Monday, November 28, 2016

What you are listening to if you have Willard's Canteen: A Healing River of Blood

Sides depend on length of tape (each tape handmade): 

At the Mall in Klamath Falls (orig. by Jason Lytle)
Doom March
In Darkness
Mr. Krinkle [not a Primus cover]
Once Upon a Hard Time
Pot O' Gold
Foothill Blvd. (orig. by Gary Young)
Easy-Bake Suicide Oven
Battle Fodder
Copperhead Waltz
Nipple Nibbles
War March in Reverse

Recorded in Georgia, Fall 2016

Matthew Snope: all stuff (except for drum samples, bagpipe, etc.) 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen, the CIVVIE

I invented the CIVVIE: the Civil War selfie.

This came about not where I am now (Georgia) with its rich Civil War legacy, but actually in central California: a friend of mine, Hillary, knows the drummer of Modesto-rooted band Grandaddy, Aaron Burtch. She showed me a pic of she and he, and I noticed he had this crazy, 1000-yard stare look in his eyes (and he's a guy with a long beard and a kind of natural Civil War look). She explained he likes how in old pictures, like some of the earliest photographs, a lot of the men have that look in their eyes, so he tries to emulate it.

In retrospect on the Civil War, it's likely that, despite photography being somewhat primitive at the time, the look in the eyes of soldiers is an early form of combat PTSD. So one night to amuse myself I took some selfies and with the wonders of modern picture filters came up with some Civil War-looking selfies (not that there's anything amusing about combat PTSD; I have a friend who is dealing with it), which my gf dubbed the "Civvie."

If you need an actor for your Civil War-era film (or other) project, contact me!

This was my first Civvie, and it's admittedly a bit OTT.

I thought this was a nice touch, since Evan Williams bourbon has been around since the late 1700s. (The bottle is plastic, LOL.) It may seem like it's the filtering/aging effect that makes the pic, but the key is the look in the eyes. 

I kinda felt like this one was a soldier who'd seen the worst of the War, like at Antietam or Gettysburg. Somehow via the process of making the pic look aged I made my eyes two different colors. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

One of my favorite performance art pieces

High Balling from Zachary Fabri on Vimeo.

I have written about this guy before, but I keep returning to the performance art of Zachary Fabri. An interesting mix of a Jamaican mother and Hungarian father, Fabri first caught my attention at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco when his video My High Fructose Corn Syrup Fix and White Flour Constipation (2007, 8 minutes) played as part of the exhibit Radical Presence, which featured and celebrated Black performance art.

My High Fructose Corn Syrup Fix and White Flour Constipation, 2007 from Zachary Fabri on Vimeo.

Of all his pieces I've seen, and I haven't seen them all, I like this one the best, because it combines spontaneity with social commentary with a subtle kind of civil disobedience. He did this as part of an Icelandic art tradition called Sequences, and it basically consists of him interacting with a bag of flour, canned Coca-Cola, and cars, people, and infrastructure in a public area in Reykjavik.

What I like about his style is that he's not aggressively confrontational with people -- unlike someone like, say, Eric Andre doing public skits for his show -- but he does weave spontaneous interactions with people (or, in this case, cars) into his performance art. He goes into a kind of focused, far-away trance when he does his very bodily-involved performance art, and sometimes his performances last hours, sometimes only minutes. Chance plays a significant role.

This particular piece seems to comment on malnutrition and a kind of insanity of returning to the same non-nutritive -- in face, harmful to the body -- substances in an unending loop of soda stimulation, flour play, then collapse. Unending, that is, until he walks away, at the piece's end. I used to see behavior like this in San Francisco from very insane street people, but Fabri's approach is particularly brilliant because what seems like a dreadlocked crazy person at first is actually an artist doing his art, out in the world. I imagine Reykjavik as a pretty white place, so the contrast between the bleak, wintry (or at least rainy) city, with its Icelanders driving around, and this thin, long-dreadlocked guy doing apparently crazy things with household objects, is strong. I imagine it having the effect on people who wander into his street art as a kind of waking up; a "Whoa, what's happening? What is this guy doing? Is he on drugs? Is he crazy?" And the answer is that, no, he's not.

I'm writing these words from Atlanta, Georgia, birthplace of Coca-Cola. There's a plaque in downtown Atlanta about the invention and first sales of Coke, but of course the plaque leaves out the cocaine part. I like Coke once in awhile. But I also understand its fundamental emptiness as a food, except for the "fix" it provides. Fabri can't stop drinking it, but he can't stop spitting it out. The interaction with flour is perhaps more mysterious and symbolic, but there's of course the obvious similarity to cocaine, a former ingredient in Coke. It starkly whitens his hands and face, which can be read ambiguously.

I wonder, like the work of artist Bas Jan Ader -- who did performance art of falling off roofs, leaning over in chairs until falling over, and even his final spectacle, disappearing at sea -- if Fabri's piece could be replicated by another artist. If someone got some Coke and flour and picked a public place, would it have the same impact? Is the message, whatever that is, still intact? Or is Fabri's piece unique to who he is, how he performed it, and where/when he performed it? Food deserts are more synonomous with people of color (at least in the US), although white trash America certainly has its share of bad food -- if you've ever seen Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, you've noticed their diet of cheese balls, "sketti," and hot dogs.

Fabri's piece is funny, but it's not like the Jackass boys doing somewhat similar crazy things in public in Japan. There's more complexity and nuance and mystery to Fabri's performance. Unlike Steve-O snorting wasabi and throwing up, Fabri goes into a kind of character in his performances, and there's a dead seriousness to his art. No one knows what his circles of flour on the ground mean, his seizure-esque movements after drinking Coke. He's kind of like The Brother from Another Planet -- he's interacting with these objects in a way that show the objects themselves in a new light as well as our relationship with them, because he interacts with them in a bizarre, yet simultaneously organic, fashion. They are commonplace and ubiquitous, but Fabri's use of them in an unorthodox way demonstrates what strange objects they are, especially on their own, without being part of anything (there's no rum & Coke, no flour used to make bread or cookies). He enters the frame, does his almost voodoo-esque interaction with the objects, and then leaves the frame. There's no explanation, and the performance itself is potentially meaningless, besides what you read into it.The piece is as empty of overt meaning as the flour and Coke are devoid of nutrition.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How a MacGyver Episode and an Early 1990s Gubernatorial Election Predicted the 'Shocker' Election of 2016

Some time before 11/8/16, I watched an old MacGyver episode -- not the new MacGyver, which I lasted about 20 seconds into -- called "The 10% Solution." 1989. I found it one of the most responsible and haunting MacG episodes I'd come across: not the 'pacifist Rambo' stuff that comprised some of the episodes. This episode dealt with a neo-Nazi group who were working to infiltrate positions of power -- school officials, government, media, police, etc -- in five U.S. states, about 10% of the overall population. MacGyver foils their plan, of course, but the episode sent a chilling message that extremist white supremacist groups could succeed best by working from within the system and normalizing their agenda, thereby taking the stigma away from their hateful, murderous, fringe beliefs. This is exactly what we've seen happen in the 2016 election, except Trump got presidential power over all the states.

Around the same time or a bit later than that MacGyver episode of 1989, the state of Louisiana had a gubernatorial election in 1991 that made news: it boiled down to the choice between a heavily-corrupt and uber-sleazy Democrat, or known Klansmen David Duke. I felt sorry for LA voters, because it forced a true lesser-of-evils choice; the Democrat won. Georgia/Florida writer Harry Crews called David Duke's brand of mainstream, electable hate "button-down terror." 

At the time, the non-South U.S. could look at that gubernatorial election and say, "Well, that's the Deep South, innit?" But then 11/8/16 happened and sub/urban, educated, hopeful Hillary fans began to realize that Trump was gonna win the presidency, and I don't think I've ever seen such a depressing and shocked, downcast event in my whole life. Louisiana had been but a precursor to the entire nation 25 years later.

There are also of course many other complex factors. White America in 2016 had enough of that strange blend of military euphemism and academic leftism known as Political Correctness. Conservative white males rebelled against the sometimes overt, sometimes subtle demonization that had become fashionable, perhaps best epitomized by Michael Moore's book Stupid White Men. Culture wars in a nation that had become gradually polarized reached a fever peak. America experienced a strong divide between rural and urban. Just like the backlash momentum after 8 years of Bush-Cheney that helped Obama into office, conservative America had enough of not one but two Obama terms, which made many social justice-y advancements and saw perhaps its most memorable contribution, Obamacare, a health system that many saw as a type of coercive socialism (even if it fell quite short of universal coverage like most if not all developed nations have). Economic competition -- the cornerstone of a capitalist economy -- inflamed ethnic tribalism; terrorism fueled fears of nonwhite people with different belief systems, even if some of the worst terrorism was domestic, in the form of unhinged and mentally ill, usually-in-their-20s white males doing mass shootings. Critical thinking seemed to break down in the bizarre and darkly entertaining 2016 presidential primaries and election.

