would end up pregnant and in love with the guy who did it to her.

So, here’s the set-up. Never mind the tie to the 1965 New York city blackout which gave us the title, and which is barely used as an excuse to set plots in motion. Just enjoy Morse, the treasurer of a large corporation who embezzles $2 million in cash and has to get out of the country with the money. And Day, playing an actress married to an architect played by Patrick O’Neal, who is still seen as a Constant Virgin (the name of her hit Broadway play). When O’Neal cheats on Day with a woman reporter who had been in her Manhattan apartment to interview her, Day heads to their Connecticut home. Morse’s car breaks down outside, and the farce proceeds apace.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention the astounding Terry Thomas, playing a Hungarian theatre director without bothering to change the Englishness of the only character he ever really played in any movie. O’Neal catches Day and Morse sleeping together – they each drank sleeping potion – and the long path to conclusions is quickly breached by a leap. Thomas needs to split Day and O’Neal up, so he can take her to Hollywood and make lots of money. He bribes Morse to convince Day they did sleep together, because despite the obvious infidelity of her husband, she’ll only divorce him if she thinks she cheated on him. How’s that for logic?

It’s all as perfectly pieced together as any jigsaw puzzle you’ve seen, and ultimately, all is made well. Morse returns to the corporation from whence he had stolen, and in fact becomes company president. Day and O’Neal reconcile, and nine months later, have a baby. Which, I guess, leaves Thomas stuck on Broadway looking for a way to Hollywood.

Both “I Vitelloni” and “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out” feature women who are completely virtuous and incapable of staying mad at their philandering husbands. Both women seal their marriage by having babies. Sandra, of course, only gets her man because she’s pregnant; Day keeps hers that way. Motherhood is the holy fate of women which locks their men to their side. It has nothing to do with love or respect, that’s for sure. Fausto and O’Neal are equally shown to be incapable of resisting the allures of other women, and incapable of seeing their own women as anything other than the stability they need to enable them to concentrate other attention on their horniness.

It’s amazing to me that this vision of male-female roles could have been so blatant. I mean, we’re all still used to happy endings and love conquering all, but in our new moral universe, Fausto and O’Neal would each have been punished, and their women would have found a knight in shining armor who would truly respect them and love them for who they are. Instead, the women who have given their men total devotion get trampled on by men who fear that devotion and feel trapped, and their only out is to tie the men down further by giving them children to raise. Yeah, that should keep those male eyes from wandering. I think they’d have been better served letting their own bootheels start wandering.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Grand Hotel

Greta Garbo had so much charisma that even in a movie generally considered to feature the first all-star cast in Hollywood history, she cannot come on screen until after all the other characters have had enough time to establish themselves in our minds. For Garbo dominates “Grand Hotel,” a movie which tries hard to resist domination.

What stays with us after it’s over? Garbo, head held high – several inches higher, in fact, than virtually every other member of the cast – and striding purposefully across the lobby of the hotel. Garbo, wearing that impossibly over-sized tutu, shrinking down into a ball on the floor. Garbo, beaming with post-coital glow, dancing around her hotel room in love with everything that could happen next. It’s Garbo’s movie, and everything else that’s great about it – which is to say, everything else that’s in it – is greater because she is there.

In 1932, all the major players in “Grand Hotel” were big stars. Lionel and John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford, along with Garbo, were all guaranteed box office attractions. Today, however, we are less familiar with them. It’s not as though we don’t recognize them, but they seem little more than character actors to us now. Well, character actors and drag queen progenitor/mommie dearest. It’s funny to see how sexy Joan Crawford was before she transmuted into a caricature of womanhood.

But Garbo transcends her roles. She acts, to be sure, but she is always Garbo at the same time, a quality she shares with the biggest stars of all time. She is regal, commanding the attention of the camera, daring it to come closer and closer, to contain her body, her smile, her movements in the frame. It ain’t easy, folks, because she wins every one of those dares. Garbo may over-act from time to time, but even when she’s being subtle, she’s bigger than whatever action she’s performing.

