Friday, February 27, 2009

Exacavating Pivotal Books

I need to know what makes me tick so I can exploit it.

Understanding what makes me tick, and what makes for tics, requires nostalgia. Nostalgia is both pleasurable and upsetting. You want to go back to the rawness, of delighting in the new joys of reading, exploring, climbing trees, being foolishly dreamy. Books read and forgotten. Gardens uncovered. Ruins invaded. Sensations realized at their origins. Sometimes, and maybe mostly, you're nostalgic for things that never existed like you want to remember them. Or you're nostalgic for things that never existed in the first place. Then, you're a writer.

I like exercises to strengthen the memory and follow the thread of inspiration back to its primal coil.

The following is a list of books I read once, years ago, books that shifted my perceptions in beneficial ways. I guess these are the books of my so-called early youth. Maybe I'll talk about adolescence later.

These are what first excited me at the thought of being a writer, of being so acutely sensitive to both implausible possibilities and jarring realities that I couldn't help but write everything down manically and maniacally.

Random List Of Early Reading

Encylopedia Brown. A young private detective? Everyone's hero when you're 11.
The Hardy Boys. I remember the ones about the swamps the most.
The Three Investigators. I remember these guys had a secret junkyard hideout. A totally formative image for me.
Harriet The Spy. A sort of pre-teen, harmless novel of voyeurism, eavesdropping, espionage and all manners of covert reconnaissance which are all terrific activities for a would-be writer.

The Curse Of The Blue Figurine, The Chessmen Of Doom, The House With A Clock In Its Walls, etc., by John Bellairs, covers illustrated by Edward Gorey.
Gothic, young adult metaphysical horror/terror. First time I saw Gorey drawings too. Absorbed the imagery of genteel decay, rotting gazebos, statues, old mansions and warlocks. Check out the visual bibliography of his many works with the original Gorey illustrations.

A Wrinkle In Time, A Swiftly-Tilting Planet,
etc., by Madeline L'Engle. I remember learning about mitochondria from these books. Quite captivating and spiritual.

21 Balloons
by William Pene Dubois. Learned about Krakatoa.

Johnny Tremain
by Esther Forbes. Totally made me an American Revolution history junkie.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Instigated a life-long obsession with the "evocatory" images of mist-drenched moors and homicidal botanists.

The Halloween Tree, Dandelion Wine
, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Death Is A Lonely Business, A Graveyard For Lunatics, Green Shadows White Whale, etc. by Ray Bradbury.
Basically, without the eminent autumnal imagination of Bradbury, there is no need for nostalgia. Undifferentiated intrigue, exciting/haunting moods sustained indefinitely and firefly/carnival/endless meadow childhoods that can only exist on paper makes for very formative reading.

The Time Machine
by H.G. Wells. Read it in a log cabin. There was snow and an earthquake and a puzzle. I enjoyed it immensely, especially the underground people, Morlocks?

Lord Of The Flies
, Catcher In The Rye and A Separate Peace. I read all of these many times, but Catcher the most because I thought it was so laugh-out-loud funny. Lord Of The Flies, if I remember is an extremely sensual novel, at least in terms of physical description, of rendering the island, of feeling, as an old teacher explained, the burning sand under your feet every time he read it which was once a year.

The Great And Secret Show
, Everville, Weaveworld, Books Of Blood
by Clive Barker

It's too bad, really, that writers in "paraliterary" genres, like horror, the "dark fantastic", mystery, and science fiction can never really impress high-brow literary arbiters. Barker really articulated some of my early obsessions for dark mysticism, secret histories, carnal complexities, and hyper-dimensional worlds; plus he scared the crap out of me and turned my stomach in glorious ways by bringing spiritual, metaphysical and corporeal themes back into the genre.

The Talisman
by Stephen King and Peter Straub. This book is fantastic. Multi-dimensional epic featuring a friendly werewolf. Read this during a major house renovation when I suffered sickness and fever.

by Peter Straub. Also fantastic. Magical apprentices at an Uncle's old mansion. Like Bellairs meets Barker.

Foundation Trilogy
and Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov. Really fascinating stuff about encyclopedias, evil music and the Gaia hypothesis.

to be continued.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Herzog The Awesome

Any discussion of adventure in the service of art must include the films/mishaps/glories of Werner Herzog. In fact, perhaps no other living artist in any genre has capitalized so much on the notion of Adventure Research in the service of truth. In literature, the only contemporary parallel I can think of is William T. Vollmann.

