We’ll all look back and laugh…or at least I will

Amid all my new reading I was recently prompted — not sure by what — to reread a book I’ve had in my collection for many years, which I vaguely recall reading once sometime back in the mid-1990s. It’s tangentially about a book I have read and is definitely about a movie I never want to see. That would ruin the mystique. (More accurately, it just sounds awful.)

Julie Salamon‘s The Devil’s Candy is one of those books that shouldn’t exist but does and in doing so provides a portrait of a time that is no longer with us but is still clearly about what’s happening today. As she explained in her end notes, she was invited on-board a project by a key player who basically said ‘do whatever.’ Not many people would be willing to do that, and whatever Salamon’s own conscious or unconscious thoughts about trying to make said key player look good, she shows the warts pretty clearly as well.

Said key player is Brian de Palma, a director I’ve never felt a great attachment toward. Very little he’s created has captured my interest to start with, and I think I’ve only seen one film of his on screen, The Untouchables — and he definitely wasn’t the reason why I watched it way back when in 1987. (If anything it would have been because of a combination of Connery and the general story being told.) Phantom of the Paradise is a trip, though, and while one great film isn’t much given all he’s done, it’s still better than none. (Yeah, yeah, I know all the Scarface fanatics are complaining about now, if they even care to be here. Whatever works for you.)

The particular film the book is about, as mentioned, is adapted from another book — one of those ones that I’m content to keep in a dim memory somewhere. Tom Wolfe is one of those characters who, in my late eighties youth, I somehow had pegged as an ‘important’ writer somewhere, I don’t know from where or how. I probably kept confusing him a bit with Thomas Wolfe (and I’ve no doubt Tom Wolfe would be happy to hear that). He was an inherited name, one of those people who I had gathered had some cachet without experiencing it at all, not beyond having seen The Right Stuff on TV (good movie, I remember, though I seem to remember Jeff Goldblum’s part most of all).

Around junior, senior year of high school The Bonfire of the Vanities came out and was one of those books that ‘everyone’ was reading. Somehow I got a hold of it via the public library and dutifully read it as well — and my impressions of it at this point are dim. It’s not one of those books I’ve ever felt a need to revisit — I certainly don’t feel it now — but I remember burning through it pretty quickly and that there was a lot of scabrous dialogue and drunks. Or so it seemed. That and I remember a brief TV feature on Wolfe looking extremely dapper in one of his suits and my mom going, “He is such a dandy.” Which he is, I actually like that most of all about him. I assume he still is one.

I can’t say I’ve felt a need to read such a book since then, ‘the’ hot novel of the time, and probably the last time I did it with nonfiction was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I’m sure I’ve stumbled across a few over the years without realizing it but the phenomenon is simultaneously understandable and disinteresting. It ties in a bit with the larger trap of defining one’s social experiences through discussion of shared media — there’s something lowest common denominator about it. To say that sounds slightly ridiculous coming from someone like myself who talks about shared media touchstones all the time is understandable but I tend to hope that’s not the only thing — and I definitely hope that whatever else is inevitably up for discussion at general times that I can move beyond ‘hey, this is a cool band/book/etc.’ to something a little deeper, at least a touch.

Back to the subject at hand — so I read The Bonfire of the Vanities, I doubtless felt profounder about something and then I went on from there. I vaguely remember some classmates being a bit amazed I ripped through the book so quickly — it’s pretty thick (maybe in more than one sense) but read briskly enough. I don’t think I thought much about it again until a couple of years later when the movie version came out — which I happily ignored, mostly. As I’ve always said, something about a movie just has to interest me on some almost unconscious level for me to want to go see it, and very little out there gets to that point for me on first release. And when this was the image I saw:

Craptastic!

Let’s face it, Bruce Willis’s gurning mug alone was reason for me to think the 1990 equivalent of “EPIC FAIL.” It was released, it bombed, people pointed and laughed.

