Internet, Book, Video, Music
The work of graffiti artists may get scrubbed clean from our cities' walls and trains, but at the Art Crimes website their efforts live on. Susan Farrell, the curator at Art Crimes, has created both a comprehensive archive of some of the world's best graffiti and an international forum for graffiti artists (or writers as they are called) and their devotees.
The sheer volume of work catalogued here is impressive. The City Walls section features works from over 20 states and as many countries, ranging from predictable places like New York and L.A. to more surprising locales like Nashville and Helsinki. The Trains section is equally expansive, and contains some breathtaking work from Europe, where writers still create enormous Old School pieces that cover entire rail cars. The Featured Artists area contains interviews and profiles of more than 30 writers, accompanied by showcases of their work. One of the highlights is a feature on Ron English, an East Coast agit-prop artist who specializes in commandeering outdoor billboard space for his own satirical purposes. The pictures of his large-scale billboard parodies of the Joe Camel campaign are reason enough to pay Art Crimes a visit.
Various links and pages give the uninitiated enough background and context to enjoy the work. There's also insider information like a full list of Krylon spray-paint colors (complete with product code numbers) and tips on how to best photograph your work for digital archiving. Most remarkable, however, is the art. Now, thanks to the Web, you can take part in the dangerous beauty of graffiti without ever leaving your chair. (Dennis Cass)
Crowning the Queen of Love
Coffee House Press
A woman on a tour of Egypt is about to get her period. She enters King Tut's tomb alone: "She leaned on a wooden railing, trying to concentrate on the profundity of it all, but the headache stung again behind her eyes, and she felt for her pad: King Tut, riding on a donkey, King Tut was my favorite honky. Suddenly the lights went out." In this collection of short stories by local writer Susan Welch, we're often transported--to a blackjack table in Reno, to the snack bar at Auschwitz, to the private universe between two lovers during a Minnesota winter. But this is no lighthearted adventure book. Each story deals with a woman alone, traveling through isolation toward some secret, often false vision of contentment. And for the most part, we feel pulled downward: into the characters' pasts, into their present obsessions, and into the inevitable collision when the twain meet.
Welch's technique is polished--she's elegant, never effusive. She holds back facts, chooses powerful details, and rarely instructs the reader about how to view her characters. Still, it's easy to end up feeling too distanced from them. The occasional lapses into cliché don't help, nor does the sometimes lifeless third-person voice. But perhaps it's a generational matter: These are stories of baby-boom middle age, of life after the divorce, and they betray a quiet but deep mistrust of men. Crowning the Queen of Love is a tough, uncomfortable read, and allergic to romance--much like, say, Virginia Woolf is. And like Woolf's work, this book seems to want respect more than to be liked. On that count, it succeeds completely. (Kate Sullivan)
The Autobiography of Leroi Jones
Lawrence Hill Books
Too often autobiographies are short on material of legitimate interest to folks who aren't a lover, ex-lover, family member, comrade, or nemesis of the author. This newly revised volume--a full-length version of Baraka's abridged 1984 book--fires off its share of pot shots and praises at his ex-lovers, family members, comrades, and nemeses. What makes it worth the read is that these characters make up the central cast of urban, bohemian, left-wing, and, above all, black intellectual figures in the U.S. since World War II.
In the late '50s and early '60s, Leroi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) was one of the only black critics reviewing African American music--mainly jazz and blues. As such, he had a singular hand in navigating for a mass audience the social and political veins running through the genres (as in how R&B scales "got up inside your body, and made you do and feel revolutionary things"). Politically and artistically, Baraka, now 63, was a pivotal player in what could be called the renaissance of the Harlem Renaissance. With his savvy side always showing, he's joined and parted forces with dozens of personalities from the Black Power movement and its residue--people like Ron Karenga of the US organization, Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers, and Stokely Carmichael. For better or worse, his associates have also included Allen Ginsberg and a host of other assorted beatniks, whose scene he pretty much split in 1965.
