Quick hits (November 2007)

I tend to start new books before I’ve done with the one I’ve started, with the end result being that I find myself reading three books in the same period. This bibliophilic schizophrenia has gone nuts lately—I’m in the middle of six books. On the movie end, I’m halfway through Dennis Potter’s six-part TV miniseries Pennies from Heaven (which might be the bleakest show I’ve ever seen), a third of the way into Krystof Kieslowski’s 10-part Decalogue (which might be the best), and I’m finishing up the box set of Stan Brakhage movies I started months ago.

All of this is to say that this will be a necessarily brief edition of “Quick Hits,” because I haven’t actually finished much of anything over the past six weeks. Here we go.

The Grateful Dead Hour: I’ve avoided the Grateful Dead for most of my listening life, having only bought (and sold) one album. Each of their influences—old country, folk, Delta blues, bebop—interest me on their own, but the Dead’s combination of the ingredients makes a stew that’s bland to me. It’s the drumwork that bugs me the most. The shuffling, never-quite-danceable beats—two drummers is one too many—always irritated me. The tempos aren’t raging or soulful or bottom-swinging or anything, really. The beats are shrugs—intricate, yes, but never involving. The keyboardist (who was changed out in this band the way most bands change drummers) never seemed necessary. And while Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were both terrific guitarists, collectively, their sound was too clean, too pristine, too well-measured. The band’s whole sound felt diffuse, untethered to anything but air. (I do like the lyrics, though.) It’s a weird dislike, as I admire and love their modus operandi—changing setlists every concert, emphasizing improvisation over rote perfection, mixing old and new songs with every show, playing two sets, allowing (hell, encouraging) fans to record and trade shows. I revere Phish, a band that sounds very little like the GD, but which has clearly taken up the elder band’s operational aesthetic. Lately, though, I’ve found the Dead’s live concerts to be fascinating documents. The music makes good background music for writing, and they’re bound to be one gem a night. Specifically, I’m growing to love the Grateful Dead Radio Hour. You don’t have to endure a full show—the show lasts an hour—and features the occasional running theme (Mardi Gras takes up #114), interviews with band members and Deadheads, and informative liner notes about songs and GD events. Shows are archived here on the Dead’s official site, with a new posting every Wednesday. Good for neophytes, Deadheads, and grudging admirers alike. B+

The Bat Segundo Show: Book critic/blogger Ed Champion interviews practically any writer he can get his hands on, and talks to them at length. (As of 2 November 2007, there’s 153 episodes.) Each podcast lasts for at least 30 minutes, and Champion’s obviously read the book in question (and some previous ones as well) before talking to the writer, so the conversations are revealing and go beyond the rote PR material. Occasionally, he gets too testy too early on with his questions—he’d call it being provocative and not at the beck-and-call of marketers, but it sometimes comes across as being belligerent for the sake of riling up the author. And the podcast’s intro isn’t as funny as he thinks it is. Still, Champion’s engaged, incisive questions gets great responses and wonderful give and takes. Highlights include: George Saunders, Kelly Link, Alex Robinson, and the mighty Edward P. Jones. But almost all of them are great, and the frequently updated show makes Terry Gross’s Fresh Air look like the bullshit it is. A

Bottle Rocket (1996), directed by Wes Anderson: . I’m partial to the movie because large chunks of it were shot in my hometown (Dallas), and it was a kick to see these losers and has-beens ambling through neighborhoods I drove through regularly. Still, Bottle Rocket rollicks along hilariously even if you’re not familiar with its environs. In this debut feature, Anderson’s style hasn’t quite become so arch and stilted, because here he’s on a poor man’s budget. The mise-en-scene isn’t so hermetically sealed and pointillistically detailed, and the adult’s-fairy-tale feel of his later work hasn’t jelled yet, though the production design of one party scene is so perfectly composed (and pointedly satirical) that it’s unnerving to realize that this is a first film. More to the point, everything comes fast and furious. The camera, particularly the shaky and plentiful tracking shots, is looser and sloppier than anything Anderson would put onscreen until this year’s marvelous Darjeeling Limited. The one-liners, quips, and out-of-left-field dialogue overlaps frequently, and there’s not nearly so many deadpan line readings. It’s possible that Anderson’s been a better director since (My personal favorite is The Royal Tenenbaums, which I think is probably the best American film of this decade so far.), but he certainly hasn’t been as quick-witted and freewheeling in his later movies. Bottle Rocket’s aura is restless and unstable, just like its protagonists, who aren’t quite fully formed adults. It’s weird that critics regularly contend that Anderson is a closet racist, given that every one of his movies lampoons the pretensions of the privileged white upper-class. In Bottle Rocket, this satiric intent is in its most acidic form. What unnerves his detractors (and Anderson’s fans, like me) is his ability to portray these people sympathetically—he loves them, and we do, too, despite everything—while simultaneously skewering their anxieties and childish behavior. Along the way, he slices apart the post-Reservoir Dogs crime sagas that overpopulated the 1990s and the money-mad young adults that emerges from the 1980s. The protagonists become low-rent crooks basically because they’re bored rich kids, but they have 50-year plans [No, that’s not a typo.] and elaborate, completely idiotic schemes for personal development. The violence is slapstick and minor, but it nevertheless has more realistic consequences than most of what’s in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. With the exception of Anderson’s abiding interest in family, all of the filmmaker’s thematic concerns are here at the outset, but the aesthetic isn’t fully fleshed out yet. All that means is that we get to watch a master in progress. 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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4 Responses to Quick hits (November 2007)

  1. Ernesto says:

    Man, why the drummer hate?

  2. Walter says:

    Hatin’ on drummers isn’t something I enjoy, especially considering that rhythm and rhythm sections are usually the most interesting parts of music and musicians for me. Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are obviously, on their own, very talented drummers on a technical level. Playing together, though, their work feels less like a singular drumbeat than clatter. It distracts and throws your ears off the beats, and since neither Kreutzmann nor Hart exactly leads the band–unlike a jazz drummer like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Earl Harvin, Paul Motian, or Max Roach, who each often become the center that holds a song together and pushes it into new directions–they make the music unfocused. I don’t know what to hold on to, and it becomes mere background wash as a result. To each his own–obviously, Kreutzmann and Hart have their defenders.

  3. brian says:

    “bound to be one gem a night”– that’s it right there, and why the GD Hour is a good place to go. GD did have their moments, making for nothing less then exceptional forays into the realm of music, but there were also plenty of shows where the local cover band on campus could play circles around them.
    For the drummers, I understand where you are coming from, ‘clatter’, but I think it wasn’t just the drummers that had that approach, but everyone. When it worked, its what gave the GD that special sound, that mix of spontaneity and dimension. Of course, sometimes it didn’t. David Crosby summed it up real well: most bands strive to work as one wolf running through the woods, but with the dead, it was 6 wolves running together (and only inevitable that one or two would stray now and then).
    I used to dig Phish also, but only listen to them about once a year since the breakup. The music is too energetic to figure out what the hell I”m supposed to do with it my living room. I wonder if Trey Anastasio might of had or is having the same problem with his creative inspiration. Hopefully he rids some of his demons and comes back with something entirely new. A great guitarist who needs to keep moving forward. As with everything in life.

  4. Aaron says:

    Could you expand on your dislike of Terri Gross’ Fresh Air?

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