Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New Offerings at UCLA

WHEN I moved to the Eastside five years ago, the main think I knew I'd miss from my more central position in the city was the cultural stuff at UCLA. The last few days -- which has seen a new schedule  for UCLA Live and a season preview at the Hammer Museum -- reminds me just how much is going on there.

One of the best developments since I landed here 13 years ago has been Ann Philbin's revival of the oil tycoon's museum in a particularly corporate part of Westwood. Today's preview continued a fresh program of art in various forms, much of it infused, this time, with music and performance.

Douglas Fogle, the newish chief curator, opened up the preview by welcoming us on "what passes for bad weather in LA - 'There's a mist, I can't go out.'" He was especially excited about a September show by Mark Manders, a sculptor who started out as a poet and retained, he said, a poetic approach to his craft. The Hammer's Contemporary Collection is about to open, full of what seemed like challenging work.

Overall, there seemed like a great deal of installations, documentaries, musical offerings, etc. coming over the next few months. The next Hammer Invitational, still without a title, looks promising, and this year will offer not only LA artists -- Kerry Tribe and Charles Gaines, both of whose recent work sounds fascinating -- as well as international artist who have not had much exposure in the Southland.

I was able to very swifty move through Outside the Box: Edition Jacob Samuel, 1988-2010, and will be returning to take a closer look at the beautifully austere work of the old-school Santa Monica-based printmaker, who obvious loved Durer. (I especially liked his work with Barry McGee - right -- and Ed Ruscha.)

UCLA Live, which for years I have found to be the most challenging arts series in town, recently announced its 2010-'11 schedule, and as usual there is some wonderful stuff on here, if not, alas, the international theater festival that has helped connect LA audiences to the best work happening in the rest of the world.

It's hard to imagine John Cale being better suited to any spot in town than this series, and I am eager to see piano virtuoso Murray Perahia, Dengue Fever playing to silent film The Lost World as well as the intriguing bill of soul legend Mavis Staples and Brit folk-punk singer Billy Bragg.

Should I be surprised that cashiered UCLA Live artistic director David Sefton, whose last season this is, is not, from what I can tell, anywhere mentioned in the rollout of the new season?

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Killer Inside Jim Thompson

WITH the film adaptation of Michael Winterbotton’s The Killer Inside Me opening in Los Angeles today, I turned to the author's biographer for insight into this very complicated pulp figure. If there is a better biography of an American writer than Robert Polito’s Savage Art, I’ve not read it. (The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award.)

Polito’s book describes Thompson as a “profoundly alienated man’’ who belonged to the Communist party in the ’30s, worked in oil fields and ran with the underworld during Prohibition. Thompson, he writes, produced work that seems congruent with the early rock n roll of Elvis and Little Richard, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the films of Nicholas Ray.

Polito – a poet who heads the graduate writing program at the New School -- and I spoke in the context of Winterbottom’s adaptation, which I write about here. What follows are excerpts from our discussion.

Q: Let’s start out by framing Jim Thompson in literary history.

A: I very much see Thompson as the leading writer of the second generation of crime writers, along with David Goodis and Patricia Highsmith. The shift from the first generation – the Hammett/ Chandler generation – is the shift from the detective to the criminal as the focus of the books. Thompson offers us the most complicated structures, especially in his first-person novels: The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, Pop. 1280. They’re as experimental as anything in American fiction at that moment.

Q: What’s the structure in Killer?

A: That’s Lou Ford’s voice – the way he treats the people in Carter City, with his mix of clich├ęs. He’s mistreating the reader the same way he mistreats the good citizens of Center City.

Q: He’s a classic unreliable narrator in Nabokov’s sense, and very conscious – like a certain kind of novelist – that life is a performance.

A: After working with Thompson on two films, Stanley Kubrick directed a Nabokov adaptation. [Lolita.] Kubrick was fascinated with that kind of dangerous, repellent, charming narrator.

Q: Thompson’s collaborations with Kubrick – The Killing and Paths of Glory – were unhappy experiences for him. And directors, especially American directors, have not had much luck adapting Thompson’s books.

A: Some of it comes from the refusal of those directors to take on the voice of the main characters, which reduces the novels to their violence and action. You have to be willing to take on those weird structures, and the weirdness around the edges.