Five years after sound was introduced, yet only two years after Garbo deigned to speak on screen, “Grand Hotel” was populated by a roster of actors who had learned their craft without using their voices. Thus, we modern viewers are astounded at the incredible range of emotions revealed through facial expressions, body language, and simple movements through space. Just to pull one example out of dozens, the look on Crawford’s face when John Barrymore asks her to dance with Lionel can crush you. We’ve known for half an hour that she would be disappointed, since John is in love with Garbo, but we didn’t know how far and how fast her face would fall, or how quickly she could put on a smile to fool him into thinking she’d never thought he meant anything to her. Another example? Every single moment Lionel Barrymore is onscreen.

Five characters revolve around each other in the enormous, luxurious Grand Hotel of Berlin, approximately one year before Adolph Hitler will take over as Chancellor of Germany. This latter fact adds a level of unexpected irony to the tale; none of them know how soon their world will irrevocably change.

I said they revolve around each other, but mostly, the revolve around Baron Felix von Geigern, played by John Barrymore. Von Geigern has fallen on hard times, and become a thief. His goal, to pay his gambling debts, is to steal a pearl necklace from the fading Russian star ballerina, Grusinskya (Garbo, duh! And at the age of 26!). While casing the hotel where she is staying, he befriends Otto Kringelein (his brother, only four years older in real life, yet playing at least 30 years older), a dying accountant who has decided to go out in high style by spending all the money he’s saved his whole life. Kringelein worked for the giant corporation owned by Preysing (Berry), who is in Berlin to attempt a last-ditch effort at salvaging his company through merger talks with another. Preysing has hired a stenographer, Flaemmchen (Crawford), who is flirted with by von Geigern and befriended by Kringelein.

None of these characters are perfect, though Kringelein, so full of joy at the littlest new discovery of the pleasures available in life, is the most sympathetic. Give that man a Louisiana Flip, please. He has held himself down all these years, thinking that playing by the rules, scrimping and saving cash along the way, would lead to a reward at the end of his life. Now, he’s there, and he’s learning that the only rewards he’ll ever get are the ones he pays for, and his past methods have left him enough cash to pay for whatever he wants. In the end, he gets a girl, Flaemmchen, though as much for the money she wants as the fact that she likes him.

Preysing has adhered to his own moral code his whole life, as well. He has been honest in all things, business as well as in his marriage. Oh, sure, he’s been blissfully unaware how he has made his fortune by paying as little as possible to people like Kringelein, and taking advantage of whatever he can get out of labor and suppliers. But, he has never lied to anyone, merely been ignorant of effects. Now, in order to save his business, he is forced to lie, and finding that the world didn’t end, he decides he might as well hire a woman to sleep with him while he’s away from home.

Really, though, with ankles like Crawford’s, sitting there in front of a typewriter pounding away the words he dictates, how can he resist temptation? Especially when she shows him an art magazine with life pictures of her presumably nude body? When Flaemmchen decides she likes von Geigern, she slides her finger across his chin and says, “You’re nice!” The discovery is palpable, because it’s clear she’s never thought men could be nice. Their flirtation is both touching and a neat red herring, because it leads us to think theirs will be a romance, not the one we actually get. Anyway, Flaemmchen is a survivor who will do anything, all the way up to prostitution, for money. In between performing acts of kindness with Kringelein, she sells herself to Preysing. Of course, in the course of the movie, she never quite consummates the deal because Preysing kills the Baron.

Von Geigern, as I said, has to get money fast, and he sees his chance when he notices Grusinskya leaving for her performance without her necklace. In a feat of derring do that Harold Lloyd would have turned into farce, he crawls along the building ledge several floors up, and sneaks into her room from the balcony. Of course, Grusinskya returns early, and the two fall in love. He talks her out of killing herself, and even gives her back the necklace before a convenient fade to black which later finds them lying on the bed talking about breakfast.

