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August 10, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....


Mr. Blue returns from a failed dot-com magazine...

Love Me
By Garrison Keillor
Viking, 272 pages, $24.95
When I think of it I listen to A Prairie Home Companion, one of the oddest shows on radio.  I'm fond of self-referential humor and sly storytelling that says much more than it says, and in ways that are subtle.  Understated rage appeals to me, which is probably why I did most of my graduate work on Jonathan Swift.  Swift would be writing for Garrison Keillor if Swift were still around.  A Modest Proposal would fit right into the show.
This new novel, or story, or collection od observations, is about one Larry Wyler, a formerly famous novelist.  When Wyler hits it big with his debut novel he leaves the dull and repressed Saint Paul for New York City.   A "bigger life," he calls it.  And he leaves his wife, a woman who "brushes compliments away like deerflies."  I not sure what that means.  But I sense I'd leave too.  I cannot explain that.

And I "get" but cannot explain this, about sex being "the great steaming mystery. The love of being naked in a dark room with another and the cool sheets and lying down and the hundreds of ways there are to lie together. ... This is what Puccini was thinking about, and Mozart, and Strauss. All the time they pretended to address God or death, they were showing off their legs."

This protagonist Wyler finds his ideal job at The New Yorker.  He hangs with J.D. Salinger, who here is working on a Holden Caulfield cookbook (unlikely), and William Shawn, who would rather go fishing and get drunk than edit the magazine (likely).

It does not seem likely that Sicilian mobsters own the magazine and are planning to merge it with Field & Stream, but then, there was Tina Brown for those years.  Needless to say, things fall apart and our hero ends up back in Minnesota writing an advice column under the pseudonym Mr. Blue -  "Tell me about your troubles, dear reader, and I will tell you mine."

Ah ha!  Now one sees what this book is about.  Three years ago Garrison Keillor was writing an advice column that appeared in SALON.COM as Mr. Blue.  Well SALON.COM ran into big financial trouble and is barely hanging on, and now charging for its content.  And Garrison Keillor stopped writing the column when he had some major surgery and needed months to recover.  Here we get the best of these old columns and what he never got around to publishing.

"For me, drinking is Dionysian.  It's wildness.  There is no moderation in wildness.  The purpose is not to wash down the risotto or get a pleasant buzz; it is to dance all night and show the petit bourgeoisie our bare buttocks.  But Dionysianism takes a terrible toll and a man should heed that still small voice that says: if you don't want to go to Chicago, then don't get on this train."

"Christmas is the same every year, and Easter too, but people don't skip them on that account."

This is good stuff.


Jerry Lewis and the French Intellectual Tradition 

    Positif 50 Years: Selections From the French Film Journal, Edited by Michel Ciment and Laurence Kardish, The Museum of Modern Art: 288 pages, $21.95 paperback

    Okay film buffs.  This is not Cahiers du Cinema but Positif, the other French film journal.  The key articles from the last fifty years!  American directors treated as auteurs and their films analyzed with high seriousness shot by shot, sequence by sequence!

    And this means a careful intellectual analysis of Jerry Lewis.   Richard Schickel, one of my favorite film critics refers to Jerry Lewis as, "...manic, infantile, witless Jerry Lewis, auteur of more cinematic misery (if your mental age was anything over 9 years old) than anyone could readily imagine."

    But in this collection you can read Robert Benayoun who, starting in 1956, took Lewis very seriously.  Benayoun wrote a piece naming him Positif's Man of the Year in 1963.  And he wrote a book on Lewis.

    Richard Schickel says this of Benayoun and this volume of essays:

    Benayoun makes much of Lewis' "innocence" his calculated adoration of children, to whom he shamelessly and sentimentally played and of his technological pioneering. We owe to him that admittedly valuable innovation, the video assist, by which directors can see the shots while they are making them. But Benayoun writes mainly as a slightly demented fan. His loving descriptions of gag sequences in such Lewis movies as "The Bell Boy," "The Ladies Man" and "The Errand Boy" are painfully unfunny. And unpersuasive.  Mostly he speculates, based on dubious secondary sources, about Lewis' character the humanist beneath the craziness and all that.  One can see how the sheer force of his burble might have got Paris talking back in the '60s.  But please trust me on this Eddie Murphy's remake of "The Nutty Professor" is in every sense superior to Lewis' incoherent and laugh-free original.  That would be as true on the Champs-Elysees as it is on the Third Street Promenade.

