Meet John Wick, You’re Dead

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Title: John Wick: Chapter 2

Rating: 4 Stars

In the first movie, someone kills John Wick’s dog and everyone must die. In this movie, an underworld gangster forces Wick, desperate to be retired, to perform one last hit. As a consequence, everyone must die.

That’s pretty much it for the plot. It’s basically a first person shooter come to life.

But is there more to it than that?

First of all, it’s pretty clearly making fun of the action film genre. It takes every trope that it can come up with and cranks it up to eleven.

John Wick is indestructible. He falls down several flights of stairs. He gets shot. He gets stabbed. He gets hit by a car (several times). Every time, it looks like he’s going to collapse. Oh wait, here comes someone to murder him. He promptly gets up and performs some miraculous action to save his life.

His shots never miss. His opponents never hit. The film makes fun of the gun that never runs out of bullets. He’s going to take out the antagonist, who has his usual army of henchmen at his disposal. Wick is given one gun and seven bullets (Seven? Is this some kind of weird homage to The Seven Samurai? Probably not). Wick proceeds to take out the entire army of henchmen. Every so often, he throws away his gun and takes up one of the dead henchmen’s guns to carry on the battle. He’s doing this, but clearly he’s still shooting dozens of rounds between picking up the next gun. It acknowledges the stereotype, winks at it, and then carries forward with it.

I also found it interesting that all of the criminals seem to understand and communicate in each other’s native tongues. I hear Wick speak Russian, Italian, and Yiddish (maybe others). There’s a deaf criminal and he signs to her perfectly. Is the implication that somehow criminals exist in a world in which they can effortlessly communicate to each other? Is there a universality to crime and to criminals?

Similarly, there seems to be a highly refined set of rules governing criminal behavior. You can even say that there is an honor and an ethos to crime. Is this some kind of wish to bring order to a world of chaos? When we read of random crimes being inflicted upon random people, do we have some kind of collective wish to have an underlying order to it? Is there some deep fear of the random unknown that a film like this addresses?

This film also plays around with the single point of view paranoia that we probably all occasionally fall victim to. The only perspective that we can ever have is our own. We have no true knowledge of the life or existence of others. What if this entire universe is staged exclusively for our self? How do you disprove this hypothesis?

When the initial hit is put upon Wick, all of a sudden the whole world is against him. Random people on the street try to kill him. When he’s meeting Winston for the last time in a busy park, at a word from Winston every single person (probably hundreds) stops to look at Wick. Everyone is in on it. Everyone is out to get Wick. Isn’t that the essence of paranoia?

Finally, Wick’s new dog is a pit bull. Is that not the perfect choice of a dog for Wick? Pit bulls are misunderstood and are feared, even hated. They can be trained to be extremely violent. However, pit bulls, in their natural element, like pretty much every dog ever, just want to play, have fun, and live a dog’s life. Isn’t this all that Wick wants? But his trainers, the ones who made him, are forcing him to give up his nature and to become once again the violent killer.

 

So, there you go. Way too much thinking about a movie that probably was just trying to see how many people it could kill in one two hour stretch.

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Rockin’ Around the Clock – Until 11 PM

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Title: Rockabilly Riot

The Rockabilly Riot was at El Corazon. My ticket cost me $15 and there were ten bands on the bill. Considering the fact that one of them, the Legendary Shack Shakers, is a band of some renown, I’m guessing that the lower billed bands might have been playing for free beer or something.

El Corazon has two stages: its own stage and The Funhouse stage. The lesser bands were on the much smaller Funhouse stage while the bigger bands were on the main. For the purpose of efficiency, they alternated. Once one stage completed, the next stage would start up immediately.

I didn’t listen to all ten bands because I’m old. I’m guessing that the headliner, the Shack Shakers, probably would have taken the main stage somewhere around one in the morning. That was not going to happen with me.

I caught pieces of four of them. I came in as the Stoned Evergreen Travelers were just getting started in the Funhouse. This was a band out of Tacoma. The person playing the stand-up bass was a woman. There was a woman playing the fiddle. The lead guitar / vocalist was a man sporting a serious ZZ Top grade beard. They went on stage and just rocked out. Being somewhat lower on the bill on the smaller stage, they might have been playing for free beer, but they sure had a good time doing it.

