Monday, February 27, 2017

Taraji P. Henson is My New Favorite Human

I fell asleep well before the Academy Awards ended. And what an ending I missed, apparently. Sounds like a screw-up for the ages. Must've been interesting to see it happen live.

From the hour and a half that I did watch, my two favorite moments were Mahershala Ali's Best Supporting Actor win for Moonlight and then his touching and thoughtful acceptance speech. The man thanked his teachers! It's always heartwarming when actors use these speeches as a way to give thanks to people who helped set them on the path.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Suicide Squad is now The Academy Award Winning Suicide Squad. Yes, we live in a world where that is true. And I kind of love that.

But then today I saw this series of GIFs and realized that, hands down, Taraji P. Henson was the clear winner last night. In a room full of high-brow wannabes and pretentiously-serious thespians, Henson's hilarious reaction shots—like when she catches a bag of candy dropped from on high—reveal that at least one of these stars has a sense of humor. You can tell she was having a spectacular time being there. Good for her!

Not only does Henson win my Academy Award for Best Human, she also wins for best dressed. She looked fabulous. She also looked real and like she was having just as much fun posing on the red carpet as she was collecting candy falling from the ceiling.

I don't watch Empire but I'm starting to think I need to, just to witness more of the awesomeness that is Taraji P. Henson.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Songs in the Key of Life: Some Kinda Love / Sister Ray

Lou Reed's solo career was anything but predictable and while often brilliant, it could also be generously described as inconsistent. When he was inspired, he created some truly outstanding music during the decades after he quit the Velvet Underground. When that creativity faltered though, well, he made music like "My Red Joystick."

The early 1980s were a peak period for Reed. He was working with one of the all-time underappreciated guitarists, former law student and rabid Velvets fan Robert Quine. The Blue Mask (1982) is the essential studio document from this era, a revealingly personal album where Reed is brutally honest about his life, his past, his alcoholism, his fears and his anxieties. The album still hits hard all these years later. Like The Who's (and thus Pete Townshend's) nakedly honest The Who By Numbers, The Blue Mask is absolutely crucial for understanding where the artists were emotionally during those years.

Then in 1984 he released the live record Live in Italy, which featured recent songs but also plenty of reworkings of classic Velvets material. If you're looking for a deeper appreciation of Reed's work in those years, this is as essential listening as The Blue Mask. With Reed and Quine on guitar, Fernando Saunders on bass, and Fred Maher on drums, the band around him is top notch. Reed and company play with a power and velocity rarely equaled in his career. They really stretch out live, taking instrumental detours along the way.

After launching into the Velvets' "Some Kinda Love" they segue into another legendary track from the band, "Sister Ray," then meld them to create something truly epic in scope and sound. It's a blistering performance, full of vivid colors and intense heat. It begins with the rhythm section's addictive slow groove, then the guitars enter the fray. Reed's solid rhythm lines beautifully complement Quine's sublimely melodic solos, which he unleashes with impunity throughout. Reed's in his classic speak-shout mode here—"I'm searching for my mainline! I couldn't hit it sideways!" His phrasing is majestic.

It's clear Reed was energized by Quine's musical virtuosity to create some of his strongest solo work. Thankfully, these two late-greats left behind Live in Italy as proof of that—proof that Quine elevated Reed's music during that period, and that Reed could still bring the heat when his heart was in it. If you watch footage of the Italy shows (the album combines songs from a two-night set) you can see that Reed was heavily invested during those nights. Just like Jenny in "Rock & Roll"(which closes Live in Italy), he's dancing to that fine, fine music—as if his life was saved by rock and roll.

Here's the medley sourced from the live album:

Here's partial video of the performance:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Getting Woke

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

These days it seems getting woke is everywhere, especially on social media. It's hashtag-shorthand for becoming aware, having your eyes opened to the stark and disturbing realities faced by millions of citizens in this country and around the globe every day. Understanding inequality, being cognizant of privilege and how it influences and shapes your thoughts and behavior. Trying to exhibit empathy for those who do not share in your birthright's privilege.