Somewhere around 1974, between the kindred volumes The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which the cover not-so-subtly resembles) and Miles Davis's collaborative memoir with Quincy Troupe, Baraka's tale of Leroi Jones ends--a drag, since so much has happened to him since, including an American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, the current Spoken Word uprising of which he's a sometime presence, and his great, late book Transbluesency. Still, what's here is a frank and righteous account of a life deliberately lived. If you've seen Baraka read live, then you know his fire, and his genius for timing and rhythm. The same provocative energy burns through his poetry, essays, plays, and life stories. (Mark Aamot)
No Matter How Loud I Shout Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
The jacket copy on Humes's just-published account of a year in a Los Angeles courthouse promises that the book shows there's hope for fixing California's Byzantine juvenile justice system. This fat paperback does a compelling job of chronicling the hopeless situations the court faces every day, but it's hard to find passages that signal progress. Humes follows several cases as they grind their way through the system: We get to know kids whose descent into violence is a foregone conclusion, as well as several who mess up for no apparent reason.
As their cases unfold, the Thurgood Marshall Juvenile Courthouse in Inglewood emerges as a place that, far from meting out justice, actually seems to contribute to juvenile violence. Humes's court is populated by cut-throat prosecutors, judges, and public defenders, each armed with a separate ideological mission to reform a system that's clearly broken. Interspersed among the stories of the kids whose fates are at stake are straightforward accounts of the adults' competing agendas. The author's public defenders use legal loopholes to win their cases, thwarting overburdened but caring prosecutors at every turn; this alone suggests that Humes may have gained his extraordinary access via the prosecutor's office. Indeed, he chooses the head juvenile DA as one main vehicle through which to tell the story. The same kids show up before the same judges again and again--often because of the ineptitude of probation officers or foster-care workers--with the degree of attendant horror escalating with each crime.
We follow "Ronald," for example, as he plots to rob and murder the elderly couple who own the Baskin-Robbins where he works. He shoots the pair in the backs of their heads as they drive him home one night, steals some of the day's receipts, and leaves the rest of the cash after he realizes what he has done and loses his mettle. The next day, "Ronald" brags about the crime to classmates. Upon his arrest he confesses, shows no remorse, and yet insists he loved his employers. His trial concentrates on the admissibility of his confession. Unasked and unanswered, meanwhile, are the reasons behind his crime. In the end, No Matter How Loud I Shout is a worthwhile read which no doubt will leave readers with the impression that the focus within these halls of justice is anywhere but on the kids who haunt them. (Beth Hawkins)
John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity
Simon & Schuster
In a recent New Yorker article, essayist Louis Menand postulated the three-year rule, which stipulates no celebrity sustains their peak stardom for more than three years. Menand obviously forgot about John Wayne, who, almost 20 years after his death, was voted Most Popular Movie Star by a random sampling of 1,000 American movie fans in 1995.
Why Wayne has become such a durable icon, and how has his legacy influenced America's vision of itself, are the questions cultural historian Garry Wills grapples with in his latest book. Less a conventional biography than the history of a myth, Wills's book dissects Wayne's on-screen persona: the studiously contrived, hyper-masculine, self-reliant warrior that helped spawn everything from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Rambo and the cult of right-wing militia nativists. As our idealized western hero, he embodies the frontier myth even more powerfully than real-life figures like Kit Carson and Davey Crockett. As Wills writes: "Wayne is the avatar of the hero in (the western) that best combines all these mythic ideas about American exceptionalism, contact with nature, distrust of government, dignity achieved by performance, skepticism towards the claims of experts."