And then we got a president-elect endorsed by the KKK, whose core constituency seemed to be angry white males who felt that their Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny had finally been allowed to be expressed openly and brazenly. It's a very troubling and sad situation and I am glad there is currently active and passionate protest against a prez-elect who is the real life embodiment of the MacGyver episode candidate and David Duke.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Watched 1986's River's Edge again after not seeing it for some time. It used to be one of my favorite films, when I was quite into dark films. I still fink it's great. There's nothing quite like it, and it's probably Keanu Reeves' finest work (I mean that seriously). Perfect role for him, and he actually does a really good job. 

Watching it with a fresh perspective, I noticed the disjointedness of its setting(s). Part of it was filmed in southern California -- which aligns with the character Layne's (Crispin Glover's) SoCal accent -- and the river scenes were filmed in Sacramento (apparently during a floody time?). In previous viewings, I'd always assumed the setting (IRL and in the film) was a depressed Pacific Northwest place like Aberdeen, Washington or smalltown Oregon somewhere. It's confusing, because I noticed that the teens talk about going "up to Portland" and Feck says some of his weed comes "down from Humboldt County." This would indicate the story is set in a working-class outskirt town in southern California/Los Angeles (much of the film was filmed in Tujunga), but the presence of the river in the film, almost as a character itself, makes this nonsensical. 

It's not a flaw of the movie, since the movie's trying to capture a zeitgeist of burn-out teens who are numbed and confused by a close friend's murder by another of their friends (based in part on an actual case in 1981). I remember being in middle school in New Jersey in the mid 1980s, and there definitely was this contingent of "burn-outs" (as they were called) who wore denim jackets with metal bands' patches and were known for their partying ways, disaffection, alienation, and dislike of school, parents, and authority. Basically punks, but more metal, more stoned perhaps, kind of like darker versions of surfers. They shared qualities with the punks, but something was missing from them to make them punks. When I got to California in 1987 I found them there, too, but they were known as hessians or heshers. My good friend Brian wrote a screenplay sort-of about this culture, that was made into the film Hesher. "Hessian" is perhaps a better term for them than "burn-outs," because Hessians were German mercenaries in the Revolutionary War, and this teen generation had something about them that was unaligned with anything -- they were rogue, a tribe unto themselves, different, not really engaged in the dominant culture except to party, drink and drug, fight, get through school, then become "those damned blue-collar tweakers" that Primus has a song about, if they even made it that far. I do like the term "burn-out" however, as it almost sounds like something from a Troma movie about a nuclear high school in the mid-1980s. Most in the mainstream know Judd Nelson's character John Bender in The Breakfast Club as the quintessential Hessian/burn-out, but of course filtered through director John Hughes' midwestern, wholesome lens. 

The other thing I noticed about River's Edge is the arguably main character (besides Keanu/Matt), Samson "John" Toulette, is not so much the conflicted, quasi-sympathetic character I'd always thought, but he's just kind of an asshole. And I never understood why a somewhat fat, rude, wears-the-same-Maiden-shirt-for-days guy would get a cute girl like Jamie (the deceased) in the first place. I call that the "King of Queens syndrome": a somewhat ordinary (ordinary for America) guy gets a pretty hot girl. Plus, John's a rapist, perhaps even a necrophiliac, or so is insinuated due to Jamie first being seen naked, strangled, and dead, and his utter sociopathic indifference about his act, as well as the film's Slayer-heavy soundtrack. Maybe she was naked when he strangled her. I've always been amazed at her performance, how utterly lifelike her acting was and her ability to not breathe, be poked and prodded with sticks and shoes, and be convincingly dead. Not to mention bearing it all.

People know me as someone who often has harsh assessments of both the Baby Boomer generation and Millennials, but it's important to note that River's Edge does capture something very truthful about my own generation, X, in its darkest manifestation. A subtle but persistent theme in the film is the teens' fears about nuclear war/WW3, and how the possibility of a nuclear-devastated world happening at any moment is actually a large part of their individual and collective psyche. I think this is spot-on. I remember the Cold War vividly, and that same feeling of anxiety mixed with a kind of nihilism and resultant apathy. Many Boomers and older didn't understand the "slacker" quality of Gen X, but when you're raised on television and the imminent threat of nuclear destruction, it has a certain effect. Add in the drug culture and you get a potent mix. I also noticed more this viewing that the film skewers Baby Boomer hippies turned teachers, a subject I wrote about (in retrospect, a bit too harshly) in this article. Jim Metzler, a kind of underground actor who does a great job in the feminist-desert-noir film Delusion, plays a former hippie activist turned teacher who talks in class about "wasting pigs," which I found a bit of a stretch (maybe it's plausible in say a San Francisco school).

Overall, great film. Perhaps it cozies up right to the border of teensploitation/white trashploitation a bit, with its characters that we would meet again in an even more over the top fashion in the films of Harmony Korine, but I think the film is just overall very realistic. 

River's Edge goes for broke: it's got psychopathic 12-year old deliquents (Tim and Moko*), extreme music, a blow-up doll, an unhinged performance by Crispin Glover, and Dennis Hopper in a role only slightly removed from that of his in Blue Velvet. This viewing, I realized what a bleak and unblinking film this is, and although it shows that compassion is always trying to work its way to surface, it's a dark ride from start to finish. I really felt this time for the youngest daughter (Matt's sister), dealing with domestic strife and an evil brother, and I felt for the crayfish in the bucket that Tim and Moko shoot with bb guns. It is these smallest and most vulnerable innocent creatures, let alone girls who are one minute getting stoned on the riverbank with their boyfriend and the next strangled to death, that is so hard to bear and witness as they find themselves up against direct harm and apathy from larger, more powerful creatures. That aspect really hit home this time, and made me cry watching this film. 

* I don't know the origin of this strange, silent character's name, but it reminded me of A Clockwork Orange's "moloko" (milk spiked with drugs).

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What you are listening to if you are listening to Willard's Canteen: A Whiskey Bottle That Has Not Been Neglected cassette

I didn't have time to photocopy the J-card for this Willard's Canteen tape release, A Whiskey Bottle That Has Not Been Neglected, so here's the cover and song info. It's a one-sided tape because for some reason I couldn't tape on the other side of these formerly Christian tapes I taped over. 

Song list (in order):

1. Reinjured
2. Crystal Clear (Beer) (orig. by Beck)
3. Insight
4. 'Shine Runna
5. Idiopathic
6. I am Legend
7. Hamburger
8. Bees
9. 12-PAK-599 (orig. by Grandaddy)
10. Anthem
11. Crom Blood
12. The Left Hand Path
13. Zachariah Harris
14. Flag

Parental Advisory on some of da lyrics. 
Recorded completely in the Peach State of Georgia, US and A. 

Enjoy and drop me a line. If you want the J-card for the tape, lemmy know!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Mulleted Neanderthal in Yellow Pants, Please Report to a White Courtesy Phone

I've been fascinated by this gem I stumbled upon on YouTube.

Now from what I understand, Michael Anthony got the short end of the stick from Van Halen, and he probably means well. But if this is not a sure sign of de-evolution, I don't know what is.

As Neanderthalian as he is, and as questionable as his bass solo is, he does have an excellent bourbon-bubbling technique that I've only read about in the writings of Georgia-born author Harry Crews.

Enjoy. You're welcome.

PS Why does Sammy Hagar look like a white version of Michael Jackson in THE WIZ mixed with a poker dealer?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mister, Would You Please Help My Popcorn Lung?

I've been learning about popcorn lung disease, and it's just crazy. I hadn't heard about it until this year, in association with vaping, which I've always appreciated as an evolution beyond the nastiness of smoking, but perhaps isn't as safe as was thought.

Where there's a clown, be careful

I worked at a movie theatre that served popcorn (duh) and the artificial butter liquid for a brief time around 2004. I remember the theatre had a kind of greasy quality to the air at times, and I was surprised they cleaned the popcorn popper's glass walls with glass cleaner, which seems like it would mix with the popcorn. I don't have any popcorn lung symptoms that I know of, and judging by how nasty the disease, I would know. 

