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. . . 2002-02-04

Movie comments

Some writers like to write about food, or about sexual experiences, or about how tough they are or how sorry we should feel for them (usually in combination), or they try to make a person's life into a narrative. Critics are writers who like to write about artifacts. And that's about all there is to criticism.

You'll note that the job description doesn't explicitly require an attitude of jealous spite or a habit of sneering. Sure, reviewers, like students, can permanently lose their appetites due to force-feeding, but burn-out is possible in any genre. And sure, the dialog-from-a-distance nature of such encounters overly encourages l'esprit de l'escalier. And of course some combinations of personality-and-artifact (e.g., morose loner meets rock band) are more optimized for envy than others...

Well, OK, I guess critics are messed up.

But my point was that, in fact, plenty of critics prefer enthusiasm to contempt: enthusiasm is what revved up their motor-mouths in the first place. Paying-and-drawing attention to what one loves seems like the best deal all round, and that's certainly the writing I'm proudest of.

Critics are no stabler than anyone else, though. And just like the artists themselves, even if it is special nice to be like all life-affirming and shit, sometimes we're too depressed to handle the job. When you're feeling awkward, a kneejerk seems much more manageable than an interpretive dance. Thus:
In the Bedroom

I was hoping that the title referred to the fortune cookie game, but the first disappointment of the movie was its lickety-split explication as Symbol: "For all you Academy voters in the audience, this means your wife is like a big bug."

Watching this passive-aggressive argument for crush-'em-before-they-crush-us vigilante class warfare, it's hard to believe that the comparatively well-balanced Dirty Harry was once decried as fascist. But all movies occur twice (not counting sequels): first as genre trash, then as Oscar fodder.

In correspondence, David Auerbach, as always taking the high road, hopes it's a phase we're going through:

"In the Bedroom" was fairly anemic, "subtle" because it uses clicheed psychological signifiers without any direct reference to them, "moving" because it takes the shorthand of expecting the audience to settle on the obvious feelings rather than broadcasting them, "profound" because it has a young man's death in it. My optimistic stance is that Americans may be getting to the point where the signifiers are so codified that they become treatable as objects to critique rather than hash over for the umpteenth time. On the other hand, if Jon Jost is heralded as "the Ernie Kovacs of modern drama!" (Sure, his stuff didn't always "work", but...) twenty years from now, I guess it won't have played out so well...
If you want to see Sissy Spacek switch from nice to nasty in a pretentious film, I recommend 3 Women, which has many more laughs, having much more Shelley Duvall.
Gosford Park

Speaking of Altman and Oscar-grasping, you'd think that his high old web-of-caricatures approach would work wonders on this Upstairs-Downstairs material, and I'm still inclined to blame the specifics of his script more than the general notion. The only specifics that work, though, are closer to Beyond the Fringe than to Merchant-Ivory, and they aren't allowed much time. As for the remainder, the gasps of surprise we heard at the ending's "revelations" (Cecilia, or the Coachman's Daughter) could only be explained by bad sound engineering in the earlier part of the film.

And The Rules of the Game has been around for 63 years now. Isn't it about time everyone realized that they're not going to improve on its hunting party scene?

But I will say, with admiration, that Clive Owen is one hunky English guy.

Monster's Ball

Another misleading title (I was expecting Fuzzy Lumpkin maybe -- to be fair, it does have the most embarrassing Hollywood sex I've seen in a couple of years). And another Sundance-ruined genre: Prison movies nowadays are all about redemption, and sure enough, Billy Bob Thornton starts off like Spalding Gray trying to act macho, and ends up like Spalding Gray trying to act sensitive. [Digression: For years now, I've suffered false memories of a movie preview where Billy Bob Thornton intoned, "This is a pungent story...."]

And what a redemption! It turns out that the solution to American racism is for the middle-aged white men to 1) kill the young black men, 2) kill their male children, 3) kill the young white men, 4) put the old white men away, and 5) fuck the supermodels. Shit, we're halfway to Utopia already!

In short, the civil rights equivalent of American Beauty.

. . . 2002-02-05

Childe Roland to the Drop Zone Stunt Tower Came (or, I could be well contented) (via metameat)

Simon & Schuster Chief Operating Officer Jack Romanos will take over as president and chief executive of the publishing unit. He will report to Jonathan Dolgen, chairman of the entertainment group, which includes the Paramount film studios and theme parks.

Simon & Schuster, the smallest Viacom unit, accounting for around 3 percent of the company's total revenues, will benefit from being under the larger entertainment umbrella, since both businesses are celebrity-driven and could result in more projects and tie-ins, Viacom spokesman Carl Folta said.

"There's a natural transaction that comes between book publishing and motion pictures," he said. "We think we can get more out of that."

Dolgen told The Post: "The idea was to try to put together the companies that have a share of common DNA. They both operate at an interesting place where art meets commerce."