Next on the El Corazon stage was Redneck Girlfriend. Right away, you can tell the difference between bands playing on the main stage compared to the smaller stage. The bands on the El Corazon stage were just generally tighter, more confident, and had better stage presence. Clearly, these bands have been touring for a while and know how to put on a show. While nothing outstanding, Redneck Girlfriend put on a solid rockabilly set.

Just like with the Skatoberfest concerts that I go to, you figure out pretty quickly that a significant percentage of the people in the audience are either in one of the bands or are staunch supporters of one of the bands. As Redneck Girlfriend was finishing up, a woman that just happened to be standing next to me turned to her friend and said that she should finish her drink because she’s up next.

Sure enough, after Redneck Girlfriend finished up, I walk back to The Funhouse and there she was on stage. She was Marieke of Marieke and the Go Get Em Boys. Before the show, I’d went to their Facebook page and there they announced that this was their last show. On stage, she slightly softened that statement by saying that it might be their last show.

I hope they reconsider. They truly had an interesting sound. Marieke was on vocals and her style was somewhat reminiscent of Hillbilly Moon Explosion, a band whose sound I really enjoy. However, Marieke has a slightly nasty punk sound to her voice that adds another layer to the sound. Rockabilly can start to sound the same (especially when 10 bands are on the bill!), but this band’s sound really stood out as something unique.

For pure entertainment quality, you can’t touch The Delta Bombers. They were just an incredibly tight band. The drummer and bass were absolutely rock solid, driving the band forward at all times.

The lead singer had a great presence. The lead guitarist was cooking. The audience was dancing and slamming. Several members of the Shack Shakers came out to watch them, which in itself I would think is a pretty good statement.

I poked around a bit at the next act, but I felt so good after watching The Delta Bombers that I decided to head out.

It was a great night out, lots of fun, all kinds of people of all ages politely crowding each other with absolutely no problems. It was a good time for all.

 

The Girl Off The Wagon – The Movie

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Title: The Girl On The Train

Rating: 3 Stars

I read the book last summer and rated it higher than the movie (the book was 4 stars).

First of all, let’s get the basics out of the way. The Girl on the Train is a well made movie.

The characters are strong. I think Emily Blunt did a fine job as Rachel. You watch Rachel as she deteriorates from what appears to be a commuting professional on her way to the city to a black-out drunk suspected of murder. Justin Theroux does fine work as her perfect ex-husband that is hiding a dark interior. I do wonder if they cast Lisa Kudrow just so they could make a Rachel joke, but no harm done.

There was a Hitchcockian feel as pressure and tension slowly built throughout the movie until the final scenes of explosive violence. There was an adult quality to this patient progression that was a treat to once again enjoy.

Without giving away too much, I also did enjoy the Gaslight nature of the plot.

All in all, an enjoyable experience with a well crafted movie.

However…

I’m torn whenever I read a movie based upon a book. On the one hand, if the movie deviates strongly from the book, I somehow feel cheated.

I can cite many examples of this. For some reason, one that really sticks in my craw is Absolute Power. I can probably talk about this because the movie is twenty years old, and if I’m spoiling it, well tough.

Absolute Power is a Daniel Baldacci novel. Baldacci is one of those crank-a-novel-out-a-year-rather-I-feel-inspired-or-not-type novelists, so I’ve long since stopped reading him.

However,  I really enjoyed Absolute Power. It had a great start. A cat burglar inadvertently witnesses the POTUS having an illicit sexual liaison, and then when things get out of hand, a Secret Service intervenes and murders the POTUS’s mistress.

There is this whole cat and mouse game where the Secret Service tries to hunt down and catch the burglar. The burglar is the protagonist that you’re rooting for.

Halfway through the novel, the cat burglar gets killed. He gets killed by a sniper, IIRC. In the action/thriller/suspense genre, this is truly a WTF moment. The hero dies halfway through the book?! It made for unexpected, exciting, and entertaining reading.

And then I hear that they’re making a movie of it. And I’m a little suspicious. And then I hear that Clint Eastwood is starring in it and directing it. And I become even more suspicious.

And sure enough, Clint Eastwood plays the cat burglar, and sure enough, not only is he not murdered, but of course he’s the hero that saves the day. An innovative action novel just got turned into yet another formula movie. I felt betrayed.

So, that’s one extreme. The other extreme is the movie that is slavishly devoted to the book. If you’ve read the book, basically what you end up watching is a pale version of the movie that was running through your head as you read the book.

