Tom Waits on seeing James Brown in 1962

I first saw James Brown in 1962 at an outdoor theatre in San Diego and it was indescribable… it was like putting a finger in a light socket. He did the whole thing with the cape. He did ‘Please Please Please’. It was such a spectacle. It had all the pageantry of the Catholic Church. It was really like seeing mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas and you couldn’t ignore the impact of it in your life. You’d been changed, your life is changed now. And everybody wanted to step down, step forward, take communion, take sacrament, they wanted to get close to the stage and be anointed with his sweat, his cold sweat.

That and 19 others in
Tom Waits on his most cherished albums of all time

Cut and Cover!

I’m currently reading Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s “King Solomon’s Carpet,” a thriller set in part in the London Underground. (Hence my interest.) A lot of Underground trivia is mentioned, including this: 23/24 Leinster Gardens, a housing facade that hides an open stretch of track where excess steam and smoke can be vented. Looks like a real block of flats from the street, but it’s not. A quick search on the Internet found this page on Cut and Cover Disused Stations (scroll to the end to find it), and a photo that you see above. Cool, eh?

Watership Down

Dir: Martin Rosen
Never read the Richard Adams book, but I did read Plague Dogs.
Never saw the film of Plague Dogs, but I did watch Watership Down several times growing up. This DVD popped up in the library and so I grabbed it, wondering what it would be like now to view it.
The animation is fairly ropey, but for an independent British production of its time, it does the job well. There are some jittery pans and zooms, the rabbits occasionally jump up and down as if somebody put the animation cells out of order, and the often flat drawing style takes us out of the film’s illusion.
But the daily life of a rabbit is presented with grim realism, with much blood and death. I do remember being scared by this as a kid, and with due reason: the film starts off with a stylized origin myth (a mix of British and African graphics), which proclaims death to always be nearby, and then jumps to the narrative where nervous, prescient rabbit Fiver sees his warren’s doom: “I see blood all over the field!” It’s like Stanley Kubrick directing Beatrix Potter.
The tale is a hero’s journey from doomed warren to utopian hill, and then a secondary journey back to infiltrate the evil rabbit gang to pillage their women for breeding purposes.
I was entertained, and there hasn’t been many films like it since, pitched somewhere between anthropomorphism and realism.
It’s also a one-stop shop for great British actors, a list of major celebrity voices: John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, Zero Mostel (not British, I know), Richard Briers, Nigel Hawthorne, Roy Kinnear, Denholm Elliott, Joss Ackland, and more I’m sure. Apart from the wobbly animation, the film did seem truncated at the end. We never did get a resolution to the main characters, and we jump ahead years to witness the hero rabbit snuffing his little bunny lid and hopping off with the great Black Rabbit in the sky (The disembodied black head floating in the sky is still a very cool image.) But is this how quickly the book ends?

Supersize Me

Dir: Morgan Spurlock
Supersize Me is not just a metabolism-killing stunt documentary,
like a socially conscious Jackass. Sure, the mainstream media focues on Spurlock’s less than scientific study, and picked holes in it, which he readily admits in the film. But surrounding this stunt is the real meat (ha ha) of the movie, which is a long-overdue broadside against the American food industry, and the government’s complicity in keeping the industry’s profits up. As with Fahrenheit 9-11, the media opted to not follow up on Spurlock’s findings, though he certainly gives publicity to a number of interesting stories: the horrific school lunches that the average student eats (and the one school that cooks everything from scratch); the amount the food/grocery/brand name industry spends on lobbyists that essentially keep any healthy legislation from being passed. In fact, it’s this last point that is the biggest culprit in the whole game. Capitalist entities will do anything to increase profit–they are amoral by design. It’s the role of government (we should think) to curtail their excesses, but that so rarely happens.
As an entertaining documentary it works, not just because of the gross out masochism on display, but Spurlock’s winning, friendly manner. He’s doesn’t start out as angry and ready to make accusations. But like his doctors, he can’t believe how badly his MickeyD’s diet starts to affect him, and we’re they’re with him.
The DVD contains a few bonus scenes, nothing amazing, but a separate mini film of watching these fast foods decompose is fascinating. And as you might have heard, while the Big Macs and Quarter Pounders turn into putrescent jelly, those magical fries keep their shape and color long into the third month. Ewwww.
By the way, brave Mr. Spurlock has a blog.

