Thursday, December 30, 2010

New View of General Lee

OKAY, get ready for a deluge of coverage of the Civil War, whose 150th anniversary begins in the new year. One of the first shots fired will be a new documentary on Gen. Robert E. Lee, who emerges as a complex, brilliant, at times tormented, and deeply human character. The doc, which goes up Monday on PBS, avoids the hero-worship of neo-Confederates and a debunking approach that might have been tempting.

HERE is my article on the film, which involves an interview with filmmaker Mark Zwonitzer (who has also written an acclaimed book on country music's Carter Family) and two eminent historians, Joan Waugh of UCLA and Joseph Glatthaar of UNC Chapel Hill.

We often hear that Americans are cut off from or uninterested in their own history. It's often true, but especially since the Ken Burns documentary in the early '90s, the Civil War has been a growth industry, and an obsession with the war has never gone away in the American South. And many historians see the war and its immediate aftermath as the period in which contemporary American culture was forged.

The film is quite explicit, by the way, about the cause of the war: For all the talk about "state's rights," it was quite solidly about slavery. Just look at the secession documents for each state: They were pretty unambiguous about what mattered to them.

And let me urge anyone interested in the Civil War to read historian C. Vann Woodward and his "Irony of Southern History."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Great New Novel

THIS week the first novel by a former indie rock guitarist comes out on Crown. The novel, The Metropolis Case, has a lot to do with opera, though you don't have to be an opera fan to enjoy the book. If you dig Tristan und Isolde -- or have every been transported by music -- the novel will have special meaning and depth.

HERE  is my review from today's New York Times.

I pick up a lot of novels, old and new, with hopes of getting through them. In the case of The Metropolis Case, I was drawn into the characters' fates after a few pages.

The novel is also set more or less in the opera world, but you shouldn't let that scare you any more than the ballet in Black Swan: Gallaway writes as if those old anxieties surrounding "high" culture have worn themselves out.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Show of the Year: Pavement

HERE at The Misread City, we saw a lot of great shows this year -- from a roaring Ted Leo and the Pharmacists to a funky Belle & Sebastian to a spooky Esa-Pekka Salonen returning to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But the concert that stands out the most for us is one with a lot of history and symbolism behind it, as well as plenty of kickass guitar playing: The first North American show by Pavement in more than a decade. Held at Pomona's Fox Theater, the gig took a few songs to get going. But by the end, the Stockton-to-Brooklyn quintet had shredded much of its catalog, including most of Slanted and Enchanted. They sounded far better, more focussed and committed, than they had during their original run in the '90s.

Even the wonderful Hollywood Bowl concert, with Sonic Youth and No Age along for the ride, couldn't quite equal it.

Wishing everyone a great holiday. My readership has given me some solace during these very tough times.


Friday, December 17, 2010

The Glories of the Marin Coast

OVER 13 years in Los Angeles, I've seen much of this beautiful state. But my trip to Point Reyes Station, which I visited in September because novelist Philip K. Dick lived there 50 years ago, stands out for the area's mellow natural beauty.

I wrote about the town, and the surrounding National Seashore, in a travel story for the Oregonian, HERE.

West Marin has a fortuitous setting: tiny towns that haven't been suburbanized to death, ample Pacific coastline, numerous smaller bodies of water, including Tomales Bay, and plenty of wildlife in the redwoods and eucalyptus groves. It feels like the edge of the world but you're really just 40-some miles from San Francisco. By the time you drive in through Samuel P. Taylor State Park -- a shady enclave with Lagunitas Creek running alongside -- you've left the sprawl behind. 

One of the highlights was a restaurant called Osteria Stellina, with a sophistication I was surprised to find in such a small town. It's started to get some well-deserved attention from the food press -- Food and Wine magazine just singled out one of its recipes -- and I hope it's still there the next time I visit the Marin Coast.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Masters of Cinema, Through French Eyes

THE French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema may be the most important, game-changing publication in the history of film, thanks to its role in the auteur theory and its instigation of the New Wave. The magazine also rethought film history in a way that honored directors like Hitchcock and Hawks at the expense of supposedly more serious French filmmakers. 

Some of Cahiers’ advocacy (Sam Fuller) now seems ahead of its time; other calls (Jerrry Lewis, "le Roi du Crazy") still provoke head-scratching on this side of the Atlantic. Cahiers skeptics, especially among the Brits, have suggested that the magazine’s pantheon is geared so heavily toward explicitly visual filmmakers since its critics were too lazy to read English subtitles. 

This season, Cahiers' book arm has put out 10 thin, affordable volumes, each devoted to a different director, most of them American, and including Scorsese, Eastwood, Tim Burton and others. Dubbed "Masters of Cinema," the series is pretty good and offers some surprises.

HERE is my review in today's LA Weekly.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christopher Isherwood's LA

LAST night the Hammer Museum held an event about Isherwood's years in LA that included his companion Don Bachardy and and journalist David Kipen. 

Isherwood with Auden, 1939
Connection problems keep me from filling this out further, but HERE is the piece I wrote on the British author's years in California, which included a visit to his old house in the Palisades. The story begins:

He abandoned a sexually decadent Berlin and an unsettled Britain to come to a bright city full of churchgoers, orange groves and beach boys. But those extremes were on the point of convergence. During the nearly 50 years that Christopher Isherwood was to spend here, Europe embraced Southern California styles transmitted by Hollywood, and Los Angeles grew closer to Europe both culturally and intellectually.
Most readers still know Isherwood as the man who wrote the stories that became "Cabaret." To many observers, however, he also presided over the transformation of his adopted hometown from a sleepy burg with Westside lima bean fields and a folksy, Midwestern tone to a cosmopolitan metropolis with powerful ambitions. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Happy, and Sad, 70th to John Lennon

THIRTY years ago, on a cold December morning, I woke up to see my mom, a bit addled, standing in my bedroom doorway. "I've got some bad news," she said. "John Lennon was shot."

