Culture To Go

Bob Callahan & Scott Gillis

Barry Gifford's Perdita Durango

Neon Lit/Avon

In Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, author Joe David Bellamy laments the current state of American letters in "an Age of Eye Candy suffering from tooth decay of the soul." What he would make of the Neon Lit series of illustrated fiction I don't know; perhaps it'd rate as a kind of literary health food confection, the Tiger's Milk bars of the book world.

That's not to say these books aren't worth savoring, or that you'd give 'em to your kids as snacks. Inspired by '20s pulps and post-war film noir, Neon Lit applies to current crime fiction the same kind of graphic chops Art Spiegelman (who edits the series along with writer Bob Callahan) brought to Maus. They read fast, but like all good comix--or lit, for that matter--you'll find yourself going back again and again, finding new details and lingering over familiar ones.

The series debuted last year with Paul Auster's psuedo-autobiographical noir City of Glass and continues with Gifford's Perdita Durango, which offers up further adventures of the bloodthirsty firebrand played by Isabella Rossellini in the Gifford/Lynch film Wild At Heart. Gifford steps to racist fears with his murderous Latina-and-Jamaican couple in a way that might (and probably should) make readers uncomfortable. But evil is a given here; some sinners are just more charming than others. Meanwhile, Scott Gillis's scratchboard illustrations positively hum with energy, combining high-contrast drama and creepy realism in a timeless, Lynchian sorta place where a dread and a retro-punk can wander into what appears to be a late 1950s performance by Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera.

From Japanese manga to Latin American soaps, illustrated literature has long been a cultural staple around the world. With the Neon Lit series, the U.S. starts catching up in an impressive way. A little eye candy isn't always a bad thing. (Will Hermes)


BOOKS

Hanif Kureishi

The Black Album

Scribner

In his second novel, Kureishi, the screenwriter of My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and London Kills Me, takes on the trials and tribulations of Shahid, an uncertain community college student. A lonely newcomer to London, Shahid finds a friend in his neighbor Riaz, and despite his religious ambivalence, falls in with this charismatic Islamic preacher (who somehow combines race activism, working class organizing, and the Koran) and his zealous troop of South Asian students. In contrast to Shahid's search for community is his lust for his young, white hipster professor Deedee Osgood, who so firmly believes in her progressive politics that she takes lovers among her black and Asian students; with her he discovers escape in all-night raves, Ecstasy, and sexual abandon. Shahid passively bounces between Riaz and Deedee, but is eventually forced to choose between them in a zany series of events involving the fatwah on Salman Rushdie, some erotic poetry, and an eggplant which was found with a message from Allah.

Kureishi is known for his engaging and clever, if not hilarious writing, but, more importantly, for his success in bringing a sassy wit to issues of racial conflict, immigrant alienation, and the hypocrisies of white, bourgeois progressive politics. The Black Album's main flaw, however, is that its central conflict--Shahid's choice between Riaz and Deedee--is not compelling enough because both characters are somewhat shallow. In response to the fatwah on Rushdie, Riaz and his posse burn The Satanic Verses; Deedee tries to censure these censors by calling in the police. After you finish the book and the buzz of Kureishi's witty writing wears off, you realize you're in the same place you were when you started the trip--only now it's gotten later. (Andrew K. Kim)

Jonathan Kozol

Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation

Crown

Coverage of the death of 6-year old Alisa Izquierdo late last year in New York City after years of child abuse provoked outrage and grief across the country. While Alisa's story doesn't appear in Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, it could. She could be 7-year-old Cliffie, who talks about seeing a man get shot like it's an everyday occurrence. Or perhaps Annabelle, who is 11 and optimistic despite the barren wasteland of her South Bronx neighborhood.

Jonathan Kozol has been writing about poverty, education and homelessness for almost 30 years, and his message hasn't gotten any more hopeful since Death at an Early Age, an account of his first year as a Boston public school teacher. In his latest book, the voices of poor children are much more prominent than those of academics and analysts: His aim is to let those speak who are most affected by the increasing poverty in the United States, then highlight statistics to try and get to the root of it all. Amazing Grace offers no easy solutions, but once again Kozol eloquently argues for America's need to change its priorities. We can only hope that people will start listening. (Thomas Marzahl)

Jim Goldberg

Raised By Wolves

Scalo

Photographer Jim Goldberg's work has such emotional energy that it almost hovers above the pages of this book, remaining troubling long after it's set aside. Like Orpheus, Goldberg descended into an underworld--in this case the worlds of teenage runaways in Los Angeles and San Francisco--and returned with 10 years' worth of pictures capturing these kids, who haunt street corners and doorways, underpasses and crash pads, hustling sex and panhandling for enough drug money to keep them numb.

