Quick hits (May 2007)

Airports, as I’ve lately been reminded, are good for catching up on my reading and listening. The books, music, and movies I’ve consumed have that ambient, free-floating, slightly anxious energy about them that’s perhaps too clean, and thus a little eerie, that’s very much like a terminal at Dallas/Fort Worth International. Or maybe they just felt that way because airport consciousness seeped into me while consuming them. In any case, onward and upward…

Tropical Malady (2005), directed by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul: I don’t know what to make of this bifurcated tale, but I loved it anyway. The first half is prosaic, urban, sunshine-filled, told in vignettes, and full of people; the second is suspenseful, mythical, set at night, in a jungle, involves a man hunting a tiger in a forest, is spare, sound carries far, and is utterly elliptical. The fragmented nature of the narrative persists in the second half, with the tense hunt being punctuated by folk-art cue cards, voiceovers, and a talking monkey. What I can deduce after two viewings: A young soldier from the city and a country boy fall slowly in love, go on minor adventures together—a visit to a Buddhist temple that’s also an abandoned mine; holding hands at the movies; the soldier comforts the boy at the vet after his dog is diagnosed with late-stage cancer. These snapshots of their secret life together—we never see them kiss, and the rural boy goes out of his way to mask his affection for the soldier in public—give us a sense of their relationship. Then the soldier leaves to go on assignment, and things go haywire from there. In search of a shape-shifting shaman, who may well be his lover, the soldier creeps into a jungle that may well be the recesses of his own mind. Although the narrative is much more continuous in this second half, its images of ghostly cows, shimmering, spirit-filled trees, tigers, and talking animals threw me off-balance. (And the structural fragmentation keeps up—the action is frequently punctuated by snippets of folk legend and children’s-book illustrations.) Gradually, I realized that the halves comment on, and re-interpret, each other. The lovers’ deep love for each other, and the sense of loss that comes when they split, is explored through realism and myth. Weerasethakul captures (through, I think, HDV) how night actually looks to the viewer (murky, hazy, not quite black) better than any number of high-contrast films noir. Entrancing, eerie, and bewildering. A

Cosmopolis (2003) by Don DeLillo: Multi-billionaire Eric Packer is a young punk (he’s 28), and just wants a haircut. He, his apartment and tricked-out white limo are on one end of Manhattan; his favorite barbershop, and the one that he wants more than any other, is on the other side. In between is a presidential caravan, the huge funeral for a Sufi rapper (Brutha Fez), an anti-globalization protest, and Eric’s would-be assassin. Eric’s all-day journey becomes an epic quest, and DeLillo tries to cram in every concern about American urban culture that he can. The prose has a glossier sheen than that of Huckleberry Finn, and it’s more syncopated than in Heart of Darkness, but DeLillo’s channeling Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain. By collapsing Packer’s voyage into the dark heart of America into a single day, however, DeLillo takes on too much. The dialogue has his customary mix of gnomic utterances, straight talk, and ponderous lectures signifying less than the characters think they do, but the ambient chatter means less than DeLillo thinks it does as well. We never learn what Packer does, though we hear him talk endlessly about it with his minions, all of whom—including his doctor, who performs Packer’s checkup—enter the sleek white limo at some point. Packer gets laid a lot for one day (four times by my count, each more cataclysmic than the last), and he manages to ruin his own fortune as well as his wife’s. Too much happens, and not enough of it means anything. It’s clear that none of this is meant to be realistic, and all of it’s supposed to be soulless. Packer’s sexcapades have no juice; the murder he perpetrates has no resonance to him; his financial decline is beautifully described but somehow empty of meaning. Words, symbols, abstract ideas, and numbers whoosh and hum in the air around Packer and his limo, which is pretty much his home. DeLillo’s point is clear. In this young century, we are creatures who can and do use technology and media to isolate ourselves completely from the rest of the world. By doing so, we are draining ourselves of the possibility of having a soul, of having meaning and emotional attachments. It’s apocalypse by our own design. The design is, however, so calculatedly beautiful—DeLillo is a dazzling stylist—that we’re lulled into the information glut that I think the writer wants us to resist. Even the ominous threat of Packer’s imminent death feels bloodless and muted. The prose should register encroaching terror in the reader, even if it doesn’t do so for the characters, but instead it’s eerily deadening. Packer goes on a Homeric odyssey but learns nothing, and neither, exactly, do we. B-

