My Writers: John Irving

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When I was a kid, few things drew me to a book more assuredly than the existence of a corresponding movie. This could go in either direction, by the way. The nineteen-seventies and eighties were a sort of golden age for novelizations of movies, and I was happy to devour them. Similarly, if a movie was based on a book, inexpensive paperback copies were usually readily available, stocked generously into racks at the supermarket. In retrospect, I think I used it as a rough guidepost as to which books were worthy of my scattered attention. If the story existed in more than one medium, it must be especially good, right? I’m fairly certain it was also a means to preserve the experience of an especially good film. In the days before DVD purchases and digital downloads, illicit or otherwise, the easiest way to relive a movie was page by page.

Though John Irving’s The World According to Garp was first published in 1978, becoming a huge bestseller, I didn’t flip open its cover until after seeing the movie version, which surely didn’t take place until a year after its 1982 release, when it finally made its way to cable. (To be clear, I’m old, but I’m not that old. It would have been entirely inappropriate for me to read The World According to Garp much before the time I did.) The beneficiary of a relatively faithful adaptation, I knew most of the major plot turns before I ever started in on the first chapter. It didn’t matter. I was already committed to the story, yes, but there was also something about the sensibility that locked me in further. This was in part because the novel represented one of my first “adult” books, stocked with enough frank sexuality and complicated themes — as one might expect from a novel written by a proud, bullish man toward the tail end of the seventies, it has a fascinating and conflicted relationship with feminism — to set it apart from even the serious literature we were assigned in school as a means to edge us toward a more mature outlook in our reading. But it was also that it had a tone that was, at the time, unfamiliar to me, grounded in classic form but infused with mild satire, wry cynicism, and a bleak assessment of the pathways to personal enlightenment that are sought but rarely understood. Now I recognize it as characteristic of a whole generation of American writers: Roth, Updike, Cheever, the other WASPy usual suspects. Then, it was revelatory.

For a while, I chased Irving’s books, looking to have my head spun around in the same way. There were others I enjoyed, but the effect was never quite the same, maybe because I did eventually realize he was part of a literary legion rather than a full-fledged trailblazer. Maybe I started to see the technique all too well, catching the little tricks he used to make the improbable mundane and vice versa. Regardless, the author became someone who relegated to my youth, looked back on fondly but without much regret for leaving him behind. Every once in a while, a new book of his will pique my interest, but I can’t quite bring myself to read Irving again. In the end, I simply like keeping him in an idealized reading past.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin
John Updike
Roger Angell
Bill Watterson
William Shakespeare
Sarah Vowell
Douglas Adams
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Clive Barker
Jon Krakauer
John Darnielle
Richard Price
Art Spiegelman
Anthony Bourdain

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Nine

29 laura

#29 — Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

There is something about film noir during its heyday that bought out the twisty darkness in every filmmaker who waded into its murky depths. While director Otto Preminger had a career that was varied enough to defy easy categorization, I generally think of his works as clean and resolutely open-eyed, utilizing careful craft to tell relatively straightforward stories. Even a great film fringed with darkness like Anatomy of a Murder becomes methodical under Preminger’s guidance, almost anticipating modern procedurals in its keen attention to the simple progression of events, the whirring machinery of a court case. And yet, Laura draws Preminger in, enticing the director just as surely as the portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) stirs something bordering on obsession in police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) as he investigates the woman’s apparent murder. Preminger’s instincts might carry him to clean storytelling, but Laura demands something murkier and more elusive, something draped in heavy shadows.

There’s a little bit of Citizen Kane‘s roundelay of recollection to the early scenes, as the detective interviews a variety of people from Laura’s life, trying to ascertain who might have had cause to level a shotgun blast at her. He’s picking up clues, but he’s also, almost against his will, filling in details on who Laura was, building up a secondhand understanding of a woman who inspired intense feelings in many of those who helplessly orbited her. The more the film goes on, the fiercer its eddy of problematic humanity swirls. Bad behaviors emerge like percolating gas in a tar pit, offering ample hints as to the many ways affection can fester into something far more ugly. The mystery of who committed murder becomes almost incidental by the end of the film. The underlying message of the film suggests that almost anyone could transform into a figure of diabolical retribution.

