... but you'd probably like colinmarshall.org if you gave it a chance.
My inquest on alternative Los Angeles novels just hit The Millions. Excerpt:
You Millions habitués presumably prepare for life’s big events the same way I do: by gorging yourselves on novels to do with those events, tenuously to do those events, and, well… beyond. Readying myself for a move to Los Angeles, I naturally turned to literature, but I decided to avoid the region’s richest, oldest, most beloved literary currents: its unflinching examinations of Old Hollywood, its hardscrabble outsider odysseys toward the kingdom of celebrity, its hard-boiled tales of murderous intrigue and complex deceit beneath the palm trees. Those novels became iconic for a reason, but I had to ask: given Los Angeles’ practically unfathomable size and diversity, what other kinds of literature does it offer?
So I asked all the readers I could for their recommendations of “alternative,” “adventurous,” “unusual,” “non-canonical,” or just “weird” Los Angeles novels, keeping the question purposefully vague enough to ensure a wide variety of responses. These five books, mentioned by readers based in the city and elsewhere as well as by readers for the city and against it, “clicked” together in my mind to form the beginnings of a new, personal, Los Angeles canon.
And now, please excuse me while I return to panhandling.
I’m riding the highest wave of my Nicolas Roeg obsession. I’ve been watching and re-watching his films, sure, but I’ve also been seeking out all the interviews with him I can Google and reading all the books on his work I can pull from the library stacks. (For what it’s worth, I suspect that the definitive book on Roeg, or even the definitive collection of interviews, has yet to appear.) Naturally, for this month’s edition of my 3QuarksDaily film column The Humanists, I look at Roeg’s 1971 solo directorial debut Walkabout:
None of us really think about it anymore, especially if we grew up in Crocodile Dundee’s pop-cultural heyday, but... how weird is Australia? This land mass, just large enough to qualify for continent status, hanging out by itself underneath Asia? Starkly arid and desolate, for the most part, between its eastern and western edges? Ten thousand miles from England, yet full (in a sense) of Brits? Without a doubt, Australia makes the short list of countries that can freak you out if you think hard enough about them. It doesn’t sit at the top — stiff competition from Turkmenistan, Paraguay, and North Korea — but which filmmakers bother to actively engage with it? The Mad Max pictures grew more grotesque as they went along, but in a speculatively flamboyant way that didn’t really engage the actual weirdness. Baz Luhrmann seems to hold a grasp on some of his homeland’s deep askewness, but his movies tend to convert it into mere eccentricity.
But if we’re keeping it to high international profiles, we’ve got to talk about Nicolas Roeg. Despite suffering the apparent disadvantage of growing up in London and not, say, Alice Springs, he nevertheless managed, in his solo directorial debut Walkabout, to deliver an Australia never seen before — or, for that matter, since. More specifically, he delivers an Australian outback, and a drama in it, never seen before or since, dropping a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl and her six-year-old brother right into the thick of it. Cinephiles, or even enthusiasts of modern myth, know the rest of the story: the uniformed, near-albinistically white siblings — credited only as “Girl” and “White Boy” — just about succumb to dehydration when they come across a young Aboriginal tribesman — “Black Boy” — who ultimately leads them back to their civilization, though only after a series of fatal failures to communicate.
That plot opens up a minefield of potential cinematic embarrassments, including but not limited to telling the story with a standard “survival” movie or, worse, telling it with a standard “noble savage” movie. The Girl and the White Boy owe their lives to the Black Boy, true, but Roeg doesn’t convey it with a broadside against Western civilization, colonial arrogance, excessive whiteness, or what have you, even though those seem like tacks the film has to take. I’d dragged my feet on seeing it for the first time because of my fear that Roeg, who had become one of my favorite filmmakers immediately after I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth, would succumb to obvious moralistic clichés. How foolish of me; watching any given Roeg film should assure you that, even when he uses time-worn components of plot or character — and he usually does — he fits them together with a box of tools all of his own cockeyed invention.
Lord help me, I just couldn’t resist the chance to compare cinema’s available creative space to the Australian outback, Roeg to one of the true adventurers who dares enter it regularly — and most other directors to the two white kids before they’ve ever left Adelaide.
