Sunday, May 27, 2012

"I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts"

EVER wondered what it would sound like if the British writer J.G. Ballard fronted an L.A. punk band? I hadn't either, frankly, but the question crossed my mind reading the new anthology of essays and articles by Mark Dery. Twisted, brilliant, overly ornate and penetrating, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts brings him to Skylight Books on Tuesday. (I only regret there is no essay on the Bavarian Illuminati or the Church of the Subgenius.)

I could say more, but let me present my Q+A with Mr. Dery.

Your book is all over the place – the Super Bowl, Jack Chick’s apocalyptic comic books, Hitler. What makes a topic right for you, and how do they all hold together?

I listen for the sound of table-rapping. Seriously, there's an element of the late 19th-century spiritualist seance in what I do, in the sense that I wait for things to call my name, rather than chasing the viral story of the day, the meme of the moment, the latest counterintuitive lightbulb over Gladwell's head, the zeitgeisty trend keeping David Brooks up late. 

To me, the most interesting minds are those like, say, the incomparably eccentric Edward Gorey, the subject of my biography-in-progress, or J.G. Ballard, to whom the new book is dedicated and whose critical sensibility (one hesitates to call it a school of thought, since it had a membership of one) pervades it---minds that follow the fractal branchings of their intellectual infatuations wherever they lead, a form of philosophical investigation that maximizes serendipity and novelty, and is conducive to the inspired apercu. I try to emulate that approach---to the detriment of my checking account, no doubt!

Obviously, if you're going to do cultural criticism outside the academy, in the popular press, you need a "news peg," as editors like to call it---something timely to hang your Big Idea on. Even so, the herd behavior of some of the brightest minds in the culture industry---Outliers: The Story of SuccessWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and on and on---just curdles my brain. It's as if somebody in the marketing department had written a flocking program for book publishing---you know, that software they use to make CGI birds swarm. Why anyone would want to think a thought that's already been thought is unthinkable, at least to me. But much of what passes for journalism in this country, and too much of what we call public intellectualism (a term I cordially loathe), consists of telling people what they already know, in words of one syllable, presuming a level of cultural literacy that wouldn't furrow Kim Kardashian's brow.

As you note, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a kind of omnium-gatherum, or, more appropriate to its style and subject matter, a curiosity cabinet between two covers. My abiding obsession is the American Gothic, what Cornel West calls "the night side of American democracy" (although my sensibility is more Menckenesque than West's, closer to Twain at his darkest---a gene-splice of Barthes and Bierce and William S. Burroughs, perhaps).

For reasons both radically political and mythological, I'm endlessly fascinated by America: what America means, what it means to be American. Thus, I'm drawn to the quintessentially American. But it's those aspects of the American experience that dramatize our pious hypocrisies, our gleeful depravities, our exuberant violence---the pathologies hiding behind the American Dream---that seem perfectly suited to my pen, and my style of mind. So the essays in Bad Thoughts hold together in the sense that nearly all of them are fondly sardonic portraits of the American psyche, sometimes my own, drawn with a scalpel. 

You dedicate this volume to the late, great J.G. Ballard. What made him important to you, and to this project? 

My dedication reads: "To J.G. Ballard, pathologist of the postmodern, astronaut of inner space, matchless stylist, generous mentor." Pathologist of the postmodern: because he understood, long before philosophers like Baudrillard, that the postmodern self is a decentered, centrifugal thing, spun off its Freudian axis by info vertigo and the media spectacle. Astronaut of inner space: because he explored the starless wastes of the 20th-century mind, mapping the black holes left in our collective consciousness by the atom bomb, Freud, the Third Reich, Kennedy's assassination, the Manson murders, the space race, advertising, psychoanalysis, Surrealism, pornography, Pop Art, Vietnam, Thatcherism, the mind-blurring speed-up of virtually everything, the deluge of images inundating our dream lives, the psychopathologies buried beneath suburbia's manicured lawns, and the effects of living in a posthuman landscape of exurban office parks, multistory parking garages, high-rise apartment buildings, traffic islands, and freeway flyovers.

Matchless stylist: because he perfected that inimitably British blend of clubbable geniality, mordant wit, and deadpan irony, expressed in a prose that managed the neat trick of being both elegant in its economy yet obsessive in its unapologetic fondness for talismanic phrases, images, and even a syntax that have, as a result, become instantly and inescapably identifiable as Ballardian. For my money, Ballard is one of the unapproachable masters of English prose style, no less so than Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh or, in his essays, Orwell, marrying the Wildean aphorism to the Warholian showstopper to deadly (and deadly funny) effect.

