Sunday, April 29, 2007
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
The other night Kathy and I drove to Socorro, the Athens of the Southwest, for a concert by Niyaz.
(Considering the music, Socorro became for one night more like the Khorasan of the Southwest.)
Niyaz is sort of a world music supergroup, assembled out of performers who have had successful careers on their own and with others.
Niyaz--- known in other parts of the world as Nyyaz--- features vocalist Azam Ali, born in Iran and raised in India, who has collaborated with folks like Mickey Hart, Omar Faruk Bekbilek, and Trey Gunn of King Crimson; fellow Iranian (and husband) Loga Ramin Torkian on saz and GuitarViol; and Italian-American Carmen Rizzo on synthesizers. For the tour, the band added Greek-American Dmitri Mahlis, who played oud though he's better known as a bouzouki player, and Canadian tabla player Satnam Ramgotra.
Azam Ali walked on stage looking like a Goth icon--- very tall, very pale, dressed in a long black lacy dress, heavy silver bracelets on her wrists, and with hair falling past her waist in tight perfect Pre-Raphaelite waves.
Vocals were in Farsi and Urdu, a combination of new material, Iranian folk songs, and spiritual songs in the Sufi tradition, most written by Mevlana (known over here as Rumi), the founder of the whirling dervishes. The instrumental playing was lovely. Though I'd heard them, I had never actually seen a GuitarViol in use before--- it's essentially a guitar played with a bow, like a cello, and with a cello-like sound.
The concert hall put out their dance floor, but the only people to dance were members of the local belly dance group, who were most expert--- better than the dancer we saw in Turkey, anyway. Others were perhaps uncertain how to dance to the rhythms of southwest Asia, or intimidated by the experts.
Spirituality, I've always felt, is best tempered by rock and roll. Which is to say the music was a little droney for my taste, and I wish they'd rocked out more. But the sound was lovely, the arrangements expert, and the belly dancing fun to watch.
A video is available here, for anyone interested in the group.
Friday, April 20, 2007
The Story Editor Inside Me
I find that this is true in my case. I read less fiction now than I once did, because when I pick up a brand new novel, with a cover blurb saying something like (for example) "Best fantasy novel of the year!", and I find it's more or less the same novel that I read in 1973 except with 200 additional totally unnecessary pages, it makes me less inclined to read not only that novel, but any novel.
The fact is that I have it worse than almost all of you, because of the Story Editor Inside Me.
After thirty years of writing professionally, and doing professional critiques, and reading critically and with an eye toward technique and story values, I've got an internal story editor that just won't shut up.
I can't read bad fiction because it's, well, bad. And I can't read mediocre fiction because the Story Editor Inside Me is always editing, rewriting, adding scenes, rearranging scenes, replotting, adding character moments, deleting scenes, and otherwise trying to make the story better . . . which of course I can't really do, because the damn thing's already in print.
It takes a really good piece of fiction to stun the internal story editor and let me read simply for pleasure.
And sometimes even if it's really good, the Story Editor Inside Me keeps yammering away, and spoils it for me.
A case in point was tonight's Netflix movie, Stranger Than Fiction, in which Will Farrell plays an IRS accountant who comes to realize that he is in fact a fictional character, created by a brilliant if comically tormented Emma Thompson, an author who fully intends to kill him off at the end of the book. It becomes apparent that the book is in fact the author's masterpiece, and so it becomes Will Farrell's duty to give his death artistic meaning by dying just as Miss Thompson intends. (I mean, he's going to die sooner or later, right? So why not die in the way that provides satisfaction to the most people?)
It's quite a good movie. The cast is packed with heavy hitters--- Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Linda Hunt--- and the writing by Zach Helm is very fine.
But the Story Editor Inside Me wouldn't shut up. It wouldn't cease pointing out that Miss Thompson's novel was not in fact a masterpiece, but a total crock of shit.