Q: Do you feel the same way about Winterbottom’s take on The Killer Inside Me?

A: There’s a lot to like about the film – starting with the performances. Casey Affleck if terrific. And the music is terrific. But I was disappointed by the absence of energy or thought in going into what makes the book exciting: Ford’s voice and the way he tells the story. Ford controls your perceptions in the novel, and you read under and around the unreliability and the slipperiness. But it’s filmed too much like the book was written in the third person.

Godard in his prime could have made a great Killer Inside Me.

Q: Those last years, in LA, sound pretty sad and did not produce great novels. Was it mostly the drinking?

A: He was distracted in a very serious way by the movies and the prospect of making a living from the movies.

And he suffered from a total alleviation of the censorship he had worked under. Now Thompson could say anything rather than accomplish it through subterfuge. That had allowed Thompson to write on all cylinders. The Killer Inside Me was an allegory for the kind of pulp novel Thompson was writing: You think you’re reading one kind of novel, and you’re reading another. When you have to slip something by the official channels, it enforces subtlety and experimental art.

Q: In Savage Art, you talk about the fact that these novels, though pulp fiction, were actually taken seriously by sharp-eyes readers and critics.

A: Hell of a Woman had reviews comparing him to Celine and Joyce – Jim Thompson was appreciated in his lifetime. He was getting words like "experimental" attached to him before he died. It’s like early rock n roll: It was meant to be disposable, and then it wasn’t.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Eloquent Ache of Joe Pernice

THERE are only a handful of musicians of whose work I own virtually every release. Among this group is Joe Pernice, whose recordings with alt-country band Scud Mountain Boys, chamber-pop band the Pernice Brothers and assorted side projects share an easy melodic sense, knack for both American-roots and British Invasion production styles and an aching voice that recalls the Zombies.

I still remember hearing the first Pernice Bros. record at a coffee shop on Beverly and was immediately launched into seeking out his collected works.

Pernice, whose last album was the very fine covers-heavy "soundtrack" to his novel It Feels So Good When I Stop, has just released the first Pernice Bros. LP in four years, Goodbye, Killer. (That's LA drummer/savant Ric Menck on Joe's left.)

While this blog is largely devoted to West Coast culture, there are times I am forced to admit that not everything of worth comes from our shores. The Massachusetts-reared, Toronto-dwelling Pernice is one of those rare cases -- here is my Q+A with him.

Q: At least half of this album feels more rustic than what we're used to from Pernice Bros. records, with more acoustic instruments and even electric songs like "The Loving Kind" using simpler, less compressed production.

A: The songs usually dictate the way they want to be done. You mess around with them some, but they suggest strongly the way they want to be done. With this record we were very unyielding on keeping it as spare as possible. We wanted to do it with as little clutter as possible. We wanted the songs to have rhythm, and to elevate at certain points, but we threw out everything that wasn't necessary.

One of the advantages of having fewer instruments is you let them breathe, they don't have to compete with each other.

Q: It sounds like you enjoy production and the technical side of making records, not just the songwriting you're associated with.

A: Production, I love -- making decisions about arrangements and what comes in at certain points. From an engineering standpoint, it puts me to sleep. But I love making decisions -- because you can't tell what it sounds like until you hear it.

Q: You've got a real talent for melodies: They always resolve in a satisfying way, but not always the way a listener expects. That can't be easy.

A: There's not a ton of thought involved. I hear things, I get an idea for a melody that grows out of something else. I've almost never had a whole melody come out of the blue. It grows out of fumbling around on a guitar. I really like doing it -- I really like banging on a guitar, hearing a melody, chasing it down and seeing where I can go with it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite melodists?

A: Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, the Beatles -- how can you not like them? -- Dusty in Memphis, Big Star, Brian Wilson, Carole King. "Will You Still Love me Tomorrow?" -- was there life before that song?

Q: The Pernice Bros. sometimes build songs around pop culture figures -- Bjorn Borg, the Clash -- and now Jacqueline Susann.

A: Oh, that's an erection song. It's more about the girl who reads "Ford Maddox Ford and Jacqueline Susann." That's my ideal.

