Saturday, September 09, 2006

 

Thanks to the efforts of Joseph Mosconi, the Gmail mail-abuse team & several friends who actually forwarded old emails to prove I had been using the i.d., I’ve finally gotten my email address back! Now all I have to do is wade through 1200 emails . . . .

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The September issue of Brooklyn Rail – that name always makes me think of the bird, not the train – is online with lots of goodies well worth reading. From Charles Bernstein telling Bob Dylan to grow up to Bill Corbett reviewing the collected poems of Anne Porter, to Ionesco to Sylvere Lotringer to poetry by Ravi Shankar (the poet, not Norah Jones’ daddy).

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The impact of the web on poetry, as seen from down under.

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First Cody’s closed its Telegraph Avenue store in Berkeley. Now it is becoming part of the Yohan book chain of Tokyo.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

 

Listening to Modern Times, the new album by Bob Dylan, two different & competing thoughts pop into my mind. The first is that the sound is very much of a piece with his last two studio albums, 1997’s Time Out of Mind & Love and Theft, released on, of all dates, September 11, 2001. At ten years, this is the longest that the 65-year-old folk/rock chameleon has retained anything like the same aural presence. When one thinks of the multiple personalities Dylan inhabited during the 1960s – folk troubadour (Bob Dylan, most of Freewheelin’), protest singer (The Times They Are A-Changin), surreal balladeer (Another Side of Bob Dylan), inventor of folk-rock (Highway 61 Revisited), reclusive collaborator (John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes), & country crooner (Nashville Skyline), the sheer continuity of Dylan’s current renaissance is worth noting. You can hear (and see) a snatch of the music on, of all things, this iPod commercial.

The second is that this album contains Dylan’s very best band since … not The Band, but in fact the Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band, which accompanied Dylan first on the infamous electric betrayal at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, playing “Maggie’s Farm.” You can hear them on the soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, where they sound tremendous. The late Michael Bloomfield, the great rich white kid blues guitarist of the ‘60s, lead guitarist for the Butterfield group, proved essential to the sound of Highway 61 Revisited, the one album more than any other that sealed Dylan’s reputation as the most creative rock musician in the genre’s most creative period.

Modern Times uses only one musician, bassist Tony Garnier, who shows up on either of the two previous studio albums & it’s true that Garnier’s work is as central to defining Dylan’s current sound as Bloomfield was then. The Butterfield band, the loudest group I’ve ever heard in person (a concert at UC Berkeley in 1965 or '66), wasn’t the first of the successful white blues acts of the 1960s – Koerner, Glover & Ray were the big musical act in the Twin Cities back with Robert Zimmerman first dropped out of the U. of Minnesota, “borrowed” a bunch of Glover’s LPs and began to refashion himself into Bob Dylan. And, in point of fact, the Butterfield band wasn’t all white either, including during its best years two veterans of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Jerome Arnold & Sam Lay, as well as harmonica master & singer Butterfield, organist Mark Naftalin & bassist Elvin Bishop.

Where Koerner, Glover & Ray were masters of miming the sound of acoustic delta blues, the Butterfield band hued much closer to their own Chicago roots & the electrified urban blues pioneered there by Muddy Waters (whose earlier Alan Lomax recording back in the delta is well worth listening to, just to get a sense of where he was coming from), Wolf, Otis Spann & Buddy Miles. If the very first rock-n-roll tune ever recorded was Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Cross Road Blues,” the Butterfield band 30 years later represents the first clear moment when rock & blues clearly are no longer two separate genres. From Eric Clapton to the North Mississippi All-Stars, the influence of the Butterfield band has continued much further than the band itself. After two hit albums, the first simply entitled The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the second East-West, the band’s make-up changed &, with it, the sound that had proven so effective both for Dylan & the band itself.

It’s interesting, sad even, that Dylan never made a record with the Butterfield band during its short-lived heyday in the mid-1960s. The Band, originally the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band, didn’t really gel on their own until Big Pink, their debut album. While they were the touring band behind Dylan during the Blonde on Blonde period, they aren’t the band he recorded with until 1974’s Before the Flood, not Dylan’s finest work. The Basement Tapes of course emerged a year later, after nearly a decade as one of the most widely distributed bootlegs ever made, but it’s clear there that these are musicians jamming. The unfinished sound of so many songs on that collection, tho, is an essential part of its charm.