So yes Herzog. The other night, after eagerly anticipating how much I would love it, I finally watched My Best Fiend, Herzog's moving and hilarious portrayal of his more-than-volatile working relationship with the German madman actor Klaus Kinski. I had already seen three out of the five movies that Herzog and Kinski worked together on, Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, the Wrath Of God and Woyzeck, all of which I appreciate greatly but I had to say Fitzcarraldo is my favorite. It is a classic in the genre of chimerical, whimsical and downright impossible undertakings. I'm looking forward to watching the documentary about the hair-raising, appallingly difficult making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden Of Dreams.

As a late-comer to the works of Herzog--I saw Fitzcarraldo for the first time less than a year ago-- I am struck by his insistently iconoclastic views on verite and veracity, views that seem to dovetail with a largely untheorized idea I have called decoverite. It sort of aims at getting at truth through fraudulent, mythological means. I'm encouraged by his bold and transcendent film experiments to think more about some non-fiction pieces I want to do in the future. It is interesting how different arts can cross-fertilize each other; how fecundity in one medium has a lively resonance in another. Painting, music, film, sports, travel, etc. all in the service of hopefully insightful and invigorating writing.

I was inspired then to discover the following declaration by Herzog on his homepage:

Minnesota declaration: truth and fact in documentary cinema "LESSONS OF DARKNESS"

1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. "For me," he says, "there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail."Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.

7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: "You can´t legislate stupidity."

9. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down.

10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn´t call, doesn´t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don´t you listen to the Song of Life.

11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota April 30, 1999Werner Herzog

Monday, February 23, 2009

Origins Of The Subversive Impulse 1.

THE blinding acid-yellow, toontown-font, Grove Press paperback edition of Naked Lunch was the first "thing" that I "knew" was evil when I was an adolescent. In fact, it was so evil that I couldn't even consider buying it; if I was brazen enough to read Burroughs I'd have to find something less flagrant and still be extra-careful about owning it. So I found Exterminator! and read it many nights in secret as I listened to another piece of contraband, Red Hot Chili Pepper's Blood Sugar Sex Magic on my headphones. All of these artifacts I hid beneath a desk's false bottom inside a cardboard box I called "my rage box", a place that also included "other things." That was all many awkward moons ago and it wasn't until I was a young man of twenty that I read Naked Lunch cover-to-cover for the first time. I found it beautifully-written, dense with visions that I wish I had invented, but, for the most part, by then I was inured  to its forbidden revelations. 

BUT even before that first reading, I had watched the movie Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg. I think I was seventeen or eighteen. And it sort of haunted me for a long while afterwards. I began to confuse then the promises of that evil yellow cover with what the movie actually managed to get away with showing on the big screen. 

I haven't talked much about movies here (except for my Walken top-ten.) It is too daunting for me as a writer to keep pace with all the things I have to read (for the betterment of my writing), to really provide any provocative or legitmate commentary on movies and directors. What I can offer are interesting intersections between words and film, between textual narrativity and cinematic storytelling-- or at least I can describe the visual stuff that generates the same excitement as good books. 

But generally movies drift just underneath my radar and before I know it I haven't seen any of the films that everyone's talking about. Even The Dark Knight. The one movie I really wanted to see came and went so fast it's almost as if Sweden doesn't exist: Let The Right One In. (And now I really want to see Waltz With Bashir and apparently it was robbed of an Oscar.)

I did see Tarsem's The Fall last year and I still have mixed feelings about it. Mixed as in, I didn't love it, but I respected its visual grandiosity as well as the cloying yet poignant pairing between the cute-as-hell little Romanian girl and the charismatic yet tortured Lee Pace, and I'm betting I will like it a lot more on a second, more vigilant viewing. My first thought: eye-candy for geography and costume connoisseurs. And it is especially hard not to be moved by the locations that Tarsem uses for the more jaw-dropping sequences. The trailer gave me high hopes initially. It looked like some surreal, art-deco Western, almost like The Holy Mountain--which I never got a chance to finish watching. (I think one reason why I don't go to a lot of movies is I feel that the trailers will always let me down. I hope that's not the case with Inglorious Basterds.) So as usual for the last couple years, I didn't see any of the movies nominated for this year's Oscars, not out of snooty snobbish elitism but from the combined efforts of thrift and sloth. Yet I recently watched and enjoyed Fritz Lang's noir Scarlet Street not once but twice on DVD. And before that a whole slew of movies that Katy and I've rented, some of which I might discuss more at length later. And very soon, maybe even tonight, I'm going to watch My Best Fiend for the first time.

