Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book Review: The Dog of the South, by Carles Portis

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If his reputation today is any indication of its future, Charles Portis is destined to be remembered as the guy who wrote the novel that that movie was based on. What movie? True Grit, that's what movie, and that's unfortunate. First, because, of all the people who have seen True Grit, Sr. and True Grit, Jr. you could most likely count on your fingers the number of people who have actually read True Grit, the book. Second, because there are other Portis novels that deserve a little love. Take for instance his third novel, The Dog of the South.

This story, told through the eyes of Ray Midge, a naïve nerdy type whose main interests in life seem to be cars and military history, details his quest for, in the order of their importance, his Ford Torino, his credit cards, and his young wife, Norma; all of whom have run off with his friend and her first husband, Guy Dupree. Ray is as quirky a character as you're likely to come across. As he explains what has happened, his voice is calm and measured. He seems more annoyed by what has occurred than angered. He gets side tracked easily, both as he tells his story and as he prepares to chase after his car. For example, he is delayed a whole day as he starts when he decides he needs to go back to his apartment to fetch his wife's silver set. He is compulsive about inconsequential matters: what sort of motel to stay in, which side of a cup to drink from. At twenty six, he still hasn't found his place in life. He has tried a number of different pursuits, but has been unable to stick with any of them. The one thing he does seem able to pursue, once he gets started, is this quest for his car.

Ray's journey takes him from Little Rock, Arkansas, through Texas and into Mexico and ultimately to Belize, where Dupree's family owned some land. As he travels, he meets up with a variety of oddballs even more peculiar than he is; one of whom, a Dr. Reo Symes, joins with him on the journey. Symes, who may at one time have been a real physician, is now little more than a con man. He had been traveling in a rundown school bus and is stuck in Mexico when Midge and he meet. When they discover they are headed in the same direction, Ray agrees to take him along. This trope of the naïve young hero traveling along with a rogue companion is the classic pattern of the picaresque novel going back in some fashion to Cervantes. There are all sorts of variation, but Portis is clearly harking back to the tradition that includes books like, Candide, Joseph Andrews, and Huckleberry Finn; all of which have echoes in his novel.

When he finally gets to Belize, the cast of characters enlarges to include a young boy named Webster who works at the Fair Play Hotel and seems to live in a box; two evangelical old ladies running a church program for children, a hippie artist and her young son among others. Each character seems stranger than the last. Altogether they make for delightful comedy, as each single mindedly pursues his own hobby horse. Like Ray, they all seem to be bound by their own preconceptions. One of the old ladies badgers him about his knowledge of the Bible and his church going. Webster wants a Kennedy coin. Symes wants the rights to an island his mother, one of the old ladies, owns. Ray stoically manages to put up with all of them, even when they are behaving outrageously.

Published back in 1979, The Dog of the South holds up well. It moves along at the kind of fast pace we have become accustomed to in our novels in recent years, but more importantly it gives readers a chance to meet up with a crew of zanies that can't help but make you smile--Ray Midge, chief among them.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Museums Make Bet on Super Bowl

This article was first published at Blogcritics

You'd think they would be betting a case of Milwaukee's beer against Pittsburgh's Iron City. You'd think it would be their brats against our pirogues. Those are the kinds of bets public officials usually make to ensure their share of the publicity generated by high profile sporting events. And with the Super Bowl in their sights, there's no question local mayors in Green Bay and Pittsburgh will be hosting news conferences to announce their wurst beer wagers.

They may find themselves a little late. Today, comes news that their thunder has been stolen. And by whom? By whom? Two art museums, that's by whom. And they're not betting meat and drink, they're putting up the real stuff, at least the real stuff as far as art museums are concerned. In a case of art for sport's sake; they are putting up art. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh's answer to the Louvre) has ventured a three month loan of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's 1890 painting, "Bathers with Crab" against the Milwaukee Art Museum's "Boating on the Yerres" by Gustave Caillebotte.

