PRINTED MATTER

Rebecca Brown

What Keeps Me Here

Harper Collins

          For years I lived with an abusive girlfriend, witnessing her tantrums, her threats of suicide, her violent fits. When I broke up with her last spring, she began to lie, to break things, throw some punches. Nevertheless, for months I returned. So I have what you might call a connoisseur's appreciation for the twisted bonds featured in Rebecca Brown's latest collection, What Keeps Me Here. Ranging in length from two to 20 pages and written in spare prose, these stories are oddly gripping; they traverse an existential landscape, somewhere between allegory and psychological realism.

          Their unifying feature is a claustrophobic engagement, a system of powerful attractions that also repel. Sometimes the relationships portrayed are between people; others are between a person and a thing. In one, a woman sits in a darkened room clutching a paper on which a number is written, waiting to be summoned; and in another, a couple's relationship is disrupted by the fear that there is something in their bed. A third story reveals, through the sexual triangle between a woman, her husband, and her ex-lover, how a longing for truth keeps one engaged: "She tells one version... then a different one... when I ask her, she denies the first... I'm convinced I know the truth of her... what I don't know is why I stay."

          Some publishing insiders are christening Brown--who has published five previous volumes, including the award-winning Gifts of the Body--the next Dorothy Allison, the next "crossover" lesbian writer. Despite the potential for such hype, Brown's work is good, providing reassuring proof that existentialism and literary experiments aren't dead in popular American fiction. These stripped-down tales work because they speak to our foolish human desire to cleave to what we love; they help us to understand what kept us. (E.J. Levy)

Victor Pelevin

Oman Ra

Farrar, Straus, Giroux

          "In ancient times, people could not know that the earth really circles the sun, said the dictionary, and so they invented this poetic myth." So writes Victor Pelevin in this short novel, itself a poetic myth of sorts. The story focuses on the journey to the moon by Oman Ra, a cosmonaut who has been asked to sacrifice his life anonymously on a mission intended to save face for the Soviet space program. Although the "asking" is done with the goad of forced drugging and brainwashing, the story does not sympathize with its protagonist. Oman is too emotionally detached from his situation for it to seem tragic, though he does, at times, seem to yearn for a soul. It is through his sometimes sober, sometimes drugged stream of consciousness that one sees the Soviets' underground astronaut training facilities and learns about the absurd sacrifices demanded by its abusive leaders.

          Is Oman a hero, or is the system he serves just downright evil? He finally experiences a burst of passion in the midst of his mission when Flight Command Leader Khalmuradov chides him for taking too long to make the "final sacrifice," lest it make him late for a tennis match. Oman's fate is unclear, and the reader is left wondering, like the title character himself, what really transpired. Such confusion doesn't signal poor writing, but rather speaks largely of Pelevin's ability to spin a tale rich with meaning and possibilities. (Amanda Ferguson)

Jim DeRogatis

Kaleidoscope Eyes:
Psychedelic Rock From The '60s to the '90s

Citadel Underground

          A recent survey found that the monthly use of hallucinogens by American teens jumped 183 percent between 1992 and 1995--an especially good reason to welcome Kaleidoscope Eyes, Jim DeRogatis's timely retrospective of psychedelia in the world of rock & roll. Beginning with Albert Hoffman's discovery of LSD in a Swiss laboratory in 1943 and ending with the Flaming Lips arguing about hand-clap recordings last year in an Oklahoma City studio, the book covers a sizable chunk of rock history, focusing on music the author defines not as "drug rock" per se, but rather "rock that is inspired by a philosophical approach implied by the literal meanings of [the word] 'psychedelic' as 'mind revealing' and 'soul manifesting.'" By this rubbery yardstick he covers pioneering work from the the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Roky Erickson, P-Funk, and the Velvet Underground; significant footnotes like the Incredible String Band, Hawkwind, and the '70s Krautrock scene (Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!); and modern head-music makers like My Bloody Valentine and The Orb. As a document tracing rock aesthetics informed by a taste for drones, mantra-style repetition, reverb, echo, and cosmic babble, the book is exceptionally well-informed, and its cultural analyses are fleeting but smart.