Another company insider said the reporting decision was based "first of all on content: Simon & Schuster is all about content, and content is the business Jonathan's running."

. . . 2002-02-06

Revised at 4:30 AM because I couldn't stop worrying about it

  1. An energetic provisionally-held euphoria ("Hey, this is hot stuff!") can aid the production of extended work.
  2. Provisional loss of that euphoria is part of the process of improving one's skills.
  3. Stubborness in the face of rejection is useful for any career dependent on submitting work.
Analogies can be made between those statements and the delusions of megalomania or the cycles of manic-depression -- but they're not necessarily useful analogies. As Eclogues (February 5th, 2002 entry) points out, such mental disorders interfere with the production of actual artwork. The working artists I've met certainly don't suffer from them.

Discussions of "creativity" and "insanity" are often muddied by their emphasis on post-Romantic high art, whose practitioners have stakes on both sides of the "crazy artist" label and whose publicists have adapted to the public's (sometimes justifiable) lack of interest in actual artwork as compared to biographical narrative. More murkiness results from the late twentieth-century marriage of diagnostic psychiatry and self-help books, in which any personality trait can be re-interpreted as a symptom and made reassuringly meaningful in a case history narrative.

But even analogically speaking: If one defines an artist as someone who produces artwork (rather than as a particularly unpleasant lifestyle), wouldn't the proper comparison be obsessive-compulsive disorder?

. . . 2002-02-19

Cupid, draw back your bow

Personal ads, Village Voice, Feburary 13, 2002:
Palenstinian Female 27
shapely semite, 5'9", 140 lbs, dark
eyes. Looking for gorgeous Jewish
man who enjoys restaurants and
travel to Israel.
Semitic sweetheart seeks enlightened
Jewish man with whom to escape NY
winter & return to ancestral home for
warm Palestinian-Jewish Valentine's
Day in Galilee.
Exotic looks & curly hair. Seeks Jew-
ish lady (any race) 4 LTR in Israel. I
love history, Arabic cuisine & skinny
dipping in lake Tiberias.
YOU claimed our FELAFEL
olives, oranges, music, houses as
yours. ME: the REAL SEMITE fun,
sexy, Palestinian gal. I need you to
get me home. WANTED: loving Jew-
ish M.
Petite Palestinian Looking
for fellow Semite in order to return to
Israel & breed in the Holy Land. Must
be willing to learn Dabkel.

. . . 2002-02-21

Movie Comment by Juliet Clark, with unintended reference to recent Movie and Other Comments - Storytelling

"It's very difficult to express self-loathing in narrative without sounding like an arrogant asshole."
+ + +

Lord knows I'm no Self-Esteem cheerleader: anti-empathic self-righteousness is the longest-running American epidemic by far.

But -- it pains me to say -- the common-sense association of judgment, emotion, and action isn't terribly reliable in real life. What makes depression more problem than opportunity isn't its grip on reality but its stagnation. Self-loathing has no utility except as an impetus to change, and it just as often seems an impetus to confirmation: "I'd rather be right than better." Has Jerry Lee Lewis's long-standing conviction that he's headed hellwards made him a better human being? If his wives returned to life, I think they'd say not.

Tolerance toward others and changes to one's own circumstances can't come about purely through self-contemplation, whether the gaze be smug or apalled. They require outwardly directed attention. What a bother.

Related distinctions have been refined at UFO Breakfast -- "disgust" vs. "dissmell," "contempt" vs. "shame" -- and then applied:

In a culture like ours where shame-triggered contempt is on the rise and quickly becoming normalized, we should be especially vigilant about a certain tipping point where shame-dissmell becomes dissmell pure and simple. Once that point is passed, there may not be an easy way back out of tribal hatreds.
My first reaction was to murmur "How true."

But, true to dialectic paralysis (everything true; nothing permitted), my second reaction was to envision the argument's ancestry -- like when you meet the parents of your college sweetheart you can't help but start calculating the genetic odds -- which seems to include two particularly vicious undisciplines:

Jolly Jokester's Injenious Japes
Hotsy: "Mein Führer has no nose!"
Totsy: "How does he smell?"
Hotsy: "Awful!"
Then there's the role of the "shamed" and thereby redeemed and thereby doubly-intolerant sinner, beloved Special Guest Star of American repressive movements (Prohibition, homophobia, McCartheyism, anti-abortion, anti-porn) and standard out for hypocritical televangelists....

Nietzsche's oversensitive olfactories may have helped endear him to Fascists, but I suspect they had more effect on his constipation than on his politics. And further suspect that UFO B.'s analysis-by-analogy, like most all such, works more usefully as a reminder of possible alternatives than as a psychohistorical formula.