Now as a loyal Steeler fan, I must protest. Leaving aside the question of the relative value of a Renoir versus a Caillebotte, although I must admit never having heard of Monsieur Caillebotte, suffice it to say they are both French Impressionists. And leaving aside the question of whether French paintings would be more appropriate for a wager on the winner of Top Chef or Chopped, they are clearly objects of value. Still, there does appear to be a lack of balance between a picture of four nude bathing beauties and a couple of row boats on a river. It is probably too late now, but it would have been a good idea to check out Milwaukee Art's catalogue for something more equable.

On the other hand, since this is a football game we're talking about, perhaps an artistic wager that had a closer connection to the sport would make more sense. One of the Pittsburgh theatre companies could agree to do a run of Lombardi if the Packers win, and a Milwaukee group could do the one man play about Art Rooney, The Chief. We could bet art photos of Brett Farve against pictures of Terry Bradshaw with hair. Even cheese and ketchup would make more sense after all didn't Andy Warhol make a name for himself turning food into art?

Well, it may have been a sucker bet, but when you're talking about the Steelers, here in Pittsburgh you have to ask who got suckered. I've got a "terrible towel" that says there'll be a painting of boats on a river by a French Impressionist I'd never heard of before today hanging in the Carnegie Museum right next to the four nude beauties sometime this spring, Anyone have a cheese head they'd like to risk?

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dog of the SouthThe Dog of the South by Charles Portis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ray Midge sets out on a journey to find his Ford Torino, his credit cards and his wife (in that order) all of whom have gone off with her first husband. Ray's voice is off kilter--his view of the world is askew to say the least, and as he meets with a crew of equally strange people en route, Portis manages to paint a comic kind of Pilgrim's Progress.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Movie Review: Cold Souls

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I guess if you've got a film from a writer/director named Barthes, even though in this case it's Sophie, you've got to at least imagine you're going to see something out of the ordinary. And if you get a chance to see Cold Souls, her first shot at a feature length production, you'll discover very quickly that you imagined correctly. Because Cold Souls is a quirky comic drama with surrealistic overtones, just the kind of thing that would have warmed the intellectual heart of even a Barthes named Roland.

The film stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is, of all things, an actor. He is in a thoroughly depressed state because he is rehearsing for a stage production of Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya, a play which never had a problem depressing anyone, and he is having significant trouble dealing with his role. He can't sleep. He wanders about aimlessly. He is going through his own personal dark night of the soul. Then, in of all places The New Yorker, he reads about an organization which deals in soul extraction and storage. He visits the outfit's high tech facility where he meets the medical director played by David Strathairn who, much like a salesman pushing a nose job or liposuction, explains the advantages of soul separation. There may even be some echoes of selling the soul to the devil, although nothing overt. Devastated by his depression, Giamatti is willing to try anything, and he agrees to the extraction.

The plot gets complicated with the introduction of a gang of soul dealers from Russia who are using Russian women as mules to smuggle souls in and out of the United States. One of these, played by Dina Korzun, steals Giamatti's soul for her boss's wife an aspiring actress who wants a soul of an American actor, preferably Al Pacino. When Giamatti decides he wants his soul back, he discovers that it is missing and the film follows his attempt to find out what happened and then get it back. While the premise here is something you might associate with a film maker like Charlie Kaufman, the film never gets quite that far out. More importantly after the initial premise, it plays out fairly conventionally.

Giamatti's performance is fine tuned. He is at his best in the Uncle Vanya rehearsal scenes. He plays it with his own soul, without any soul, with a transplanted soul of what he thinks is a Russian poet, and each time he manages precise differentiation. He is also good at bedraggled depression. Emily Watson plays his unsuspecting wife who senses something strange going on but can't quite comprehend what it is. Michael Tucker, he of L. A. Law, plays a frazzled director. Katheryn Winnick is the Russian actress in want of an American soul, and there is one scene at the end for Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) as a hedge fund manager.

Although billed as a comedy, Cold Souls has very few laugh out loud moments. Giamatti is offended that his soul when extracted is something very like a chick pea. One expects an artist to have a 'great' soul. Souls on display at the storage facility tend to be black or brown or gray. Then, of course, there is the irony that it is a Chekov play they are rehearsing as well as that it is The New Yorker that proffers the medical information. The closest thing to a slapstick moment comes when Gaimatti manages to drop his newly extracted soul on the floor of Strathairn's office. What you get here are smiles and intellectual chuckles, not belly laughs. For a first effort, Barthes has produced a very intriguing film, a film which promises well for the future.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: Life, by Keith Richards

First published on Blogcritics.