Will Farrell's accountant had no life. He worked, he came home, he dined alone, he went to sleep. He counted the number of brush strokes as he cleaned his teeth, he counted the number of steps from his apartment to the bus stop. He had no girlfriend, no hobbies, and no friends outside of work.
Do you know what we call these people in real life?
We call them crazy.
We call them nuts.
We call them out of their freaking minds.
You could get a moving tragedy out of this character, but only by recognizing that the story is about the tragedy of autism or insanity or some other mental disorder.
But that's not what we got. The character's life was this empty for fictional reasons, because he had to come out of this living death and find love and a real life in time to be run over by a bus, so there could be irony.
I mean, this story sucks. I kept thinking that Emma Thompson wasn't having writer's block because she couldn't find the right tragic ending, she was having writer's block because she knew she was writing a really bad, untrue story and should dump the whole manuscript in the incinerator and start over.
Real people, even if they're IRS accountants, have real lives. Even if they're geeks. I know lots of real-life geeks, and they all have real-life hobbies. Trainspotting. Birdwatching. Playing SCA. Playing harpsichord in a chamber ensemble. Science fiction fandom. Traveling to towns in Southern California in alphabetical order, via routes that cross into no towns they've already visited, and then having lunch. I mean, their lives are full, get it?
So this is what the Story Editor Inside Me kept yelling as I was watching this perfectly fine movie.
(The Story Editor also pointed out that Emma Thompson could have had her tragic ending, and still saved Will Farrell's life, simply by changing the character's name before she wrote the last chapter.
(Okay, so maybe it wouldn't have worked, but it would have worked in my universe, and anyway it was still worth a try.
(Okay, so this is my geek thing, all right?)
So if you read as a fan--- if you can pick up a random book and read it for pure pleasure--- then count your lucky stars.
Because I can't. Or hardly ever, anyway.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Eat Like an Edwardian
Here's the menu for the first day.
Breakfast: Porridge, sardines, curried eggs, grilled cutlets, coffee, hot chocolate, bread, butter, honey.
Lunch: Sauté of kidneys on toast, mashed potatoes, macaroni au gratin, rolled ox tongue.
Afternoon tea: Fruit cake, Madeira cake, hot potato cakes, coconut rocks, bread, toast, butter.
Dinner: Oyster patties, sirloin steak, braised celery, roast goose, potato scallops, vanilla soufflé.
Midnight snack of roast chicken and Madeira. (King Edward always took a roast chicken to bed with him.)
Now there's a diet for empire-builders! There's nothing like a bracing breakfast of sardines, curried eggs, and five or six cutlets to motivate you into spending the rest of the morning annexing Natal!
And I like the homey touch of mac and cheese for lunch, though I admit I've never had it with mashed potatoes and rolled ox tongue and kidneys and toast. These Edwardians didn't even pretend to include vegetables in their diet.
And with no roughage, how many pounds of starch, protein, and fat was rolling around in their innards at any given time?
I've had periods of high dining--- the recent trip to France comes to mind--- but this list shows what a complete amateur I've been when it comes to being a gourmand.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I Hab' a Co'de
And this just after I'd given the tax stuff to the accountant and was ready for some fun.
Instead I'm housebound watching videos, because my head hurts too much when I try to read.
Here's what I've seen.
Casino Royale. I've spent decades being mad at James Bond movies because they showed Hollywood that if you throw together enough chase scenes and skin shots, along with a plot that makes no sense, you can make hundreds of millions of dollars. So I was prepared to hate this.
To my surprise, I enjoyed it. Perhaps the fact that I was unable to give it my complete attention helped.
Bright Young Things, directed by Stephen Fry and based on the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, the classic novel of the young and rich tearing up London during the Roaring Twenties. (I haven't read the novel, so this note deals almost entirely with the movie.)
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
The Sarge and Me
It is my custom, while slowly going blind staring at faded receipts marked with cryptic notes that doubtless seemed perfectly understandable at the time, to avoid encroaching madness by renting and watching a series of bad action movies.
