Thursday, December 24, 2020

HOLIDAY POP

Every now and then I return to my musical pet peeves especially when I am witness to some horrendous episode of the Voice or the Grammys. I am comforted to know that this disdain of contemporary music is balanced with a smug understanding that the beloved golden age of Rock ‘n Roll (somewhere between 1966-76) was utterly amazing. Unfortunately, it’s over. The music is dated, over-played and lauded ad nauseum. The “best of” lists suck! Listening to the end of year countdown of greatest songs ever (on Philly’s WXPN where they are “vinyl at heart”) I am struck by the futility of quantifying two thousand and twenty (2020, get it?) tunes. Philadelphia’s “boomer” station is best described as “wet,” the British term perfect for bespoking a sentimental, unchallenged middlebrow taste. The top song ended up as “Thunder Road.” Fair enough, this is Philly and the Boss reigns.

At the holidays I wonder where the new additions to the holiday canon are, ones that don’t sound like cringe-making show-tunes for instagram and grate. I have attempted to fill the gap with one of my own because I noticed there was no song called “Secret Santa” written in Yuletide’s past. I wrote mine on an Android! Oddly enough the tune has not been claimed yet by any big star or song writing team. Gwen Stefani doesn’t count. She recorded a Secret Santa song recently that included bells and throw away ice cream chords aka 1959. The last big selling popular Christmas hit came out in 1994, Mariah Carey’s, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” John Legend and Kelly Clarkson just can’t reach it. Carey’s song became a staple of the season and still spawns overblown TV Specials. This “middlebrow” taste thing comes up again. The song is sort of mindlessly hummable like all 90’s pop but does it stand up to “Run Rudolph, Run?” or James Brown’s “Christmas in the Ghetto?”  Come to think of it there were loads of great Christmas tunes (whole albums) by the Beach Boys. Good tunes not merely holiday songs.

My definition of a standard is something where we all know the words to the first verse aka “Jingle Bells.” This holds true for normal hits too. I even tried pinpoint where Pop last held sway singularly or had an edge. This created a big ball of wax, no pun. Prince comes to mind. I think of “Raspberry Beret.” His words are witty and there are hooks. White people like it! You may be on to the fact that I’m leaving any mention of Hamilton out of this argument. Well almost. Daveed Digs (half-Jewish) has penned a silly holiday song this year: “Puppy for Hannukah!” You can play it on your phone to your friends!

My parochial view is that the day of Rap (like Rock) itself has faded historically. Don’t be fooled by the meta-narratives. This certainly hasn’t stopped the trope being injected into every type of pop from Country down. Remember the fascinating, hypnotic samples and hilarious rhymes of early Hip-Hop. It was Post Modern, man! This was before it metastasized and was co-opted by sneaker companies, children and activists.

When I worked in retail for a couple years, I learned that each new pop hit had to include an eight bar bridge with a guest singer rapping. The formula was widespread promulgated by committees. Just before Thanksgiving the piped music switched over to Christmas and we were transported back to when holiday music evoked a sentiment long gone. The small town Christmas myth of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the box store, the forms were jazz, pop and rock and they sat beside each other well. Elvis next to Bing Crosby next to Springsteen. I guess you could stick Run DMC (Christmas in Hollis) in there. But no Snoop Dogg. He is too obscene for kids and geriatrics like me! Come on Snoop, clean it up!

Ever since Simon Callow showed up with American Idol there is less distinction between TV personality-type singing and substance. I blame Reality TV, period. Winners and losers go on to share their over-dressed banal taste and vocal chords with the world. The Voice and America’s Got Talent continues this rein of mediocrity and melisma. Thank you, Whitney Houston! How easily we’ve adopted this booming as quality singing. I think of it as tune murdering. It’s as if everyone is soloing! Listen to anything sung by Gladys Knight for real singing. I was busy researching the holiday when a Carpenter’s Christmas song played on the car radio. I was caught off guard and there was snow on the ground! Never has so much sentiment and emotion been evoked by so few notes!


