Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn is dead.

I just found this out, fittingly enough, as I was watching the State of the Union address.

It wasn't unexpected -the man was 87 and lost his wife 2 years ago- but still, it hits hard. The man served his country in WWII, he marched for civil rights and taught at Spelman, and he wrote some of the most important history texts ever written.

If you're unfamiliar with the man's work, go to his site and read an essay or two, go to youtube and watch a lecture. Or check out Democracy Now tomorrow, where I'm sure there will be a tribute in the morning.  There's also a movie version of A People's History that'll be out on DVD in February.

We've lost a heavyweight today, take a moment to remember him.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Third Man

One of the more productive things I got to do over the trip home was get some reading done. A lot of it has been a massive book about basketball, augmented with magazines, comics (I re-read We3, and it still sucks the air out of my chest), and the annotated screenplay to The Third Man. It's a movie I'd seen a couple years ago, but had for the most part forgotten, so I was happy to read through it on the flights to and from California.

One of the more impressive of the story's many, many impressive qualities is the way that the story so fittingly describes an time and a place -namely postwar Vienna- so perfectly. The confusion and disconcordance of having one city ruled by four different allied powers, most of whom not sharing a language with each other, let alone the people they are set to govern/protect. The stoic optimism of a war-scarred populace, eager to move on from the conflict but living in  system that won't let them... it's a rare thing to me, to get that sort of sense from any type of work, let alone a book and a film. I honestly don't know how they do it. Part of me suspects that it's a talent that eludes even the best of storytellers. Part of me is certain that it's more a result of my place and time. Does living in America in 2009 (yeah, I know) have a flavor that could be expressed? I could write in a story about economic peril and the hopes of a black president, but in fifty years from now, would someone read that and think "that's exactly what it was like!" Or would I have to include some veiled Rihanna reference?

Obviously, it's more than pop culture. While we (meaning, I) love to think that popular culture goes a way towards defining the greater culture, it far more often than not means sweet fuck all. With the exception of post-9/11 media, I can't really think of anything that snapshots specific American culture after the Cold War*. Perhaps it's because we as Americans have such a diverse climate of economic and social stations that it's nearly impossible to connect them without the benefit of several decades of distance to provide hindsight. It might be that most Americans tend to project their experiences and backgrounds onto the country, effectively ignoring everyone else. Maybe it's the apathy of the suburban MTV generation that has shifted our attitude to that of a vapid shrug (it's a cliche, I know, but not an unfair one). I have no idea. But as I was thinking about this, I was convinced that the most common way to get a picture of our country at any given moment is to show it in or immediately following tragedy**. It sounds dramatic, but maybe that's the only time we'll be able to look around and agree about what's going on. Or at least that's the closest we get to it.

But I digress. I want to write about The Third Man. Because it's one of those movies that holds up so damned well. I'm not one of those classic film nerds that can't watch anything made in America after the mid-70s. I will talk loads of shit about Avatar, and yet I avoid most foreign films on the grounds that they're depressing for the sake of being depressing, and I will prefer color to black & white. I don't consider myself an erudite scholar of film, but I like to think I know what I like. and I love The Third Man. I could rail on about the framework or the advancements in cinematography, but it'd be 100% bullshit lifted from other places, ass opposed to the 50% bullshit that I'm just making up. In order for me to even notice things like that, it has to be so spectacularly good or bad that my attention is taken from the dialogue, acting, and overall theme. So I don't notice that when I'm watching The Third Man. I notice the more obvious things: the Karas soundtrack, which I put on a mix at some point in college and baffled even myself with, The zither fluttering along through the scenes, almost ditzy when juxtaposed against the story. There's the drunken petulance of protagonist Holly Martins, a European caricature of an American if there ever was one***, even if the character was supposed to be Canadian****. There's the opportunists, fops, and schemers that show up throughout the story, and the distance of the Austrians, who don't want anything to do with anything that isn't getting their lives back on track. This is classic noir, and still it stands as more than just a detective story. Oh, and there's Orson Welles. He was already the major filmmaker of the world, and he had just turned his back on Hollywood. He was just the actor here, but he improvised one of the best movie lines in history (he later said he stole it from somewhere else) like it was nothing.

I don't want to get into the story too much, because there are turns and revelations that still amaze me (even if one of the biggest ones is given away by the movie poster/DVD cover).  But I would recommend checking it out. You can watch it on Netflix ad the moment, and you can probably pick up a (non-Criterion) copy for pretty cheap since it's in the public domain. But I'd suggest checking out the book or screenplay first. It won't take up much of your time (I read most of it on the worst plane ride ever), and it really is worth it. Afterwards, check out the movie, and tell me I'm wrong about this. Tell me you don't get a feeling for postwar Vienna, despite the fact that it serves mostly as a backdrop for the story.

Anyway, that's just what I'm feeling on it.

