Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson redux, robots and Oscars

PhotobucketMichael Jackson, part 2: It's hard to explain, for those who weren't impressionable teens in the 1980s, how utterly everywhere MJ was there for a few years. "Thriller" was in the air, inescapable, in a way that pop music doesn't quite penetrate these multimedia days. I couldn't hum a Kanye West song today to save my life, but in 1983 my brother owned a red Jackson zipper jacket, the cassette of "Thriller" was played every time more than two people got together in a room, and everyone had to try to moonwalk at least once. Nobody these days has an album that stays at #1 for weeks, months. Even parents knew the songs. Even if I really liked Men At Work and Prince a bit more, MJ was in the air, always.

What was interesting was the reaction in the newsroom Friday – one journo, when I told him the first reports came over the wire that Jackson was hospitalized, reacted with "Good. I hope he's dead." A few people gasped when news of the death came out but they were all 30somethings like me. Another in his 20s couldn't see what the big deal was. Journos are a hard-bitten cynical lot so the jokes started circulating almost immediately too. The few folks who actually seemed shaken up by the news were kind of laughed off. Again, as I said Friday, I'm by no measure a huge Jackson fan, but I can't ignore the impact he made on my and everyone's lives, just through the strange and singular story of his existence. Of course we're all well and sick of the Jackson memorial coverage (this is why I get almost all my news from newspapers and online; I can't stand television's incessant need to babble and fill the airtime with vapor), but in the end, you can't deny the sudden death of the creator of the best-selling album of all time is news.

TEN nominees for Best Picture? No, I don't quite get what the Academy of Motion Pictures is thinking by doubling the nominees for best picture starting next year. Six, sure, maybe eight I could see, but this just seems like a shameless grab for ego, ratings and dollars rather than any sense of the Oscars actually failing to reward the finest in film. I don't think you're suddenly going to start seeing more obscure indie movies nominated. They saw "The Dark Knight" make zillions, realized they didn't nominate it and the Oscars had lousy viewers.

• No, I don't plan on seeing "Transformers 2" any time soon. I did see the first one and I guess I liked it OK at the time although I've never felt any need to watch it again. It's a shame to hear this one relies on a lot of crude and bawdy humor, as it'd be nice if they made a movie my Transformer-obsessed 5-year-old could watch. But it's great fun reading the eviscerating reviews this one is getting – the New York Times gets the word "cretinous" in the very first sentence, while Roger Ebert has a marvelous essay contrasting the "painful" movie to other far better robots in film. I agree one of the more irritating things about director Michael Bay's design is its sheer frenzy; I can barely tell where these robots' faces are supposed to be. Another reviewer's quote which perhaps is a wee bit over the top: "It represents every single vile, puny thing that's wrong with the United States." Worse than "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

Good god, what a morning to work in a newsroom. There was a lot of last-minute shuffling, rearranging and shock as there is only when the biggest news stories happen. There is no charge like it and despite my occasional grumblings about the state of journalism in 2009, it's a hell of a place to be when big things drop. Michael Jackson is one of those stories, and while we'll all get well and truly sick of the endless tributes, analyses and blathering over the coming days, his sudden death is an event, capital "E."

PhotobucketI'm still processing the fact of Jacko's sudden death -- but my first instinct is to call it a tragedy in the big old broad Shakespearean sense. He may have been a freaky creep, and I can't say I was a gigantic fan, but he was a creature warped and created by many others, by greed and by abuse and in the end I can't help but feel a little sorry for the guy, who hadn't really had the chance of a normal life since his bullying dad heard him sing for the first time. Like Elvis, who he will be compared to a lot, he was chewed up, and weak, and was no innocent, but his story is still a sad and all-too-common one. He mutated long ago into a carnival freak, and while the actual death is a shock, can anyone say they really expected this eternal boy to make it to his 60s and 70s?

Like pretty much any pre-teen in 1982, I listened to "Thriller" a heck of a lot, and have to admit that even now when I hear the familiar thump-thump of "Billie Jean" or the unfaltering drive of "Beat It," it gets my pulse up a bit. Jackson's early chipmunk-voiced boy rock didn't do much for me, and around the time of "Bad" he fell victim to believing he was some kind of twisted messiah, but "Thriller" -- well, despite all that's happened since there is a reason it sold a bazillion copies. For someone with such a big, universal voice and sound once upon a time, it's sad to see him ending so very small.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

'Hey, um, so, I made you a mix tape...'