If people were uttering the phrase get woke back in the early 1990s, I certainly wasn't aware of it in my sleepy suburban town. Yet I most definitely had a get woke moment in high school, fall of '92, when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It sounds like hyperbole, but that book changed my life. It made me cognizant of the fundamental and irrefutable fact of my white privilege while also enlightening me to the sad history of discrimination over the course of the twentieth century and of course further back than that.

We were assigned a project in English class—by the same teacher I wrote about recently—and if I recall it was to read and write about a book that was adapted to film. I chose The Autobiography of Malcolm X, likely because Spike Lee's cinematic adaptation was releasing that same year. To my young eyes, Lee was the most electric and engaging filmmaker working at the time. His movie was a worthy adaptation of Malcolm's life story, but it was the book that first blew my preconceptions about race right out of the water. I thought I was at least passingly aware before the book. I thought I had a grasp on our nation's racism. I had no idea.

Malcolm X's story is one of tremendous struggle and perseverance, of seeking some sort of truth in the face of enormous societal obstacles, and of finding redemption. Telling his story with the assistance of journalist Alex Haley, Malcolm's words are imbued with a fire and intensity that practically leap off the page. He is scornful of the white men who caused such unfathomable pain and inflicted centuries of suffering on his race. He's dogmatic and affirmative, staunch and fervent, stubborn and proud. Yet he's also fluid and ever-changing, able to grow and evolve his ideologies over time, especially and most dramatically after his pilgrimage to Mecca.

What his story did for me, a young naive white kid with very little real-world experience outside of the safety of  my high school cocoon, was to present a life's story unvarnished, one filled with enormous change and growth, complete with all of the blood, sweat, and tears that made it possible. Before The Autobiography of Malcolm X I had no clue just how many lives a man can lead, even when that life is tragically cut short at the age of 39. Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, convict, Satan, minister in the Nation of Islam, disciple of Elijah Muhammad, human rights activist, Muslim, husband, father, survivor, icon. Growth, change, adaptation, revolution, and evolution, all in the face of insurmountable odds.

Very few reading experiences for me have ever equaled reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the fall of '92. Late '80s, early '90s black cinema was undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with films like Do The Right Thing, Boyz in the Hood, and Menace II Society providing voice to a new generation of black filmmakers; hip hop and R&B were both relevant and inspiring, from Fear of a Black Planet to Rhythm Nation 1814; and Rodney King's beating at the hands of the police, the ensuing trial, the appalling verdict, and the resulting L.A. riots brought race to the forefront for many Americans who hadn't yet been woke. The rest of the populace couldn't help asking, "Really? Where have you been hiding?"

Just because The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a formative experience for me at a young age, one that triggered a shift in my awareness, an opening up of my mind to experiences and lives outside of my own small bubble, I still cannot pretend to fathom the impact it must have on generations of black Americans who read it for the first time around the same age. I hope it's still being read by thousands if not millions of new young people every year. It deserves to be, as Malcolm X's story of faith, resistance, and enlightenment in the face of extreme prejudice will, sadly, always remain relevant.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Writing Roundup: Cult Classics Across Mediums

While I've been slow to update around here this month, I've at least had a few articles and reviews published elsewhere since the New Year. Here they are, for your reading pleasure. As always, links to each are included below.

In early January I looked at the totally underrated cult classic and longtime favorite of mine, Nighthawks. It stars Sly Stallone, Bill Dee Williams, Rutger Hauer, and Lindsay Wagner. For those keeping score, that's Rocky/Rambo, Lando, Roy Batty, and the Bionic Freaking Woman. All in one film, at the height of their respective powers. Hauer steals the shows but Sly and Billy Dee bring it in this wildly entertaining 1981 action flick. It's also a time capsule for a version of NYC that doesn't seem to exist anymore.

Then I turned my eye towards the latest in The Purge series, The Purge: Election Year. In my review I talk about some of the film's similarities to our current, and insane, state of affairs in the United States. Spoilers: I loved this movie.

