Thursday, February 25, 2010

Contemporary Classical Music and "Shutter Island"

Mostly, Martin Scorserse is associated with rock 'n' roll, especially the early Rolling Stones and Phil Spector. But he's turned out one of the best contemporary-classical soundtracks in history with the music for Shutter Island.

A lot of people, some of them licensed film critics, really didn't like Scorsese's new film, which stars Leo Di Caprio investigating a home for the criminally insane swept by wind and rain in Boston Harbor. (Okay, okay, I've heard from all of you by this point.)

But the film, whatever else it does or doesn't do, set longtime Scorsese friend Robbie Robertson free to round up a fairly grim and quite adventurous musical assortment that goes way beyond the usual atmospheric or Bernard Herrmann ripoffs that often accompany psychological thrillers or horror films. Because the film is set in the early '50s, just before rock music's emergence, and there is a wartime Europe backstory, a baffling John Cage tribute by Nam June Paik (pictured) makes a lot more sense than "Jumping Jack Flash."

Here is Mark Swed's excellent piece on Robertson and the film's music in today's LAT. (I like what he says about the movie's marketing as well.)

I'm especially pleased to know the RR was behind the mix. Scorsese's The Last Waltz, about the final concert by Robertson's old group, The Band, was the first serious film about music I ever saw: My dad took me to see it at the Brattle when I was 10, I think. (I was not, coming in to this, happy to be led to a film about waltzing, but went because it was paired with "Singin in the Rain.")

Also pleasing to see so many West Coast composers -- John Adams, Lou Harrison, John Cage -- and other favorites like Alfred Schnittke and Brian Eno (who really should have collaborated, by the way.)

One of only a few non-classical pieces is Lonnie Johnson's rendition of "Tomorrow Night," which some of you know from Elvis's Sun Sessions. Again, a triumph of good taste... Who's cooler than Lonnie Johnson?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

MOCA and Postwar Art

NOT long ago I snuck over to the Museum of Contemporary Art for the exhibit of its permanent collection. Am I crazy, or is this - dedicated to the years from 1940 to '80 -- one of LA's best shows of postwar art in the last few years?

The exhibit, of course, comes at a time when MOCA has just survived a major financial crisis that led to the resignation of its longtime director. Now, in the period right before the post is assumed by the New York gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch, a show dedicated to the museum's permanent collection could just be a place holder -- or like being invited to a dinner party and served leftovers. But it's an eye-opening tour of the first few decades in which the U.S. -- and the West Coast in particular -- became an important capital of  contemporary art.

What I liked about the show is that besides a few obligatory pieces -- a Pollock drip painting, familiar Diane Arbus photos -- it's full of pieces that even a frequent museum-goer will not be sick of. Part of this is because of a leaning toward West Coast artists -- Diebenkorn, Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Wallace Berman -- who are rarely overexposed ever in West Coast museums.

But I won't lean too hard on California defensiveness here -- this show is catholic and intriguing no matter what one's geographic or generational orientation. My wife particularly likes the Adrian Piper piece, which was a bit hermetic for my taste, but I was glad to catch a sample of the artist's work.

(The only downside of the visit was that my favorite downtown eatery, the beer-and-sausages joint called Wurstkuche, was so entirely packed we had to move to a (perfect decent) Japanese place down the street.)

The show I took in is up in the museum's main space, on California Plaza, across from Disney Hall; I think it may move out of that space in April. I'm looking forward to returning to see the second half of the permanent collection, of work from the '80s to the present, in the more expansive Geffen Contemporary space.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cool New California Novel

A fine new book with a perfect-pitch Southern California setting, has just dropped: Model Home, which starts out in an  '80s gated community, is the first novel by  Eric Puchner, whose Music Through the Floor provoked Charles Baxter to call it "the most auspicious debut of a short story collection that I have encountered in years." Model Home looks at a family that's driven by golden dreams, but finds itself downwardly mobile: It's the perfect novel for the West Coast's brutal Great Recession.

Puchner has an understated, almost Chekhovian touch, as well as a quiet humor. Unlike a lot of Gen X writers, he's not into comics, sci-fi or other hip genres -- he's an old-fashioned craftsman, sort of refreshingly square. He's also got excellent taste in rock music, especially '80s alt-rock, as you can see in this NYT piece. (I should add here that Puchner, who lived in the Bay Area for years, where he was a Stegner Fellow and taught at Stanford, has moved to LA, where he grew up, to teach at Claremont McKenna College and has since become an occasional drinking buddy.)

