23 May 2018

My Life with Philip Roth

My introduction to the incomparable world of Philip Roth came as a primal nineteen year old at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2002. A junior, I along with the entire region had endured a month-long siege due to the Beltway Sniper. To boot, we were hearing loud whispers out of Washington that Bush wanted to invade Iraq. Times were tense. I refer to this period as primal for a few reasons. The first in reference to my incipience in life, at the cusp of infinite learning and knowledge. The second being that I matched a long unkempt hairstyle with a permanent bowler hat, an explicit homage to my favourite director and my favourite film at the time A Clockwork Orange, and to cap it off, I did not own any clothes that fit me. 

My roommate and childhood friend Scott burst home one day in an electrified state, "Have you read Portnoy's Complaint?" Scott had signed up for a Jewish Literature course which I inexplicably hadn't known existed. With excited haste, I heard such phrases as "fucking awesome" and "by Philip Roth" that, as an English major taking almost exclusively literature courses, and, as a Jew who beyond foolishly had convinced myself that I knew all the great Jewish writers, I began to feel a great resentment and embarrassment over such a blatant blind spot.

Killington, 2003
My literary oversight was rectified later that week, or more accurately, within the next 48 hours, because I was reading it at every free moment I had, at work, at school, walking to class, in class. People often talk about the thunderbolt they feel when first listening to The Beatles, or first reading The Great Gatsby or Slaughterhouse-Five, which I have all experienced, but reading Roth for the first time was different. It superseded thunderbolts, it was a full body paroxysm. I simply could not believe my eyes the words I was reading on the page. The transfixation began from the opening sentence, "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." The outrageous frankness and hilarious vulgarity with which Roth explores Jewish and Jewish-American identity and giddy subversion of parental and cultural influence while unbridled sexuality oozes from every pore befuddled me. How can genius this monumental truly exist?

With life's progression came my gradual embracement of the master's oeuvre. At first I gravitated towards his shorter novels and novellas, telling myself that Roth packed a more powerful punch in concentrated doses. The Breast, The Dying Animal, and The Ghost Writer, were an intense glimpse into the life of a renowned and virile public intellectual. But the deeper truth is that his longer novels are such monumentally challenging and intellectually ambitious works that I didn't have the reserve of mental fortitude to tackle them head on. Only in recent years—with a certain world weariness and wisdom that I suspect only age can provide—have I unearthed the treasures of magnum opuses such as Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. 

What Philip Roth unleashed upon the world with shocking efficacy and humour is through passionate intellectualization of perversion between consenting adults, he showed us that it can be a glorious part of the human experience. My literary friends came up with a nickname for him: The Beast. His writing is that uncompromisingly urgent. For Roth, sexuality is not just a part of our lives, it is fundamental, both a generator and extension of our joys, fears, anxieties, and triumphs.

Years ago, a close friend unironically remarked, "You're like a walking Philip Roth novel." I took it as a great compliment even though I'm fairly certain Ilya didn't necessarily mean it as one. In a 1974 essay for the New York Review of Books, Roth wrote, "Going wild in public is the last thing a Jew is expected to do." Even today, after all these years, Philip Roth still striking me like a thunderbolt: I only now finally understand all my mother's admonishments.

14 May 2018

Death of Stalin

Years after the Good Doctor of Gonzo Journalism Hunter S. Thompson famously covered George McGovern's doomed 1972 Presidential campaign, Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern's campaign manager quipped that Thompson's exhaustive book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, was the "least factual, most accurate account" of the election.
Armando Iannucci's Death Of Stalin is a devastating satire replete with the Good Doctor's defiant spirit. When reality is too brutal to grasp head on, we turn to comedy to tell the story with veracity. The film's banishment in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, attests to both Iannuci's success and to the film's unmistakable quality. Russians aren't known for their lack of sense of humour, unless it's about themselves. Despite Stalin's unprecedented death tally, the Russian authorities still consider him above outright reproach and certainly far above ridicule.

