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

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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

That Championship Season: Justified, Season Two

justified

By now, there are enough smart, fitting adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s work to the screen — big and small — that it obscures the long, problematic history the prolific writer had when turning his work over to Hollywood. And it wasn’t from lack of trying. According to some sources, there have been over two dozen whacks at transforming Leonard’s fiction, which is lean enough to sometimes read as if it’s a script treatment, into film or television. Even though it seemed the curse was broken with 1995’s Get Shorty, a story fittingly inspired by Leonard’s dismal encounters with Hollywood studios, there were still plenty of dire and doomed adaptations to come, interspersed with only the occasional winner. So there was plenty of cause to be skeptical about Justified. Officially based on the Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole,” the television series was the handiwork of Graham Yost, who’d previously left his fingerprints on some pretty terrible screenplays and dubiously received solo credit for one great one that he’s the first to acknowledge owes an enormous debt to the doctoring work of Joss Whedon. And yet, Justified, at its very best, might represent the pinnacle of Leonard adaptations. The second season of the show is clearly Justified at its very best.

j raylan

Leonard was famously impatient with flowery language and elliptical routes to the point, so I’ll get straight to it: the second season of Justified is the best stretch the series ever had mostly because of the strength of the storyline centered on mountain matriarch Mags Bennett, played masterfully by Margo Martindale, duly rewarded with an Emmy for her efforts. Justified usually had a surprising amount of plot in play, but it prospered with the tried and true approach of gently easing through a season-long story, usually dominated by (in the parlance of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) one “Big Bad,” while giving individual episodes their own spine with a case of the week, or at least some dilemma that could be solved before the allotted hour (with commercials) was up. One of the gratifying pleasures of Season Two is the way those week-to-week stories fed into the larger whole, like tributaries building a creek into a torrential river.

Even as the series is striking the perfect balance between big picture vision and incremental storytelling, it is simultaneously settling into proper place, figuring out the best methods to build some longevity into the work. At times in the first season, it seemed that Yost and company operated under the assumption that their efforts would be as short-lived as other adaptations of Leonard’s work for television. They didn’t exactly write themselves into corners, but there was less world-building than tracking through the first couple acts without all that much of a sense as to how long the third act would then have to last. Justified, then, spends time getting cars on the proper tracks to keep the show going: providing Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) motivation to stay in the Kentucky office he was transferred to against his preferences, better defining the relationships between the various supporting characters, and, maybe most importantly, positioning Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a character that wasn’t exactly supposed to have longevity, to be an enduring antagonist. Eventually, the need to keep escalating Boyd’s menace while keeping him in play would strain the credibility of the series. At this point, though, his position as a dangerous, unapprehended criminal presence in Harlan County still made sense.

j boyd

Still, the exceptional quality of the season all comes back to Mags and the rest of the Bennett clan. The potency of the story begins with the critical yet often forgotten truism that a villain is best if they don’t really operate as a villain, perpetrating actions out of pure malevolence. That makes for hollow fiction, and it’s something that occasionally dogged Justified in the future when it indulged in sadistic characters like Robert Quarles (in Season Three, played with admirable gusto by Neal McDonough) and Boon (in Season Six, played with one off-key note by Jonathan Tucker). Mags, however, does terrible things for reasons that she can clearly justify as part of a greater good for herself and her family. Sometimes her actions stem from an overblown sense of hill-folk honor and sometimes they result from her reckoning of the machinations necessary to reach an end goal of familial security. The story becomes more compelling because every decision is traceable and understandable, even those that are abhorrent.

j mags

Within the structure of the season, Yost and his team gift the actors with rich, delicious material and wisely let them blaze through it, whether with beautiful unhinged creativity (the invaluable Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett) or unyieldingly raw emotion (Kaitlyn Dever as Loretta McReady, a part she started playing when she was barely a teenager). Rewatching episodes now, I’m surprised at how direct and punchy the the language is. It’s still clever and sharp, but the writers’ room mantra clearly echoed Leonard’s own less is more (or at least enough, dammit) philosophy. The show would evolve to the point where a character would correctly describe Boyd’s manner of speaking as “using forty words where four will do,” as if Leonard’s sensibility was being juiced up with syringe blasts of David Milch’s roundabout elocutions (every time another Deadwood alumnus arrived on set, the writers propensity for intricately verbose monologues of pungent pontificating bloomed like a spreading meadow of voluptuously odiferous wildflowers increased exponentially). Much as I enjoyed the pile-up of words that would eventually become the norm on Justified, the tighter approach to the writing is ultimately more satisfying. Of course, that’s a prime takeaway from the Leonard lesson plan.