Pernice promises he will visit the West Coast this year -- "California has been good to me" -- so watch this space.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bert Jansch at Largo

SUNDAY night I was lucky enough to catch Britfolk guitarist Bert Jansch at Largo. It may've been the most stunning display of acoustic guitar I have seen in my life -- and I have seen legendary axe-man Richard Thompson at least a dozen times. Now I know why Neil Young calls him the Hendrix of the acoustic: The shadings and nuance this stolid and unremarkable looking man coaxed out of his instrument while sitting quietly onstage were close to head spinning.

Jansch, a Scot who broke in mid-'60s Britain as a solo artist and as one of several dazzling jazz-influenced folk revivalists in the band Pentangle, has experienced a revival of his own lately. His last record, The Black Swan, was released on indie-hipster Drag City and saw cameos by Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton. He's been acknowledged not only by his peers but by Johnny Marr of the Smiths, who build some of the band's signature shimmer from Jansch's style, and younger musicians like Noel Gallagher and the Libertines' Pete Doherty, with whom he played in London not long ago.

A serious illness caused Jansch to cancel a tour recently, and as he's approaching 70 I'd given up on the chance to see him perform.

But Jansch just completed a short tour with St. Neil, who idolizes him also. I will let the readers do the math to note that Pegi Young's band -- she is the man's wife -- opened the Largo show. Overall this was generic alt-country, including Lucinda Williams' lovely "Side of the Road," which highlighted the limits of Ms. Young's singing. But the band itself, was terrific, strong all the way through with standouts being Anthony Crawford on a Gretsch White Falcon (!), Nashville pedal steel legend Ben Keith (Patsy Cline) and storied soul man Spooner Oldham (Percy Sledge, Aretha) on keyboards.

With all the alt-country high spirits I thought Bert's solo acoustic set would seem dour by comparison. But while many of the songs were gloomy, introspective Celtic ballads, my heart was racing nearly the whole time. He played a number of trad songs (introducing "Blackwaterside," whose chords were stolen by Jimmy Page much as Paul Simon took Martin Carthy's arrangement of "Scarborough Fair") and made several references to Anne Briggs, the enigmatic angel-voiced folk goddess with whom he once worked and lived. If memory serves he also played, on Sunday, "Rosemary Lane" and "Angie." Gracious and laconic between songs -- praising the Largo audience's reverential silence -- he gives off a distinctively understated vibe. (A friend who saw him in the '70s recalls him as being both rude and smashed -- this was a very different Bert.)

The sound system at what's now called Largo at the Coronet was perfect for the gentle fingerpicking Jansch favors, with its bends, weird voicings, hammer-ons and pull-offs. (He played almost the whole show, for what it's worth, with a capo between the 2rd and 6th frets.) By the time he encored with the frightening suicide ode "Needle of Death," which may be his best song, I was ready to explode. I have much of Jansch's recorded work, and own a recording of almost everything he played that night, but had no idea how genuinely moving and quietly virtuosic this show would be.

All hail Bert!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Germans are Coming

IN the years just before, during and after WWII, the flow of exiles and emigres from fascist Germany to Los Angeles became so strong that an injection of wit and decadence transformed parts of the city. 

I wrote about this period -- and a present where German culture exists mostly in dispersed form -- in Sunday's LA Times. 

Here is my piece, which looks at both the era where Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann and Bertold Brecht came here and the present. The story is pegged to the Los Angeles Opera's Ring Cycle, which concludes shortly.

This is a rich chapter of California history which I keep returning to. Speaking of returning, I hope to get back to Villa Aurora, Lion Feuchtwanger's old mansion in Pacific Palisades -- the mind boggles to think about what those parties must have been like.

Photo of Villa Aurora by Karin Appolonia Mueller

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Killer Inside Casey Affleck

RECENTLY I spent some time with Casey Affleck, who appears in Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of the Jim Thompson noir novel, The Killer Inside Me.

I don’t often write about actors – I’m not usually that curious about their inner worlds the way I am with novelists, musicians, or directors – but Casey Affleck is so strong, and so elusive, in his films that I welcomed the chance to sit down with him.