At the risk of sounding like a 7th grader doing a report on those big pieces of presentation board/paper, here are some interesting facts about popcorn lung:
  •  The disease first showed up (that we know of) as early as 2000 or so, and after seeing that microwave popcorn factory workers had symptoms, lab rats were tested. Half of the lab rats died in 6 HOURS. That's an amazingly fast takedown. Rivals Ebola. I feel bad for the rats. They prolly thought they were getting a tasty popcorn treat, and it killed them.
  • Makers of Diacetyl -- the amped-up artificial flavoring that when airborne gets into the lungs and causes problems -- knew the dangers (from the above lab rat experiment and early human cases) but kept making it. 
  • The US gov't only regulates about 50 of about 1000 artificial flavorings*.
  • Diacetyl, a ketone, is actually naturally-occuring and is in butter, wine, beer, vinegar, etc., but the levels used in microwave popcorn is far higher than naturally occurs. It reminds me of MSG, also a naturally-occuring but powerful flavor agent. But MSG doesn't kill people. I have a friend who won't eat Chinese food unless it HAS MSG in it. That's the spirit!
  • The EPA tested microwave popcorn like people make at home and the office, and found it very safe (to eat and to breathe some of the incidental vapors -- don't huff it, people!), but there are emerging cases of consumers getting popcorn lung. Cognitive dissonance. 
  • It's tricky whom to blame, because there're the flavoring companies (like in the hilarious dark comedy EXTRACT), the popcorn factories, and the stores that sell the popcorn. And then there are movie theatres, and possible dangers from vaping. It seems like movie theatres have been around awhile and have been using the tasty buttery shit for awhile, and I haven't heard of movie theatre workers with popcorn lung, but then again it's largely young people in those jobs and they are theoretically healthier and more resilient. Vaping is so relatively new that it could very well be connected to popcorn lung, especially with all the crazy vape flavors and how those flavorings are vaporized just like Diacetyl in popcorn factories. 
  • Popcorn lung is incurable and requires a risky lung transplant. Victims have been awarded millions of dollars-settlements, but that probably is a Pyrrhic victory when you need a lung transplant, have lung problems, and have a reduced lifespan. 
  • Hillary Clinton's health problems -- from her coughing fits to falling down on 9/11 -- have been speculatively attributed to popcorn lung from her 4 bag a day (!) microwave popcorn habit. 
I made that last one up. 
The link that I have above is from 2006, so there may be new information, but it's amazing that this has been around so long. (Going on two decades!) Today's popcorn ain't yo' ancestors' popcorn! I wonder about kettle korn.

* I once drank a Filbert's Banana soda and left the bottle in my car. Some ants found their way into the bottle and the little bit left in the bottom, and I found a bunch of dead ants later. Apparently when I was a little kid and had red-colored candy (lollipops, etc.), I would get especially crazy. My parents speculated it wasn't just sugar but the red coloring. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Buzz of Flies and the Drone of Bees

A particularly beautiful live version of one of my favorite nine ninch nails songs ever. I've noticed they leave the spoken-word lyrics out completely, as they are explicitly about suicide -- and not the knee-jerk, suicide-is-bad-mmmmmmkay-kids variety -- and perhaps an impressionable or vulnerable person might take it too literally. I don't know. I feel for bands who explore the dark but necessary territory of suicide in their music, because most of them have faced repercussions for it, and maybe NIN is just trying to minimize risk.

But I'm glad someone is exploring this territory, because it's something that never goes away, and successive generations of musicians -- from Judas Priest to Hank Williams III to Ozzy Osbourne to NIN -- have all chimed in on it, and I think, in general, with a sensitivity and empathy about it. I think that's a better approach than having suicide be an unspeakable, taboo topic, or something that people just shut out/shut down about because it's too heavy. I'd venture that if you took all the bands' songs about the topic and whether all troubled listeners felt urged to commit suicide or felt slightly better to hear others going through the ordeal as well, it would be the latter. In short, despite some fatal and perhaps tragic exceptions, I'd bet that more listeners were saved from self-destruction by hearing songs about self-destruction than took their own lives. This is important to remember when grieving parents or whoever look for someone to blame, or the government gets censorious (as it did in the late 1980s) about music it deems harmful to people. I'm pretty confident that if none of these songs existed, the suicide rate'd be higher.

Lastly, for this song specifically, I wonder if removing the vocals doesn't somehow make the song more powerful, because -- since most NIN fans know all/most of the words by heart -- the listener would tend to think of or insert the lyrics into the instrumental nature of this live version, in their head.

And w/out the vocals, which have a very personal and specific focus, I think this song just captures the pure pain of simple existence very powerfully and accurately. Sometimes things are more powerful pre-language or beyond language. In this sense, the song becomes cathartic. It looks at the wound and pain of consciousness, but doesn't -- as in the album version -- offer any perspective on it beyond just musically saying, "Life contains a significant amount of suffering."

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Seriously Fucked-Up Childhoods: on Oculus (some spoilers, sorry)

Gave Oculus another chance and I'd add it to a list of worthwhile, creepy horror movies. In other words, it's not top ten for me (see previous post), but maybe top 15 or 20. It is supernatural-based -- a haunted mirror of unknown origin -- but what it does effectively is show how humans can be seduced and get into headspaces that can turn murderous. Oculus borrows somewhat heavily from The Shining and Poltergeist (the original): there's a dad who turns evil under the mirror's influence, and much of the film explores the characters not knowing what's real/what's not, and dealing with the horrifying experience of minds that aren't reliable. But I think it's effective, overall. 

The film is based on a short film, Oculus: Chapter 3: The Man with the Plan, which takes place all in one room and is a simple premise: a man figures out that a mirror is correlated with particularly brutal murders over time, and he has possession of the mirror, so he sets up equipment to catch the mirror in the act (something no one's been able to do in the past). In the feature film, the story jumps between the childhood of two siblings who experienced the mirror possess their parents, and the present, where as adults the siblings reunite: the girl was put in foster care after her father shot the mother, then the brother shot and killed their father, and the brother was incarcerated in a facility for the criminally insane. He's rehabilitated and released, and learns from sis that she's found the mirror once again, because she works at an auction house and the mirror came through her company (perhaps a bit unlikely, but not impossible). So she sets up a recording room to catch the mirror doing its thing: dehydrating living things in its vicinity, messing with people's minds, and trying to kill people but only by having humans do its dirty work and take the fall for the deaths. 
I think the film could've stayed away from the supernatural by focusing on some of the intriguing themes it explores: the reliability of memory (the siblings have differing accounts of their traumatic childhood), and whether the brother killed his father in cold blood or not (basically, is the brother sane?). But it's a horror movie, and an entertaining one, so the brother is innocent, if a bit fucked-up from his childhood (understandably), the siblings basically agree on what happened during their childhood, and indeed the mysterious mirror causes death and destruction wherever it goes. It's a pessimistic film in that (spoiler), like many horror films, evil lives on. Despite some rather ingenious and ultra-prepared, strategic tactics the sister takes (in the present day) to not only record the mirror being bad, but destroy it -- with a time-released metal anchor -- the mirror "defends itself", outsmarts the humans, and continues its reign of terror, all the while framing the brother, yet again, for now the murder of his sister. (The brother is having a really bad life.) Like many horror movies, the evil person or object lives on -- evil goes unpunished, and, in this film, undetected. We don't know what happens to the mirror at the end of the story, but we assume it will be circulated back into someone's life eventually and keep doing its evil.
Had the film stuck to the cerebral horror aspect of unstable minds, the unreliability of memory, and how people can come to believe in the supernatural -- the brother's last words before his second arrest are "It wasn't me! It was the mirror!" -- I think the film could have been deliciously ambiguous and even scarier. But it went for some low-hanging fruit: camera work that built tension, scary ghosts, disturbing images and violence/gore, etc. But if it had stayed in the realm of the natural and possible -- such as by exploring how, say, a paranoid schizophrenic mind could construct a narrative about a haunted mirror that seduces people to kill -- I think it would have been better. The unknown is always scary: we don't know the mirror's origin, there's a pretty spooky scene in a storage room with statues covered in cloth (and we only find out about two of the three), and if the film hadn't showed its hand, so to speak; we could've come away from watching it feeling creeped out not knowing if it was all in someone's head -- or, even scarier, a shared delusion among people -- or if an object can really be possessed by evil. The former is more realistic than the latter. And the most effective horror movies work by making viewers construct their own mental images, their own worst fears (Jaws; Alien; etc.) -- the less you show, generally the scarier, because the human mind has an amazing ability to scare itself.

But it's worth seeing. I like the rather mysterious origin of the mirror -- all we know is it was "carved from one solid piece of Bavarian darkwood," which gives it a vague kind of Germanic/forest background. In the short film, the guy trying to record and kill the mirror calls it a "bitch," feminizing it -- or just doing that custom of naming inanimate objects like boats, etc, as female. My girlfriend views the world thru a very feminist lens, and brought up a good point that many horror films depict the female as more susceptible to evil seduction, thus implying a weaker mind, but Oculus is pretty gender-fair: the dad and brother get as possessed as the mom. In the mirror's history, it's pretty equally men and women who fall under its spell, if I recall (or maybe it IS more females than males). The sister seems like she's actually the one most capable of catching the mirror in the act and destroying it, but she too has her vulnerabilities. 