That is what happened here.  Even though I read the novel six months ago or so, nothing happened in it that surprised me. As far as I could tell, it pretty slavishly followed the plot.

I could maybe understand doing that with, say, The Lord Of The Ring movies. There is such a fanatically dedicated fan base and the world in which the novels exist is so well described and so foreign to our own, that I can see the value in recreating that world.

This is a story set in the present time in a common setting. I got no visceral pleasure in seeing it portrayed as such. For those of us who read the book (of which we are legion), it would have been nice to have thrown in a surprise or two.

Regardless, I did enjoy the movie. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I actually hadn’t already read the book, so my lower rating reflects that.

Going Up?

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Title: The Intuitionist

Rating: 4 Stars

Although not a huge novel, The Intuitionist tackles several themes and, by and large, executes well on them.

The basic plot is that a city, with the development of elevators, has undergone a huge change in its landscape. It is now much more vertical, and with that verticality, elevator inspectors have become a notable career with a rigorous education and are treated with great respect.

There are two schools of elevator inspectors. There are the Empiricists, who perform their inspections precisely by a very well documented book. They inspect closely the machinery to make sure that it follows specifications precisely. In the other camp are the Intuitionists. They believe that elevators have a spiritual quality. They believe that if you are attuned to the spirit of the elevator, that simply riding it will unveil its mysteries.

As you can imagine, there is tension between these two schools and they are constantly fighting for supremacy.

Into this comes Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female inspector. She is a committed Intuitionist. She has become the most accurate inspector. However, an elevator that she has recently inspected suffers a catastrophic failure. This calls into question not just Watson’s capabilities, but the entire Intuitionist movement.

The plot of the book is Watson’s attempt to clear her name, and in so doing, makes discoveries that shock her but ultimately becomes her life’s mission.

So many things going on here. First of all, I loved the world that Whitehead has invented here. It feels like sometimes it’s the 1930’s, sometimes it’s the 1950’s. The story is somewhat non-linearly told, but even give that, the novel’s present time feels anachronistic.

Be that as it may, I felt myself getting sucked into this whole other completed world in which elevator inspection is of the highest calling. I felt sympathy for Chuck, the lowly escalator inspector, desperate to prove to an unsympathetic world, that escalators are just as important to elevators. His master’s thesis apparently consists of hounding people at a department store standing in line to take the elevator as to why they’re not taking the escalator which is quite literally right next to them. He is rightly treated with contempt by the waiting patrons.

In this world of elevators is politics. The glad-handers of the Empiricists and the glad-handers of the Intuitionists each fight for the right to be elected the Elevator Guild Chair, from which power flows. Also in this world is a mafia, which Johnny Shush runs and who has managed to take over the elevator repair business.

Racism and sexism is everywhere. Even though she is their top performer, as the first black female inspector, she suffers scorn, or even worse, is completely ignored. Since the good old boys are all Empiricists, she suffers even more as an Intuitionist. The first black inspector, Pompey, is a get-along, go-along Empiricist who grimly takes the racist jokes that the other Empiricists give him as the price to be paid to be the first.

Racism looms even larger when she discovers that James Fulton, the founder of the Intuitionist movement, was actually a black man passing for white. Why Fulton decided to pass as white and what this would mean to the Intuitionist movement if this fact became known becomes another theme.

Along with racism is philosophy, specifically the Empiricist movement vs the Intuitionist movement. This is a pretty fundamental philosophical difference. Do you believe in the real world as it concretely exists around you or do you believe that, beyond the real, measurable world, there is another world that is open and waiting for you to open your mind to?

 

With the Intuitionists, there is a longing for a believed lost work written by James Fulton of a perfect elevator. This is an elevator that somehow expresses the essence of an elevator, not necessarily in a corporeal manner. If such an elevator could be built, then it would fundamentally change civilization because there would be no restraints on verticality. To achieve this dream is called the second elevation, and a good chunk of the latter part of the book is Watson’s search for those lost papers. Both the Empiricists and the Intuitionists desperately want to be the first to find it.

The work is itself only around 250 pages, so this is a lot of themes to be examining in a relatively short span, but Whitehead did a pretty masterful job doing so. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

The Anti-Avengers

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Title: Suicide Squad

Rating: 3 Stars

First things first. It was a pretty good action movie. Motley crew of deplorables are collected. Big city is threatened. Only the motley crew can save them. Big final battle. Probably several hundred billions of dollars of damage is done. Probably tens of thousands of lives are lost. Some less central member of the motley crew selflessly gives up his life. Motley crew saves the day. The city is in ruins. Snarky wisecracks. Curtain.

