Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Da Vinci Code Revealed

Just how marginalized have books become in our culture? I consider myself a fairly aware dude, but here's the thing; I knew nothing about the plot of The Da Vinci Code until the media starting droning on about the film. Now, this isn't some quiet little book of short stories, it's not even a moderate fiction hit. It's the big bazoomba novel of all time, and somehow the secrets of the plot remained a mystery to me. My own wife read the book and she didn't tell me. (The trial? Well, I guess I averted my eyes a bit. I have this strange impulse to not spoil things that I might one day enjoy, even though I doubt very much that I'll ever read The Da Vinci Code.)

There's a covenant among readers, even millions of Dan Brown readers: You don't give away the plot. But now that the marketers of the film have stirred up all of this phony controversy to sell the film, everything is being revealed. Suddenly, the plot is part of the national dialogue in a way that it wasn't when there was no film, and 45 million Americans had the book sitting quietly on their shelf.

Even though the book qualifies as a hit in any medium - any filmmaker would be thrilled to have 45 million folk buy a ticket, beause that's a Speilberg-ian homerun - literary (I use the term loosely) culture just isn't part of the media mix. Book noise isn't loud enough. Now, I don't want to come off like another dorky Cassandra with the New York Review of Books tucked under my arm, railing against the dumbing-down of culture and all that garbage. We all, clandestinely or not, love pop culture, right? Just an observation, is all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Modern Romance? Only Now?

Is it possible that Albert Brooks' sublime Modern Romance is only just now being released on DVD? I know I should know these things, but I was making do with a VHS copy of it from college. Now I'm reading, however, that it's a very bare bones release - a cheapie with nary a trailer to be found. This is criminal, seeing as it is irrefutably one of the great comedies of the era, and beloved big time by many. Criterion should wrest it away and do the right thing - who wouldn't love to hear Brooks' commentary, which I'm guessing would be worth the steep price of the disk?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Doug Brinkley Leprechaun Theory

I have a theory as to how Douglas Brinkley - the honorable Tulane University history professor - is such a book machine. I mean, seriously. Leprechauns. Obviously, Brinkley has hired the little green men to help him dash off three books in less than two years time - including his recent opus about Katrina, The Great Deluge, which clocks in at over 700 pages. The man is an insane page producing machine. OK, it's either leprechauns, or some mutant microchip embedded in his brain, something resembling the Dragon word-recognition software app - so that Brinkley can just produce text by thinking about it. How else to explain?

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Tom Wolfe Tribute

I was honored when Tom Wolfe asked me to write an essay about him on the occasion of his receiving the Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities honorarium, which is bestowed annually by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Best Novel of the Past Twenty Five Years

Next week, the New York Times will publish its list of the best novels of the past quarter-century. Culling its results from a distinguished panel of writers and critics, the list is headed by Toni Morrison's Beloved, followed by Don DeLillo's Underworld, Updike's Rabbit quartet, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Philip Roth's American Pastoral. There are a number of runner-ups, including DeLillo's White Noise, John Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.

Ah, those lists. We love to hate them, hate to love them. It's so easy to gripe and bitch when things are so neatly taxonomized, so efficiently shunted into neat columns. But I ask you - are you really going to nitpick this list? It does a very good job of summing up what was great about literature over the past twenty five years; reading it, you get that same misty-eyed nostalgic pang that Chuck Workman's Oscar montages always seem to evoke. Are there too many Roth and DeLillo books on the list? Come now - of course not! Check it out for yourself.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


With the opening of the film Poseidon, there's been a lot of talk about the original 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure - how it's become a "camp classic," how it's so dated with all of those wide lapels and collars and so forth.

That all may be so, but I speak for millions who came of age in the 70's when I say that it scared the shit out of me. One must separate The Poseidon Adventure from all of the cheeseball disaster clunkers that came in its 90-foot wake - those films elicited unintentional laughter, but Poseidon Adventure just made me hold my breath. Honest. When Shelley Winters, bless her fat-addled heart, braves that long underwater sprint, I just about passed out. There are a number of shots that are tattooed onto my brain for good - the terrific crash of the passenger into the stained glass ceiling-turned-floor, that long shot of the upside-down cocktail tables, Hackman falling to his death while trying to wrest that giant steam valve closed.

Wow, what a film. Don't let anyone tell you it's some kind of kitschy artifact - it made many millions at the time because kids were genuinely thrilled-frightened by it. Years later, it was a very effective cruise vacation deterrent. Well, that and the shuffleboard.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The White Album

Today I was the keynote speaker for a ceremony to kick of The city of Malibu's One City, One Book program, in which the city is "assigned" a single book to read and ponder. This year it's Joan Didion's The White Album. Here's the speech if you're inclined (excuse the typos and such - because this was meant to be read aloud, I've not cleaned it up for reading:)

I remember when I first read The White Album. I was a freshman at USC, and I had been told by more than a few literate Angelinos that I must read Joan Didion’s book if I wanted to understand what Southern California was really all about. So I did.

