February’s been a long month. Not a bad one—just long. Nevertheless, the Quiet Bubble radio silence has been lifted… for a few days, anyway. Now, on to this month’s quick hits.
Klezmer (Book One: Tales of the Wild East) by Joann Sfar (2006): First Second Books has two flagship cartoonists—Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. Both are European, about 40 years old, and hyper-prolific. (Both have over 100 comic books to their credit.) As with most prolific artists, quality control ain’t their strong suit. With Trondheim, at least, I get the appeal. Sfar, however, leaves me cold. Klezmer, the first in a series about a band of adventuresome Jewish musicians traipsing through early-20th-century Europe, seems like a good idea, a welcome approach to exploring the continent’s past. But the drawing is wavery—Sfar’s line is so thin and bodiless that it lacks depth; the watercolors are so splotchy that I feel like I could wipe away an entire page with one swipe; the layouts are slapdash. The character designs are so inconsistent that a person’s face changes drastically from page to page, as if Sfar hadn’t quite decided on the book’s feel. (The same problem afflicts his Rabbi’s Cat and other works I’ve skimmed by Sfar.) If the writing were sharper and the characters more compelling, I might be inclined to judge Klezmer as a worthwhile experiment in improvisational cartooning (as with Chester Brown’s groundbreaking Ed the Happy Clown) or an intentionally minor experiment that experiments with sketchbook design (as with Seth’s Wimbledon Green). Alas, no can do. The whole thing feels rushed, and it looks as insubstantial as it is. C-
Vermeer in Bosnia: Selected Writings by Lawrence Weschler (2004): Lawrence Weschler could make a rotten apple core interesting. In Vermeer in Bosnia, he picks a selection of his best essays on art, politics, Jewish life, Eastern European culture, odd people, and the convergences between all of these subjects. Weschler’s voice is gentle, curious, precise, bemused but willing to be surprised, capable of amazement but also capable of sniffing out bullshit. In profiles of cartoonists (Art Spiegelman), filmmakers (Roman Polanski), artists (David Hockney, Robert Irwin), his voice is resonant, but Weschler—unlike New Journalists from Hunter S. Thompson to Tom Wolfe—is rarely interested in being the center of the story. Rather, he casually teases out connections, contradictions, and mysteries about profiles. He’s equally lucid about ideas ranging from the finer points of photography, the mid-1990s political mindset in Belgrade, the horror of genocide (a subject Weschler returns to again and again), and the qualities of light in Los Angeles. His essays never go quite in the direction you think they’re headed—indeed, they surreptitiously zigzag on multiple occasions during the same piece—but Weschler’s mix of wonder and serious moral inquiry is always dazzling. Practically each piece is worth the $15 entry fee, which is another way of saying the collection is priceless. A+
Right As Rain by George P. Pelecanos (2001): If you’re a white writer who plans to enter the mindset of a black protagonist, do it the way George P. Pelecanos does it—just go for it. Don’t draw attention to the fact. Don’t apologize. Don’t equivocate. Just do it right. In Right as Rain, the black man in question is Derek Strange, a Washington, D.C., private investigator who’s trying to uncover the circumstances in which a black cop was accidentally gunned down by a white cop. The case turns into an exploration of D.C. racial politics, contemporary love, and the victors and victims of the drug trade. Pelecanos’s language is terse, but with cutting details—the cut of a man’s suit, the songs a man enjoys listening to in the car, the aromas and tastes of a midtown Vietnamese restaurant. His dialogue, which is often funny and often digressive, is pungent and fresh. Pelecanos refuses to sugarcoat the city life but he’s no cynic about the street. With only a few slip-ups, he writes convincingly in the voice of a multitude of do-gooders, schemers, rascals, and honest folk of all races and ages. Critics call this “crime fiction,” but it’s more honest about the perpetually uneasy dance blacks, whites, and Hispanics do around each other socially than most literary American fiction I read—further proof of the relative uselessness of genre distinctions. A
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe (2001): The zippy, quick animation style dances around the cheerily noir urban backgrounds, while a killer soundtrack—acid jazz, techno-rock, and low-hued hip-hop—makes the Mars of the 21st century come alive. More so than the TV series on which it’s based, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie truly evokes a lived-in atmosphere. Because we have more time to explore its sci-fi city than a 25-minute episode could allow, we feel the texture of the neighborhoods, and it’s just as much fun to walk its streets—alongside Spike, Jet, Faye Valentine, and the other bounty hunters—as it is to be dazzled by the rapidly paced and often brutal action sequences. For instance, Moroccan Street, with its dim yellow glow, Persian draperies, and women in burqas, feels as real as San Francisco’s Chinatown. Minor characters—including elderly bush pilots playing cards, an Indian squatting by the city’s river, and a mysterious bean seller who seems to be the Godfather of Moroccan Street—are so vivid that we know they have lives beyond the cels in which they appear. Quiet wit, jazzy acrobatic moves, and flashy style are the order of the day in this movie’s city. But, then, Cowboy Bebop has always preferred style over substance, and it’s at once exhilarating and disappointing to see that the feature film stays true to its source. While the movie is saved by its intelligent characters and gorgeous setpieces, it quickly falls into routines established by countless American action films. It cops shots from 2001, Mexican standoffs from Westerns, an aerial dogfight from Top Gun or Firefox, the lighting scheme from Blade Runner, and a crucial plot development from Tim Burton’s Batman—poisonous agents released by balloons during a parade. Like the movie’s villain, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is a classy thief, but a thief all the same. B
If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It! by Fats Waller & His Rhythm (1926-1943, reissued 2006): As someone said in Ken Burns’ Jazz, Fats Waller swings so hard that he doesn’t even need a band. This 3-CD box set gives us 66 cuts of the big man at the best, ticking his piano to heights of ecstasy and storming it through harsh blues, hot jazz, and ice-cold sourmash whiskey. Waller’s gravelly, witty voice comes through on every track he sings, but the set wisely includes a full disc (disc 2) of his instrumentals (mostly by himself) that establishes him as one of the greatest jazz pianists to ever walk the streets of New York. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Whether as an interpreter of Tin Pan Alley standards or a player of his original compositions, he transcends swing, ragtime, blues, or any other jazz genre you can place him in. A+