As it turns out, von Geigern is the worst thief in the world simply because he really is nice. He really does love Grusinskya, when everybody else merely wants to keep feeding off her career. Her handlers routinely lie to her just to keep her performing, and thus keep their money flowing in. And, this being 1932, he refuses to take her money so they can leave Berlin together and live happily ever after. Nope, he’s the man, and he’ll find somebody to steal it from.

But, he can’t. First of all, he has to spend a lot of hours thinking about it. Then, he has to keep his date with Flaemmchen so a lot of powerful interactions between all the characters save Garbo’s can take place. Hitting upon a brilliant idea, he gets Kringelein to seed him a small amount of money and to start a game of baccarat, only to find he’s made his friend even richer. When Kringelein falls ill from drinking too much, von Geigern even tries to steal the old man’s pocket book, but he can’t bring himself to keep it when he sees how much it means to him. Finally, while attempting to rob Preysing’s hotel room, his shadow is observed and the businessman winds up killing him with his bare hands.

All of this has gone on, and Grusinskya knows nothing but bliss. She had been ready to retire, because the crowds were smaller and smaller, the applause less and less. But now, thrilled with love, she sees nothing but beauty everywhere. And, her managers conspire with all the hotel employees to make sure she learns nothing of her lovers fate. How they think they’re going to deal with her when they get to Austria and he’s still not there is beyond me! I’m too busy dealing with the lump in my throat and the knot in my stomach when I see her face looking around for him, trying to ask where he is, and yet confident that she is loved and in love.

“Grand Hotel,” says Lewis Stone as the war-wounded Dr. Ottenschlag. “People come and people go, but nothing ever happens.” Nothing, I guess, but one of the greatest movies ever made.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Reading Sula

I wasn’t really expecting everybody to die. To be fair, at the very end of “Sula,” Toni Morrison’s second novel, published back in 1973, there are three characters still alive. One is a fool, one is an old woman madder than she ever was before, and the third has wasted half her life. The deaths of everybody else comprise the narrative.

Well, alright, their lives are pretty interesting, too. If they hadn’t lived, they couldn’t have all wound up dead in such unexpected manners. (Now that I think of it, one or two of them just leave town, which makes them as good as dead.) “Sula” is a tightly constructed novel, best read in a single setting. (It’s only 174 pages of fairly large size type, so it’s entirely possible to do so, even if I wound up dividing it into three chunks over a few days, when I had some spare time on my hands.) There are so many big things happening that you might forget some of the smaller ones which come back to prominence many pages (and years) later.

I once heard Toni Morrison read from what was then her unfinished novel “Beloved,” and she was enthralling. Her voice is barely above a whisper, but it commands attention. Ever since then, when I’ve read Morrison – and I confess that for some strange reason, I haven’t done it nearly enough – I hear her voice in my head, especially on her most matter-of-fact descriptive passages.

“Sula” tells the tale of the black community which inhabited the ironically named Bottom (because it was at the top of a hill) of Medallion, Ohio, a small river town. The story runs from 1919 to 1965, and focuses most of its attention on three generations of women. There’s Eva Peace, the one-legged matriarch who loved her children more than their lives were worth. Her daughter, Hannah, is really more of a symbol than a character. Sula, of course, is the center of the book. She is Hannah’s daughter, and she is treated as a devil by everyone in the town. That she actually commits and omits sins now and again is important, but not the reason she is feared.

Actually, there is another woman very important to the story. Sula’s best friend Nel is the only one who connects with her. They participate in horrors and pleasures together, and can take up their friendship after a long passage of time apart. The book turns on their relationship, though not always in the way you expect.

Morrison constantly caught me off guard, with events coming out of nowhere. Death is a simple fact of existence in Medallion, even when it is highly symbolic. You can be reading along enjoying intense conversations followed by amusing anecdotes , and the next thing you know somebody’s burning to death and somebody else is jumping out of a window. In Morrison’s world, there is life, the nuts and bolts of day to day existence (which very much includes sex) and there are Events, things which happen and which cannot be taken back (which sometimes include sex).