He was a black humorist and social satirist par excellence. Any line from his classic novels---Crash, Concrete Island, High Rise, The Atrocity Exhibition, The Drowned World, The Crystal World, The Kindness of Women, or the defining short stories---is easily the equal, for  oracular brilliance, of the pronouncements tossed off by French philosopher kings. And, as I said, Ballard got there first.

Generous mentor: because he was an early and unstinting supporter of my work, generous in his praise on my book jackets and equally so in the wise counsel he offered, down through the years, in handwritten faxes. I've saved these scrolls, but they're fading into irradiated whiteness---which seems somehow appropriate, given Ballard's childhood, a premature coming-of-age illuminated by the apocalyptic flashbulb of the atom bomb, as he recounts in Empire of the Sun.

As I've often said, I read postmodern philosophers like Baudrillard as SF novelists, and Ballard as our preeminent postmodern philosopher. He's especially useful to me, as a writer trying to make sense of America: his affectionate horror at the moral obscenity and unimprovable vulgarity of our fair republic, observed from the safe remove of his living room armchair in suburban Shepperton, a whiskey and soda within easy reach, makes him the ideal anatomist of our cultural psyche.

Maybe you could give us a little taste of how you approach a subject: How do you reckon with David Bowie in your essay on Ziggy Stardust? 

"Stardust Memories," the essay on Bowie and his role in ringing down the curtain on the '60s and ushering in the '70s, was nominally a review of a Bowie biography for The Las Vegas Weekly. However, one thing I learned from Ballard's essays disguised as book reviews (many of which are collected in his User's Guide to the Millennium) is that a book review need only passingly be about the book at hand; using that book as a springboard into the Intellectual Beyond, or as a prism for refracting the reviewer's obsessions, is infinitely more interesting than the thumbs-up, thumbs-down school of "service-oriented" book reviewing.

The Bowie biography under consideration was a reasonably competent Life of the Grand Dame---a mash-up of newspaper clippings, interviews with the usual suspects, and perhaps most interestingly the author's interpolations of moments from his own parallel history, as a Bowie fan, shadowing developments on the overlit stage of Bowie's life. A lifelong Bowie votary myself, I knew I wanted to "out" myself as a fan, in this piece, speaking as a fan yet also as a cultural critic, drawing not only on the subcultural studies of Birmingham-school critics like Dick Hebdige and participant-observer anthropologists of fan cultures such as Henry Jenkins, but also on the gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs's pioneering use of record reviews of forgettable bands, for throwaway rags, as tours-de-force of cultural criticism at its most deeply felt, and thought, often using his fandom (famously, toward Lou Reed) as a foil for his critical inquiry.

I wanted to examine Bowie's role  (along with Freddie Mercury of Queen, whom I touch on in Bad Thoughts' essay on Lady Gaga) as an incarnation of the Wildean Aesthete, a standard-bearer in the culture war between artifice, irony, camp, retro, polysexual perversity, and cynical wit, on one hand, and authenticity, earnestness, naturalism, nostalgia, hippie heteronormativity, and humorless moralizing on the other. And I wanted to further complexify that role by thinking about Bowie as a glam-rock trickster, a god of the crossroads ushering us out of the '60s and into the '70s ("My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/ We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag/ Too many snags," Bowie sings, in his glam-rock anthem "All the Young Dudes").

At the same time, I wanted to think about the meaning of Bowie fandom in my life, specifically what it meant to me as a palely loitering weirdo, marooned in the suburban wastelands of culturally backwards, politically conservative San Diego in the 1970s; what it meant to American masculinity; and what it means to me now, as a less-than-pretty-thing of A Certain Age. 

This kind of very personal take on culture – especially about stuff that’s off the mainstream  -- gets harder and harder to place these days. Do you worry about the direction the world of print is taking and that this eccentric stripe of writing will become a thing of the past? Or are blogs and the Internet helping it flourish?

Well, I'm happy to be called eccentric, if that's shorthand for any writer who believes style is politics, and who bridles at the insistence that less is always more; that literary style in age of the tweet and the PowerPoint presentation should aspire to bullet-point brevity and, ideally, assume the form of a listicle; that the more writing sounds like talking, the better; and that writers who overstep the boundaries of everyday vocabulary, sending their readers to the dictionary, are the merest elitists and an offense to public morals  generally.

