Culture To Go

CULTURE TO GOAleksandar Zograf

Psychonaut

Fantagraphics

           Bosnia. Croatia. Serbia. Word association? War. But unless you're a public radio junkie, you probably don't have a real knowledge of, or even a clear context for these countries in crisis. Never fear, Psychonautis here. Through the dark and depressing comics of Serbian artist Aleksandar Zograf, we get a first-hand perspective of the economic, social, and political despair in what he calls "the barbaric little nations from the Balkans."

           Zograf covers everything from draft dodging, defining borders, and economic embargoes to the emergence of turbo-folk music (a distraction from the daily news) and the role of women in the wars. Isolation and fear are rampant in these pages of heavy black ink; for every dash of hope, a wave of oppression lingers in the next panel, waiting to wash the faith away.

           Psychonaut doesn't always dwell on the misery of Zograf's homeland, but his non-war stories carry psychological scars nonetheless. Whether they're about a child's creativity or human/animal relations, Zograf's stories all come down to oppression: Teachers stifle the expression of their pupils; people exploit animals for their own selfish needs. The only escape in Psychonaut (and probably in Zograf's mind as well) are his hypnagogic visions--illustrations of images he's experienced between wakefulness and sleep. Despite their surreal nature, these drawings are actually easier to relate to than Zograf's disturbing documentations of the former Yugoslavia. Not a comic to flip through for chuckles, Psychonaut requires your utmost attention; like Joe Sacco's Palestine, it can be a kind of Cliffs Notes on world affairs. (Heidi Olmack)

PRINTED MATTER

Lydia Millet

Omnivores

Algonquin Books

           Omnivores, as the title suggests, includes bloodsuckers and meat eaters, all of whom want a good chomp off of teenaged Estee Kraft (named after the esteemed makeup company Estee Lauder). Estee is no victim though, or at least she never seems to think of herself as one. And talk about dysfunctional families! Estee calmly and good-naturedly puts up with her senile, bed-ridden, ever-masturbating mother and her salivating father, whose hobbies include cockfighting and conducting scientific experiments in the basement on creatures progressing from insects to warm-blooded mammals (last stop, homo sapiens). Not a healthy atmosphere for a growing girl--yet, as this satire hints, perhaps not much worse than what plenty of American girls grow up with.

           When her father, Bill, turns their house into a sovereign nation, complete with its own army of rats and rabbits, Estee realizes she must make her escape sooner rather than later. Her chance comes at her 18th birthday party, a grand affair with hired call girls role-playing friends (Estee hasn't made any of her own, what with assisting her father in the lab and outfitting rabbits with hand grenades) and other people's home movies with Estee's face pasted in. (Between cockfighting and army drilling, the Kraft family has no time for home movies.) Salvation comes in the form of Pete, a slick, dim real estate agent who peppers his sentences with "come on baby" and "you know, babe," and who'll make Estee's life sane again. She will eat Eggo waffles and talk on cordless phones. Pete himself enjoys normal things like driving fast in his Mercedes and reading pornography. Yet soon, Estee's new world of Jenny Craig, video stores, and canine psychotherapy comes to seem no less rapacious than the one she left behind. Add little Bill, the fruit of Estee and Pete's loins who gobbles everything from baby birds to poodles, and you've got quite a hysterically creepy mess of a book.

           Thanks are due to Larry Flynt Publications for letting author Lydia Millet work as copy editor for his gun and porn magazines, giving her the time, means, and inspiration to create Omnivores. Don't think for a second, though, that this book is solely a male-bashing satire--Millet does a fine job of lampooning the hunger in everyone. (Amanda Ferguson)

Stewart Home

Slow Death

High Risk Books

           Skinheads are scary. Or sexy, depending on the ones you know and your tolerance for their hypermasculinity. Johnny Aggro, the skinhead thug (of the non-neo-Nazi variety) protagonist of Slow Death, is both. He's also the perfect sounding board for the self-involved artists and hangers-on of Stewart Home's modern London landscape; Johnny just infiltrates their scene to get high and get off, leaving them to backstab each other into oblivion.