Yadda, yadda, yadda…

So, anything interesting here? Well, a couple of things…

How is Jared Leto as The Joker? This is now the fourth Joker that I’ve seen. Cesar Romaro barely counts here because no method actor he. His job was to play a comic book character in a comic book television series, and that is precisely what he did. I still find it interesting that Jack Nicholson, one of the best actors of his generation, still is pretty much out-gunned in this competition.

So it comes down to Jared Leto vs Heath Ledger. From the point of view of playing The Joker as a right on the edge psychopath, probably Leto wins. However, I’d still take Ledger’s world-weary, bored, barely amused, desperately looking for a purpose version. Ledger consumed every scene of The Dark Knight that he was in, overwhelming talented actors like Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine. Perhaps if there is a future movie where The Joker is a focus, then my opinion will change, but right now Ledger still wears the crown.

How would governments respond in a time of superheroes? When conventional military thought and conventional military force are not enough? The number one promise that a governments makes to its people is to keep them safe. A government that cannot keep its people safe will not stand.

In this universe, at this point in time, Superman, the ‘good’ superhero, is dead. Leaders nervously await the next demi-god to come down and try to enslave / destroy the world.

Into this gap walks Amanda Waller, a brutally tough pragmatist. Picture Dick Cheney as a black woman. Her plan is to take the nation’s most dangerous criminals, who each in some way has some super power, inject them with an explosive that will kill them if they get out of line, and send them out on these suicide missions to save the world with some vague promise that their sentence will be either reduced or somehow slightly mitigated if they succeed.

You just know that Dick Cheney is now kicking himself right now for not thinking of this himself.

It is an interesting premise. One of the things that annoys me with modern action hero movies is that the good guys absolutely destroy property and kill people (that you never actually see, this is 1980’s A-Team shit taking place here), to save the day. There seems to be little acknowledgment of this cost. It reminds me of the G.I. quote as the Allies left the French town of Saint-Lo (95% destroyed) after the Normandy landing, “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.

The last Avengers film tried to work this in but at the end it was just an excuse for further tensions in the on-again, off-again Captain America / Ironman bro-mance.

Here, at the least the motivations are clear. You have a bad person (a witch!) trying to destroy the world and you have a band of mercenary anti-heroes who have zero fucks to give. There is no moral quandary here. There is no clean cut square jawed Captain America with his simple world view. I found the amorality refreshing.

It was also interesting that the witch was actually unleashed by the very same Amanda Waller. The witch got away from her and she had to bring in her other anti-heroes to bring it down. Therefore, the near destruction of the world could be laid at the feet of the woman who is now trying to save it.

Is this a comment on our modern age? Our growing lack of confidence that we can manage our world’s problems? That, in fact, the solutions that we come up with actually do nothing more than lead us to even more dire catastrophes? Is this a statement on America today? We are this great power. Without a doubt, America is the most powerful country ever in the history of civilization, politically, militarily, economically, and culturally. Despite that, have we lost our ability to solve problems?

Does this lack of confidence explain our reaching out to someone who smugly announces with great confidence that only he knows how to fix everything and that only he can fix it?

Jesus Fucking Christ, does every one of my posts now have to have some fucking Trumpian theme to it?

 

Forget It Harry, It’s Stockholm

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Title: Clinch

Rating: 4 Stars

After reading much history and politics as I try to adjust myself to the era of Trump, I decided to go for some brain bleach and read something lighter.

Clinch was set in Stockholm in the year 1932. On the surface, this would not seem to be an interesting time or place (well other than yet another crime novel set in Scandinavia, for such a peaceful place it does seem to have more than its share of serial and horribly violent literary murders).

However, if you think that, you do not know about…The Match King! I read about Ivar Kreuger many years ago. It’s actually a fascinating story. A man builds a huge empire by trying to monopolize the production of the world’s matches. Yes, those things you pull out of a box and strike to light a cigarette.

In fact, at one point, he came close to achieving his dreams. At his peak, he was producing somewhere around three quarters of the world’s matches. All of this is well and good, but the way that he formed his monopoly was slightly suspicious. He agreed to make huge loans to countries for the monopoly rights. As you can imagine, these are large loans (this is post WWI where the world is still struggling to right itself). In most cases, he would sign the agreement to furnish the funds with no idea of how he was actually going to procure the funds. In the process of building up his huge empire, banks to some extent trusted him, and at least in the beginning, were willing to provide him the money to make the loans.

