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Monday, Jan 14, 2008


Life. Death. Love. Hate. Family. Friends. Art. Artifice. These are the stalwarts of human existence.  They are the boundaries by which we analyze and legitimize our lives. They are the personality benchmarks, the tactile reflections of our existential image. We embrace most. We avoid others - either purposefully or indirectly - and yet when it comes right down to it, the basis of every individual is figuring out how to deal with these facets and their inate eternal struggle. Media has always played a part in this dissection, from epic poems and the days of Greek theater to novels, television, and motion pictures. But no one has really captured the essence of these competing elements - until now.


Avant-godhead Giuseppe Andrews has created a near 200 minutes masterwork of pain, passion, and perversion. Labeled The Americano Trilogy, it stands as one of cinema’s greatest accounts of that humble state known as humanity. Actually, Andrews has made three amazing movies, linked thematically by their desire to delve deep into the heart of what makes us tick. Consisting of the wedding farce Golden Embers, the relationship lunacy of Holiday Weekend, and the demented death meditation Everlasting Pine, we see the same actors essaying different characters, acting out frequently incongruent plots. But taken together, these films become a perfect satiric amalgamation of everything our society sits on.



When we first meet the characters from Golden Embers, they are people in transition. One is a bride to be, hoping her ex-addict brother can stay sober long enough to walk her down the aisle. The sibling is a sexually obsessed dope fiend, desperate for any kind of psychosexual release - and lots of wacky white powder. Locked up in a hotel room, freebasing his sordid memories and many erotic needs, he slowly comes unglued. Soon, we are witnessing rampant mood swings, murderous hallucinations, and the world’s most misguided nuptials, complete with dancing.


As Giuseppe Andrews movies go, Golden Embers is almost a one man show. Miles Dougal gives an amazing, tour de force performance as a man awkwardly coming to grips with losing his baby sister. Riddled with guilt over something from his past, and replacing the loss with unspeakable acts of self-indulgence, this is a David Lynch drama on badly cut cocaine. During the course of his motor lodge madness, Dougal speaks to angels, a defiant version of himself, and various real (and imaginary) drug dealers. We see snippets of a dream, a non-nightmare of sorts where our harried hero believes his is trying to slay his sibling. Of course, this all leads back to abandonment issues, and Dougal’s desire to crawl back into the carnal comforts of the womb - any womb.


This is the first indication that Andrews can draw beyond the trailer park for his squalid slices of life. We barely visit the tornado magnets of previous epics as beach settings, backyards and other real world locales get the savant surreality treatment. As usual, the director finds freakish faces to realize his most vivid fever day dreams, and along with long time collaborators Vietnam Ron and Walt Dongo, we are introduced to Tommy Salami, Ed, and the amazing Elaine Bongos. All these new people provide a window into the fresh way Andrews is working. Even the standard scatology that comes with the territory is metered out in a far more humorous and heart-wrenching fashion. 



Because it is a middle act, the narrative driving Holiday Weekend is centered on people and how they relate to each other. A young couple quibbles over an impulsive decision to steal a coffee machine, while the victimized pair sans Sanka plays an unusual game of affection and abuse. A young man with werewolf-ism moves in with a fledgling songwriter, while elsewhere, an injured individual with Tourettes seeks council from a high priced lawyer. All the while, some elderly homosexual lovers reunite, dancing to celebrate the rekindling of their long dormant love.


Referencing Mr. Eraserhead once again, and giving us his spin on spirituality and the afterlife, Holiday Weekend is like several smart sketches that add up to one indelible portrait. We are definitely dealing with the standard relationship conceits - anger and codependency, trust and its violation, acceptance and forgiveness, and realizing that love has no prejudice, no pride, and no presumptions. In between trips to a hotel bathroom (which acts as a way station of sorts for God’s judgmental wrath) and another Dougal rant as the victim of some loose cobblestones, Andrews offers up insights into a world we all know, but dare not acknowledge. Even the more fanciful element - a man who suffers from a paranormal problem, a killer automaton - can be boiled down to issues of personal space and its disturbing violation.