Dylan’s approach to his bands often feels as tenuous as that of Chuck Berry, who is notorious for playing gigs around the country & simply presuming that whatever band the promoter hires will know his work & be able to follow along. Dylan at least has had a tendency to hold onto his bassists & keyboard players for longer periods (Charlie McCoy & Al Kooper being two examples from the early years), as tho these were the keys to his sound.

But it feels strange to think of Dylan’s 44th album as finally being the one in which he gets the backup band right. It lends his current sound, which is at once both cynical & nostalgic, retro &, for a balladeer, still restlessly innovative, all at once, a depth his work hasn’t held before. How very curious.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

 

“Don’t tell the secret,” admonish the ads for The Illusionist. Which it may in fact be, if you don’t notice the actor (or character) who appears in two separate roles (or guises), which is to say if you watch this film passively & inert. That may be what director Neil Burger (Interview with The Assassin) expects. It would explain why, for example, he chose to build this film around two strong actors, Edward Norton in the title role & Paul Giamatti, neither of whom is even remotely credible as a turn-of-the-last-century Middle European, and an actress, Jessica Biel, whose wooden performance would have been an embarrassment in a high school play. Norton & Giamatti, tho, are fabulous, especially the latter, & reason enough to pay the exorbitant sum to catch this bon-bon before it descends to Netflix.

We’re in an age when men with character-actor skills & range (Depp, Penn, Cheadle, Bill Murray, Tommy Lee Jones, Macy & Spacey in addition to these two) get to take on leading roles, which means that, for male actors at least, this is an exceptional moment. Not that we haven’t seen this occasionally in the past, from Orson Welles to Jack Nicholson (I’d include the early DeNiro, before he started mailing in every performance), but all too often these have been exceptions while most of the leading roles have gone to good looking stiffs, from Rock Hudson to Robert Redford to Paul Newman to Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck & Brad Pitt. That’s a world in which Harry Ford could legitimately claim he’s deserved an Oscar (especially for The Fugitive), but thank heavens for the likes of Robert Duvall & Terrence Howard.

Occasionally one of these actors will have a leading man’s looks, like Depp, Norton, Matt Dillon or Samuel L. Jackson, but that can be a distraction. It would not take much editing to turn Giamatti’s police inspector into the leading role in The Illusionist, even tho Norton has the title role. Giamatti makes every scene a work of art & the climactic collage scene at the end turns entirely on his eyes & the corners of his mouth – that is the true secret of The Illusionist.

In retrospect, it’s interesting to think of The Lord of the Rings as centering on a character actor, Elijah Wood, surrounded in part by two Leading Stiffs in Viggo Mortensen & Orlando Bloom, tho Bloom hadn’t done anything as an actor yet & Mortensen used his role as Aragorn to transform himself from a film heavy into a leading man. (Robert Mitchum may have been the last man to have pulled that off, tho Humphrey Bogart is sort of the icon of the move.) One of the conundra confronting the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is that director Gore Verbinski doesn’t seem to know how to balance Depp’s o’er-the-top style with Bloom’s earnest-but-affectless acting. What a shame Verbinski doesn’t have the sense or skill to play these two very different models of what theater might be off of one another!

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

 

The third season of Project Runway (PR) has whittled a particularly inchoate initial group of would-be fashion designers into a more cohesive, if not tight, group of six, four men & two women. If talent alone were the judge, the final three who will get to present at this fall’s Fashion Week will be two women & an African-American male. And if talent alone is the determining factor, PR will have its first black champion in Michael Knight, a Montgomery, Alabama designer now living in Atlanta, completing a perfect trifecta of unlikely winners in the clubby, coterie-driven world of NY glamour, having already had a rural eccentric, Jay McCarroll, right out of a Jonathan Williams poem, and former Vietnamese boat person, Chloe Dao, who had in fact already baled on her attempt at the NY scene & has a boutique now in Houston, the city in which she, her seven sisters & her parents all live. Michael Knight is a quiet, positive guy who doesn’t trash his fellow designers & promises his mother that he will pray every night, not one drop of irony in his voice. His style might be characterized as soft hip-hop, but his primary assets are a terrific eye, a good mind, and solid experience fitting clothes on human beings.