          Kaleidoscope Eyes plainly shows DeRogatis's biases, which will be no surprise to those who know his work. Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, for instance, each get a chapter, while the Grateful Dead get two paragraphs and a few other potshot mentions. In the end, one wishes the writing could capture more of the feel of hallucinogen-inspired music (DeRogatis declines discussion of personal experience in favor of a mostly third-person approach). But for music fans who want to explore the region where hippies, punks, hip hoppers, and rave kids can sit down and share a spliff together, this is an indispensible guidebook. (Will Hermes)

MOVING PICTURES

Careful

Kino Video

          For the better part of a century, ever since the heyday of haut modernism, there's been this idea that the truly cutting-edge, radical artist does not deign to tell a story. Consider, for example, the canon of so-called "experimental" filmmakers, people like Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage. Widely various aesthetic agendas, but one point of agreement: narrative cinema was what they defined themselves against. It's become quite a cliché, really--this equation of plotlessness with brave originality. That's the road down which Canadian avant-gardist Guy Maddin seems to be headed. His acclaimed first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), uses striking visual strategies to develop a curious blend of deadpan comedy and deadpan pathos. Structurally, however, it's a farrago of set pieces and jarring discontinuities--it hints at a story, but leaves itself open to so many interpretations that the viewer feels perpetually at sea.

          So the big news is that with Careful (1994; only now released on video), Maddin has achieved something extraordinary: a film that applies the wild visual inventiveness of the experimental cinema to a perfectly linear plot. This, folks, may be the weirdest movie you'll ever see. It makes Eraserhead look like How Green Was My Valley. But you always know what's going on, as one bizarre moment manages to segue plausibly into the next. A thousand words might not suffice to prepare you for the experience of seeing Careful; I'll simply note that it's a tale of Oedipal rage and heartbreak, set in a German Expressionist Alpine village where everyone speaks in hushed tones, for fear of avalanches. If you can find it, rent it. (Steve Schroer)

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Orion Home Video

          As a documentary, Theremin screams amateur hour: It's choppy, indulgent, outrageously manipulative, and addicted to talking heads. So I'm crediting the bulk of this film's wistful charm not to director Steven M. Martin, but to his subject: the intractable, heretical mystery of creativity. Theremin flips over the faded carpet of 20th century history to trace two long-concealed threads: the interwoven lives of a man and a machine. Leon Theremin, born Lev Sergeivich Termen in Russia, is first shown in a film clip from 1928, with his hands hovering over a small box and two metal rods. The rods are singing--melancholic, tremulous, piercing. Or his hands are singing. Or what sings is the relationship between darting hand and electrified rod.

          Theremin doesn't dally in specifics. Instead, friends and associates describe the emigre inventor's zeal, his demonstration of the Theremin at Carnegie Hall, his coterie of students and collaborators, his kidnapping by Russian agents, and absolute disappearance. Then the narrative splits: in America, the quavering Theremin becomes a synonym for "eerie" in Hollywood movies and pop songs. In Russia, as a quavering, 94-year-old Termen himself recounts, the man survived prison only to spend a quarter of a century building electronic bugs and "different bad things" for the KGB. Martin wants to make his film a love story, setting up a melodramatic, modern-day meeting between Termen and the brilliant protégé he once courted in New York (the black Harlem dancer Termen actually married in the '20s has died, and hardly rates a mention). But Theremin works best as a tale of two countries--how each in its way assimilates genius, one turning gold into marketable brass, the other bending art to war. And still Termen's gift shines across the decades, in the ever-bright enthusiasm of his admirers and the extraordinary song of his instrument, his voice. (Terri Sutton)

Dead Ringers

The Voyager Co./The Criterion Collection laserdisc

          "This is gonna be maybe a lot more traumatic for me than for you," director David Cronenberg says, introducing this "archival" laserdisc of Dead Ringers, his psychosexual melodrama from 1988 (supplemented with his hard-to-find feature from 1970, Crimes of the Future). Actually, there's plenty of trauma to go around, what with the disc's digital photos of the filmmaker's so-called "Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women"--that is, his personally designed scalpel sculptures as they were presented in a 1993 museum exhibit. How's that for evidence of the auteur theory? Cronenberg himself even admits on the disc's second audio track that there's an autobiographical aspect to Dead Ringers's portrait of co-dependent identical twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons), even though this cinematic "king of venereal horror" says he's not nearly as strange. That's debatable.

