Quick hits (March 2008)

In my rush to see 2007’s best movies in advance of the Oscars and my annual “favorite movies” posting, and since I’m on the screening committee of the local film festival, I’ve neglected other arts to a large degree. But the birds sing, the weather’s delightful, and I’ve gotten back to culture that exists beyond the flickering screen. February has been mostly about the rediscovery of walks, sunshine, and good books. That’s reflected in this edition—no movies, though I’ve seen plenty. Here we go.

Music for 18 Musicians (2007), composed by Steve Reich (1976), performed by Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble: This demanding, repetitive piece somehow calms me. Its looping xylophones—though never looped electronically; this is live—create a fog that disguises the cello and vocal surges that emerge from the ether. Its basic rhythms are with us from the outset, and never falter for the piece’s full hour. In the hands of these students, though, Music for 18 Musicians never feels remotely static. The percussive layers—and every instrument, even the voices and horns, sounds like a drum somehow infused with melodic possibilities—are always moving in and out of the foreground. The sound surprises the ears constantly. Though the precision makes the execution initially feel mathematical, its root is emotionally affecting. It’s minimalist in rhythm, deeply textured in sonic layers, and thoroughly lacking in atonality and dissonance, so it’s accessibly avant-garde. Perhaps because I was reared on hip-hop and pop beats, the repetition is soothing to me rather than alarming. This isn’t to say it’s a mere balm. It soars, swoops through a melancholia wrought by those bowed cellos, and arrives at a well-earned and uplifting state of grace. A+

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) by Brian Selznick: In Spring 1999, I took a college course on French cinema that, among other things, introduced me to Georges Méliès and René Clair. These early film geniuses brought a conscious aesthetic of contraption to filmmaking—Méliès is widely regarded as the inventor of special effects in cinema; Clair dazzlingly merged sound experiments with elaborate on-screen machinery. Whereas other directors tried to make their tricks look seamless, Clair and Méliès were interested in the audience seeing the process as much as the final product. Their movies look clunky and handmade, as if we’re watching cinema being created as it’s projected onscreen. We are—that, in large, is why I love the silent era so much. (Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement keep the spark alive.) I was so enraptured that, when I went to Paris the following May, I made a special point of visiting Père Lachaise, for the primary purpose of photographing Méliès’s grave. So, I’m a sucker for Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, as it tries for two things: 1) it fuses comics, prose, book illustration, and photography until it’s unclear what form the book ultimately takes; and 2) its central figure, though not quite its protagonist, is the elder Georges Méliès. Hugo Cabret, a young thief/inventor who lives in the Paris train stations, finds himself reluctantly working for a wind-up toy maker who caught him stealing. The boy makes for an endearing, effective hero, and his efforts help to rehabilitate the life and work of the toy maker (Méliès). Clockwork, finely tuned gears, and the magic of cinema are all involved. Over half the book consists of Selznick’s detailed, heavily hatchmarked Conté-pencil drawings. The drawings usually spread over both verso and recto pages, rectangular, and evoke nothing so much as black-and-white celluloid projected onto a silver screen. Long sections of text convey the psychological mindsets of the characters, but occasionally seem to run slipshod over what might have been better done as artwork. I can’t decide whether Selznick chose his form to break new ground or because he was too lazy to either draw it all or write it all. Because the drawings must be read sequentially in order for the book to make any sense, it’s close to comics. There are no pages of multiple panels, however, and the stretches of prose belie Hugo Cabret’s categorization as comics. But it fits uneasily in whatever category it’s placed in. Selznick’s a better artist than a writer—his characterization is somewhat thin, despite the book’s 530+ pages, and the story could have been told in half the book’s length. The story is arresting, though, and Hugo Cabret may be ushering in a new style of children’s book. We’ll see. B+

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift (2003) by Elinor Lipman: Alice Thrift, a young surgical resident, is so bereft of social graces that her mother thinks she has Asperger syndrome. The only way she knows that you don’t tell someone he’s in a terminal, non-operable stage of cancer by blurting out “You’ve go no chance. Are your affairs in order?” is because, well, she did that once. She’s decided sex isn’t worth it because she tried it, once, futilely, at age twenty, just “to see what the fuss was about.” If she has a sense of humor at all, it’s buried under a taciturn, overworked façade. So why do we love her and root for her? Elinor Lipman’s first feat is putting us directly in Alice’s head; the novel is told in first-person. We’re forced to empathize with Alice, as she’s our guide through her tortured life. Lipman’s brisk, acerbic sentences capture Alice’s pain but, at the same time, allow us to see (though Alice doesn’t) how self-involved and problematic she is. Alice is hilarious but rarely knows it. Lipman’s second feat is to create other, equally rich characters for Alice to bounce off of. For instance, anyone but Alice can see that her fiancé is a shyster, but he’s endearing enough to teach the woman a lot of what she needs to know about life. Her true love’s paramour is snotty and self-righteous, until she turns out to be competent and thoughtful in her line of work. Alice’s friends and potential lovers feel as lived-in and dynamic as she does, even with less speaking lines and even though we’re seeing them through a limited perspective. Lipman’s hat trick is that she’s at once both wickedly sardonic and sexily enticing about love. (When Alice finally has an orgasm, our toes curl, even though it’s clearly with the wrong man.) Alice Thrift is romantic and hilarious, but it’s not a “romantic comedy” in the conventional Bridget Jones’s Diary sense, as Lipman’s as interested in Alice’s emotional development as she is in her love life. The novel moves convincingly from hospital to bedroom to first-date restaurant to awkward dinner party, because it’s ultimately a book about social relationships and mores. The Beatles sang “all you need is love,” but Lipman shows that you need a lot more than that to get through life. (Hat tip to Sheila, who recommended this one.) A

