Thursday, July 29, 2010

If it Looks Like Crap and Smells Like Crap…

J.R. Jones on the “It’s so bad it’s good” theory. I’ve devoted (wasted?) a lot of my youth to watching shit movies. Once upon a time, when my brother and I hosted movie nights, this was fun, though that had a lot to do with sitting with my friends and drinking beer while viewing Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S. and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. These days, I must admit that I have little interest in piles of cinematic crap. Jones is right; life is too short.

Anyway, I once joked about teaching a class on shitty cult films (Chris Hunger, if you’re out there, I’m still game), but the lesson would entail, among other things, calling a spade a spade and a lousy film a lousy film. I don’t need to elevate Make Them Die Slowly to the level of 8 ½ to enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Jackal, the Amazon, the Dinosaur

For those who care, go ahead and read all about super-agent Andrew “The Jackal” Wiley (I think Wiley Coyote would have been a better nickname) and his new venture with Amazon’s Kindle, which pissed off Random House and most of the publishing world. It’s a brave new world, indeed.

Not to side with Wiley, but this one quote, pulled from here, pretty much sums it all up:

“One of the facets of this story that is much to be wondered at is that Random House is continuing to stick to its old story from the Rosetta trial, that its existing contracts cover digital rights. To me, this signals that Random House, along with many publishers, persisted in believing that electronic books would never come to be. Certainly, some of the earliest attempts at e-books that date back to the late 1990s collapsed dismally. However, it would have behooved a company with such important holdings to protect its assets in a clear legal manner. Yet, I am fairly certain that what is true for Random House is true for many houses, that too many of them waited too long to recognize the potential reality of e-books and that a sly agent beat them.”

This only further demonstrates the sad inevitably of this whole e-world when it comes to artistic content traditionally disseminated in non-digital form. It seems publishers, like the record companies before them, are perhaps too short-sighted to fully understand (and survive) the world in which we live and the one we are headed toward.

Personally, I plan to keep buying paper books, as I still buy CDs. But hey, I’m a dinosaur. ROAR!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Running Out of Excuses

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Talk: Collections and Speculations

I must point you to this little ode to book collecting. While the author makes some points and observations that I can understand, I’m a bit amused that this serious book collector has a mere 1,451 books in his library after thirteen years of combing New York’s used shops and the internet. Perhaps I am a bit more impulsive in my purchases, as my nineteen years of obsessive hording have netted me somewhere close to 4,000 books, give or take a few. I say give or take as I do not know for certain; I am not such the nerd that I have made a spreadsheet, as the author of this piece confesses to having done. Maybe I ought to? Eh, life’s too short and this need not be a geeky pissing contest. Anyway, he's got me beat on signed copies.

I agree with statements like this:

“I love looking through the bookcases of anyone’s house I’m in, and I love showing off my library to visitors. It’s a way of making those connections between so many different writers and people.”

I also love to show people the library and to recommend and even (gasp!) lend a book out from time to time, but here’s where I differ:

"Things I don’t like:
• ex-library copies
• books with the owner’s name written in it, unless the owner is a writer I like
• bookplates
• books inscribed to a friend from the gift-giver
• books inscribed by an author to someone who isn’t me (though I own a couple)
• paperbacks
• ugly books—you know the ones—books that look out of place in a nicely-arranged bookcase—I find the Penguin paperbacks with the lower half colored that nauseatingly bright orange to be pretty repellent

Sure, I like a book to look nice (by the way, Mr. Wilson, the all caps bullet point is equally as obnoxious as a gold sticker on a dust jacket), but I like used books with personal inscriptions or the former owner’s name written on the inside. I makes me feel as if I own a piece of someone, some stranger. They let these books into their lives briefly before discarding them, and now I have them on the shelf. Maybe it was gift from an ex-lover, an ex-friend, a no longer spoken to relative. Maybe their estranged parent tried to lure them back with a copy of Letters to a Young Poet? All these discarded memories are now mine. They wash up on my shores and come to rest. I keep them safe and let them know that, while their former owners rejected them, they have a place in my library. Imagine the stories they could tell? I have a used copy of Chronos by Felipe Alfau that had stuffed inside the pages a flyer for an art exhibit in Paris, circa the late 1980s. Where else has that book been? Are my books more traveled than I? Have they been around the globe? Have they seen the sun set from the deck of a massive ship or did they sleep in the purses of anxious women on trans-continental flights?