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this story is the coffee maker-less couple. She’s a clean freak, locked in cycles of endless scrubbing and scouring. He’s an ox like ogre, a bully bent on getting his way with his fists and a facile sense of sensitivity. Of the three amazing films, this is the best written. Andrews’ dialogue jumps off the screen, offering memorable bits like the scene where an old man declares his lust for his 80-plus year old paramour, web tech dissections, and more grade-A porn poetry. Clearly, Andrews is exploring the theme of outside manipulation - either by a so-called Supreme Being, or a deranged mad scientist who builds a remote controlled robot bent on killing. We are supposed to see that all life is driven by unseen forces, things we can’t anticipate or expect.



In makes a perfect tie-in to the final film. In Everlasting Pine, a famed composer is having problems with his wife. She’s still vital and alive, seeking occasional sexual congress from a new age Yoga guru. He, on the other hand, is moody and temperamental, lost in a world of ritualistic habits and dark obsessions. When he is commissioned by a friend to write a requiem for his dead father, the same old feelings flare up. When the cuckold learns of the price his problems have wrought, he sees only one violent way out.


Focusing on a single person once again (Vietnam Ron is spectacular as the screwed up musician) and using his plight as a frame of reference for all the other issues in the story, Andrews brings his triptych to a close in brilliant fashion. Contentment, and its lack of curative properties propel this story, as we see one man (Dongo’s yoga master) requiring sex to fill in the gaps missing in his spiritual quest, while Ron’s composer can’t abide by much except coffee and the occasional roll in the sack. Both men are viewed as masters of their domain, capable of great and glorious things. But when you remove the pretense of fame, when you take away what they’ve done in the past for what they’re responsible for now, it seems like charlatanism meshed with good old fashioned flim flam.


Andrews again fleshes out his supporting roles by including newcomer Ed (a guitar virtuoso who has collaborated with the writer/director on several of his amazing CDs) and the plain speaking Salami. It’s important to note that the filmmakers personal flame, the intriguing Marybeth Spychalski handles the main female roles in each story, and her voice of reason vibrancy matched with her uncanny ability to blend with her clearly amateur costars turn her into an instant source of audience access. Indeed, what many may wonder about the work of Giuseppe Andrews is, given its source, its structure, its star power, and its frequent bouts of strangeness, how accessible can it really be? Thanks to Spychalski, and her beau’s ability behind the typewriter, lens, and portable recording studio, the answer is self-evident. You’ll have to work a little - these are interactive films by inherent definition - but your efforts will be rewarded over and over again.



Indeed, like all his work, Andrews’ Americano Trilogy is a mesmerizing triumph. It’s not car wreck compelling or freak show undeniable. Instead, these films easily transcend their oddball obviousness to become canvases in a gallery of mankind’s many individual incarnations. We see ourselves here, even if the conversation is centering around various references to female genitalia and not how this month’s budget will get balanced. For every whiff of authenticity, Andrews tosses in awkward moments of undeniable art. It’s there when an over the hill whore strips naked and lets her sags show. It’s present in an acting performance that damns the standard torpedoes and piles on the scenery chewing splendor. It’s buried inside the insular references, and it’s lost amid incomplete line readings and on camera nerves.


Currently only available on Andrews’ personal website (www.giuseppeandrews.net) Americano masks the horrors of everyday living by turning the twisted into the tame, the grotesque into the gorgeous. There will be some small minded movie fans that look at what is accomplished here as nothing more than hackneyed home movies made by a supposedly talented Hollywood himbo and a group of his marginalized Sterno-fueled friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. In an era where ability is finally being met by machinery, Golden Embers, Holiday Weekend, and Everlasting Pine are the films the New Wave would have made had they not had state sponsored studios staring over their shoulder. They’re the true post-modern efforts the ‘70s just couldn’t touch. All revolution is part freedom, part fear. Get rid of the dread and you’ll discover the jaundiced joys awaiting you in this terrific trio.