AND not soon enough, I will have my second, mature viewing of Naked Lunch and relive all those promises of revolt from a bygone era. 

Cronenberg, a man heavily influenced by both Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs has had a significant influence on me, and I think on a lot of writers. I think of him when I write about the more jarring disjunctions between men and women. What my "more mature" writing seems to express are forms of hysteria, more bodily than not, that cause disorientation, obsession and a sense of lostness

Hysteria, or visceral terror, or venereal horror are the provinces of most of the Cronenberg films I've seen (The Brood, M. Butterfly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash, Naked Lunch, Spider, Eastern Promises.) Keep in mind that I have still yet to see Rabid, Shivers, The Fly or Scanners. Add some dark comedy, satirical send-ups of psychology, B-movie gore and an unremitting sense of unease and you've got a Cronenberg on your hands.

Today, I think of Naked Lunch especially because it has come to inhabit a critical part of a short story I've been working on, a story stemming from a chance sighting I had years ago of a young woman on a beach who was reading the acrid-yellow, pop-art-font edition of Naked Lunch, all while smoking a clove cigarette in the scalding San Diego light.

The image struck me for some reason; I was young and impressionable still, guilty of seeing subversion everywhere or wanting to see it. And today I'm writing a short story about it, and awaiting eagerly for my second viewing of the movie. And yeah the trailer is fantastic. 
"I thought you said you were finished with weird things...."  

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Notes On Adventure And Literature

A startling procession in a Chinatown alleyway. This was from the first year of the Hunt...

This blog, or rant, is regrettably late in arriving. This last week, I've been in a bit of a fog, as if my mind is stuck in the limbo between winter and spring, and I have relented a little on my writing obligations. To jump-start things, I did some inquiries about the crossroads of adventure and literature, at least inside my own head. I never cease to interrogate the disconnect between being a successful writer and a successful "live-r"; which has led me to a self-imposed itinerary for Adventure Research. More on this to come. So far it's all talk and very little action.

I began thinking about adventure again at the beginning of February, as I always do, right when I'm about to undertake the Chinese New Year's treasure hunt, an event that marries some of the most fascinating, Situationist-like passions, namely: "urban exploration" and "detective games" something like that. Intrigue and exploring? Noir sensibilities mixed with naive romanticism? Everyone loves all that, or they should.(Above, one of the many alleys/dead-ends we got sucked into...home of the biggest LOLCAT mural in the world...)

Simply, it's a chance to play detective on a grandly chaotic scale, navigating the clustered hot points of a giant, percussive and pyrotechnic parade, tromping through the pre-apocalyptic celebration streets of fireworks and smoke and glowing things being revered in narrow and sudden alleyways. The Chinatown playground with its tiers and cupolas and weird monuments. And men playing dice games in dark alcoves.

Above is a wonderfully suggestive map I discovered here, Chinatown and Revolution.
The treasure hunt is one invigorating way to discover some of the myriad nooks and crannies, especially the amazing alleyways of our local Chinatown. I don't know what it is about alleyways, but they never fail to evoke the murky, seedy, libidinal and polymorphous depths of the human heart and imagination. In my own stories, alleyways and freaky public restrooms always make appearances, as do warehouses, docks, churches and cemeteries. I think all these places have to do with my own fears and desires all jumbled up together. Liminal places where bad things happen in good disguises and good things happen in bad ones.

But yes, alleyways, I always thought it would be incredibly fulfilling work to travel the world merely to do a full-color, journalistic inventory of the world's most captivating and intriguing alleyways. So far the best ones I've ever seen were in Saigon.

And yes, there are tours of Chinatown alleys, right HERE.

Scavenger hunts, among other urban psychogeographical diversions, are one way to fulfill some of the interesting, if somewhat implausible and pretentious tenets of the Formulary For A New Urbanism. Speaking of the Situationists, although they tend to have a pretty positive effect, at least on the imagination of every single armchair intellectual college boy who comes across them, myself the most guilty of that genus, they seem to be entirely lacking in any sort of economics or pragmatism. This all just an aside however.

This was all meant as a meandering preface to this idea I have. A lot of my stories, for better or for worse, are research-intensive. I like to learn about the secret histories of places I'm writing about, and I tend to write usually about the complex intersections between marginalized people and more "normal", "functional" people, whatever those adjectives may connote, which means I enjoy researching certain types of people who might be beyond the realm of my experience. It can make for difficulties in my writing, with huge periods devoted to finding things out about persons and places, more things that I need to know. But it can also be the catalyst for some interesting experiences.

