pt anderson blogathon @ moon in the gutter

My film blogging comrade over at Moon in the Gutter, Jeremy Richey, is hosting a P.T. Anderson blogathon September 13-19 and it will no doubt be an entertaining, exciting event.  I’m contributing an essay–not sure which film I’ll be focusing on yet–and I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with.  I wrote a short piece about Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love in my first book, a film that is (I feel) one of the best of the last decade and a rather damn fine romantic comedy at that, so there’s always the temptation to revisit it… maybe do some screengrabs or something.  But I’ve been dying to write about There Will Be Blood since I saw it in January 2008 the day before I left for Europe and then watched again in the Leitrim Cinemobile when I was living in Ireland.  Seriously, some enterprising cinephiles in the States need to bring cinema to the masses with trucks like these.  They’re great.  And they’re warm too, which was surprising since it’s always so damn cold in Ireland year round!  Also, the cool thing about the Leitrim Cinemobile was that it would screen international films and smaller indie fare from the States… not blockbusters.  This was out in the boondocks, mind you.  We didn’t live in the city.  And these were real 35mm prints, not DVDs or digital projections.  Real films, real patrons in seats, and loads of arguments afterward as you scurried down the pub for a few pints.  Make sure to check out the video below that gives you a glimpse of how cool the Leitrim Cinemobile is.  But I digress.

P.T. Anderson.  Blogathon.  Moon in the Gutter.  That has Awesome all over it.

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may day in malaga

Malaga… I’m still only in Malaga….

There are worse fates, of course, but I still wasn’t supposed to be spending two days in this port city. We left lovely Granada on Wednesday and arrived by bus in Malaga late in the afternoon. The plan was to get into the mountains on Thursday and settle into our new digs…. But the buses don’t run on May Day! I should have known, but my track of time of late has been flexible at best.

Days go on and on… they don’t end…. But suddenly there is a change.

It was early afternoon. Too early for lunch, I was chatting with a friend of mine when I heard music floating up to my open hotel window… and someone shouting through a bullhorn. Was that The Internationale? Oh yes, comrades. May Day was here!

My companion and I fled our comfortable abode and hit the streets. Standing there across from the cathedral, we were bystanders. But not for long. Unable to resist the pull of the march, we joined in and marched through the old town, transforming a disappointing day (I really wanted to get into the country) into a beautiful, memorable one. Malaga… you won my heart.

Workers of the world, unite! Indeed.

port tropique by barry gifford

In fleeing… I mean leaving America, I made some difficult choices, decisions that I feared I would regret later on when I found myself in some ramshackle yet comfortable pub in Ireland or baking in the hot sun in Andalucia:

Why did I box up those damn Graham Greene novels? I knew I shouldn’t have packed that first Robert Stone novel! I wonder if I can find Under the Volcano here in Granada?

Big deal, right? Is that the world’s smallest fiddle I hear? Whatever.

For the most part, I think I made out okay. I packed a handful of paperbacks—mostly some film reference books and a book on Spanish football, Phil Ball’s Morbo—and some noir fiction, namely three David Goodis novels (Cassidy’s Girl, Black Friday, and Street of No Return), Bill Pronzini’s and Barry Malzberg’s Running of the Beasts, and Barry Gifford’s Port Tropique.

Gifford has long been a favorite of mine. I’m no completist, and I haven’t liked everything I’ve read (Arise and Walk was especially disappointing). But when Gifford is cooking, it’s like mainlining lightning. The Sailor and Lula novels are great, of course, as is the novel Night People and his book of film reviews, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Movies (long out of print, though it’s been reprinted under the title Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir, with some slight revisions). And then there are his collaborations with director David Lynch: Wild at Heart (1990; based on the novel), Hotel Room (1993), and my personal favorite, Lost Highway (1997). The latter film, with its neon bad mojo, deranged Möbius strip logic, and sudden impact va-voom courtesy of Patricia Arquette, all speed toward high fetishism for me and I make no apologies for it. There’s also Alex de la Iglesia’s 1997 film Perdita Durango (based on the novel of the same name), starring Rosie Perez as the title character, future Academy Award winner Javier Bardem, pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, and director Alex Cox in a bit part. It’s ugly, indulgent, violent, sleazy, unpleasant, clever, and I’m not even sure that I like it. But I keep going back to it because I was such a fan of Iglesia’s horror/comedy El dia de la Bestia (1995), and with every new viewing hope that Durango’s misguided dramatic free falls will drive me to some kind of new understanding or new insight. So far, though, it hasn’t worked out.