Today, the Diner posted my review of the much-maligned Batman Forever, a film I actually love. It's an irrational and unreasonable love, but hey, it's love. Plus, it has '90s era Val Kilmer, Nicole Kidman, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jim Carrey chewing the scenery with a ferocity rarely seen on film before or since.

Over at Sequart I reviewed the most awesomely titled book I've ever had the pleasure of reading: Turn Loose Our Death Rays and Kill Them All! It's the complete works of noted comic book mystery man Fletcher Hanks, who exploded on the scene and then imploded, dropping out of the industry within a scant two years. But oh what a wild two years it was. This collection is from Fantagraphics, meaning it's high quality and gorgeously designed. And of course it's filled with some of the absolutely strangest comics you'll ever read.

Sequart also recently shared my overview of another noted comics genius Steve Gerber and his run on Marvel's Son of Satan in the 1970s. Like the other films and books listed here, its cult classic status is well earned.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Making an Impact

Sometimes someone helps to set you on a path. If you're lucky, you might even have a teacher who serves that role. We all need a push now and then, after all. I've been thinking about one such person recently.

I read an article about teachers who changed writers' lives. Immediately, Mrs. Vernon came to mind for me. Back in the early 1990s she was my English teacher. I'm fuzzy on the years but I think I had her for sophomore and senior English. I also took a film class that she taught my senior year.

Mrs. Vernon was not the first great teacher I'd had, but she was definitely one of the first to see things in me that others had not—dueling passions for things like reading, writing, film, and learning. She nurtured and encouraged these passions. I was a shy kid, introverted and often lost in my world. I was also a voracious reader, aspiring writer, and budding film junkie. Mrs. Vernon rather quickly recognized all of those interests and then set about inspiring me to pursue them.

I still remember being extremely excited about whatever book we were reading or whichever film we were watching in her classes. Hers was the first class where I really learned to critically examine works of literature and film, to not just express what I liked or disliked about them, but to explore why I felt this way.

In her classes, we would engage in lengthy, entertaining, rambling, tangential group discussions about a book or a film—she would ask a question and then we would each chime in with our interpretations and criticisms of the work, bouncing ideas and concepts off of each other along the way. She created an encouraging classroom atmosphere for her students.

Early on, Mrs. Vernon told me I was a good writer. She said I could be better, though. She gave me things to work on, in order to hone my skills. She taught me to get out and live life while also seeing as many movies and reading as many books as possible, to collect influences and inspirations wherever I could find them. I've been doing that ever since, and I can trace the reason for it back to her classroom.

Sometimes I feel like my brain is on overdrive, consuming more words and images than should be healthy for anyone. Then I remember the lessons that Mrs. Vernon taught me and realize, no, it's not only healthy but necessary. Some of us are just sponges, constantly searching for the next piece of art to absorb in the hopes that it will blow our minds. That was Mrs. Vernon, in a nutshell. She loved literature and film and the arts and she shared that love with her students. She must have recognized a kindred spirit in me; we're both reading and watching and critiquing because we can't imagine not doing that.

The last time I spoke to Mrs. Vernon was during college when I was home on summer break. At that point I'd set my writing aside to pursue other interests. I remember the look on her face when I told her—she practically grimaced. I never forgot the look of disappointment in her eyes. Still, she encouraged me. She said I'd return to writing at some point, and implored me to make every effort I could to do so. I was maybe nineteen and I'm not sure I was ready yet to make that effort. Years later though, I was.

After reading the article I mentioned earlier, I felt compelled to find Mrs. Vernon, to tell her about the impact she made on my life, to let her know that I continued to write, that I'm writing more now than ever. I tracked her down through an old classmate. She's now retired in Florida. I sent her an email and tried to express just how much she meant to me and her other students. I felt the need to tell her I work in publishing, surrounded by books at all times, and that I write on the side. Mostly I wanted her to know I never forgot her.

Soon after, she replied. Her warmth, intelligence, and humor shone brightly in her words. She was thrilled to hear I was writing and vowed to check out the samples I'd sent her—my long-form critical reevaluation of Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 and a look at Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness that compares my experiences reading the novel in college with a recent reread. They seemed appropriate to share, as the works being examined in each were like similar works that Mrs. Vernon championed for their boldness, their thoughtfulness, and their searing explorations of the human condition.