If there was any doubt Leonard agreed Justified stood as one of the more successful adaptations of his work (though I’m not sure he ever accepted the hat worn by the character), it was surely eliminated by the author’s decision to revisit the main character a new novel, entitled simply Raylan, released in 2012. Those pages in turn fed the storytelling of the third season, basically creating a narrative fiction circle of life. Further solidifying the importance of Justified in Leonard’s mighty legacy, Raylan was the novel published before his death, in 2013. The book even had a picture of Olyphant on the cover. It couldn’t be clearer. After years — decades, really — of mixed results, someone besides Leonard finally got Leonard right.

j apple pie

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four

My Misspent Youth: Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers by Jack Kirby

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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While I was a committed student of the history of Marvel Comics upon devoting myself to their stories at the age of ten, I was shamefully slow to come around to the art of the creator who was arguably the most important figure in the groundbreaking, foundational years of the publisher. Working with writer Stan Lee, artist Jack Kirby was the architect of the early Marvel Universe, officially co-creating almost every major character in that monumental first decade of bold new comic book storytelling. Even though Kirby’s Marvel masterpiece was undoubtedly Fantastic Four (though there are conflicting stories about precisely how the creative process worked, it seems clear that Marvel’s First Family benefited from the strongest Kirby influence, with Lee often giving his partner only the barest of plot before the drafting table was engaged), my favorite character and titles, I still didn’t warm to the artist’s distinctive style when I’d encounter old stories. It was blocky and weighty, almost crude to my untrained eyes. Though I’d later figure out that some of my favorite artists — like John Buscema, John Byrne, Jim Steranko — all drew from a Kirby influence, at least to a degree, the trailblazer seemed overly simplistic compared to the intricacy and nuance I believed I saw elsewhere. Man, was I wrong. In my defense, let me repeat that I was ten years old when this fandom journey began.

By the early nineteen-eighties, Kirby no longer had a home at the House of Ideas he helped build, in large part because of an ongoing dispute over what he felt he was owed for the enduring success of his creations, most notably a stockpile of original art — suddenly a lucrative commodity on the collectors’ market — that Marvel refused to return to him. After digressions in the field of animation and elsewhere, Kirby returned to comic books with fledgling independent publisher Pacific Comics, a company willing to give him something nearly unprecedented in the field: complete ownership of his own creation. Under their aegis, Kirby came up with a series called Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers. Rather than the sort of superhero fare he’d drawn at Marvel Comics, Captain Victory felt like an extension of the more science fiction work he’d crafted when given a fairly free hand at DC Comics in the nineteenseventies (and then during his brief return to Marvel in the second half of the decade). It suited Kirby’s majestic imagination, giving him a chance to fill the page with wild, futuristic dreams.

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As the title implies, Captain Victory is a leader within a intergalactic army of protectors, bent on protecting the universe from the evil impulses of marauding, invading creatures, such as the Insectons. Burning through new clone bodies as a result of his courageous self-sacrifice on the battlefield, Captain Victory is widely admired by his cadre of fellow Galactic Rangers, obviously drawn from diverse corners of the galaxy.

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In the early issues of the series, the Galactic Rangers have come to Earth, looking to protect this primitive planet from malevolent forces beyond the population’s understanding. This gives Kirby plenty of chances to heighten the sense of wonder through the apoplectic and terrified reactions of the Earthling law enforcement officials Captain Victory and his crew encounter. Mostly, though, there’s no real need for such devices. The outrageous boldness of Kirby’s concepts is enough to leave any reader’s head spinning. His storytelling was typified by a sense of constant wonder and off-the-cuff inventiveness, making his comics progress with the exuberantly free logic that a child brings to the crafting a fiction, with any idea that pops into their head instinctively deemed good enough to keep the tale going. Of course, as we’re talking comics here, the lunatic ideas are only as good as their rendering in pen and ink. Kirby’s got that sorted out.

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Realistically, Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers resides fairly low on the list of great Kirby creations. It occasionally feels derivative of his own prior work (he’d later implicitly tie it to the Fourth World stories he created for DC Comics) and is filled with dialogue that’s surprisingly simplistic, as if Kirby were trying reassert the notion that comics were for kids, despite the little detail that Captain Victory was created for the developing direct market, making it less likely that youngsters were going to get their jam-stained hands on it. Even still, it’s blazingly fun in a way that I tended to resist back then, convinced that my comics needed to be mature and serious, dealing with significant issues and intense emotions. I still love those other comics I read, but I could used a dose of Kirby wonder back then, too. It’s a shame it took me as long as it did to realize it.

