Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Knight Returns

The mid 1980s saw the release of two classic graphic novels: Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  Both works complement each other and cover similar themes of political corruption, mass media culture, and the fascist subtext in superhero comics.  Although Christopher Nolan's film trilogy did not directly adapt the The Dark Knight Returns, Miller's influence reigns over those pictures.

The story follows a world weary Bruce Wayne who chose to stand by as Gotham City descended into a dystopia.  The crime rate skyrocketed.  Batman's one man crusade against criminals appears to have been in vain.  And he's not been seen in ten years. Many believe the Batman's a myth. A terrifying group of criminals known as the mutants are terrorizing the city.  Meanwhile, Batman's longtime nemesis the Joker is about to be released from the sanatorium for good behavior.  Even the Man of Steel appears as an unlikely villain.

In Miller's world, Superman still stands for the same values of truth, justice, and the American way - and that's the problem!  For Superman is the Reagan administration's enforcer of justice and moral values. He's on the side of big business and the military-industrial complex - he went establishment!  When Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement, the government decides to crack down on his one man crusade against the criminal underworld.

Miller's vision remains more relevant than ever.  A recurring theme is the the mind numbing effect of 24 hour news coverage.  The media plays on the people's fears for ratings. Doubts are also raised about Batman's psyche: Does he truly care about the people or does he do it because he enjoys inflicting punishment?  There's an unsettling vibe in the story of living under the incessant dread of catastrophe.  

As far as superhero stories go, you'll find nothing better.  Miller wrote a classic.  The artwork's iconic and groundbreaking.  The Dark Knight Returns has not dated one iota.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar

In Harvey Pekar's final graphic novel, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, he attempted to resolve his conflicting feelings towards the state of Israel.  Raised by Zionists in post-war Cleveland, Pekar grew up with a clear belief in Israel's mission to be a homeland for all Jews. With artist J.T. Waldman, Pekar accomplished two things: 1) an overview of Jewish history 2) chronicled his own evolving views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  While he's proud of the resilience and courage of the Jews to survive and uphold their traditions in the face of incredible adversity through the ages, he no longer considered himself a Zionist.

The turning point for Pekar came the after the Six Day War of 1967. After quickly throwing back a combined attack from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel began to expand it's borders and establish settlements.  Pekar wondered how an oppressed people could be okay with oppressing another group with an equal claim on the land?                                     
Aftermath of the Six Day War

Pekar and Waldman have no answers for these complex questions of history, politics, and religion.  However, both agree there must be some solution out there.  Waldman observed, "It's like everyone's view on the subject is so entrenched that no one bothers talking about it anymore."  True.  Today, consumers want news that conforms to their worldview.  Anything that goes against their view is written off as nonsense.  The wall to wall coverage of the recent troubles in Israel reports the day to day events as if they exist in a vacuum.  Any opinion on these matters requires a strong knowledge of the root causes.

A personal anecdote.  In college, I studied mostly American and European history. As an undergrad, I took a survey course on the Middle East.  Although the professor admitted a bias for the Palestinians, the course was informative and insightful.  A few years later, in grad school, I had a professor who wanted it known to anyone within earshot he gave financial support to the Arabs and on more than one occasion I heard him indulge in ugly rants against Israel ( he was a white male American who taught American labor history) One day he asked me point blank if I supported Palestine.  

To be honest, I never had a strong view on the matter.  The history fascinated me and I'd always sympathized and admired the Jews.  I recalled reading about President Harry Truman's decision in 1948 to support Israel, an act I viewed as an act of political courage. At it's best, isn't America about helping the underdog?  Anyway, the professor looked at me as if I had said something hateful.  After that he ignored me in class. Despite his rudeness, I thanked him on the last day of class and he coldly told me, "Too bad I got stuck with a student like you."  There's nothing like rude awakening on how "entrenched" people, even educated ones, refuse to hear the other side.

I'd highly endorse this book for anyone looking for some historical perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The illustrations are vivid and capture the sweep of history and how it directly compares to the present.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beck At Lifestyles Community Pavillion In Columbus, OH: 6/20/14

On June 20th, 2014 Beck performed before a packed crowd at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion in Columbus.  Beck, who came to prominence with "Loser" in the 1990s, has continually produced albums of high quality and varying styles for the past two decades.  

Sean Lennon's touring band "The Ghost of Saber Tooth Tiger" opened up for Beck.  Songs from his new album have a heavy Beatle influence in the style of "Dear Prudence" and "Cry Baby Cry" from the White Album. During his set,  Lennon spoke of his admiration for Beck and even joined him onstage later in the evening with cowbell in hand.

Around 9, Beck took the stage and opened with a rollicking "Devil's Haircut." Five songs were played from his new album of sonic wonders, Morning Phase.  With over a growing song catalog, he split the difference between the old and new.  Five songs from his breakout LP Odelay brought some serious 90s nostalgia to the proceedings.  Heartfelt acoustic performances of "Lost Cause" and "The Golden Age" from the somber 2002 album Sea Change comprised the middle section of the show.  