Wills's stance towards his subject is ambiguous; while he finds the man's virulent conservatism odious, he takes pains to prop up Wayne's reputation as an actor. Too much space is wasted on deconstructing Wayne's emblematic mannerisms at the expense of social analysis, while chapters devoted to the films Red River and The Searchers get bogged down in specifics, often reading like second-hand film-studies theses. But the author shines when discussing the working relationships of Wayne, directors John Ford and Raoul Walsh, and character actor Harry Carey. Their tenuous fraternal bonds and warped notions of manhood found their way into their films, and in turn, our collective consciousness. (Marc Weingarten)
Fox Lorber Home Video
Of violence in the movies, much has been written, most of it mind-numbingly banal. Just a quick observation, then: Our taste for egregious bloodbath seems to have spoiled our appetite for less spectacular forms of evil. When was the last time a movie portrayed a thoroughly rotten character who wasn't trying to kill somebody (or everybody)? I can think of only two recent exceptions to this grisly norm, and both of them are films by actor/director/screenwriter/composer(!) Tom Noonan. His first feature, What Happened Was..., initially impersonates a heartwarming comedy about two lonely people on an awkward first date. Within an hour, however, we learn that both characters--especially Noonan's--are sick enough to warrant immediate euthanasia.
And now Noonan gives us The Wife, which is, if anything, even more appalling. Jack (Noonan) and Rita (Julie Hagerty) are a husband-and-wife team of psychotherapists. On a winter's evening, a patient, Cosmo (Wallace Shawn), appears unannounced at their remote farmhouse, bearing his nightmarish wife, Arlie (Karen Young). The visitors stay for supper, a drinking binge, and a little Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Arlie is an ex-stripper with no sense of boundaries. Cosmo is a querulous, impotent loser. Rita eats Quaaludes like candy corn. But the most twisted of all is Jack, who manipulates the others for his own cruel delectation. Quite a niche Noonan is carving out--making himself look as loathsome as possible on screen. Somebody should introduce him to Barbara Streisand. (Steve Schroer)
Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent
Fox Home Video
Fortuitously made before but released after the discovery of Ted Kaczynski--who'd read Conrad's book avidly--this tidy adaptation (that never hit local theaters) provides chilling insights into the heart of dark ideologies. Bob Hoskins leads, but does not precisely star in, a story about 1880s Londoners, many of them political refugees, who gravitate toward anarchy and terrorism.
Or at least toward the cash it may occasionally bring: Hoskins is Mr. Verloc, a corpulent and subdued pornography vendor who also takes pay from both the Czarist Russian embassy and the London police to meddle in spy stuff. He is encouraged to do more or lose a paycheck; he botches a bombing of the Greenwich Observatory, newly famed as the origin of the world's time zones. Patricia Arquette is his naive wife, Christian Bale her mentally unstable brother; Jim Broadbent is a walrus-mustached cop, and a very uncredited Robin Williams is a heartless bomb expert. Christopher Hampton (Carrington), with the help of Philip Glass's score, carries this uncompromising film through some fine vantage points, some efficient twists, and a perfectly timed last shot. Hitchcock made a version of this story (Sabotage) but wasn't nearly as steely about it. (Phil Anderson)
Warner Bros. Video
While Sweet Nothing, a movie directed by Gary Winick based on the diaries of a crack addict, neither raises fresh anxieties about drug use nor paints the experience with much nuance, it manages to stick the viewer in the ticker more than once. The story could be the basis for an Officer McGruff PSA. Handsome, generous Angelo (Michael Imperioli) and his beautiful, sweet wife Monica (Mira Sorvino) are a young couple in love with two kids in tow. Angelo's best friend Ray, an affable truck driver in plaid and baseball cap, has a friend who can get them set up dealing a bit of crack. Angelo could use the extra cash; he wants to keep his family happy, and lord knows diapers are expensive.
And then, faster than you can say "crack attack," Angelo is smoking up his profits and his friend Ray is sporting a moustache, gold chains, and mirrored sun glasses. Next, we are subjected to the sight of a maudlin Angelo, post-ordeal, cross-legged and naked on the rehab floor, nasally reading pearls like this one from his diary: "I make no apologies for getting high." Good-natured Ray, the one who used to bounce Angelo's kids up and down on his knee, takes a shine to brutalizing, limb chopping, and murder, sometimes stopping long enough to wax poetic: "Ain't gonna let a little pussy get in the way of business." Of course not.