But this being reality TV – even reality TV at its best – talent alone is unlikely to determine the final trio of contestants, since one of the narrative imperatives of the genre is that The Villain must reach the finals. This season’s villain, Jeffrey Sebelia, interestingly enough is a personal friend of second season baddy, the self-proclaimed great Santino Rice. Like Rice, Jeffrey is a veteran of the LA music scene, designing clothes, primarily jackets, for the likes of Marilyn Manson & Steve Tyler. Also like Santino, Jeffrey is instantly recognizable by his style, in the current case a ring of textual fragments (the largest word is “Detroit”) tattooed around his very long neck. And, again like Santino, Jeffrey has been through the school of hard knocks, being both a recovering alcoholic & heroin addict. But where Santino was a good, if never subtle, designer, Jeffrey is uneven at best, and not terribly adept at the craft details that are essential tools of this trade. And where Santino’s grandiose personality made for great TV, Jeffrey is just a jerk.

In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be the bad guy this season at all, that role having earlier been assigned to a much more talented & interesting character, Keith Michael, whose classy designs were overshadowed only by his own infinite self-regard. Unfortunately for the series, Keith, who had never designed women’s wear before, was also (surprise!) deeply insecure & was caught using prohibited resources to overcome his lack of experience. As a result, he was sent packing & several of the remaining contestants stepped up their arrogance in an attempt to gain the curiously coveted slot of Most Despicable Wannabe.

Jeffrey, tho, sealed the deal by taking some huge risks in verbally assaulting the mother of one of the other challengers, Angela Keslar, in a show for which mothers & sisters of the contestants were brought in as models for a “designing for the everyday woman” theme. Jeffrey had no clue what to do with this short, plus-sized Midwesterner & listening to what she wanted certainly wasn’t in his game plan. When his design for a layered dark dress began to go awry – and it was dreadful – he blamed the mother, telling her at one point – to the amazement of the other designers – that he objected to her “even being here.” Having reduced the woman to tears he barely survived that week’s challenge only because one of the contestants perennially on the edge of elimination, Robert Best, made his plus-sized model look like a giant over-ripe tomato.

The two other contestants who ought to make the finals are Laura Bennett, a 42-year-old architect & mother of five (plus pregnant with numero seis), whose advice to career women who want to have families is “never dress down,” and Uli Herzner, a German born (and speaking) Miami resident who is a master with prints and color. Both women are competent & at least moderately distinctive in their style, but neither strikes me as exceptional. Laura exudes competence – she would be a competent surgeon or pilot, competence is literally what she does. But her style is bland but elegant & her intuition is for women much like herself, professionals over 40. The somewhat younger Uli is more of a free spirit & her sense of color can be bold. But her range is quite narrow. Every successful garment she has made has been a variation on a narrow theme.

By comparison, Michael has repeatedly demonstrated a great sense of design & deft competence at the craft skills necessary to the trade. More than any other designer, you can see in him all the ways in which clothing design is every bit as much an art form as it is pure commerce. Twice thus far, Knight has made major last-minute revisions at the suggestion of Parsons School director Tim Gunn, who mentors the challengers, and both times come up with terrific results. One challenge he won – Knight is the only designer to have won two consecutive challenges this season – and the other he deserved to win. I suspect that the only reason he didn’t was – not racism, but the show’s narrative need to give Jeffrey one victory now that the season has trimmed the contestants down to just six. The same was true one week earlier when Vincent Libretti, a geeky 49-year-old and the show’s first married man in three seasons (whose signature is a pair of glasses with frames thick enough to embarrass Clark Kent), won a contest I suspect just to keep Michael from winning three straight & sapping the season of its narrative suspense.

In effect, Michael has been the best designer four weeks in a row now. More than any other single designer in PR’s three seasons, he is in a completely different league than his competitors. Tho he won one week, Vincent is a surprisingly weak challenger to have reached the final six. One might say the same for Kayne Gillaspie, the Oklahoma “white-trash” (his term) former fatty – he once weighed over 300 lbs – who has gotten this far almost entirely on chutzpah & niceness, but whose sense of taste is the design equivalent of Elvis black-velvet paintings.

So I expect that Vincent & Kayne are goners, one tonight, one next Wednesday, which leaves us with Michael, Jeffrey, Laura & Uli. One of the narrative sleights of PR is that, in order to keep people from knowing the final three in advance, the last four contestants all get to show at Fashion Week, tho only three are then broadcast on the series on Bravo (the fourth place finisher of the first season, Austin Scarlet, apparently made great use of this opportunity, pushing his career ahead faster than eventual champion McCarroll). I have no clue who will be in that unlucky fourth spot this year, tho I fear it will be Uli or Laura, when in fact Angela & Alison Kelly, both already eliminated, are stronger designers than Kayne, Vincent or Jeffrey.

