Quick hits (December 2006)

It’s Christmastime in America, which means I’m turning down the radio and spending lots of money on other people. Here’s a quick Christmas gift for critics: Robert Christgau’s “Consumer Guide”—the sort-of inspiration for “Quick Hits”—returns after a four-month absence. Rejoice! And now, on to the show…

A.L.I.E.E.E.N. (2006) by Lewis Trondheim: In a brief preface, Trondheim explains that he found this alien comic book while hiking in the Catskills. Its speech balloons are written in a pictograph-like language that’s not from Earth. The characters are sometimes vaguely humanoid, but mostly they—and the landscape in which they live—look as otherworldly as they are. It’s all bullshit, of course, but Trondheim is a master cartoonist and it’s fascinating to see how far he takes this conceit. The book’s pages are even printed with fake dirt smudges, dog-ear marks, stains, and with cruddy color separations as if it’s been printed on cheap newsprint. It looks like some kid’s read (and re-read) comic. The silent stories—well, they might as well be silent, since the words are incomprehensible—are a series of interlocking tales that are bloody, disturbing, scatological, and hilarious, usually all at once. Trondheim’s minimalist line, lack of shading or hatchmarking, and simple Day-Glo colors serves A.L.I.E.E.N. well. I can’t imagine that I’d tolerate the sight of these cute aliens getting impaled, flushing out their bowels for pages at a time, ripping off each other’s skins, and torturing each other if the drawing had been more realistic. The odd narrative structure—it moves back and forth in time; the vignettes end abruptly—works because it’s consciously off-kilter. I learned to go with it because it’s willfully perverse. Underneath all the cute horror, A.L.I.E.E.N. is touching. The aliens ultimately seem human after all. A-

Dhoom 2 (2006), directed by Sanjay Gadhvi: In Dhoom 2, Aishwarya Rai and Bipasha Basu wear clothes that should bag their designers either a Nobel Prize for engineering or a night in jail on obscenity charges. But, technically, neither actress is ever nude at any point. Ridiculously gorgeous Hrithik Roshan spends much of his time in unbuttoned shirts, sweaty, and dancing. Rai rocks out in the shortest miniskirts and clingiest shirts I’ve ever seen, sometimes in the driving rain. I swear, Indian censorship is the best thing ever; without it, the filmmakers wouldn’t go through so much effort just to see what they could get away with. The movie—a nonsensical action movie that’s too choppy and poorly written to be loved by anyone over fifteen—is va-va-voom sexy. Rai and Roshan are, respectively, the biggest female and male stars in Bollywood today. Open-mouthed kissing isn’t banned in India but it’s still relatively rare. So, when Rai darts her tongue into Roshan’s willing mouth, after a tense exchange involving a pistol, the whole audience around me cheered. Otherwise, we were stuck with bad slapstick, incomprehensible chase scenes, and Abhishek Bachchan phoning in his performance. (He can’t even be bothered to stay in rhythm during the dance sequences—it’s the first bad performance I’ve seen by him.) But Dhoom 2 is a testament to star power—Rai and Roshan (and Basu, who gets too little screen time) ignite the screen, and make the movie much, much better than it should be. C+

Moomin (2006) by Tove Jansson: Lovers of classic American comic strips should weep with joy this year. Fantagraphics continues its complete Peanuts, along with complete runs of Dennis the Menace and Krazy Kat. They even started reprinting Popeye this year. Drawn & Quarterly’s publishing standards are, if anything, even more lavish and loving than Fantagraphics’s stuff. D&Q’s taste in strips, though, runs toward the contemplative and quiet rather than the brash and flamboyant. Frank King’s Gasoline Alley is getting the complete-run treatment, and now D&Q has started reprinted Tove Jansson’s Moomin. The Finnish cartoonist’s strip only ran for five years but its clear line, gentle humor, oodles of great (and cute) characters, and wry maturity should be remembered for prosperity. Her humor builds on you. I started off chuckling and wondering what the fuss was. By the middle of a story (there are four in volume one), though, I was cackling with each new panel. Characters play off each other—and needle each other—terrifically. The stories meander from one unexpected circumstance to the next with a breezy grace, as Jansson stops to smell the flowers, luxuriate in a beautifully drawn seaside or garden, or just to watch her characters make absurd, almost hidden gestures. She’s a superior drafter. Those thin lines of hers have substance. She’s a master of space and composition—her cluttered frames never feel overstuffed; her white space conveys openness and air. If this is only the first volume, that means Jansson probably got even better from here. That’s hard to believe but I’ll buy volume two as soon as it appears. A+

Russian Dolls (2006), directed by Cédric Klapisch: In Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, and Wendell Berry’s Port William, Kentucky, the respective writers create fictional communities whose major characters, locales, and events are played out over the course of several books. Beyond the obligatory blockbuster sequel, however, we don’t often see fiction-based filmmakers trying to build fictional communities over the course of multiple movies. Television drama’s serial nature has trumped the feature film in this respect. Writers also have the advantage over filmmakers in that actors age, real places change over time, and filmmaking is expensive, particularly if one of your protagonists becomes an A-list star between your films. Michael Apted and the Maysles brothers both revisit their narratives, but they work in documentary. So I give Cédric Klapisch credit for making a go of it with Russian Dolls, the continuation of the lives introduced in 2002’s The Spanish Apartment. As with that film (and When the Cat’s Away), however, he’s too enamored with MTV-style quick cuts and aesthetic trickery—freeze frames, blurring and overlapping of camera frames, sped-up and slowed-down action, superimposing images onto the frame—for his own good. His command of plotting and narrative pacing has improved this time around, and his incredibly sexy stars—Romain Duris, Kevin Bishop, Kelly Reilly, Cécile de France, Irene Montalà, Audrey Tautou, and others—have miraculously become even sexier. It’s age. They feel more fleshed-out and mature at 30 than they did at 25; the actors show a greater range of emotion. The characters feel less clear-cut and single-minded. Although nominally revolving around a budding romance, Russian Dolls rambles and digresses just as much as Klapisch’s previous films. He’s no Altman, so the structure is flabby and overloaded with pop at times. Still, the acting is strong, the lines are snappy, and I’m now curious to see what they’ll all look like in five years. B