However, as is most pseudo-ponzi schemes, there comes a point where the straw breaks the camel’s back. There came a point where he could not come up with the funds to make the loans, and in rather quick order, all of his financial machinations collapsed. In March of 1932, he killed himself (or was possibly murdered if your mind wanders towards conspiracy theories).

His death and resulting collapse of his finances had a serious impact upon the Swedish economy, which was already suffering from the Great Depression.

It is in this setting that this story takes place. Sorry for the aside, but I find the concept of someone trying to monopolize the world’s match supply, almost succeeding, failing, and almost destroying a nation’s economy, fascinating.

Not only are there explicit references to Kreuger, but matches play a prominent part of the narrative. People are always striking matches to light cigarettes, cigars, or fireplaces. There are comments about matches once being plentiful but now are increasingly scarce. Matches are so important to everyday life during this time that you begin to see how a world-wide monopoly on matches could have been a lucrative dream to pursue.

Harry Kvist is a washed up boxer that is now  a cross between a private investigator, an enforcer, and a repo-man (usually of bikes). He’s pretty small time but just manages to make enough to stay afloat.

He threatens a man to make him pay an outstanding debt. That man later dies. Suspicious is naturally focused upon Kvist. He decides to use his investigative skills to clear his name.

That’s the basic plot.

One of the main characters of Clinch is the city of Stockholm itself. It is set in winter. The weather is frigid. Every trip outside is bone chilling. It snows heavily and the roads are covered in ice, making any driving an adventure.

At the same time of this freezing cold is the desperate poverty of the Swedish people. This is an unvarnished view of this reality. There are drunks. There are worn-out prostitutes. There are brutal organized crime bosses. There are shady doorman. There are the nearly homeless fighting to protect what little they have. There are soup lines. Kvist at times becomes infested with both lice and with crabs. There is enough detail in these pages that indicate that the author conducted extensive research into this time and place. As a history geek, he definitely pulled me into the milieu of depression era Sweden.

Kvist is an interesting character. To a large extent he’s a cypher. He apparently is married and has a child, both of whom have gone off to America and that he has lost contact with. He was never defeated as a boxer. Apparently he came close to a title shot but some vaguely hinted scandal derailed it.

He’s bisexual with a bias towards men. This brings up another dark theme running through this novel. 1932 is also marking the rise of Nazism. There are several references to swastikas. Gay acts are illegal and he’s been arrested a couple of times for it. Clearly the skies are beginning to darken with totalitarianism.

As his investigation continues, he stumbles upon a very wealthy family. By the end, he’s realized, much like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, that behind the trappings of great wealth lies even greater depravity.

All in all, a satisfying crime noir. It is part one of a trilogy. It’ll be interesting to see how his dark themes of economic depression and the rise of totalitarianism continues to impact Kvist and his city of Stockholm.

We’re All Fucked, So Let’s Dance!

Title: Anti-Flag, Reel Big Fish

I saw Reel Big Fish and Anti-Flag at the Showbox last night.

There were a couple of openers, but I wasn’t all that interested in them. I managed to walk in just about when Anti-Flag took the stage.

Anti-Flag is a hard-core punk band that’s been around for twenty years. They are a high energy band raging against government. Their first albums were released in the 1990’s. If they were angry about the Clinton administration, then you can imagine how they feel about Trump.

Between songs, they were aggressively advocating for immigrant rights and attacking Trump, encouraging everyone to take to the streets to protest.

Paying money to be preached to / ranted at (even if you agree with them philosophically) might have gotten a little tedious but, in all honesty, they rocked the house. Musically, they are a tight, hard driving, raucous act that had the audience dancing, jumping, and screaming.

Amusingly enough, from a distance, the drummer to me actually looked like Bill Clinton. I’m not talking about the current, skinny, vegan version of Clinton today but the mid-90s portly, ebullient Clinton. The key to any hard driving band is its rhythm section, and seeing Clinton in the back just furiously beating on the drums with what looked (again, from a distance) a very smug Clintonian smile on his face made me smile as well.

One highlight was when the singer introduced the song that got them into punk rock and then they played an intense version of The Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go. Another highlight was when the bassist and the drummer set up in the audience and played a song from there.