One can read Oculus as saying about the world that evil is mysterious and powerful, that it has no rhyme or reason, and that it lives on through time and has been around a long time. I think this is pretty accurate. Whether objects can be conduits for evil is pretty much fiction, but mirrors are semi-creepy things to begin with, so the pairing of evil with mirrors makes sense. What I do think is very realistic and scary is that there are evil people in the world, and unreliable minds and memories. If you can't rely on your own mind in life, you're kinda screwed. The film explores this a little with the idea of "fuzzy" ways the human mind works to make the world/facts fit into its story about things, rather than the other way around of admitting the fallibility of the human mind. Oculus is at its best when exploring the tension between the brother, who approaches the idea of a haunted mirror with skepticism and scientific reasoning, and the sister, who is cocksure the mirror is haunted -- but is the daughter of a mom who had a severe mental breakdown, and may have inherited the crazy gene. When things aren't explained -- kind of like how I find The Exorcism of Emily Rose so scary in that it never takes a side on whether the girl was genuinely possessed or her behavior was explainable via rational science -- humans are the most scared. Indetermination can be very fearful. Oculus could have been an A movie if it'd stayed with this fundamental, and ultimately unknowable, tension between skepticism and belief in the supernatural, but is a solid, scary B movie nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

10 horror films to check out

Well it's that time o' year again when people start watching scary movies and getting into the Halloween spirit. I like to watch horror movies year-round, because I find life horrifying year-round. Everybody's got their thing that scares them: for some, it's supernatural, for some psychological horror, for some gore, for some realism, etc. I myself am in the realism/nonsupernatural/horror of real life/psychological camp, but I'm open-minded, and I like a lot of stuff. Exorcism of Emily Rose scared the beejesus out of me and made me a fan of director Scott Derrickon, whose Sinister is startle-y and well done. Emily Rose is somewhat supernatural (exorcism/demonic possession), but what scares me about it is that it's fundamentally ambiguous: is this girl severely mentally ill? Does she have a brain tumor? Is she really possessed? How did she know how to speak all those languages she never learned? And there's something very sad about what happens to her, this innocent farm girl who lives a short life full of horror. My girlfriend has very strict requirements for horror movies: it must be contemporary, it cannot be supernatural, and it must be about plausible scenarios involving killers or people doing bad things to other people. She liked Creep and You're Next.

Here's an arbitrary list of some of my favorite horror films. No order. Some spoilers.

1. The Life of David Gale. Not a horror movie per se, but I find it tragic what happens to him, and it shows how one bad life decision can really fuck the whole thing up. His estrangement from his daughter is especially horrific and sad; his downfall from talented teacher to alkie bum living in his car. The horror of wrongful execution. Very plausible to me.

2. Jacob's Ladder. Psychological horror, and I appreciate that it's entirely on-location filmed (gritty NYC) and uses no CGI for its rather disturbing effects. A lot of horror packed in here: the horror of losing a child (McClunky Cloakin actually does an amazing job as a child actor in this film), the horror of war, the horror of losing one's mind, the horror of bad hallucinogen trips and acid damage, the horror of job/lifestyle change (philosophy professor to postman), the horror of women (the hot but demonic Elizabeth Pena), the horror of the pressure of dancing in public, the horror of lawyers, the horror of Santa Claus, the horror of bodily injury, the horror of opening the fridge casually for a beer and finding a skinned goat head on a plate in it. This movie really has it all for any kind of horror fan. 

3. Shadow of the Vampire. Strange film about the 1920s silent film Nosferatu. Film about a film about a book about a legend based on a historical figure (Vlad the Impaler). A lot of levels here. Willem Dafoe plays a real undead vampire playing an actor playing an undead vampire. John Malkovich as German director F.W. Murnau. Malkovich does not smile once in this film. Dafoe probably steals the show; the scene where he drinks schnapps and has a spontaneous snack is amazing. A film about obsession, filmmaking, realism, German seriousness, the 1920s, a lot of things. It does help to have seen the original Nosferatu it heavily references, and/or Werner Herzog's remake. Shadow is not a jumpy, uber-scary film, but it's cerebral, interesting, and unique, and deals with the earliest of horror films. What is kinda horrific is Murnau's actual life: an almost 7' German guy with an "icy, imperious" personality (Wikipedia) who served in World War I (a very brutal, surreal, traumatic war) and then made films, most of which are destroyed or lost (maybe his films are like Buddhist mandalas), who died at 42 because his 14 year old Filipino chauffer crashed into an electrical pole. What was a 14 year old doing driving a car? Further, Murnau's grave was dug up and his skull stolen. His films are missing, his fucking head is missing.

4. Calvaire. A bit over the top, but it shows how one psychopath can fuck up your whole day and then life. A descent into degradation. How the victim/lead actor goes from singing at nursing homes in the beginning to wandering around an electric, burnt-out, Black Sabbath forest at the end after being completely brutalized is pretty horrific. Far better than that silly, unrealistic, overrated, idiotic film Hostel. It's true: one wrong turn on the road can make a major wrong turn in your life.

5. Synecdoche, New York. While I don't think this movie totally succeeds, I really like its premise and ambition: writer-director Charlie Kaufman tried to make a "horror" movie simply about the horrors of everyday existence. This means the blood in your poop, a trip to the dentist, weather, your wife stealing your children (notice a theme here?), going crazy, death, etc. 

6. Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, "Eggs" episode; Jackass (Mtv) egg-eating challenge episode and eggnog-drinking challenge episode. The horror of food and the body.

7. I do find the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre scary and having a lasting creep factor. The low budgetness of it, the graininess, the horrific hammer scene. I saw the movie Shakes the Clown in a theatre in Minneapolis many years ago, and for some reason they showed the original, long trailer for TTCM before Shakes, and the juxtaposition of the two was disturbing. 

8. Saw the original Blair Witch Project before the hype, and when viewers did not know if it was mockumentary or documentary (because the filmmakers did a brilliant campaign where they presented the film as documentary, with MISSING posters and other artifacts to add realism). A Witch with hairy arms, the children, the stuff that happens in the woods -- creepy stuff. After the film, my then-wife and I went home to a country house on six acres we'd just moved in to, at night, and a vent for the floor heater had fallen off under the house, so I looked in the vent, and a light under the house (a bare bulb) in the crawlspace was on, and I saw this bone through the grate. I don't know from what animal, but we were like, "Why does the heater vent lead to the crawlspace, and why is the light on at night, and what's that bone?!" Apparently our landlord had been under the house fixing or getting something and had forgotten to turn the light off, the heater vent falling off was just a random thing, and to this day I don't know the story behind the bone. But after Blair Witch, when my wife was nauseous from the handheld, dizzying camerawork in the film, and we thought we'd just seen an actual, unsolved death-murder-mystery documentary (a snuff film, in essence) -- and a particularly bizarre, frightening one at that -- we were scared and unnerved. 

9. One of my favorite films of all time is the Australian film The Rover, a realistic postapocalyptic story with a surprisingly good performance by Robert Pattinson. Although I lean toward anarchistic ideals, I do admit that in a societal breakdown such as depicted in The Rover, both the best of humanity (such as the doctor/veterinarian, or the young girl killed at the motel) and the worst (Guy Pearce's conflicted, hardened character) come out. The Rover presents a counterpoint to the stylized, almost romanticized postapocalypse world of Mad Max or the like. The Rover is bleak, ultraviolent, desperate, surreal, plausible, dystopic, and oddly beautiful. There is a compassionate, sane humanity lurking underneath the story and its characters' struggle for survival, but it also has its finger on the pulse of where humanity generally is these days: on the brink of climate change, potential financial meltdown (such as keeps happening with a capitalistic neoliberal economy), and general collapse. It captures so well the conflict in people to protect themselves -- even if it means harming or killing others -- versus helping others, and it has a good (dare I say) "message" about how the taking of human life (or any life) will and should haunt you to your dying day.

There's also a scene in which Guy Pearce, who I think is a fantastic actor, describes how he murdered his wife and her lover ten years ago, and no one came after him -- there was no consequence. No one cared. (This murder happened when society was in its first throes of breakdown, mind you.) The sheer godlessness of this scenario, the lack of even trial or punishment -- just how it was basically permitted -- is a disturbing point about life. Sometimes things happen and people get away with stuff; there is no "karma" or justice or good balancing evil. Bad things happen and people have to live with it.