About midway through things picked up in a hurry as the opening strums to "Loser" hit the spectators.  For Gen X, the chorus "I'm a loser baby/so why don't you kill me" helped express their pre-millennial malaise.  At one point, Beck tipped his hat to his fans and exclaimed,"I'm canceling tomorrow's show, we're just gonna play here again!"

The groove kept going with "The New Pollution" and a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."  For the encore, he ended with the bluesy "Debra" and the essential "Where It's At." Everyone left with the beats still going in their head and I overheard people saying, "best show ever"; Beck easily won over Columbus.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Critical Perspectives on Movie Geeks United

Movie Geeks United is a podcast featuring in depth movie reviews, interviews with guests from the film industry, and lively discussions about the past, present, and future of film. Recently, Movie Geeks contributor Jamey DuVall and critic Tony Macklin, have recorded a series of conversations entitled "Critical Perspectives." The depth and wit both exude in their talks are like a film school in themselves.

DuVall's easy going style serves as a nice counterpoint to Macklin's acerbic take on contemporary movies. From 1965-1977, Macklin edited the scholarly journal Film Heritage. During those years he conducted several interviews with many important figures from Hollywood history such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, and Howard Hawks. The Film Heritage interviews are available online.  They are well worth your time.

In a recent episode devoted to film comedy Macklin and DuVall covered Chaplin, Apatow, and everyone in between.  DuVall tends to favor only high and low humor, while Macklin prefers comedy with melancholy undertones.  Other shows have covered American movies of the 1970s, the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films, and the evolution of film criticism.  

A generation ago movie critics played a crucial role in fostering a vibrant film culture. Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for his film writing in 1975 and inspired many on his television show Siskel & Ebert.  Pauline Kael's reviews in the New Yorker serve as a sort of history of the era and at their best read like literature. And many other critics wrote with passion and eloquence on the art of film.  Nowadays anyone can be a critic, but often the best voices are muted in the cacophony of noise on the web.  Movie Geeks helps keep the spirit of informed criticism alive.

The "Critical Perspectives" series can be accessed at the Movie Geeks United home page and Mr. Macklin's website.  You should check them out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Concert Review: Jeff Tweedy Performs New Material on Summer Solo Tour

Jeff Tweedy, chief songwriter of Wilco, has embarked on a solo tour this summer in support of his yet to be titled solo album.  Last Wednesday evening he performed at the Brown Theater in Louisville.  The two hour set consisted of all new material with his own touring band (including his son Spenser on drums) for the first part and then an all acoustic collection of mostly Wilco tunes (and other tracks from various side projects).

In an era of fragmentation Tweedy has emerged as a leading voice in American rock music. For the past 20 years, Wilco has garnered a large following by constant touring and an ever evolving sound.  Their music draws upon a multitude of influences ranging from British Invasion, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, The Replacements, and Pavement to mention a few.

Before a nearly packed house, Tweedy opened with a somber collection of songs dwelling on mortality and love.  Performing new material before a live audience always presents a challenge, but a fierce melancholy and passionate delivery carried them along nicely.  His self deprecating humor and banter with the crowd added some levity.  The new songs sounded amazing and carry the promise of a stellar LP. 

The acoustic set opened with "Via Chicago," the central track on Wilco's 1999 venture into pop, Summerteeth.  Then came "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" with the iconic opening lyrics, "i am an american aquarium drinker/i assassin down the avenue" from Wilco's breakthrough 2001 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Included in the set were some deep tracks such as the whimsical "Pecan Pie" from the Golden Smog project and the irreverent "The Ruling Class" Tweedy recorded with Loose Fur. Two songs from the Uncle Tupelo days also appeared: "New Madrid" and "Give Back the Key to My Heart."  For an encore, Tweedy gave a literally unplugged version of "Misunderstood" and invited the crowd to sing along as a show of respect and appreciation - thus ending the evening on an especially high note.


Friday, May 16, 2014

WTF with Marc Maron: The Art of the Interview

Nothing beats the energy of two people engaged in thought provoking and unpredictable conversation.  WTF with Marc Maron is a podcast that airs twice a week on his website. Undoubtedly, Maron has reinvigorated the art of the interview - a format sadly lacking on television.  Quite simply, the interviews are the best you'll ever hear anywhere.  They are brutally honest, funny, inspiring, and much, much more.

Maron streams two full length interviews a week from his garage in Los Angeles. A veteran stand up comedian since the 1980s known for never quite hitting the big time or getting the same accolades as his peers (a recurring source of humor and angst on the show).  He's been very open about his early days in the mad world of Sam Kinison , struggles with addictions, and the ups and downs of a life in show business. In 2009, after hitting a career brick wall, Maron started conducting interviews with fellow comics in his garage. Now nearing episode 500, WTF is the hippest thing happening on the web or any other medium for that matter.

Each episode begins with Marc delivering a stream of consciousness rant of whatever's on his mind. Then he introduces the interview which usually lasts an hour or two. Maron's interview style swiftly shifts from laid back politeness to relentlessly probing. Since the majority of guests are comedians the episodes themselves are like a comedy school. 