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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

While I’m grateful to PopMatters for publishing my list of Best Music Scribing, I wanna note another place that’s toasting writers and publications now.  Music Press Report just gave out their own set of awards.  As editor CJ Chilvers told me, “Many participated in the nominations, but only a few hundred actual went to the ballots - which is how I wanted it. I didn’t want anyone to spam the voting, so I really limited who could vote and how.”  Nice to see more writers/pubs getting toasted as they get so much bad news otherwise nowadays and most of the general journalism awards rarely note music criticism, which is a shame. 


And though I’m weary/leery of polls, I also want to note another music one that doesn’t have the same winners you’ll necessarily see in Pazz/Jop and Idolator.  Blues Critic ran its own readers poll with J. Blackfoot, Latimore and William Bell getting their due, which you won’t find in many other polls nowadays.


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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

Last year, Slate business columnist Daniel Gross wrote a book called Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy. Needless to say, this doesn’t seem such a great title given our current economic climate and the growing sense even among people who aren’t business-news junkies that the burst real estate bubble will cause a lot of economic misery for all of us. You don’t have to read WSJ to notice the alarming depreciation of your retirement savings, as stocks have lost a huge chunk of their value in recent weeks. And you don’t have to be on a Bloomberg terminal to notice how expensive food and gas are becoming, or to notice how certain neighbors are failing to keep up on their home maintenance, or are even around anymore. No wonder consumer confidence is battered. Though Gross is a bit tongue-in-cheek in celebrating bubbles (as if this was a job he had taken on assignment) his assessment of the impact of the then-not-fully-popped housing bubble seems a touch short-sighted: “So far its salutary effects include the creation of a huge number of jobs and the inflow of investment into long-neglected urban areas.” That was true at the time, but now those jobs are vanishing, and blight is returning to those areas in the form of foreclosures.


Obviously, bubbles cause inflated asset prices, which eventually come back to earth, painfully, leaving a giant crater that causes all sorts of collateral damage. But some of Gross’s points about the origin of bubbles (government subsidies and favorable legislation) and their upside can’t be dismissed: Some of the paper assets created during the frenzy do spur real infrastructure investment, as with the build out of fiber-optic networks that are only now paying dividends with the advent of “cloud computing.” And past bubbles promoted widespread shifts in the way ordinary people work, travel, or communicate. In short, bubbles built the railroad and the information superhighway. Gross also argues bubbles build a “mental infrastructure” for comprehending new technological possibilities, new ways of doing business. The “creative destruction” enacted by the inflation and subsequent undoing of bubbles is presumably a small price to pay for progress. Indeed, by highlighting alternative energy as the next big investment boom, Gross suggests that bubbles will save us all from global warming.


In the most recent Harper’s former VC honcho Eric Janszen puts an apocalyptic spin on this thesis, claiming that the American economy has replaced the business cycle, the bugaboo of economies past, with a hyperaccelerated bubble cycle. Along with this shift, what are sometimes called the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) have supplanted traditional manufacturing as America’s economic base. Now that the housing bubble has popped, these industries are in grave trouble, and the usual remedies—rate cutting, currency deflation, tax cuts, an influx of foreign investment (think, sovereign wealth funds buying into U.S. banks)—are not so easily implemented when interest and tax rates are already low and inflation is rising and foreigners are filled to the brim with dollar-denominated assets. Hence we need a new bubble to bail us out, and Janszen too points to alternative energy. But rather than highlight the infrastructure and paradigm-shifting legacy such a bubble would supply, he directs our attention to the “$20 trillion in speculative wealth, money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver ‘energy security.’ When the bubble finally bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry. FIRE, meanwhile, will already be engineering its next opportunity.” In other words, the middlemen create fictitious value while extracting real profits for themselves, and then let government step in and clean up the mess when the fictions are revealed.


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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

While Katherine Heigl and Nikki Blonksy moan that no Golden Globes party means no excuse for a girly dress-up day, I remain annoyed that we’ve never seen a glitzy, televised event celebrating books and their authors. Who wouldn’t want to see Walter Kirn negotiating the red carpet? Or Susan Faludi gabbing about jewels with Joan Rivers? Alas, the loss the stars suffered on Sunday, forced to stay at home, is something we book lovers are well used to. It was weird, actually, searching the ‘net for Golden Globe winners like a scavenger trying to find out who won the Giller Prize. (It was Elizabeth Hay and she won for Late Nights on Air.)