So the faithful Subaru is off at the panel-beaters' for a few weeks getting repaired from teen driver trauma, but they were kind enough to give us a loaner vehicle to use in the meantime. I ain't car-picky, so as long as it gets us around, fine, but I was a bit aback to realize it lacked a CD player. I do need my music to drive; without the sounds of Bowie and Neil and Wilco and the like I cannot navigate, it's a proven fact. But the loaner does have a tape deck, so I reeled into the way-back machine and dug my box of cassettes out of the garage to hold me over. Took me a while to remember the whole rewinding-fast forwarding business, but it all came back.

PhotobucketStrange, to go back to a medium that was once so ubiquitous, but has been gone a good 10-12 years now. I grew up on cassettes, rather than vinyl; clunky and awkward and prone to breakage a medium as tapes were, they were the first sound to me. What I have left of my tape collection now as the clock nears the year of 2010 isn't much, about 30 "mix tapes" and a dozen or so bizarre comedy tapes friends and I made as teenagers. The mix tapes haven't been played in several years now, but through the 1990s the mix tape was where it was at, brothers and sisters. I'm in weird time warp as I drive around a country I never imagined I'd be living in when I made most of these tapes, listening to the music I loved in '92 and '95 and so forth.

I doled out many a mix tape to girls and women I adored, like any sensitive '80s/'90s lad. Most disappeared into the void of vanished hopes, although heck, I've still got quite a few tapes I made for my darling wife, shipped all the way from Mississippi to New Zealand back in the day. I'm glad now of the ones I remembered to keep copies of. Mix tapes were great because you turned them into found art, customizing the labels and carefully parsing the song mix for the proper effect (should I segue from Peter Gabriel into Concrete Blonde or the other way around?).

PhotobucketRevisited today from the perspective of a *cough cough* nearly-40 something dad, it's weird to hear these little time capsules of my musical taste. In the 1990s I was heavy into Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Everclear, Sebadoh, Jane's Addiction and the like. Certain songs tended to pop up a lot on different tapes; you can use Elvis Presley's "Hurt" for anything, darn it! But there's also at least one tape with an embarrassing amount of Phil Collins-era Genesis. One of my prized tapes is from a long-since vanished high school love, who gave me a mix of Crowded House and Roy Orbison songs that still kind of tingle with an strange and nostalgic energy. The girl is gone, and where I'm at is great, but it's fine to have a little piece of gone history to listen to now and then. I even made a few mix tapes for my male friends, which might indeed have taken the concept of "bromance" a hair too far, now that I think about it.

You can make mix CDs now with the click of a few buttons and I've done that, but the tape had a tactile, creative thrill that was its own, the pushing of stop and start recording buttons, the clipping out of collage art to make quirky covers. The car accident kind of sucked, but it's good to have a reason to dig my mix tapes out of oblivion for a spell.

Monday, June 22, 2009

In which the years weigh heavy. Damn you, Weird Al!

Oh my God. Weird Al Yankovic's magnum opus movie "UHF" is 20 years old this year.

It's just the trigger, really. I keep having this sensation a lot lately. A heck of a lot of "20 years since..." moments so far in 2009, each of which makes me feel crepuscular and stunned. 20 years since Michael Keaton "Batman"? 20 years since the Berlin Wall? Since the Pixies' "Dolittle" and Elvis Costello's "Spike"? Next year is my 20th high school reunion which is likely no big thing to those older than I, but in my own little wee brain, egad, I am so old.

Twenty years since "UHF!" Geezus!

What's in the box?

(It's by no means a great movie but it is an eminently silly, amiable one, and I fondly recall seeing it back in the theater with my old pals in the Tomato Warriors™ back in the day. While Weird Al's music is kind of hit-or-miss, and really, you can't keep that parody thing fresh forever, "UHF" still brings back fond memories of road trips to Santa Cruz, "Wheel of Fish," the immortal "Spatula City" and more. Godspeed, Albert.)

[Weird fact: Apparently in New Zealand it was titled "The Vidiot From UHF." No foolin'.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday shuffle: You gotta call me man, I'll be the biggest fan you'll ever lose

Three mildly vexing things about living in Auckland:

Photobucket1. I liked the cows on Mount Eden. I shall miss them. Something charmingly Kiwi about climbing the city's highest point and looking down at the skyscrapers while being surrounded by bovines.