Accompanying the photos are chillingly dispassionate narratives written by their subjects, who, in recounting their daily lives, are stripped of their protective veneer of rebellion. Echo ran to escape years of molestation by her stepfather; Tweeky Dave left because his father shot him (he's got a 10-inch scar as a reminder). Of the numerous kids whose lives are touched on in this book, many are dead, with others likely to follow. In his years on the street, Goldberg fell hard for Tweeky Dave and others, developing close relationships and helping as best he could. But it became too difficult, and ultimately he had to climb back out. He looked back long enough to break his heart and, by the time we've finished the book, ours too. (Ryan Peck)

VIDEO

Exotica

Miramax

The first line of dialogue in Atom Egoyan's sapphire-hued mystery comes from a Canadian customs officer looking through a two-way mirror at a stream of travelers. "You have to ask yourself," he muses, almost tenderly, "what brought the person to this point." Exotica's literal smuggler is soon exposed; the messier secrets borne by the rest of the characters take a bit longer to unpack. Following Egoyan's elegantly telescoping revelations, the viewer discovers herself as the hidden observer on the other side of the mirror, in a film preoccupied as much with cinema as it is with psychic motivation.

After leading with the exotic-egg smuggler, Thomas (Don McKeller), Egoyan introduces three comparably formulaic characters, all denizens of an exotic-dancing establishment: the sleazy DJ providing microphone sex (Elias Koteas); the customer obsessed with one particular dancer (Bruce Greenwood, queasily driven); the cool bisexual "showgirl" with a line in school-girl fantasies (a mercurial Mia Kirshner). The film spies through more two-way mirrors with the DJ and then--through the metaphorical mirror of Thomas--into the trio's mixed-up memories, a blue tangle of loss, violence, and desire. On the trail of the past's intrusions into the present, Exotica confuses, intrigues, and finally cauterizes--almost too easily. As the strip bar's madam tells Greenwood's Francis, "We're here to entertain, not to heal." But Francis knows better, and so does Egoyan. The mystery of good cinema is that it must try to do both. (Terri Sutton)

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

Manga Entertainment

No, it's not a pornographic fantasy about the Barnum midget. It's a new take on the classic folktale, a stop-motion animated feature that has won a chestful of festival awards since its 1993 theatrical release. Produced by a group of British animators called the bolexbrothers, this Tom Thumb unfolds in a nightmare city resembling Kafka's Prague, only dingier. Tom himself is a distinctly fetal micro-child with wide blue eyes, born in squalor to bestial but loving parents. His troubles begin when respirator-snouted scientists kidnap him for research purposes; he escapes, joins up with a band of neolithic lilliputians, and the rest of the story concerns his ill-fated attempts to return home.

The story, however, counts for far less than the manner of its telling. There's hardly any dialogue, just grunts and a few grunted words, plus Tom's nonverbal squeakings, while synthesizers, industrial noise, and accordions dominate the soundtrack. The screen crawls with life: metal insects, a monster with an electrical-cable tail, a plate of squirming food; and the "real" life--the live actors who play regular humans--is also rendered herky-jerky by the stop-motion technique. Tom Thumb is a movie of exquisite textures, a powerful blend of pathos and the bizarre. As I watched, my perspective shifted, so that Tom no longer seemed abnormally small; instead, the big people appeared as giants, the oafish, greedy, cruel creatures of legend. I can't say that I saw myself in them--but I do think I recognized you. (Steve Schroer)

The Water Engine: An American Fable

Turner Home Entertainment

You've already significantly lightened your wallet in duly taking the whole family to see Jumanji and Toy Story; now's your chance to give them a real surprise by reserving a copy of The Water Engine. Written by that prince of terse darkness, David Mamet, and directed by first-timer Steven Schacter--who gets many kudos for softening Mamet's frequently too-stylized dialogue--this video has something for everyone: Super-fast pacing and virtually no violence for the kids, snappy dialogue and Joe Mantegna with a silly accent for the cinéastes, and an ambivalent ending that can either be deeply pessimistic or fantastically optimistic, and will provoke spirited discussions among everyone.