But then this book came out, The Devil’s Candy, all about the making of said movie. When I first read it, I, like a lot of other people, doubtless did so for pure rubbernecking reasons, along the lines of hoping it would be full of tales of morons being moronic and working for our entertainment, ie, “Well, glad I’m not these clowns.” I have no shame in this regard, I’m entertainined by the folly of humanity. My initial impressions from that first reading all that time back I don’t recall at all, but my rereading confirmed something else — namely, that no matter what the impact of the film in the end, the story Salamon set out to tell was that of the making of a big budget Hollywood film, a portrait of the machine at work along with many of its constituent players.

It wasn’t a character assassination, or a collective one — a critique, certainly, an observational one that didn’t say, “Here’s how it should be,” but rather, “Here is how it can be, and here is what can happen.” It’s a specific portrait of a film’s making that carefully shies away from exact claims to universality in favor of noting what can or often is universal while then explaining how things worked out for this film. As such, it’s a portrait of a business venture, a temporary one engaged upon by a variety of professionals who work together for a while then move on to something else, for the most part doing so without working with others again in the foreseeable future. It touches on a wide range of subjects, from the everything-changes-on-a-dime reworking of scenes and shots depending on unexpected circumstances to the abrasive frustrations between people that erupt when you have different personalities in the same place with no easy escape.

What’s interesting at this remove is how much less demystified this is, relatively speaking, for a current film audience, if they so desire it. There’s a bit where one of the editors looking at some celluloid clips hanging up to dry says that the process won’t even be like that in another fifteen years, and the triumph of Avid editing as the standard has proven him fully correct. But it’s the advance of technology, as both product of and analytical tool on the studios, which underlines the changes — yet there’s still plenty out there which doesn’t immediately come to everyday attention on the part of the outside observer, who only sees the business as a business in those moments when the supply chain is disrupted (the writers’ strike was one example, the possibly upcoming actors’ strike might be another). Most DVD extra features are just promotional puffery at heart, for instance, and even something incredibly exhaustive such as, say, the hours upon hours of background footage and interviews for The Lord of the Rings movies — even the roughly shot stuff that formed the bonus documentaries on the reissues a couple of years back — only scratches the surface. If something like the audience preview testing process is now laid incredibly bare, it’s not removed from the equation yet either.

Salamon’s book acts as a gift still, paralleled by too few other works out there, that views the people in the process as people, neither saints nor sinners but quite often sinning big time. Less so in a creepy or cruel sense, but Salamon can be rightfully unforgiving at points (she goes to the heart of de Palma’s rather conflicted view about women in one sequence in just a couple of paragraphs, while still allowing for sympathy — not an easy task to manage).

Some of her observations have their greatest impact due to time, meanwhile — she might not have intended it at the time fully, but there’s plenty to chew on regarding racial tensions and stereotyping which, while not absent from the book’s own take, seem even more egregious and ridiculous at a distance. This applies particularly to a transformation of a section of the Bronx in an attempt to strike a midpoint between Wolfe’s satiric vision and de Palma’s operatic one — but the description just makes it all sound like pure bigotry run rampant on all fronts (captured best of all by the description of local observers watching on almost sullenly at the transformation of a fairly typical street into a neon-overdosed fantasyland of an ‘urban’ setting, while elsewhere an assistant director calls to extras, “Okay girls, start shucking and jiving.”)

It all builds up to the release and near-immediate death of the movie, and what’s most telling is how much nearly everyone shrugs it off and moves on. Salamon herself has to wrap it up there because there’s almost nothing more to say beyond some general observations, with no benefit of further hindsight. The portrait of De Palma indicates he probably ended up chewing over its failure for some time (for all we know he still does), while there’s a quick note that a couple of months later Hanks fired his agent, something that led up to his career fix with the help of A League of Her Own, which set him on the path towards neo-Jimmy Stewart that he holds to this day. The only comment I think he’s ever made about the film was that he felt the character was a ‘pussy,’ which is one of those unfortunate reminders about how language at once conveys frustration and reestablishes stereotypes. (The one person whose story, too briefly told, is the most interesting in the context of looking backward is Kim Cattrall, some years away from her own cachet-winning role in Sex and the City and already fearing, with good reason, that she might have missed out on the brass ring of fame given how Hollywood favors younger actresses. Her sense of desperation over the role of Hanks’s wife — that this might finally be her break — is palpable.)