I will never know for sure, but I can speculate. In a sense, my books tell two stories: the one by the author and the one by the former owner. I believe in the reader response phenomenology and the convergence of reader, text, and author, so the idea, of course, fascinates me. Anyway, when story ideas run thin, I could, conceivably, use these used books as a means of inspiration. Now that's the ecstasy of influence!

Thanks for listening.

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Not-So Cult Films

Having written a bit about Miller’s Crossing, I was thinking as well about some other movies that have had an impact on me, or, at the very least, have amused, amazed, or captivated me in ways that, I suspect, they have not with the next guy. Who is this proverbial next guy anyway? Fuck the next guy if he can’t see why Children of Men is the best movie of the last 20 years.

So here are some of those movies that I love way out of proportion. Let me state that many of these films are well regarded, and surely I am not the only one who has such admiration for them. I know I am not special or in some sort of a singular cult. That being said, here we go:

Children of Men

I’ve written about this one in the past as well. Few films work on every level the way that this one does. The direction is first rate and the story is spectacular. Form and content kick equal ass. The acting, the set design, the costumes, everything feels perfect. Well, as perfect as art can be, which is damn near perfect. Which is what Children of Men is. Seriously, this is the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Vampire’s Kiss

I think I merely laughed when I first saw it and moved on, ready to take in the next oddity in a period of my life that was saturated with cult films. One began to resemble the other and often I found it difficult to separate the good (like this) from the trash (like, say, Horror House on Highway 5). This worked against my theory that art and trash are of equal importance, as one cannot understand or recognize one without the other. I needed to chill on the marathon movie watching. I mean, life is too short, or so it started to seem. Anyway, this movie was all over the dregs of cable late last year and I gave it a fresh look. Holy shit! Why have I not been watching it every month for the last fifteen years? Nick Cage is out of his fucking mind in this movie, giving the greatest performance of his career. Screw Leaving Las Vegas, this is Oscar worthy, seeing as no one else could have been so compelling and bat-shit crazy. I mean, the guy ate a cockroach for the film. Doesn’t that warrant an Oscar?

An aside: the movie was written by Joe Minion (great name) who also penned Motorama and After Hours (my favorite Scorsese film) though it was revealed that he stole a chuck of the After Hours story from Joe Frank. Minion seems like someone I should know more about, but, for fear that I’d discover another crack in his façade, I’ll just stop with Vampire’s Kiss.


All things considered, this is not as brilliant a film as I thought when I first saw it, but hey, it holds up for me for a lot of reasons. Sure, the gimmick is what snags a lot of viewers—hard boiled film noir plot and dialogue transplanted to a contemporary high school. And there’s the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun as the detective lead. Yeah, the simple conceit of the film is just that: simple. Amusing, yes, and definitely what first strikes the viewer, but that alone would not be enough to sustain anyone’s interest through a feature length film. The story had to be tight to work, and, in this writer’s humble opinion, tight it is. There are all the usual elements of great films noir: crime, the shady lady, the smart and cynical protagonist with a secret soft side, the big boss behind the desk, the muscle, a murder. But, you know, with kids. Anyway, fuck the kids; this story would have worked with the aged, or midgets for that matter.