Gray Horses (2006) by Hope Larson Gray Horses mesmerizes and charms in equal measures. A French art student comes to Chicago, saddened by a recent breakup with her first serious boyfriend, and followed (sorta stalked, really) by a boy in one of her classes who shoots Polaroids of her at odd times. She’s haunted by an odd recurring dream that Larson grafts clumsily on to what should be a charming coming-of-age tale. The girl’s interactions with a new language, a new city, and new friends are vividly drawn. Larson draws with thick, bold lines, and her blacks are very rich; a light, burnt orange is the background’s primary color, and it’s used effectively. Her silent panels and wordless sections are quite good—the comic’s stillness evokes meditation and slow pacing. Larson’s better at creating dreamlike pacing during the regular scenes, in fact, than she is in the dream sequences themselves, which seem hackneyed and too obvious. Once she learns to trust her observation of the everyday rather than retreating into David Lynch-land, Larson will be someone to watch. B

Even A Daughter Is Better than Nothing (2005) by Mykel Board: In 1994, an iconoclastic punk-rock lover and trenchant columnist, with a penchant for both pricks and pussies, decided to spend a year in Outer Mongolia. He would teach English as a foreign language, even though his lifelong obsession with Mongolia hadn’t taught him enough of the language to get beyond “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Wanna spend the night?” Indeed, this travelogue is mostly about his quest—mostly unfulfilled—to get someone to answer “yes” to the second question. As it sez in Buckaroo Banzai, “wherever you go, there you are.” Board goes to the weirdest country that you’ve heard of—but know little about—and finds heavy metal, bad plumbing, ratty disco life, pro wrestling, sexy women, sexy men, gargantuan amounts of food, and a bootleg culture that makes the American underground look like Waldorf Astoria. Oh, and Hillary Clinton drops by for a visit. I imagine Board’s life in New York looks much the same, minus a First Lady. Board’s plainspoken prose navel-gazes but mercifully refuses to philosophize or rhapsodize. His voice is present-tense, conversational, and comes through in a mad rush. Ultimately it’s good, occasionally great, reportage from that super-smart, little-bit-crazy dude in the corner of the bar. B+

Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-first Century (2004) by Dan Yashinsky: As a fifth-grader, I remember going with my class to the Dallas Museum of Art to hear storytellers tell stories on stage at a festival. At some point, one of the yarn-spinners said something that made the entire audience (about 300 kids) jump with fright. I can’t remember what it was, or even what the story was about, or even the name of the festival. Beyond ghost stories heard around the campfire, I can’t remember when I last sat down to swap stories in a formalized way. (Water cooler talk and party chatter are different things.) I assumed that oral storytelling either didn’t really exist anymore, or it was so underground that I’d need a shovel to find it. Wrong on both counts. Yashinsky, an oral storyteller for over 30 years, reminds me that there’s an entire subculture of storytelling out there, and that it’s gaining wind. Suddenly They Heard Footsteps is several things at once—an apologia for oral storytelling, a guide for budding storytellers, a memoir of sorts, and a collection of Yashinsky’s best stuff. Playful, conversational language abounds, as do jokes both good and bad. Sometimes the philosophizing veers towards the opaque and squishy, but he convinces me—as if I needed it—that oral storytelling is better than TV any day. B+

Madlib’s Shades of Blue (2003): Somewhere in the middle of this album, a musician claims that Madlib is tracing the origins of hip-hop as found in jazz. That’s a crock, but I don’t mind. Basically, the master producer plunders Blue Note’s back catalogs, and filters some lesser-known jazz gems through a hip-hop strainer. He cuts, chops, adds breakbeats to, and otherwise rips apart standards by Horace Silver, Andrew Hill, Leon Spencer, and more. Along the way, he includes snippets from interviews with jazz musicians about the jazz life and Blue Note, lets Medaphoar rap his way through a remix of Bobbi Humphrey’s “Please Set Me At Ease,” and records perplexed musicians as they self-aggrandize and wonder about what Madlib’s intentions are in making Shades of Blue. It’s a crackpot, opinionated history of Blue Note. At some point, someone says that, “unlike any other jazz label, Blue Note Records influenced the evolution of music in sound, style, and technical standards,” which pretends that Verve, Impulse!, Decca, and Columbia Records never existed. The whole thing’s less blasphemous than it sounds. MF Doom gets a great joke in, claiming that he has absolutely no association with Madlib whatsoever; the speech is recorded six months before their collaboration (Madvillainy) would be greeted as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of this young century. Mostly, it’s respectful to the original sources. The music is still beautiful; Madlib’s beats, loops, odd phrases, and hip-hop hollas add texture and reconfigure the tunes. I’m still not convinced of the continuity from bebop and funky jazz to hip-hop, but it’s good listening, anyway. B+

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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