           Home, no doubt influenced equally by art school deconstruction, '60s and '70s soul/reggae, and skin mags, uses a refreshing (but sometimes hollow) workman-like style to create a high/low culture clash; it's got the dramatic outline of a TV movie you'd never see on TV. His satiric bitchiness is right on when tackling a bunch of bandwagon-jumping "art terrorists"--middle class students who break into galleries and destroy works, superficially in order to make a critique of the art canon, but with the real hope of achieving art superstardom themselves. Where Home falls flat is with the redundant, unnecessary sex scenes and violent punch-ups he falls back on whenever the spine of the story starts waning:

           "'Hey,' Karen giggled. 'Don't you wanna perform for me? Are you camera shy or something? I'll put on some music and you can strip to it.'

           'Nah!' Johnny erupted. 'That ain't my scene! What do you think I am, a bleedin' hunk of meat without any feelings of my own?'"

           Rarely are Slow Death's numerous encounters either this tame or witty. But Home's commentary on pop culture outshines his pulpy porno adventures, two to one. (Matt Keppel)

VIDEO

Faces

Orion Home Video

           According to actor Peter Falk, John Cassavetes's craft was as much a process of mis-direction as direction. The famed independent filmmaker (Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence) would regularly give hazy and even contradictory instructions to his cast, sending them through confusing and often maddening rehearsals. Until the actors were floundering and lost, that is--then Cassavetes would start shooting. Finding the director's oeuvre on video has often been a confusing task unto itself; the release of 1968's Faces now gives audiences another fine opportunity to judge Falk's anecdote on the evidence.

           Faces' Updikian plot seems unextraordinary on the surface: Dickie and Maria, an upper-class couple in a loveless marriage, go their separate ways for an evening of grim carousing. Dickie (John Marley) visits the pad of escort Jeanie (Gena Rowlands), battling a pair of more boorish businessmen already on premises. Meanwhile, Maria (Lynn Carlin) and her matronly peers visit a go-go club, where they meet Jed, a mindless Casanova played by an astonishingly young Seymour Cassel. And while this sorry collection laughs, drinks and cavorts as if they were at the corporate Christmas party, there is a loneliness at the core of every vapid thing they say ("Why'd the man throw his clock out the window? To see time fly..."), an ennui too humdrum to qualify as existential crisis. Cassavetes's shaky camera and editing are surprisingly compatible with this talky script, making the viewer feel as edgy and disjointed as the cast. And in the many fine reaction shots, Cassavetes, the wily genius, shows us the plaintive truths that the characters themselves cannot decipher. Not to mention the beleaguered actors. (Michael Tortorello)

Calendar

Kino Video

           Atom Egoyan ranks up there with Krzysztof Kieslowski as one of the best filmmakers of our time--and despite the critical success of this Canadian's Exotica last year, one of the most underappreciated as well. Calendar, a one-hour movie he made for German television, is a tour de force of editing, opening with a stream of overlapping film and video images; voices both present and disembodied, in a variety of languages; and music ranging from Armenian folk songs and drumming to American blues.

           Like the loser restoring order after a game of 52-Pickup, Egoyan gradually sorts these elements into a comprehensible form. The filmmaker himself plays a photographer shooting medieval churches in Armenia for a calendar; his wife (Egoyan's real-life wife, Arsinée Khanjian) is along on the trip, serving as his translator. Both have roots there, but while she gravitates toward their homeland (and a local man, played by Ashot Adamian, acting as their driver and historian) the rational, bespectacled photographer is all business, ensconced behind the barriers of camera and language. Back in Toronto, he remains as static as his photos and controlling as the completed calendar, which now hangs on the wall and ticks off the months of his separation from his wife. He bitterly analyzes his hurt, mulling over footage of his wife and the guide talking, laughing, having fun; he ignores her phone messages, and develops an obsessive ritual that involves beautiful women of various nationalities and foreign-language phone calls.