"Well, is he okay?" I asked.

I was in 6th grade, and I'd spent much of the previous few years sitting in the basement while my head spun along with the turntable to the Beatles music -- especially "Revolver" and an album my best friend had given me the year before, "Rubber Soul"; I especially liked the psychedelic "I'm Only Sleeping," the reflective "In My Life" and the darkly romantic "It's Only Love."  Of course I liked all the Beatles, but John was my first and fiercest cultural hero; I memorized the lyrics to his songs and read everything I could about him.

Not everyone was as zealous as me, and some friends preferred Paul or George, but it seemed inconceivable that someone might not like the Beatles.

I trudged to school, where the teacher was a supposedly "tough" customer who'd taken a special liking to me for some reason -- she was a kind of hero of mine as well. Partway through school, maybe at the lunch hour, she brought up Lennon's murder.

She was shocked, in fact -- because an opera singer had died the day before and no one had noticed. And here this "druggie" had been killed, and people were crying in the streets. Why all the fuss for a rock n roll singer?

Of course, this didn't exactly endear me to my beloved teacher. What was even weirder than the pitting of high vs. popular culture -- something I've always hated and still fight against, and especially wrong in the case of John -- was the fact that none of the other kids seemed as shaken up as I was. I knew my folks were upset, and an old friend from my previous school called me later in the day and we talked forever about it. But had I landed in some baleful alternate universe where nobody liked the Beatles? The conversation moved on to another topic, but I didn't.

I'm the kind of person that likes to reconcile opposing points of view, to understand people's perspectives in the widest possible context. Maybe on the 40th anniversary of John's death -- which will also be the day before his 80th birthday, as today is the day before his 70th -- I'll be able to see my teacher's reaction with more detachment. But today, I'm still so upset about John's death, and realize that day -- the end of his life -- was the beginning, for me, of the distrust of authority that I'm now old enough to read in his songs and life.

In September David Kamp wrote this funny and heartbreaking interview with Lennon as if he were preparing to celebrate his 70th: "Lennon, who will turn 70 on October 9, remains enviably slim and has a deep late-summer tan. The longish hair is mostly white and a bit thinned out on top but becomingly so, in the manner of late-period Richard Harris."

RIP John Lennon. It's a cliche' to close a recollection of an artist's life by talking about how his art will endure, but it's rarely seemed as true as it is with Lennon. My four-year-old son Ian, who, oddly, prefers Paul, is proof of the way Beatles songs grab people at all ages. (He can name about every song on Beatles for Sale.) 

And while at this time of year, the song "Imagine" always gets overplayed, I'm gonna dig a bit deeper into the Lennon solo catalog tonight. One of my favorite of his songs is "# 9 Dream," which lends its name to the first novel by one of my favorite writers, David Mitchell. It's melodic, profound, and imperfect -- the chorus is almost bad enough to wreck the song and the orchestration is too much. Good and bad, it's a fitting tribute to the man himself.

Monday, December 6, 2010

James Franco and The Adderall Diaries

ONE of the best and most unpredictable memoirs I've read in years is The Adderall Diaries, which is a weird hybrid of a murder trial, S&M chronicle, and document of drug abuse. I just bumped into its author, Stephen Elliott, who is a far more level guy than you'd expect given that previous description, at the local coffee shop. Elliott, who's an editor at the excellent literary site The Rumpus, is in town for a reading of an anthology of Rumpus Women: Personal Essays By Women Tuesday night at the Traveler's Bookshelf on 3rd St. (He tells me the event will include a brief performance by Jill Sobule.)

Anyway, Elliott mentioned that actor James Franco -- who I will always think of as the tough kid from Freaks and Geeks despite his more high profile appearances -- has optioned the book for film adaptation. (Franco, tentatively, will both direct and appear in the film.)

I met Elliott in LA last year to discuss his memoir -- HERE is the ensuing LA Times piece.

The author enjoyed working with Franco, who is course a writer himself and has a recent book of deadpan short stories that have gotten mixed reviews. "He's making a serious attempt to be an artist," Elliott says. "Which is all you can do. There's an integrity to him."

Elliott adapted the script -- calling it "the easiest thing I've ever done." He's hot to write more scripts now.

All kinds of things get optioned and never see daylight, but we're optimistic about Franco these days. We'll keep our eye on this one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

WikiLeaks and Daniel Ellsberg

IN September, I interviewed Daniel Ellsberg, famed for his role in leaking the Pentagon Papers and thus helping to end the Vietnam War. At the time he spoke of the importance of the actions of WikiLeaks, arguing that governments keep so much secret that almost any leak is a good one. (Here is my piece, timed to the excellent documentary on the former RAND analyst.)

Now he has come out again in favor of WikiLeaks: Here is a letter to Amazon, terminating his account and urging a boycott of the online retailer.

"I'm disgusted by Amazon's cowardice and servility in abruptly terminating today its hosting of the Wikileaks website, in the face of threats from Senator Joe Lieberman and other Congressional right-wingers. I want no further association with any company that encourages legislative and executive officials to aspire to China's control of information and deterrence of whistle-blowing." 

The whole letter is pretty scorching.

And here's a relevant bit from my article: 

He's heartened by the recent cache of documents released by WikiLeaks on the Afghan war, though he thinks newspapers are more credible places to publish than the Internet. But he applauds the site for offering a clearer look at what the U.S. government is up to: "There should be a Pentagon Papers out ever year," he says.