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Friday, May 30, 2008
Armageddon in Retrospectby Kurt VonnegutPenguinApril 2008, 240 pages, $24.95

Armageddon in Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut
Penguin
April 2008, 240 pages, $24.95


And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was a friend of mine. Not that I ever met him, but he was a friend of mine all the same, because he did for me what friends do. He got me through rough patches of my life with his absurd humor and simple decency. When no one else’s words seemed to offer me anything, his were always there. Reading Vonnegut, I could always hear a voice, feel a human presence beyond mere style, beyond glib wordplay. Kurt Vonnegut was my friend, and your friend too.


Armageddon in Retrospect (Penguin USA, 2008) is a new collection of previously unpublished works by Vonnegut on the one-year anniversary of his death, and while it’s not exactly the treasure-trove his fans might have hoped for, this assortment of essays and short stories on the theme of war is still Vonnegut, and even the least of his works contain amazing stuff.


War was always a preoccupation for Vonnegut, its horrors and pointlessness and capacity to make otherwise rational people behave in nonsensical ways, and these elements are doled out in full and equal measure in this collection. Of particular interest to Vonnegut, and a running theme throughout most of his work, is the issue of capitulation—to what degree do we allow ourselves to be parties to war by doing nothing? In one story Vonnegut envisions a future without conflict, a condition so anathemic to the human condition that time-travel technology is used in order to seek it out. In another, an old couple in a Czechoslovakia freed from Communist rule finds themselves equally persecuted by an American occupying force for not having risen up against the last regime. A family man in Norman England has to choose between a cushy berth as his feudal lord’s tax collector and the example he must set for his son, despite his nattering wife’s excitement over better living through the scraps from the Normans’ table.


The defining moment in Vonnegut’s life was witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Germany as a POW, an experience he attempted to write out through his seminal novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1965), but which provides fodder for several of the stories here. Unlike many posthumous collections, this one doesn’t quite have the feel of the author’s heirs plundering the bottom of a discard trunk, though the absence of any dates assigned to these stories does make one wonder just how long Vonnegut, a shameless anthologizer of his own work, allowed these to gather dust and why. Still, the collection is worth reading for the stories, the inclusion of Vonnegut’s final piece of writing, an address he was about to give at Indiana University when he had the accident that took his life, and son Mark Vonnegut’s eloquent and apt tribute to his father’s life and work. Vonnegut’s best? No. But in a world made the worse for losing Kurt Vonnegut’s voice and spirit, we’ll take what we can get. After all, he was our friend.


Originally published 14 May 2008 at Flagpole.


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Friday, May 30, 2008
Fans can’t be faulted for nostalgia, which begs the unanswerable question: if the gory backstage drama had not pushed them apart, could Veruca Salt have continued to make it work?

Not sure if any band quite captures the waiting-to-exhale extended moment of semi-innocence that was the mid-90s (you know, the post-grunge, post-Reagan/Bush, pre-9/11, pre Bush/Cheney era when casual Fridays were infiltrating offices everywhere and music—as always, for better or worse—reflected the times in a sort of holding pattern that mixed ennui with an always unfashionable optimism) than Veruca Salt.


To recap: what was the appeal of this band? Irresistible melodies? Check. Smoking hot, sexy singers (who also played better than passable guitar)? Check. Utterly ingenious band name? Check. Glorious debut album title? Big check. Most folks recall “Seether”, as well they should; it was their big hit and a truly infectious piece of pop perfection. But as anyone who did—and still does—worship at the altar of American Thighs, it needn’t be belabored that Veruca Salt was most assuredly not a one-hit wonder. Among the better moments, “Forsythia”, “Number One Blind” and especially the almost-too-good-to-be-true “All Hail Me” (how about another shout out to the days when music videos were actually capable of being almost as great as the songs that inspired them?). All in all,  pretty ideal fodder for a one-and-done minor masterpiece.


But the dream was not dead, yet. A tide-us-over EP, Blow It out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt, featuring the delectable “Shimmer Like a Girl”, found Veruca Salt poised for real superstardom—for whatever that’s worth. Their shot at glory came in ’97 with the (once again, brilliantly titled) Eight Arms To Hold You (incidentally, the working title of the Beatles’ album Help!), which had the addictive single “Volcano Girls”. The rest of the album wasn’t terribly shabby, either, but, it seemed (unfairly? impossibly?) their moment had already passed. And so, while the album didn’t do badly, it didn’t quite put them over.