Needless to say, Sweet Nothing is a little cartoonish, especially when the electric guitars (à la Melrose Place) whine any time sex or drugs find their way on screen. Still, the heart of this heavily stylized (some might say cliché) story of a family's demise as a result of chemical dependency manages to resonate. One can't help but feel nauseous watching a freshly knocked-about Monica calm her frightened children as Angelo rips the television out of the wall during cartoon hour. Don't worry dears, Daddy just needs money to buy more crack. At the very least, if you haven't seen a good made-for-TV movie in a while, this ought to settle the craving. (Amanda Ferguson)
Come On Home
The most obvious homages are often the best, and so it is with this marvelous tribute to the R&B singers who shaped Scaggs's vocal style. Scaggs's biggest hit, the multiplatinum, blue-eyed soul classic Silk Degrees, from 1975, took the mid-'60s soul-blues hybrid minted by Syl Johnson and Bobby "Blue" Bland and spruced it up with disco glitz and white-boy panache. Come On Home cuts down to those roots without sacrificing elegance or vibrance.
It isn't grit so much as silt that Scaggs sprinkles into this connoisseur's collection of venerable blues and R&B tunes from his youth. For songs like the title track (which was popularized by Johnson) and the Bland hit "Ask Me 'Bout Nothin' (But the Blues)," Scaggs's voice has a dulcet hang time on the extended notes, rubbing up against the gentle groove with a finely textured passion. On the amber-lit ballad "Love Letters," he comes in low and suave, gently nuzzling the song along the nape of its neck. And he knows when to let the music hold sway, accommodating the rough-and-sweet Stax horn arrangement driving "Your Good Thing (Is About To End)," and riding the loping rhythm and laconic lament in Jimmy Reed's "Found Love."
The occasional misstep happens when Scaggs moves beyond the countrified and soulful mixes into more blatant blues like Sonny Boy Williamson's "Early In the Morning," or when his own tunes fail to meet the standard set by the superb covers, as with his "Goodnight Louise." On balance, however, this is durable, timeless, gorgeous music that feels as settled and familiar as the front porch on a summer evening. (Britt Robson)
In A Bar, Under The Sea
Eclecticism is one of the defining characteristics of this cultural era, but while anyone can slap together a collage, few can turn disparate elements into a unified whole. About 10 minutes into their second album, In A Bar, Under the Sea, the Antwerp, Belgium- based quintet dEUS settles on a groove so graceful they make scattered sounds seem both tasteful and effortless. Combining perfect pop and a handful of rock flavors (folk-rock, art-rock, you name it) with avant-jazz and classical touches, dEUS offers a consistently excellent stream of music as listener-friendly as it is challenging.
Mind you, it isn't always so cohesive. In A Bar begins with an all-out assault on the senses: a low-fi acoustic blues rant followed by a sampled sound bite advising listeners to "be your own dog," interrupted by a James Brown breakbeat and a grunge guitar crunch; then comes a snappy bass-and-guitar groove, leading into a call-and-response rap/shout with a falsetto soul chorus, and into a middle section of synth dance-pop. Then they do it all over again. The next song, "Opening Night," overlays two different pop melodies by two very different singers, with guitar and piano lines weaving through. Then "Theme From Turnpike" uses a Mingus bass sample, Beefheartian vocals, sound effects, James Bond guitar/horn/string arrangements, Latin percussion, and free-roaming sax to create something both eerie and warm--not far from Tom Waits at his best. Keep going and you'll also hear pop-punk in "Memory of a Festival" and whispery cabaret jazz in "Nine Threads," set among more typically playful tunes. Adding together more sounds than it seems could fit into the diminutive state of Belgium, dEUS's sum total becomes a rich and dynamic chamber music for a postmodern world. (Roni Sarig)
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