I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations for Anti-Flag and they certainly far exceeded those. They were pretty awesome live.

Now I was a little concerned. After firing up the crowd on punk and politics, how was Reel Big Fish going to fare?  They are not political and they play goofy, happy-go-lucky ska.

No need to worry.

 

They came on and played a couple of quick songs to warm the crowd up. They then announced that since it was 20 years since the release of their major album, Turn The Radio Off, that they were going to play the album in order.

On the one hand, it’s a cool idea. This was the album that first turned me on to Reel Big Fish. I listened to it several times, so I was going to be pretty familiar with all of the songs.

On the other hand, I always think it’s an interesting choice for an artist to make. I had a similar thought when I saw X perform front to back the album Los Angeles on the thirtieth anniversary of its release.

How does an artist feel completely reliving music that was generated decades ago? Is it somehow comforting / reassuring that your work has stood the test of time? Does it make you wonder if the ensuing decades of artistic work has been a waste? Are you left feeling that you are so far from your prime that you have to mine your youth for inspiration? Or are you at the point in your career where, fuck it, I have a mortgage payment to make and if this is what the monkeys want to hear, here it is and go fuck yourselves?

To go off another tangent, whenever he performed, it was written in Chuck Berry’s contract that he’d perform for 46 minutes (or some such specific number).  My brother went, and sure enough, at the 46 minute mark he was finished, unplugged, and walking off of the stage. His act was timed so precisely that for decades he played the same precise set. At the end of the day, it was just a job to him.

Be that as it may, Reel Big Fish rocked it. It was a totally different vibe than Anti-Flag. They were happy, colorfully dressed, pogo’ing, making fun of each other. Their enthusiasm was infectious, as most of the crowd was also pogo’ing. Even though it was tight quarters, many people were skanking.

I guess this show shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. For a band with limited commercial appeal to survive twenty or more years implies that they must have a rock solid live performance.

And for both Anti-Flag and Reel Big Fish, this was certainly true. Although in the same show you ended up with two dramatically different vibes (in the first half you were raging at the man and the second half you were gleefully dancing), at the end of the night what you remember is how much fun you had.

Just Say No

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Title: Requiem For A Dream

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a grim story of dreams, addiction, and despair.

There are four main characters. There is Sara Goldfarb, her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and his best best friend Tyrone.

They each, in their own ways, are innocent in the ways of the world. They all dream of a future happiness that appears so easily attainable for each, but yet to the reader seems transparently impossible. In a less brutal novel, the characters would be drawn as foolish, romantic dreamers that perhaps, by the novel’s end, are brought back to earth, chastened but smarter, ready to pick themselves up and start living a happy life based in reality.

However, this is a remorselessly brutal book.

Sara, whose life revolves around the television, wants to someday appear on a game show. She gets a phone call from a solicitor that gives her the idea that her appearance on a game show is imminent (here you see her naivete in full bloom).

Marion, apparently brought up in an upper class family, or at least one with pretensions of being upper class, thinks that she’s better than everyone. She is an artist who apparently seldom has the desire to express herself via art. She appreciates music. She appreciates art. Her dream is to someday own a coffee house, where art is hung on the walls, live music is played, and where the denizens of the sophisticated, high class crowd congregate and listen obsequiously to her cultured opinions.

Harry shares Marion’s dream. Harry also dreams of the big score. Harry and Tyrone develop plans to buy pure heroin in bulk, cut it with milk sugar, deal it, and make a huge profit. That in turn will lead to increased purchases, increased profits, until finally they can leave the streets, make a couple of really big purchases, and then walk away from it rich.

There is a point, midway, where the dreams for all look achievable. Harry and Tyrone do buy some high quality heroin that they cut, sell, and make significant profits. Marion and Harry together start planning the layout of their coffee house.

Sara, having filled out some kind of application that could potentially lead to a game show appearance, decides that she must fit into her favorite dress, a dress that she has not worn in years and that she no longer fits into. After an initial failed attempt at dieting, she goes to an unscrupulous doctor who prescribes her a combination of amphetamines and depressants. She basically stops eating, has manic amounts of energy, and the weight starts magically dropping off. In no time at all, she should be able to fit into the red dress.

Of course, if the plot trajectory continued on, then this would not be much of a novel. In fact, shortly after this apogee, things go downhill rapidly.