Luckily for us, Armando Iannucci has no such qualms. Iannucci masterfully pits Stalin's inner circle as a claque of incompetent vultures angling to inherit Stalin's infinite power. Imagine a Marx Brothers comedy set in Stalinist Russia, complete with an outrageous running gag involving firing squads.

Deputy Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is Stalin's favourite to succeed him, although no one knows why considering he can't avoid mentioning former party members Stalin has long since executed ("How am I supposed to remember who's alive and who's dead?"). Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is full of uproariously vulgar war stories that keep the Boss jolly, but when a joke about farmers meets with a lukewarm reception, his wife admonishes him, "No more farmer jokes!" Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov's (Michael Palin) devotion to Stalin is unyielding, and only increases after Stalin sends his wife to the gulag. But the most vicious satire is reserved for none other than NKVD Head Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who undoubtedly distinguishes himself as one of the most repulsive psychopaths in history, and has an ignominious end to match.

The incendiary script burns so hot half the jokes fly by at sputnik speed, but its farcical mania captures the incomprehensible absurdity of the depths of Stalinism and its pernicious effect on the psychology of an entire country and its long suffering people. Condemned men and women shouting "Long Live Stalin!" just as they get a bullet in the skull. It would be a lot funnier if it weren't grounded in truth.

31 March 2018

Top 10 British Gangster Movies

From the cockney accents to the sleazily inventive insults, and of course using  cunt to describe just about everyone and every thing, British Gangster Movies stand in a class all of their own. As a passionate devotee I've put together my Top 10 plus a few bonus ones. To be considered for the list, a movie's plot had to deal with the British underworld and fulfill one of the following two requirements: it must have been at least a partly British production or be directed by a British director.  Let me know what you think.

10. Performance (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg), 1970
An experimental and provocative film that really is more nonsensical than it would like to admit, this psychedelic foray is notable for starring Mick Jagger at his self-indulgent, libertine best. The Memo From Turner sequence is a memorable example of an early music video.

9. London Boulevard (William Monahan), 2010
Colin Farrell can play the hell out of a gangster role, so it's not surprising that films he's starred in appear twice on this list. With a rock soundtrack full of urgency and surprisingly edgy, by the end you'll find yourself more invested in the story than you probably ought to be. Credit that to great direction by American William Monahan.

8. Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn), 2004
Daniel Craig's audition tape for Casino Royale. The movie that put him on the proverbial map and launched a renewed James Bond franchise. Dark supporting roles from Michael Gambon and Jamie Foreman (son of real-life London gangster, Freddie Foreman) give this movie a harshness that is crucial to a great British gangster flick.

7. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie), 1998 
This uproariously funny late '90s flick is probably the British gangster movie with the most mainstream success and exposure, particularly in the US. Clever wordplay, cheeky cinematography, and, again, a soundtrack grounded in heavy classic/punk rock, make this undoubtedly the most accessible of all the British gangster movies. 

6. Gangster No. 1 (Paul McGuigan), 2000
Although I have it at six, this could easily be number one for a very simple reason. This features by far the most psychotic and outrageously dark anti-hero, played throughout the decades by Paul Bettany and the legendary Malcolm McDowell. Director Paul McGuigan took the gangster ethos to the extreme and the result is a British gangster movie purist's nightmarish dream. This should probably be ranked higher.

5. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), 2008
Full of twists and turns and the kind of macabre laughs that McDonagh has become known for, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason play two hitmen who flee to the quaint Belgian town after a bungled job. Ralph Fiennes as their unhinged boss is pure cinema magic.

4. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg), 2007
EP slips in on this list as a case can be made that this is more a Russian gangster movie, but it takes place exclusively in London, which by default makes it part of the London/British underworld. It's a co-British production and if that weren't enough, Director David Cronenberg is Canadian, which is part of the British Commonwealth. Finally, the disturbing nature of the material clearly puts it squarely in the British gangster movie lineage. Viggo Mortensen probably should have won an Oscar for this part.

3. Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie), 1980
Bob Hoskins stars as the head of the London underworld who is about embark on the deal of his life with his American mafia counterparts, when his entire world starts going sideways. Viciousness ensues. Notable for making the IRA and Britain's potential joining of the EEC a major part of the plot. 

2. Get Carter (Mike Hodges), 1971
The Citizen Kane of British Gangster movies. The only reason this isn't number one is because the titleholder is a personal favourite of mine. The best opening credit sequence of any picture on this list. Michael Caine is a force to be reckoned with as Jack Carter, who sniffs out something's awry when his clean-cut brother turns up dead and there's something wrong with his niece. Seedy, sooty, tawdry, you'll need a delousing after. She was only fifteen years old!

1. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer), 2000
Ben Kingsley plays the unhappiest and meanest gangster in the world as he collides with Ray Winstone, a blissfully retired ex-gangster sunbathing his days away in the Spanish desert. The verbal assault Kingsley unleashes has made this movie illegal to show publicly within a mile of schools and hospitals. Ian McShane plays Teddy Fucking Bass, Mr. Black Magic himself. Sexy Beast takes British gangster filmmaking to high art. The perfect British gangster movie. Gentlemen, you're all cunts.

* The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), 1999
Not eligible to be part of this list but notable due to Terence Stamp playing a fish out of water British gangster in '90s LA. Quite funny and touching.

** The Third Man (Carol Reed), 1949
One of the greatest films of all time but technically a film noir, not a gangster movie. Plus, the two main characters are American. Still, a true classic.

***A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick), 1971
The film speaks for itself but isn't really a gangster movie. Alex and his friends aren't gangsters, they're hooligans. It's more a satire.

28 February 2017

When Facts Don't Matter, Make Them Laugh

Debates by their very nature are contentious. Political debates probably more so than most. Just tune in to a UK House of Commons debate sometime. But the current political climate in the US has devolved to a particularly low point. Families gatherings have turned into lugubrious affairs. Facebook purging, defriending those on the opposite side of the political spectrum en masse, has become the new form of sociopolitical snubbery. Our entire culture has veered sharply adversarial.  You're either with us or against us.

Especially frustrating is the apparent inconsequence of facts. It's difficult enough to persuade someone to your point of view, it's practically impossible when you can't even agree on the foundation of the topic. Debating, for instance, which smartphone is superior with someone who repudiates their very existence would be pointless. No line of argument is stirring enough to sway one way or another. So how is it that we find ourselves in this current historical moment, the era of alternative facts. How did opinion become lord over fact? How did facts become so irrelevant?

New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Kolbert recently reviewed a book, The Enigma of Reason, by two cognitive scientists who try to explain the phenomenon.  Human minds, you see, are very tricky things. Once we make a decision, usually formed by an oftentimes erroneous initial impression, we selectively gravitate to those groups whose views align with ours, amplifying the rectitude of those views while increasingly marginalizing opposing ones. It's evolutionarily advantageous. But here lies the danger of silencing opposing views. The more you're exposed to that which only supports your way of seeing things, the more hostile you become to those who don't. You're either with us or against us.

Consider our current President, who like a feudal lord, demands absolute support of his every word, action, impulse. Anything less than fawning approval is perceived as a traitorous attack. Suddenly the debate isn't a debate anymore. It's two sides speaking completely different languages. When adversaries can't even agree on basic facts (ie. whether it's raining or not), there is nothing to debate. All that's left is the hurling insults and epithets.  

Logically speaking, how to combat the repudiation of basic facts? Restating the facts won't work, that has become glaringly obvious. Name-calling won't either. The only viable tool against willful ignorance is laughter. Laughter and empathy. Laughter is the ultimate truth serum. Empathy to understand. Consider the recent Saturday Night Live skit of Melissa McCarthy impersonating White House spokesman Sean Spicer conducting a White House briefing. The genius of it: only slightly exaggerating what a typical session looks like. No restating of facts or figures. No name-calling or accusations of channeling fascist dictators. Just pure laughter. Laughter doesn't lie.