If book awards need glitz, then the National Book Critics Awards has some to share—I believe winners get a gold sticker on their dust jackets. Nominees were announced this week. Winners will be announced March 6.


Fiction
Joyce Carol Oates for The Gravedigger’s Daughter
Vikram Chandra for Sacred Games
Junot Diaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hisham Matar for In the Country of Men
Marianne Wiggins for The Shadow Catcher


Nonfiction:
Philip Gura for American Transcendentalism
Daniel Walker Howe for What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848
Harriet Washington for Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present
Tim Weiner for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
Alan Weisman for The World Without Us


Biography:
Tim Jeal for Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer
Hermione Lee for Edith Wharton
Arnold Rampersad for Ralph Ellison
John Richardson for A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932
Claire Tomalin for Thomas Hardy


Autobiography:
Joshua Clark for Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone
Edwidge Danticat for Brother, I’m Dying
Sara Paretsky for Writing in an Age of Silence
Anna Politkovskaya for Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia
Joyce Carol Oates for The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973-1982


Poetry:
Mary Jo Bang for Elegy
Matthea Harvey for Modern Life
Michael O’Brien for Sleeping and Waking
Tom Pickard for The Ballad of Jamie Allan
Tadeusz Rozewicz for New Poems


Criticism:
Joan Acocella for Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints
(Re:Print favourite) Julia Alvarez for Once Upon a Quinceanera
Susan Faludi for The Terror Dream
Ben Ratliff for Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
Alex Ross for The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Reviewing:
Brooke Allen
Ron Charles
Walter Kirn
Adam Kirsch


The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Emilie Buchwald, writer, editor and publisher of Milkweed Editions.


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Sunday, Jan 13, 2008


Has there ever been a case where such a seismic cinematic shift has occurred in such a surreal, almost otherworldly setting? Who could have imagined that the very fabric of film could be disassembled and stitched back together within the retired/repatriated citizenry of a trailer park? Is it at all conceivable that an actor, best noted for his work in genre films like Independence Day and Cabin Fever, would end up being the Neo-No-New Wave genius of his generation, the voice of the so-called bridesmaid, never the bride, digital revolution? The answer to these and a myriad of similar motion picture predicaments arrives in the form of musician/madman/monarch Giuseppe Andrews. Long an icon for those who appreciate his outsider oeuvre, the 28 year old auteur has amassed a creative catalog so important that it’s only a matter of time before he’s declared the most important filmmaker of the last decade.


For this novel real-realist, this Godard a go-go, the whole world is a soundstage. No subject is too scatological or scandalous, no actor to amateurish or aged. His is a universe where septuagenarian sex is as prevalent as vacationing cows, where silly songs about love and bananas become the perfect panacea for individual aches and pains. Initially supported by Troma (who continues to promise a bountiful box set of the man’s work), but now forging a aesthetic path all his own (via the website giuseppeandrews.net), Andrews is angling to prove that art can be found - and better yet, formed - out of the most unusual, mundane, and downright degrading elements of society. At the same time, he is restoring dignity to a marginalized group of people who’ve long since lost touch with the rest of the communal countenance. 


By now, the background is legendary. Drafting insanely intricate scripts filled with curse words and outrageously erotic innuendo, Andrews would seek out willing participants in his local trailer park (where he himself lived) and videotape them reading his words. Sans much action and very little conversational context, these specifically designed dialogues became treatises on disenfranchisement and depression. Highlighted initially by the amazing cantankerousness of Bill Nolan, these first films were part of something that should be subtitled “the last angry old man” movement. Blue, brave, and undeniably ballsy, Andrews’ cinematic statements avoided the stock elements we’ve come to expect from depictions of the public periphery. Instead, he simply made his characters back into what they originally were - real men and women.