Here is my story. Found him quite a smart, if reticent, cat -- very interested in science-fiction and early Vonnegut. Winterbottom calls him "the reluctant actor." I'd call the film a stylish, often gripping and in some ways misfired.

Casey and I spoke about a lot of things I didn’t have room for, including his love for Vonnegut's early novel The Sirens of Titan, which he has wondered about adapting for years.  

We did the interview at a coffee place in Pasadena called Jones, where the air conditioner directly above where Casey was sitting began to rumble and shake like something out of Naked Lunch, dripping green liquid on his newspaper and dangerously close to the actor's cup of tea. I thought it was something out of Candid Camera.

I really enjoyed meeting Winterbottom, who has directed at least one of my favorite films -- the Manchester UK chronicle "24 Hour Party People." Winterbottom is as revved up and enaged -- and promiscuous in his filmmaking -- as Casey is reserved and choosy. When I asked the director if he was frustrated that after a decade and a half in the business he had not worked his way up to a recognizable style or a big-budget movie: "Because those films," he responded, "are boring."

At the end of the interview I asked Casey what kind of body of work he wanted to look back on in 10 years. “Number one, time with my family. Number two, 10 science-fiction movies,” he said, laughing. “Number two, a variety of work with people I respect, doing things different from each other – a movie set during the Hundred Years War, then go and do a movie about a guy who works at Jones. Really mix it up. I don’t know, it sounds almost impossible.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Eternal Return of Bret Easton Ellis

THESE days I am digging into Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel of sorts to Less Than Zero, one of the most famous and at least initially controversial novels ever written about Los Angeles.

It makes me think back to the stories I've written on Ellis over the years and our conversations about literature, fame, the heartlessness of Hollywood and the records of Elvis Costello. Here is the most extensive of those stories, an LA Times Sunday story.

I kick it off this way:

In his 1985 breakout novel, "Less Than Zero," Bret Easton Ellis, then all of 21 years old, created young, jaded Angelenos who just didn't care about anything: They recounted cocaine scores and semi-anonymous sex in the same tone with which they lamented their fading suntans. That ennui became Ellis' literary signature, and as he began to grow up in public, he became known as a photogenic and glamorous figure who liked booze and excess.

Most of the piece looks at a critical groundswell around this often dissed and neglected novelist: writers and critics including Jonathan Lethem, A.O. Scott and Alex Ross have argued that he is a more profound and complicated figure than he is usually taken as.

Many see him as an overlooked figure, one whose literary heft grows with time. It may be that like a lot of things that emerge from California, the style and vision of Ellis' work creates problems for East Coast intellectuals, but will become as enduring as psychedelia, surfing, the hard-boiled novel or fast food.

The new novel is very dark indeed, with a murder mystery plot, and shows the characters from Less Than Zero and their city grown grimmer and meaner. Ellis has several appearances coming up and I will keep readers of The Misread City alerted to them. The novel pubs on Tuesday June 15.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Legends of the High Desert

A few weeks back I had the pleasure to visit Joshua Tree with my wife and son. I guess for some people the place invokes U2, but it always makes me think of Gram Parsons and his hippie/ Dylanesque updating of the high-lonesome sound.

Here is my piece that runs in this Sundays' LATimes. It's both a meditation on the power of music and a trip-with-kids story. It's also one of the few trips I've taken as an adult that I have really screwed up, at least the Pioneertown part. (I keep thinking of Sam Shepard's play "True West" whenever I am in its faux-Wild West environs.)

A lot of fun to be out in the desert with Ian and his 3-year-old's perceptions.

I look forward to going back and seeing a show at Pappy and Harriet's, where Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale and others play regularly. (The place seems to be stretching beyond country and alt-country these days: England's Arctic Monkeys played a post-Coachella show there a few days after we left.)