I pulled out Gifford’s Port Tropique a couple of days ago, sat out in the sun, and with each finely honed paragraph, each charged chapter fueled with death and a sort of sultriness that sours to malaise within seconds, I succumbed to the book’s undertow and felt the vibrant blue sky over me darken. The trip was short—Gifford, a master of sparseness and clipped Zen phrasing, kept it all perfectly down to 136 pages—but the afterburn of images and torrential negativity have stayed with me long into the next day’s read.

With its Central American locale, dissolute Norte Americano expats, and literary/cinematic references liberally staining the pages, I was sold. The noir-laced bad vibes aren’t Gifford simply dazzling us with some post-modern jazzing about, knowingly winking at us while mining a wealth of film noir imagery and Papa Hemingway’s chest of literary devices, not to mention mugging Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, B. Traven, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Robert Stone, and Sam Peckinpah for kicks. No, it’s not as simple as that. Gifford may be blunt at times, but he’s not obvious. In essence, this post-Beat American minimalist, poet, chronicler of the heartsick and dream-crushed, constructs his narrative with the materials of the true 20th Century American fiction legacy–hardboiled pulp fiction—and houses it with the only protagonist Americans truly understand: the loser.

Fuck Superman. Fred C. Dobbs is the true iconic American character. Or is that J.R. “Bob” Dobbs? I can never remember.

Lost in translation, memory-haunted Franz Hall spends his days drinking in the saloon, pining for the wife who has long given up on him and the dead child that he couldn’t save, and wastes his nights longing for the big score while guzzling Superiors at the local bar. Like an insect trapped in amber, Franz can’t escape from his memories. But he was a dead man long before he ever crossed the border. Port Tropique is a wasteland, a purgatory for the poor night creatures unable to speed up the inevitable curtain call, and Franz is center stage.

He eventually gets reined into working as a bagman for some local smugglers. Franz goes down to the docks in the middle of the night with his suitcase… some men in a boat will load him up with cash… he returns to his hotel until contacted and then unloads the money. He’ll earn some ducats in the process and everyone will be happy. Simple, right?

Not on your life. Franz can’t help but get wise and splits for the border with half a million dollars when Marxist rebels overtake the city, thrusting the country into chaos. The road from then on out grows darker for poor Franz. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the noir genre. This is night country… and salvation is hard to come by, if at all. Noir fiction, as well as in the films, is a bitter tonic and we like it that way. You’ll hear no complaints here. We like it hard and we like it mean. I just wish the book wasn’t so short. But that’s Gifford: never over staying his welcome and always keeping the story clipped and resonant with the power of vibrant bad dreams.

memory tombs: spain and me, part one

There are numerous ways in which a person can fall in love with a country. For some it is the culture and traditions that spark the imagination. For others it may be the history, politics, or football team of a particular region that demands devotion from the newly seduced. The exoticism of food, sex, and literature can also coax one into the undertow of romance.

Film has always swayed me the hardest. Somewhere embedded within the images, there is a truth flickering within the persuasive lie. The Italian Spaghetti Westerns probably did more to seduce me to Spain than anything else, especially to the region of Andalucia (where I am currently residing). Bunuel, of course. But it has been the horror film that I’ve been thinking the most about here in Granada. Perhaps that’s because the weather has been so dreadful of late.

Hope you enjoy the following clips. They are from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman (1971), Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), and Rec (2007) respectively.

boris spassky in granada

He no longer resembled the serious, nervous young Russian champ that had stealthily destroyed players with his expert, sometimes crushing middlegame. No longer, I suspect, did he secretly keep the White Queen in his pocket as he had as a child. In post-World War Two Soviet Union, Boris Spassky was trained to use his keen intelligence and stealthy courage to become one of the finest young chess players the country had ever produced, often playing five hours a day and trained by a procession of chess masters. He was a Grandmaster at the age of eighteen and fighting fit for a series of clashes over the next two decades that made him yet another standard-bearer of Soviet might.

Then he met Bobby Fischer.

Spassky and the late great highly controversial American chess superstar, still the only American to win the World Chess Championship, battled one another five times throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, then most notably during the 1972 World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they played twenty-one grueling games. The two month long tournament between the reigning champion Spassky and Fischer was billed as the “match of the century” and heightened with surrealism, aggravation, political intrusions by the U.S. and Soviet governments, rumors of mind control weapons being used on both players, and on and on and on. The mild-mannered Spassky and the outlandish, petulant though brilliant Fischer did manage to play chess amidst the carnival, with Spassky eventually resigning in heartbreaking fashion. I say heartbreaking, because although Fischer was without question one of the finest modern practitioners of the game, his persistent melodramatics and expertise at psychic warfare did as much to break Spassky down as did his skills on the board.