Monday, August 17, 2020

LEAVING THE BUBBLE

 

 "BYE DON" YARD SIGN, 2020

It was quite a shock leaving the Covid bubble recently to purchase a table from Craigslist NJ. This took us out across the Walt Whitman Bridge from Northeast Philly into the depths of South Jersey where it was even more humid. This was not the only difference. Gone were the prudent and intense mask wearers, Rainbow flags and BLM signs. Gone were the wilting “Bernie” signs and scorched “Hillary” bumper stickers.  Who were all those folks who ran for president recently?

We turned into a Blue Collar cul-de-sac to find every house festooned with Americans flags of all configurations, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN lawn signs and big posters with scary photos of the current Commander in Chief. Were we in the mid-West? The bullet-headed owner was sweating buckets and greeted us without much fanfare. Did we stand out as elite college-educated Liberals? Damn straight. Was my daughter in need of a safe-space? Yes, indeed.  All this made me feel particularly inadequate on the Middle Class Manly-Meter.

As we paid and said thanks, I looked down and noticed a small figurine in the garden. It was one of those “black” lantern-carrying characters. No irony here! Political correctness does not get a mention. I looked around for a Confederate flag or an imposing statue of Jefferson Davis.  The recent “Statue” controversy had prompted me to re-vamp my “Doc Holliday” southern accent. I have Val Kilmer of Tombstone to thank for that. My drawl is pretty good if not always appropriate for parties in Mt. Airy.

We loaded the table and backed out through the vintage F150’s and above ground pools. One house was intriguing. A ghostly bungalow, overgrown and uninhabited except for maybe a few dead bodies in the basement. I quipped, “There’s a cheap one for sale.” This idea was quickly shot down by my daughter and navigator. “Not funny. Turn left.” We then drove half-way across the State to find the nearest up-market coffee place. It was worth it for a refreshing Frappucino! We found a great one in the fancy suburbs and they sold records. My kinda place. Sitting outside we had a wonderful moment of connection that is rare these days. The seven months of 2020 came into view and gained some perspective. Schadenfreude with caffeine. My kid wryly refers to our present dilemma as the “End of Times.” If she can handle it then so can I! Back over the Ben Franklin Bridge, we breathed a sigh of relief. Hint: Never should you tackle both bridges in a single afternoon.

After this ordeal, I needed a lager and an early evening Corona-stroll. I have been pinching books from the little home libraries in our neighborhood, wooden boxes on poles.  It is interesting to note what people read then discard. Literacy meets affluence. I prefer History to the latest craze in how-to books on being a better Caucasian. On a nearby street of cozy historic houses I paused to read a new lawn sign with a short pun. It said simply, “BYE DON.” It took me a second to catch the drift. “Oh yeah, a new way to spell Biden! I was so taken with it I bumped into the new BMW out front.