Sara, no longer feeling that manic energy that she once did, begins to dramatically increase her amphetamine dosage. She’s still not eating. She’s loses weight to the point where the skin is just hanging off of her and her friends beg her to start eating. She refuses, still believing that she needs to keep doing this to become ‘zoftig’ (what her deceased husband used to say of her).

Harry’s and Tyrone’s source for heroin is first cut off, and then is later found dead. In the meantime, all three’s heroin addiction is growing ever larger. They burn through all of their cash and they end up behaving like common junkies, slowly but surely doing those horrific things that they saw other junkies do that they’d swear that they never do (eg injecting heroin using water taken from a public toilet).

Marion, with all of her sophisticated aspirations and beliefs in her own superiority over others, in her desperation for drugs, turns to prostitution.

Harry, Marion, and Tyrone, previously inseparable and rock solid in always sharing all drugs equally, begin to withhold drugs from each other. Their addictions destroy the basis of their relationships and friendships.

Sara, suffering amphetamine hallucinations, goes off in one last desperate attempt to get on a game show. Instead, she is carted off to a mental health ward. There, the staff treats her with callous disregard, and she is subject to electroshock therapy, forced feedings, and constant doses of Thorazine.

Harry and Tyrone, desperate to get a large quantity of good drugs, decide to drive down to Miami to get to the source. Harry is so desperate to get a fix that he repeatedly injects himself in an already infected hole in his arm, causing himself intense pain and threatening his life. Tyrone, although his friendship with Harry is fraying, does try to get him medical help. Instead, this being the south, he is arrested and convicted by racist justice.

It’s a nightmare to read, but a powerful one at that.

Addiction comes in multiple flavors. There is clearly an addiction to drugs. However, Sara has other addictions than just to her amphetamines. Earlier in the book, she is clearly addicted to food. She rations food but often cannot control herself. With her ill-fated attempt at dieting, in her mind her refrigerator relentlessly mocks her.

She is also addicted to television. It is the center of her life and she cannot go a day without it. In the book’s opening, she is traumatized when Harry takes her TV so that he can pawn it to buy drugs.

This is not just a drugs are evil novel. In the early days, Selby actually paints the positive side of drug use. For Sara, the amphetamines do work for a while. She loses weight, she becomes vivacious, and becomes popular with her friends. For Harry, he has a group of friends that he gets high with. They sit around, do drugs, tell stories, laugh, and are clearly having fun. In the early, happy days of their relationship, as Harry and Marion fall in love, their common drug use forges in them a deeper intimacy. Selby effectively shows the path of how a person can move from using drugs recreationally to becoming cruelly addicted.

There are several scenes that are hard to read. Sara being force fed by an uncaring hospital staff, being tied down, tube roughly inserted into her, and food being shoved into her as she feels that she’s going to suffocate, is horrifying. Harry, repeatedly injecting his open sore with heroin and the graphic depiction of the pain and grotesqueness of his arm as it worsens is equally disturbing.

This novel does have some literary ancestors. It echoes back to Frankie Machine, the card dealer that became an morphine addict during WWII and tries (and fails) to fight his addiction when he comes back, the main character in the The Man With The Golden Arm. This novel also deals with graphic descriptions of drug addiction and the inexorable pull that it has on some.

If you go back even further, it hearkens back to the late 19th century naturalist literary movement, with its emphasis on a dispassionate, gritty, realistic portrayal of the darker aspects of life. I’m thinking of Emile Zola, specifically of Therese Raquin and Germinal.

Even though the movement has passed, I think that this is a great entry in the naturalist movement. The tragic arc of each character told in an unblinking manner made for powerful, if difficult, reading.

The book is a requiem. For all four characters, whatever hopes they once had are dashed. By the end, they are all alive, but just barely, and empty lives they are.

 

A Night Of Genteel Comedy

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Title: Sarah Silverman

I saw Sarah Silverman at the Paramount Theatre. The show started close to 30 minutes late. This was very likely caused by long lines that were a result of burly security men having to wand us and check all bags. Apparently Silverman has been getting threats. Given the political climate that we live in and the ruthlessness with which she attacks it on her Twitter feed, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

It was a pretty entertaining night. Her delivery was at times awkward. Sometimes the pacing flagged. She came onstage equipped with a lot of notes that she referred to regularly. There were parts that didn’t really fit together. The segues between jokes was often abrupt.