Here's my Q+A with Puchner, who appears at LA's Skylight Books this Thursday and embarks on a national tour in March.

Model Home has a very distinct – and distinctly Southern Cal – setting: A nouveau-riche gated community close enough to the ocean that surfboards seem to be everywhere. What made this the right place to start the novel?

Well, part of what the novel's about is the phenomenon of the gated community, and how the rise of these enclaves has shaped our landscape and our sense of community and the great geographical and ideological schism that's occurred between where we sleep and where we earn our livings. That sounds high alutin', and the honest truth is that there's something very attractive about some of these places: Warren Ziller, the father in Model Home, loves where he lives, and in part I wanted the first part of the book to counter the whole cliché that the suburbs are inherently evil and devoid of culture.  (Just look at the great music that came out of the South Bay in the eighties, when the novel is set). 

The second half of the book takes place in a very different kind of gated community: a block of tract homes in the middle of Antelope Valley, designed to lure lower-middle class Angelenos out to the desert where they can afford to buy their own homes. The Zillers end up living out there by themselves, in this sort of post-apocalyptic setting where it's too hot to go outside and the coyotes are eating each other. So I consciously structured the novel to contain these two polar opposites, these two versions of the Californian dream.

Your stories and the novel seem to have a gently sardonic tone, a minor key of black humor, in common. Can humor or irony undercut the emotional impact of a scene, or do they work together?

Well, of course I think they work together. Who was it that said Waiting for Godot was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century? It's a play that has its roots in vaudeville, and it makes you laugh and gasp for air at the same time.  It's also extremely moving. It's almost a paradox, but I actually think that writing a scene with too much gravity is more likely to deplete the emotional impact: you need that lightness of tone, that friction, or else you're doing the emotional work for the reader and letting him off the hook. 

I have to say, too, that I can't imagine trying to capture the absurdity of contemporary American life without humor. Laughter and despair, they come from the same place for me, and I'm interested in mining that place in my work.

How much is this book and its characters inspired by your own life?

I was a teenager in Southern California in the eighties, and we were downwardly mobile in something of the same way that the Zillers are -- but everything that happens is utterly fictional. The characters are completely made up and bear absolutely no relation to my family (thank god). I do feel it's in some ways a book about my father and about my own youth -- but it's an emotional resemblance, not a literal one.    

You’re back in LA after living for years in the Bay Area, traditionally considered the seat of culture and literary life on the West Coast. By contrast, how does 21st century Southern California strike you?

I absolutely love San Francisco, but I have to say there's something refreshing about the weirdness and messiness and unrepentant ugliness of L.A. In some ways, San Francisco has become a bit like Paris or Manhattan: a beautiful city in a bottle (or in quotation marks). It's got this rich cultural history, but artists and writers and musicians can't afford to live there anymore. In L.A., there will always be pockets of affordability, and so there won't ever be that sort of cultural diaspora, I don't think. Also, it was born wearing quotation marks.

And for a city that makes it's money off the movies, there are terrific bookstores. Skylight Books is fantastic. 

There have been a number of good Gen X novels and memoirs set in the ‘80s recently. What do the Reagan years mean to you? Culturally, musically, politically or otherwise.

That's a pretty big question, and hopefully I already answered it by writing the novel. It would take another 360 pages.  So maybe here's where I tell people to read the book?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vancouver and The Future of William Gibson

I SEEM to be hearing a lot about Vancouver these days. Not sure why, but it reminds me of my one trip to that glorious city to interview visionary novelist William Gibson. The writer often credited with foreseeing the Internet and much of hacker culture, Gibson was about to publish Spook Country, his second novel (after Pattern Recognition) to concentrate on the more-or-less present.

Gibson was as smart and easy to get along with as anyone I've ever interviewed: I was struck by his humility. HERE is my profile of him, where we talked about growing up in the conservative South, his flight to Canada, his breakthrough with Neuromancer, his clumsiness with technology and interest in rock n' roll and country music, and what a loser his friends thought he was when he started writing science fiction.