          In any case, Dead Ringers becomes even more provocative through its subtle use of gynecology as a metaphor for mainstream film direction in the thriller genre--both being male-dominated professions involving, to put it nicely, clinical investigations of women and their bodies. Cronenberg's film is a critique of both occupations. Not for nothing is the movie's love interest a professional actress (Genevieve Bujold) who, after learning that the twins have been taking turns on her in both the stirrups and the sack, says, "I thought I'd seen some creepy things in the movie business, but this is the most disgusting thing that ever happened to me." Evidently, she'd never seen a David Cronenberg film. (Rob Nelson)

City Hall

Columbia-Tristar Home Video

          The bedfellows of politics and power make for a consistently rich movie topic, and while it's given good breath in City Hall, not much is really done with the premise. John Cusack plays a rustic, naive Louisiana native who, as deputy mayor, preaches the populism of Huey Long--only to be disabused of his idealism as he unravels the good intentions shrouding the political expediency of his boss, a liberal New York mayor (Al Pacino). Pacino's a natural as the aging politician who can stir the crowd with his performance, but like a role worn too often, it has become empty rhetoric.

          Likewise, the film feels mechanistic and predictable (several times it borders on a John Grisham movie), and the mood is not helped by Cusack's inability to create a passionate innocent, let alone a consistent accent. He seems better suited to play a cipher, or an everyday Joe; in Bullets Over Broadway, the very idea that he wasn't a burning artist made his character work. If City Hall seems muddled, maybe that's because four writers collaborated on its screenplay, including Nicholas Pileggi and Paul Schrader. In the end, this film is a lot like Clinton's presidency: some good performances and a thought-provoking thesis that loses something crucial in the execution. (Chris Parker)

Augustin

Kino Video

          Think of Augustin, French director Anne Fontaine's second feature film, as a Jerry Lewis movie directed by John Cassavetes. Fontaine's brother, Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc, delivers a career-making performance in the title role of a part-time insurance clerk who's really an actor with a capital A. It's not that Augustin is a stuffy, overly serious thespian like Jon Lovitz used to play on Saturday Night Live, though. With his stutter, his shyness, and his complete inability to distinguish an important career move from a bill paying assignment in an industrial film, Augustin's a holy fool, not a pretentious boor. Given the opportunity to audition for a part opposite big French movie star Thierry L'Hermite (the Gallic Tom Hanks), Augustin gets the role--and turns it down when he remembers he's scheduled for a PSA on rabbit population control.

          L'Hermite, though a slick pro, manages to operate on the level of a spontaneous, low-budget movie. Fontaine didn't allow the celebrity to see Sibertin-Blanc's lines before shooting their scene, so L'Hermite has to engage Augustin on a human level and never break character: picture Rock Hudson forced to play himself against Jerry Lewis in The Patsy (with no script and never having heard of Jerry before), and you'll get an idea of the L'Hermite/Sibertin-Blanc scene.

          Augustin was a favorite at festivals like Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, but it's not going to be released theatrically, so see it on tape. Its intimacy and charm translate perfectly to the small screen and, with a running time of 61 minutes, you should have time to watch it twice. You'll want to. (Kino Video, 333 W. 39th St., #503, New York, NY 10018; 800-562-3330) (A.S. Hamrah)

MUSIC

Strapping Fieldhands

Wattle & Daub

Shangri-la

          

          You've heard Guided By Voices' low-fi retro-rock. You've heard Pavement's smarter-than-thou indie rock. You've heard Tortoise's postmodern art rock. But have you heard the psychedelic carnival marching band glam skiffle prog rock of Strapping Fieldhands? If not, Wattle & Daub, the Philadelphia five-piece's first CD (after four years of LPs, EPs, and 7-inches) is just the fix for your quirk-rock jones.

          The group has all the prerequisites to make it your new favorite-band-that-your-friends-never-heard-of: Like GbV, the Fieldhands are Anglophiles, mostly over age 35, who prefer the tape hiss of home recording and make songs with strange titles ("Scuttled Kayak Odyssey," "Ben Franklin Airbath"), and even stranger reference points (Lonnie Donegan, Syd Barrett). Best of all, with a sound that approximates Pavement imitating Herman's Hermits doing a cover of Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," the Fieldhands manage to create seriously art-damaged music while still remaining loads of fun.