So, it’s pretty clear that she was working through new material. She certainly had an hours worth (probably more). We were watching the process of her trying to form her bits of material into a cohesive act. She was open about it. I’m guessing that by the end of this leg of her tour, she will have it honed down enough such that it’ll be ready for an hour long special.

Despite the occasional awkwardness, it was a very much Sarah Silverman performance. She has an honest, open personae from which she spews forth outrageous comments.

She had bits about:

  • The pain of laser removal
  • Growing up, her dad giving her a dirty joke book to overcome her bedwetting awkwardness at an overnight camp
  • A rape joke about her sister (seriously!)
  • How important 9/11 is to childless people
  • Children in movies and child molesters
  • A hated nun’s menstruation flow
  • Shaking hands with a woman with a hook
  • The male equivalent to an pre-abortion ultrasound
  • God cumming in the mouth of a Christian man (tied it back to Abraham’s command to sacrifice his only son, Isaac)

Clearly she’s an experienced, expert comedian. Even with the awkwardness, she delivered her routine with great timing and humor for an overall enjoyable night.

United States as Gilliam’s Brazil

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Title: The Deep State

Rating: 4 Stars

In my quest to understand how in the fuck we managed to elect Trump as president, I stumbled upon The Deep State, by Mike Lofgren.

There has been much sturm and dang about politics over the last several decades, especially during the last eight. While Obama was in office, the Republican party did everything short of kidnapping Malia to thwart his agenda. This seems absurd when you realize that he basically continued the overseas policies of George W. Bush and passed a healthcare bill that was a Republican plan in all but name.

All of this causes much teeth gnashing and primal screaming on the various conservative (and the fewer liberal) media outlets, both conventional and internet based.

But…what if none of that matters? What if what we think of the state is really just something like Kabuki theater? What if, within the state, there is another state that is truly where the work of state is done?

This is Lofgren’s thesis. Lofgren spent 28 years working as a Republican congressional aide. Horrified at what the Republican party had become (an apocalyptic cult) and the utter incompetence of the Democratic party, he began to write diatribes in his retirement.

This book is such a diatribe. It describes a deep state that exists, regardless of who is nominally in power. This deep state is run by certain key DC power players, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the military-industrial complex.

Because of this certain things will never go unquestioned. Wall Street will never be contained. Despite all of its wailing about the Dodd-Frank act, it in no way actually really removes any power from the Wall Street banks and no one even suggests Glass-Steagall anymore. The Silicon Valley is a conspirator as every single aspect of privacy is being stripped of us. The defense industry is such a large power that the United States seems to have an insatiable desire to play a part in conflicts around the globe.

These are all corporations that are internationally focused. They think nothing of buying a foreign company and then notionally moving their corporate headquarters to avoid paying taxes. During the 2008 crisis, the banks were bailed out while homeowners lost their homes.

This is all bad enough but what makes this almost laughable is the utter incompetence of the deep state. While they are focused upon squeezing every egg that they can get, they do not seem to notice that the goose is dying.

The deep state is responsible for such wonderful success stories as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but no one ever seems to be punished and in fact, failures seem to lead to even more honors. Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the Arab Spring, the belief, after the US painlessly overthrows Saddam, that democracy will sweep through the Middle East like wild fire (a theory that when I first heard about it in 2003 seemed, even with my minor knowledge of the area, ridiculously asinine), became the head of the World Bank. L. Paul Bremer, the head of the provisional government in Iraq, an organization so incompetent that they decided that disbanding an army and ridding the government of a huge chunk of its expertise seemed like a brilliant idea (not to mention literally billions of dollars in cash going missing), ended up getting a President Medal of Freedom.

It’s not all doom and gloom. He sees some glimmer of hope (even in the Tea Party revolt!) and some sign of life that Congress and/or The Supreme Court might try to place limits on this invisible state.

At the end of the book he does offer up nine suggestions, none of which stand a chance unless a true revolution takes place (eg banning private money from campaigning, a single payer health system).

Now, back to my initial question, does this explain Trump? Did the people, although mostly ignorant of the deep state, sense a nation in peril and elect a man that, if nothing else, appears to be a bomb throwing renegade that might actually upset the status quo? Or, more likely, is Trump actually just the dancing monkey of the deep state? The deep state organ grinder continues on as before but now the people are being distracted by the spectacle.

Or, even more likely, is this just an early peek at our future president Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho? And I should just quit all of this reading and watch some guys getting their balls kicked?