The events surrounding thst spectacular match-up are chronicled in Dave Edmonds and John Eidinow’s fabulous book, Bobby Fischer Goes to War, published in 2004. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. We’re talking desert island/favorite read here. It’s that good. Not surprisingly, the subject of Spassky v Fischer is headed for the silver screen as well. There’s not a lot written about the project yet, but it appears that Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) is set to helm it. I always thought P.T. Anderson would be a fantastic director for the job, with his strong visual sense, penchant for naturalism that could swerve into the realm of the absurd or surreal at any moment, and his attraction to brilliant misfits and tragic eccentrics. With Kubrick (who was an avid chess player in his own right) dead, Anderson would be perfect.

Spassky, mentally and physically drained, would continue to play competitive chess (he became the 1973 Soviet Chess Champion), though in later years the game would never possess him as it had pre-1972. Fischer, on the other hand, distanced himself from chess despite a boom in the game in the months after the Reykjavik tournament, especially in the U.S., and did not play a competitive match for the next twenty years until he played a rematch against his old rival Spassky in Yugoslavia. The unsanctioned “Revenge Match of the 20th Century” ended with Fischer beating Spassky again. Spassky returned to France, where he’s been living since the mid-1970s, and Fischer became an outlaw for the rest of his life after defying the U.N. embargo on playing the match and the subsequent U.S. arrest warrant.

Two weeks ago, as part of the Hay Festival Alhambra which lasted from April 3-6 and held at the magnificent Moorish fortress here in Granada, Spain, Spassky made a rare appearance. Playing a group of twenty players or so simultaneously, the great Russian expat jovially (though his White Queen was still shockingly violent at times) greeted the small crowd in attendance and then set to systematically beating all of his opponents. Except for one. That honored gentleman is featured in some of the pictures that I took, seen below. He’s the player in the green horizontal striped sweater having a nervous breakdown. Spassky beat his first opponent at the thirty minute mark. His second about a half-hour later and then the rest after he himself was beaten at the ninety minute mark. Watching a three hour chess exhibition may sound like slow death for some, but it was a superb and strange way to spend my third night in Granada. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

You can read more about Spassky’s appearance here, at my partner in mischief’s blog.

the traitor klaus and me

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I’ve been guilty of spreading aural mayhem via mix tapes and discs to unsuspecting friends in the past. The “gifts” were never intended as unprovoked attacks or as some latent resentment finally manifesting itself in the guise of discordant electronic assaults, primitive black metal howls, Japanese noise punk, or stabs of 1980s hardcore. To balance out the aggression, I’d usually toss in some Italian film library tracks or some Eno or some “apocalyptic folk” or some Boyd Rice spoken word stuff to go with the misanthropy and martinis.

To no one’s surprise but my own, I rarely received requests for more tapes. I was even accused of attempted assault in one case. So, I quit making them. I took my finger off the record button.

Last year, I changed my tack when I made a mix disc for a long lost friend who had reemerged into my life. Wanting to document in impressionistic hues the last twenty years of my life (I hadn’t been in contact with this person for that long), I collected a wide range of music that, I thought, perfectly charted the highs and lows of my interior life sans the aural mayhem. Darkness as a theme was certainly not denied entrance, but it wouldn’t dominate (because that would be a lie) as it had in those other discs. The music this time around would actually be intended to be enjoyed, listened to, and would warrant repeat sessions.

One of my earlier victims had long promised me one of his own mix disc creations. I was never sure whether to be thankful, afraid, or resigned to the cold dish of you-know-what awaiting me. But as the weeks passed into months and then years, I realized that I was going to make it out of America with ear drums intact, spinal column in place, and ego still propped up.

Just days before I left my hometown (yet again), my friend brought me a package. This was no simple one disc toss off. This was an eleven disc boxed set. This was a gift, a touching memento, this was… demented. On the train back east, I pretended it didn’t exist. On the flight to Dublin, I vaguely remembered that my companion had it nestled securely inside her bag. I pulled out the monstrosity while in the west of Ireland, and marveled at each thematically structured disc:

Greatest Ballads of Porn: Matthew Sweet, The Stones, Neko Case, The Kinks, The Frogs, The Beach Boys, Warren Zevon, Otis Redding, among others.

Some of the Best Songs in the Lower Half of My Collection (S-Z): Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, Zevon, XTC, The Vaselines, Television, Tenacious D, among others.

Fake Wes Anderson Imitation Soundtrack Made Cheaply and Carelessly for the Movie…: The Kinks, Richard and Linda Thompson, Simon and Garfunkel, Sleater-Kinney, Nilsson, The Soft Boys, among others.

Budget Makeout CD: Big Black, Mastodon, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Naked City, Rush, Queens of the Stone Age, among others.

Schlochkenmachen: Sabbath, The Boredoms, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Styx, Beck, Dylan, Captain Beefheart, among others.