Man Ray’s Montparnasse – Herbert Lottman

Harry N. Abrams

Herbert Lottman’s book on Man Ray and Montparnasse,
at that time in history the center of the art world, is one of the best books I’ve read about the pre-WWII art scene. Most of my previous reading on the Surrealists have come either from their own texts, or in the stodgy writings that accompany art books. But none gave a sense of time and place as this history of a neighborhood.
It’s not exactly a book on Man Ray, but the American born, reluctant photographer (nee frustrated painter) serves as a conduit through which passes nearly every single important artist of the early 20th Century. Man Ray moved to Paris, believing he would be a painter, but wound up paying the bills with photographic portraits. His subject/client list is enviable: apart from the group of Dadaists and Surrealists that haunted the cafes there, he photographed Gertrude Stein, Eric Satie, Marcel Proust (the day after he died), Picasso, James Joyce, Hemingway, and many more. He was able to stay above the fray of many political/artistic fights and divisions because of his portraiture, and never earned the wrath of Andre Breton.
Lottman reports all this in the context of how these artists spent their time–sleeping with their models and mingling with people of all nationalities at the cafes and clubs that lined the street. They moved in and out of tiny studio apartments, and they opened and closed galleries. Man Ray had several major love affairs, first with the infamous Kiki, who is the model in his most famous early work, Lee Miller, his student and lover who then went on to a successful career in her own right, and a few other dalliances.
The world that we get to look into in the book is refreshingly modern, but also long past, especially when one considers how important creation and art was to all these people (well, except Duchamp, who had a successful career doing as little as possible). It would be hard to imagine such vigorous defences of art made today.
Anyway, a bloody quick read, to be had on Amazon for cheap, printed on lovely thick glossy paper, and full of relevant photos (although I would have liked more).

20th Century Boys – Naoki Urasawa

Viz Comics (U.S. Release)

Near the completion of this fan-subtitled version of Urasawa’s manga masterpiece,
Viz Comics announced they were finally bringing out this title in the States, scuttling what was til then a 17 volume labor of love. I was fortunate to grab a Bittorrent file of Vols. 1-16 off the web just before they disappeared for good.
So consider this a preview.
If American comics have to go through the rigmarole of dopey “They aren’t for kids anymore!” articles every couple of years, imagine what it would take to get something like this unfolding manga serial taken seriously. Yet out of anything I’ve read this year, this multi-layered comic has be one of the most satisfying and emotional experiences I’ve had for a long time.
It’s a genre-busting series that combines sci-fi, horror, and adventure elements into a generation spanning plot. Influences and allusions abound: Stephen King’s “It”, Patlabor 2, The Seven Samurai, Dennis Potter-esque time jumps, The Stand (King again!), and much more.
At the center is failed rockstar Kenji, who is currently running a mini-mart and looking after his sister’s baby daughter. Yet his childhood comes back to haunt him, when it is suggested that a religious cult, the leader of which is a man named “Friend,” is plotting to take over the world, using a secret plan that Kenji and his friends designed back in elementary school as a joke. As Kenji assembles his old school friends, now all in their thirties and a various stages of their lives, they try to figure out through their collected faulty memories who Friend could possibly be, and how to stop him.
This is just the launching pad for an adventure that jumps backwards into the past, forwards into the future where things haven’t turned out for the best, and into a virtual world where the memories of their 1970s childhood are replayed and “corrected.”
Never, unlike other series, did I get the sense that Urasawa was just making this up as he goes along. Like The Sopranos, otherwise meaningless exchanges and scenes from the early volumes return much much later, revealing their deep meaning and throwing me for a loop. The manga is full of mysteries and unanswered questions, and each time one is answered, 10 more mysteries present themselves.
The emotional core of the manga deals with the idealism of youth and the failures of adulthood, and whether that can be regained despite (or because of) impossible odds. We see this in Kenji and friends, but also in Kenji’s niece Anna, who grows up to be a sort of savior herself.
“20th Century Boys” is also quite frightening. The pacing is cinematic, with big scares revealed in full splash pages. The face of “Friend” starts as a device out of suspense film: shrouded in shadow, we assumed his identity will turn out to be a character we’ve already seen in broad daylight. But as 20th Century Boys progresses, “Friend”‘s face becomes a thing of horror, causing paralysis in those who gaze upon it (we only see reaction shots). It’s a device that Urasawa uses again and again, and he always finds a fresh way of employing it. (I read the fansub as a slideshow on my LCD monitor, so I never see the pages ahead of time. It’s an excellent way to get maximum frights out of the comic!)
Urasawa is still writing the manga, and some of these series can stretch to thirty volumes and beyond. In Volume 16we jump ahead in time again and a new whole chapter of the story begins to open up, so I believe we’re nowhere near the finish. And now that Viz will start bringing out the series officially, we’ll have to wait for them to catch up. Unless Urasawa drops the ball near the end, this will be one of the most important mangas in recent memory.
P.S. Bush-haters may notice that the story of a religious cult that orchestrates its own terrorist attack to take over the government is…a bit familiar. But having been started in 1999, Urasawa’s comic is either prescient or tapping into the same evil forces in the air that are now part of our reality.
P.P.S. Now that I’ve discovered this whole underground of fansubs, I’m going to be reading a lot more manga!
UPDATE (5/25/06): From Wikipedia: “20th Century Boys is still running strong in Japan, and currently has 21 volumes so far. It seems to have been inspired in parts of the story by the works of Stephen King, containing allusions to It and The Stand. It was recently licensed by Viz (2005), however at Urasawa’s request it has been rescheduled for release after Monster finishes its English serialization due to a change in art style over time.”
Currently, scanlations are available here, but you must register:

Absolute Friends – John LeCarre

Little, Brown

Recommended by Jon, and my first LeCarre novel
(after this, I think there will be more). This most recent work tries to figure out the world post-Cold War, in regards to spies, while backtracking and flashbacking to show the making of lead character and double agent Teddy Mundy. LeCarre evokes 1968 Berlin well–a hotbed of student activism–and what comes after, and Mundy’s relationship with a fellow activist, also spy, called Sasha. We then follow his rather centerless, wandering life, never really sure of his identity (as the author points out, spies have to operate under an enforced and necessary schizophrenia.) Finally, we catch up with Teddy in the present day, long after the fallen Berlin Wall has put an end to Teddy and Sasha’s careers. Now Sasha has come a’calling, with an offer.
LeCarre has been criticized for turning the last couple of chapters into a diatribe against the Bush Administration. He does get out some zingers: “It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judaeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America’s post-Nine Eleven psychopathy.”
Like Seymour Hersh, LeCarre believes we’ve been taken over by a cult. And it should not surprise you that I think that way too. But the reviewers make it appear that this is just a context-less rant. It’s not. The novel is a traditional LeCarre spy narrative upended suddenly and violently by dismal post-911 realism. It’s Smiley’s People with the ending of Costas-Gravas’ “Z”. The fundamentalists on both sides are working towards the same goals, and both are enemies of reason. It’s a sock-knockin’-off ending, and expects you to jolt awake from it.

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

Rugged Land

One of my favorite productivity sites, 43 Folders,
recommended this book to all who have dealt with writers block and such, and so I decided to check it out. (At least I think it was 43 Folders–maybe it was a link from them to somewhere else). Steven Pressfield is best known for the book “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which was made into a movie with long title intact. The War of Art is a very short, lots-o-white-space manifesto on creativity, which can be read in one sitting. It can also be digested in one sitting, as the thought behind the 200 pages can be summed up this way: “Stop procrastinating. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint. Just get on with it!”
Not the most shocking advice, though it never hurts to read it again and again from different people. Because he is offering this to all sorts of artists, from screenwriters to sculptors, he keeps things general. But it’s the general where his writing is at its snooziest. I learned much more from his biographical anecdotes sparsely dispersed through the book than from the generic self-helpy stuff.
Oh yeh, and it only takes two hours to read, giving you ample time to get back to whatever it is you’re working on.