10. On the same note as #9, another realistic postapocalyptic film is the French movie The Time of the Wolf. (French: Les Temps du Loup.) It tells the story of a family fleeing an unnamed societal breakdown for the country and finding that things are very fucked up. Justice and fairness has broken down; sexual assault takes place unhindered; children are confused and superstitious; people are in shock and a state of ennui, just kind of waiting for someone or something to rescue them. There is an actual animal killing in this movie, but I find it far more respectful, necessary, and justified than the sad animal abuse in a film like Cannibal Holocaust, which, though I admire aspects of the film, I find an overall exploitive, lowest common denominator, torture-porn-y, and insensitive cinematic experience.
Why 10? I dunno. I have ten fingers currently, and ten toes. You see a theme of what I find horrifying: injustice, tragedy, exploitation, psychological horror, realism, living nightmares. Eggnog.

As Walter Jon Williams said, "I'm not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted houses. I'm afraid of what real human beings do to other real human beings." I find real life infinitely more horrifying than any horror film could ever be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Major/Minor Harry Crews, and a Look at Crews' Canon

Ever since reading Ted Geltner's excellent, groundbreaking Harry Crews biography, I've been thinking about Crews. This is just idiosyncratic of me being opinionated, but I would break Crews' work into major and minor, kind of like the academic father character talked about major and minor [Charles] Dickens in the film The Squid and the Whale. Before doing that, something a little less arbitrary would be to divide Crews' books into sections:

Early Crews: The Gospel Singer, his first novel, to Karate is a Thing of the Spirit. This is Crews writing in the mid- to late 1960s, and includes critically-acclaimed novels like Naked in Garden Hills (which I didn't care for so much, and have a first edition paperback of for sale if you want it) and This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven, which was critically-panned but I like quite a bit.

Early - Mid - Late 1970s Crews: This is where Crews hits his stride, and I think contains his two best books: The Hawk is Dying (1973), and A Feast of Snakes (1976). These two novels, plus his critically-acclaimed autobiography A Childhood: the Biography of a Place (1978), are what I consider Crews' peak or golden period. But I'm also very fond of Karate, so would include that, too.

The Break: Crews doesn't publish novels from about the late 1970s (after Childhood) until the late 1980s (almost a decade), when he returns with the excellent All We Need of Hell (1987, but which was written quite earlier).

Late Crews: The Knockout Artist (1988) to his last pre-death book, An American Family (2006).

The Essays: Classic Crews (1993), Blood & Grits (1979), Florida Frenzy (1982). Journalism articles, rare stuff, etc.

The Unpublished (Late Crews) Stuff: This is what I'm most curious about right now, and includes the novel Bone Grinder (finished around 2006), the 2nd autobiography/memoir Assault of Memory (2006? 2012? -- certain chapters published, others under lock and key at the Harry Crews Archive at the University of Georgia), and the novel (I assume) The Wrong Affair, which Crews described as his best book ever, which was definitely his very last (it's not included in the Crews Archive), and which is currently in the possession of his lawyer. From what I can deduce, the last things Crews worked on, working right up until his death in 2012, were Assault of Memory and The Wrong Affair. Bone Grinder had been finished but failed to find a publisher. If you check out the Crews Archive at UGA, you'll also see A LOT of unpublished stuff, some if it very lengthy, and also shorter pieces that were ideas written down, or fragmentary, discontinued, etc. "The Unpublished Stuff" captures a period where Crews is having health issues but still writing; it's the stuff post-An American Family.

The Screenplays and Movies: The Hawk is Dying (2006) is the only Crews book to really make it to the big screen (and I think it's a faithful, underrated, undeservedly-panned adaptation), even though Crews was involved with The New Kids (director Sean Cunningham of Friday the 13th fame), formerly called Southern Express. However, Crews wrote many screenplays, including one called Clown and another called Boomtown, as well as adaptations of his own novels that he optioned or almost had made into films by filmmakers, but fell through.

So, here's how I'd break down major/minor Crews:


Gospel Singer
This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven
Karate is a Thing of the Spirit
The Hawk is Dying
A Feast of Snakes
A Childhood
All We Need of Hell
Scar Lover
the essays "Fathers, Sons, Blood" and "Climbing the Tower" (reprinted in Classic Crews)


Naked in Garden Hills (only because I didn't really care for it)
The Gypsy's Curse (1974; I like its ending, but it seems like Crews was leaning too much on freaks as stock characters by this point)
Car (I like its ending and overall premise, but it's a bit far-fetched)
The Knockout Artist (well-written, but premise/main character is a bit unrealistic)
Body (I just don't think this book connected with readers who aren't bodybuilders)
The Mulching of America (Crews ended up hating this book; I think it has redeeming qualities)
An American Family... (good, but short)
Celebration (good, but I was hoping Crews was going to write a fictionalized novel about carnival freak retirees in Florida, since the original title of this was Circus Act)
Where Does One Go When There's No Place Left to Go? (well-written, imaginative, and playful, but ultimately it recycles his characters from other books)
Various essays, some of which are really good, but it can be hit and miss (his essay on KKK leader David Duke is turning out to be very ahead of its time, given the 2016 Presidential Election)

One of the ways to delineate major/minor is that Crews sometimes got "caught up" in the spirit of his times and wrote about things that were specific to a time/place (such as handball in All We Need of Hell*), whereas I think his strongest writing has a timeless quality to it. For example, the essays "Fathers, Sons, Blood" will always capture the bonds and weaknesses of the father-son relationship, and "Climbing the Tower" not only was prescient about the current age of mass shootings we live in, but I think it captures something timeless about mental illness, violence, alienation, and writers being able to empathize with nonfictional and fictional characters, what Crews called slipping out of his skin and into another's, even a deplorable character. Hawk is Dying is timeless to me because it explores how people connect with animals while having trouble dealing with other people. Karate is timeless to me because it captures what attracts people to cults, as well as the ancient and ever-interesting practice of martial arts. Feast of Snakes is just really good, dark, sexy, disturbing Southern gothic/grit lit at its best. You get the idea.

That's just a very personalized listing from me that could very well change, but I don't think majorly. Everyone has their favorite and not-so-favorite book/story by him, and for very personal reasons. But the literati/cult following of Crews tend to agree about his peak period of Hawk-Snakes-Childhood, the general strength of his earliest novels, and the uneven quality of his post-All We Need of Hell period. I have no idea where Bone Grinder, Assault of Memory, and The Wrong Affair factor in, or the screenplays or other unpublished stuff.

Bone Grinder (formerly working-titled Things That Swim in the Night) is apparently about hogs, horses, and alligators (and humans, I assume) in Florida. Sounds pretty epic to me. Assault of Memory begins where A Childhood ends, but I'm not sure how much Crews got done or if it's as finished as A Childhood is. It seemed to give him more trouble than A Childhood due to its subject matter: his rough (sounds downright traumatic at times) upbringing as a pre-teen/teen/etc in southern Georgia. No idea what The Wrong Affair is about.

Anyway, the good news is there's so much rich stuff to dig into with Crews.

Here's hoping some of the end-of-life stuff sees publication, posthumously. I'm hoping Geltner's bio rekindles people's interest in Crews' work for a new generation, and it'd be a nice closure to things if some of the very last things he worked on were published. I started reading Crews (Karate is a Thing...) before I was even 10 (different times back then; I was a free-range kid) and have been hooked ever since. I've never really connected with any other human about some things like generalized anxiety (which Crews captures beautifully in a chapter of Assault of Memory), disliking the feel of Sundays ("Climbing the Tower"), and difficulties being a social human being (Hawk is Dying) like I have with Crews. I appreciate him a lot for that, and he's just a damn good writer, especially when he's at his best. He is missed.  
 Crews writing longhand at his house in Gainesville, Florida and sporting a kind of redneck punk Mohawk

*Even though this example shows that handball isn't a very popular sport anymore even if it was once was in the 1970s, and some of Crews' obsessions and interests didn't resonate with his readers, I still think All We Need of Hell is major Crews. It grew out of a short story he wrote and published called The Enthusiast, and it shows how Crews never really knew where his novels were taking him until he arrived, sometimes with "surprise and discovery." It's about a lot of things, but the timeless factor is divorce.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The killer in me is the killer in you: on film in the era of political correctness

I watched the 2010 film adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1950s noir novel The Killer Inside Me. Despite its 13 million dollar budget and big-name stars, as well as it being based on a story by a well-known writer whose work has been adapted multiple times before, it only did 3 million at the box office, and was criticized for its violence against women (which is a large part of the source novel). According to Wikipedia, an audience member at Sundance stood up before the end credits and screamed, "I don't understand how Sundance could book this movie! How dare you? How dare Sundance?"

I think this brings up an interesting point about where we're at as a society, how politically-charged and politically correct we've become, whether film should or shouldn't be used as a tool for political correctness or agendas, and the rise of Trumpublicans as a reaction to a decades-long progression of the political correcting of society.