It scared the heck out of me.

Why? Simple, really: Didion’s version of the West didn’t square with all of the myths I held dear about the place. I was a 70’s New York kid who worshipped the Beach Boys and watched Endless Summer, dreaming that golden SoCal dream. Which was why I chose USC to begin with. Now, here was Didion telling me that everything I thought I knew about California was wrong. And the thing was, she was right.

The title alone was a tip-off. Naming a book after the Beatles album from which Charles Manson found grisly inspiration did not bode well for some optimistic treatise on the great California pleasure principle of sun and sand that had become a kind of global short-hand for the good life.

Instead, Didion articulated in the White Album’s 20 essays what writer Mike Davis would classify years later as the “sunshine noir” dialectic of California culture, the dark undertow that was constantly tugging and straining against the idealized version of the placewhich had been hammered in our brains through a steady stream of media stereotypes.

It’s important to note however that Didion, a native of Sacramento who received her BA in English at Cal and moved to Los Angeles with her husband John Gregory Dunne in 1966, had always had a strong affection for the West.

Her Western roots ran deep, as her ancestors had migrated to the region from points south and Midwest in the nineteenth century.

Growing up in Sacramento Didion, the daughter of an Air Force Officer and a homemaker, heard stories of her kin and their struggles to tame the unsettled territory of California. But by the late forties, it seemed to Didion that the stories she been told -- of the crystalline rivers and majestic farmland -- had already been supplanted by a new narrative of unchecked corporate development. The boomtown mentality co-existed with the old agrarian culture in ways that gave Didion intimations of the impermanence of things in California.

Still, the lure of the ocean was eternal and Didion wasn’t immune to it. Southern California in the 60’s was supposed to provide the template for new ways of living. It was going to be free love and endless amounts of drugs that would open up new modes of consciousness and bring about some all-in-one mind-meld that would banish crime and war and cynical politics. But for Didion, Los Angeles was a social experiment that failed. There were many reasons why this was so, some of which were laid out in her first book of essays, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and then in 1979’s The White Album.

Among the many piercing flashes of insight to be found in The White Album’s essays, many of which were written between 1968 and 1979 for publications like Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review, is one overarching fact of L.A. life – that it exists on a very slippery foundation. Here was an arid desert landscape adjacent to the Pacific that received its water over 200 miles away from the Central Valley, that built its houses on an active seismic fault, that was prone to brush fires, flooding and earthquakes. It was a city in denial of its own instability.

This hard fact of LA life co-existed uneasily with Didion’s own psychic instability, which she chronicles in these essays with often brutal candor. I think that’s why The White Album has resonated with so many for so long –
we’re made to feel an ally in her struggle to maintain her equipoise amid the maelstrom of a social upheaval.

Right up front on page 14, she shows us her psychiatric profile as rendered by St. John’s Hospital, who monitored the writer after she suffered a panic attack in 1968. She is, according to this report, prone to a “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her.” She surmises correctly that a fatalistic worldview was not an inappropriate response to 1968, a year when the country was engaged in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and light.

But it was more than just the events of that darkest year of the sixties that gave Didion intimations of impending doom. She understood what so many failed to grasp about Los Angeles, especially all of those outsiders who migrate here seeking eternal good health, good weather and untold riches: That life here tends to be about as stable as mercury on glass, and therefore not prone to snug feelings of security and safety.

When that fragility rubbed up against the very powerful myth of Manifest Destiny, Summer of Love style – that is, of living out some edenic version of unfettered freedom in the West - you had a very combustible sitaiotn to contend with. This is what Didion writes about so perceptively in The White Album.

Suffice it to say, this was not to trendiest approach to 60’s culture for a young writer to take. Contrast Didion’s bleak, complex world-view with Tom Wolfe’s, a New York-based journalist who looked upon the cultural movements of the West with somewhat more optimism and less cynicism. Didion had witnessed a lot of ugliness while gathering the material for the 20 essays that appear in the White Album, and existential dread would be her default mode.

The book kicks off with that famous lede: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” One could substitute ‘survive’ for ‘live’ in that sentence, I think. According to Didion, we try to impose meaning upon events that appear to be senseless or without internal logic; we try to rationalize the irrational to console ourselves.

To be sure, she certainly tries. She goes on a little later in the essay: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

That was no easy task. By the late sixties, the era’s promise of social change had devolved into open warfare that was both rhetorical and wantonly violent, and the White Album is, among other things, about Didion’s struggle to impose a straight narrative line upon this mad, swirling carnival of American culture at the breaking point, with all of its attendant violence and mayhem. Of trying, in other words, to come to grips with disorder.