Our Lady of the Assassins

I may be in a small cult of one or two with this one. No one seems to be as excited over this movie, what with it being shot on video and using local street toughs, few of which can act. But rising above the limitations and flaws of this tiny, forgotten film is something captivating that seems to escape my description. I never do the movie justice when I talk about it. (“It’s got rent boy thugs in Medellin and, um, a suicidal writer…”) This one came and went as quickly as Before Night Falls, both around the same time. For some lunkheaded reason I confused the two and thought I was going to be seeing the story of Reinaldo Arenas in Cuba. There may some minor similarities (both deal with gay Latin American writers, one suicidal, the other a suicide) but the two movies are very different from each other (as are the two authors). One of the big differences is that no one I know (aside from me and Cassandra) saw Our Lady of the Assassins. It made not the splash of Before Night Falls, which, by the way, is a damn fine film and has done much to make the work of Arenas more widely read. I would hope that the achievement of Our Lady of the Assassins would demand more of Fernando Vallejo’s work get translated into English. Sadly, that’s not the case at this time. Oh well. Maybe someone will look back this film and get interested. Maybe I ought to learn some more Spanish and do it myself.

Death and the Maiden

There’s a four way tie for best Polanski film in my book (Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Death and the Maiden) but, if pressed, I might say that this is my real number one pick. It has a lot of things going on that would appeal to me and my interests: the aftermath of Pinochet’s Chile, the grim details of torture, a sort of revenge, a bad-ass Sigourney Weaver, but most of all this has Ben Kingsley in his best role. He recites a chunk of dialogue late in the film that never fails to give me chills. This alone makes the movie worth not only watching but memorizing. Credit goes to Ariel Dorfman for writing the play and co-writing the script, but Polanski’s fingerprints are all over this. Similar to so many of his movies, this one deals with the disruption of the domestic, and while the action all takes place in one main setting, the great filmmaker manages to do some subtle, striking things with the camera. Not ever to be missed.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Senator Charles Schumer to Steve Jobs: Clean It Up, Bitch

The Funny

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Art That Changed My Life: Miller’s Crossing

Yesterday I took a break from the class prep and the law gig and all the other tiny responsibilities that add up to exhaustion. I had eaten lunch, walked the dog, and was as ready for the coming lecture as I’d ever be (read: under prepared). So what do I do? Flip on the cable and see what’s on. (Hilarious in a sense, as tonight’s lecture is on the subject of TV and its addictive properties.) And what was on? Why, Miller’s Crossing!

I picked up the thread of the thing in about 2 seconds. This is due to me having watched this goddamn movie a good, oh, 200 times. Seriously, there is no other movie I know this well. Maybe Taxi Driver, okay, but even though I used to carry a VHS copy of Scorsese’s first masterpiece with me and watch it in the Moraine Valley Community College library, I still have sat down and sunk into the world of Miller’s Crossing far more often.

What attracted me to it? The look of the thing was the first hook. In Roger Ebert’s review he complained that Albert Finney’s character could never realistically inhabit such an office, thus from the first scene he was bothered. I might argue that Ebert, as he often is, was off his rocker on that one. Is it so difficult to image a 1920s political boss-cum-tough talking simp wanting to put on some airs once he rose to control an entire city? Why wouldn’t the likes of the fictional Leo O’Bannon surround himself in leather and stained wood? Anyway, what Ebert found to be a flaw I saw as an exciting vision, one I suppose I wished I could inhabit. Sure, there’re guns on every corner and a web of deceit to untangle, but the world the Coen’s created still looks pretty beautiful to me—probably because it is, indeed, unrealistic and utter fiction. One enters a Coen film (save for the gritty likes of Blood Simple or Fargo) knowing that they are about to encounter more caricatures than characters and a world informed by Hollywood tropes. Whereas I reserve a certain amount of disdain for the likes of Tarantino and his overly derivative movies, the Coen’s are not above lifting a little from the golden age of Hollywood—among other sources—for their creations, none of which bothers me a bit. In the case of Miller’s Crossing, the most cited reference is Dashiell Hammet. Along with perfectly reproducing the tone and complexity of Hammet, the Coen’s add their own gloss to the mob story and, at times, completely deconstruct and rebuild the whole thing at a moment when lesser films would completely fall apart. But that is one of the joys of the movie: everything in it serves a purpose (with the exception of a tacked on, though memorable, scene featuring a Sam Raimi cameo) and all of it adds up to more than a hill of beans. And then there’s John Turturro’s famous “Look in your heart… I’m praying to you!”

