Quick Hits (Flu season edition)

I’m battling a cold, been duking it out with dry sinuses, fevers, and phlegm for almost a week. The doctor says it’s “probably” not the flu. If it is, though, oh well. It had to happen eventually. I haven’t had the full-blown flu in a decade so, if that’s what’s hit me, it got me a month or two before the flu season officially starts, and before the local $20 vaccination shots were ready. Great.

At least I have a chance to catch up on my “Quick Hits” columns. I’ve consumed a lot of culture since mid-July, including the concentrated cluster bomb that was TIFF 2007, but I haven’t had the time to process it all. And I won’t be processing it all here—this is just a taste. Here we go.

Chance in Hell (2007) by Gilbert Hernandez: Over the past four years, the character that cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez has returned to most often is Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez. Whoo smokies, she’s a fuck-up. Fritz started in Hernandez’s comics as a libidinous psychiatrist, in his art-porn romp Birdland, and later decided (or had decided for her; it’s sometimes hard to tell) to parlay her extremely pale skin and über-volupté figure into a career in “B” movies. Currently, she’s an alcoholic coasting on her fame as a cult actress in low-budget sci-fi, exploitation, and erotic-thriller features. Because Hernandez has imagined her so fully, however, he not only knows the names of all 23 features in which she’s appeared, but he’s decided to draw comic-book “adaptations” of each movie. In Chance in Hell, Fritz’s first speaking role, Hernandez imagines a dystopian wasteland in which orphans live violently and futilely. One little girl, known only as the “Empress,” manages to escape it only through wrenching violence. She observes her ever-changing world passively, though it’s riveting and terrifying to the reader—she’s obviously been deadened by shock. She gradually moves up the classes, almost effortlessly, and at each level we see how class ideology imposes itself on Empress. She doesn’t see it, however. Hernandez’s bold, thick lines capture both the chaos of this world and the still, blank clearness of Empress’s lines. The disconnect is unnerving. It’s not clear whether she ultimately breaks free of her passivity—Hernandez devotes big panels, deep black skies, minimalist backgrounds, and page-long sequences to images without speech balloons, and the transitions between images is often oblique—but it’s mesmerizing to see. The Empress travels through a nightmare land of which she’s either not fully aware or that she’s intentionally closing her eyes to. Both options are frightening. Fritz, by the way, serves only a small role as a prostitute, but she’s just a component of this desolate, blank world. Of course, you don’t need to know any of this background to appreciate Hernandez’s dark, anxious vision. A-

It’s Not Big, It’s Large (2007) by Lyle Lovett and His Large Band: A raucous, slightly countrified rendition of Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe” starts the album off with a blast that the rest of the CD can’t quite sustain. That’s alright, though. Lyle Lovett and his 17-piece ensemble let fly with a few knockout dance-hall rockers—“All Downhill,” “Make It Happy,” and the flat-out fantastic “Up in Indiana”—but mostly keeps to a downtempo. Lovett’s soulful croak works best on the slower, gospel-inflected numbers, anyway. His compositions here rarely have breakneck shifts and grand melodic surprises, but Lovett keeps his customary irony in check for the most part. Instead, “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane” becomes the standard here—it gradually builds in intensity by slowing adding instruments and layers. Guitar feedback and the insinuating whine of the fiddle bleed into the mix, and the choral influence of Negro spirituals hovers over it all. And it goes on about a minute too long. (This has been an issue with Lovett from the beginning.) The best songs, and there’s lot of good ones here, fuse hard rock, black gospel, gutbucket blues, and acoustic country until you can’t tell the difference between the genres. Lovett’s sincerity is new here, and frankly takes some getting used to, but it’s ultimately welcome. Even the relative sap of “This Traveling Around” and “Don’t Cry A Tear” garner a smile, because you get the sense he really means it. For once. A-

Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998) by Sigrid Nunez: Drawing from the diaries, correspondence, and nonfiction of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Sigrid Nunez writes an irrepressible and melancholy portrait of a marmoset that the Woolfs owned in the late-1930s. Yes, a marmoset—a small monkey. They owned and loved Mitz, who shat everywhere, picked fleas off the family dog, and caused a minor ruckus in Bloomsbury for about five years. Nunez’s delicate, terse, and quietly conversational prose captures the way the animal moves and operates. By following Mitz, though, she’s allowed to follow the lives of these two literary geniuses as they run the Hogarth Press and Virginia works on her novels. It struck me as an odd narrative idea for all of two pages, and then I was mesmerized. After all, Mitz is the vehicle with which we enter the Bloomsbury circle—Nunez’s observations about the creation of art, the travails of writing and political thinking, and the functioning of a good (though tense) marriage never rings false. Hell, it never rings less than completely true and attentive. Mitz is the filter through which we observe everything. No one gets completely off the hook—Virginia’s a snob; Leonard has class anxieties galore; their friends have occasionally idiotic (and dangerous) ideas—but Nunez loves them all. In a stunning trick at the end, Nunez finally dares to enter Mitz’s mindset—the monkey becomes the lens rather than the filter, and the England we see suddenly becomes heartbreaking. A radiant novella, Mitz is far from whimsical, despite the conceit. A+