          From the circus-tent Brit Invasion hoopla of the opening "The Author In Her Ear" to the tra-la-la chorus and collective handclapping of "The Oath," through the eastern exotica of "Lunar Diversions" on to the Roxy Music proto-punk of "Soundshapes," and up until the Captain Beefheart/Jethro Tull affectations of the closing "Abandoned By Demeter," Wattle & Daub is a tremendously creative, challenging, and yet thoroughly listenable collection. Whenever the group steers off course on its hazy excursions, they quickly compensate by shifting abruptly into driving staccato rock and melodic bliss. By carefully wattling shreds of rock past and heavily daubing on indie obscurity, the Fieldhands immerse themselves in a sonic universe all their own. (Roni Sarig)

Aaliyah

One In A Million

Blackground/Atlantic

          Let's dispense with the soap opera first: R. Kelly, the Svelgali who wrote and produced all of Aaliyah's 1994 multi-platinum debut, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, and who was widely reported to have married the then-15-year-old singer, is nowhere to be found on One In A Million; he's also been stricken from all of Aaliyah's publicity and bio materials. The good news is that Million strives with a vengeance to compensate for Kelly's creative absence, and mostly succeeds.

          Kelly's forté, particularly when working with Aaliyah, was in fashioning molasses ballads that retained a lean, funky, hip hop edge. Rather than trying to match his sublime integration of hip hop and pop within the production mix, the most irresistible tracks on Million bring in some of the more distinctive rappers in the business--Naughty By Nature's Treach; Slick Rick, doing a cartoon deadpan on a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up"--for duets with Aaliyah. Other highlights include Aaliyah's arrogant, flygirl vocal on the slinky, stalking funk of "If Your Girl Only Knew," an update (or a knockoff) of TLC's "Creep;" and a version of the Isleys' "Choosey Lover" that adorns its bumblebee guitar line with a dollop of Prince's purple funk.

          Where is the 17-year-old womanchild within all this superbly crafted attitude? Her shy vulnerability flits to the forefront of the teen romance, "4 Page Letter," and galvanizes it. More overtly, three of the final four songs give themselves over to heartbreak (one is called "Heartbroken") and female solidarity. The last tune, "The One I Gave My Heart To," is a weeper penned by sclockmeister Diane Warren; and even hip hop producer Daryl Simmons can't cut through the bathos. Yet Aaliyah, sounding wise beyond her years--or at least grown up the hard way--sings the hell out of it. R. Kelly is gone, but not totally forgotten. (Britt Robson) CP

Daniel Clowes

Orgy Bound

Fantagraphics Books

          I laughed as soon as I saw the cover--an utterly un-erotic illustration of an open-shirted dude in a Roman helmet, proudly carrying his woman in his arms under the book's bright pink Orgy Bound title. When was the last time anyone was orgy bound? In any case, I doubt the author himself would ever attend one; like R. Crumb before him, underground cartoonist Daniel Clowes has an ink-and-paper persona that is cranky, perverted, critical of his generation (X), and pretty much misanthropic in general. In Mad Magazine-style vignettes, here collected from the pages of his comic, Eightball, Clowes hammers on everything from Chicago peanut-bar culture to the very idea of trying in life ("Give it up!"). And throughout, he manages to be both funnier and darker than Crumb.

          Of course, Crumb fathered the genre Clowes works in: alternative, non-super-hero comics for adults. But it wasn't until the '90s that this stuff approached pop momentum. When highly personal artists like Clowes, Joe Matt, Peter Bagge, and Julie Doucet breathed a little realism and slacker humor into their stories, indie comics seemed poised to follow indie rock into the mainstream. (Clowes is the one who designed the label for Coke's short-lived "gen-X" beverage, OK Soda.) But big deal. One flip through Orgy Bound and it's plain why a B. Dalton invasion is unlikely. In one strip, Clowes borrows an image from artist Mike Kelley--a fisherman getting fellatio from a fish--and spins it into a murder story.

          Clowes obviously loves the old Mad comics masters, with Jack Davis's attention to facial expressions looming especially large as an influence. But his sense of satire is less political, more all-consuming: He roasts himself, his comics, even the very idea of comics. With, for instance, an attack on sports as a battlefield of "sublimated homosexual rape and oedipal hostility," Clowes takes the cartoon to such visual and logical extremes that it becomes a goof on the critique itself (c'mon, golf flags as penises?). With his gift for ugly faces and black-as-night sense of humor, it might be less immediately apparent how smart Clowes is. Laughing through the brilliance of Orgy Bound should set you straight. (Peter Scholtes)

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