To be sure, clarity and concision are hallmarks of good prose. But I'm convinced the War on Ornament is really a kulturkampf against the intellectual and the queer, in every sense of that word. It begins with Adolf Loos's famous rant, "Ornament and Crime," in which the proto-modernist architect argues that Art Nouveau is a decadent, effeminate force for evil, hastening society's decline; continues through Strunk & White and the Hemingway cult; and is alive and well in all those "Rules for Writing" screeds by famous authors floating around the Web. It pretends to be about clarity and concision, but is really about policing the boundaries of mainstream thought and expression. Again, style is politics, and the modernist cult of stripped-down, "masculine" prose is both an extension of Machine-Age, Bauhausian minimalism, with all the ideological baggage that implies, and a stalking horse for a cultural conservatism that views the long, syntactically complex Proustian sentence and the unapologetically sesquipedalian vocabulary as a thumb in the eye of the common man, which is to say un-American and maybe even unmanly.

So yes, I do worry about a cultural climate in which every American public intellectual aspires to the status of motivational speaker for anxious executives, and writes the sort of PowerPoint prose he hopes will make him a hot commodity on the CEO-retreat lecture circuit. It's the Gladwell Effect, and the editorial sensibility at mainstream outlets is very much a part of it.

The happy counterweight to that trend, as you suggest, is Web publications such as The Awl and HiLoBrow and The L.A. Review of Books (full disclosure: they just published a piece of mine) and The New Inquiry, which rejoice in longform, erudite, historically literate, critically informed writing. Regrettably, none of the above pay anything like a living wage, which makes it harder than ever for a full-time hack to earn his daily crust. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

BBC's New "Copper"

COMING from BBC America this summer is a new series called Copper, created by Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide, Borgia) and set in 1860s New York. Much of the show takes place in Five Points, the rough Irish neighborhood some of us know from Scorsese's Gangs of New York. The protagonist is a tormented, Irish born detective named Corcoran.

I've not yet seen much of the show, but it hits several of my personal obsessions, so I have high hopes for it.

Here is my curtain-raiser story from Sunday's LA Times.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Owen and Kidman as Hemingway and Gellhorn

SOMETIMES, in this business, you have to do things you don't want to do -- deal with unpleasant people, write about a production that bores you to tears. Other times, you get to talk to Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman about Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, the strong-willed war correspondent who would hate to be remembered at Papa's third wife.

Later this month, HBO will broadcast a film, Hemingway & Gellhorn, about the two writers and their ferocious love affair against the background of the churn of world politics. Here is my story, for which I interviewed the two actors as well as Philip Kaufman, director of The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

"There was this five-, six-year tussle with her," Kaufman told me. "It's a very mythical kind of relationship they had: She's a Hemingway heroine. The problem being: Is that what he really wanted in real life?"

I expected Kaufman and Owen (whose Children of Men is one of my favorite movies) to be intelligent and articulate. But Kidman really impressed me -- she had more depth, seriousness, and curiosity to her than I would have guessed. It's the business of an actor to be likable, unpretentious, etc -- but you can't fake smarts.

In any case, be curious what my readers make of the film, which uses a number of different film stocks to recreate the feel of several different eras.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Elaine Stritch and Her Inspirations

EVERY two weeks, I speak to a performer coming to town and ask them about their influences, figures who drove them into a life in the arts or helped shape what they do. But my latest subject -- Broadway's tough dame Elaine Stritch -- was having none of it.

Here is my latest Influences column, which I nearly had to rename.

She was also surprised to note that despite the success of her Elaine Stritch at Liberty in LA in 2002, Saturday night's Sondheim program at Disney Hall marks her first appearance there. Somebody, she said, must have it out for her. "Maybe Mickey Mouse."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Wily Finn Magnus Lindberg

NEXT to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the most visible Finnish classical musician over the last few decades has been his old partner in crime Magnus Lindberg, who is completing a three-year term as composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic.

Lindberg is a playful kind of modernist who has recently, as he told me, started to blend his avant-garde tendencies (interest in electronica, industrial music, Japanese drumming, etc.) with the central thrust of the classical tradition.

HERE is my piece from Playbill, which ran when his new piano concerto -- which has some roots in Ravel -- was performed with the New York Phil. (The group was at Walt Disney Concert Hall this week, giving the piece its West Coast premiere. Mark Swed's review is here. That was a show I really regret having missed.)

In any case, Lindberg spoke to me about his roots, his new piece, and his need to flee music and the world itself after its eventual, long-time-coming completion.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

LA's New Opera Company

WHAT would it look like if Hurricane Katrina blew across an Italo Calvino fable? We might be able to find out when Crescent City, whose creators call it a "hyperopera," comes to Atwater Crossing later this week.