I don’t laugh at jokes. Not usually. Hence my enduring non-presence at comedy clubs the nation over. I don’t dislike actual comedians deliberately doing comedy — lord knows I enjoy ‘em on podcasts — but the expectations their contexts set up make me horrifically tense and squirrely. In the presence of a performing stand-up comic, my entire body petrifies into a semi-smiley rictus as I laboriously, mechanically grunt out “laughs,” even if I actually find the comedian funny. Despite often enjoying great yuks at authors’ readings or more “storytelling”-centric events (such as a RISK! taping or a Mike Daisey monologue, although the latter remains theoretical since you need, like, San Francisco money to see a Mike Daisey monologue), I just can’t laugh in situations which, explicitly or implicitly, tell me I’m about to laugh.
How to put into words what does make me... not just laugh, but, in net parlance, ROFL IRL? Sometimes I get nailed not by jokes, per se, but “humor” in a broader, more tonal sense. David Sedaris’ turns of phrase score a high hit-to-miss ratio here, but I don’t know that I can trot one out meaningfully — though I’ve got more than a few memorized — without propping up more context than you’re going to want to read. (For fellow Sedarites: I think a lot about the way he describes Dupont Charles’ “hopeless State of the Union address delivered from an overturned bucket.”) That’s the more obvious type of thing I laugh at. As for the less obvious type of thing I laugh at, perhaps I can best explain by examples — specifically, by the two funniest things I’ve read this year.
One of the funniest things I’ve read this year came in the form of a tweet from Karl Haley, a.k.a Asymmetricon:
After leaving Andersen's Pea Soup this morning, my mom expressed what we've all felt for the last 40 years: "The food is shit."
God, just picture it: a guy and his mom emerge from Andersen’s Pea Soup — in the morning, and somehow picturing it in the still-getting-light haze of the early A.M. makes it better — then the mom suddenly turns and says only, “The food is shit.” And it bursts the floodgates on four decades of society’s pent-up frustration with Andersen’s Pea Soup. Andersen’s Pea Soup. For a couple weeks now, I’ve been cracking myself up on the daily with nothing more than a muttered “the food is shit.” I actually lobbied Karl to stop locking his tweets — to actively endanger his privacy — so that I could retweet this one.
I’ve also kept the phrase “killed in a bar when he was only three” in high comedionanistic rotation. Why? Because of one particular response to my staggeringly popular Ask MetaFilter thread about things we’ve misunderstood all along:
Since he was "killed in a bar when he was only three," I had no idea why there was a whole show about an adult Davy Crockett. Why was a three-year-old in a bar, anyway?
That question — what could a three-year-old have been doing in a bar? — gets right at what I find so funny about bits like these: they raise so many unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. Oh YHWH I’m chuckling too hard to even type this. How could Davy Crockett have become such a beloved character in American legend if all he did was die? At three? In a bar? Why would the modern television industry go so far as to base an entire long-running series around a dead toddler? Did they stage the storyline in some alternate universe of the Davy Crockett mythos where he... just doesn’t die in that bar at three, and then goes on to have a rousing, rough-and-tumble frontier life? Above all, why would they want to do that?
(A simple but yet infinitely complex “Why?” ends up being the main question about everything I find hilarious.)
Adam Cadre posted a resonant example of this sort of “humor” — that, at least to my mind, works much better than the genuinely crafted stuff — a few years back:
At the Berkeley Bowl I overheard a mother tell her little daughter that she could get a seaweed snack. The daughter asked, "Can I get two?" and the mother said, no, just one. The little girl replied, sadly, "But I love dem." I don't think a day has gone by since that I have not ended up using that phrase in one context or another. It's all in the delivery.
Soon, “The food is shit,” “Killed in a bar at the age of three,” and “But I love dem” will all settle into place in my verbal repertoire, to be dispensed in every possible situation despite their lack of obvious jokiness and difficulty to explain on the internet. I’ve also been getting a lot of mileage lately out of Vera-Ellen’s lament from On the Town that she’s turned out to be nothing more than a “cooch dancer,” but that one’s all too easily explained.
This may be one of the strangest post requests ever requested, but shoot: I’d like to see you write about your proclivity to close your eyes while talking. For some reason, that stood out to me while watching the video.
There are a number of subquestions that interest me:
Why do you do it?
What causes you to do it and what does it do for you?
How aware are you of doing it?
What do you think others think of it?
I don’t mean to imply that this is in any way a strange behavior, and I hope you are not insecure about it. If anything is strange, it is my interest in these questions.