* of course, this isn't entirely true. Wall Street probably did a great job of  defining the mid-late 80s for a lot of people, despite the fact that there's no mention of the decline of American industry, the dumbest fashion sense in history, and the historic rise/acceptance of rap music. Philadelphia might also carry a distinct resonance, while Forrest Gump will always serve to remind us how fucking dumb and self-servingly nostalgic we can be.
** the other might be comedy. Of course, this is not always the case, but it's a lot easier to gain insight towards the culture of a time and place by what jokes can and can't be made and the way that they are made. Of course, 85% of American comedy disproves this entirely.
*** I still laugh every time he intentionally gets Calloway's name wrong.
**** what non-hockey playing Canadian shows up in another country and takes a swing at a cop first thing off the plane? There are Canadians that don't play hockey, right?
I know I said I'd post a mix before the year's end, but I haven't. It's about half done, though. In the meantime, I've got loads of emails to get back to (including ones to every one of my friends, who I didn't get to hang out with while I was home), insane family bullshit to address, and classes that start tomorrow.

I'm not saying don't hold your breath, but seriously, don't hold your breath.
So, here's a story. Tonight, Carrie and I decided to go out to dinner. After spending New Year's Eve in and the next 2 days sick and in bed, we felt we were owed as much. So we did what we usually do. Spend an hour trying to decide where to go for dinner and then eventually settle on the cheapest place. Tonight, it was a Mexican place down the street we rarely frequent.

I should've known something was up as soon as we walked in there. The place is huge. In addition to the outdoor deck (it was warm enough to have diners this evening), there's a labyrinth of indoor rooms and bars at this place. All of them were empty. Eventually, we came across an out-of-the-way reception desk. As we were seated, I was horrified to realize that there was only one other table occupied in the entire restaurant.

This is an issue with me. While I can appreciate being the only people in a movie theater or a plane or something, I don't like the undue attention of being the only patrons of a store. Put in this position, I don't dare leave because of my innate need to support any non-chain business that isn't terrible. So I just sit there, nervously staring at the entrance in hopes that the place will fill up by the time the meal is over. But oh, it gets worse. There was a musician.

If being the only diners in a restaurant gives me a mild panic attack, then being the only diners in a restaurant with live musicians fucking terrifies me. Are we supposed to act like this is a personal concert? Should we clap? Stare at him? Ignore him? I'm profoundly uncomfortable in situations like these, and usually it's pretty obvious.

Still. I can be magnanimous. I can eating a meal without freaking out. After all, we brought some cash to tip him wit.... shit. The money we had left over from the farmer's market that morning was sitting at home on the table. Making matters infinitely worse was that this guy was amazing. and elderly. and playing solo. I don't know what it is. If this guy was playing on the street, or Dave Matthews songs, I wouldn't even think twice of walking past. But I was watching him play with more passion than just about every live show I've ever seen (and paid for). If this guy was from Brooklyn and singing in English, he'd be on the cover of magazines. But instead I was watching this old guy playing by himself in an empty restaurant and it was too much. I felt like we were taking advantage of this guy, and it was only fair to compensate him. I know you might be thinking "but he's paid by the restaurant". I don't know if this is true. and if it is, it wasn't enough. After all, we were tipping the waiter, and he wasn't even that good a waiter.

I tried to put it out of my mind. I thought if I could convince myself that he was singing some really lewd filth, I wouldn't feel obligated to tip him. I thought maybe he'd give up at the realization that he was only playing to two people, and poor-looking ones at that. But no. He kept playing, sounding better with each song. It was torture, beautiful torture. So we decided that we had to tip him. So I got up, nodded to the host as I walked towards the bathroom, and then bolted out the front door towards the nearest business that would give me cash back.

I don't know what the people at the Trader Joe's made of me, running in through their doors and scanning the aisles before grabbing a Toblerone. They probably thought I was a lunatic. When I went to pay for them, the clerk said "Looks like someone's new year's resolution is to eat more candy!" She smiled, and I probably should've just nodded and smiled back. Instead, with my heart pounding through my chest I huffed "no time to explain", got my cash back, and sprinted back to the restaurant. The guy was still playing the same song when I sat down*. I slipped Carrie the money and she tipped him at the next break. If I tried, the singer might have notice that I was a) out of breath, or b) suddenly had a giant Toblerone in my pocket.

The next song, he played a cover of "Sounds of Silence". I swear this was for our benefit, since before that his set consisted of traditional Mexican songs, but it might've just been that place in the rotation. I'm usually not big on this sort of thing, the zany cover**, but I swear this guy killed it. He was amazing, and I can't swear it wasn't the palpitations or the cold medicine, but I was almost moved to tears.

It was far from the cheapest meal we could've had (In n' Out), but that was still the best $5 I've spent in years.

*I know it's depressing that I was winded after some four minutes of running but, to be fair, I haven't been to the gym in almost a month and I had just downed a taco, an enchilada, and a plate of beans and rice. We're all lucky that my being winded was the worst of it.
**anyone who has visited this site for over a year or so can probably find hundreds of pieces of evidence contradicting this. Well keep yer trap shut.