The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World (1995) by Armond White: I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with Armond White these days. He’s a better pop music critic than he is a film commentator, and the fact that he’s focused so exclusively on the latter over the last decade has dulled his force. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he sounded the clarion call for hip-hop as a cultural influence and soon-to-be dominant force, writing impassioned and well-conceived columns on artists ranging from the gangsta (Ice-T), the militant (Public Enemy), the populist (Naughty By Nature), and everything in-between (De La Soul). Along the way, he wrestles with black musicians who refuse to be pigeonholed into genres, and who knowingly engage with “white” cultural tropes. White’s best when examining where cultures and mediums clash—as witnessed in this collection, he was among to take the music video as a serious artform, and courageously flies banners for iconoclasts such as Terence Trent D’Arby and Prince. He has the broad knowledge to connect a forgotten pop song with, say, an element of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and to further connect those with Marxist political discourse. Pop singles, movies, ads, philosophy, and leftist political ideology. Along the way, as one of the first black critics with a mainstream voice who wrote on film and pop music, White’s essays tackled race head-on, and refused to let the sticky subject hide away from his examinations of American popular culture. That all sounds good—and, sometimes, it is. For White, though, every pop single and minor setpiece is an opportunity to engage in broad polemic; every actor’s gesture is a synecdoche for her whole career. White loves the broad assertion and sweeping denunciation. Once he’s decided he hates an artist, he’s rarely willing to re-assess her, or concede that he might have, just once, produced something worthwhile. (This is why it’s downright shocking to read White’s defense of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in these pages.) In his film criticism, in particular, there’s a decided lack of fine distinction and understanding of subtlety. The Resistance collects his greatest hits from 1984 to 1994, and showcases the fire-and-brimstone critic at a time when his opinions hadn’t calcified into predictable rhetoric. From essay to essay, here, it’s impossible to know exactly what White will think, or whether it’ll be dead-on or nonsensical. But each piece—no matter how infuriating, muddleheaded, or insane—will be provocative and headstrong. More often than not, it will be revelatory. (For instance, his piece on De La Soul’s 1991 album De La Soul Is Dead pretty well establishes the record as the Sgt. Pepper’s of rap.) Incendiary and often batshit-crazy, The Resistance is nevertheless essential. A-

Epitaph for a Tramp (1959) and Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961), by David Markson: Before Markson hitched his wagon to the avant-garde and experimental in such classics as Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel, he wrote pulp fiction to pay the bills. These two novels feature his private detective Harry Fannin as he investigates murder and mayhem in New York’s Greenwich Village. The denouements in both novels seem forced, and the latter thirds rely too much on expository dialogue and—in the case of Dead Beat—Fannin taking too long to grasp what’s been obvious to the reader from the get-go. So, as mysteries, these books are so-so. As sharp-eyed portraits of Markson’s long-time neighborhood, however, they shine. Puns, one-liners and cranky, funny wordplay run rampant. Hilarious caricatures of writers, painters, movers and shakers practically steal the narratives out of their hardboiled wardrobes. Markson’s preoccupations—with baseball, modernist literature, unknowable women, art—are present, as throwaway lines and well-executed characters who we wish we’d follow instead of the humdrum plots. (Even Markson’s great love, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, gets a oblique shout-out.) Markson clearly wants it that way. The Greenwich Village world holds his attention, and ours, more than any murder could. The conversational but erudite first-person perspective speaks with a voice eerily similar to that of Markson’s later fictions—that snappy, chatty, but monstrously well-read prose style was already honed for Markson forty years ago. What’s most surprising is not his customary wit but rather what it’s aimed at—Markson’s beloved Greenwich Village. The books caustically skewer Beat pretensions and downtown culture, and it’s fun to guess which New York artists—and Markson’s known quite a few in his eighty years—he’s lampooning in a given sequence. (You think I’m kidding about the “beloved,” eh? My hardcover first edition of 1977’s Springer’s Progress has an author that reads that “He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and children.” Not New York City, but Greenwich Village. This basic biographical insistence on the Village is true of almost every other book cover I’ve seen.) He loves the place so much that he knows its soft spots, and plunges the knife straight in. B+ / B

Sherlock, Jr. (1926), dir. Buster Keaton: The master at work. This time, Buster’s a movie projectionist who dreams of being in a movie, and then simply walks into the screen. Mayhem ensues. The movie rolls on to random scenes—for two minutes, it’s an exercise in surrealism—as Buster tries to adjust to his flickering new surroundings. All the while, the audience watches. In the movie within this movie, Buster becomes a detective who happens to be much smarter than people think he is, and who is a pool shark to boot. (His spectacular shots, photographed at medium range so that we can see the full billiards table, are marvelous. Is there anything he couldn’t do?) Several fantastic chase scenes ensue, including one where he rides on the handlebars of a driver-less motorcycle—he’s not aware that the driver fell off a while back—and that would be echoed in Jackie Chan’s Police Story 2. The entering-and-exiting of the movie screen would be stolen by Woody Allen for The Purple Rose of Cairo. Steven Spielberg would try to match the elaborately choreographed stunts between man and machine in 1941, but just ends up looking bloated in comparison. Sherlock, Jr. is unmatched and unmatchable. In 44 minutes, Keaton shows off more movie magic (and inspires more) than most filmmakers’ full oeuvres, and does so cleanly and concisely. He doesn’t even look like he’s trying that hard. And, in case this actually needs to be said, it’s hilarious. 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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