Which brings me to the thesis: Adventure Research, or Ad/Res for short. Or maybe it makes more sense to call it Research Adventure? Res/Ad? Whatever. Engaging in adventure for the sake of research. I'm compiling now an itinerary for such foolhardy endeavors. I also want to explore the concept of adventure more at length and to show how it, in fact, has nothing at all to do with hyper-individualism, hedonism, libertinage, etc. but has a lot more to do with vulnerability and psychological brinkmanship. It's more adventurous, for example, to spend a cold evening in the Tenderloin ladling out soup to homeless people, than going to get drunk at that one perverted clown's house. I, unfortunately, have yet to do either. But soon!

Rainy Day Reading Doldrums

A weekend of enclosing myself. The rain has come blessedly. But it is also disorienting and deepens glum moods. Confusions. For example, I was disoriented enough yesterday to wake up early after a late night at a blistering, ear-splitting rock show (Murder City Devils), shower, get dressed, board an unusually vacant train toward Oakland, and walk towards my work....which was closed because it was a holiday. And I had forgotten, or assumed we didn't observe it. NO matter. The rest of the day I spent at a window-side table in the Outer Mission cafe I go to, reading Paul Bowles with my jaw dropping to the floor every sentence or two. More on him later.

Pondering the whole weekend long in an off-white room, keeping books and coffee within finger's length. Today at work the outside is wild and grey and rainy, with fiery, mother-of-pearl patches in the sky like the trees are on fire, but only cooly burning.

Indoors this weekend, hammering out story outlines and rough drafts. Time slips by, you adhere to a routine, it all becomes monastic. Plus the money situation compells a hermitage.

I'm curious how to assemble a short story collection in a market that isn't looking for them? My story sequences always end up becoming episodic novels to some degree. I like the idea of structure and tapestry and architecture in words. I like exquisite games that keep you re-reading, looking back, thinking like a detective. My own interest has pushed my reading outside into other genres: mysteries, roman noirs, science fiction, slipstream, genres that rely on games, I believe, more than "traditional" literary fiction.

My ideas sprout branches and then, lo and behold, another idea plops out writhing and whose demands I'll never meet any time soon. I told her my latest: Borges meets Quentin Tarantino!
The interlocked novellas of assassins in strange places creating mazes to lure unsuspecting men! Half-jesting but seriously. And then it will expand and deepen in my brain: and it becomes a novel about fate and death, two things I don't know much about, scarily enough.

Reading indoors: more Dubliners, Paul Bowles The Delicate Prey, more Delany's On Writing, Delany's critical works Silent Interviews and Shorter Views and just started the short novel by James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice and about to start an interesting older book I have yet to crack, Francine Prose's Reading Like A Writer. I'd like to explore what I'm "learning" from these books once my lethargy has shaken off.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Adventures In The City Part 1 of ???

I still haven't written about the psychogeography of the Chinese New Year's Treasure Hunt...
I think I'm still trying to think of a way to conceptualize it, a tangential quest that has led me down the purple rabbit's hole of Chinatown history and alleyway cartography. Which are, of course, indispensable realms of knowledge.

Instead, being pinioned to the internet, I'm distracted by all the cool things I learn once a month from the Re/Search press blog. I know I can't possibly attend, or see, or purchase all of the gems listed, but some definitely seem necessary. One event I'm particularly excited about involves bridges (like the Lost Boys bridge above) and adventures.

Especially the bridge-adventures of the famous San Francisco counter-cultural adventurer John Law and his Suicide Club.

The Cacophony Society followed in the footsteps of the Suicide Club and perpetuates a similar spirit of adventure and misrule. (Yet I can't help but think in those pre-9/11 days much more in the way of adventure was had.) A little research and I found some priceless photos of John Law and company in the early days of Cacophony: here and here and here.

Anyway, John Law's eagerly anticipated book of short stories, The Space Between is coming out soon. He will be doing a reading at City Lights on March 5th. It should be an interesting evening and an opportunity to meet and hear a local legend.

Other upcoming things of note: The Anarchist Book Fair is coming and so is Throbbing Gristle.
I doubt I can afford either event though. We'll see.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What The Mind Is Like Under A Yellow Moon

Some people don't believe me: I am more disoriented and prone to mood swings around the time of the full moon. Also I seem pretty emotionally affected by heat and clouds. Inner weather mimics the outer. Bodies are bizarre. Bio-meteorology should be a science.