What happened next is truly difficult to believe, particularly if you saw the doe-eyed adoration Louise Post and Nina Gordon obviously had for one another—as late as ’97 during interviews (check out youtube): a combination of bad blood, ambition, stolen boyfriends and terrible timing resulted in best friends on the wrong side of that thin line between love and hate, not to mention rock and roll cliché. Gordon set off on her own and in the summer of 2000 released Tonight and the Rest of My Life, while Post pulled a David Gilmour and retained the brand name. Almost simultaneously, the “new” Veruca Salt put out Resolver (another Beatles reference and another incredibly inspired album title, particularly considering the content within).


The results, predictably, separated fans into two camps: those who thought Tonight and the Rest of My Life successfully proved that Nina Gordon was the true talent in Veruca Salt, and those who felt that she sold out. Conversely, there were fans who insisted that the new albums made it clear that Post was the soul of the band and the one who rocked. Even in 2000, it was immediately obvious to me which album was superior (Resolver, by far)—Post picked up the banner and crawled with it. Time has been less kind to Gordon’s overly polished, ultimately safe and brazenly ambitious (not in the good sense of the word) project, while despite—or because of—the considerable warts and rough edges of Resolver, it retains an immediacy, daring, and furious venom that eight years has scarcely cooled off.


Tagged as: veruca salt
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Friday, May 30, 2008

I have to say that this has been one of those weeks where I fantasize about having enough money to wall myself away from the world and do drugs and desserts until I die.  So today, I was trying to remember something/someone music-related that made me laugh when I recalled this interview with O.D.B. on MTV where he pulled up to the welfare office in a limo to pick up his check.  I’m not going to parse out the man’s ethics late on a Friday when I’m counting the seconds until my first Mexican Martini.  But he was a hilariously interesting character, both for having more aliases than a C.I.A. passport and in his fairly adamant refusal of most social graces.  His lyrical abilities had a miraculous Wesley Willis quality about them, somehow managing to penetrate our reality from a galaxy far far a way and usually delivered like a gravel mouthed old dude yelling from a cracked cellar door.  And just to make myself smile that much wider I absolutely had to dig up my favorite Dirt McGirt couplet:


“You can call me dirty, and then lift up your skirt
And you want some of this dirty, god made dirt and dirt bust yo ass”


How did this work?  The lyrical rhythm is pausing and parenthical (oh yeah, and dirty bust yo ass, son), but it still sounds amazingly stammered out.  A great man has been taken from us while my list of ungreat ones that should go in their stead remains ignored.  I guess God needs all the good people to work in the Angel mines.


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Thursday, May 29, 2008


We’re two months in, and yet the Summer season continues on. For 30 May, here are the films in focus:


Son of Rambow [rating: 7]


Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption.

It’s clear that, if music provides the soundtrack to our lives, movies make up the mental scrapbook. While we are a far more aural than visual race, we do tend to take certain films at face value. We’ll shiver at the thought of a shower after Psycho, or become the wariest of beach goers after Spielberg bares his Jaws. Yet we don’t typically take the actual image with us. Instead, a motion picture is filed away as a feeling in our cultural cabinet, lovingly recalled whenever a similar scene or sequence pops up. For the young boys of a small English town, Sylvester Stallone’s unhinged Vietnam vet with a personal vendetta and a wondrous way with weaponry becomes a symbol of their social coming of age. The reverence and need for a remake forms the basis for Son of Rambow, an effervescent look back at one director’s post-punk past.read full review…




The Strangers [rating: 4]


The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making.

The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.  read full review…
 
 

Other Releases—In Brief


Sex and the City: The Movie [rating: 4]


For fans of the long running HBO rom-comedy, a Sex and the City movie seemed like a no brainer. Leave it to salary disputes to make the inevitable suddenly span four long years. In that time, it’s clear that nothing new has been invested toward this Cinderella on stilettos nightmare, a collection of irredeemable behaviors masked as post-modern feministic fizz. For this unnecessary revisit, Carrie gets engaged to her BFF as ATM, Mr. Big, Miranda systematically alienates and then disowns her unfaithful spouse, Samantha screws and shops, and Charlotte blandly plays the perfect mommy. It’s all so contemporary…so couture…so calculated. Like a greatest hits package without a single hummable tune, this drawn out, dystopic fairytale hits on every facet of the series the fanbase demands without offering the uninitiated a single reason to care. The fashion porn the demographic digs feels equally unexceptional, the same old labels being flaunted as fabulous when they’re really yesterday’s Elsa Klench feature. This is a comedy with permanent PMS - it’s bloated, moody, and purely a ‘gal thang’. Men - and true film fans - are not welcome, and frankly, both groups should take that as a blessing.