Vegetarian Skinheads Getting Pissed Viddying Oprah at the Pub; a Musical Odyssey: The Frogs, The Beatles, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, The Buzzcocks, Elmore James, The Flaming Lips, The Handsome Family, among others.

The Traitor Klaus “What is Friend?”: Big Star, The Feelies, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, The Black Keys, Gary Numan, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, among others.

The beauty of the selections was staggering. Also included were two discs of Blue Oyster Cult recordings (we share a love), a disc of Zeppelin, and a disc of jazz (Davis, Coltrane, Coleman). When I finally surrendered to the majesty of the collection, I can’t put into words how wondrous the journey was. It’s still going on….

What is friend? Oh yes, my comrades, I think I know the answer to that one.

and it’s a battered old suitcase…

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Living abroad, basically out of a backpack, prevents one from maintaining the lifestyle of a pack rat. Before splitting from Portland for European lands, my comrade in mischief and I sold off hundreds of books to Powell’s Books. And what they wouldn’t take, we gave away. Although we started packing and getting rid of items a month in advance, the pressure to clear out our cluttered yet pleasantly comfortable apartment was cranked up pretty high those last two weeks. So plenty of books and VHS tapes went to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. What we chose to keep–still a good, solid library–got packed up and is supposedly safe and sound in some climate controlled wonderland waiting for us to return one day. My DVDs all went to a friend for safe keeping. No doubt they will be put to good use.

But some of my discs managed to escape being orphaned and are currently accompanying me on my journeys. In the past, when I had traveled “close to the ground,” the thought of having immediate access to films was absurd. And though I would occasionally dream of having films at my disposal, the idea was completely within the realm of science fiction. In the early 1990s, during my first lengthy trip to Europe, I was basically living in a cave. No, seriously. Well, it was a small, unheated one room flat with stone walls and only a wood stove to heat the place. I craved movies, but I craved heat even more. The last time that I was overseas for an extended period of time was 1996, DVDs were still a year away from entering the forum of mainstream acceptability, and therefore the idea of packing a bunch of them with me was ridiculous. I might as well have had access to a jet pack.

Not that I would want to take a traveling case of discs with me anyhow. Traveling, at least the way I’ve always done it, has been about surrendering the comforts of home, relinquishing the familiar, and attempting to reconnect with the alleyways of life.

Anyway, books were more transportable.

Things are different now. Because of work, I have to have access to films, or at least access to the machine that can bring them to life: a laptop. So I brought some with me and it ended up being a perfect opportunity to test out the “desert island” theory of film watching. You’re on a desert island and you can only bring twenty-five films. What films do you bring?

I stowed away a fair bit. Films that would inspire, would sharpen the intellectual batteries, would amuse, would withstand the repeat factor, and would continue to charge the imagination when nothing else would. There was also “homework” to consider, so a few of those ended up with me as well, though most of the required viewing is still back in Oregon awaiting orders to re-enlist for duty.

So what did make the cut? Obvious favorites, to be sure: Seven Samurai, Blade Runner (in all its permutations), Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Le Samurai, Heart of Glass, The Conformist, Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, Suspiria, the Sergio Leone westerns, Bad Timing, The Thin Red Line, The Searchers and some other Ford/Wayne westerns, The Wild Bunch, a whole lot of Mario Bava and other European horror films from the 1960s, Barry Lyndon, some Godard, some Truffaut, a couple of Japanese horror films, a couple of samurai films, all of the Val Lewton films, and Lifeforce. Yes, Lifeforce, the craptacular 1985 Tobe Hooper movie. I also tossed in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise because I’ve never seen it (an embarrassing admission) and what better time to watch it than when abroad and more likely to have a little time to spare for a 190 minute masterpiece. I’d received the Criterion Collection disc for a review that never panned out and was always waiting for that appropriate rainy day. Well, it took a few years and me having to leave my abode to do it, but I plan on watching it soon.

When planning my exile, I’d expected to watch plenty of films. I purchased a good, compact traveling case and stuffed it with digital goodies. Much to my surprise, my old ways have sort of kicked in again. I haven’t watched much. The first month we were too much on the go, getting acclimated to traveling again. But this last month we’ve been stationary, so we managed to watch The Devil’s Backbone, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 Robin Hardy film not the LaBute/Cage carnival of guffaws) and a couple of nights ago I settled into the Lewton/Robson film The Ghost Ship. More about that last one in a near-future post.

This new, more accommodating style of traveling is weird. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it’s still weird to have the luxury of being seemingly so far from “home,” so far from the familiar and yet be so connected. It’s not exactly like I’m in some mountain retreat at the moment, so I’m not too worked up about it. But it does make me wonder that if I was on a real desert island, I think watching a movie would be the last thing on my “to-do” list.