Friday, January 31, 2020

GILBERT'S HIGH FLYING LITERARY CAREER


Gilbert was staring at his new MacIntosh drinking an espresso. He had just finished a query letter to publishers describing his barely finished book, Death of an American Tourist. It was a comedy and had taken six years to write. A local editor had given him some free tips and he was ready to embark on the sad and lonely trip to public discovery. Sally Morton seemed to like his novel but was not so keen on Gilbert. He was grateful for the assistance but wondered why a renowned editor would be working with him at “Retail Barn” in Norristown, PA. Together they folded towels and dealt with unruly customers. Slowly, after several months she began telling him her story and giving him some encouragement. They were both English Majors after all.
Sally used to work in publishing in New York. She did well but relocated to Philadelphia after a messy divorce. Lots of “Barn” workers turn up that way. Together, they spoke about their dreams and near misses and had to endure the store’s ghastly muzak, Top 40 for teenage girls. The worst was the British band, Coldplay. So sickly, saccharine and devoid of hooks. Gilbert asked Sally if she minded hearing the song “Yellow” six times a day? Luckily, she preferred Tom Petty. Gilbert agreed, “He’d hate working here.”
Death of an American Tourist had gone through several stages. Some early portions still had telltale earmarks of the Reed College graduate. Twelve years working in advertising had not watered down the over zealous forms that reminded the reader of Beat Poets. When his career imploded he decided to tell the story. He was certain he had the skills but was unprepared for the curious arena that was authorship. It had taken two years simply studying other writers and researching material ­– mostly about one-off novelists – and writers with similar bones to pick and stories to tell.
Gilbert could never work out how notority was achieved. “How did Joan Didion waltz into a high profile career after college?” Gilbert did not travel in those circles. He had no circles. “It really is about who you know,” he figured. Same for Sylvia Plath. infamous poet. She went to Amherst to soak up Emily Dickenson, right? Then to NYC to work as an editor. Then a breakdown. Then she writes book, The Bell Jar (OK novel) about her experience. There was great acclaim before putting her head in an oven. Or was that afterwards? Of course, she married Ted Hughes, Great British Poet and lousy husband. There’s another one-off, the critically acclaimed, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Again, suicide follows. Leads to even more acclaim. Gilbert wanted to avoid the early death part but considered a fake one. “How would I pull that off?” he wondered. Let’s not mention J. D. Salinger. After a while, Gilbert’s prose hit pay dirt. Characters said things without permission. Plots developed without painful re-working. He was happy knowing that he may have captured the feel of his book in the letter with a few spirited catch phrases. He went as far as to envision glowing reviews: “Gifted writer re-defines the Great American Novel.” Was he afraid of being considered overly arch? Using too many adjectives?
Gilbert had also taken a class, How to Publish Your Novel, which went well. The teacher, Nancy Sprout had a successful memoir about her battle with cocaine addiction. She liked his work particularly, although the competition was stiff. Several women were struggling with sensitive stories where the heroines went through stages of failure and renewal. Their earnestness made Gilbert uncomfortable. He imagined these Eat, Pray, Conjugate memoirs were destined to have highly embossed covers and sell like gangbusters. It was a tough row to hoe. Staying up to date without falling into the trendy arena of books with clever, over-wordy sub-titles about the decline of the Middle Class or the imploding Middle East was not easy. Were those books written by publicists?
Eventually, Gilbert dropped the envelope in the big blue box at the end of his street. It was addressed to the agent of a young humorist who wrote pieces for the New Yorker. He said a small prayer and continued on to the local coffee emporium next to the Lesbian Bookstore. Their rainbow flag was limp and fading in the sun. In the Bean Salon, he ordered a regular Decaff in a big ceramic cup and sat down in the shade with a new notebook. Was there another writer he could emulate? He made a few notes on recent books he’d read then noticed the time. As the sun ebbed, Gilbert gunned his ancient Subaru off to the Malls just shy of the Suburbs and just shy of being late for the night shift. He swiped his identity card awkwardly and dashed to the employee changing room where he donned his brightly colored “Retail Barn” shirt ignoring the smell of feet. Or was in Doritos? Back in Textiles, he waved to Sally and threw himself into the towels.
Summer shoppers were the worst. Tanned, bullet-headed husbands in baggy cargo shorts walked the aisles, oblivious. Two-year-olds in carts gazed wide-eyed at small screens. Tattooed wives insisted on opening every towel to feel the moderately soft fabric. Sally had had a long day, “Would you mind re-folding that please, Ma’am?” The husky Amazon ignored the request, threw the towel back on the heap and aimed her face at Sally, “I believe that’s your job, honey.” Gilbert stepped into the breach and began sorting according to size and design. As the housewives retreated back to New Jersey, Sally glared. “Tramps! I don’t know how you put up with it, Gilbert.” He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, “It’s a Zen thing Sally. And you know we both have bigger fish to fry.” She brightened behind her tears and gave Gilbert a sweet smile. The high-five was a little tired.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Literary Agents as Critics?


As I sat listening to the eight panelists read the ever-important “first page” from would-be novels, I was hoping the next anonymous pick would be mine. What would the reaction be in the room full of fledgling writers? Would they get the sarcastic tone of the book, the sly references to Nabokov and Chandler? Would they get the level of spoof in the mock-detective story about a striving Philadelphia artist? I’ve read it aloud many times to small rooms of people and there was always a response, sometimes even laughter. The words had weight and were about something other than just the story at hand.
This was the “Talent Show” part of the Philadelphia Writer’s Workshop and the panel was made up of New York literary agents who would supposedly give practical advice. The rest of the day, aspiring writers gave manic pitches to them and received specific tips about publishing in return. As the contest began, I realized this was not Americon Idol but the Gong Show. If four hands were raised, the reading would halt. Several pages passed muster barely. Some received a little praise. They then dissed an awful “Romance” for being clichĂ©. Fair enough. By this time I’d stopped taking notes. Next, I recognized the beginning of Work Shy. Not a bad first line I thought: “Edgar Bloom was a buddy from art school who had recently died of an overdose.” I was ecstatic. This was my lucky day! I would receive encouragement and a small pat on the back. They would want to find out about the misadventure, “art school,” or the silly Rocky Statue in front of the Art Museum. 