This didn’t seem at first like it would open a can of worms, but hoo boy does it. Years of practice have geared me to explain this in terms of the sheer degree of focus and reflection I feel everything anyone says to me deserves — and even the interviewer who conducted the interview to which Justin refers asked directly about this habit of mine and framed it in just those terms — but I can equally and oppositely explain it by admitting that my social skills are teh suck.
Okay, maybe I just fear that my social skills are teh suck, but flip open a textbook on autism-spectrum disorders and see if it doesn’t call out a habitual failure to make and maintain eye contact as one of the redder, wavier flags. I hold up a little better at age 26, but as a kid I couldn’t talk or listen to somebody while looking straight at them without chanting the internal equivalent of “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” and thereby losing my train of thought and ability to respond coherently. I do genuinely want to give peoples’ questions due attention and consideration, but figuring out I could exaggerate the physical element of that and not have to look at people made for a useful trick indeed. For a while.
But that only covers one artifact of the childhood I inexplicably spent hammering “IF OTHER PERSON, THEN AVOID” into my personality’s source code. If I burnt vast swathes of my sixth year of life hiding in my bedroom with Parsec, I burnt vast swathes of my first year of college hiding in my dorm room with DVDs of Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Because that, my friends, is what you move 1200 miles to UC Santa Barbara to do: close the door and hope desperately that nobody invites you to something that might interrupt your Boogie Nights commentary track, while at the same time hoping desperately that somebody invites you to something that might interrupt your Boogie Nights commentary track.
I don’t know who to blame for this, but oh man, am I pointing my finger wildly. The habit of swerving wildly around possible human contact has a way of persisting on a deep, reptilian neurological level, even though I haven’t actually wanted to avoid people for a long time, where “wanted” refers to a function somewhere in the part of my higher consciousness that, I don’t know, reads a lot of László Krasznahorkai. Or seriously intends to. By myself. Alone. In a room. O LORD MAKE IT STOP
Bizarrely, and unlike a great many young people with hundreds of read books logged to my name, I didn’t endure a childhood filled with savage mockery. I can’t even recall a single instance of mild, garden-variety, they’re-just-doing-it-because-they-want-a-rise-out-of-you taunting, despite my habit of — shockingly — carrying both tabletop role-playing game rulebooks and photobooks of the world’s various domestic cat breeds. To school. There I sat in the dining commons, practically demanding an atomic wedgie, and nothing — although this policy of voluntary autism might’ve prevented me from noticing if day ever came.
“I’m afraid your child is deeply autistic,” says a grown-up’s voice bubble from off the panel in one of Matt Groening’s Life is Hell comics, compendia of which I liked to shove in my backpack alongside Ninjas & Superspies and The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Cats. “Me,” thinks the surreptitiously listening youngster in the panel’s center, “artistic?” This has since become my go-to term for those who display the same residual behaviors I so despise and futilely seek to eradicate in myself. “Man, was that artistic,” I’ll think to myself after spending half an hour instinctively spending forty minutes looking for an answer to a question on blessedly unjudging Google that I could’ve settled in a simple thirty-second phone call to a living being. Madelaine favors a certain kind of paper called Artistico, long logo-emblazoned boxes of which stand in the corner of our apartment. “Ugh, what an artistico,” I’ll hatefully mutter to myself after my more flamboyant acts of social self-sabotage.
Anyway, to answer Justin’s questions, I’ll clamp my peepers tight (just kidding! This is the internet, where it’s safe) and say:
Why do you do it? Impulse
What causes you to do it and what does it do for you? The atavistic impulse to hide, and it delays an immediate freakout now while bolstering the greater, more existential freakout going on even now
How aware are you of doing it? I know it’s an impulse, but I do feel myself doing it every time, which adds another tricky loop of meta-ness to deal with while I’m trying to talk
What do you think others think of it? “I definitely shouldn’t give this guy any money”
Instead of writing about my personal history, I should have just posted Socially Awkward Penguins:
“Is there a word,” I Asked MetaFilter “for the fear that you're doing something wrong but don't know what it is? Though my searches reveal nothing, I believe there simply must be a name for the fear that you're doing something wrong that prevents you from succeeding (broadly defined), but don't or cannot know what that wrong thing is. Someone suffering from this condition might strongly suspect that they constantly commit and have always committed some social faux pas but also feel unable to identify that faux pas.”