The Middle Stories (2002) by Sheila Heti: Heti works in a minimalist, fragmented style that’s so opaque that it takes a while to realize that there’s actually little to see under the fog. Half of these tiny stories feature characters who go unnamed or are known only by descriptors (“the giant,” “the young fornicator,” “the little old lady,” “the man with the hat”), who are involved in nebulous affairs in environments that go undescribed. The stories are mere fragments, sparse in prose and imprecise in meaning. Several seem like sketches of stories, like prompts that a creative-writing professor might use to get his class working. Lydia Davis often works in this aphoristic mode, but her stories have emotional depth, characters who are richly drawn enough that we can be bothered to care about them, flashes of wit, and wild experiments with form and content. Heti has none of this, but she does have a hipster’s sarcasm and snidely toned dialogue. Perhaps someone thinks these stories are mesmerizing and adroitly experimental, but it ain’t me. It’s a little book—144 pages, with a generously-sized font, and a small trim size—so the overall design gives a clue as to the slight contents within. D

Mezzanine (1998) by Massive Attack: The brilliant trip-hop group discovers the guitar, and all hell breaks loose. “Angel” opens the album with dirge-like guitar halfway through it, and an undercurrent bassline that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror flick. The band’s beats are still simultaneously sharp, intricate, and seductive, but there’s menace around the edges. Unsettling, unidentifiable noises in the background creep slowly into the foreground without our noticing until it’s too late. Drums, vocals, and looped echoes bleed into each other. Horace Andy’s voice—with his customary spiritual/paranoid lyrics—submerges itself into the murk. “Risingson” and “Inertia Creeps” feature the boys whisper/singing—not to seduce, but almost as if they’re afraid of being overheard. The night closes in around you as you listen to Mezzanine. That’s why the few glimpses of sunshine are so, so welcoming—the juicily erotic symphonic swoop of “Exchange,” and Liz Fraser’s ethereal, heartening vocals on the frankly brilliant “Teardrop.” On this record, though, even Fraser’s sly bell-like voice hides disturbances; she sings so sweetly in “Black Milk” that we almost forget how thick and sticky (like a squashed spider) the song’s music is. Mezzanine is perfect for nighttime, headphones listening. At the same time, you shouldn’t listen to it alone. A+

In A Silent Way (1969) by Miles Davis: The dead calm before the tornado hit, In A Silent Way was Davis’s first true foray into jazz fusion. Whereas Bitches Brew and On the Corner would be explosive and dissonant and sometimes nearly unlistenable, this 1969 session is peaceful and almost sedate. It veers this close to elevator music but the depth of its musical layers keeps it mysterious. Davis rarely blows us away here—in fact, there are several-minute stretches that he’s not playing at all—and that’s the point. Instead, he coaxes out his three (!) keyboardists—Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Josef Zawinul—and the delicate, ghostly echoes of guitarist John McLaughlin. It seems that everyone’s soloing at once, as in early New Orleans jazz, but quietly and without stepping on each other’s notes and tones. The eight players are all distinct at all times but the two tunes (each over 17 minutes) are never cacophonous. In this sense, both tunes have very simple rhythmic and tonal bases—which masters Dave Holland (bass) and Tony Williams (drums) hold down—that allow room for expansion. The interplay between the keyboardists is so intricate that I can’t tell where one player’s fingers end and another’s begins. The record sounds like a waking daydream. A

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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3 Responses to Quick hits (May 2007)

  1. Brian Hadd says:

    Eric Packer was something too exploited I think, however I love the rapelling anarchy.
    Theres a man that lives next door
    Hees ma neighbor!
    Hees ma neighbor!
    He gets me down.
    The Hood Company

  2. Wax Banks says:

    re: In a Silent Way
    If you haven’t already heard ’em, definitely track down the Complete ‘In a Silent Way’ Sessions box. (Pricey. Worth it.) I heard that chronological compilation before I even heard the album (which is as good as you say, of course), along with the Jack Johnson sessions; the former makes for a more agreeable continuous listening experience, while the repetitions and rerecordings at the JJ sessions keep the listener ever so slightly at arm’s length, even if Miles was in astounding form for that record. For instance: Zawinul’s original, slightly elevator-music arrangement of the title track makes Miles’s reduction all the more impressive, but it’s also a pretty little tune on its own, even if the modal take is the definitive one. ‘Splash’ and ‘Splashdown’ enrich the original album’s slow-burn feel by cutting the band loose a little bit; ‘Frelon Brun’ goes to a bunch of interesting places, while ‘Early Minor’ is the soundtrack-to-early-space-travel accompaniment to the LP tracks (with awesome rainy-noir outro). Oh my God, I love that collection: I’ve got the Brew and Jack sessions discs as well, which are also worth pursuing, but they don’t get busted out nearly as often as the Silent Way material.
    Dunno if you’ve got the Cellar Door sessions, which are a lot more in the Nasty Electric Miles vein, but those are at times unbearably intense; I love those recordings but they contain the kind of music that almost shouldn’t be captured on record. It’s that…alive. The last few years have brought such a goddamn wealth of material for Miles fans – good lord that Miles/Trane box set! And talk over at The Bad Plus’s blog and elsewhere has made me curious about Miles’s 70’s/80’s material. So much yet to hear!

  3. Pingback: Authenticity is a trap: A rant about Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? | Quiet Bubble

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