Previously…

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson
Batman by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #5 by Alan Kupperberg and Pablo Marcos
Web of Spider-Man by Louise Simonson and Greg LaRocque
Super-Villain Team-Up #12 by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall
What If? #31 by Rich Margopoulos and Bob Budiansky
Fantastic Four by Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis
Magik by Chris Claremont and John Buscema, Sal Buscema, and Ron Frenz
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7 by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell
Avengers #202 by Jim Shooter, David Michelinie and George Pérez
Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 32 and 31

32 freak32. Love Battery, Straight Freak Ticket

It often seemed that playing grunge music and being from Seattle basically combined up to create a golden ticket for qualifying bands in the early-to-mid-nineties, but the crossover success wasn’t uniformly distributed. Love Battery had the right sound and the correct zip code. What they didn’t have was a label that knew how to market them. Straight Freak Ticket was the band’s fourth album overall and their first full-length since jumping from Sub Pop Records to Atlas Records. It obviously did pretty well with at least one batch of college kids. As far as I can tell, it didn’t make much of a dent elsewhere. Shortly after this album was released, drummer Jason Finn left the band to join the Presidents of the United States of America, which seemed to work out all right for him. Love Battery petered out after the release of the 1999 album Confusion Au Go Go, though there have been the requisite reunion shows in recent years.

31 besides

31. Sugar, Besides

Music from Sugar sure came at a steady clip during the band’s relatively brief tenure. Former Hüsker Dü powerhouse Bob Mould’s return to playing with a group (another trio, no less) after a couple of excellent solo albums, Sugar released their first album, Copper Blue, in 1992, a mere six months after debuting on the stage of the famed Athens, Georgia venue 40 Watt Club. The released the ferocious EP Beaster the following spring and the group’s sophomore album, File Under: Easy Listening, arrived in 1994. Less than a year after that came Besides, a collection of B-sides and other stray bits.

Besides is essential for the inclusion of lead-off track “Needle Hits E” alone. Tuneful, bruising, exuberant, and yearning, it is quintessential Mould and simply one of the best songs Sugar ever recorded. Starting with this and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind (Solo Mix)” (which probably is the best song Sugar ever recorded and arguably Mould’s finest three-and-a-half-minutes as a songwriter) is unfair to everything that follows. There’s certainly good stuff to be found across the record — I’m partial to the tight, focused instrumental “Clownmaster,” and it’s fun to hear Sugar pummel the psychedelia out of the Who’s “Armenia City in the Sky” in a live cover version — but the exhaustive nature of the release means that there’s plenty of material that was properly relegated to filler on a CD single. There’s also a heavy reliance on live material, much of which isn’t all the revelatory. While it’s interesting to hear a song like “Explode and Make Up” become more ruminative in the live version, even as the band is delivering a fairly faithful take on it, the bulk of the concert material can’t transcend the usual live album flaw of feeling like the audio equivalent of a cloudy mirror’s reflection.

What Besides demonstrates most forcefully is that Sugar was truly the Bob Mould show, no matter how much he’d argue that he wanted it to be a true band, with the normal creative give and take that implies. Bassist David Barbe wrote four of the tracks — and takes lead vocal duties on them — and they come across as sadly drab. “Frustration” is so lacking in energy that it seems to belong to an entirely different band, though I’ll admit that it’s entirely possible Barbe had no way of winning, since his “In the Eyes of My Friends” is spot-on and winds up sounding like a weak imitation of Sugar. Mould was at a creative peak at this time. Anyone was going to have a tough time putting their songs up against his.

As it turned out, this was the last album to bear the Sugar name. By most accounts, the breakup was precipitated by Barbe’s desire to spend more time with his growing family. Mould has maintained that the dissolution of the band was fairly painless, at least compared to the napalm strafing that accompanied the end of Hüsker Dü, and that’s backed up by the continued connection between the band members, as when Mould worked in Barbe’s Athens studio and enlisted his former bandmate engineer the recordings. In general, Mould has affectionately embraced his Sugar material, especially in recent years. Even so, Besides is ultimately a tangential release, hardly the kind of album that demands attention. Then again, a person could do worse in demonstrating the appeal of Mould and Sugar than playing those first two tracks.

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