My Writers: Chris Claremont

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Though all of my instincts — meticulously steeped in self-consciousness and boomeranging snobbery — prod me to reserve this particular feature for scribes who convey a veneer of intellectual credibility to my reading selections, there are times when I am compelled that many of the most formative writers in my life primarily tapped out words for comic book adventures. When I was rolling my eyes at whatever English class drudgery I was assigned (my school wasn’t astute enough to realize that maybe teenagers would respond positively to the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger), I was rushing eagerly back the colorful exploits of superhumans in spandex suits, devouring every last mellifluous word. And it’s probably reasonable to say that one of the first comic book writers whose name locked into my brain as a titan of his craft was Chris Claremont.

Admittedly, my devotion to Claremont was partially due to the fact that he had a clear creative identity within Marvel Comics, my publisher of choice. He wrote The Uncanny X-Men, which meant he was in charge of the mutants. I started reading his comics right at the point those characters began an astounding rise in popularity. Once little more than a fringe subset within the Marvel Universe that gave the publisher’s foundational writer Stan Lee the chance to make an admirable arguments condemning bigotry, the characters all but took over in the nineteen-eighties, presumably in part because the aging of the readership base meant their were a few more outcast teenagers who found useful avatars in the residents of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

There was probably some timely happenstance to the rise of the mutants, but surely some of it could also be ascribed to Claremont’s approach to the characters. He had a gift for enlivening melodrama, accentuating the woes of the tragically different heroes and grandly carrying them from one wrenching setback to another. He tilted toward the sort of anguished philosophies that could fill a Mead notebook with bad high school poetry and paced the interpersonal adventures with the impeccable timing of the most seasoned soap opera scripters. It was silly and florid and, to my young eyes, flatly perfect.

As the X-Men grew in popularity, so did Marvel’s desire to make sure every slot of the the spinner rack was stocked with a tie-in title. At least initially, Claremont wrote most of the film, engaging in arguably the most robust world-building in that particular fictional universe since the heyday of Lee’s collaboration with artist Jack Kirby. The sprawl did Claremont no favors, and eventually keeping tracking of everything became exhausting to me as a reader. But I still remember those heady days when keeping up with the mutants was manageable and consistently exciting.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

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Top Ten Movies of 2016 — Number Seven

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Hell or High Water is sharp and funny and wise. The longer it sits with me, though, the more one quality it holds grows more resonant and true. Hell or High Water is forlorn. Taylor Sheridan’s finely honed screenplay tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who embark on a bank robbing spree across the dry, aching expanse of Texas. It also follows the Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) who wearily pursue the criminals. This, then, is a cops and robbers tale, bleached with the starkness of a modernized Hollywood Western. But it moves past the potential simplicity of its bare mechanics to becomes something more profound. The film is properly enmeshed in the worries of the society in which it is set, carrying all the wounds that come along with that strong sense of time and place. The brothers commit their felonies out of desperation over a reverse mortgage coming due on the family homestead, and the Rangers repeatedly encounter witnesses and other citizens who are deeply disenchanted with various institutions that were once concerned revered pillars of the nation. Presented with attention, care, and an unerring sense of tone by director David Mackenzie, the film feels like an uneasy dispatch from a land edging towards collapse.

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The Art of the Sell: Coca-Cola, “It’s Beautiful”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

As the fragile flowers who cluster on the rightward side of the political spectrum spend today mulling over their precise naughty list rankings of companies who supposedly made unforgivable insinuations about the politics and character of noted second-place finisher Donald J. Trump, I will use this space to call attention to the artistry of an commercial that raised their collective ire, though it first aired three years ago and have been brought back plenty of instances ever since. I don’t usually set myself in front of the television for America’s holiest broadcast, but I swear I remember seeing Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” when it first aired during a break in the action during Super Bowl XLVIII. I thought it was a lovely marvel then. Now, I think it’s a vital statement about the true character of the nation, despite virulent strain of bigotry that unfortunately feels empowered by the broken results of the most recent presidential election.

At the time of the ad’s debut, a Coca-Cola press release quoted one of the company’s executives to elaborate on its message: “For centuries America has opened its arms to people of many countries who have helped to build this great nation. We believe ‘It’s Beautiful’ is a great example of the magic that makes our country so special, and a powerful message that spreads optimism, promotes inclusion and celebrates humanity – values that are core to us and that matter to Coca-Cola.”