But I still wonder if it's a coincidence that the writers I most often turn to for humane comfort -- James Joyce and Samuel R. Delany -- are both on record as lacking "dissmell" altogether.

... continued ...

. . . 2002-02-24

Blind Willie McTell, cont.

Willie McTell  
And Willie McTell wasn't exactly "authentically" a blues musician. It's true he's marketed as blues: there's no other way for an African-American guitarist-singer from Depression-era Atlanta to be marketed. And he recorded a fair number of songs with "Blues" in the title: record companies pushed them at the time. But how many other musicians in the blues bins could've recorded under the pseudonym "Hillbilly Willie" or would've pulled "Wabash Cannonball" from a drunken memory rummage?

McTell played blues songs not because they were blues but because they were popular, and he handled them superbly not because he was a blues musician but because he was a pop musician. In fact, when I first heard him twenty-some years ago, his eclecticism and detached engagement reminded me more of the Kinks than of any of the bit of blues I knew.

Now I can place him more accurately in the songster tradition, and more specifically among an assortment of drawling, danceable, dry-eyed tragicomedians that include Robert Wilkins and Blind Blake: simultaneously down-home and show-biz slick, languid and virtuosic, aiming above all for an appearance of natural aristocratic ease. (Peaks of energetic enthusiasm are typically expressed by McTell with a laconic "That made me sweat.") When need arises, I usually group them under the (admittedly unsatisfactory) umbrella term jug band, although determined taxonomists vivisect their seamless sound into more established categories like "folk," "blues," "ragtime," "vaudeville," "gospel," "hillbilly," or "hokum."

But McTell remains unique, with a uniqueness that tends to be overlooked because it can't be successfully mimicked or explicitly credited. McTell wasn't a composer of songs but of line readings; a master of nuanced affect, he's as phrase-intent as Webern. I've heard maybe a dozen versions of "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," but no others flaunt hooks to match McTell's shifting vocal delivery and breaking-glass-organ "mess-arounds" (probably played on the headstock of his 12-string guitar); his demand for that "gal over there with that rrrred frrock on" exults in its peculiar lasciviousness as much as Ian Hunter's demand for "you there! with the glasses!" The structure is a given; the joy is in the details.

McTell himself said of his most strikingly original composition, "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" (1.9MB MP3): "I had to steal music from every which way you could get it to get it to fit." Although the criminal's mock testament has a history ranging from Villon to "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary," McTell's three years of tinkering resulted in a structure part recitation, part theater -- a three-act pop opera complete with opening fanfare.

In it, he achieves a kind of fantastic naturalism: the reporter enchanted by the sordidness of his own fantasy, breaking in with interjections to remind us of the frame story, smoothly shifting back into the observer's world during what's chanted as one long limber line, the front-rhyme of "North" and "no" sealing the transition watertight:

Twenty-nine women outta North Atlanta no little Jesse didn't pass out so swell....
with military honors And then the deadpan summary of Jesse's farewell:
His head was aching, heart was thumping,
Little Jesse went down bouncing and jumping.
Folks, don't be standing around old Jesse crying:
He wants everybody to do the Charleston whilst he dies.
One foot up and a toenail dragging,
Throw my friend Jesse in the hoodoo wagon.
Moving to full-throated song again for the "moral" and the "memorial":
Come here mama with that can of booze.
Dyin' crapshooter's blues, I mean
The dyin' crapshooter's blues.
It's not rural music, and it's not nightclub music; not exactly earthbound, but nothing close to ethereal. McTell is the ideal musician for the dreamy grimy rubbery urbanity of archy & mehitabel, for E. C. Segar's Thimble Theater (or for the early Fleischers' Popeye -- they never found a scorer as perfect as Cab Calloway was for Betty Boop), for the silent comedies of miracle-working white-faced saints with dirt-blackened hands....


Jesse Anderson kindly writes:

Just a little note about the 'breaking glass organ' in Pinetop's Boogie Woogie - I'm pretty sure that this was McTell hitting the strings below the bridge rather than above the nut. It'd be hard to get that much volume out of the strings at the headstock. This is an uncommon sound because it can't be reproduced in pin-bridged guitars - that is, guitars whose string ends go into holes in the guitar top just behind the saddle. But McTell's 12 strings we often more 'trapeze' style bridges - as you can see in the 2nd and 3rd pictures on your page, the string ends are passed through bracket connected to the bottom of the guitar, and there is a short section of string between this bracket and the saddle that could produce these high tones.

. . . 2002-02-26

Blind Willie McTell, cont.

There is, I think, a critical term which can cover McTell's character-driven vocals, his interest in performance rather than songwriting, his playfulness and close observation, even his eclecticism, and it isn't "blues," but "negative capability."

What goes on to distinguish McTell from Keats's idealized poet (if not from Keats himself) is the intelligence he brings to the job, an intelligence he's unwilling to sacrifice to sentimentality or method acting. How to marry the empathic and analytic impulses, fleshly weakness and rational judgment? In a dance rhythm, of course, but how else?