This went south as the publishing professional flubbed a word or two and continued the rendition in what sounded like profound disinterest. The prose sank into a flat monotone and an agent’s hand went up, signifying dislike. More hands followed and the entire panel scowled and the reading (such as it was) ended. This was fascinating, I thought, but not disastrous. Surely, they would have some interesting criticisms, something I’d overlooked worth the cost of admission. The first inquisitor mentioned the fact that my first page consisted of one paragraph! What? Others concurred. Horror! It became apparent that they also disliked my updated Philip Marlow and his world-weary delivery. One agent put it down to a misguided “style” and mentioned James Joyce. Was I was being dissed because the prose was dense or I knew James Joyce? For those of you who’ve seen my Facebook page or this blog, Pocket Intellectual, Joyce is the jokey avatar. This photograph of me as Joyce was (is) going to be on the back flap of the “published” Work Shy. In less than a minute the panel had moved on unable to grasp my middling thriller writer, Douglas Frank and his inability to suffer fools gladly.
How can a writer’s self-promotion hope to break through the mass of clutter with these morons in charge? Sure, I know it all leads to Self-Publishing, even if you are a gifted blower of one’s own trumpet. Oddly enough, my earlier pitch with a local agent went well and I had a nice chat about marketing, websites and domain names. She suggested I write a “proposal” and send it to her. Do I need a proposal for a finished novel? And what is the difference between the query letter (that agents like these won’t read) and the synopsis? The elevator pitch I can do in my sleep! As I rode home on the train, I wondered why these particular folks were gatekeepers, these recently graduated snoots from “woke” colleges. No, there isn’t much comfort in the fact that they would’ve shot down Melville, Chandler or Hammett. Nor would Lee Child escape their simplistic bias. I imagined his character, Jack Reacher (my hero) knocking some heads! It took a few days to shake off the ego bruising and I figured I did learn something. I only wish they’d gotten to the second paragraph where my
protagonist tells his reviewers at the New York Times to “fuck off.” 