There are countless highlights from the interviews and many stand out. Listening to back to back interviews Marc conducted with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner are invaluable as history, but also very entertaining.  Judd Apatow spoke movingly of finding an escape in comedy as a child to deal with bullying and the pain of his parents divorce.  In a two-part interview with Louis CK, both comics share stories about being friends back in the day and the professional jealousy that poisoned their friendship.  During the interview they worked out their differences.  Conan O'Brien opened up about losing the Tonight Show and making the transition from writing to performing. Another favorite moment came during a long chat with Bob Zmuda, Andy Kaufman's writing partner, who enthusiastically retold the story of Kaufman's strange, almost mythic life. At one point Maron exclaimed, "I feel like you're a blind Homer telling the story of Odysseus!"

WTF is much more than a school of comedy.  Lately Marc has spent more time with musicians, writers, and artists.  Recently, Lena Dunham stopped by and they devoted most of their conversation on nothing less than the nature of great art.  Michael Keaton discussed his beginnings in stand up comedy and then becoming an unlikely choice to play Batman. In another episode, Marc interviewed legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton and achieved something of a transcendence.  

Interviews with musicians range from educational to the sublime.  Highlights from 2014 include Wayne Kramer of the Detroit proto-Punk band MC5 speaking about overcoming drugs, surviving prison, and finding solace in music.  Some of the hidden gems include people who aren't as widely known such as Patrick Stickles, leader of the indie-rock band Titus Andnronicus, who gave a gritty account of his struggle with depression.  John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revivial spoke openly about his influences and his songwriting process. Iggy Pop came in he gave a raw account of the music scene in Detroit and L.A. 1960s and 1970s. Iggy remembered everything.

The art of the interview is alive and well on WTF.  Maron's keeping alive a tradition, while building a priceless record of history, biography, cultural criticism - a document of modern America itself.  More interviews are sure to come and they are all well worth your time.

(The previous 50 shows are available to stream, but for $5 you can gain access to the entire archive at

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Fight For Your Long Day by Alex Kudera

"Adjunct" Cyrus Duffman, humble protagonist of Fight For Your Long Day, is a nearly 40 year old instructor of English at four fictional colleges in Philadelphia.  We follow him through a day of superficial encounters, painful longings, and existential pain. Through Cyrus, Kudera unveils the maddening absurdities of American higher education and the depressing rhetoric of the "war on terror." Kudera's debut novel successfully pulls no punches on some harsh truths on the economic realities of 21st century America.

"Duffy" is a well meaning teacher trapped in a state of terminal malaise. Part-time instructors are the on the bottom rung of the academic pecking order: low pay, labyrinth commutes, no benefits, nor any chance of promotion.  Early on in the novel, Cyrus teaches a "Business Writing" class at an urban community college with a classroom of diverse students. They range from a well read Afro-Centrist, young white males donning baseball caps who carry thinly veiled contempt for minority students, studious female pupils preoccupied with getting the "A", and a few iconoclasts spewing sophomoric political slogans bastardized from another decade. Readings in Freshman Comp classes tend towards provocative arguments on race, gender, politics, and sexuality. Designed to encourage discussion, they usually have the opposite effect of either indifferent reactions or incitements to Jerry Springer theatrics.  The class devolves into a farce when a discussion on Maslov's pyramid of needs takes a political turn.  A student walks in late and sets a picture of the president on fire and chaos ensues.  Hence his dilemma: students see him as a flunky of the establishment while to those above him he's a non-entity.

Kudera's hard on his protagonist. Much is made of his weight problem, bathroom habits, and recurring moments of lust for his female students.  Plagued by financial problems, Duffy stays complacent about his situation. But that's the newer, braver "corporate" university of cost cutting and outsourcing. Tenured professors get the perks and usually have lighter teaching loads and higher salaries. They teach courses centered around their personal tastes, while the adjuncts face a future of teaching basic composition year after year, decade by decade. In the novel, the CEO presidents of the colleges decide to cut all humanities courses because they are no longer profitable.  Duffy feels, but is unable to express, his outrage at the oligarchical system that makes pawns of the best and the brightest.

Sharp political satire perfectly captures the polarized politics of Bush v. Gore America. The political situation has devolved into a "Which Side Are You On?" atmosphere of liberal and conservative. Those on the right are reduced to simplistic war mongers ready to send out the drones and drop fire on the evildoers at the drop of a hat, while liberals read the NY Times consumed with white guilt and sympathize with terrorists while gulping espresso shots in their coffee shop as Belle & Sebastian play in the background.  The murky politics of the Bush era are captured dead on.  Duffy, a sort of liberal, impotently makes his points, but proves no match for the ideologues and hyper-capitalists.

A dubious scholar of Kafka, Duffy witnesses his own like take Kafkaesque turns as he experiences humiliations of several varieties throughout his "long" day. As a character, he's a great lens from which to view modern America, as the adjunct's dilemma is indicative of the new economy and the passivity it fosters among the populace.  Duffman lets people walk over him and he shows no initiative to change his situation.  Like any effective novel about the injustice of a system such as The Jungle, Fight For Your Long Day succeeds as a call to action and not to just to the underclass of the academy. Will anyone will hear the trumpets calling?