           A kind of parable about making art at the expense of living life, Calendar is layered with coolly intellectual ideas about looking and being looked at, control and surrender, presence and absence, etc. Thankfully, it's also not without crucial moments of self-deprecating humor. The biggest joke may be on us Americans, however, whose broadcast TV industry virtually disallows projects like Calendar. But at least we can rent the video. (Julie Caniglia)

Haunted

Evergreen Entertainment

           Does every ghost story play out like this one? Doors mysteriously open and close, lights go out, and a little girl's ghost wanders around the castle grounds, one step out of reach. Um, yawn. What little plot there is here gets put into motion when psychology professor and published skeptic David (Aidan Quinn) is called to one Edbrook Hall in order to prove to an elderly woman that the estate's not haunted. Once there, David becomes quickly smitten by the often topless Kate (Cold Comfort Farm's Kate Beckinsale) and begins to experience the "weird" happenings described above. What stretched my attention span was yummy Aidan and spiffy Kate. But, sadly, their talents far outweigh those of the screenwriter and director. In the end, they succumb to the slow-as-molasses pacing, surprising lack of action (let alone scares) and predictable "twists." Still, the splendid definition that Aidan (or his body double) has on display in the film's one love scene is just about worth the rental fee. (Andrew Peterson)

MULTIMEDIA

Understanding McLuhan

Voyager CD-ROM for Mac and Windows

           Marshall McLuhan was always so ready to throw an aphorism at any new idea, phenomenon, gadget, or event that it's surprising he didn't favor us, as George III's doctors did, with insights on his daily stools. This Canadian outlaw academic with the mind of a newly sighted monk and the mouth of an advertising wizard remains relevant today--and possibly forever--and is done justice by this CD-ROM. It's a quirky, decentered beast, appropriately enough, and even with a neat overlapping interface of topic fields, it manages to seem chaotic and full of surprises.

           While the complete text of two McLuhan books is in here, the ultimate impact is verbal, provided by verbatim transcriptions (often with the original speech) that are anti-linear, nearly rambling, and anecdotal. Slumped on a sofa, McLuhan, in an old Canadian TV interview, says of television that "it is the vestibule to LSD." Now what can you say to that but "eh?", "wow, man," or "what was that man thinking?" He was an imp, a provocateur. Numerous inheritors praise him, including Wired publisher Louis Rossetto, major scowler Neil Postman, and Camille Paglia, who of course manages to turn the discussion around to herself on every other of the 43 successive screens of her "interview." I suppose McLuhan would love the way she seizes this medium and runs straight ahead with it, right past the goalpost--if there was one to begin with. Play with this disk happily, but for a more anchored perspective, check out Mark Dery's Escape Velocity website at the Well (www.well.com), too. (Phil Anderson)

Church of Euthanasia

http://www.paranoia.com/coe/

           Radical religions have met with distaste all the way back to Jesus. Now, taking on those Christian ideologies that have permeated much of Western culture for the last couple of millennia, comes The Church of Euthanasia and its motto: "Save the Planet--Kill Yourself." Offering more than your standard Dr. Kevorkian line of thought, the Church comes out in favor of not just suicide, but also abortion, cannibalism, and sodomy. Lobbying for human carcasses to get sent to McDonald's (recycling, you know) and claiming sodomy as the answer to population overgrowth, the Church also offers a Suicide Assistance Hotline (featuring instructions on "going out like a celebrity" and the "snuff du jour"); and applauds The Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill from the Northern Territory of Australia (the first place to legalize euthanasia). Alongside links to The Sick Page (which contains articles on the eating of fetuses in China, as well as photos both naughty and disgusting), there's even some useful information, including a population index, an article about contraception, and a list of nationwide medical providers. If Catholic guilt doesn't get to you, a peek into this Church's radical ideology is, to say the least, eye-opening. (Vickie Gilmer)