William Macy (seen in Homicide, House of Games, and other Mamet movies) plays Charles Lang, a Depression-era Chicago drill press operator. Taking his plans for an engine that runs on water to a seedy patent attorney, he runs up against the evil Lawrence Oberman (Mantegna), who is determined to destroy Lang's life's work. Set against the backdrop of the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition and containing vignettes of communist speeches, the film raises issues of whether technology and capitalism will ruin or save us. It is nicely framed by a narrator, Martin Sheen, reading a fatalistic chain letter that circulates to all the major and minor characters, (of which there are many). The letter raises lots of pithy questions, like: Does good fortune come through hard work or luck? Is a sense of accomplishment enough, without material reward? While huddled in the glow of the TV set, you and your loved ones can decide. (Dara Moskowitz)

Destiny Turns on the Radio

HBO Savoy Home Video

I play this little game I call "Would you rather..." which goes something like this: Would you rather see Quentin Tarantino naked or have "MEAT" tattooed on your forehead? Choose one or you get them both. Unfortunately, since I didn't know Naked Quentin (shudder) was part of the bargain with Destiny Turns on the Radio, I never got that choice. At least I didn't have to see his butt.

Fortunately, the rest of the film is nowhere near as repulsive, due mostly to the spiffy work of the chiseled Dylan McDermott, frizzy-haired Nancy Travis, and my dream date, James Le Gros. However talented these folks are, though, there's little doubt this metaphysical-escaped-convict-love-story got the green light because of Tarantino's involvement.

Mr. T plays Johnny Destiny, a sort of '90s version of Clarence, the guardian angel in It's a Wonderful Life. Of course we're talking Tarantino here, so this angel's definitely darker and sports a polyester and leather (or "pleather," if you will) wardrobe. His role, though pivotal, is gratefully small (albeit, at times, naked); once he sets things in motion, the movie's safely back in the hands of real actors.

Fresh off a prison break, Julian (McDermott) heads for Las Vegas to track down true love Lucille (Nancy Travis) and his share of a bank heist pulled off with his pal Thoreau (Le Gros). From there things get kooky: There's a supernatural swimming pool, a possibly immaculate conception, and Travis crooning lounge tunes. James Belushi even pops in to up the oddity factor. A weird film, full of offbeat moments you'll either love or hate. As I'm trying to be a little more positive about things these days, I choose love. (Andrew Peterson)

MUSIC

Mongo Santamaria

Mongo Returns

Milestone

Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers

Rip A Dip

Milestone

These CDs share the Milestone record label, producer Todd Barkan, many of the same Latin jazz instrumentalists, and the fact that both Mongo and Pucho are Tito Puente percussion disciples attempting comebacks to rival their commercial successes in the '60s and '70s. The differences are mostly attitudinal: Pucho, who has spent his decades out of the limelight up in the Catskills, presumably igniting mambo lines among the tourists, takes a more playfully cheesy tack, be it novelty tunes like "Hot Barbecue," the growling sax of "Good News Blues," or the frantic, Latinized reworking of James Brown's "Sex Machine" (entitled "Sax Machine"). But amid the fun of Pucho's "boogaloo" music, there's also the crisp distinction of the horn lines on a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," and a classic nod to Puente on the percussion-driven "Mambo With Me." The rotund Pucho is clearly a contagiously joyful musician.

Mongo's return is more purposeful and substantive, which doesn't automatically make it more enjoyable. Rather than wallow in a groove, the tunes on his CD continually shift gears, deploying the percussionists as much for texture as for rhythm and varying the pace from the uptempo frolic of "Free World Mambo" to the quiet glow of Marty Sheller's harmonic tone poem "Song For Marilyn." The arrangements by Sheller, who also conducts Mongo's band, are what gives Mongo Returns its depth; even covers of pop tunes like Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad Girl" and Gaye's underrated "When Did You Stop Loving Me" feature surprising instrumental blends and melodic wrinkles. Last but certainly not least, there is Mongo himself, proving over and over that bongos are more than a beatnik goof or rhythmic filler, and that there's much more to his artistry than his now-nostalgic hit "Watermelon Man." (Britt Robson)

The Pastels

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Glasgow's Pastels were charter members of the international cute-pop underground, the sub-indie genre organized around K Records and featuring, most prominently, Beat Happening and The Vaselines. Like those bands, the Pastels attempt to create a magically innocent universe with their music through willful naiveté, wide-eyed perception, and a meshing of gender sensibilities.