(Doug Coupland, who also lives in the city, was one of my first author interviews, back in 1994; a reader of The Misread City has just dug it up for me, here.)

And if you end up in Vancouver, the best place I ate was the Rain City Grille (where I ordered the locavore menu) and my favorite place to drink there is an indie/ retro pub called The Morrissey.

Monday, February 15, 2010

February 15 and Galileo

TODAY is an important day for Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, composer John Adams, jazzman Henry Threadgill -- and that's just the musicians. Throw in Susan B. Anthony and Galileo, and I think it's about as good a day as there is, especially lodged as it is in the middle of the dreary month of February. (And I insist I am totally unbiased on the matter despite my Feb. 15 birthday.)

Galileo was one of my idols as a kid, coming before even, I think, John Lennon and Kurt Vonnegut. I responded not only the man's polymath genius, but his courage and resistance to the Catholic Church, which persecuted him until the very end despite his continued piety; he was an important early shaper of my religious beliefs. And just a hair over 400 years ago, Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter.

One way I'm marking the day is to post my interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Galileo's Dream, a historical novel of the future, you might say, has just come out. HERE is that piece. Robinson, of course, is the environmentalist and Central California science-fiction writer with much fine work to his credit; his Mars trilogy is considered the best example of world-building since Dune.

In any case I will hoist a glass of Cava tonight to the great Florentine and the others.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Favorite Guitarists, on Reflection

Since he is widely considered the finest rock musician on any instrument, it's hard to be surprised that Jimi Hendrix won my guitarists poll quite handily. (Is that sound disgruntled Keith Moon fans smashing things in the background?) But there were some surprises along the way.

To review, this poll asked people for their favorites -- a house- burning-down grab, not the most important historically or otherwise. It came from a less formal poll I took among friends and on Facebook to determine the six finalists.

One of the surprises was the enigma of Hendrix. As I've made clear, he needs no defense for me, and he more than DOUBLED the votes of the runner up. But I was struck by the number of people -- musicians and music critics, not casual fans -- who told me that Hendrix's songwriting and singing took him down a notch in their estimate, or that his playing was too flashy. (I would retort with much of Axis: Bold as Love to any of those charges.) The fact that some people voted, for instance, for Neil Young over the mighty Hendrix slightly baffles me. I found myself, incredibly, having to defend the man's work!

I knew that the great white-blues-Boomers -- Clapton, Jeff Beck, Page and Richards -- might not fare terribly well here. In part, that's because many of my Gen X peers came of age at a time when these axe-men, however formidable, had been played to death on "classic rock" radio. (In some ways our ears have been "colonized" by Boomer taste in all kinds of ways.) All said, surprised to see Richards -- the least clearly virtuosic of this crowd -- yielding the most votes.

Surprising also was the strength of Richard Thompson, who came in second. There were certainly guitarists a little older, some a lot younger, some to the left of him (in terms of dissonance or experimental flair) and many to the center of him. But he seems to hit a sweet spot for the readers of this blog. As I've said before, he's a Boomer Xers love, a Brit at home on the American West Coast -- an oddly hybrid and genuinely wide-ranging artist.

(I was reminded of this last night by a very fine RT show at Largo last night. That was one set of Thompson with a band trying out his very British upcoming album, followed by a second set of classics -- going as far back as Fairport's "Time Will Show the Wiser," including an acoustic "Al Bowlly's in Heaven" which tempted me to stop playing forever, and closing with the full band augmented by Teddy and Kamila Thompson, singing along with their father in the parts originally sung by their mother, Linda. Thompson's soloing was stunning and unpredictable thoughout, with its weird blend of Django, Chet Atkins, Britfolk and Sufi modalism.)

Thompson was followed by Neil Young, who were followed by Young, with Richards and Robert Quine (who bridged punk and alt-rock with sessions for Matthew Sweet and Lloyd Cole) tied. Nels Cline, who did better as a semi-finalist than he did on the full poll, came in sixth. Not bad for someone who was only known to fans of avant-rock a few years back; thank Wilco for that.

And here I will come out of the closet re my own tastes. Here are my favorites. Of course, it's a list that changes a little every week:

Hendrix, Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, George Harrison. Robert Quine, Peter Buck, Johnny Marr, Kevin Shields, Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus, Doug Martsch, Django Reinhardt, Alasdair MacLean, John Fahey.