Abetted by the ravishing cinematography of Joseph LaShelle, Preminger crafts a film that is stylish and cool. The interplay of shadows is always a hallmark of the best film noir, but in Laura it sometimes reaches levels that nearly imply the whole film is taking place in the darkest corners of the human heart, where light dare not intrude. Though the plot has a healthy number of kinks built right into it, the main carrier of the dread is the overall feel of the film. It lives in a bleak mist that never quite lifts, where a idealized vision of the world, as with Laura’s portrait, winds up a delusion rather than a promise. And there will be no shortage of individuals lining up to follow the delusion down to stifling depths.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 30 – 28

30 bush

30. Bush, Sixteen Stone

A few year backs, when I called a different online space my digital home, I spent an entire day watching Michael Bay films and chronicling the experience for anyone who cared to read. I’d sworn off the efforts of the director following the appalling Armageddon, and decided, for reasons that escape me now, to watch everything I’d missed, in chronological order, across one morning and afternoon, culminating with an evening viewing of Transformers. I tried reading a book afterward and couldn’t do it. That’s how bad the endless march of terrible filmmaking scrambled my brain. While recently listening to Sixteen Stone, the debut album from Bush, I was reminded of that earlier day. The marathon quality was absent, but otherwise this was roughly the musical equivalent of my time scalding my intellect with the cinema of Bay, especially in that I have to reasonably admit there is far worse directors than Bay and far worse bands than Bush. And yet my loathing for each of them is so much stronger than anything I can generate for their more inept peers.

It’s pretty easy for me to figure out why Bush rankles me more than many other dreadful alternative and hard rock bands from the nineteen-nineties renaissance of dreadful alternative and hard rock bands. Sixteen Stone was release in December of 1994, which meant its arrival at “new rock alternative” radio roughly coincided with my own. The redundancy of the mandated playlists I’d be sharing on air was going to be difficult for me to adjust to regardless. Having those playlists littered with songs that created an instinctual revulsion in me made it that much more dispiriting. Bush became the tangible representation of everything I found to be awful about commercial radio and that particular era of alternative music, when the success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam inspired the labels to commit themselves wholeheartedly to anything that boomed with grinding guitars. Subtlety was out the window, and variety went trailing after it.

As I noted, Bush wasn’t the worst band to prosper in this environment. They were simply the bad band that was most inescapable. Sixteen Stone yielded five singles before the label finally placed it delicately back in the vault, every one of them peaking somewhere in the top five of the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Two of them, “Comedown” and “Glycerine,” topped that chart. Those singles all received saturation airplay, and they hardly faded into obscurity after they slipped off the charts, nestling snugly in our recurrent tracks that claimed a healthy portion of the broadcast day. During my three years at the station, it’s possible I never had a single shift without at least one Bush song on my playlist. In the summer and fall of 1995, there was a decent chance I was pulling Sixteen Stone off the shelf three or four separate times whenever I sat in that studio.

Here Sixteen Stone is, respectably high on the countdown, but also low enough to suggest that the 90FM on-air staff may have grown sick of it, too. Since it’s on the Countdown, I listened to it again, hearing some of that music for the first time in more than a decade. Once, years after my time in commercial radio, I was horrified when “Everything Zen” (the album’s first single) came on in a bar and I found I could still sing along with it, my brain scorched through cruel repetition with the inane lyrics (“There must be something we can eat/ Maybe find another lover/ Should I fly to Los Angeles/ Find my asshole brother”). So when that album opener struck during this new listen, it was with great relief that I found myself unable to recapture the words from my memory. That was the first and last pleasant surprise while listening.