Why bad movies? Because you don’t have to pay attention, or think about them. All you have to do, when you can’t stand decoding the receipts any longer, is to look up from your desk and watch the pretty explosions, or the action-packed car chase, or the flesh-packed bikinis.
Which is how I found myself watching Flyboys the other night. You don’t have to think about this one at all, because you’ve seen the whole movie before, many times, in other action movies. The film leaves no cliché unturned. In its own way, the total lack of originality is sort of genius. It’s Extruded Film Product.
But thanks to a Netflix subscription, I now have some other options. I’ve been watching some archived television programs from my childhood, chief among them Combat!, a World War II series that lasted longer than the war itself, and which starred Vic Morrow as the hard-bitten sergeant in an infantry unit.
I’ve always had a sentimental regard for sergeants, I guess because my father was one. Doubtless actual service in the armed forces would have altered this naive attitude— as it would have if my dad had been a sergeant when I knew him. But he was a citizen-soldier, who volunteered in 1943, and mustered out in ‘45. (He told his own father, a refugee from the Imperial Russian Army, that he’d been drafted, otherwise there would have been hell to pay.) Because Dad could speak Finnish, the OSS shipped my dad overseas on the Queen Mary; but once he arrived in Britain, the Army apparently realized they weren’t going to invade Scandinavia after all, and Dad was assigned to an ambulance company, where he eventually became its first sergeant.
Being assigned to that particular ambulance unit might have put him in more jeopardy than if he’d remained in the OSS, because the unit was assigned directly to SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters, and was sent wherever there was vicious fighting. So Dad got to land on Omaha Beach, and experience the Normandy campaign, the liberation of Paris (he dug a foxhole in the gardens at Versailles), the disastrous Market-Garden operation (attached to the British Guards Armored), and the Battle of the Bulge (still attached to the British). He crossed the Bridge at Remagen, and helped to treat the liberated prisoners of Dachau. He was under fire a lot, though as he was with a medical unit he didn’t get to shoot back. He shipped home in 1945, and stayed in the Reserves until presciently getting out just before Korea.
Unlike a lot of veterans, Dad didn’t mind talking about his experiences. He was fairly chatty about it, in fact— he’d tell me any damn thing. My young ears were not spared the horrors of war, or other singular aspects of military life. (I’m glad I never asked my mom what Dad meant by “that Brussels donkey show.”)
It was clear that, the blood and death aside, for my father World War II was the time of his life. He traveled to places he’d only dreamt about, had lots of girlfriends (including a French lady who had to be quietly shuffled aside once my mom appeared on the scene), and even (thanks to the GI Bill) got a college education out of it.
Ere long I was introduced to fictional sergeants who helped explain my dad’s stories. First and greatest of these was Sergeant Rock, in his original incarnation, written mostly by Robert Kanigher and drawn by the wonderful Joe Kubert. Though capable of comic-book heroics, Rock was also hard-bitten, cynical, loyal to his Easy Company, and hated war. Rock and Easy Company would never have made it in Patton’s Third Army— they generally were drawn with dinged helmets, torn uniforms, unshaven chins, and covered in mud. Kubert’s characters generally had a realism that you didn’t find elsewhere, even when he was drawing costumed super-heroes. And as for the writing, it was sometimes very fine.
I remember an episode called “What Makes a Sergeant?”, in which Rock— in addition to his usual duties of killing Germans and blowing up Tiger tanks— helps a replacement find his footing, scares up hot chow for his troops, and aids one of his soldiers in writing a love letter to his girl. The episode served installed itself in my mind as a kind of iconic example of Sergeantry at its finest.
