Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Becoming a Panhead: Part One

Between the ages of 11 and 15, heavy metal got me through the hardships of adolescence. I was in no way a reader during that chapter of my life, and films were nothing but excuses to hook up with friends and gossip in the back row of the Lincoln Theater balcony. I was a religious young man, in my own way, but understood a life of faith only as well as a teen might, which is to say not well at all -- and so religion did little to buoy me up in the storms of youth, except where it dovetailed with rock 'n' roll. So whereas my turnstile of favorite bands in those years included the secular acts Europe and Warlock, I also listened to various Christian acts: Altar Boys, Petra, Stryper, Bloodgood, Leviticus, others. I wore out my cassette of Petra's This Means War during a family vacation to South Dakota one summer. I thrilled at the notion of sacred mystery meeting social taboo in the lyrics of Bloodgood's pulsing "Eat the Flesh" from their album Detonation. I grit my teeth through the gross overproduction on Stryper's In God We Trust and Petra's On Fire because the songs were good, for the most part (Stryper shot clean off the rails with their next album, while Petra corrected beautifully thereafter with Beyond Belief, for my money their best record).

But as often happens in adolescence, turning the page as a young man was attended by turning the page on one's musical tastes. It just works out that way. Pearl Jam came along, and heavy metal, in all its 80s iterations, felt less novel than novelty. (My religious life, such as it was, waned in my late teens, too, giving way to a flirtation with atheism into my early 20s. Atheism was short-lived in me, however. Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ saw to that. But that's the subject of another blog.) With the release of Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes and Sophie B Hawkins's Tongues and Tails, everything changed for me. I still remember seeing, for the first time, just a snippet of the video for "Silent All These Years" on an MTV commercial and wondering: what is this...? So began my musical obsession with what my brother, in college, would disparagingly refer to as Chicks with Feelings -- an obsession that continues (and evolves) to this day: Tori Amos, Loreena McKennitt and Sarah McLachlan were the first, followed by Bjork, Belly, Indigo Girls and 10,000 Maniacs -- and followed still later, in college, by Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris. (I flew to Seattle a year ago expressly to see Belly on the last leg of their reunion tour.) Florence + the Machine, Chvrches, Offa Rex, Regina Spektor and Of Monsters and Men might be considered the most recent additions to this musical diet of mine. Still on the fence about Wolf Alice.

Belly at the Neptune Theater, Seattle, Washington, August 28, 2016

But do I still listen to hard rock and heavy metal?

I sold all of my metal albums in my 20s, eventually repurchasing a handful: a Scorpions greatest hits, Fates Warning's Parallels, Iron Maiden's Somewhere in Time, Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime, Judas Priest's Painkiller, Leviticus's Setting Fire to the Earth. (During the 2016 election, I'd drive around town with "Revolution Calling" cranked up in the car, like the good Bernie Sanders supporter I was.) I hope to further remedy that rashness by reacquiring magnificent albums, including Impelliterri's Stand in Line, Yngwie Malmsteen's Eclipse and Savatage's Gutter Ballet and Streets. Each of these more than hold up, musically, lyrically (unlike most of those I scrapped); I've listened to Impelliterri, Malmsteen, Savatage and a few others (thanks to YouTube and interlibrary loan) with ears that have grown more discerning and sophisticated over the years, and they don't disappoint. Most hard rock and metal from the 80s and 90s is embarrassingly dated -- not merely the on-stage aesthetics, either, but the songs themselves. Likewise, most of the new rock I've heard from the mid-90s on is a joke: bull-in-a-china-shop music with little sense of structural surprise or lyrical invention. I've purchased no new release rock since Evanescence's The Open Door.

Until, that is, these last three weeks, during which I bought Skillet's Comatose and Rise. I'd never heard Skillet before this last summer. I walk by a signed concert one-sheet of theirs every day at the radio station, but had never actually heard their music until maybe two months ago. How, you ask, can I have lived on Earth and not heard "Monster" or "Hero," regardless of how I might have felt about them? Good question...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears

Since my last blog post, so much has happened that I could write about, I'm not too sure what I should write about. But let me focus on one of the angles meant to be the heart of this blog: the arts and their intersection with our lives.