One feels Didion’s endless frustration with her incapacity to “play her role as if she had the script,” as she moves through the events in the book. Her interview subjects, many of them key players in this madness, seem to exist behind an opaque scrim of self-mythology – Self-mythologizing being a key career move in those days.

When she encounters Black Panther Huey Newton at the Alameda County Courthouse and tries to get him to speak openly about himself and the charge of manslaughter that has been brought against him, he ladles out well-rehearsed slogans about black nationalism. A campus shutdown at San Francisco State is a pointless exersize in empty sloganeering on all sides. “Disorder,” she writes, “became (becomes) its own point.” A frustrating turn of events indeed for a writer who craved control.

In her cultural essays, there is a simmering, slow-to-boil paranoia present, which Didion attributes to a disconnect between what people are feeling and what really weighs on their minds.

Perhaps that accounts for the chaotic nature of California life in the late sixties; Didion believes it has something to do with the way no one addresses things as they really are; that blissed-out hippie equanimity is an evasion from reality.

It may also be why she prized her life in Malibu, where she moved with her family in 1968 and stayed until 1976. At least this community was bound together by a mutual understanding that the place in which they lived was in many respects inhospitable to serene domestic life. Living in Malibu made Didion feel like some beachcombing homesteader, claiming her small piece of real estate on pch and girding it from harm. “I think now,” she writes in the essay ‘Quiet Days in Malibu,’

“that I never loved the house on Pacific Coast Highway more than on those many days when it was impossible to leave it, when fire or flood had in fact closed the highway.”

Here’s another thing that struck me upon first reading the White Album. Didion’s rather eccentric choice of subject matter. Water? Dams? Freeways? But these geographic essays are consistent with her thesis about the great effort expended in trying to impose some control on a vast and unruly landscape. Even the largest public works agencies in America couldn’t do it. At the time that Didion wrote Bureaucrats, her piece about Caltrans, it just so happened that the transportation agency was installing diamond lanes in an attempt to loosen up gridlock. “Of course, the political decision was in the name of the greater good,’ she writes. “the only effect so far had been to disrupt traffic through the Los Angeles basin, triple the number of daily accidents on the Santa Monica, prompt the initiation of two lawsuits against Caltrans, and cause large numbers of Los Angeles county residents to behave, most uncharacteristically, as an ignited and conscious proletariat.”

To be sure, Didion is no Norman Mailer type. There were plenty of fiery polemicists to go around in those days, and though Didion offers up sharp opinions in The White Album, especially about the women’s movement and Hollywood liberals, she avoids easy positions. I think that’s why the book has enduring appeal twenty seven years after its publication. We appreciate the way she grapples with issues right on the page, because her ambivalence is ours, too.

Her essays Holy Water and At The Dam explore, with a fair share of wonder, the way water, the very lifeblood of Southern California, is sluiced, channeled, stored and released. Didion is not ready to side with the environmentalists, and criticize the building of enormous walls in front of rivers,

or the transfer of water from its natural habit in the Owens Valley 200 miles away to L.A. She appreciates the link between the Rube Goldberg-ian water works and California civility and comfort.

In her 1977 essay Many Mansions, Didion tours the new 12,000 square foot dream house in Sacramento that Governor Reagan and his wife Nancy have designed. It is, in Didion’s view, a metaphor for a new era of wretched excess and faux-finish plasticity. “The walls resemble local adobe, but they are not,” Didion writes. “They are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowing cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and the exposed beams ‘resemble’ native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown.’

Here’s Didion anticipating an incipient trend; This house might well be the archetype for the California McMansions of the future.

You can’t discuss Joan Didion’s work without commenting on her writing style, because there’s something mysterious about how she does it. She’s a deceptively simple prose stylist of considerable dramatic power. Didion is always striving for a clear and uninflected rhythm, just like her literary hero Ernest Hemingway, always making every word count. There’s nothing extraneous in these essays, and that sharply honed style gives her words an incantatory power, a capacity to mesmerize the reader.

Certain images just stay with you, like this one from Many Mansions: “The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.”

And this, the closing sentence of her rumination on the Hoover dam: “Of course this was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.” There’s sad poetry in those sentences.

Re-reading the book, it’s hard to feel optimistic about things having changed much for the good in L.A. New social issues – larger, more intractable issues – have supplanted the ones Didion wrote about. And Malibu still struggles with the capricious elements. But this region is remarkably resilient to change and has the capacity to adapt to whatever is thrown its way. So Didion, with The White Album, has given us a gift – a Baedeker to a state that’s as complicated and culturally rich as most countries, charged with an undercurrent of menace that always lies in wait, but also prone to unexpected moments of grace. All newcomers should be handed a copy of this book when they arrive. Just like I was at USC, 23 years ago.