No wonder this is my favorite novel.

Eight loads of laundry, some cooked broccoli and a bulbous yellow moon shining over the Walgreen's. It's lard-yellow and seems to quiver it looks so big. People sway forward with bags of meat and plastic rectangles clamped to their ears. I'm hauling months worth of well-loved garments brittle socks and ripe unmentionables. Exhaustion turns simple things into urban trials. I hunt for quarters, no different now than the one local panhandler who seems glued to our particular cul-de-sac, for whatever reason, always loitering on the stoops in the darkness. Or standing under the awnings of people's homes, smoking and talking to no one. Until he emerges and you must confront him.

In the Laundromat I hear Tagalog being spoken which to me sounds like Khmer and Spanish combined into something musical. I drop the lady's sock with the pink ball on it I'm washing and the older woman laughs at me as she picks it up. I've been found out, or something. Laundromats like libraries you don't have to have a purpose to be there.

I feel (off again/on again) more inured to the headache of street noise, to sidestepping trash like tumbleweeds crowding the sidewalks. Trash here heaps at the bases of trees like penitent offerings. But nature isn't moved. Only in retreat. An old, rickety, drooling man making his way to Burger King asks me where I'm from. I say, from around here. Oh, from here? Have you noticed any changes? Have you?? OH--I mean San Francisco, I've only been "here" though for 5 months. Ah, I see, then you're still new. YOU DON'T KNOW YET...and we walked on, him to his burger, me to my bus.

What I can't accept are the countless car alarms going off in this neighborhood, especially if they're blaring out of a stretch hummer limousine. There's not enough dynamite in the world to stick in the tailpipe of that monstrosity. So being the wavering, occasional misanthrope, I turn to fiction and poems. An old, old remedy. I sometimes wish it was sports, especially soccer. I want to be a bigger soccer fan.
I have towers of bound paper with blurbs on their backs. I hope they teach me things. Among more recent books I think necessary to sift through and savor:

1. Dubliners. James Joyce. Re-reading this because it sort of fell on the mental wayside after I studied him in college. I started with "The Dead" and will move backwards. It definitely retained its sucker-punch to the heart effect with nonchalant precision. Nothing new needs to be said about how timeless this story is. I do want to make a list of all the verbs Joyce uses so far because from what I can tell he never fails in applying the perfect words, especially verbs to any given sentence situation. Enviable to say the least.
2. Collected Poems Of Hart Crane.
3. The Jules Verne Steam Balloon by Guy Davenport.
4. About Writing by Samuel Delany. This book has been in my bag or on my person for many a month now. The pages are falling out, most of the passages are underlined, and I'm only half way through. A fairly necessary book if you desire to write fiction.

So yes, beyond books, the weekend was intense, weird, overwhelming and full of stories within stories. One of those wonderful yet dangerous coincidences brought two friends, an Alaskan and an Arizonan to converge on my filthy city, both stand-up fellows and thorough iconoclasts with libertarian tendencies. Fun was had, even in the rain. The first night came after a long, bustling workday of assembling a large, multi-state legalistic paper trail. Once sent into the void, or mailed, we lunged out into the warm Oakland evening. 8 helicopters dawdled in the pale blue sky, creating a ruckus like a Herzog movie set or how you imagine a war. The Fox Theatre was having its grand opening; a protest was about to start; the First Friday art-walk was imminent; Oakland downtown suddenly seemed invested with life and people and cars. We found a lovely old club with polished wood and brass and large gilt-frame mirrors. The magenta-haired woman with tattooed breasts served us cheap lagers. I saw my old housemate with the weird cockney accent. I had reasons to grieve too. And get philosophical. I absorbed good advice from a man who has an enviable amount of happiness and meaning in his life. The red-haired was replaced by a woman in suspenders wearing a sailor cap who had an understandably steely gaze for the sudden mob that had formed. Little things take the heart far. Adornments are necessary, sometimes tip the mind right off the edge. Helicopters reappeared. We wondered aloud about sacrifice and family. Everything can't all be ripped to the bone. City-spaces exploding with activity and promise. Fireworks, a treasure hunt, alley offerings, secret playgrounds, lurid interludes, loss, sadness, anger and desire. Streets are cordoned off so people may walk amidst the festival wreckage. Smoke hides things, uncovers others. I come home dazed. She's been busier than I have, and with more challenging endeavors. Smiling laughter encloses me like a warm cotton fort. The physics behind oscillating gazes. I never knew I had slightly yellow eyes until she said so. In a tangle of laundry and sketchpads, fishnets and garters, leather boots and leather belts: repose, laughter, solace.