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Sunday, November 17, 2019

NASHVILLE CRUSH


When traveling, tourists are compelled to consider buying a souvenir tee shirt from every shop, luncheonette, historic site and rock & roll show. This can get expensive. There were some nice ones to choose in Nashville covered in flags, eagles and guns for the neo-patriotic. There were also many advertising Pulled Pork. I preferred to visit “Boot Barn” for some inexpensive Western Wear that is not available in the North East. I was hoping to be mistaken as an out-of-town musician at the Americana Festival or possibly William Burroughs. I am learning that “Americana” is a much broader category and not to be confused with straight up “Country,” the kind that Garth Brooks parented in stadiums and Taylor Swift personified before her morph to pop. (She still uses that ghastly auto-tune). This music is not to be confused with Classic Country of Hank Williams, George Jones or Patsy Kline that some misguided folks think sounds corny. Both types of Country Music are appreciated in Music City but the new version has always been a bit suspect; more Southern Rock blues-power than mournful “three chords and the truth.”
In Nashville, my crush developed. It could’ve been the free biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Then there’s the huge lunch of shrimp and grits. (I’ve outgrown Waffle House) You make room for that by tramping around all the attractions in Music City. The place buzzes with cranes and new construction. A former industrial wasteland called the “The Gulch” is an ad man’s dream. It is now a destination for Urbane Cowboys (like myself) who brunch. I was reminded of LA where all antiques are repurposed by fancy designers and sold back to us as Heroin Chic. If it is not up-scale food, it’s music. Even emporiums like “Two Old Hippies” have a stage. My Mecca, Third Man Records is just outside the Gulch adjacent to a Mission where real hobos eat lunch and urinate in alleys. In ninety-five degree heat the smell was pervasive and not for the faint of heart. Here, the P. T. Barnum of Low-Fi, former White Stripe, Jack White upholds a high level of street credibility. His store is an intense experience for Vinyl Aficionados. This was my second time and I was again impressed by White’s entrepreneurial skills. The traveling record shop (a big van) was parked outside and the small recording booth was inside. Is this what heaven looks like? I bought a couple of seven-inch singles, a Margo Price tee-shirt and an awesome White Stripes bumper sticker that was illegible! After that we stumbled over to see some live music on the strip but it was a bit early for Honky Tonkin.’ I gave a lonely busker five bucks.
Nashville’s boom is infectious and the history and economics go far deeper than being the home of the Grand Ole Opry. We finally visited the Hatch Show Print factory. They’ve been producing those fabulous posters since the nineteenth century. The Country Music Hall of Fame was the glitziest destination we made. As much Las Vegas as Nashville, it was educational and full of near religious artifacts like Elvis’s limo, Waylon Jennings guitar and Gram Parsons Marijuana-leaf “Nudie” suit. The history of the “Armadillo” in Austin, Texas was interesting. I call it the “crossover,” when hippies and truck drivers agreed on music and partying if not haircuts. Cannabis brought everyone together, lapels grew and Country got loud..
Even on a Wednesday, the Broadway strip is full of cover bands playing varieties of Country old and new. Everyone dressing as a favorite icon provided real diversity. The four floors of Acme Feed & Seed was a blast, full of Beer, Bluegrass, grits and retro-Country. We ended up on the roof watching the skyline. I felt right at home even though my cowboy hats were in Philly. Upon reluctant return to Philly I was committed to watching Ken Burn’s Country Music documentary from start to finish, all 12 hours. I was hoping it would fill in some gaps. It did. The solid thread ran through it linking the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers and Bill Monroe to modern antecedents. Up my street was the look at Chet Atkins and the development of the “Nashville Sound.” I own a few of those “Countrypolitain” records and play them at parties. They sold well but the production did not work for Willie Nelson’s personality or Waylon Jennings’ outlaw sound. More about the “Armadillo” period. Burns had no difficulty dealing with the past via old photos – I’d never seen so many of Hank Williams – but the present day throws him. The music industry is no longer quaint and caters to “big hit” algorithms rather than the developing of alternative musicians. Many veteran stars looked a bit rough on camera after surviving the Eighties hair days and Nineties chin tucks. Check out the recent CMA! Dolly to Riba. Burns tiptoed around race issues like the guide at the Civil War Plantation we visited. Are Rap and Country diametrically opposed? Not according to the 2019 summer hit, Old Town Road or the Gangstagrass theme to TV’s Justified. Not “Country” enough? Good Ole Boys listen to both while driving F150’s to Nascar. 

After digesting Ken Burns, I discovered the glamorous soap version of “Nashville” from ABC, perfect binge material for post-vacation blues. Six seasons! Amid the drama are real clubs and weekly guest cameos, the ever present and icky Brad Paisley. Reality TV kills music. Vince Gill showed up too. He was one of Burn’s spokesmen in the documentary and looks a little like an accountant now. The music penned by industry stalwarts ain’t half bad and is available on disc and can be seen live! I am intrigued how quickly the characters write heartfelt songs on old Gibson guitars and deliver them immediately the same evening at the Bluebird CafĂ© without rehearsing. It is now on my list of places to visit. In the meantime, I’ll be researching Nashville on HULU. There’s only sixty episodes of left! 