It is much as I remember it. There are insipid lyrics delivered with Gavin Rossdale’s anguished vocals. The music thunders, though in a plodding, murky way that makes it dull instead of dynamic. And everything on that album is painfully derivative, the band obviously doing their very best to ape the sound of Seattle, especially Nirvana. A track like “Bomb,” with its snaky guitar line and tendency to leap from a murmur to a scream, sounds like it was written by someone trying to get Nevermind down to a crass formula. Even the tiniest hints of modification in sound are swept away rapidly, engulfed by the by-the-numbers grunge. “Swim” has a nicely punk-tinged beginning, until the band seemingly snaps out of it and gets back to the business of making the same damn sound with all the enthusiasm of the person at the end of the assembly line who affixes the darkness knob onto each new toaster. It’s not all bad: “Comedown” does have a pretty good hook. That’s about all I’ve got, though.

Bush produced four albums in their first iteration, concluding with Golden State, released in 2001, before the requisite breakup took place. When no one much cared about Rossdale’s solo career, a band reunion became all but inevitable (surely hastened by a competitive urge due to the healthier career of Rossdale’s wife, Gwen Stefani). There have been two albums since Bush reunited, in 2010. Thankfully, I haven’t knowingly heard a single second of either one.

29 ladybeard29. Ladybeard, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy

Ladybeard was a band out of Madison, Wisconsin. They played a pummeling brand of hard rock that had just enough of a touch of heavy metal to it that this was surely the first rotation album the hosts of 90FM’s Metal Thunder grabbed whenever they subbed for a general programming shift. Big Dumb Shoe Face Guy was their only album issued on CD (they previously had a cassette-only release). The band broke up in the spring of 1996, and frontman Isaac Schulze went on the form the psychobilly band Mad Trucker Gone Mad, which I remember as one of the bigger Madison bands of the second half of the nineties. Usually, I try to link to at least one song. Instead, you can go listen to the whole album.

28 peter28. Peter Murphy, Cascade

At this particular point of the nineties, I would not have guessed that Peter Murphy would land an album on this list. It’s not solely that his brand of layered, elegant pop seemed out of step with the times (there are plenty of exceptions to the prevailing sound up and down this list). By this point, Murphy seemed like a bit of an afterthought, completely deserving of his status as a alternative rock legend for his bygone days with Bauhaus, but without much immediate cachet, even though he was only a few years removed from a sizable college radio hit. Cascade, Murphy’s fifth solo album, became his last for Beggar’s Banquet, a label that had been his home since Bauhaus. And it would be seven years before his next full-length release, ushering in the portion of his career marked by making music only periodically and showing up in the strangest of places.

Previously….

An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides

From the Archive: Problem Child 2

problem child

As Ted 2 arrives in theaters, now seems like a good time to offer a reminder that puerile comedy sequels have been a part of summer since the days when Seth MacFarlane was only bothering his friends with inane pop culture references and his sexist, racist, self-involved nonsense. Now he makes millions of it and inflicts it on the whole culture. Thanks again for rescuing Family Guy, Cartoon Network! Anyway, we used a four-star rating scale on our radio movie review show, but one star was generally as low as a film could go. We reserved the 1/2 star and zero star assessments for the truly awful stuff, those films that could be deemed beneath contempt. It was rare that I gave out more than a single zero star review in any given film year. That should help put what follows in context.