They’ve gone, I suspect, because the show is so heavily marketed to a gay male audience – the show has yet to mention Vincent’s family! Still, this may be the only show in all of reality TV that takes genuinely talented individuals & then focuses on their creativity as one determining factor as to who wins. Some of its key recurring personalities – including supermodel-host Heidi Klum, the exact combination of Lolita & the Marquis de Sade, with her chirpy auf wieder sehn to each contestant as they’re eliminated, and the elder-preppy Tim Gunn (his signature phrases are make it work and carry on), are perfect for the show, and, if it’s hard to ignore what a dummy “top designer” Michael Kors is – also what a mediocre designer – it’s a small price to pay for the best running narrative on television. Now if the show could just free itself of some of the genre’s clichés. It could starting by auf’ing Jeffrey tonight.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

 

Of the 30 books I took with me to the shore last week – not that I ever once got out onto the sand, let alone into the surf – none proved more startling, more unexpected (by me, anyway) than Laura Elricks’s Fantasies in Permeable Structures, from Factory School, part of William Marsh’s mostly superb Heretical Texts series. Perhaps this is because I knew her work less well than I did many of the other authors whose book I brought – Waldrop, Coolidge, DuPlessis, Brossard, Kerouac, Gizzi, Howe, Ward – but it also certainly is due to the power of Elrick’s ear, which is inescapable:

That far the science takes us.  Then, passions
cloaked dispassionately as fact in hallowed
states that bloat the few we feign elect.
By sense described or indescribable
By motives jealous or afeared in fact intent
upon stability.
 Upon security.  Even wildness
feeds the stabling grace.  Distortion.   Saving
us to slink away from what we fear:
our fears we cannot.   Few can brave that light
few unbroken before the awful power of
our labor.   As on that day some friends came
upon us, graciously, even in their
motived kindness.   Though some will scoff
Shy away from that which forms and that
is not principles, but radical, what’s based on
virtuous neutrality.   Yet by others

friendship raised falsely to pious heights
in their annals, already dead.  Smiles
in bodies enshrining sober system Static
boyish institution in gauzes of care.

Bump up, my love, is what we cherish close.
Bump up’s the trait of fierce kind argued
but changeable (not as alchemical essence)
but in relation to the world’s moving
junctures lived.   This immediate
abstraction.
  No beneficent nature
here but needy storms of action and
complacency Blue with envy Green
with shame Gray-with-Gray embrangled
hues speaking through us on to whole bodies
expendable bodies, exchanged deployed
and all exterior in motives of their      own

There are moments in this text that are simply knock-down powerful, from that second sentence to the flood of iambs to the word embrangled. Throughout there is the compression of language one associates with the best of poetry, from Zukofsky to Shakespeare to Olson to Jarnot & Moxley. I find it impossible to read this poem silently, true also for the 31 other pieces in this slim, gorgeous book.

There’s one trick here, tho, an element of page design that may or may not be occluding an aspect of the text. Each of these poems appears over two pages (verso & recto, so that you can never actually see the whole poem at once), broken thus into two 16-line stanzas. Elrick however describes her text differently in a brief prefatory note:

Written in 32 sections of 32 lines (throughout my 32nd years), I have begun to sense that each “fantasy” acts as a conceptual anagram of the selves through which the plotted language of institutions permeates.

So possibly each section is a single unbroken stanza (thus perhaps closer in affect to Moxley than this Hejinianesque structure might imply). Either way, this is tremendous writing & makes me want to blather on with a big heap o’ superlatives. But instead, I’ll just offer this: you need to read this book. Aloud.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

 

I was born in Pasco, Washington, one of three towns that form the Tri-Cities region along the southern border of that state. The other two are Kennewick, where my grandfather was the mayor for a time and where my cousins still run the Farmer’s Exchange, tho I hear it tends as much to the gardening needs of engineers as it does to farmers these days. The engineers all work in Richland, home of the Hanford Site, the nuclear facility first used to construct the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. That is the subject of this chilling tale in today’s Los Angeles Times. Clean up of this site is only 20 years behind schedule.

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

 

I have had to sing this song before, alas. Somebody has captured my Gmail account, changed the password and the security question. Until I can get someone at Gmail or at Google security to rectify this situation, my email address is rsillima AT yahoo DOT com. And if you have sent me an email in the past week, please resend it to that address. If you have any outstanding business with me, please send me a tickler at that address, just so I don't lose an important thread.

And if you work at Google or one of its divisions - some of my readers seem to do so - please let me know if you can help with this.

Thanks!

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