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Monday, August 19, 2019

ONE SMALL WALKBACK FOR MANKIND


There was a spate of documentaries this summer about the space race and astrology. One was quite alarming. Apparently, our sun is going to get larger and hotter and expand to envelope and destroy Mercury and Venus. The Earth will then be the closest to our star and possibly too hot for habitation. This got me worried. Although it’s going to happen in 5 billion years, I am concerned about my legacy and all the art-work that will be burned up and forgotten. Luckily many things are stored on the Cloud and can be stationed on a base on Titan, a moon of Saturn. Apparently we have pictures from there taken by a satellite of ours (Huygen’s Probe) that landed in 2005! I had been totally ignorant of that fact. Neither did I realize that the Mayans were the only ancient culture to accurately measure the calendar year. Wow. I have been aware through art history that there was use of pyramidal structures across cultures early on, all trying to connect to the heavens. Some practiced blood sacrifice. So what are we aiming for now?
The documentaries about Apollo Eleven got very long winded but I enjoyed the refresher course. I was thirteen when my parents woke me up to watch the grainy and garbled event in real time that summer of 1969. I remember Nixon saying hello with his gravelly voice. “I’m glad you men didn’t die on prime time.” It was cheerful news compared to the war, riots and assassinations. Fifty-year celebrations of Moon Walks or Woodstock bring up all kinds of new issues within our present day political forum. Most of them are exaggerated by media, smart phones and bogus-influencers and their naff pop psychology. I was mildly shocked at the Social Justice view of the moon landing in the three-night PBS film, Chasing The Moon. Has virtue signaling found its way into everything? Civil Rights Leader, Ralph Abernathy wanted to know how much could be spent on poverty instead. Can you go to the moon and still spend money on poverty? Of course you can. The head of NASA then gave his group tickets to the launch.
The Sixties space race is now depicted as a colonialist competition with the Russians instead of a self-evident search for knowledge. True, there was tit-for-tat ballistics matching the Red’s achievements (they are still the bad guys) but Mankind had fantasized about space travel for thousands of years. Now we have to re-tread history and squeeze minorities into the larger Cold War narrative. The film, Hidden Figures filled in racial gaps and made me cry but it’s far too simplistic and sentimental. To be fair on America, the original Star Trek featured foreigners and people of color (an attempt at inclusion) even if it was based in the future. Do aliens count? Not everyone was a racist in 1960! OK, Werner von Braun helped us out. No back-pedaling here, Hitler’s “Rocket Man” was crucial. This didn’t pass un-noticed; he was spoofed by Tom Lehr and in Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey came out in 1968. Freaks dug it!
The wider sociological comparison interests me. Landing on the Moon cannot be separated from the post-war era and narrative of improvement. The Sixties/Seventies were icing on the cake: The Generation Gap was widening but it paralleled the “Great Society.” The “American Dream” was still filling out, opening up and soon to plateau. See Oil Embargo. The Lunar landing coincided with Woodstock and escalations in Vietnam but consciousness raising still had a long way to go. Eventually, everybody got hip and grew their hair. Even my parents (Silent Majority) sported massive lapels. Ghastly apparel was commonplace.
Without Grand Narratives we spiral into unknown territory and stagger, confused, especially when the achievements are stripped away historically. We hammer away at the picket-fence cohesion. Call it Hamiltonizing. Forget about the progress that was made over this time. We have access to excellent coffee drinks. We are privileged to live in consumer heaven. And think about all the excellent Rock n’ Roll Music, a multi-racial project. Things may not have worked out to everyone’s satisfaction but the opportunity was there in spirit. In my costly research, I listened to Whitey On The Moon by Gil Scott Heron. There was a lot to complain about then. Equality was new for everybody. But now? Systemized victimization is de rigueur and, via Hip-Hop, exaggerated. Tupac and his subculture mean a lot to some people but he was no Gil Scott Heron.
There is a disconnect between the dwindling of Sixties space exploration and the new attempts to set up colonies on the Moon and Mars. They are trendy and Silicon Valley inspired. Everybody is landing on the moon now. Soon there will be Chinese food available and a Curry House. But it’s small potatoes. Compared to the daring feats of the Sixties, our present science fixation is a big yawn. Armstrong landed the Lunar Module with 17 seconds of fuel remaining and a damaged Radio Shack keyboard. It was good he was wearing diapers.
I suggest that America’s progressive movement had reached its end much like the Sixties space program. Why can’t people see this? It is explained in Post-Modern texts. Does no one read? Today we obsess on theories of the “Other” and the “Outsider.” They make you feel righteous. The notion is expanded and compressed it into a fierce imperium, a dictat that my local NPR station eschews. One show explained how the full moon was making my sleep intermittent. I have always suspected that. Don’t get me wrong; “Summer of Space” has been good. The Moon inspired programs interrupted the constant pandering to overbearing Queer Studies. They will not rest until there is a token “Trannie” on Tranquility sporting a rainbow flag and glitter ball.