This poll was only for rock guitarists -- I may run another on folk, jazz or blues guitarists.

Comments, please, folks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Roberto Bolano's Eternal Life

Given the perilous state of publishing these days, it makes my heart sing whenever a writer of substance generates a serious following. And I keep bumping into people who feel passionate about the Latin American writer Roberto Bolano, who died near Barcelona in 2003. He's in the news these days for the publication of a slender sort-of-mystery novel called Monsieur Pain, but he has not stopped coming up in conversation since his work emerged on FSG in 2007.

Bolano, of coruse, writes often about bohemia, idealism, crushing disillusionment, sex, fascism and the romance of art and literature. HERE is my piece on Bolano, written for the publication of The Savage Detectives.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about the writer and his resurrection: My sense is that he's gotten a long way from having a romantic life, from attacking better-known writers (Paz, Garcia Marquez), from coming along just as people had tired of "magical realism," and from taking a very good picture early in his career, when he had a kind of poetic dessication. (He also writes about literary people -- poets, authors, critics -- flattering us that we're more important than we are.)

But what Bolano does well, he does better than almost anybody I know. My book group -- who I led in the novella Distant Star a few years back -- is now reading what's considered his masterpiece, 2666, and I look forward to digging in deeper.

Photo courtesy Melville House

Monday, February 8, 2010

Death -- and New Life -- for Philip K. Dick

IT seems appropriate for a writer who was fascinated by religion for much of his career that Philip K. Dick's own trajectory tracks that of many a religious messiah: He died in 1982, but in the years after his death he has seemed to rise again.

HERE is the last of six pieces in the Hero Complex blog about the author's decade in Orange County. It looks at his final years, his death, and the movie Blade Runner, which started out as a bomb before becoming one of the (few) great movies of the '80s and perhaps the defining film of contemporary Los Angeles.

This week I will put up a single post that will collect all my recent writing on the author, for Hero Complex and elsewhere.  

Friday, February 5, 2010

Martin Scorsese vs. "Shutter Island"

THIS winter in LA it has been raining, as we used to say in high school, like a mofo, and every times the heavens open I think of the upcoming Martin Scorsese film, Shutter Island. The film, which opens on Friday the 19th, is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane that is so gripping, so full of twists and turns, that it almost ruined a vacation last summer since I kept retreating to the basement to read it. (Much of the film takes place in pouring rain and driving winds, as this isle in Boston Harbor is hit with a hurricane.)

So it was a rare pleasure to see that the director was able to adapt the novel faithfully AND to turn out a kickass film that is also a showcase of great acting -- Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow in addition to a strong Leo DiCaprio in a complicated role.

Here is my piece from Sunday's LA Times, which comes mostly from an interview I did out here with Scorsese and conversations with Lehane and DiCaprio. Meeting the director was a real thrill, it was fun to go down tangents about his own work -- long conversation about The Last Waltz, which weirdly was the first of his films I ever saw -- as well as subjects like film noir and the work of Samuel Fuller.

The film is in some ways a departure for the director, and it may be too grounded in genre for his following and not gory enough for the horror-movie fans that are the film's natural audience. (And its move to the dead of February will not be good for the box office or Oscar noms.)

Scorsese comes, famously, from the first generation of American directors to attend film school en masse, and even in that company he stands out for his commitment to film history. Here is a sidebar about the films he shows his cast and crew so they have a common vocabulary of film references. "We would watch one or two movies," DiCaprio told me, "just to capture the tone of a specific scene."

"I'm not very good on plot," Scorsese told me. "I prefer character and mood, and atmosphere and music."

As for the plot of the novel and film, the less said the better. But see it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Philip K. Dick's Late Work

MY latest piece on Philip K. Dick is the only one built of all-new material: That is, none of this appears in the LA Times story about the writer's Orange County years that ran a couple of Sundays back.

This latest piece, which just went up on the Hero Complex blog, looks at the impact Southern California had on Dick's work. Did it move him toward an interest in consumerism, religion, or change his tone? I spoke to novelist Jonathan Lethem, a local professor, a veteran of SoCal's punk scene and Dick authority David Gill to get at the question of how Orange County led PKD to VALIS, A Scanner Darkly, Timothy Archer and others.

The sixth and final piece should run tomorrow.