MUSIC

Pierre Dorge & New Jungle Orchestra

Music From The Danish Jungle

DaCapo

           Like most American jazz fans, I'm chauvinistic about my country's greatest native art form, particularly when it comes to European interlopers, who often lack the improvisational spark and multicultural collisions that regularly transform jazz into the Sound of Surprise. But every two or three years over the past decade, Dorge and his semi-big band have emerged with a scintillating rebuttal to such narrow-mindedness, and Danish Jungle is a typically intrepid delight. What separates this nonet from pretenders on either side of the Atlantic is its ability to pay homage to the jazz tradition with a joyfully brash sense of adventure.

           "Fullmoon for a Rhino" slinks with the bawdy gusto and harmonic grandeur of Ellington and Mingus, anchored by Jesper Zeuthen's bass clarinet, which has the wet, penetrating tone of a bullfrog. Zeuthen switches to alto sax for the Charlie Parker homage "The Enigmatic Bird," which deftly evolves from its flitting, dissonant horns and fusillade of cymbals into whirlpool rhythms and solos featherbedded by lighthearted harmonies and bongo drum fills. "Carrier-Pigeon's Perspective" has the pensive, suspended animation of an Art Ensemble of Chicago tune, broken by odd gusts of rhythm, and there's also a beautiful rendition of a church hymn, "Det koster ej for megen strid," written by Denmark's most renowned classical composer, Carl Nielsen.

           On five of the final six tracks, the Jungle Orchestra flash the Afro-Euro-American dance chops that are a vital aspect of its core identity. Dorge's spry, spindly guitar lines stake a middle ground between Nigerian high-life and Zairian soukous, while the rhythm section canters with polytonal abandon and dissonant trombone squawks. Yet other assorted bits of ruckus remind us that it is all jazz: grinning, caterwauling, global music. (Britt Robson)

The Olympic Death Squad

Blue

TeenBeat

Phil Krauth

Silver Eyes

TeenBeat

           Blue is new product from Mark Robinson, who here calls himself The Olympic Death Squad, a pretty cool name for a non-band. The recording itself is a gorgeous little half-hour set, one I was ready to dismiss as regression until the songs sank in. As the leader of the great indie pop group Unrest for a decade (before splitting from drummer Phil Krauth to form Air Miami), Robinson's angelic singing and melancholic guitar loops could stop time, and the band's long, tightly wound hypno-jams showed Yo La Tengo and Stereolab how it was done. The airy Air Miami, by contrast, just feels like Unrest lite: same bassist/singer (Bridget Cross), but no dirty lyrics, no stretched-out melodies, no pulsating instrumentals.

           Blue, however, has all those things--and a sense of fun, too. It's a spare and repetitive 10-song collection, driven by the most sensuous, echoey drum programming I've heard and Robinson's still-remarkable voice: He morphs from lusty commandant on "This Is Riot Gear" (singing, "take me/please me") to Mr. Sensitive on "Show Your Age," with no apparent lapse in sincerity. Bewilderingly stupid lyrics like "Ski/I can ski/I can ski/I can ski with you" (on "Ski Jump") are sung with such lovely control you soon forget the words. And if all the elements sound familiar--distorted vocals, cascading guitar lines, wall-of-Robinson harmonizing--well, he did practically invent this shit.

           Meanwhile, Phil Krauth has his own solo album on TeenBeat, and it blows big-time. Silver Eyes' jazz/folk/pop/new wave is pleasant enough, but Krauth the singer seems to be going for Calvin Johnson's non-singer charm: Like Balloon Guy and Pavement, he attempts to turn a basic inability to hit notes into a style. Still, there are some good songs here, some nice messy guitar strumming, and one surprising moment: a synthesizer-driven dub instrumental ("theme from lyon village"). Krauth, like Mark Robinson and Bridget Cross, should get a band. (Peter Scholtes)

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