Comedy, satire, mockery. Not in bad taste or demeaning, but shining a bright risible light onto hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and insanity. Laughter is involuntary.  We can't control what we find funny. Some things just make us laugh. And laughter cuts through bullshit like a sword through tallow. 

12 September 2016

Resisting Interpellation

Since Philip Roth's sudden retirement announcement a few years ago, there has been a flurry of activity to film his literary work.  Besides Indignation, the anticipated adaptation of Roth's classic American Pastoral, directed and starring Ewan McGregor, is opening next month. Indignation, like past Roth adaptations, elides over much of the source material avoiding the pratfalls of overcomplexity. An enthralling complexity on the page, but shambolic when crammed into a two hour cinematic window. 

Philosopher Louis Althusser described the method that a society subsumes its subjects into its ideology, or the mainstream, through social interactions, institutions, and traditions, calling it interpellation. It's a language, and set gestures and rituals that signals to individuals that they are all part of the same society, a method of collective conformity. Capturing Roth's distinctive intensity, director James Schamus thoughtfully crafts a study of the consequences of resistance against being interpellated in early '50s America. Shot slowly and methodically, the film peers into the past with a comically grim lens.

Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, an auspiciously gifted high school scholar in postwar Newark, New Jersey. His talents win him a scholarship to a college in rural Ohio, and in a reminder of parlous times, it gets Marcus off the hook of being drafted and sent to Korea. A growing list of war dead in the close-knit Jewish communityincluding Marcus' cousinhas left his parents both unnerved and grateful their boy has seemingly been saved from a similar fate.

In spite of Marcus' prodigious talents and the praise heaped upon him, everyone in Marcus' life pushes him to belong somewhere.  His father and roommates are bewildered that a young Jewish man of such potential and promise balks at joining the campus' sole Jewish fraternity. The self-possessed dean of the college insists Marcus attend weekly chapel service, even in the face of Marcus' citations of Bertrand Russell in his spirited affirmation of atheism. 

The thing is, Marcus doesn't want to join any fraternity and mandatory attendance at a religious service goes against his entire being. In fact, Marcus is not interested in much unrelated to his literary studies and one Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), whose bare ankles and WASPy countenance Marcus first notices at the library. But even the companionship of a confidante is precarious in this world. The relationship is besieged by biting social judgements with lasting consequences.

Indignation shares many of the same themes as the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Both main characters are beset by forces way beyond their control, both insist they've done nothing wrong nor harmed anyone. But where Serious Man's Larry Gopnik is fully interpellated, belonging to the synagogue and respected in the community, Marcus Messner wants nothing to do with any of it. Marcus wants to forge his own ideology, to master his own destiny. Something '50s America was not quite ready to accept.  

18 April 2016

Iggy's Night at the Opera

There are rock 'n roll acts. There are legends. There are rock legends. And then there's Iggy Pop. 

Forget what you may think about aging rockers from the '60s & '70s riding a nostalgia wave to a golden parachute. Iggy self-financed the new album, Post Pop Depression, with Josh Homme. The resulting tour has two legs with thirty nine stops in North America and Europe.  Iggy doesn't half-ass anything, and definitely not something as important and vital as a rock concert. Iggy and his band brought everything they had in Philadelphia April 15, and the crowd, we couldn't get enough.

The Academy of Music is a peculiar choice for an Iggy Pop concert, the first man to conjure up the stage-dive playing a Vienna opera house.  The accommodations were quite luxurious, resulting in a lot of fish-out-of-water visuals as Iggy's longtime punk fans filed in. The show began with five minutes of afrobeat tribal drumming that crescendoed into the ostentatiously adorned velvet curtains opening to four-man band dressed in matching red and black tuxes blasting the unmistakable beat of Lust For Life.

Pushing sixty-nine years old, Iggy came out skipping wildly -- adorned in suit pants and jacket but no shirt -- immediately taking complete control of the crowd.  By the time he hit Sixteen the jacket was off and Iggy was in his classic shirtless form.  At no other musical concert, save for perhaps saxophone virtuoso Sonny Rollins, did I experience an artist have everyone in the crowd hypnotized, fully in awe of his raw power and artistic prowess. 