For all this and more, I was sucked in to Miller’s Crossing at a time when my faith in cinema was at its all time low. I ignored the movie for a few years, as did many—it was released the same year as Goodfellas, which eclipsed this smaller, quirkier gangster film. Call it bad timing, but I went without Miller’s Crossing in my life for a few years, time I regret. And so I went about folding the movie into my (sub)consciousness, mixing it in and letting it stay for good so that, years since my last viewing, I still know every word of the damn dialogue, as evidenced yesterday afternoon. Even still, the movie felt fresh to me.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Coral Bracho

Read this and the links therein:

and this:

If any of that grabs you, go get the book Firefly Under the Tongue, published by the always fantastic New Directions, still my favorite American press. The poem I read this morning, "Your Edges: Clefts that Reveal Me" is the most beautiful, erotically charged thing I've come across in a long time. Most of the rest fo the collection that I've read (on page 63) is top notch, but I keep returning to this poem. It's pretty amazing stuff and reminds this reader why he got excited about art in the first place. Stick that in your jaded little pipe and smoke it, hipster.

Sidenote: Okay, so the poems don't make a ton of sense, so beware those of you looking for realism or slices of life or any of that. I'm no great fan of Language Poetry or other PoMo fuckery, but sometimes the ellusive works, and in this case it works really goddamn well. Think McGuckian and you migth have an idea of what I'm jawing about, though even that comparison feels criminal.

Back to the salt mines.

Dickinson, Mishima, Bolaño, and Neruda

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ugly Little Sister

I must defer to Cassandra, whose first language skills and knowledge of Mexican vernacular will always trump my busted up Spanish, and conclude that Xoco does not mean "little sister" but actually means "foam." Having just ate lunch there, I can say that the food was closer to foam than a promised little sister, even an ugly one. The fare was empty and bland—foam indeed. I know beer drinkers call foam "head." Let me also assure you that head is far more satisfying than Xoco, be it from a little or big sister.

A more fitting title for the new restaurant from Rick Clueless would be So-So, not Asi-Asi, which is more Mexican than what you'll find at Xoco. I realize that walking into one of Bayless's eateries means opening yourself up for anything other than authentic Mexican food. I am fine with the idea of fusion or contemporary takes on ethnic cuisine, though all too often the price tag hurts. (Rick Payless? No—more.) But Xoco is supposed to serve Mexican street food, or Rick Vainglorious's celebrated take on it. No gorditas or sopes were seen, but they did feature lunchtime tortas. I'm a torta fan. The best I've had in Chicago was in a forgotten spot on Cermak and California. The worst I've had was at Xoco. While meat is the normal choice at most Mexican joints, it is not hard to find a vegetarian option. Not so at Xoco. Why even the black beans in the wild mushroom torta (made from the mushrooms that grow wild along the streets of Mexico City?) had some trace elements of animal flesh. Pity—black beans are my go-to option. I asked for avocado instead, as did Cassandra, who ordered a special torta filled with various greens and goat cheese. Add to that some guacamole and chips and a bi-carbonate take on plain water (the only water in sight) and we were close to $30 deep. Plus dessert (my comments on that will be served after dishing on the main meal).

Let's back up.