A couple years back, I blogged about a barbecue my fellow book club members and I shared (most of them traveling long distances for it), in which I speculated on what we -- The Eclectic Shade Tree -- might do for our 15th anniversary in 2017. Well, we're in the midst of that anniversary now, and although we didn't meet up on a cruise ship somewhere off the coast of Eastern Canada, we did convene in Laramie, Wyoming, this last spring, for the UW Libraries Foundation event at which Timothy Egan spoke about his most recent book, The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. Paul and Dylan drove from Cheyenne, Christian (with his girlfriend) and Amy (without her boyfriend) flew from Washington. Each of us read one of his books in advance; we talked book club business over lunch at the Pita Pit; we raced to our hotels to change into our official book club shirts (geeks that we are) and met up again at the post-lunch panel; four of us spent the late afternoon browsing Laramie's Second Story Books and Night Heron Books; the lot of us shared a table at the gala dinner that night, where Egan spoke again -- this time about his creative process.

It was a lovely ten hours spent with cherished people my wife Kelly and I don't often get to see face-to-face, in the company of my in-laws, talking about books in the presence of a writer we all admire and who was deeply gracious with us.

I think of this day as the last joyous occasion before what would turn out to be an arduous four-month journey. Our youngest cat, Harry, fell into a series of urinary obstructions a week or so later, was diagnosed with Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease, underwent a perineal urethrostomy at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and suffered with as much love and good humor as he could muster through puzzling complications and treatment failures before we finally decided to have him put to sleep in late August.

It was the most difficult decision Kelly and I have ever made, together or apart. He was just three years old.

In the days following his death, we started keeping a journal of memories of our favorite things about
him: the way he would sleep sprawled out on his back, his saucer eyes, his love of a particular length of green ribbon. One of the things Harry loved best in life was to listen to me read aloud. It would often bring him to bed at night -- the sound of my voice reading from James Galvin's The Meadow. Books have helped me survive the crisis of his illness; and books helped him weather that storm for as long as he did, too. Kelly, who has suffered, I suspect, more than even me through his illness and passing, has been reading EB White's Stuart Little. The first book I began and finished in the wake of his death was Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. I had never read it before. And I remember Harry as a perfect manifestation of Mole and Toad: gentle and guileless on the one hand, mischievous and spirited on the other.

He was a charmer, a jewel, a home.

Much has been made about how reading literature increases empathy in us, nourishes and expands our neural pathways, makes us better citizens of our world. All true, to be sure -- but it also works to make us whole again, if we let it. And when we find ourselves spinning in a chaos of anguish -- be it from the death of a friend or family member, the loss of a job, the haze of chronic illness, or the hushed euthanasia of a pet as dear as a child to its parents -- it's important that we remember that books are there for us, less as solutions to our problems than as panoramas of healing through which we might walk. Books comfort. Some books comfort.

The Wind in the Willows is one.        

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An Explanation for the Support of Third-Party Candidates

What with all the fracas out there about "if you're a liberal and you vote third party, it's really a vote for Trump" or "if you're a conservative and you vote third-party, it's really a vote for Hillary"... That view, while understandable to those who share it, is incomprehensible to those who don't. And here is why:

If Clinton loses, the blame shall lie at her doorstep -- because she is not entitled to the liberal vote by virtue of belonging to the Democratic Party. She has to earn those votes -- not on the fly, not with a wink and a smile, but over the course of a career. If there are liberals like myself who do not vote for her, it's because we neither trust nor believe in her. (Indeed, trusting and believing in her has proven more difficult than ever this last year by virtue of her proximity to Bernie Sanders, whose positions have been consistently ethical, decisive and stalwart his entire political career.) And we should always only ever vote for politicians whom we trust and in whom we believe. It is a politician's responsibility to grind through our skepticism and earn or win our trust and belief -- to inspire our trust in them with their courage, constancy and moral resolve. We owe politicians no unconditional allegiance. If Hillary loses, it will be because she has earned the votes of too few liberals. It will be her fault alone. My vote for Jill Stein or my write-in for Bernie Sanders will not be a vote for Trump because it will be a vote for either Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders.

An analogy:

If America were attacked and war were imminent, and we were told by the powers-that-be that to engage in said war would likely mean the averting of a larger scale, even nuclear, war -- I would still not support the war. I wouldn't because war has not earned my belief in it, has not demonstrated to me its viability as a solution to problems or as a vessel in which to move humanity forward. However "just" its proponents claim it to be in certain circumstances, it is not entitled to my support.

War has itself to blame for this.

Politicians have themselves to blame for failing to convince even those who share broad ideological views with them to believe in -- and hence vote for -- them. For all the talk of a vote for Bernie or Jill Stein being a vote for Trump, how can a vote for someone in whom we believe be even effectively a vote for someone in whom we don't? 1 = 1, not 2. As I see it, for me, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for Trump, because while I think him less intelligent than her, more unstable than her -- I believe in her as little as I believe in him. She has given me reason to. And I will never again vote for a candidate who has not given me reason enough to believe in him or her.