Ah, yes, sex is all over “Sula.” Both Hannah and Sula refuse to live without it, even though only the former ever has a husband, and him not for long. Mother and daughter both take turns with the married men of the town (not at the same time; Sula is too young when her mother parts from the world). It is Sula’s attitude towards sex which creates the center of the novel, the thing which leaves her totally alone. And, since she views sex as an entrance to pure loneliness, this Event makes perfect sense.

Much later, Sula finds a man she can love, or at least be comfortable with, physically and psychically. So, naturally enough, the very act of wanting such a thing, which she had never even glimpsed before, leads to it all going wrong; the juxtaposition of this scene with Sula lying on her death bed reinforces the sense that wanting something often leads to the opposite.

I haven’t even mentioned Shadrack, the man who went to fight in World War I and lived the rest of his life with virtually no human contact. He is the fool of the novel, the man who seems (emphasis on seems) to know more than he does, who makes things happen, but who ultimately never changes after his experience overseas. The War to End Wars was the Event which ended his humanity. But, he is one of the three characters to survive to the end of the novel, which has to count for something.

Morrison would later write richer novels, would get even better at integrating real life with symbolic passages, would show more often than she tells us what is happening. But, “Sula” is not exactly a minor work. It’s the story of a certain kind of African-American experience, of the ways in which survival depended on living without worrying what could happen next, lest you wind up worrying without living. Reading it is like getting an extrapolation of the blues, the sense of meeting problems head on, of describing them to make them survivable. That doesn’t mean these characters are nonchalant – their pain and suffering is palpable. But, there is strength in their experience, and a strange, sad beauty in the telling.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Listening to Jill Sobule

“Dude, she kissed a girl.” Ten years ago, Jill Sobule must have been flabbergasted to find herself the icon of lesbian chic with a song displaying a sense of joy at the discovery of sexual options hitherto unrevealed. How did that become a hit? Well, the boys were getting off on the frisson of lesbian sex for their amusement, and the girls were thinking, hey, maybe that might be something I could try. At any rate, Sobule was on her way to one and a half-hit wonderdom.

The other half a hit was “Supermodel,” but really, I don’t even remember that one. After all these years, mention Sobule’s name and you get a reference to “I Kissed A Girl.” She’s viewed as a novelty performer, which is funny because the song itself was only novel by virtue of having no predecessor in pop. It wasn’t novel because it was meant to be a goof. It was a delightfully catchy dream of a chorus propelling a tale of wonderment, delirium, openness to new possibilities. Suddenly, the world changed, and the rules of sex were tossed out the window.

It probably didn’t convey a serious impression that she has such a wisp of a voice. Sobule is 42 years old – she was 31 when “I Kissed a Girl” hit – yet sounds like a teenager on the cusp of adolescence. She breathes lightly, and lands directly on notes without any hint of bravado, coloratura, or any adult vocal technique. She’s learned to write effectively for her basic vocal package, but that’s not apparent unless you listen to her songs closely. At first, you think you’re getting an underdeveloped performer.

All of this is cultural baggage. My own reasons for avoiding her for too long are wedded to them. I certainly liked the fact that she wrote a song about what I heard as supporting bisexuality, but I didn’t pay enough attention to it at the time to realize how sweetly she described the thrill of it. I saw her play a few years ago, opening for Lloyd Cole (and performing in his band), and was only impressed enough at the time to think she was pleasant. If you don’t devote full attention to Sobule, her songs will float right past you; you’ll hear hooks, but her delivery isn’t going to force you to feel anything more than the equivalent of a light breeze against your face.