To eat at Xoco one has to wait in line, much like countless other dine-in and to-go cafés and restaurants in the Chicago business district. But there is no to-go here, only dine-in. Oddly, one must wait in line for quite a bit behind the other dupes eager to liberate their savings accounts. Then one is directed to order their food and pay before eating, much like at McDonalds or Corner Bakery or that Cosi place white women seem to love. After waiting and ordering, the patron is confronted by mechanical cashiers and given a number, further proof that society is becoming increasingly dehumanized. The number accompanies the diner to their table, assuming one has opened up. If one has not, then the diner waits some more. We were lucky; our table became free just as we placed our order. We were whisked away to a cozy corner nestled adjacent to Rick Feckless's daughter with a wounded arm who, nevertheless, distributed menus and greeted the odd customer. (Probably making more money than then most office workers will see in a year, all from doing less. Is this irony or happenstance?) It was not the best seat in the house, but—being such a small spot—there didn’t seem to be one at all. The décor was fine, if you accept fine at its most literal. The music? Shakira, a Colombian, played at this "Mexican" restaurant, but do the well-to-do white patrons really know the difference?

First came the chips and guacamole. It was not bad, but how hard are chips and guacamole? Wasn't this supposed to be the ambrosia of simple Mexican food? A few onions adorned the green paste, though a few more might have added flavor, not to mention some cilantro. Sadly, the guacamole was rather bland (Rick Tasteless). The chips were salty and abundant, as chips tend to be. I am inclined to rate those highest on the list, slim pickings to be sure. Then came the tortas. I must say, they were the best Potbelly's subs I have ever had. Toasted crisp, like Potbelly's, they hurt the teeth upon first bite. Bastards. They were served on what resembled a baguette. I may not be the worldliest motherfucker to ever pass down the pike, but I thought tortas were served on soft flour bolillos, not baguettes. Sorry to belabor the point, but it really did taste like a slightly more upscale version of the Potbelly's veggie sandwich, complete with mushrooms and cheese. The salsa set off no alarms and added little to the lack of complexity.

Underwhelmed was I. Here I thought Rick was supposed to be a wizard of the kitchen. Much like a modern Christopher Columbus, he sails the high seas and travels to exotic lands (Mexico, in this case) promising to return with silks and spices, getting lost on the way. Alas, all he returned with was knock-offs (though, like Columbus, he too is raping and pillaging the brown people's culture). But he is not Rick Brainless; he has concocted a sure fire scam. Glean some old world recipes. Add a dash of Gringo. Tame down the taste. Package pretty. Sell for cartloads. Smart, very smart.

This is not to say that Rick is unworthy of his rep. Hell, we made some of his spinach enchiladas at home and—while Cassandra was no fan—I thought they were pretty damn good. And my buddy Jeff cooked up some vegetarian fajitas à la Bayless that hit the spot quite well. Maybe I need to check things out down ol' Frontera way. Perhaps his traditional sit-down spot would be more to my liking, even if it is less than traditional. Maybe, but if it is anything like Xoco-loco then I'll say, "no-no."

On to the postre!

We were wise enough to order the churros y chocolate ahead of time. (I was not about to wait in line again.) After what felt like too long, we managed to get a server (very nice and the only Mexican looking person in the place, other than mi niña) to take away our baskets of food and bring on the dessert. Hopes were high, as we had heard tell of the churros and chocolate (the cocao beans come from Mexico and are roasted in-house). My chocolate was tasty—the Aztec, made with chilies—and Cassandra's was pretty good, but the churros were abominable. Maybe I'm spoiled. I've had the greatest churro of my life in Coyoacán. Still, my standards are not so high—I merely ask for more than cold, hard, and bland. Seriously, I've had better churros at the Ford City Mall.

With an audible "ugh," we left. That was at 1:45PM. It is now 4:46 and the weight of the foamy little sister lingers in the guts. It is not a pleasant feeling having such a bellyful of mundane food. What bothers me more is the rave reviews I heard from the other eaters. Perhaps the meat dishes are the way to go. Maybe if I ate pork or chicken I might have better feelings about all this. Oh well: there are always the tortas of the small taquerías, all of which are sure to be superior and cost a hell of a lot less.

Your humble half-assed critic bows and thanks you for your time.