It feels like there is a lot to talk about or try to make heads or tails over. City things. Private things. Family things. Sad and angry things happening at a nexus. More later.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Top-Ten Walken List.

Lest my few, and very patient readers think all I do is run my mouth off about books, writing, paintings and other high-minded pursuits all day long, I think it should be known that one of my defining passions in life are Christopher Walken movies. Maybe just Christopher Walken in general. He's also a fine dancer too and a very affective storyteller. And the Man will be in pretty much anything as long as he can have a good time doing it.

In his fifty years in the business he's brought to each project, no matter how questionable (i.e. The Country Bears) the same dead-pan surreal earnestness, the same hysteria-inducing vocal delivery and the same scene-stealing MENACE that is by turns hilarious, spine-tingling and thought-provoking. But mostly just hilarious. In some ways, the man is a latter-day Dadaist, unconcerned so much with content as long as the form is f-ing AMAZING.

A deep appreciation for Walken might seem IRONIC except for the fact that he doesn't represent some outmoded, laughably anachronistic time and place or ethos; NO, in fact, the Weirdness of Walken is timeless and as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.

This passion for Walken films was most keen in college when I was living in run-down houses and needed few excuses to have beer-fueled movie marathons in the evenings.

Now, I'm trying to piece together what a definitive Christopher Walken Film Festival might be (and what kind of food and booze would be most appropriate to accompany these screenings), knowing however that there are some gems in his ouevre I have yet to see, so perhaps my patient readers can fill me on my lapses.

However, at the risk of offending certain sensibilities, I offer for your edification a highly subjective Top Ten Christopher Walken Film List. I'm going to go from Necessary to Indispensable. And without further delay, Here are my tentative

Top Ten Christopher Walken Films

10. Nick Of Time. A pretty good action thriller shot in real time with Johnny Depp and crazy villainous Walken talking about love and mutilation. "I loved this man. I LOVED HIM but I had to rip his @#$@#$#@$ off. . ."

9. The Prophecy. A really bad date movie, I discovered. But awesome just because Walken plays a fallen angel. I think this is the one where he consigns an enemy to a "dirt nap" but my memory is foggy. Spawned a couple heinous sequels about various tiresome wars in heaven.

8. The Rundown. A surprisingly hilarious and smart action movie where Walken plays crazed villain to The Rock and Rosario Dawson. Includes the amazingly out-of-left-field Walken tooth fairy speech as well as The Rock being funny and killing everyone at the same time.

7. The Addiction. Low on my list only because Walken isn't in it much, BUT this is perhaps the best Abel Ferrera movie ever and a GREAT movie in general. A vampire satire on higher education, Walken is a Nietzsche quoting vampire and Lily Taylor is astonishing as a PhD student who gets THE ADDICTION! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Especially for all you grad school types. . .

6. The Deer Hunter. This is an exhausting, needlessly long Vietnam melodrama that features a very young DeNiro and and an extremely young and dashing Walken as a soldier who's gone meshuggah and becomes addicted to Russian Roulette. Not really funny. Like, at all. But perhaps the most highly-praised Walken performance ever, aside from his brief appearances in a couple Woody Allen films. He's convincing here as a suicidal maniac who's lost his mind to the war. Imagine that...

5. McBain. Walken plays the avenging Lietenant McBain in this cheesy, nearly unwatchable mercenary-assembles-desperado-army-goes-to-Columbia-combats-El Presidente B-movie piece of genius. The fact remains that if you need someone to assemble a crew of avenging mercenaries it probably has to be Walken. Worth watching in tandem with another movie I will soon describe...

4. King Of New York. Another Ferrara film, and although not a good film like The Addiction, it is worth watching Walken play the "good criminal" or the "sympathetic mobster" against the tedious, annoying do-gooder David Caruso (something about him: you just want him to fail, he's so smug and wooden.) Plus, Walken plays the head of a largely African American gang, including the wonderful Laurence Fishburne and their banter is priceless. It's a watchable ethics/crime drama with a ridiculous premise but damn if Walken doesn't steal almost every scene! Especially when he's inquiring about his planned "hospital for the needy"....