2. One of the things about Auckland that is disappointing is the bungled potential of its waterfront, which fails to truly show off its marvelous environment like, say, San Francisco or Sydney. Lots of locals carp about our cluttered downtown, which has some fine old buildings and an awful lot of bland gray boxes and too many ghastly apartment buildings that are an abomination against nature. And the waterfront, which is shamefully cut off from pedestrians by ugly shipping cranes and huge fences. Hopefully, this might be changing, eventually, but it's a shame Auckland's space has been allowed to just develop willy-nilly rather than planned with a sense of, well, feng shui for lack of a better term. Not to fire up the NZ-Aussie rivalry too much, but Sydney manages to incorporate its waterfront into a fine touristy open waterfront, while much of ours is off limits. A shame.

3. For a country that's not really tropical and whose nearest neighbour south is Antarctica, boy do we have a lousy standard of home insulation. Our home gets lots of sun which is great, but the insulation is nearly nonexistent which can be chilly and extraordinarily expensive to add. And central heating? In New Zealand? Don't make me laugh!

Brr. Can you tell it's been freezing lately here in the South Seas? Music warm. Put iPod on and hide under blankets until September or so.

Photobucket1. Stan [Live] 6:20 Eminem Feat. Elton John*
2. Temptation Inside Your Heart 2:33 The Velvet Underground
3. Date With The Night 2:35 Yeah Yeah Yeahs
4. Bust A Move 1:57 Richard Cheese**
5. I Want Candy 2:35 The Strangeloves
6. Butterfly 3:23 Screaming Trees***
7. I Can't Make It On Time 2:33 The Ramones
8. Magic Toy Missing 1:22 Meat Puppets
9. Nehalem 1:54 Everclear
10. Crackity Jones 1:24 Pixies
11. Teardrop 5:28 Massive Attack
12. The Ways Of Love 4:29 Neil Young
13. How To Fight Loneliness 3:53 Wilco
14. Come Crash 3:03 A.C. Newman

* Have to admit I prefer the album version with Dido. Eminem and Elton John just sound weird together, man.
** Richard Cheese is the best lounge act cover singer of rock and rap tunes you will ever hear. A small niche, admittedly, but still...
*** Screaming Trees remain one of the great underrated grunge bands, I think, IMHO more interesting than say Alice In Chains or Soundgarden even.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth review

PhotobucketHarlan Ellison is a loudmouthed, righteous man. This few who know of him will argue. But he's also a fiery, wonderful writer, one of the best authors of essays and science fiction I've ever read.

Ellison has written dozens of fantastic stories, novellas and screenplays, such as the famous original "Star Trek" episode "The City On The Edge of Forever." He leaves his unmistakable mark all over evocatively titled tales like "I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream" and "The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart of the World", and his epic, impassioned nonfiction could give a lot of writers lessons on how to persuade and antagonize with mere words on a page. At age 75, he hasn't mellowed one bit.

One of my favorite Ellison quotes is "We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions." That kind of sums up his eternally boat-rocking view of the world. He doesn't care about the feathers he ruffles, having been described as "possibly the most contentious person on Earth."

Now finally out on DVD, the labor-of-love documentary "Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is a movie that attempts to explain Ellison to the world. Filmmaker Erik Nelson assembled it from years of footage dating back to 1981, and spent a great deal of time interviewing Ellison – which is mostly a case of just standing back and letting the man talk. It's Ellison warts and all, without apology or canonization. We see his friends (including famous names like Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman) and his legendary house, a gloriously overstuffed fanboy's paradise of 70+ years of toys, books and memorabilia.

Photobucket"Dreams" rises above just being one man's monologue by showing some of the pain that shaped Ellison, a short, scrawny, wise-mouthed kid who got beat up "every single day," whose father died gruesomely in front of him when Ellison was just a teenager. Ellison is one of those people who believe too hard, and who when wronged react with a fire that scorches the very earth. At one point, in mid-rant, Ellison kind of breaks off, and admits he doesn't want to just be the angry guy, the ranter, but he simply can't bear being taken advantage of, being mocked or made a fool. It's a telling, honest moment, one that helps humanize him as more than just a shouting voice.

Nelson also gives a lot of time to Harlan the writer, with Harlan storming through a series of lively readings from his work. His readings aren't just recitations, but dancing, vivid recreations of the passion that exists in every syllable. While "Dreams" is more about Harlan as personality over his literary worth, it gives you enough to make you want to re-read your old paperbacks and hunt out new ones.