A Tale of Two Anaheims

The Angels are kicking ass...oops, I mean sucking ass. All of those moves that Arte Moreno made in the off-season - losing Bengie Molina (a massive boner), dumping Washburn, putting too much faith in untested young'uns - is hurting the team big time. They have all kinds of offensive (I mean that in both senses of the word) black holes in the line-up - unless Juan Rivera starts clouting home runs like a freak, and Erstad stops betraying his creaky age, this is going to me a mighty long summer for yours truly.

Meanwhile, down the street at Arrowhead pond - The Ducks play their best game of the season against the 'Lanche, two days after coming off that exhasuting 7 game series against Calgary. This is why sports analysts are useless - despite the groaningly obvious observation that 'The Ducks will be flat-footed and hung over after the Flames,' the opposite was true. Sports is the best people - you never know what's gonna go down (like the Lakers winning game 7?...)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Al Green

Thanks to all those who cried out from the wilderness to tell me they enjoyed the blog; hey, a boy needs a reason to carry on every once in a while. I'll stop bugging you now.

I'm pooped from a long day of racing to and fro all over the city in search of God know's what, but I do have one strong recommendation to make: Please do go out and buy the new expanded edition of Al Green's The Belle Album.

I hadn't heard it in a long while; sold the album, don't ya know. (see below). But this record was recorded in in 1977, which was just about the vapor trail-end of Green's astonishing seven year run of making one great album after another. What always struck me about Green was that he was a great R&B singer - the greatest soul singer of his generation, right? - who was both an amazing singles artist and a great album artist.

This was fairly rare in the 70's - for some reason great albums were reserved for other artists in other genres. (P-Funk? Lots of lard there, I'm afraid, but Stevie Wonder qualifies I suppose.) But hot damn, you can go really deep with Green - Let's Stay Together, I'm Still In Love With You, the amazing Call Me -- all of them loaded up with great songs.

The Belle Album was something else altogether - not a smoldering Willie Mitchell workout, but a quieter acoustic record produced by Green himself. It's got intimations of gospel, but it's sexy as all get out. It's exalted and greasy in equal measure. Listening to it as I write this, I'm getting little chills of recognition from the days when I played the fuck out of it in high school, and no one else seemed to care. I don't think it charted that well, though I'd have to look it up. It's so great, though - buy it now please and have yourself a great soundtrack to your weekend.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Scott Walker Creeps Me Out

Jesus, this is beginning to feel like a fool's errand. Is anyone reading this damn blog, other than looky-loo's who see the address in my emails and give it a quick peek? Well, whatever, I'm just gonna keep trudging along here - if anyone is indeed reading, please let me know so I can figure out whether to close this thing down or not.

Anyway, here's the trippiest, creepiest record of year (yes, it's only May, but I'm confident here): Scott Walker's The Drift. It's his first album in seven years, and for an artist who has recorded his fair share of dark, Guignol, fucked-up shit, this record tops them all. I'm not yet sure what he's going on about - Jesus seems to be playing a role in this murky and lengthy narrative. The promo CD is one continual track, so it's hard to go back and review specific sections to deconstruct them. There's liner notes embedded on the CD itself, but I haven't bothered to look at them yet (so sue me!)

But it's one of those things - you hit play on the CD player and you're completely drawn into Walker's Caligari Cabinet. The arrangements are jittery and nervous-sounding - Walker doesn't settle into any musical idea for too long, lest you get comfortable. Quiet passages jump-cut into atonal bombast then back again, while Walker warbles away in his inimitable (well, not that inimitable - check out The Divine Comedy, who pretty much nicked his whole shtick from Walker) quavery baritone. The Drift is the kind of record that is enjoyably disturbing, and if that's your thing, check it out when it drops May 23rd.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The best reason to read Citybeat

Natalie Nichols' Subbacultcha column is the best reason to read LA Citybeat, full stop. This week, she writes about the sad saga of L.A. band Betty Blowtorch....

Joan Didion

I met Joan Didion yesterday. Or rather, I shook her frail hand, which felt like rice paper, and exchanged a few words that weren't reciprocated. I asked her if she was aware of my book and she responded yes, though she hadn't read it. She scrawled her address on the back of a flyer and asked me to send it to her. And that was about it; she needed to meet her fans and sign books.

She is so frail, you want to cradle her in your arms and protect her from harm. And yet, the mind remains strong, the imagination sturdy, as evidenced by The Year Of Magical Thinking. In this late stage of her life and career, she has become something else altogether - not a beloved personal essayist, maybe the best of her generation, but a writer who has struck a universal chord with the story of her tragedy, which is everyone's tragedy. I hope more books are produced before it gets too late.