Euphonic Sounds (1998) by Reginald R. Robinson: Chicago pianist/composer Reginald R. Robinson has spent the last two decades trying to convince the world that ragtime remains a vital musical genre. He joins Dutch pianist Guido Nielsen and the Rag-Time Ephemeralist folks on this lonesome crusade. While not as technically precise as Nielsen, Robinson’s a strong, swinging pianist, and his original compositions, such as the tango-inflected “Sweet Envy” and the soulful “Incognito” (in which Sondra Davis sings), are jaunty. The solo piano is straightforward—if you’ve seen a Western with a scene set in a saloon, you’ve heard ragtime—and the production is clean and ringing. The mix of songs—Robinson’s seven originals, plus tunes by Scott Joplin, James Scott, and others—are delightful, but I’m not sure this work introduces anything new to the genre. Robinson keeps the flame alive, but Euphonic Sounds serves more of an archival function than an aesthetic one. B

The Invisibles (1994-2000), written & created by Grant Morrison, drawn by various artists: British mainstream-comics writers that emerged from the late 1970s and 1980s—Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Bryan Talbot (who also draws)—are all pop maximalists. They cobble together various strands of pulp fiction, superhero comics, sci-fi, and British and American history to form their own mythological cosmos. Usually, but not always, these pop-culture myths are half-satirical and half-reverential. Their comics feature lots of characters and overlapping narratives, often confusing and always convoluted systems of government, constant formal experimentation with the comics form, and splashy, overheated violence. (Gaiman tones the latter down, usually, but the others more than make up for his lack of excessive gore and dead bodies.) They’re all trying to explode the system, whether it’s that of comics or society is sometimes hard to tell; James Wood’s theory of “hysterical realism” applies here more than to the novels he derides. Grant Morrison’s seven-volume The Invisbles takes the maximalism to further extremes. Every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard about is true, and it’s up to anarchic splinter cell groups called Invisibles to keep the world from plunging into fascism of an interstellar scale. The thing is—and I think this is Morrison’s intent—the Invisibles aren’t exactly noble or even likable, and their tactics prove to be as ruthless and destructive as those of their enemies. Morrison ultimately holds that chaos theory is the only workable route to surviving and thriving in modern life, which I don’t buy. Large swaths of his theories—on gender, sex, conformity, religion, the perception of reality—are unreadable, and sometimes his characters seem like clunky ciphers for his thoughts rather than well-conceived people. Some of the artists he works with terrific—pencilers Jill Thompson and Phil Jimenez, inker John Stokes—while others obviously rushed to meet their deadlines. The snappy, ever-so-hip conversations, fashions, and cultural references sometimes feel dated now, as pop obsessions can, and the art often feels overcrowded. Still, I couldn’t put the damn thing down. For every two crackpot theories, there’s one that’s enlightening, and occasionally there’s one visual idea that turns me on my head. The sex-and-guns dynamic is a cover for high-falutin’ thinking about how we understand reality and dreams, and how the two merge uncomfortably. The art, changing radically from artistic team to artistic team, gives the sense that the characters and the Invisibles world isn’t static—how we’re forced to perceive them changes per issue, by circumstance. (In American Splendor, in which Harvey Pekar’s visage is different depending on who’s drawing him for a particular story, Pekar mines the same territory.) That’s more like life than I’m sometimes willing to admit. B+

Diva (1979) by Delacorta: Beating Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis to the punch by half a decade, Delacorta’s Diva combines superficially drawn characters, clichés and racial stereotypes, the height of fashion consciousness (the characters themselves seem like brand names), and just enough sordid behavior to keep us turning pages, even when we know it’s crap. The writer’s no stylist—clunky phrasing; wooden, expository dialogue; the constant use of pop-culture detritus as substitution for characterization and a sense of-lived-in place—and he has a habit of telling us what we already know. A sample paragraph: “Technically, the tape was flawless. Musically, it made Gorodish feel as if two big wings were carrying him through space. He had never heard anything like it.” Another, from the same page: “She wondered why that woman hadn’t taken off her raincoat. There was something stiff and formal about her. Maybe Jules liked mature women, as they were called in magazines.” The sentences simultaneously feel like they give too much—we don’t just know that Jules decided to go to a movie; we know that it’s “Pasolini’s Medea, with Maria Callas, [which] was being shown at a movie house in the Latin Quarter”—and too little. (This descriptive detail adds nothing to our understanding of Jules; we already know that he’s an opera lover, even if that’s all we really ever know about him.) But it’s no wonder Delacorta’s novella was a hit. It’s fast-paced, darts between multiple storylines that finally intersect (though not well), it has snappy pop references throughout but takes place in the high-culture world of opera, fine dining, and hi-fi sound systems. It’s ideal for 1970s Playboy readers who want to feel like they’re reading something sophisticated in their swank pads and monogrammed silk pajamas. It plays to its base, in other words, allowing readers to revel in filth while still feeling classy. I only finished it because it’s the basis for an acclaimed movie—further proof that great books rarely make for great films, but bad books can often lead to good movies. F

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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