When Keith Richards decides to write the story of his life you have to expect you're either going to get down and dirty sex, drugs and rock and roll or some innocuous sanitized version of life in the fast lane. But this is Keith Richards, and you've got to figure that if even half of his reputation is true, you're going to get the inside scoop. You're going to get the real story: Altamont, the brain surgery, the Canadian drug bust, the Jagger feud, you're going to get it all. And you do. From the very beginning, when he describes a 1975 arrest in Fordyce, Arkansas, Richards and his co-writer, James Fox give what appears to be a warts and all account of the life and times of the rollingest of stones. What you don't expect, is that the story of the Richards' life and times may not make for the most exciting read. I know I'm in the minority in this, but in all honesty, for this reader the book was often tedious going. Stones fans can stop reading right now, you sure as hell aren't going to agree with much of what's coming.

I'll give Richards credit this is not one of those look at the dumb things I've done and learn a lesson form it books. It isn't one of those I was lost and now I'm saved confessions. There are no apologies. He lived hard, but he worked at his craft with a passion. He knew what he wanted from his music and he made sure to get it. He is at his best when he talks about his music—about trying to figure out a guitar lick, about the unique sound he got using five string open tuning, about getting to play with the heroes of his youth, about discovering that he could write songs. He is serious about music. He has an aesthetic point of view unfortunately it is a point of view that may not always be easily articulated for the reader. It is almost a kind of mystical awareness which clearly controls everything he does.

There is a sound a band needs to strive for. You know it when you hear it; you know when it's missing. It comes from musicians working together, feeling what each is doing, knowing where they are going. It is an emotional connection: you either have it or you don't. The limited chord structure of rock music is an advantage not a drawback. It is the less is more paradox. Writing songs is less an intellectual process than it is a tossing about of bits and pieces to see what seems to come together. He likes to talk about the writer William Burroughs' cut and paste process. Although that is not quite the way he describes his song writing collaboration with Mick Jagger, their process seems almost equally haphazard. Indeed, one has to wonder if they were really as unstructured as Richards makes it seem. In general his aesthetic is a modern version of Romantic subjectivism.

There is passion when he writes about his music, not so much when he writes about other things. His descriptions of his relationships with women are fairly anemic. He is as happy cuddling, he says, as he is having sex. He is usually the chased rather than the chaser. Groupies are like mothers taking care of the band members, making sure they eat and have clean clothes (if you say so). There are, of course, stories of his relationships with Ronnie Spector, Uschi Obermaier,Lil Wergilis, and especially the mothers of his children, Anita Pallenberg and his wife Patti Hansen. But other than an anodyne anecdote here and there, there isn't really all that much in the way of titillating gossip

On the other hand there are more than enough stories about drugs and alcohol. The trouble is that after awhile they all begin to sound alike. We had smack hidden here and we got stopped by the cops. We were afraid they'd find it. They didn't find it. They did find it. We got away with it. We made a connection here. I went cold turkey. We made a connection there. I went back on. Cold turkey isn't so bad. Cold turkey is terrible. Everything gets jumbled together and after awhile loses its impact. Of course, at one point he does say that it was drugs that kept him alert and ready to work, and also he managed to get along so well on them because he only used the finest quality stuff. As far as insights into the culture of drugs and its effects on creativity, I'm not sure there is much here beyond the obvious.

His offhand remarks about some of the other celebrities he's come into contact with can at times be bitchy. Marlon Brando tries to seduce Anita. Allen Ginsberg is an "old gas bag pontificating on everything." Jean-Luc Godard looked like a French bank clerk. George C. Scott crashes into his white fence driving at ninety under the influence. On the other hand he rarely has a bad thing to say about musicians he works with and admires, at least as far as their playing goes. The one exception would be Mick. He has a lot to say about Jagger and "Lead Vocalist Syndrome." He has much to say about Jagger's need to control things. He has a lot to say about Jagger's pursuit of a solo career. In the end, however, they are like brothers. One moment they're at each other's throats, the next they kiss and make up.