Like the famed filmmakers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Andrews ignored the standards of regular motion pictures to find a new means of expression. He concocted elaborate scores filled with his own amazing music, tunes that took the inert dramatics they supplemented and turned them into a sublime symphony of the human spirit. He used nudity as an equalizing, offered racism and the reactionary as part of both the problem and the solution. In Andrews’ view, white could play black, old could act young, and the most down and out of his complex company could become pure poetic pop stars. Nolan was the first of these found icons. The remarkable Vietnam Ron, the always evocative Tyree, and new sensation Elaine Bongos soon followed. They never come across as pawns, however. While part of Andrews’ plan, he keeps them real, and recognizable, no matter the dreamlike scenarios involved.


That’s part of the joy in an Andrews’ film - and its part of the reason to champion his continued output. As he’s aged, as his work has gone from straightforward script reading to more character-based interaction, the writer/director has elevated his game. He’s moved beyond the walls of those junked double-wides and RVs to hotel rooms and sunny backyards. His heart remains locked in the marginalized and underappreciated, but he’s willing to experiment with his unfathomable formula, instead trying to connect his cast in ways both weird and world-weary. Some may see the senior citizen nakedness, the hints at old folk’s homosexuality, the implied misuse of personal problems and borderline dementia and start screaming for social services. But there is no exploitation in Andrews. Instead, there is only admiration - even reverence - for what these noble exiles stand for.



More importantly, he’s shaking up cinema. He’s taking the tired blockbuster high concept crap that gets hurled out of Hollywood faster than a fame whore on TMZ and removes its over-processed shell. Even better, he’s triumphantly outed the self-indulgent dung that purports to be independent film by showing the shoe-gazing novices what real free thinking cinema is all about. He is literally rewriting the rules, doing what predecessors like Godard, Truffaut, and Cabrol did, and yet he’s found a decidedly American bent to the debunking. By using the trailer park, the last bastion of post-colonial wanderlust, he’s merged the symbolic with the substandard, the non-redneck version of liberated living combined with the typical tawdriness one would find in the slicker suburbs.


He is a true social commentator, a man making the most of what celebrity and found artistry can contain. While continuing to maintain his status as a Tinsel Town talent (he was recently seen in the excellent experimental film from pal/supporter Adam Rifkin, Look), he maintains a staunch personal work ethic. Over the last year or so, he’s release several sensational homemade CDs (all are recommended, as Andrews is a very, very talented songwriter and musician) and he’s used newfound friends Miles Dougal, Wally Lavern, Sir George Bigfoot, and Ed to further flesh out his freakiness. Perhaps most importantly, gal pal/significant other Marybeth Spychalski provides a kind of simpatico muse to make the madness go down soft and easy. Her work in the Americano Trilogy alone makes her the Bardot to Andrews’ jaunty Jean -Luc.



Over the next three days, Short Ends and Leader will be celebrating the unique vision of this equally idiosyncratic artist by getting fans and the unfamiliar up to date with the latest Andrews offerings. We will dissect the Short Cuts like Americano, explain the ‘Meat is Murder’ slant of the sensational Garbanzo Gas, uncover the filmmakers most heartfelt examination of the trailer park ever (the 17 minute masterwork Cat Piss), and revisit as much of the man’s canon as possible, including a countdown of past opuses and a look at what is waiting in the wings. Along the way, we will ascertain hidden gems, joke about the filmmaker’s fashion sense, and wonder what lycanthropy, icantthankyouenough.com, and a wind up sex novelty have to do with this awkward American life.



Still, talking about the work of Giuseppe Andrews does not do this masterful moviemaker justice. Instead, his films need to be experienced and savored, studied like an archeological find from the past and positioned as the powerful new voice of a raw, futuristic, and subversive cinema. When established filmmakers like Coppola and Tarantino argued that technology would traverse a new creative manner, it is Andrews who they were obviously referring to. While others are trying to tame the digital realm, making it mimic the very establishment stance they should be avoiding, efforts like Trailer Town and Touch Me in the Morning are raging against the machine - and winning. When the wave has finally crested and broken, a lot of time wasting wannabes will be washed away. But Andrews will remain standing. It’s how any true innovator usually winds up.


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