Rachel Cooke of The Observer said "I was so queasy, I had to go and stand outside. I thought I might actually faint." (Again, Wikipedia.)

I read the source novel before seeing the 2010 film, so both knew what was coming in the film and that, even before reading the novel, had a sense of what to expect from Jim Thompson, whom I knew a little about. I understand that for certain viewers, since we all bring our own experiences to aesthetic experiences, there's no knowing what will "trigger," arouse, and disturb any given viewer. This is why I think trigger warnings do more harm than good, and are ultimately useless.

I also agree that violence against women -- especially that that occurs in the real world -- is not merely a form of political correctness: it's a societal problem, long has been one, and long will continue to be. And if a film is good, and draws you in, and you suspend disbelief and enter its narrative, I can see how certain things depicted could have a deep impact on a person. For, after all, the mind doesn't fundamentally know the difference between fantasy, reality, dreaming: dreams can feel extremely real, and something like masturbation fools the body into thinking an experience is really happening.

But I do find it interesting that the reception to the 2010 film focused on the violence against women depicted, and -- at least, again, on Wikipedia (I haven't read full reviews of both films or gone deep into research; I'm merely commenting on the bite-sized, quick and dirty summation that Wikipedia offers) the reception to the 1976 film version of the same film did/does not. That reception focused on what a mess the film is, how the film doesn't successfuly adapt the novel. Further, as far I know, the book was never banned or burnt or seen as promoting or condoning violence against women when it was published. Do the times an aesthetic, fictional story occur in affect its reception? Absolutely! Duh.

I can see how people seeing the 2010 version, especially those unfamiliar with the story, were surprised when soft-spoken, good-looking Casey Affleck turned out to be the killer of the title. But I have to defend the 2010 version director Michael Winterbottom here, for people see movies to be surprised in the first place.

1) Winterbottom was just doing what countless other filmmakers -- male, female -- have done when adapting a book to the screen, which is to try and be true to the source story as much as possible. In the book, in the first ugly act of violence against the prostitute, the killer actually farts while beating her into a coma, a detail that the film leaves out. Think of the dilemma for a filmmaker: if you're not true enough to a source story, you're criticized, and if you are true to it, you're criticized.

2) I understand that a male character dies offscreen and the deaths of women occur in real time and with graphic depiction. But remember, this story emerged in the early 1950s, and the 2010 film doesn't update it for modern times, it's a historical film as well as thriller/crime/noir. That is one mistake I see people who feel very strongly about an agenda or in support of political correctness make, which is to apply something contemporary to the past. People noticed an actor wearing a wristwatch in Spartacus, an obvious anarchronism, but anachronisms go in both directions. Just like tolerating and not judging other cultures who are different from one's own is a key feature of cultural relativism, we need to remember that the past, a specific time/place in the past, is and will always be different from what preceeded it and followed it. Many films about Texas have featured violence, and the 1950s was before women's liberation.

3) An audience has a right to react how they want: dislike the movie, demand a refund, walk out, etc. But I have to wonder about someone going to a movie called The Killer in Me, at Sundance -- a place known for bringing less-mainstream films to the mainstream -- I mean, what were the "dissatisfied" viewers expecting? Ratatouille? Hunter S. Thompson was often fond of saying "Buy the ticket, take the ride." How "dare" Sundance show a film that might garner some kind of live, emotional reaction from a viewer who voluntarily went to do exactly that?

4) Most importantly, my instinct tells me that the audience members and critics who protested the violence depicted against women might just also be, shall we say, comfortable with today's PC milieu more than others who have criticized it or downright rejected it. Just a hunch. I know I'm focusing on a few dissenters when the majority of the audience didn't walk out or scream at the director, who was in attendance at Sundance, but the nature of political correctness is to focus on the minority and make things as comfortable as possible for those in a minority who have historically been excluded, or ridiculed, or ignored. Even though a school may have zero students and staff with peanut allergies -- and allergies rare and strong enough to seriously threaten the sufferer -- the school has a no peanut policy. Director Winterbottom didn't know how to respond to the screamer at Sundance. It's hard on the spot, and he probably was hoping a cultured audience like a Sundance one would know what they were getting into (see #3, above).

In this sense, I admire Werner Herzog, whom animal rights activists accused (absolutely un-factually) of abusing a camel in his early film Even Dwarfs Started Small, and he responded not with an apology but with an even more abusive -- and equally untrue -- explanation of what the camel went through. Herzog is smart. He knew that there is no winning with certain people, so you might as well up the ante and respond with a lie as well.

To conclude: aesthetic expression, and here specifically, film, if used for any agenda or purpose, even if it's anti-violence-against-women, becomes propaganda no different than Nazi propaganda or informercials. The medium of film, or any aesthetic media for that matter, has always had the potential to disturb, to stir up, to get people out of their heads, habits, and cemented worldviews, and it always should. I will always be haunted by a scene in Cannibal Holocaust, but whether it's just me (it's not) or every last viewer of that scene, it would be a far worse tragedy and limitation of freedom to prevent that disturbing scene from coming into being than, as a viewer, happening upon it. It's truly a slippery slope when we get too censor-happy or condemning of things that don't conform to the mores of the times (certainly, we also have to have expectations of reasonableness and definitions of things that go too far, such as obscenity). Does Franklin's adage about security and liberty apply to aesthetic expression as well? Absolutely.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


As we go into the fall and then winter, charity season (altho charities need contributions year-round), please consider this organization working to reform, systemically, child protection policies and agencies that actually do more harm than good to children:

Thank you.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Hell, Glory, and a Butter Baron: a Dysfunctional 1% Family Through Time

At some library I was at I came across this book, and instantly loved the title.

It reminded me a little of how Harry Crews lifted some E-Dick, a common practice of authors to get titles, for his All We Need of Hell. Pat Montandon's Oh the Hell of It All is a kind of response book to her son Sean's memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. To be honest, I felt a little mad at Pat for coming up with that title, because it's a good one and I would like to have used it (but come up with it originally). I guess I still can, since there are multiple, different things with the same name (what we call in philosophy a type of "multiple realizability," perhaps?).

I did a little research and it's an interesting story, these two memoirs from two different perspectives about a shared experience (mother and son).

The son, Sean Wilsey, wrote his first, a memoir of growing up in an uber-wealthy (think 1%) San Francisco family that, when he was 9, fell apart at the seams. Mom (Pat) was a dirtpoor girl from Oklahoma who as a child was sometimes hungry, and sustained one of the most bizarre injuries I've ever heard of: she peed on hot coals, and the hot steam gave her a lifelong vagina injury.

She did the thing I've now seen so many Southerners do, which is to leave their Southern upbringing for the California experience (I almost feel I should put a copyright/trademark symbol after that term). My gf Claire did this; the band Brightblack Morning Light did this. Hell, I left New Jersey to go to California. Ah, mythical, golden California.

In San Francisco, Pat worked her way up the ol' social ladder by writing for a local newspaper, having a talk show, and working in a fashion store. She then met and married a butter baron (not making this up), Al Wilsey, who had lots and lots of money from the dairy business. That's where Sean comes from. They lived in a big fancy house on a big hill in San Francisco and mom was a socialite. She wrote a book about some strange experiences she had after an astrologer came to the house and cursed her and the house (must've been the 70s, when the pseudoscience of astrology was a national obsession) called The Intruders. After the cursing, the house was vandalized, always felt cold, and sealed-from-within windows were found open. It sounds like an interesting read, but also sounds like a book for people lacking critical thinking skills and who are prone to superstitious/psuedoscientific thinking, since it combines two of 'em: astrology and the supernatural. The house was probably vandalized because it was a target (I lived in Oakland and worked in San Francisco for five years, and the area has long had a high crime rate); cold because San Francisco is notoriously cold, even in the summer; and the windows? I dunno, but Occam's Razor dictates there is most likely a rational, explainable reason (sorry).

So ol' Al falls for family friend Dede, and it breaks the family up. It devastates Pat, who asks her son if he wants to commit suicide with her. (This is a whole 'nother story, but the stuff parents got away with back in the 70s and 80s compared to today is just astonishing. O how the pendulum has swung.) Pat is left "penniless"* and has a spiritual epiphany that involves going around the world, meeting with world leaders, and promoting peace. It's a "rags-to-riches-to-rags" story, like Steve Martin in The Jerk. Or, for that matter, Donald Trump, who inherited a million and then somehow fucked it up and went broke for a spell.

Al dies in 2002 and not too long after, as memoirs so often go, it clears the way for son and ex-wife to tell their tales. Sean's memoir comes out first, and then mom's. Mom's even riffs on her son's memoir's title and uses the same graphic, which I thought was cool, because, combined, it's two books about glory and hell. I do feel for all involved: divorce is hard on everyone, no matter how insulated or spoiled one is by wealth/power, and, as Iris Murdoch notes in her philosophical magnum opus Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals**, even the wealthiest and most privileged people can suffer just like anyone. (I also agree with Henry Chinaski in Barfly that "nobody suffers like the poor.")