This line of thinking probably doesn’t come only from my recent re-reading of Errol Morris’ “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is”, though that did its part. I don’t fear the Dunning-Kruger Effect, when “our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” (Though, by definition, how would I know to fear it?) I don’t fear that the world has secretly turned against me, since I most often hear that sort of grumbling from people too powerless in the first place for a world to consider entities at all. I fear being held back, and knowing I’m being held back, by my own mistakes, mistakes I can’t identify.
In the world of Leonard “Stinky” Brown from Hate, “Could it be that I’m a total asshole and never realized it?” Now, I can’t point to any particularly harmful tics, critical knowledge gaps, routine oversights, or bad social behaviors on my part — but therein lies the whole problem! If I knew what I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t do it, but as it stands my only identifiable evidence remains my total lack of success. I don’t need anything more to stoke the worst suspicions about myself.
The MeFites came up with these possible banners:
These all sound interesting, but don’t quite capture it. Suggestions? Try to let me know before my MacArthur Fellowship comes in, since that will probably make the condition go away.
Just the other week, I appeared on my favorite Santa Barbara cultural institution, Channel 21’s The Creative Community with David Starkey:
David and I chat about The Marketplace of Ideas, Observer, cinema (the most-vital-director-of-our-time you see me forgetting is Sangsoo Hong), Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, the modern novel, and other important stuff.
Other interviews with me in the past few years include:
The Greek Theatre, Saturday, July 9 — that made the second time I’ve seen Steely Dan play live. The first came nearly eight years ago at the Universal Ampitheatre (hey, I’m just going with the spelling the venues themselves use) right after I’d plopped myself down in Santa Barbara from Seattle. I figured that, in the process of preparing myself for the next plop, this one to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara, I should see Steely Dan again. They’d scheduled their show the night before my dad’s birthday, too, so I’d have been a fool not to take advantage of the confluence.
Other Steely Dan fans I meet routinely assume my dad got me into the band. I don’t fault them, since he’s the same age as Donald Fagen, and I’m the same age as... I don’t know, Avril Lavigne? But he’s told me stories of hearing the likes of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Reelin’ in the Years” so many times so very involuntarily in the mid-seventies that he didn’t want to drill down any further. I can sympathize; who knows how many artists I can’t properly hear due to abuse by overexposure at the hands of the zeitgeist? (Outkast comes to mind.) When I first heard Steely Dan, by contrast, I heard them with the receptive ears of someone trapped in the web of nü-metal the year 2001 wrapped around every teenager.
“The Dan” quickly became the only “rock” band to which I could pledge allegiance, not just because they took/take more care with their music’s composition and recording than any of their colleagues did in the seventies — or do even now — but because they eschewed rock’s simple (and, as I always thought, fakey) emotions just as they eschewed its simple arrangements and instrumentation. I realize that simple emotions and simple instrumentation — the simpler, more straightfoward, more “raw” the better — do a very appropriate artistic job indeed for teenagers roiling with Holden Caulfieldesque rage at the world, but I lacked that rage. I suffered instead from... jeez, my own weirdly complicated suite of desires, maybe? And I don’t mean “complicated” in a good way.
But nor do I mean it in a bad way! Steely Dan’s music operates on its very own morality, its very own aesthetics, its very own rubric of judgment, and I suspect Becker and Fagen rank ambiguity very highly in all three categories. My first and least deniable impulse to buy all their albums flared up in response to sheer craftsmanship; I recall a story about how they spent four solid hours in the studio mixing the fadeout on ”Babylon Sisters”, and the Classic Albums: Aja documentary remains my testament to studio obsessiveness of choice. But as the years pass, I keep them in high rotation (if only in my mind, sometimes) because of that distinctive S.D. sensibility. The worship of loserdom; the point in the circle where high life meets lowlife; the makeshift cultural pantheon grown at once from midcentury U.S. optimism, its repudiation, and ideas of exoticism rooted in both; humor that isn’t jokes; the unquestioned if not unquestionable taste of an upmarket-downmarket aesthete (or “sensualist”) in people, places, and products (“We love beautiful women, fine wine, suede moccasins” - W.B.); the maximization of possible interpretations; one’s raised eyebrow at both one’s own skeevy glances and one’s lack of real desire to do more than glance skeevily — these resonate ever more strongly with me over time.