Finally, a few months after its release, I slapped Sobule’s 2004 release, “Underdog Victorious,” into the car CD player, and found myself fully engaged with a songwriter of simple, yet firm melodic and descriptive abilities. Nothing on this album is overdone, nothing is underdeveloped. Sobule puts light guitar strumming when a song needs to be quiet; she builds thick slabs of beats, vocals, piano, and more when the song calls for a deeper bed upon which to rest its soul. She’s funny, poignant, nostalgic, strident, sorry, proud, and in love. Sobule is examining the pieces of the life which formed her, whether they were thirty years ago or last week. There is a sense that it’s all worthwhile, the good and the bad, the times she laughed and the times she acted like an asshole.

Every time I’d get out of the car, a different song would be humming in my head. First it was “Jetpack,” a cute, light fantasy about wanting to get to her lover on the other side of town, with side-trips to hover over the stadium to watch her team win. “Underdog Victorious” is a big, rolling chorus, with lots of background vocals and as close as Sobule will ever get to a wall of sound; the song tells the tale of a little boy who grows up gay. “Joey” is a haunting number, with an effective placement of the title character’s first name as hook; oh, yeah, I guess it’s pretty important to point out the title character is actually Joey Heatherton, and that her tale is particularly sad. The un-named bonus cut is a fun, rumbling country number with the incredible tag line, “I met a cop and she pulled me over/Now I’m really finally over you.”

But the song that really gets me is “Tel Aviv.” Unlike the other songs, which all lend themselves to one-line descriptions, this one is complex, mysterious, inordinately sad. Is it autobiographical as so many of her songs seem to be? The narrator is in Israel, and is apparently desired by a man who wants her virginity, and who may actually get it (or at least the illusion of it). She is lying to her family about what she is doing in Israel, and disappointed at the lack of the excitement she’d been promised. During what seems to be a rape, she’s thinking of better times, and wanting desperately to go home. All of this occurs to a matter-of-fact melody, with a nearly winsome chorus of forced hope. “Somebody’s missing me/Somebody’s missing me/Somebody come get me.”

Jill Sobule is so much more than what I had thought she was. I’d had opportunities to discover this before, but sometimes, as when she kissed that girl, everything just falls into place at the same time. “Underdog Victorious” is a record worth devoting 45 minutes of attention to. I’m sure glad I did.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Talkin' Bout Penises

I got an erection the other day. Let me tell you what happened. A couple ounces of blood started pumping into that tube, and was quickly absorbed by the now relaxed smooth muscle tissue of the corpora cavernosa inside. What relaxed that tissue? Well that’s the hot part. It was an increase in the levels of cyclic guanosine monophosphate, caused by the nitric oxide inside the blood that pumped in there. Thankfully, there was no reason to let the phosphodiesterase-5 enzyme go to work to break that cGMP down, so I was able to get as busy as I wanted to be.

I love penises, so as soon as I saw a book called “A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis,” I was sliding my hands up and down it and wrapping my lips around the words, “I’d like to purchase this, please.” David M. Friedman’s book appeared on the shelves in 2001, but I never heard of it until a couple weeks ago. It’s a fascinating introductory course to the ways penises have been helping to shape history, and occasionally into the ways history has helped to shape penises.

Friedman divides his examination into six areas, roughly corresponding to chronological order. Chapter 1, “The Demon Rod,” is all about dicks in religion. We’re all familiar with the right wing conception of sex as original sin, but Friedman runs us through the different ways its been viewed throughout the centuries, and in different (admittedly European and American) cultures.

Here’s where I learned two of my favorite etymological facts. For the ancient Hebrews, the penis was such an awesome organ that oaths to God were made by cupping another’s package. This custom, long since faded from practice, gave us our modern word “testify.” Later, in Rome, boys were given a locket containing a replica of an erect penis called a fascinuum, which they wore until they became old enough to be considered men (i.e. when they had real life erections usable for sex, apparently.) Now, whenever we refer to something as being “fascinating,” we really mean it’s “as powerful or intriguing as an erection.”