Sean grows up bouncing around different schools and somehow spends time in Italy. He returns to the Bay Area eventually, pursues writing and photography, and becomes -- oh, what a surprise! -- an editor at the hip publishing outfit McSweeney's. (Disclaimer: I got into the inner circle (sort of) of the McSweeney's world, or what people call the "Eggersverse" after founder Dave Eggers, when my gf worked for them and I volunteered for them. I have mixed feelings about both the people that comprise McSweeney's and the stuff they put out, because some of it/them is amazing and some is hipster drivel. But overall I like how Dave put his Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius money and fame into humanitarian projects, and I've met the guy, and he's very nice.) I have a feeling Sean Wilsey's name and money had an influence on his position at McSweeney's, not just the strength of his writing and photography alone. Just a hunch. (Not surprisingly, the evil gold-digger stepmom stepped down from a local SF fine art museum Board of Directors position over allegations of money mismanagement and using her power and influence to get her stepson a showing at the museum.) I'm ready and willing to be wrong about this; perhaps he clawed his way up from the bottom to where he is today. But is it really the bottom if you weren't born into this world at the (very) bottom?

I do feel for children who grow up in wealth: they are sometimes really cool, like the Johnson & Johnson family member who exposed the 1% with a biting documentary, and often growing up wealthy and privileged is a curse, like how so many child stars in Hollywood end up with horrible adulthoods of addiction, poverty, and death. Savannah smiles.

But the ultra-wealthy also really bother me, because even if/when they suffer the normal/natural ups and downs, fortunes and misfortunes of life, they are generally infinitely more prepared and privileged to surf those waves, since they have better support systems, wealth, resources, lawyers, etc in place. All of human society's economic activity pretty much caters to and seeks the money of the middle class (what's left of it!) and above; a blogger recently wrote about how there's even a class below the proletariat, the "unnecessariat," who aren't even really involved in economic buying/selling, but are a burden on the entire system.

And the main thing that bothers me about the 1% -- besides tax evasion, total loss of perspective, ultra-spoiledness, the randomness of how some children are born into the horrors of poverty and some are born Kardashians, etc. -- is that they tend to only really interact with and breed with other 1%ers, thus keeping wealth, privilege, and power elite and protected. I'm from a Dutch family, and there's a dark side of Dutch people that believes "if you ain't Dutch, you ain't much" and that Dutch people should marry within the Dutch population only. Yes, in the case of Pat and Sean and Al, Pat was able to infiltrate the ivory tower of the 1% from her far more humble beginnings. It can and does happen. But I wouldn't say it's the norm. The rich get rich, the poor stay or get poorer, and this has only been happening more and more in recent history. Humans are incredibly and sadly class-conscious of where they fall on the ol' social pyramid. (And there ain't enough room at the upper levels for everyone, folks.) But life is fundamentally unfair. I think this fact should be included in the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Mom is still kickin' at age 88: I found her on twitter and she doesn't like Trump, which is a good reminder that not all the 1% are raging Republicans, and that Trump has split and alienated the Republican Party like a champ. Sean is alive and well -- haven't read his work or seen his photos, so can't judge his talent or lack thereof (but he certainly has entered the world of aesthetics with an advantage over others). Dede still lives. San Francisco is as run by special interests and the 1% as ever, and is currently experiencing an acute housing crisis and takeover by Silicon Valleyers who have gone north. I'm currently out of butter and unemployed, and recently became so disillusioned with California that I went South. I feel like an early adoptor of the 1849 California Gold Rush wearily and dejectedly coming down the path, gold-less, and saying to fresh-faced hopefuls just arriving: "Don't bother." Golden State? Nah, Tarnished State. Call me a carpetbagger.

All in all, these two books capture a seedy and dark side of an affluenza-ridden San Francisco that is just as alive and well, and historically has been, as the more stereotypical notions of SF as progressive, tolerant, cutting-edge wonderland. Working there for years, I actually found the former to be more truthful than the latter. (Yes, yes, I know, SF pioneered gay marriage, banning plastic bags, raising the minimum wage, etc.) It's interesting to me when two people (or more) write about a shared experience and the ways in which facts (those slippery things) and memories (notoriously unreliable) line up or, more interestingly, don't. I just finished Ted Geltner's biography of Harry Crews -- the first biography -- and am wondering if there will be fall-out for its both sympathetic but also unflinching look at the man. Memoirs from different perspectives show the parallax effect or Rashomon effect. And, of course, every person is entitled to their side of the story -- no matter how rich or poor they are.

* I haven't read either memoir, but I did read that she eventually got $20,000 A MONTH FOR EIGHT YEARS, so I'm not sure how penniless she was, unless it was a period of pennilessness before her alimony kicked in. I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it makes a better story if she's "left penniless," and I just don't trust 1%er notions of "pennilessness" vs actual pennilessness.
** Penultimate chapter, "Void"

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Looking back on Oakland, CA

PGR's "Requiem" is one of my favorite songs ever. I first heard it on a compilation that had spoken-word interludes between the various contributors' songs, so I'm not sure if the man speaking at the beginning of the song is part of the song proper or it got included because the song is from the compilation. Either way, it works. There's also this funny background blurb about PGR on YouTube:

'PGR started life as an industrial group in mid '80s under the Poison Gas Research moniker. Their studio was in a rough area in Oakland. To deter dubious people they affixed a sign with "Poison Gas Research" written on it at the front door.'

I lived in Oakland for about 5 years, and can definitely see this happening. It's also coincidental that the man speaking about "dis-learning" things about music (I love the concept of "dislearning") took him 28 years -- that's the exact amount of time I was in California (southern, northern, Oakland, etc) altogether. Even tho this is labeled as "dark ambient industrial," which I can see, it's one of the most beautifully soothing songs I've ever had, even pretty in an odd way. Enjoy. (Btw I've always wondered who the man speaking in song's beginning is-- if you know, please contact me and let me know!)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sunshine Pop

I've been listening to some sunshine pop lately: that sorta goofy genre of music from the mid- to late-60s that was the precursor to the straight-up psychedelic rock of the later 60s and into the early 70s. It's not my favorite overall, and as Henry Rollins notes, the punk scene can raise eyebrows if you deviate too much from the punk world (depending on how open-minded your punk scene is), but it's a world I don't know much about, and I like to find interesting worlds and get into them.
Peppermints obviously played a large role in the sunshine pop cum psychedelic rock/pop evolution. There's also Peppermint Rainbow and The Strawberry Alarm Clock's famous "Incense and Peppermints." Was LSD put into peppermints back then? When I think of peppermints I think of depressing restaurants and old ladies with little candy dishes. Sometimes I think of old ladies at depressing restaurants taking peppermints home and putting them in their candy dish.

But despite the goofiness of some of the music, and the band names emphasizing color and non-sequiturs (oooo, edgy!) -- the formula seems to be: take ______ and combine it with ________ (and make sure the two have little to nothing to do with each other)* -- there's some nice vocal harmonizing in these songs, cool keyboard playing (the legendary Farfisa keyboard), and I like that the average song length is about 2' 45", which some people have noted is kind of a magical number/song length, in that it's just right.

* Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, etc.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dirty Old Southern Strippers