The band is hard to critique by conventional standards--they do too many conventional things wrong. All three members sing, but none exhibits any desire to do it in tune. Lyrical sense also gets away from them at times: Early on, Stephen Pastel's voice rises to proclaim, "Everyone should have a friend to open up to/And to lose control." Huh? But that's beside the point. The real problem is that the Pastels don't conjure quite enough magic. Without Beat Happening's jumpy rhythms or the Vaselines' campy abrasiveness, the band's songs remain undefined and lacking urgency. They don't do what pop, underground or not, should do: get stuck in your head.

That said, the Pastels' universe is still worth a visit by any jaded grown-up. Upon hearing this record's chiming guitars and artless voices swoon in romance and even friendship, I threw down the novel I was reading. Its characters' adult frustrations and needlessly analytical worldview left me cold. Not magical or even catchy, the Pastels' music does do the one thing art is generally not supposed to do these days: make you feel good. (Stephen Tignor)

The Pharcyde

LabCabinCalifornia

Capitol

Have you ever praised a band for going against the tough-guy grain and showing a love song-ish vulnerability, only to have a friend say, "you moron, he's singing about pot"? Well, before I give props to the Pharcyde, I'll tell you that while it's not lost on me that its members stay way up, their lyrics amble refreshingly down a variety of confessional and introspective paths.

Since their 1992 debut, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, these mellow audio-geeks have chosen to evade categorization à la De La Soul, circumscribing street realities and mining their weaknesses for all its wickedness. Like Posdenous, they are complicated, coming out of the L.A. dance scene with both urban foundations and brash suburban aspirations; they have custom-blended, textured tracks, as well as honest accounts of self-evolution and devout worship of the buddah (and I don't mean the fat guy). Accorded much respect among the Beasties crowd, they came last time round with an R&B overhang style that improved on laid-back west-coasting by replacing spare, snaking keyboard lines with jazz samples and multi-room atmospherics. On the new record, they score with cuts like "Runnin Away," a clever sermon on facing adversity delivered over one of the most satisfying instrumental lays of the year--hard-panned scratches over rich, percussive Latin piano and throb, woven through with smoky sax. Spice that with a '70s soul-style chorus and background vocals, and LabCabinCalifornia qualifies as a bizarre ride too. (Laura Sinagra)

Ann Magnuson

The Luv Show

Geffen

As someone who appeared with Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis in the benign world of sitcoms (on Anything But Love) and simultaneously fronted the artsy downtown NYC duo Bongwater (with Shimmy Disc producer/musician Kramer), Ann Magnuson has always been difficult to pinpoint artistically. But no matter if she's a mainstream Hollywood bit player, an off-Broadway star, an East Village monologist, or an alterna-rock diva, Magnuson is foremost a Performer (with a capital P). Not surprisingly, then, her major-label solo debut, The Luv Show, plays less like a pop album than an over-the-top Performance piece.

The album's song cycle is a modern-day odyssey in two acts that charts a familiar journey. Little Miss No Name heads west for fame and fortune, lands in the Hollywood inferno, mixes with the wrong crowd (and likes it), becomes the hot tart Miss Pussy Pants, star of her own TV show, gets lost in the So-Cal glaze, takes a career nosedive, and ends up with a lounge act on the Sunset Strip. Like a more polished and accessible take on Bongwater's pop-culture circus, The Luv Show shifts between grand psychedelia ("This Nothing Life"), surreal Latinesque ("Sex With the Devil"), bottom-heavy punk ("Miss Pussy Pants"), ghostly lullaby ("Live, You Vixen!"), and twisted torch song ("Some Kind of Swinger") with all the kitschy melodrama of a Valley of the Dolls musical done in a dinner theater. Funny, yet too smart to play solely for laughs, The Luv Show both toasts and roasts L.A. with all the speed, sex, and psychosis of a overdriven B-movie: It's good enough to make you think it's so bad it's good. (Roni Sarig)

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