There’s much more to say about this book but I’ve been hanging fire on my thoughts for a while and I want to wrap this up — especially since there are other things crowding into my head right about now. Suffice to say that this is a book not only worth the reading but rereading, and I think I’ll be interested to look at it again in ten years time to see what further, if anything, has changed, both in my perceptions and in the world of mass culture as product.

Meantime, the measure of a film’s impact these days can be seen this way — on YouTube, there are only a total of ten clips that turn up when you search ‘bonfire vanities,’ and of these only two are from the movie itself. And both of those come from people pointing a camera at a TV. Tom Wolfe might have something to say about it, but I think I’ll pass on that.

Some more quick scattershot shots

This has been the week already for quick summations. Some larger posts are in the offing, though — I’ve had to concentrate on a variety of writing deadlines that seem to have all collided at once, so I’m trying to avoid tying myself down to the computer completely here. As before, though, a couple of links and quick thoughts:

  • I admire the existence of The Daily Show but don’t rely on it; that said I’m happy to read this story about Adam Chodikoff, the researcher who has been with the show since its start who is the kind of newshound I admire — the one with the energy and memory to pull together clips, statements and more that basically show politicians and talking heads alternately contradicting or repeating themselves or worse. Behind the scenes folks who do the heavy lifting to make things work smoothly all around are my real heroes as such so it’s nice to see him get the credit he does.
  • I’m giving the second listen to Matthew DeGennaro‘s A Guide for the Perplexed in as many days; while he first came to my notice for his collaborations he’s also often recorded solo and this album, released I believe last year, is a solo project and predominantly acoustic, a nice contrast to his drones and similar work elsewhere. It’s the kind of sweetly entrancing album that readily catches my ear on the solo guitar front, and rewards attention. (Less immediately unique but just as wonderful is Alexander Tucker‘s Portal, so keep an eye out for that one, due any day now.)
  • Meanwhile, this story on LA hot dogs reminds me I need to check some of these spots out. Even if I am a Pink’s partisan and the author is not.

“its lonely in brainerd”

Just a quick note:

I can’t ever say I’ve been a big fan of Atmosphere or Slug — no hate per se either, it’s just a case of my interests and passions being elsewhere. Pete Scholtes has always kept an eye on him, though, to put it mildly, and in a newly started ILX thread on Atmosphere has copied something posted on another message board, referring to the new album When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, which in its very sad and tragic way sums up what music can do for someone, especially if they’re more isolated than one can imagine:

‘after listening to it for almost a week i’ve concluded it’s an amazing fuckin album. not that anyone cares but this has so far been a bad year for me. my only brother died christmas day 2007 of diabetes related congestive heart failure…then my father died on april 3rd from a diabetes related heart attack. needless to say with all this shit over my head the last thing that mattered to me was any new lp. but after copping “lemons” and listening to it all the way through 50 plus times man…the shit totally is the only “hip hop” shit i can listen to right now. “painting” has to be one of my favorite tracks of all time. totally reminds me of what i’m going through right now. i just figured i’d type all that cause the dreams wont let me sleep. now im gonna sit here with my diabetic ass, smoking newports and listen to this shit over and over, and pray god don’t take me so soon.

‘and yea i realize this really wasnt about the new lp all that much. but i needed to type. its lonely in brainerd’

Hoping for the best, for whoever this is. Hope that album helps see that person through to a time when sleep won’t be tormented by dreams. It’s a salutory reminder that whatever it is we might dismiss for whatever reason could well be the necessary anchor for someone else.