How else but with our old acquaintance irony? And McTell's is a particularly supple and slippery irony, clinging to bring out the subtleties of each gesture. It leaves him lightfooted and assured, free to underplay or overplay as seems appropriate, less chameleon than cosmopolitan: a human of many parts.

w Helen Edwards  
Given that, it's interesting to hear McTell try to negotiate the territory of sacred music, which would seem to require at least a pretense of sincerity. Though a few of his religious numbers drown in lugubriosity, he's successful with "Motherless Children" (never the most theocentric of songs) and with the restrained mournful reasonableness of "(Might as Well Live a Christian) You Got To Die"; in both, he frequently hands off responsibility for "lead vocals" to his slide guitar, as if fearing a slip in tone.

But -- on sacred ground or not -- sardonic observation is allowed to run riot in "God Don't Like It," whose monstrous church lady bad-mouths each tippling member of the congregation and clergy while her quailed minion McTell peeps assent beneath her glare.

Returning from sheep to goats, comic distance also softens the sting of "Southern Can." An ancestor to the mellow thuggery of G-funk, its celebration of woman-beating is burlesqued by its own hyperbole and reduced to near whimsy -- like the little sword-swinging man in the Thurber cartoon -- by McTell's vocals, which are held to a light drawl even when he claims "I'm screaming." What's being observed here, with amused-but-absorbed detachment, isn't violence but the threatener of violence.

The best example of McTell's dry-eyed empathy and focus on the telling detail may be "Little Delia" (2MB MP3). It's another ballad with a varied history, but here McTell's adaptation doesn't emphasize the narrative. Instead, he fractures it into a collection of vignettes rippling forwards and backwards from the central drop-in-the-bucket -- a verse is accidently repeated without noticeable damage -- each principal and accessory given a piercing glance and passed by.

He changes the story's protagonists to professional lowlifes -- gamblers, "rounders" -- and then emphasizes their typicality, most insistently in the single-line chorus (that lyric form beloved of Yeats) "She's one more rounder gone." No one is granted dignity -- Delia's parents seem less upset by Delia's death than by her not having the decency to "die at home" -- and Delia herself is utterly disposable, only of interest to a court that, in turn, is only interested in punishing her unrepentant killer. But everyone is granted their given moment of fully-engaged attention, and in her very disposability Delia seems to drag an entire implied world of arbitrary injustice down with her. At her deathbed, as at Jesse's, McTell approaches transcendence through (as Manny Farber wrote of His Girl Friday) a sort of voluptuous cynicism.

Delia, Delia, take no one's advice.
Last word I heard her say was: "Jee-zus Christ!"

. . . 2002-02-27

Blind Willie McTell, cont. 'Eddie McTier's' grave

History doesn't go out of its way to support ease, subtlety, and grace. Elizabethan lyric is discarded for Augustan rhetoric; Gene Kelly is preferred to Fred Astaire, Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jet Li, Seka to Georgina Spelvin....

Maybe it just has to do with what reproduces easiest -- what's easiest to follow in a coarse copy -- and that's why Jim Davis outsells George Herriman and why Bob Dylan's elder-statesman cover of "Little Delia," which moves like he's jammed his boot in the slop bucket, has gotten more college airplay than McTell's recording ever will.

Maybe it's as commercially inevitable as Buster Keaton getting paired with Jimmy Durante, but that don't mean I gotta like it.

Guralnick grew up to prefer the "hardcore" sounds of Skip James and Howlin Wolf. It's true, McTell isn't hardcore; his irony is so supple as to be almost boneless.

But why always go for the crunchy center? Humanity is surface and depth at least as much as it's a hard core.

There's what's easy to reproduce and what forces one's attention. Then again there's what's caught by the reproduction and what rewards one's attention. "The distinguished thing."

Willie McTell never had a hit; his work was neither an easy sell nor a quick study. But he kept being recorded; he made something that people wanted to capture -- and they succeeded, occasionally anyway, to the profit of their immortal souls if not of their record companies: the communicable pleasure of the attentive listener.

Consumer Guide

Blind Willie McTell's recordings were made over three decades, and each block has its champions. My conception of McTell as pop-musician rests on the mid-career commercial sessions of 1949, the mid-1930s, and 1950.

Many guitar scholars prefer his earlier recordings, though I find most of them a bit rushed and uncomfortable.

Sociological types might be most taken by the noncommercial documentations of 1940 and 1956, whose talks interest me more than their music.

The "Definitive" in The Definitive Blind Willie McTell refers to the biographical booklet rather than to the CD itself.

Update: Some years later, Joseph Duemer responded.

And some years later still, Patrick Costello.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2002 Ray Davis.