    But as the editors note, Positif always had close ties to Surrealism, which in France is more of a worked-out philosophy than a vague catch-phrase, so it's easy to see how Benayoun got snookered by Lewis. It's also easy to see how anomalous his piece is in this volume. Most of the essays do not attempt career overviews; they tend to be close analyses of specific films, very detailed in their attention to the way individual sequences are worked out and often very smart in the way they judge their effect on the film's overall design.

    Perhaps I will pick up this collection, on Schickel's receommendation in his Los Angeles Times book review.  He says there is good stuff on Luis Buñuel.  And great insight into A Clockwork Orange, and Fargo and Rosemary's Baby.  Structural analysis.  Cool.

    For those readers who hate the French and want to make fun of them, there is the Jerry Lewis stuff here too.


    If you had been in Los Angeles you could have seen...

    And here is a list of what I didn't see in Los Angeles recently:

    MOMUS at Spaceland, August 1

    Part of the L.A. Weekly review:

    His experiments betray an undercurrent he sums up thus: "This is a song about being valued for qualities for which one is not very proud" ("Scottish Lips"). He dances like an ape amid his congealing accusations of love and affection, his skittering breakdances and delicate dandyisms not a hindrance but instead symptomatic of an individual adult human being discovering that his "limits" are in fact illusory. Thanking a fan for pornographic DVD's, he launches into "My Sperm Is Not Your Enemy," which segues fittingly into "Beowulf (I Am Deformed)," a heroic meditation delivered from beneath his windbreaker. The husk of a broken relationship peels away with "Miss X, An Ex-Lover," and the software warps of his wry observations dedicated to Barry White on "Born To Be Adored" whip his falsetto into epiphanies.

    TED LEO & THE PHARMACISTS, THE ORANGES BAND at the Troubadour, July 29

    Part of the L.A. Weekly review:

    The Pharmacists lineup featured on 2002's Hearts of Oak, now beefed up by guitarist Drew O'Doherty, attacked hard-pop intricacies ("The High Party") and one-chord groovers (the title track) with equal ahead-of-the-beat fury, and brought older material, iffy on record, up to the level of the new album. Leo's syllable-packed lyrics (and Dorien Garry's underused keyboards) may have been lost in the souped-up Celtic breakdown that capped "Timorous Me," but the double-lead barrage served notice that this band is out of the basement for good, sock or no sock.

    Four-fifths of Baltimore's Oranges Band shared the stage-presence-challenged demeanor of collegiate indie-guys everywhere, but Dan Black's choppy ax handling displayed enough nervous energy for the lot. The band's dynamic is sharp and clean, hacking influences from Chuck Berry to Wire into new shapes via dropped beats, extra measures and shifting three-guitar textures. Smartly, they closed with an extended version of their best song to date: "OK Apartment," a self-interrupting power-pop paean to the resonant wonders of an open G chord, the first that most guitarists learn.

    EL GRAN SILENCIO at House of Blues, July 29

    Beats from across the globe rushed from El Gran Silencio's well-worn instruments with the escalating speed of a Randy Johnson fastball the trilingual ragamuffin "Sound System Municipal" to begin, a bit of Algerian ululating with "El Espejo," and steady streams of percussion and horn ruminations from across the Western Hemisphere. Brothers Tony and Cano Hernández traded off high-pitched rap spurts with the expertise of b-boys but also tweaked their voices with a nice and nasal norteño twang. The stuttering churn of cumbia and vallenato grounded each track with an ass-motivating foundation. But the soul of the show was undoubtedly Campa Valdez, he of the amazing accordion. The chubby chavo fingered his squeezebox's buttons while alternately jumping and standing sentry, extending his accordion to its limits, then crushing it like an aluminum can, launching an unrelenting wave of trills.

    PROCOL HARUM at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, July 28

    You know.


    You don't want to know.

    Sometimes it is best to stay home and fool around on the electric keyboard and see how many Gershwin tunes I can remember without the sheet music or fake book.