3. The Dead Zone. Walken in a Cronenberg movie! There needs to be more of those! Basically, this is just essential viewing. And the spawn for the classic SNL "Trivial Psychic" bit...

2. The Dogs Of War. This man was born for this. "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war..." One thing we've learned from cinema is that the only soldier of fortune, or avenging mercenary, or lunatic desperado with his own secret agenda you want to hire to foment chaos in your corrupt country is a man who's first initial is C and who's last is W. This movie is like a much better McBain and worth watching in tandem with it. Also essential if you want to see Walken pretending to be a zoologist before he takes over a country by brute, irrational force. Watch while drinking whiskey...and be INSPIRED!

1. Communion. Oh man. Words fail me here. I mean, you really HAVE TO WATCH THIS to understand its sheer naked phantasmagoric brilliance. Some scenes, to this day, I'll never forget. Aliens. Walken. Abduction. Complications ensue you say? Really? It's hard to reason with aliens even if you're Walken? Interesting. . .And what is this weird extended museum sequence I seem to recall? And what is this thing coming out of the spaceship wall?! OH MY GOD! ESSENTIAL VIEWING. Requires a sober audience...

And now, you, my patient Readers. . . Any suggestions. Or ideas for other Film/Food Festivals.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A poet, a tower, and cold comfort.

My boundless naivete notwithstanding, I hope living in a stone tower on some savage coastline is in my not too distant future. Considering the imperiled state of the future as is, I can't think of a better, more beautiful place to fortify myself and my projects and, if I'm lucky to have them, my loved ones.

Maybe even some stone-masonry training in the meantime. Yeah, I know, I know. Writers can't use their hands. Writers are incorrigible drunks and dilettantes. I've heard the epithets, the accusations, the assumptions. Carry on, stone-throwers. We are a civilization of the book, for better or worse or ambiguous.

In my defense, I've pulled ropes on boats, and run rickshaws, and hauled boxes in a warehouse, and was a mean center back in my fleeting basketball days even though I couldn't make a free throw. I can even assemble Ikea furniture in no time now. I might have been good at tennis had I stuck with it and not discovered poetry and Twin Peaks.

But I think of another writer who excelled with stone and who's words and deeds are brutal comforts in these dark times: Robinson Jeffers who lived in the above house, Tor House and Hawk Tower, in Carmel, California. He built them himself, wrote poetry in the afternoons, lived with his wife Una there. (Sounds like a hell of a woman: "Una was a woman who "would roar like a lion" while taking her cold bath each morning. . .") Jeffers, the epic poet, proto-environmentalist and self-avowed Inhumanist was a renegade who's cynicism is far more like the Greek's original conception than our own self-involved ironic hyper-sarcasm.

And who among us can persuasively argue against the Cynical lifestyle of
self-sufficiency (autarkeia), austerity (askēsis) and shamelessness (anaideia)?????

I forget about Jeffers until I'm reminded of him again, which usually happens when I'm mentally and economically overwhelmed, disgusted by urban life or feeling viscerally the darkening that seems to be settling on everyone's hearts and minds.

Particularly this other famous Jeffers poem makes me feel "good," if by good I mean a combination of vindication, surrender, melancholy and fatalistic euphoria:

Be Angry At The Sun

Robinson Jeffers

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept,
Like the historical republics, corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.

You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante's feet, but even farther from his dirty
Political hatreds.

Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
Yours is not theirs.

I think this is gonna require a part-two in a second.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Briefly, Dhalgren And American Catastrophe

Samuel Delany's Dhalgren--which I talked briefly about in the previous entry--is about an American catastrophe and its social aftermath. It reminded me a lot of what happened in New Orleans. At one point I wanted to write about that, even though my efforts towards understanding could have been better enlisted through giving money, re-building, charity, etc.
But isn't that the rub with art? You could be doing something more helpful.

Someone wrote about it before me anyway, a very brief blurb: Dhalgren In New Orleans.

I'm always wondering about the cross-overs between literature and politics, art and social justice. It is a difficult interrogation.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Space And Place Part 2: In "BIG" Novels.

Here I want to talk about great big novels that have become working models for what I'm trying to write. Trying to write is the key phrase.

I want to mention four of the longer works I read in the last three or four years: Shantaram, Dhalgren, Little, Big, and The Royal Family, novels that respectively evoke the underworld and slums of India, a dystopic Midwestern-Berserk America, a supernatural New England and a gritty, crime-ridden San Francisco.