"Dreams" doesn't touch on some of the many, many controversies involving Ellison in immense detail, but it does enough to give you the picture -- if he's a friend, he's a friend, but if you piss him off, lawyers are standing by and he's more than willing to bash a skull or two. (Among his victims/enemies are Fantagraphics Books, the Terminator franchise, Walt Disney, the I, Robot movie and many more.) Tellingly, Harlan's enemies aren't really given a chance to tell their side here, but that's not really the point.

I wouldn't want to live with Harlan Ellison, but he's been an immense influence on my own writing and how I view the world. I admire his strength and his voice, even when it's a bit too sharp and certain for his own good. An entertaining rant of a film, "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is the portrait he deserves, for better and for worse.

The trailer, which gives you a taste of Ellison's distinctive voice:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Every day, every day I read the books

I am a rather huge bibliophile, with an ever-growing cascade of books filling the house. Periodically I clear some out only to have others fill it. At one point I imagined that moving to New Zealand, where books are generally a good bit more expensive than the US, might mean I bought less books. Silly me.

PhotobucketOne of the great things about Auckland is the used book fairs that are held a handful of times a year, giant fundraisers for worthy causes like the Red Cross or Rotary. Needless to say I hit as many of these fairs as I can, where you can get a dozen books for under $20. There is a tactile pleasure in browsing row after row of used books (usually 5 million copies of "The Da Vinci Code" and "Future Shock" peppered throughout), looking for the rare gems you seek. I like the humble pleasures, and the smell of used paperbacks and the rustle of pages is satisfying to me. I am pickier now than I once was as Avril points out that we keep running out of bookshelves, and besides, quality over quantity and all that.

Today's haul:
"Martin Amis, The War Against Cliche, Essays And Reviews 1971-2009" - I quite like Amis' tart nonfiction and this is a big hefty sampling of it.
"Absolute Altitude: A Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Sky" by Martin Buckley – Sometimes you pick a book by its cover. This tale of flying oneself around the world seemed interesting.
"Entertainment Weekly's The 100 Greatest Entertainers 1950-2000" – A pretty, glossy picture-kinda book taken from one of my favorite US magazines. Nothing deep, but nice to page through.
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" by Ian Fleming – I've been working my way through the original Bond books.
"Careless Love, The Unmaking of Elvis Presley" by Peter Guralnick – The second half of his excellent Elvis biography. I read this years ago through the library – it's the "and fall" part of Elvis' life – and figured for $2 I wouldn't mind reading it again sometime.
"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen – Can you believe for a bibliophile, I've never read this book?!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Accidents, plague and paranoia!

It must be the winter blues.... Random notes:

Photobucket...So anyway last weekend I got into my first New Zealand car accident, thanks to a teenager driving his mum's minivan who smashed into me from behind while I was slowed on the highway waiting for a car to turn. Fortunately nobody was hurt, which was extremely good as my 5-year-old nephew was in the car, but the Subaru is a little less well for the wear. Still, it's driveable until we get it repaired. We've been hoping to get another year or so out of the rather battered 13-year-old car we bought right after we arrived as a stopgap measure, but we'll see how it goes once it's subjected to a few weeks of repairs once we go through the insurance process. Fun fact: Last time I was involved in any kind of car accident was about 10 years ago when... I was rear-ended by a teenager up at Lake Tahoe. Deja vu.

• I haven't succumbed to swine flu paranoia just yet, but let's just say increasing cases in Australia and Auckland are starting to make me a bit more nervous. Particularly as the day care centre mentioned here is the same chain Peter was going to not too many months ago... At least I remind myself they do have treatments for this stuff if the worst comes...

Captain Crunchberries aren't a fruit? Let's sue!

• Score one for English speak! Here's your random quote of the day:
"We have learned ... that vowels are extremely important to New Zealanders."

• Courtesy of the inimitable Topless Robot, via '70s Bollywood comes the best fight scene ever for your weekend viewing pleasure -- be sure to watch to the end:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

They want to suck your blood

So trying to fill the "Buffy" shaped void in our lives, we recently caught up on two bloodsucking vampire flicks, "Twilight" and "Let The Right One In." Though superficially they're pretty similar – young vampire befriends young human being, cue culture conflicts – in approach they're rather different.