No one should. And the sooner we all realize that, the better.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Dumbing Down of IMDb

In the late 90s, I was an active member of the IMDb message boards, posting most often on the Film General and Classic Film boards. I still remember a number of the people posting there (per their usernames) with great fondness, respect and -- in some cases -- a begrudging, irked admiration for their antagonistic streaks: DFC, Ishallwearpurple, Addison de Witt, sprockets, prewitt, Antonius Block, others. (My own username was resurgence27.) I suspect some of these folks are still publishing on the boards. One poster (ivmeer) became a dear friend with whom I'm still in touch on Facebook (and lest you think she must be one of hundreds of faceless people with whom I'm connected on Facebook, I curate that friend list obsessively -- it never has more than 80 or 90 people on it). Another poster, benstevens, has been my closest friend for a long, long time now. He flew across an ocean to stand as a groomsman at my wedding. I flew across the country to see him married to his wife. These two friendships and the passing camaraderie (sympathetic and companionable, irascible and needling) with the other posters mentioned above were born in a kiln of rigorous, passionate debate about cinema. The IMDb boards in the late 90s and early 00s teemed with savvy, learned minds -- people who were not fanboys nearly so much as students of an art form, disciples of specific visionaries. We pushed each other to think more carefully, more critically of films. We pushed ourselves to do so, too.

These days, the IMDb boards -- and especially the boards assigned to individual films -- seem to have become a morass of arrogant, defensive fanboy obsession with little thought to punctuation and grammar, and even less thought to critical acumen and casting a wide net in terms of what one sees. Reading through threads, it becomes frightfully clear that the current generation of pop culture enthusiasts who care enough to leap into public discussions of films know so little about how to read films, most of them shouldn't be allowed near a screening room, let alone a forum for discussion.

It could be that I was part of the IMDb boards when they were still new enough that the only people thinking to seek them out were serious film buffs with encyclopedic knowledge or budding film buffs, like myself, who were watching everything they could, reading criticism and film history voraciously, etc. (I once persuaded Elly Petrides, the subtitles translator for the legendary Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, to send me PAL copies of The Beekeeper, The Suspended Step of the Stork and Voyage to Cythera on loan from Athens. These films had never been released theatrically in America. I then persuaded my old German professor at the University of Wyoming to let me have private use of the Foreign Language Department's NTSC/PAL screening room one Saturday so that I might watch the three films. Two of them are on my top 100 of all-time.) It could be that the boards, once upon a time, were an untrammeled wilderness comprised of thinkers. Now it seems the boards have become a place where graffiti is the acceptable form of discourse, where Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino fans are less interested in talking film than in reaffirming the brilliance of their coterie (they would do well to keep in mind Pulp Fiction: "let's not start sucking each others' dicks just yet..."), where most posters are people who've seen very little and who have convinced themselves that if a film is worth seeing, they'd have seen it.

I still use IMDb on a daily basis, for watching trailers, keeping myself up-to-speed on projects in development, etc. But sometimes I find myself missing what it used to be -- and feeling sad that such a huge number of current posters have no idea what they're missing, in terms of viewing pleasures or exchanges.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Passing the Book

A few weeks back, I was struck with what I thought at the time to be a brilliant idea: I would dispel the anxiety I feel in settling on a book when my turn to choose comes round in my book club by passing the buck. Instead of me wringing myself in knots over what to choose, I'd settle on a list of possibilities and put the choice to a vote, leaving the decision, then, to my friends, family and even random bookish strangers out there in the world. So I set up a list on the List Challenges website, asking people to choose just a single one of the books. And then, come February 1st, I'd name that book as my selection. I was hoping to see hundreds of people casting votes (as has happened with every other list challenge I've set up), setting up a real horse-race between two or three titles. But it hasn't happened. The votes have stalled at 63. Part of me suspects that people are clicking on their book of choice...and forgetting to click the button at the bottom that reads "Show Me My Results." Clicking that button, unless I'm mistaken, is the step that casts the vote.

Anyway, I'd love to have your help in deciding what The Eclectic Shade Tree should read come February 1st. So check out the list -- linked to above -- and vote for one of the books. Open a new tab, if you're so inclined, and read about each one beforehand on Amazon or Good Reads or wherever -- or vote for the one with your favorite cover. However you choose to do it, let your voice be heard!