I read other war comics featuring the Haunted Tank, Gunner and Sarge, Johnny Cloud the Navajo Ace, and Sergeant Rock’s sometime love interest, the French Resistance heroine Madamoiselle Marie, who I enjoyed for her expressive blue eyes and the rollneck sweaters that outlined her iconic pointed 1950s breasts. (I was not only a bloodthirsty young child, but a horny one.) I also liked Enemy Ace, another Kanigher/Kubert team-up, featuring a First World War rittmeister who, while blowing Allied pilots out of the sky, uttered depressed Nordic soliloquies about death, war, death, duty, death, and the fact that his own plane was so fed up with the slaughter that it wanted to kill him.
None of them quite measured up to Sergeant Rock, however, who is the only one of that star-spangled crowd whose book survives to the present day.
My next fictional sergeant starred in Combat!, a series that was based on the experiences of its creator, Selig Seligman, in the European Theater. The stars had served in the Second World War as well, and had an idea of how people in the military actually behaved (unlike those kooky Yanks in Flyboys, for example).
Combat! was on ABC, and our town didn’t have an ABC affiliate, so ABC programs were shown at odd hours— at one point late on Sunday night. My sergeant father let me stay up late to watch it. He liked the show, too.
The series had two stars, Rick Jason as the lieutenant and Vic Morrow as the sergeant, leading an Easy Company-like assortment of misfits and screwups. As the series went on, Rick Jason was largely sidelined by his co-star— partly on account of Morrow’s phenomenal acting ability, partly on account of the First Rule of Movie Infantry, which is that for dramatic purposes no military unit need be larger than six men. (The Second Rule of Movie Infantry is that the unit must contain at least one person who speaks the local language, in this case former Olympic skier Pierre Jalbert as the Louisiana-born Caje.)
The series began with the invasion at Omaha Beach and continued its march for six years across Northern France (which looked a lot like Southern California, only with quainter architecture). The series must have made a huge impression on me on its original run, because as I viewed the Netflix DVDs, I actually remembered a great many of the episodes. The one where Vic Morrow’s Sergeant Saunders was captured and trapped in a burning barn— it was the first time I ever heard a heroic character scream in mortal agony. The episode where Jeffrey Hunter guest-starred as a spoiled priest who enjoyed blowing the crosses off churches with his tank gun. The episode where Rick Jason was trapped beneath an unexploded bomb.
The years have improved my understanding of some of the episodes, as for instance the show where the squad mistrusts a new replacement because, in civilian life, he’d been a ballet dancer— mistrusts him, that is, until he tiptoed en pointe along the ridge of a roof to drop grenades on a German machine gun nest below. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out why being a ballet dancer was supposed to be so suspect. A grown-up’s appreciation of the subtext now leads me to understand it wasn’t the lad’s dancing ability the squad was concerned about.
(My Dad told me that real-life GIs were more relaxed about gays. When a homosexual was discovered in Dad’s outfit, the man was transferred to a gay company, which everyone knew about and where everyone from the officers down were gay.)
As a grown-up, I can now appreciate the series’ stellar production values and excellent writing (sometimes, uncredited, by Vic Morrow himself). The series had sufficient prestige that film stars like Lee Marvin, Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Duvall, Sal Mineo, Richard Basehart, and Keenan Wynn turned up as guest stars, usually as roubled, unhappy characters whose neuroses were solved either by Sgt. Saunders or by a bullet.
Directors included the young Burt Kennedy and the young Robert Altman. Altman hadn’t yet developed many of the trademark tics that characterized his film work— other than shooting long, long takes so that his eloquent scenes couldn’t be chopped up in editing, a tactic that eventually got him fired.
But even with all that talent around, it’s the sergeant that keeps the show together. Vic Morrow’s acting is simply phenomenal— he outshines everyone around him, even the guest stars, and owns every single scene he’s in. It’s amazing that, outside of this series, Hollywood couldn’t think of anything to do with him except have him play the heavy.
World War II was canceled over sixty years ago, and Sergeant Rock still soldiers on, leading his iconic, combat-happy crew across shelltorn France. My father has now joined Vic Morrow in that great NCO club in the sky.
Here’s a drink to you, Sarge, in looted French brandy. Live forever.