Of course, that’s lots of fun, but the chapter on religion hits its stride when it gets to St. Augustine, the man who single-handedly did more to fuck up people’s sexuality than any other in history. He decided that it wasn’t his fault all those years he kept sleeping with every woman that would have him. He was a sinner because he was born that way, and the sign of that in-born sin is the lust that springs from the penis. So, to Augustine, we were all supposed to control our lust, and shape it to whatever the church decided it was meant to be, which, it turns out, was a few lines here and there about men cleaving to women and sowing seeds into the next generation. It’s amazing, but this sort of tripe caught on, and for 1500 years or thereabouts, western civilization has been all about keeping penises flaccid and vaginas dry as much as possible.

On to Chapter 2, “The Gear Shift,” in which we learn the many ways science misunderstood what was going on with that knob. Naturally enough, since all the philosophers, scientists, priests, and other folks in power were men, there was a lot of curiosity about the penis and how it worked. Sadly, much of that curiosity was applied to preventing masturbation, especially after the 18th century when self-abuse started to be seen as a particular waste of energy (literally, to those minds). Still, there is a lot of medical progress strewn about in between the false starts and vicious attacks.

Chapter 3, “The Measuring Stick,” takes a look at the history of racism as viewed through the lens of the African penis. From the European and American perspective, the black penis was a thing to be especially feared. I think Friedman’s stretching a point to make it such a focus of racial animosity, but there’s no denying the horrifying impact of his collection of stories revealing the myriad ways in which whites have cut off, patronized, and sometimes even glorified the phalluses of the men they enslaved.

Friedman seems particularly animated in Chapter 4, “The Cigar.” Here we come to Sigmund Freud, the man who took the penis and placed it squarely at the center of every emotion known to humans. That he was obviously completely nuts in this regard doesn’t change the real breakthroughs he made towards helping people with neuroses. But, my goodness, what must have gone through his mind leading him to believe that every little boy is afraid of losing his penis and every little girl wants to have one? Here was a guy who clearly thought too much, and the only way to forgive him his sins is to acknowledge that there just wasn’t enough being thought about in this regard. That he was so often wrong doesn’t take away his progress at asking questions. Friedman lets us in on the secret karmic kickback to Freud’s constant cigar smoking, too, a mouth cancer so severe he was forced to wear permanent dentures amid pain which made it very difficult for him to speak during the last two decades of his life. Sometimes a cigar is just a carcinogen.

Then comes the maelstrom, a flurry of far too short takes on feminism and the penis in Chapter 5, “The Battering Ram.” It’s not that Friedman isn’t fair here. He does a decent job giving an introduction to the thoughts of dozens of feminist and anti-feminist thinkers, and he even goes to the trouble of meeting Andrea Dworkin for lunch just so he can assure us she seems like a decent sort. But, as much as I enjoyed the anecdote from a pre Ms-magazine Gloria Steinem about Norman Mailer’s lack of potency during their encounter, I had to say my head was spinning a lot in this chapter. As with any survey as broad as this one, the closer we get to my own experience, describing the modern world, the more I’m aware is being left out. Friedman does a great job of showing how complicated and various the many strains of modern feminism have been, but he leaves us with more questions than answers here.

Chapter 6, “The Punctureproof Balloon,” however, does the same thing on purpose and provides compelling tales of the ways in which science has learned to give men control over erections. Here’s where I learned what happens inside when I start thinking nasty thoughts. (Damn you,Augustine, there just isn’t any better way to say that and still be cute.) And, there’s a whole lot more detail than what I put in the first paragraph. The story which led up to Viagra and Cialis and beyond is really a lot more interesting than I ever thought it would be. There is a nasty zone war between the drug and surgical approaches to curing impotence and the mental health interests. While of course it’s great to have a drug which can make erections happen (though Friedman makes sure to point out that we still have no idea what the long term effects of these drugs might be), there should probably be a much stronger alignment between physical and mental reactions. Everybody likes to say sex is 90% mental, but it’s probably more likely to be 50/50.