Swiss chard in a ginger sauce

Pretty sure I’ve made this recipe before but it’s been a while — you cook the chard briefly in broth and then drain out the broth to boil again separately, reducing it down to a sauce along with the addition of vinegar, ginger, pepper flakes and a bit of sugar. Piave cheese on multigrain bread, a gala apple and some chardonnay covered the rest.

Monday, Monday…

It might be the heat — in fact I’m willing to be it IS the heat, even inside it’s not as cool as it could be, which almost always means it’s sweltering out there — but this is a morning for non-deep-thoughts, in the end. Somehow it seems like a lot of things have temporarily wrapped up or been put on hold in terms of thought processes, which probably means I’m either overloading and waiting to figure out what to talk about next or else I’m less glib than I realized. (Probably the latter, and that’s just scratching the surface.)

Still, some quick thoughts:

  • Heard a slew of good stuff last night — the new Skyphone record gave me the same thrill as hearing Languis when they went ‘rock,’ though the two artists are coming from different places and are after differing but equally strong results. The new Child Readers tackles lo-fi aesthetics crossed with shadowy psychedelia as much derived from New Zealand as from the ‘lone insane guy in a studio goes nuts’ approach, while the Israeli band Goldoolins reconfirms that medieval folk, sunshine pop and a desert setting all work very well together. Meantime this morning I’m listening to Group Doueh once again and marvelling at this wonderful music (is Western Africa the new rock and roll central? I’d be all for it.). Reviews of all this to appear on the AMG soonish.
  • Thinking however of Group Doueh and Western Africa — this utterly depressing story in the Washington Post about Mauretania and its struggle in the era of the globalized food market is one of those pieces that causes you to count your blessings. I’ve mentioned the new issue of Yeti before; one of its core pieces is from Hisham Mayet, whose story about his time in Mauretania acts as an excellent complement to this one, especially in those details where things overlap, such as talking about the fishermen on the coast. At the risk of sounding preachy, it should simply be noted, as the WaPo story relates, that it is precisely the demand for the fish from richer countries which is contributing to the shortages in Mauretania — eating locally is a matter of choice for us, in Mauretania’s case it is a matter of survival. You may draw your own conclusions.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those writers I know of but shamefully have never gotten around to, though I’ve recently heard some praise for his autobiography The Beautiful Struggle (and the part of me that has major problems with one D. Eggers enjoys that Coates’s own brief description of his book is “A heartbreaking work of staggering…Oh, wait…”). His most recent piece for The Atlantic on Bill Cosby, “‘This Is How We Lost to the White Man,'” is simply essential reading, at once a powerful meditation on the state of black America in the present and a historical overview of Cosby’s beliefs and positions. Friend Dan, to paraphrase a comment elsewhere, notes that Coates manages the very hard task of addressing both the good things and the weaknesses in Cosby’s approach in a way where the latter cannot be the ignored but the former is not denigrated in turn. Stellar stuff, and I must thank Mr. Matos for the tip once again. (Also, as Coates is talking about the Rev. Wright dustup on his blog, I’ll defer to his thoughts on the matter because mine won’t be worth dried spit in comparison.)
  • Prince covers Radiohead. Really, don’t need to add anything else — except that the falsetto part about four minutes in kinda sums up why humanity has something going for it. (And to note that by not doing a straight cover as such — this is a reworking, an interpretation — it’s further proof that the man is as sharp as ever.)

Oh and on a final note if anyone’s in the NYC area and wanted to see Verve tonight, a friend of mine is selling a ticket at face value, so drop me a line.

Sunday morning summaries

A few interesting stories have piled up that have provoked some thoughts but my time’s been full on the social front all weekend — BBQ party last night, two friends’ daughter’s baptism this morning — so here’s some links and observations:

Akron/Family — believe the hype

Which almost sounds dismissive, but isn’t meant to be, trust me.