This combines with a kind of wonky work ethic. From Sound on Sound:
The stories of Fagen and Becker's "obsession" are legion. For instance, when working on their second album, Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), they ran an eight-bar loop of two-inch tape to an idler wheel outside the control room in an attempt to achieve drum machine-like precision in the rhythm section. When working on Gaucho (1980), they pioneered the use of engineer Roger Nichols' freshly developed Wendel sampling drum machine and audio sampler (12.5kHz/12-bit) for drums and percussion. An indication of the amount of overdubbing, splicing, and re-recording that went into their quest for perfection was that Nichols and Scheiner used up 360 rolls of tape recording Gaucho.
For Fagen and Becker only the very best session musicians (meaning, in the '70s, the likes of Jeff Porcaro, David Sanborn, Randy Becker, Larry Carlton and Joe Sample) and engineers (Scheiner, Nichols, Bill Schnee) would do, and even these top guys were pressed hard to perform beyond their best.
Maybe I’ve just built up some sort of internal deficiency from logging so many empty day-job hours, but I feel a fast-growing thirst — a thirst, I tell you — to work unreasonably hard on something, to spend my days (and nights) on my own equivalent of Becker and Fagen’s four-hour fadeout or Hunter Thompson’s complete Gatsby retype or Kubrick’s 148 takes of Shelley Duvall walking through a door or what have you. I must sublimate myself entirely into the creation of things, though these things — and here, all the articles assure me, comes the sticking point — must keep me in collar stays, Asahi, and shelter.
In any case, my five most beloved Steely Dan songs are as follows:
“Bad Sneakers” (Katy Lied, 1975) Alongside Aja’s “Deacon Blues, this song may best encapsulate the classic Steely Dan protagonist, rumpled even before he was beaten down by the world, stripped of everything but the dignity of the louche obscurantist. “Bad sneakers and a piña colada, my friend. Stomping on the avenue by Radio City with a transistor and a large sum of money to spend.”
“The Caves of Altamira” (The Royal Scam, 1976) The story of a boy who regularly escapes into a “hole of rock and sand” full of prehistoric paintings has only gained relevance, especially after Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. (Different country, but still.) An ideal example of how Becker and Fagen took a set of truly late-seventies sounds — behold that John Klemmer sax solo — and made them timeless by skewing them just enough.
“Black Cow” (Aja, 1977) I often refer to this as my favorite song of all time, and I sometimes even believe it. As in “Caves of Altamira”, the repurposed late-seventies horns do a lot to make that happen, but only while listening to this song did my lyrical epiphany come: you don’t want words that mean one thing and one thing only; you don’t want words that mean everything, and thus mean nothing; you want words that mean an interesting range of things. Steely Dan write such words better than anyone, and “Black Cow” has more such words than any other in their oeuvre. Also, I moved to Santa Barbara in part because a local coffee shop offered black cows.
“Babylon Sisters” (Gaucho, 1980) The other reason I moved to Santa Barbara was UCSB’s mascot: the gaucho. Even some Steely Dan fans dismiss Gaucho as a suffocating, sinister album, but I consider it the great piece of Los Angeles noir of the eighties. Ironically, Becker and Fagen recorded it with New York session players, who balked at all the workhorseism that Aja’s L.A. guys took in relative stride. This song, Gaucho’s opening track, sets the highly distinctive dark-but-glossy tone for the rest of the record as the narrator casually high-tails it out of the city with a couple of girls while the Santa Ana winds blow...
“Gaslighting Abbie” (Two Against Nature, 2000) … which would do all the necessary thematic setup for the project that would follow a couple decades later. Total coincidence made this song, also an album-opener, the first from Steely Dan I ever “really listened” to. Back in high school, I liked to drop by Hawthorne Stereo on Roosevelt to ogle receivers, amps, and turntables I could never in a thousand years afford — definitely not in ten, anyway. The man on duty one fateful day was using Two Against Nature as a system-testing disc and “Gaslighting Abbie” as a system-testing song. Anybody would fall for a song under those conditions, you might argue, but this sneaky paean to a sketchy younger woman, the first on a record full of them (“If the price of making a good record is looking like dirty old men, Fagen and Becker have no qualms about paying.” - Robert Christgau) , still held up when I got home as a 128kbps MP3 piped through PC speakers with Winamp. Remember Winamp? (See also: chiptune edition!)