Photobucket"Twilight" wasn't bad, per se, but kind of shiny and vapid. It looked mighty purty – great fog-drenched cinematography of my beloved Pacific Northwest – and the two leads were rather stock brooding Gothic teen lovers but Kristen Stewart in particular lent a bit of empathy to her role. But geez, it's all so bloody slow and emo that I started to feel like I was 17 again myself. Pass the acid-wash jeans and comb my mullet, but I don't want to relive my teen love life that much. Nothing much happens in this story besides Bella meeting the vampire Edward and his family, and suddenly a dash of rather strained conflict is added in the final half-hour. If you'd never seen a vampire movie before, yeah, I guess "Twilight" might work. I couldn't get past the core fact that in this world, vampires were out and about in the daylight. Sorry, you can tweak and twist vampire mythos much as you like and I'm not that put out by it, but taking away the whole creature-of-the-night thing, well, then you've just got pale people with unusual eating habits, don't you? It's kind of like taking away flying from Superman – sure, he's nearly the same, but something big is missing. The thing about "Twilight" is that its central romance could be easily done with just about any other minority group and work. It doesn't really feel vampirish to me.

PhotobucketThe Swedish vampire movie "Let The Right One In," on the other hand, is genuinely chilling stuff, not the least because it takes place entirely in a frozen Scandinavian winter. (Red blood on white snow = great visual shorthand that never gets old.) Young outcast Oskar meets the unusual tenant in his building, Eli, a girl who never seems to mix with anyone else their age. In a dreamlike, slow-building way, "Right One" works its way towards revealing what we already knew from the start, but its mood is truly gripping. I guess it's me, but I always find foreign films have a tad more mystery to them than English ones, anyway. The difference from "Twilight" is that I cared about the characters and that the central mysteries of the vampire – eternal life, forbidden romance, night-stalking menace – remain intact, rather than gussied up into a Harlequin romance knock-off. The quiet desperation of a lonely childhood is well captured in Oskar's travails. "Right One" is scary, sad and bleakly romantic all at the same time, which "Twilight" doesn't quite manage.

I can see the appeal of "Twilight" and the books to its demographic, although "Right One" was a far better movie. Between this and "True Blood," which has turned out to be one of the most entertaining shows on TV, it's a good time to dig the vamps.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I would totally have watched this show

...Sorry, it's been low content mode this week, been busy and so forth. Posts on vampires, Harlan Ellison and the '80s are on the way eventually. By way of apology here's an amusing bit of YouTubery I ran across:

This would have been the finest artistic expression of the 1980s, I'm certain....

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The ground is thinner in Rotorua

When the winter chill descends upon Auckland in full, what better place to flee for a few days than New Zealand's hub of bubbling geo-thermal energy?

PhotobucketI hadn't been to Rotorua in nearly a decade, even though it's just 3 hours from the big city. But it was Queen's Birthday holiday weekend (although curiously enough, it's not her birthday, which is in April) and I actually had a few days off work in a row, so we spontaneously set forth. Rotorua (also known to some, quite bizarrely I think, as "Roto Vegas") is a tourist landmark and has lots to do from the tacky to the sublime. The downtown itself isn't much to write home about, really, but the surroundings are fantastic.

Rotorua is full of thermal activity -- the whole place is basically the crater of an ancient volcano -- and is a little like New Zealand's version of Yellowstone National Park, albeit smaller. The whole town smells strongly of the rotten egg tang of sulfur, which takes getting used to, and you'll find steamy vents and bubbling hot mud pools in the earth all around. Hot mineral baths and pools have been a part of the city's charm for decades, and with the temperature nudging 0C we immediately went to the Polynesian Spas to bathe in waters as hot as 40C. Quite a rush to sit in steaming alkaline water in the exposed freezing open air, and Peter enjoyed going down a water slide approximately 700 times.

PhotobucketWe bundled up and also walked along the shores of Lake Rotorua, which boasts several steaming scorched geothermal features, and then visited the most excellent Rotorua Museum. Back in the 1920s or so, this huge, gorgeous Edwardian building was home to the Rotorua Baths, where folks came from far and wide to "take the cure" of the hot waters. Today the museum has very good exhibits on local volcanic history, the extraordinarily brave 28th Maori Battalion of World War II, and its own bath house history.

PhotobucketI found it rather fascinating in a "Road to Wellville" type way to see the old abandoned baths and equipment (which included such attractions as the "douche massage rooms!" and the "cleansing apparatus"). You could even visit the creepy basements which once housed mud baths, and climb up to the roofs to get a great view of the entire area and the dazzling architecture of the Museum's rooftop gables and towers.

Toss in some Thai food, new "Doctor Who" on the telly and a trek in a nifty redwood forest that reminded me of home, and you had the makings of a groovy long weekend. Best of all, our hotel on the lakeshore was terrifically warm (the radiators take advantage of the plentiful natural heat) -- you can't beat spending some of the coldest days of the year in a place warmer than our own chilly house!