Iggy was a total maniac. He leapt upon a large man during Some Weird Sin knocking the guy off his feet. Iggy quickly jumped up roaring, "Rock & Roll!" During Nightclubbing, he sauntered over to a stack of speakers, looked them over for a moment, and started in on humping them with sincere seduction. Watching Iggy I sensed a total freedom, a rock 'n roll euphoria that might have originated decades ago, but its power and affectation is timeless and eternal.

Josh Homme, Dean Fertita, Matt Helders, Matt Sweeney, and Troy Van Leeuwen, were tight, raw, and loud.  Watching them have a ball playing behind Iggy made the festivities that much more raucous. They played practically the entire catalogue from Lust For Life and The Idiot, notable exceptions being Dum Dum Boys and Tiny Girls.  Interestingly, Iggy stayed away completely from his Stooges oeuvre, out of respect for the deceased members? Perhaps, but he didn't touch Kill City either, and James Williamson is still alive and well. The playing was fresh and urgent, the volume loud and guitars set on dirty.  Iggy crooned, shrieked, chanted, and cursed.

Iggy unleashed his tornado of sex, rock 'n roll, and the unbridled joy of perfect freedom: he spent entire songs in the crowd, touching people, letting them touch him. He commanded, "Turn that fucking spotlight off of me, turn the fucking house lights on. I wanna see everybody! Because I fucking said so!" He danced, he twirled, he spit, he flung the microphone around, he led everyone in a manic "Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck" chant.

Before closing with a rousing version of Success, Iggy sneered, "It's my fucking night at the opera, baby!"  It certainly was; I'll never look at opera with the same eyes again.

14 February 2016

Being Valentin on Valentine's Day

There is no shortage of strange and hilarious stories revolving around Valentine's Day.  The day of love merits such distinction.  But the Feast of St. Valentine of Rome presents an entirely peculiar set of circumstances for someone named Valentin.  In commemoration of the day, I'd like to share some of my favourite anecdotes I've experienced over the years.

PrefaceI indirectly use VD on a regular basis as a pronunciation reference when introducing myself. "Valentine without the 'e' at the end." During one introduction recently, before I had a chance to utter my usual epigram, someone suggested I use the line. Quickly she inquired, "That never occurred to you?"

Between 2006-2010 I was single and would invariably find myself at Club Charles every Valentine's Day.  It didn't matter who I ended up speaking to, upon introductions there would be a demand to examine my driver's license.  Of all days, nobody believes a random stranger they meet on VD will be named Valentin, it seems too absurd even for coincidence. Without exaggerating, the examination of my license during these episodes is as scrutinous as a TSA agent's. I get requests to see my license on VD to this day

The most common question I get every day of the year, not just VD, is was I born on VD? Nowhere did this most risibly play out than one year on my actual birthday, which is in late March. A good friend, Ben, invited me to Rocket To Venus for a drink to celebrate. Walking up to the entrance, we see two young women whom Ben knows.  Ben introduces me, "This is Valentin. It's his birthday today!" One of the ladies responds with genuine interest, "Oh cool! Were you born on Valentine's Day?"

The peculiarities do not relegate themselves to my bachelorhood.  On the VDs during which I am involved, the waiters and waitresses have always greeted me with a huge smile and wink upon returning my credit card after dinner. As if the very concept of a person named Valentin out with his girlfriend on Valentine's Day was just too dippily perfect not to smile over. That's the best deduction I can conjure.

Without a doubt, the loveliest part of being named Valentin on VD is every year I get a call or text from my Mother expressing her love and affection. I'd get the same from my Grandmother before she lost her wits.  When I was younger they'd even get me gifts. It made me feel undeservedly special, but I welcomed and enjoyed it all the same. Valentine's Day is a day that elicits rueful laughter for some and romantic yearning for others, but any reason for love is the best one.