Three of them are by American authors and are deliberately, vividly, and strangely about America, or what remains of that myth in our collective imagination. Shantaram is by an Australian and is about India but is really a universal tale of personal redemption, at least by my standards.

(Katy said I'm a graphomaniac, which might explain the long-winded flavor of these blog rants.
It might also explain my love for big novels.)

Big novels are like big cities and many of the big novels I've read in the last couple years, or at least the ones that have influenced me the most are books where imagined spaces become major characters in themselves.

These four books are perfect examples of this kind of textual world-making:

In Dhalgren, the city-scape that you'll never forget is Bellona, a perpetually fogged-over, rubble-strewn, bombed-out, shape-shifting city where some unnamed calamity has occurred and people live there like squatters and criminals.

In Little, Big, the eccentric, Edwardian estate of Edgewood, with all its complicated facades, evocative gardens, unquantifiable square feet and demonic edges, is the chimerical gateway to the Fairy World, or so it would seem.

Shantaram, India is made into the most fascinating, terrifying and seductive character ever. A quick read too, its that gripping.

The Royal Family
is a sex-and-drug noir set in San Francisco's Tenderloin with some asides in the most disturbing Las Vegas circus you can possibly imagine.
ALL of these fictional environments are tantalizingly real, even if they are all also extremely strange.

I read these four in the last few years, living in San Francisco and Oakland, right when I felt like I figured out what I really wanted to write about and had developed stronger editorial discipline as well as a sense of bravery in exploring things that were dark and difficult. Not that knowing makes you any more productive. (Not that heartbreak makes you any wiser the next time either.) Much of my desktop, both hard-wood and computer, is littered with unfinished projects.

I am somewhat certain that I'm on the right creative track. I feel at least perpetually inspired. And much of this is due to the influence of these four novels, three of which: Delany's Dhalgren, Crowley's Little, Big and Vollmann's The Royal Family I would love to write some critical study about. Besides the fact that two of them detail with some pretty unsavory aspects of urban life, they all read like equally enchanting experiments in a kind of American magical realism. Although fantasy, sci-fi, pulp, erotica, journalism, cut-up, adventure, fairy-tale, magic, and picaresque all play a part too.

These books all gave me the same sensations: the feeling of walking around inside a book physically, of basking in the mystique of a book's geography, spying the scenery, feeling the uncertainty induced by dark alleyways and parking lots, acting like a voyeur on a street full of dilapidated tenements where desperate people engage in desperate, unusual and monomaniacal acts. Reading can be as fun as voyeurism, eavesdropping or espionage. And the Big Novel is, in some ways, the ultimate act of writerly exhibitionism, so there you go, it invites you right in.
I savor the long-term sense of immersion that the Big Novel causes. Yes, it's escapism. Yes, it's an abdication of life. But so are most things in life that gives us pleasure. Recently, I experienced this absorption in Bolano's nearly thousand-page 2666. That particular immersion took me to some very dark places--but places I needed to understand. A few years back, I experienced a sort of immersion, but more like a distraction--and for the life of me, I can barely remember the book except for a few cartoonish sex scenes and countless scientific words I didn't know---in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. The best character in that book is a Russian guy but I forget his name. Maybe, after I take some more physics, rocket science and history refresher classes, I'll give the book another read and feel more rewarded.

One of the hardest obstacles facing me now, as I write fiction, is the ability to fashion fully-fleshed environments or vivid fields of action in my narrative. To create a space the reader can step into and believe in. THAT I can believe in. For me, settings become major movers and shakers, antagonists and catalysts. Mood is key. In my slowly-congealing collection of short stories, some of which are loosely interconnected via recurring characters and places, I rotate between various locales, mostly in California so far, and many involving certain buildings and institutions that are critical to character interaction and conflict. For example, in one tale that is set in a reimagined Santa Cruz meets Venice Beach, a place I call Naagula, the narrator, a junior monk lives at a monastic abbey that is separated in space by a dark, treacherous Chasm from an all female science and technology school. Antics ensue. Well kind of.

Often my fictional locales are more or less real places, like Oakland or San Francisco, Buenos Aires or Rome, small town Colorado or some steamy metropolis on the East Coast. Other times I blatantly re-imagine a place that already exists but completely shake it up like a kaleidoscope so many of its integral details are warped or modified or made impossible and weird. I used to love Legos and Sim City and Legend Of Zelda so no wonder this comes, if not naturally to me, then at least habitually....