Met some of my girlfriend's classmates from her Master's in Social Work program at a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta last night. We were planning on checking out a lantern parade going on: I could see from the restaurant a cool procession of people with different types of lanterns. It kinda looked like people going to a deadmau5 concert. But by the time we finished at the restaurant, the parade was over, so when we tried to figure out our next move, I haphazardly suggested Atlanta's infamous Clermont Lounge, a dive bar/strip club in the grand Southern tradition, but featuring....uh, older strippers. We went there, a place that symbolizes the carnivalesque aspect of Southern gothic in an urban setting better than anything, and a venue frequented by celebrities from time to time. I ended up watching actor William Fichtner walk right past me, so I reached out and fistbumped him. He's been in Black Hawk Down, the tv show Prison Break, one of the Dark Knight movies, etc. Kinda an actor you might not known by name but he's been in a lotta shit. The Clermont is located somewhat bizarrely below an abandoned/condemned building with boarded-up windows, and it's a quintessential Dirty South-type place: loud, smoky, ridiculously strong drinks, and strippers way past their prime -- we're talking C-section scars, belly pudge, gimmicks (one lit birthday candles that were in her nipples*) -- who were kinda feminist in a way because they didn't give a fuck, were able to get over themselves, and challenged the notion that strippers need to be young, nubile, and Barbie Doll-esque. One stripper seemed to be in her 60s and she had this glowy rave thing in her hand that she used to illuminate her lady parts. Another stripper was in her 20s (she was definitely in the minority) and my gf pointed out she appeared to have a vestigal tail in her backbone that'd been removed, a little scar tissue-y bump that stuck out. The male customers were a combo of hipsters, frat boys, Indian men, and dirty Southerners, and there were a lot of women there, too. It definitely had elements of an old-fashioned freak/sideshow from the carnival days, and I talked with one person who fully planned to go to (Christian) church the next morning. Once the strippers had danced, they circulated among the crowd, but not in the way I've seen them do in other strip clubs, where they're trying to drum up private lap dance business and using insincere words for the male customers like honey, sweetie, good-looking, etc. These ladies just hung out, walked around half- or fully naked, and in the South, words like dear, honey, sweetie, etc. are used sincerely, because it's the friendliest people I've ever met in the world. (If I recall correctly, the gf and I were called "sugarbun" in Mississippi by an older Black maid.) The strippers were not bad-looking or grotesque**, but one person described the Clermont as "where strippers go to die," and the place reminded me a bit of Reno, Nevada. I wondered if the place just happened to once have strippers who were past their prime and then that became something people wanted and told others about, so The Clermont went with it, or if they'd had older strippers from the start, or what. But it was a very fun, memorable experience, and despite the Dirty South-ness of it, there were no fights, no rude creepy/sleazy behavior from men, no coked-up idiocy, etc. And apparently they have bands there: Brent Hinds from Mastodon's side project band Fiend Without a Face plays there a few days before Halloween this year. I can only imagine what that is like, but perhaps it's a more traditional experience than the geriatric strippers. If you get to Atlanta, I would definitely put The Clermont high on your list of to-do things, but be prepared for no cameras, cash only, and if it's the summer, it gets pretty darn moist in there. Sorry. Had to throw that pun in. 

* Don't ask me how she accomplished this. But she did.
** Remember the old whore in the film Barfly? The Clermont isn't quite at that level, but...close.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


I took in the Decatur Book Festival recently (Decatur, GA) and experienced a fantastic panel and reading about the first biography of "grit lit" Southern author Harry Crews. I've been a longtime Crews fan and from what I've read, this (authorized) biography is very well-written, authoritative, and moving. Check it out.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

We All Like Watchin' Clint: on Dirty Harry

Went on a Dirty Harry kick. I'd grown up with the films, but never watched one through or did any kind of critical analysis of it. With today's news headlines showing no lack of stories from throughout the U.S. of police brutality, police murder (largely of people of color, poor people), SWAT over-involvement, and communities trying to strike a balance between liberty and security, it's pertinent to look at the recent past to understand the present.

I started with Magnum Force, then watched Dirty Harry, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, and finally The Dead Pool. I work in San Francisco and it was fun to see all the San Francisco locations, and, as Les Claypool sings in "Lee Van Cleef," "We all like watchin' Clint." The first two films are actually pretty good; by the time of The Enforcer, the franchise gets formulaic and tries to inject some life by giving ol' Harry a female sidekick -- keep in mind the film was made in 1976, when, like today, a gender war was raging. Sudden Impact changes the usual San Francisco location, adds a compelling femme fatale/Fatal Attraction villain (who is different than earlier villains because she is the victim of rape and thus more complex), updates Harry's trademark .44 Magnum, adds a farting, pissing, balls-intact dog sidekick, Meathead, and brings the series into the 1980s. One of the villains is a woman who looks like The Witch in Wizard of Oz, and in the film they call her The Witch. In The Enforcer, Harry, the stoic pessimist, keeps sarcastically saying the word "Marvelous;" in Sudden Impact he repeatedly says, "Swell." 

Watching the films some years after they were made and released, one notices, besides the usual trappings of films reflecting the age they're made in -- hairstyle, cars, music, etc -- why Harry is a popular figure. The films are not art films or esoteric: they're high-grossing, somewhat lowest-common-denominator films in which Harry represents the average man: a tool of a changing system, beer-drinkin', quiet, generally moral. Loyal to the system but knows the system is rigged and flawed. He does the right thing, without regard for what the style or trend of the time is. (And, comically, Harry finds himself in every film just going about his business when he has to save the day from unusual, dramatic crimes going on: a hijacking, a bank robbery, etc. Magnum Force is probably the funniest: he's getting a hamburger when some terrorists take over an airplane, and Harry intervenes.) He's got a self-destructive or wild edge, tempered with a restraint you can see on his pinched face. He knows that good and evil clash and when he puts himself on the line, he has a confidence that he'll sacrifice himself for the fight, or know that good -- or the system -- will, eventually, win out. The criminals, whom he calls "punks" or "hoods," can sense this -- and Harry's imposing over 6' tall frame, cold eyes, and powerful .44 Magnum -- and they back down. 

Harry finds himself out of step with the increasingly pussified, politically correct police department he's been with, and they reprimand him, but never fire him. That's because, though his methods are often risky, reckless, and crude (not to mention costly to the City), he gets results: he gets the bad guys. (One problem with the films is that they usually have very cardboard villains, and the films fail to delve into any nuance or complexity of issues of social justice, poverty, media images, etc, to explain -- without condoning -- the actions of the "bad guys." The bad guys are also often people of color in the films (the first film being an exception, in which the villain is a deranged white hippie).) Harry doesn't say much, he just does the right thing, in the moment, when laws are broken or people are mistreated. He's the master of the quick, sardonic comeback, and a bunch of times in the films his eyes bulge and his jaw goes side to side and he barely contains his vitriol for idiots (often in the police department he works for) and criminals. Harry is Clint, Clint is Harry. He's pre-Baby Boomer: he's from the Silent Generation, when people were generally decent and moral, kept themselves to themselves, and did the right thing without the corruptive influence of fashionable and shifting moralities and popular trends. This has garnered Harry some criticism: he's been called a sexist pig by feminists, insensitive to the violence he causes, and he's perhaps the archetypal, iconic white male character that has been increasingly destabilized and criticized for having a white male-centric view of the world, with its accompanying sexism, racism, and supremacy-mindedness. Reagan obviously connected with Clint/Harry in Sudden Impact, even echoing the famous, "Go ahead, make my day" line. (I recently visited the "Acorn Cafe" restaurant in San Francisco where the line was filmed; it's now a McDonald's.) 

The Dead Pool was called by Ebert as good as the first Dirty Harry movie, but I disagree. After Magnum Force, I think the movies could have been serialized tv shows. In The Dead Pool it's interesting to note that Harry's partner throughout, an Asian-American, gets along with Harry the best of all his partners. I couldn't help but think of the "model minority" description of Asian-Americans in this case.

The films from the 70s, a genre I like -- especially films filmed/set in California, which seemed like an interesting place during that time -- I find the best. Long live Dirty Harry.

Update: in light of the recent fatal skirmishes between cops and death-by-police protestors, it of course makes us re-examine DH. Keep in mind DH, if he was in his 30s or early 40s in the 1970s, became a cop (presumably) in his 20s, in the 1960s or before. America was a different place then: from my research, serious crimes were usually burglary, sexual assault, murder sometimes, bank robbers. (A particularly shocking murder that made national news occurred in the quaint New Jersey town I grew up in, Ramsey, in the late 1950s. My father, a lifelong NJ resident (except for a year spent living in Holland) remembers this murder and that it seemed to signal a kind of new brutality.) Keep in mind, much of the violence around drugs hadn't hit America -- crack wasn't yet invented, meth wasn't on the scene, etc. The fictional Dirty Harry would have seen San Francisco change over the decades, often for the worse. In the films his affect is often one of pessimism and gritty stoicism. He is cynical as hell, but still fundamentally cares about people and reacts on the spot when crime occurs. DH is just a good guy at his core, and even though he kills 41 people (!) over the course of all the movies, he's not a killer kop like we're seeing today; he just wants people to be decent to each other, to obey the law. Think of him as the pretty much exact opposite of Keitel in Bad Lieutenant! Harry's nickname is "Dirty" because he cares so much about the law that he'll sidestep political correctness and bureaucracy in order to just do what's right. He's a white male from the Silent Gen, so of course he has some racisms, some sexisms, some imperfections. But I think he, though not color-blind, sees people as whether they obey the law or not, and if not, they're fair game, whether they're a white homicidal hippy (the first film) or Black or whatever. He feels for victims, especially (ironically, because DH was accused back in the day of being a sexist pig) women, it seems (see the first, third, and final films), who are victimized.

How would Dirty Harry view today's headlines of cops killing people of color, and people of color (and others) fighting back after only taking so much?

Disclaimer: I dated David Valdes' daughter, Marianne, in 7th grade. Her father is David Valdes, who was involved in the final two Dirty Harry movies.