All in all, I was disappointed. I didn't always find his narrative coherent. His prose style, which others have praised, I found off putting. Too often it seemed as though he were simply speaking out phrases for someone to copy down, much as he describes himself doing when writing songs. He seems as uninterested in conventional language as he is in conventional living. At times, especially at the beginning, he uses slang terms without bothering to define them. He favors unique figures of speech that defy easy comprehension. When he talks about music, it is sometimes a bit technical for the non-musician, sometimes so impressionistic as to mean little. The book could use a little shaping and editing. The in medias res beginning is effective, but the end just seems to peter out. Fewer repetitious digressions would be nice, at almost five hundred and fifty pages Life feels long.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Music Review: Sherman Ewing, Single Room Saloon

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If you are unfamiliar with the name Sherman Ewing, the digital release of his second album, Single Room Saloon on January 11 may well remedy that. This ten song rock, pop, county collection runs the gamut from haunting bluesy social commentary to introspective soul searching, from upbeat swinging melodies to anarchic cacophonies. His lyrics are personal and emblematic of a generation. Ewing is a singer-song writer with something to say and he says it with a raw honesty that will remind you of early Dylan. The world he describes is not particularly pretty. It is a place where people fall, sometimes to rise again, sometimes not. More often than not his music is as harsh as that world, and when it isn't, when it seems melodic and tuneful, the lilting melodies are in ironic contrast to the disturbing lyrics. This may be pop music, but it is pop music as art.

"The Mission" has a lilting melody, but it is a song about the need for change in a society where people are on the streets dying from the heat, where people are fighting for the right of the road. The mission and what it stands for not only don't help; they stand in the way. "Angel," the chorus demands, "Burn this mission down." "Flatlands" has a sweet folk song vibe with a pulsating rhythm, but it describes 40,000 children wasted in the sand, with the vultures ready to pounce. The sweetness of the music morphs into the sadness of a dirge. "Heaven Waits" is a melodic old style folk rocker that looks at the idea of heavenly rewards with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Its opening guitar measures belie its message. Ewing has a way of using the music to lull the listener into a false sense of serenity, only to pull the rug away from anyone paying close attention to the lyric.

"Single Room Saloon," the title song, on the other hand uses a dissonant musical setting to echo the dissonance of the singer's relationship to a world that is like a single room saloon. He's still here, but he's "slightly out of tune," more than slightly in the light of some of the sonic distortion. It also features some rocking guitar work and a blasting trumpet solo. "Happiness" and "Right Behind the Scars" both seem to look at the chances for redemption after a misspent past. "I can hear the river calling," he says in "Right Behind the Scars," "will you let it take you out to sea?" In both, the music echoes the sense. "Walk On" is a classic anthem with a passionate guitar riff. "If you're lost in the night, you will find that there's love on the other side; walk on," directs the chorus. It ends with a gospel like coda featuring a guitar solo interspersed with chants of "walk on."

According to the bio on his website, Ewing is no new kid on the block. A 40 year old native of Minnesota, he went to boarding school in England. It was the time of the Punk revolution and as Ewing told Tipitina's John D'Aquila in an online interview, "Everyone was into the Sex Pistols." He came back to the States to go Columbia University, where he met "Jojo" Hermann of Widespread Panic. They began to play together in a band called Sherman and the Bureaucrats, and he continued playing around New York through the nineties. In 2002, he teamed with producer Godfrey Diamond on his first solo album, Blue Moon. Among the influences on his music he mentions in the D'Aquila interview are Neil Young, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin and Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan, he says, "started me getting into the guitar." While his music is truly an eclectic mix, these singer-songwriters are clearly there in spirit.

Ewing collaborates again with Diamond and Hermann on this new album. Others included on the CD are Ivan Neville, drummer, George Recile and bassist, Tony Garnier. Tom Marshall is on keyboards. Zak Soulam and Jimbo Walsh help out on guitar and Michael Ray handles the trumpet work. Ewing's core band is made up of guitarist Anthony Krizan, Rob Clores on keyboards and a rhythm section of John and Kevin Hummel.