The odds are virtually non-existant that anybody out there knows everything that Friedman covers in this breezy, frequently funny and occasionally horrifying 307 pages. So, if you like penises, or you like people who like penises, or you just want to find out how penises relate to our history, you’re not likely to find a better source than this book.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Cracking About Pavement

“I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.” There it is, the explanation for my dislike of Pavement, smack dab in the middle of the third verse of their second most likeable song.

Pavement came along as the kings of reflexive irony at a time when that shit was just all over the place. You couldn’t tell what anybody listening to alternative rock was really thinking about anything, because there were so many layers of “This is so cool it’s meaningless because it acts like it means something which means nothing so it’s sincerely empty because it looks like it should be cool.”

Start with the attitude that meaning could be no more and no less important than pitch or rhythm. That’s what drove me crazy about Pavement. They sold and sold, they were lauded by every rock critic under the age of 30 back in 1994 (and a lot of them older, too), but they stood in stark opposition to everything I loved about music. I could handle irony as a method of expression, but irony as a preventative measure to avoid reaching a conclusion? This was something I couldn’t stomach.

And then, that song about the haircut came on the radio every hour or so. This was back in the day when I listened to the radio because I hadn’t yet encountered a CD player for my car, and it was back in the day when the Point, St. Louis’s first alternative rock station (which at the time was so scared of our town’s predeliction for classic rock that it refused to allow Vintage Vinyl to pay to welcome them as an alternative rock station) hadn’t yet squeezed its playlist into a narrow range of testosterone rage songs. Somewhere about the 58th or 59th time I heard it, I finally understood how brilliant it was to have a catchy sing-along about a pretty nice haircut. I’ve since mostly forgotten how brilliant that was, but I did love it for a few months there.

I would always give Pavement, and eventually singer Stephen Malkmus’ solo projects, a chance to affect me, but they never did. Until the other day, when I suddenly understood not the brilliance, but the beauty, at least, of “Range Life,” a song from Pavement’s breakthrough LP, “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.”

I’m saying it’s their second most likeable song because I haven’t enjoyed it nearly as long or as often as I did that haircut number. But, I just played it three times in a row, and it keeps rattling away in my brain as I type, keeping my thoughts as lilting as the bass-and-drums 2/4 backbeat that throbs its way throughout the record. Above that alt-country 101 rhythm track are layers of guitar and piano which sort of go along with the program, and sort of don’t. The piano is probably most closely aligned with the bass, tinkling away and occasionally coming to the forefront for a proper turnaround emphasis. But one guitar is strumming counter to the beats, and the other is playing a staccato melody with pitches just out of the key of the song. Strangely, it’s all gorgeous. I think I was so used to records being out of tune back in the early 90s that I missed the fact that this was done on purpose and to lovely effect.

Or, perhaps, I was still put off by Malkmus, who is off pitch because he simply can’t carry a tune very far away from a few notes in the middle of his range. In “Range Life” he mumbles at the bottom end of his register, and whimpers at the top. And he sings about skateboarding, and being off-stage while on tour, and throws in some elliptical comments about more well known bands than his own. The third verse finds him in combat with oddball sounds jumping out of the mix, until his vocal virtually disappears after the quote from the top of this page.

I don’t know much about skateboarding. I stood on one once, and jumped off fast when I realized that sucker was gonna move without me knowing how to control it. But, I know what I imagine it feels like to soar around on one of those things, to be in motion without a care in the world, without any thoughts of meaning beyond the moment. And, that’s what this song feels like, right down to the inevitable realization that something out there is going to make you stop and rejoin the rest of humanity. “Range Life” which purports to be about what? moving to a home on the range, could also be heard as “I want to arrange life,” which at least hints that you want things to be under your own control. This song feels like that, like everything is in the place the band wants it to be, until, slowly but surely, control ebbs away.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not gonna run right out and buy Pavement albums or something. I’m still awfully suspicious of these guys. But, at least for this one song, they managed to achieve a unity of expression that’s not as detached from life itself as I had thought they wanted to be. That’s a nice enough discovery to make eleven years later.