Thing is, I’d known of Akron/Family‘s work for a while since the first album, as I’ve been lucky enough to be on Young God‘s promo list for a bit, and was well aware of how they were good sounding sorts, both on their own and playing with Michael Gira in Angels of Light efforts. Apparently at some point they’d been tagged with being another one of ‘those’ NYC bands in a ‘you’re all from Williamsburg or Park Slope or something, right?’ sense, which sounded pretty nonsensical to me three thousand miles away and all. It’s not like they sounded like the Strokes, for heaven’s sake. (Good thing too.)

I’d not seen them live, though — and it wasn’t until I read something from Nari about how a performance she caught up in Big Sur was apparently one of those WHOA-my-god-my-world-is-changed moments along the lines of me seeing MBV that I realized ‘okay, so something is clearly up.’ In rapid succession I had almost everyone and their mother who had encountered them live say, “You HAVE to see them perform.” This is a good thing, it reminds me of the essential difference between Radiohead in studio (exquisite) and Radiohead live (monumental), both astonishingly great but somewhat different beasts.

In a convenient bit of timing, there’s a great piece on the band in the latest Yeti which I recommend — I actually need to recommend the whole issue, that’ll be another post — so they’d been on my mind anyway. Then friend Eric drops me a last minute line after I get home from work yesterday saying, “Hey, they’re playing a secret show at the Echo Curio tonight, wanna go?” (Like a lot of bands playing Coachella, as they’re doing today, Akron/Family decided to slip in an unannounced show for LA while in the area.) Tentative plans had fallen through so I was on board pretty quickly, helped by the fact that the Echo Curio is a great venue — last year’s Bottling Smoke festival was a treat and a half, as I wrote about for Plan B, and you can scrounge through all my photos here if you like.

It was great to go again, been far too long, and folks like Grant and Ged and Tim and many others familiar from last year were there, as were a healthy contingent of the current KUCI crew (many of whom recognized me from the library — love how that works). Opening bands Vampire Hands (Minneapolis quartet, percussion heavy art/math/pop dudes with a slight early Eno fetish) and Chapa (local LA quintet, stylish jazz/hint of klezmer/sweetly zoned rock, like a better National or something) both put on some great sets so the mood was right, and Akron/Family came in and set up, introduced themselves as the great Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (no Riverbottom Nightmare Band?) and DAMN. Yeah, they killed it. I’m still tired from getting in late last night so the words aren’t really around, but even if you didn’t know a note from these folks, bring your earplugs and get there and go to town. Most energized crowd I’ve seen in nonstop dance mode for a ‘rock’ band as described since probably the New Fast Automatic Daffodils — and that was seventeen years ago.

What was most interesting to me wasn’t their vaunted and successful sense of getting the crowd going with singalongs and handclaps and direct participation without having to do any sort of “C’MON LET’S SEE THOSE HANDS!” hoohah (Dave Gahan is the only one I’ll allow that from). It’s not like they involved call-and-response, after all (and they would never claim to have). Instead, it really was all about the jaw-dropping fluidity with which the band performs and slips and moves from mode to mode, style to style, without making it seem clunky or forced. At the risk of damning with faint praise, at a couple of points I thought “This would be what the Arcade Fire might be like if I liked them,” ie able to be successful at uplifting energy transformed outward — a more apt comparison to my mind came later, namely that they might actually approach prime Boredoms instead. (And I thought this before I met Sam from KUCI wearing his Boredoms shirt.)

Anyway, took photos of all three bands, quietly crouched near the fan and the front door (the Echo Curio can and does overheat just by default, so I’ve learned to trust my comfort levels), and my set of Akron/Family photos is here. A lot of murk of course but there were a few shots that stood out for me:

A kind of blue Miles

A little off-kilter

Caught in the light

Dance, dance, dance

Good stuff. Great band. And Miles and Seth were extremely polite and cool fellows when I chatted with them briefly. Yeah, see ‘em. (And see Vampire Hands and Chapa too — the former are currently going up the coast with their tour and they’re all real friendly dudes, so introduce yourselves!)

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