I'll fill out this post shortly.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Twisted Mind of Geoff Nicholson

THE Los Angeles-based novelist and recovering Englishman Geoff Nicholson had a smart, counter-intuitive and oddly funny essay in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review about his passion for old Guinness Books of Records and "the joys of outdated information."
Geoff, whose book The Lost Art of Walking I like very much, was part of a small posse I ran with at Guadalajara’s International Festival of Books a few months ago. The piece brought back the Sheffield native’s slightly skewed and generous way of looking at things. Here’s my Q+A with the man himself.
1. Sunday's piece was quite charming. What fascinates you about outdated or discredited information? 
      The piece is partly about the joys of old encyclopedias.  I find the whole idea of the encyclopedia, a book or set of books containing everything worth knowing, a fascinating and in many ways a very attractive one.  It suggests stability, eternal truths, the power of facts, etc.  But of course our ideas of what’s worth knowing and what’s worth including in an encyclopedia, even of what’s a “fact,” are changing all the time – in the case of Wikipedia, on a minute by minute basis. 
      And it seems to me that by being so thoroughly inclusive, Wikipedia is heading towards some Borgesian notion of an encyclopedia that contains everything in the world, and is in some sense the same as the world, like a map on a one to one scale.
      I also find it quite instructive, for example, to read in my 1969 World Book Encyclopedia that “Most Angelenos are American—born whites.”  I don’t think we’d put it quite that way now, would we? 
 2. I was pleased to see a reference to my school-librarian wife and her struggles to get kids to sort out facts from conspiracy theory. What drew you to include this? 
      Well partly because, my English grammar school didn’t have a full-time school librarian.  Certain teachers volunteered or got forced into it, and I don’t recall they did much more than tell you to sit down, shut up and get on with your reading - which is perhaps not the worst advice to library users.  
      English grammar schools of that period, or at least mine, were a nightmare.  All male, both teachers and pupils.  Joyless, cold, Philistine, and very strict though not to any obvious end, least of all educational. The idea that somebody might teach us “research skills” would have been a fantasy beyond comprehension.
      Even so, our school library was a place I spent a lot of time, a place of refuge in a way.  I still dream about it once in a while, and within the dream I always wonder why I haven’t been back in so long. 
3. You run an intriguing blog about food and culture -- Psycho-Gourmet. Tell us a little about it. 
The subtitle is “ruminations on food, and its relationship with sex, decadence, obsession and the madness of the mouth,” which remains my best stab at describing it. 
      After I’d written The Lost Art of Walking (which has been, I suppose, my “greatest hit”) I was looking round for another non-fiction subject and food seemed a good one, given my interests and the world’s. So it started as a kind of public notebook to work with some material that might turn into a book.  And it might yet.  I didn’t want it to be restaurant reviews, and I didn’t want to give my mom’s rhubarb pie recipe, so I let it go where it would, and after a while it took on a life of its own and it turned into the quirky, occasionally dark and overripe smorgasbord you see today. 
4. So you do and don't have a new book out?  
      Well, my latest novel Gravity’s Volkswagen was published in England in the second half of last year, by a small interesting publisher, Harbour Books.   As an Englishman, it’s nice to be published in England. As an American resident, it’s slightly galling that it’s not published here.
 It got some great reviews, but didn’t cause as much of a stir as I’d have liked it to.   It isn’t a mighty tome, but you know, there are no small novels, only small advances.  It struck me as fun and commercial and culty, and potentially cinematic, but I guess the author is never the best judge of these things. 
5. You close your essay with a reference to Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You knew him a bit, didn't you? 
    Yes.  I knew Douglas fairly well for a very short time, then I’d see him once every 5 years or so and he’d bring me up to date on what he’d been doing, which of course got ever more glamorous. 
    We were both at Cambridge.  He was only one year older than me (as I now see by checking Wikipedia) but he was a few years ahead in terms of college.  So by the time I was graduating he'd been away to do great things - including write with Graham Chapman of Monty Python - but it had all gone a bit flat - and he'd come back to direct the end of term Footlights show. 
   I know Footlights has quite a reputation (Peter Cook, John Cleese, Hugh Laurie et al), but at that time – mid 70s - it seemed to me to be just incredibly unhip and old fashioned, but I did do some writing for that show (I believe the words “good career move” may have been invoked), and I saw a lot of Douglas at that time.
   After that we largely lost touch, but every once in a while I'd see him walking down the street in London - and I'd ask what he was up to, and first it was writing for Dr Who, and then he had this idea for a SF comedy radio show, which seemed like a real shot in the dark.  And the rest of course is history. 
Photo credit: Naomi Harris