Recently I visited the set, much of which was designed by local visual artists, and met with director Yuval Sharon and composer Anne LeBaron of CalArts. Here's my story.

Sharon, who used to run the edgy Vox series at New York City Opera, is one of the founders of The Industry, a new company that will put together experimental performances. He's a trip, and a lot of fun to talk to, expecially about Brecht and Wagner. If all goes well, he could inject some powerful energy into the local arts scene. He reminds me in some ways of David Sefton... Very much looking forward to catching Crescent City.

I'm also enjoying the arts-oriented warehouse complex Atwater Crossing itself, and had a good time there at party for Slake magazine over the weekend.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Remembering Maurice Sendak

EVEN when someone has hit their 80s, it can be hard to think of them disappearing if they're as ornery and vital as Maurice Sendak. Famously cranky and contrary, he was also a giant of 20th century literature, and it's with great sorrow that The Misread City says goodbye to the writer and artist, who died today in Connecticut.

I spoke to Sendak just once, for my story on Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are. I've spoken to a lot of people over the years, but this was a rare thrill: I'd grown up with that book, In the Night Kitchen, and other stories of his, I'd started to realize as I got deeper into children's lit, what a revolutionary force he'd been in moving the field past its patriots-and-pastoral phase. And right around that time, I was reading my son, almost every night, a book he called Where the WILD Things Are.

"I didn't have a social conscience that I was doing anything different," Sendak, 81, told me. Mostly, the Brooklyn-born illustrator, then in his early 30s, was excited to tackle his first full picture book. "It was all my own and in full color. It's hard to imagine now, with everyone doing them. But emancipating children was far from my mind."

My story gets into the effect Sendak had on the field as well as the culture as a whole.

Here is his obituary from the New York Times. Rarely has it seemed more appropriate to say of an artist that his work will live on. I know what I'll be reading my son tonight.

Update: A big-picture appreciation by the very fine book critic Dwight Garner of the New York Times.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Collecting the Creative Class

MY recent stories on the struggles of the creative class have hit some people hard -- I've gotten more emotional responses from these, I think, than anything I've written in two decades as a cultural journalist. 

(Due to the mean-spirited, anonymous nature of Internet culture, I've also gotten nastier comments than I expected, along with some smaller doses of smart, reasonable criticism.)

In roughest terms, my stories take different angles to look at the same problem -- the decimation of the creative class, which includes artists of all kinds as well as the people who distribute and assess their work -- in recent years due to digital technology, the recession and changing values.

In any case, as I dig deeper into the issue, I wanted to make all of these pieces available to interested readers. Here's the series, so far, in total.

The dream of a laptop-powered "knowledge class" is dead. The media is melting. Blame the economy -- and the Web

Freelance work -- and a strong "brand" -- will never beat a job. Free agency's nice -- but so is health insurance

Are new media companies "digital parasites"? The author of "Free Ride" tells Salon piracy is killing art

The clerk has been killed by the economy, Netflix, iTunes and Amazon. Computers might want your creative job next

One of the coolest creative-class careers has cratered with the economy. Where does architecture go from here?

Taxpayers bail out Wall Street and Detroit. But there's no help, or Springsteen anthem, for struggling creatives

Steal This Album:
What happens if no one pays for music?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Roots of Tony Bennett

THIS week my Influences column looks at the great crooner Tony Bennett. I figured that his Italian background and Frank Sinatra were important to him, but I was surprised to hear Leonardo da Vinci and Art Tatum, the most ornate and technically accomplished pianists in the history of jazz, as major inspirations. (His Sinatra anecdote, by the way, is one of my favorite things I've heard this year.)

HERE is that piece.

And we didn't have room for his words on painter John Singer Sargent -- here they are.

I have been painting and drawing all my life and studying the great masters but my all time favorite painter is John Singer Sargent. I have always felt that art should be about truth and beauty and for me, Sargent represents the perfect mix of that approach.  His portraits are gorgeous, but he still keeps the humanity of the person he is painting in mind and doesn't over-glorify the subject.   

Bennett will be in Orange County at the Segerstrom Center Saturday night.

Interesting at least to immediate family: My paternal grandfather, Sammy Timberg, who was a vaudevillian and later a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, landed songs with some of the greats, including Sinatra, but always pined to get Bennett to sing one of his, and never did. (I try not to hold that against either of them.)