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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

VELVET BUZZSAW

  My interest in any movie about the Art World is complicated. The first question is “has Velvet Buzzsaw ripped off my unpublished novel, Work Shy where an artist’s reputation is made after an early, suspicious death?” Secondly, does it add to the canon of movies that really describe that alien world like maybe Basquiat or Pollock?” There is already a memoir from Australia with the same title as my book. That shook me up. Luckily, it is the memoir of musician, Dave Raney who’s a legend Down Under. He used to sing with the post-punk band, the Moodists. Oddly enough, I met him once upon a time. Hopefully, his effort will not infringe on my up and coming brand. I was worried about Velvet Buzzsaw since the story tells of an Outsider Artist made famous and “wealthy” after death. My view is that the Art World is dangerous enough without any added drama. “Outsider Art” is now big business and dealers have their own Art Fairs to milk the tortured and deceased artists who were frequently poor and mentally challenged. What a relief to see the film and realize it is a different sort of fish – plotted around the meme of artist as supernatural serial killer ­with a nod to A Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) – so I don’t have to sue the Director, Dan Gilroy. Speaking of Art Fairs, it could be that the release of Velvet Buzzsaw was timed to create extra buzz for the opening of the first Frieze LA this month. Lord knows, there are enough rich celebrities in Hollywood who can afford to be high-level collectors if you can pry them off the red carpet.
There are not a lot of films that deal with the realities of the Art World much less its connection to most artist schlubs and their day jobs.  I had researched this arena for inclusion in my own story starting with way-old films like The Horse’s Mouth (1958) with Alec Guinness as the near crazy English painter, Gully Jimson. Artists are frequently depicted as insane (Van Gogh) or charlatans (Warhol). Add to that the Faustian painting pact with the Devil, Oscar Wilde’s, Dorian Gray. High Art (1998) did a fine job with Ally Sheedy and friends depicting ‘intellectuals’ leading up to the ‘adventurous’ Lesbian love scene. Content like this is now ubiquitous and can be seen as family viewing every night on HBO! The most recent send-up was Art School Confidential (2006) that had a great take on flakey, first year students. It was originally a “cartoon” graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. Of course, Hollywood added steroids and the movie fell short with a superfluous murder plot. It is not a coincidence that John Malevich is in both films playing a similar disenchanted professor/artist. He is the perfect over-the-hill narcissist. ASC also featured the wonderful Steve Buscemi who I mention all the time in my novel because it is the right thing to do.
Art snobbery starts way down the food chain and only grows with the money. I recognize the syndrome from my own time on the margins in NY, London and even Philadelphia. Local curators are referred to as the “Art Mafia” by my fictional and disenfranchised Work Shy characters. Even in Philly art careers are made by the governance of certain players. I won’t say the local art criticism has much to do with the rise and fall of artists but one can see when the flavor of the month is being nurtured in the press around Pew Grant time. The buzz has been severely diminished lately by the disappearance of the old hard-copy weeklies and normally stops at the city limits.
Although VB falls short of any meaningful, in-depth depiction, it is a lot of fun as it falls into a well-worn kill-all-the-snobs horror movie; it could have been titled Das Nicht Schadenfreud! But how little “scare” there was as the Outsider Art comes alive. Normally I would be hiding being the sofa when a scary painting rips VIPS into parts. Could it be that the creation of these movies for the flat and smallish screen limits the scope? I really didn’t feel vindicated when justice was dispensed or I didn’t hate the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal) and curators enough. How can you hate Rene Russo? There was an attempt to get behind the stage like in The Player (1992) but it wasn’t wise enough for that. Even my un-edited manuscript devises to include a cinematic version of itself! Pretty fucking clever. I only hope Malevich or Buscemi will still be available. It is disappointing to think what VB could have achieved. The title’s mash up of Velvet Underground and Buzzcocks strikes me as a wholly contrived bid for punkish street cred very far from today’s slick concern for auction prices. I remember Basquiat (1998) having some real 80’s SOHO feel only a painter/director like Julian Schnabel could deliver. Fact and fiction merge literally with David Bowie’s Warhol. The film I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) was also informative. Not many know the story of Valerie Solanas. The seamy underside still resonates. Warhol and Basquiat had some mysterious connection that finished them off within a year or so of each other. Weird. I am glad that we have another movie about the art world but wish that Velvet Buzzsaw had a few more creepy notes of Polanski or David Lynch. It could have been a cult classic rather than standard Netflix fare.
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