There are some things best left off the big screen. Count the preadolescent bathroom humor that fills PROBLEM CHILD 2 chief among them. The sequel to last summer’s surprise hit returns Michael Oliver to the title role of Junior Healy, a vicious little boy who concocts one nasty scheme after another. But they don’t stop there…since it’s a sequel, they have to up the stakes, and for that enter Ivyann Schwan as Oliver’s seven-year-old rival for worst kid in the world. Schwan is the little girl whose big prominence came as the highly intelligent daughter in the PARENTHOOD film and television series (editor’s note: the first, short-lived iteration on the television series). In PROBLEM CHILD 2, director Brian Levant taunts her into twisting and contorting her face into odd-looking expressions of anger and glee. But clearly that’s just so she’ll match the all of the other actors on screen, who bug out their eyes, move in giant sweeping motions, and deliver their lines with the subtlety of an air raid siren. And then there’s the screenplay that allows Junior to pull off nasty pranks designed to make you say, “My that carnival ride is going awfully fast,” and “Hey! That’s not lemonade!” They’re idiotic, disgusting jokes that even most kids will find achingly predictable. At its best, PROBLEM CHILD 2 is nothing more impressive than a sitcom played to the extreme: goofy looks from dad and punchlines from the kid. At its worst, it’s something far more distasteful: vile, repulsive comedy at its most unappealing level.

(Zero stars, out of 4)

 

One for Friday: Daryl and the Chaperones, “My Baby’s a Spy”

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As happens periodically in this weekly space, I’m drawing the song to share from the bevy of splendid musical wonders I plucked from an old blog called Little Hits. As with other material parked on the World Wide Web, all of the writing on the blog remains, though it’s approaching ten years since it’s been updated. All the song links seem to be defunct, so consider this entry another modest attempt at preserving some of the extraordinary music shared on the blog that first inspired me to dig into my own collection to help fill Fridays. (With rare exceptions, I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m sharing material that is as rare or adventurous as that which was routine on Little Hits).

Pulled basically at random from the tracks I borrowed from Little Hits, “My Baby’s a Spy” is a single from the U.K. band Daryl and the Chaperones. Evidently adopting the slogan “You’re never alone with a chaperone,” the band seems to have released exactly one 7-inch in their career, and by the time they’d released that, by some reports anyway, Daryl Ainsworth, who gave the band a portion of their name, was no longer in the group. From one listen, it’s pretty easy to carbon date the track to 1982, when new wave was at the very beginning of its long, lovely shift into indie pop. It’s easy to hear how this widely overlooked song could have become a cherished part of the personal collections of those lucky few that discovered it.

As usual, I’ll defer to the original write-up on Little Hits, brief as it may be in this instance.

Listen or download –> Daryl and the Chaperones, “My Baby’s a Spy”

(Disclaimer: I guess it’s possible this is one a compilations somewhere — and that’s likely a compilation I need to get my hands on — but I’m operating on the assumption, which I deploy for all the Little Hits entries, that this is unavailable for purchase in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I am sharing it here with the belief that doing so causes no undue fiscal harm. That noted, I will gladly remove the track from the interweb if asked to so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Thinking, wishing, hoping that you’ll never feel the same again

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Late in the closing credits of Inside Out, the latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios, there’s a dedication offered out by the filmmaking team to their collected children, urging them to never grow older. Ever. That’s hardly an original sentiment for parents to express. It even borders on the banal. That’s not what makes it notable. What makes it truly stand out is the way the wish for eternal childhood is at complete odds with the message of the movies that’s just preceded it. The creators may want their kids to stay kids. The film argues, persuasively, that growing up is okay.

Maybe more so than any other Pixar effort, Inside Out begins with a conceit rather than a plot or a batch of characters. The film purports to show the inner workings of the mind, with emotions represented by humanoid figures, personality traits by churning, mechanized islands, and memories by glowing marbles that accumulate during the day before being dispatched to walls of storage that look like they’ve been borrowed from the most massive bowling alley in history. The emotions are at the control panel, adjusting reactions. In this case, they’re driving a tween named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a hockey-loving girl from Minnesota who’s having difficulty adjusting after a cross-country move to San Francisco.