After noting that she looked forward to reading them, she also added, "Don't worry; I've retired my red pen. Love Joyce Vernon." I laughed out loud. I also felt like I'd completed the circle; Mrs. Vernon had changed my life and it was important that I let her know that. Deep down, we all want to know that we've left our mark. She deserved to know just how significant an influence she's had on my life.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: February 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

My politics-induced malaise has not only made writing difficult lately, but it's also slowed my reading. I've been so worn out from reacting to the constant stream of insanity flowing out of the White House that I can't seem to muster the energy to read much in one sitting lately. This means I'm progressing at a snail's pace through the one novel that I'm reading now...

Currently reading

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. I'm about a third of the way through Chabon's new novel. He's most likely my favorite novelist, so it disappoints to admit this, but so far Moonglow hasn't hooked me. That said, it's still filled with passages and even sentences that absolutely sing, in that way that Chabon has of making words strung together seem infinitely more meaningful and beautiful than you'd ever thought they could be. So while I feel like the story, which is one of "truth and lies" as the publisher's website tells us, is meandering along, I'm still enjoying myself when I can find the time to read it. At this stage I'm not expecting it to rank with my favorite novels of his (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union), but I still have plenty to go and I expect Chabon will work some more of his literary magic on me as things progress.

Interestingly, my wife is currently reading Kavalier & Clay for the first time. I read it when it came out, sixteen or seventeen years ago, and have reread a few more times since. I'm a crazy fan of that book and can barely be subjective about it; I unabashedly love it. She's nearly done and has enjoyed it overall, but feels it drags in spots (sure, I'll concede that), and a lot of the comic book references are lost on her (I've offered to help with that but then I go off on tangents about obscure creators or characters and I see her attention wander...). Nonetheless, I'm thrilled that she's finally reading it, so we can discuss it. There's nothing better than critically discussing a book with someone else who's read it.

The Fantastic Four, by John Byrne. It's Byrne, it's 1980s Marvel, and it's the Thing shouting "It's clobbering time!" at least once an issue. It's a truly auteur work in the field of mainstream comics, with Byrne plotting, scripting, and illustrating his entire lengthy run on Marvel's first family. I owned some of these issues as a kid but this is my first full read-through of Byrne's five years on the book. I was never the biggest Fantastic Four fan but that's all changed in recent years. I adore them now, and even like to jokingly refer to my own family as the Fantastic Four. We have two women in our group, which makes my wife Sue Storm the matriarch and my daughter the fierce and funny She-Hulk. My son's named Benjamin and he certainly likes to clobber things, so he's got to be the Thing. I'm Reed Richards all the way, graying hair and all.

That noise you hear? Don't be concerned, it's just the nerd alarm. It's stuck in on the on position after that excessive bit of nerdery.

Recently and not-so-recently acquired

Pleasure  and Pain: My Life, by Chrissy Amphlett, with Larry Writer (that has to be a pen name, right?). For years whenever "I Touch Myself" came on the radio I used to tell anyone who would listen that not only was that a great song but the Divinyls were a killer band for a while. Sure, I didn't know a lot of their music but what I knew rocked. Then, when recently writing about a moment in time that will forever be linked to the Divinyls' biggest hit single, my interest in the late Chrissy Amphlett and her band was reignited. I've been discovering songs of theirs I never knew before and blasting their music on a regular basis. Our kids seem to be fans, which warms my heart. And before you ask, no, I haven't played them "I Touch Myself" yet. Itching to know more about Amphlett, I found her autobiography on eBay for a song. The book was published a few years before Amphlett passed away from cancer in 2013, at the terribly young age of 53. She was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most unique and electric singers I've ever heard. I've sampled the first few pages and it's clear that her prose writing is just like her songwriting: brutally honest, defiant, and witty.

1984, by George Orwell. This is an old copy that I pulled off the shelf recently and set aside, to possibly read in the coming months. Gee, I wonder why? The book seems eerily prescient these days, doesn't it?