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Thursday, May 29, 2008

It’s clear that, if music provides the soundtrack to our lives, movies make up the mental scrapbook. While we are a far more aural than visual race, we do tend to take certain films at face value. We’ll shiver at the thought of a shower after Psycho, or become the wariest of beach goers after Spielberg bares his Jaws. Yet we don’t typically take the actual image with us. Instead, a motion picture is filed away as a feeling in our cultural cabinet, lovingly recalled whenever a similar scene or sequence pops up. For the young boys of a small English town, Sylvester Stallone’s unhinged Vietnam vet with a personal vendetta and a wondrous way with weaponry becomes a symbol of their social coming of age. The reverence and need for a remake forms the basis for Son of Rambow, an effervescent look back at one director’s post-punk past.


Will Proudfoot lives a very sheltered life. As a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious sect, he is not allowed to watch TV, listen to modern music, or befriend his classmates. Quite by accident, he makes the acquaintance of school bad boy Lee Carter. Initially, the relationship is very one sided. Lee takes advantage of Will, and Will is too inexperienced to know any better. The duo begins work on a homemade movie, inspired by the recent release of First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone. Entitled “Son of Rambow”, it incorporates many of Will’s wildest fantasies, mostly concerning the recent death of his father. As the boys make their mini action epic, they draw the attention of a French exchange student named Didier. He also wants to star in the film. On a far more serious note, Will’s work outside the order gets the attention of the elders. They warn the Proudfoots - end this association, or face expulsion.


Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption. Writer/director Garth Jennings, last heard from helming the underappreciated big screen version of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, takes snapshots from his childhood, mixes them with some intriguing local color, and paints a glorious canvas of an era unsure of itself, punk plowing into pop without a Blitz kid’s concern for style or substance. There are sequences of sumptuous reminiscence here, times when we literally get lost in the unique time and place that Jennings is portraying. At other instances, things become so pat and predictable that the forewarning undermines the wistfulness at play.


It goes without saying that the stars of this particular piece are the young actors at the center of the story. As the irascible Lee Carter, Will Poulter seems pulled directly out of a primer on purposefully angry young lads. He’s Butch from Our Gang given a slightly cockney bent, and he’s totally believable, even when slightly schizophrenic in his motivations and mannerisms. We may not believe in his ability as a future filmmaker, but we do get the impression that he’s dedicated, and when personal push comes to shove, quite loyal. Of the duo, young Bill Milner definitely has the harder role. His perplexed Will Proudfoot is walking, talking fundamentalist naiveté, desperate to break out of his religious restrictions, but unable to achieve the proper perspective. For him, the world is one big animated adventure just waiting to be had. Gullibility is hard to sell, especially in these all-knowing ‘naughts’. But Milner makes us believe, even if his ideas are a bit babyish.


Indeed, the whole moviemaking subtext steals some of Son of Rambow‘s potency. When Will and Lee are recreating overly aggressive action scenes and steroided stunts, we instantly anticipate the physical comedy. It may be rote shtick, but it is mostly satisfying. Where the film really flies is in its mix tape mapping of the early ‘80s. Sure, the song selection is all over the Top of the Pops terrain (“I Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode never shared chart time with Sioxsie and the Banshee’s “Peek a Boo”), and the fashions scream of the broadest epoch generalization, but Jennings does a jolly job of capturing a moment when the dour depression of before seemed to open into an optimist, anything goes giddiness. It’s nostalgia, but its knowing, not knotty.


Perhaps the most intriguing material is left more or less unexplored. The Plymouth Brethren may appear like any other sect, starved of rationality as they use the Bible as the basis for every one of their often unconscionable decisions. And there is an interesting plotpoint when Will’s mother lets slip her secret love of a certain 45 rpm record. But we don’t get much more than mean-spirited reprimands and a leader who clearly lusts for the passive Proudfoot widow. Not much is made out of the missing father either - he is dead, but the details appear shrouded in a lack of clarity that makes his absence lack the standard cinematic impact. We want more of this material, to really understand the last act decision made by the family. But Son of Rambow is not interested in intricacy. It’s satisfied with a more slapdash approach.


Not that we as an audience mind, really. This is clearly a movie where the sum of all parts transcends the individual problems with each particular narrative thread. When mixed together with Didier’s pseudo stash, Plastic Bertrand panache (he’s an odd addition to this story, to be sure), Lee Carter’s old folks home front, Will’s wonderfully cartoonish flights of fancy, and the Monty Python meets misery of our heroes’ school situation, the manic movie making really zings. Certainly this is an incomplete effort, leaving more questions than clear cut conclusions, and the required wrap seems too easy given all that’s gone before. But there is also a bubbly exuberance that really reminds one of their youth and all its awkward awakening glory. This is one Son that any source could be proud of. 



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