Giving away much more of the plot seems unkind. All that needs to be conveyed is admiration for the ways in which the film creative explores the landscape of the mind, playing with notions of how a person is developed by their experiences or simply finding a clever way to depict abstract thought. Director and co-writer Pete Docter — whose Up contends for the highly competitive title of Best Pixar Film Ever — manages the remarkable feat of caressing all this tomfoolery of the mind in such a way that it feel right (or right enough) and always serves the main story. Plus, he (along with credited co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen) has assembled perhaps the most spot-on perfect voice cast since the heady days of Toy Story, when the Pixar braintrust surely knew they were on to something great from at least the moment they placed a Mr. Potato Head in front of Don Rickles and announced, “This is who we’d like you to play.” The film features Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, Lewis Black as Anger, and Phyllis Smith as Sadness, all of them wonderful and yet none quite comparing to the tremendous vocal turn of Amy Poehler as Joy.

Inside Out is boundlessly inventive and enjoyable, but what makes it a truly special film is the depth of wisdom to its thesis that growing into more complex emotions is challenging but worth it. On one level, the film is about accepting that sadness is a valuable part of the human experience, and Docter has indicated that it was precisely that inspiration that motivated his approach to the story. But there’s more to it than that. As the eventual shifting colors of the orbs of memories suggest, the mark of a maturing mind is the ability to recognize, process, and accept multifaceted reactions to the stuff of life. It’ll get tougher, but ultimately more rewarding, too. So Pixar kids shouldn’t take the suggestion presented by their parents at the end of Inside Out. There’s no rush to rush towards growing up, but no reason to delay it either. It may be scary on the other side of childhood. It’s also wondrous, exciting, enriching, and, yes, even beautiful.

Top 40 Smash Taps: “Just a Little”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

Brenda Lee saw two straight singles climb all the way to the top of the Billboard chart in 1960, when she was still a teenager. It was the beginning of a stretch of enormous success that allowed her to claim a quantity of chart hits in the sixties surpassed by only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Ray Charles. “I’m Sorry” resided at #1 for three weeks in the summer, bookended at the pinnacle by a pair of novelty hits. Then a few weeks later, Lee landed atop the chart again, with “I Want to Be Wanted,” which had the rare distinction of dethroning a #1 song that returned to the position immediately after Lee’s track started edged downward. The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance For Me” was the single that both preceded and followed Lee at #1. Lee’s follow up to those two major hits was “Just a Little,” which struggled to duplicate its predecessors successes, stalling out at #40, maybe it part because it was a jaunty, flirty number notably different from the two ballads that had just carried her to the top. At the age of seventy, Lee still performs fairly regularly. She’s scheduled to play the Gordie Brown Showroom at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas the middle of next month. Mel Tillis is there this weekend, just in case you’re in the neighborhood.

Previously…

“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” by Donna Summer
“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
“Live My Life” by Boy George
“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
“So Close” by Diana Ross
“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
“You Thrill Me” by Exile
“What Now” by Gene Chandler
“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
“People in Love” by 10cc
“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by Bonnie Pointer
“Mr. Loverman” by Shabba Ranks
“I’ve Never Found a Girl” by Eddie Floyd
“Plastic Man” and “Happy People” by the Temptations
“Okay” by Nivea
“Go On” by George Strait
“Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road
“Birthday Party” by the Pixies Three
“Livin’ in the Life” by the Isley Brothers
“Kissing You” by Keith Washington
“The End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye
“Ticks” and “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley
“Nobody But You Babe” by Clarence Reid
“Like a Sunday in Salem” by Gene Cotton
“I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” by the Supremes
“Call Me Lightning” by the Who
“Ain’t It True” by Andy Williams
“Lazy Elsie Molly” and “Let’s Do the Freddie” by Chubby Checker
“Second Fiddle” by Kay Starr
“1999” by Prince
“I’ll Try Anything” by Dusty Springfield
“Oh Happy Day” by Glen Campbell
“I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After
“Friends” and “Married Men” by Bette Midler
“Spice of Life” by the Manhattan Transfer
“You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” by Roger Miller
“Don’t Pity Me” by Dion and the Belmonts
“Ask Me No Questions” by B.B. King
“Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone” by Ciara
“All I Really Want to Do” by the Byrds
“Love Rollercoaster” by Red Hot Chili Peppers