That seems pretty straightforward to me. And rejecting that message is rejecting the best aspects of the country’s history. As sad as it may be that supporters of the current occupant of the White House don’t appreciate “It’s Beautiful,” they may be able to take solace in another offering from the commercial’s director, John Hillcoat, that provides a vision of where their favored candidate is likely taking the United States. Hillcoat directed the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

 

 

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CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 85 – 83

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85. The Sisters of Mercy, “This Corrosion”

“This Corrosion” now stands so clearly as the signature song of the Sisters of Mercy that it’s easy to overlook that, in the chronology of the band, it was actually considered a comeback single. Shortly after the group had a couple of modest hits on the U.K. charts, in the mid-nineteen-eighties, they splintered apart. Guitarist Wayne Hussey and bassist Wayne Adams quickly formed a new group called the Mission. While they were making their own headway with British music fans, Sisters of Mercy lead singer Andrew Eldritch was largely absent from the scene, offer little explanation beyond saying he was “traveling for a bit.” There wasn’t even any particular indication that he’d carry on the Sisters of Mercy until “This Corrosion” arrived in the fall of 1987, in advance of the band’s sophomore album, Floodland. “It’s about the idiots, full of sound and fury, who stampede around this world signifying nothing,” Eldritch said of the single at the time. “It’s about people who sing about the revolution while selling it short, about people who sing about the corrosion of things while they themselves are falling apart. People who miss the point… It’s also stupidly over-the-top bombastic, but rightly so.” Given those aspirations to the over-the-top bombast, the Sisters needed the right collaborator in the studio. In the eighties, that could mean only one man: Jim Steinman, the impresario of excess who presided over some of Meat Loaf’s most notable efforts as well as similarly grandiose hits from Bonnie Tyler and Air Supply. “‘This Corrosion’ is ridiculous,” Eldritch said. “It’s supposed to be ridiculous. It’s a song about ridiculousness. So I called Steinman and explained that we needed something that sounded like a disco party run by the Borgias. And that’s what we got.” That swelling sonic splendor paid off nicely for the Sisters of Mercy. “This Corrosion” became the band’s first to cross into the U.K. Top 10 and also the first to make an appearance on the U.S. Club Play charts.

 

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84. Romeo Void, “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)”

“Billie Jean” wasn’t the first single from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but it was undoubtedly the one that signaled the artist and his album were heading into uncharted territory in terms of global popularity. The song spent seven weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100, so it clearly had a lot of fans. At least one of them had some conflicted feelings about the track, however. “I loved that song, danced to it in the clubs, but fuck Michael Jackson,” Romeo Void lead singer Debora Iyall said.  “If some woman comes to you and says, ‘I think you fathered my child,’  to respond, ‘The kid is not my son.’  I thought that was really cold, so ‘Girl In Trouble’ is my answer to him.” Released as the lead single for 1984 album Instincts, the band’s third and final full-length outing, “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)” finds Iyall offering pointed but encouraging words to a young friend going through a difficult time. “It’s a tough talk for girls,” Iyall explained. “I had a very good best friend, and I wrote it with her in mind, she is the ‘she’ in the first verse.” The song brought Romeo Void their sole foray in the Billboard Top 40, peaking at a modest #35.

 

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83. The Police, “King of Pain”

The single that was, by some measures, the second biggest hit for the Police had its genesis in some gentle jibing from a romantic partner. According to Sting, he was sulking after his divorce from him first wife, Frances Tomelty. Of course, this sulking was taking place in Jamaica, with his new paramour — and future wife — Trudie Styler nearby, so there were compensations for his misery. Still, sad is sad, and a rock ‘n’ roll poet with heady tastes is sure to express his existential agony in a highly dramatic fashion. As Sting recounted, he was sitting in the yard watching the sunset. After taking note of a pronounced level of sunspot activity, he announced to Styler, “There’s a little black spot on the sun today.” After the requisite pause for effect, he added, “That’s my soul up there.” Whatever sympathetic coddling he hoped to receive from Styler never arrived. “Trudie discretely raised her eyes to the heavens,” Sting reported. “‘There he goes again, the king of pain.'” He took that exchange and spun it into a typically moony, romantic, eloquent track. Released as a single from the 1983 album Synchronicity, the final full-length studio release from the Police, the song made it into the Billboard Top 5. Though the song’s success practically mandated that Sting would be called upon to perform it for the rest of his career, the raw feelings behind its creation never fully receded. Years later, when the Police embarked on a highly unlikely reunion tour, Sting acknowledged his need to employ some distancing strategies when “King of Pain” came up on the set list. “I sing it like an actor would,”he said.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Broken Flowers

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The latest film from writer-director Jim Jarmusch dribbles into my town this weekend. As a good little cinema devotee, I should head out to the local multiplex to take it in — especially since the film has earned strong reviews, notably for star Adam Driver — but I’ll admit that I probably won’t. Since I wrote the piece shared here, I’ve come around to some of Jarmusch’s earlier features, but he remains a distancing artist for me. I could go on, but that’s basically what I write about in this review from my former online home, so….

I suppose I should start by noting that I’ve never really warmed up to Jim Jarmusch. The few times I’ve taken a crack at one of his movies I’ve given up pretty quickly, put off by the deliberate pacing and fierce dramatic austerity. I hardly want the sort of hyperactive editing hackery perpetrated by everyone’s favorite cinematic antichrist, but nor do I want to watch the entire step-by-step journey a letter carrier makes from one house to the house next door.

Which brings us handily to the opening of Broken Flowers.

The latest from Jarmusch has largely drawn raves, including testimony to how accessible it is. I suppose, on the Jarmusch scale, that’s true. Just having widely-recognizable actors and a fairly linear plot accomplishes that. The plot in question follows Don Johnston (“with a t”), played by Bill Murray, as he tracks down several old lovers, provoked by a mysterious letter and a detective-obsessed neighbor. Murray’s character was something of a Don Juan, you see. And if you don’t see it — given the fact that the character is seemingly in the vestiges of a deep depression, or some sort of disease that induces extreme atrophy — you will be told it and visually cued to it several times in the first twenty minutes. Murray has had a hell of a run in recent years, convincingly transforming himself into a highly thoughtful, carefully subtle and deeply internal actor, but he makes very little impression here, in part because he has such a vaguely-defined character. You also get the sense that Jarmusch’s direction probably amounted to continually urging, “That was good, Bill, but let’s try it again, and this time give me less.”

The film seems to be about the emptiness of this character’s life and the ways in which this quest reveals his need for some interpersonal connection. And maybe even some sort of legacy. By the end, we’ve just barely cracked open his clamshell, and the journey there is so uneventfully episodic that it’s hard to say if this is really Jarmusch’s storytelling point. Maybe he just wants to make fun of people who have goofy jobs (like closet organizer), or illustrate the ways in which we all, no matter who we are, live lives tinged by loneliness.

Explaining all these reservations obscures the fact that there’s also a lot to like in the film. In particular, it’s filled with the sort of small, telling moments that most films completely bypass. I just wish those moments were serving a more compelling, more resonant overarching story.

 

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One for Friday: Randy Newman, “New Orleans Wins the War”

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They started to party and they partied some more
Cause New Orleans had won the war

There are probably songs that should come to mind more quickly for me when I think of New Orleans — something steeped in the jazz, zydeco, or blues that serve as the city’s musical pulse. But, in truth, Randy Newman’s “New Orleans Wins the War” is the track that echoes up from my memory when I head out for another visit to the Crescent City. It’s probably because this was the first song about New Orleans that I truly embedded into my head — Newman’s Land of Dreams was right there in Heavy Rotation when I started at the college radio station — and the descriptions of one of the master songwriters of his age managed to place me in the southern city before I ever set foot in it.

And then there’s the fact that the song is also about the jarring experience of leaving the magical, messy place. As I write this, I only have about twenty-fours left in my latest visit to New Orleans. I’d better get out and make the most of it.

Listen or download –> Randy Newman, “New Orleans Wins the War”

(Disclaimer: I don’t know for sure if Land of Dreams is still out of print as a physical object that could be purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. If you can buy it there, you should. It’s masterful. Let the sharing of this track to be an enticement to do so. Though I mean no fiscal harm to Mr. Newman in sharing this, I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Beers I Have Known: Abita Turbodog

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

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I was in New Orleans less than a year after Katrina. No further embellishment is needed on that name. It is its own story. It is the storm and the aftermath all in one. That’s how it felt then. To a degree, that’s still how it feels now. I was in New Orleans providing help, spending days gutting houses that had been saturated by flood and nights in a makeshift compound called Camp Hope. The city that I had previously know as messy and boisterous was now ravaged and shell-shocked. When we broke away from service-related tasks to visit shops, the gratitude for the simplest acts of commerce was overwhelming. It was a city so dependent on tourism that the diversion of vacations from a wounded city was arguably as damaging as the murky waters that doused it. We worked during the time we were in New Orleans, but we also took time to play, heartened by the knowledge that our contributions to the local economy were needed, too.

That bygone trip to an aching area forged many distinct memories for me: of people, of jazz, of sweat-soaked days, of exhausted nights. And, yes, there was a beer that served as its own sort of anchor to the time and place. Tonight, as I once again spend time in New Orleans, I will find myself a glass of Abita Turbodog, and I will raise it in remembrance and gratitude to a city that has given my much joy, and to which I have occasionally tried to give something of myself in return.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

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