The Top Five: Ambitious and well-intentioned tragedies; Book, music, and video reviews; Kathleen Hanna’s Media Picks
Not Drowning, but Waning
From Waterworld to New Coke, failures enter the popular lexicon only when ushered in by the flatulent echo of previous fanfare. But what of less obnoxious tragedies? Ambitious and well-intentioned, they linger on, largely unnoticed, but not yet dead. –Ana Marie Cox
DoubleTake Started in 1995, this magazine didn’t just publish work by the likes of Donald Hall, Michael Lesy, and Susan Faludi, or photographs as luscious as they were gripping. Rather, its editors also embraced children’s drawings and contributions from the denizens of nursing homes and prisons. Last October, citing the magazine’s $3 million annual deficit, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies withdrew its support. Editors hope to find another source of funding. The last issue published with the center’s support is on newsstands now.
Esperanto Introduced in 1887, Esperanto — with about 2 million speakers — is by far the most successful artificial spoken language. Bias-free Esperanto was to eliminate culture clashes, possibly even war. Miko Sloper, director of the Esperanto League for North America, admits, “History has proven that the original assumptions and intentions of Esperanto were rather naive.” The next World Congress of Esperanto (at least 3,000 attended in 1998) is July 31 through Aug. 7 in Berlin.
TV Nation Canceled by not just one, but two national networks (NBC, then Fox), “TV Nation” may be Michael Moore’s most successful failure. “TV Nation” was political but not polemical, smart but not smarmy; Moore’s later nontelevision endeavors (Downsize This!, The Big One) have not been so blessed. Perhaps it’s the medium that makes Moore’s message palatable; viewers can see for themselves this April, when cable channel Bravo premieres Moore’s new show, “The Awful Truth.”
Brasília Unlike most cities, which evolve more or less organically, Brasília sprang from a 1955 campaign promise to move Brazil’s capital to the country’s geographic center. Its modernism embodied the idealized future of an entire nation; that future was drawn into question almost immediately, as the government financed construction by simply printing money. Other missteps include its few crosswalks or pedestrian paths (planners believed citizens would just drive everywhere) — now Brasília has one of the highest pedestrian mortality rates in the country. Today, Brazil promotes the city’s “mystical aura,” hoping to cash in on New Age tourists.
PXL 2000 Camcorder Fisher-Price introduced this toy in 1987, but at $150, consumers thought it too expensive for a toy and found the grainy, black-and-white footage of poor quality for a video camera. Low sales followed, and Fisher-Price stopped production in 1990. Since then, filmmakers have taken up the cause of Pixelvision as an artistic medium. The annual PXL This video festival celebrates what organizer Gerry Fialka calls a “charcoal sketch” aesthetic. The eighth PXL This festival will screen at Vidiots in Santa Monica, Calif., on Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. Admission is free.
The Last Rock Star Book, or: Liz Phair, a Rant By Camden Joy. Portland, Ore.: Verse Chorus Press, 1998. 210 pages. $14.95. Camden Joy is a pseudonym; it is also the name of the narrator in this beguiling work of metafiction, which contains three different narratives, all delivered in manic, shimmering prose and told with varying degrees of reliability and coherence. There’s the brilliant, semifictional biography of Lilith Fair headliner Liz Phair; there’s the completely fictional account of Rolling Stone Brian Jones’ unknown love child; and there’s the bleak, hilarious, and probably fictional memoir of the narrator’s Midwestern adolescence. The device (literally) holding these plots together is the narrator’s minicassette recorder, but such postmodern curlicues are less important than the way all these stories come together in a finale that is devastatingly funny and unbearably sad. Part revenge fantasy, part rock criticism (two genres never very far removed), this is a book you’ll read in one sitting and go back to, rereading favorite passages like you’d replay favorite songs. — A.M.C.
Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley By Peter Guralnick. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999. 784 pages. $27.95. There are probably as many Elvis books as there are Elvis impersonators, so a new title on the subject is hardly a bold move. But Guralnick is no ordinary Elvis biographer. This lengthy follow-up completes what his critically acclaimed biography of the young Elvis (Last Train to Memphis) started: a surgically precise rendering of Elvis’ descent, from The King’s stint in the Army in 1958 to his decidedly unregal death upon the throne in 1977. Careless Love is the “fat Elvis” postage stamp of the culture-crit scene: bizarre, collectible, indispensable. — H.E.
Open Skies, Closed Minds By Nick Pope. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1999. 270 pages. $23.95. “I started my tour of duty believing in aircraft lights, but I ended it believing in aliens,” writes Nick “Spooky” Pope, “the real Fox Mulder” who studied the X-files of Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Pope resolved to keep an open mind during the years he investigated UFO sightings (deemed by the British government to be possible security threats). The resulting book culls more than 50 years of UFO stories, including government cover-up theories hatched by ufology groups as well as civilian close-encounter reports of aliens ordering egg sandwiches from invisible spaceships. Pope calls the UFO phenomenon “as real as toast” and suggests further study, based on the Mulder-like aphorism, “Most of us, deep down, [would] like to believe.” This desire to believe has already proved itself in Britain, where the book is a best-seller. — K.I.
Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder By Richard Dawkins. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 337 pages. $26.00. “We have an appetite for wonder…[that] real science ought to be feeding but which is being hijacked…by purveyors of superstition, the paranormal, and astrology,” writes leading evolution proponent Richard Dawkins. To inspire us with the awe and wonder of science, he explains why we already have the most sophisticated virtual reality computers inside our heads; tells how prisms led to understanding the makeup and formation of the farthest stars; and convinces us that the wonders of statistical probability render even the most mystical occurrences mundane. The realities revealed by science, says Dawkins, are more fabulous than our wildest fantasies. This is brain-stretching stuff, but it’s a shame that someone as knowledgeable as Dawkins has to expend mental energy fencing with the likes of newspaper astrology hacks. — B.D.
The Tesseract By Alex Garland. New York: Riverhead, 1999. 320 pages. $24.95. Garland published his first novel, The Beach, at age 26 and was then hailed as a “huge literary talent” by Booker Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro. The Tesseract squirms under the weight of such praise, but Garland’s ambitions ultimately bear fruit. He draws vivid portraits of three sets of characters in the Philippines: gangsters, a middle-class family, and street kids who sell the stories of their dreams to a wealthy psychologist. The novel’s complex structure has a self-conscious bravado, as when the three stories intersect in a single moment, a scene that is itself analogous to a tesseract: a three-dimensional unraveling of a four-dimensional hypercube. As the psychologist explains, looking down on Manila from his penthouse, “We can see the thing unraveled, but not the thing itself.”— A.P.
Love Is the Devil, Original Soundtrack Recording Ryuichi Sakamoto. Asphodel, 1998. This score for the biographical film about painter Francis Bacon takes place mostly at a piano, where slow, echoing phrases are bent and wiped across high-tech, tonal material. Sakamoto has a knack for making serious music sound familiar; these tormented episodes cross graceful, painterly poise with the stabbing psychosis of cheap horror movies. The aggressiveness of Bacon is relayed in a few pieces — by the moaning bass of “Fall,” the digital babble of “Boxing,” and the falling airplane sweep of “Redman 3.” As for other, less evocative parts of this score, they work better when the projector is running. — I.C.
The Sebadoh Sebadoh. SubPop, 1999. It’s difficult to write earnest songs about lost love and messy relationships for more than 10 years in a row, but Lou Barlow, Sebadoh’s prolific leader, isn’t daunted by this challenge. Though he wrote only about half the songs on this recording, the material rarely strays from familiar scenes of wry despair, failed loves, and missed communications. On this album, Sebadoh drops the homespun hiss woven into its old tracks, which had previously slotted the group as part of a “lo-fi” movement. And though Barlow has used the word “folk” repeatedly in reference to earlier projects, the woozy keyboard noises, alternately fuzzed and ringing guitars, and thumping drums here are almost all rock, at times echoing turn-of-the-’90s grunge almost completely without irony, but with real teeth, heart, and soul.— I.T.C.
Smoke Signals Chris Eyre. 89 minutes. Miramax Home Entertainment, 1998. Smoke Signals relates Victor Joseph’s journey from a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, reservation to bring back the remains of an alcoholic father. But as he discovers more about his father’s life, he is forced to confront his assumptions about his family and himself. Billing itself as the first feature film written and directed by Native Americans, Smoke Signals invites enough expectations that the myth of the Old West is the least of its worries, yet the film is more of a coming- of-age story than a venue for racial debate (despite occasional sideswipes at Indian stereotypes). Smoke Signals is simple and tight, with feel-good epiphanies and a warm-fuzzy ending — even John Wayne would have liked it. — M.N.
Reviews by Ian Christe, Ian T. Connelly, Ana Marie Cox, Brian Doherty, Hans Eisenbeis, Katie Isenberg, Meredith Nicholson, and Alastair Paulin.
Kathleen Hanna: Evolution, Girl Style
As the lead singer of the late Bikini Kill and a fierce presence in the Pacific Northwest punk scene, Kathleen Hanna has torn down many preconceptions about the role of women in music and the role of music itself. Now on her first solo album, Julie Ruin, Hanna’s alter ego flexes her feminist critique using techno-detritus (a $40 drum machine, a broken sampler) and an absurdist sense of humor: There are songs about socialism, crochet, hating cops, and needing an invisible friend.
“It’s this engagement, recognition, and play, in terms of what is art and what is ‘real’ life,” says Hanna, “that makes certain underground music and writing truly alternative.” Here, Hanna offers a taste of what fits her definition of alternative. — Jennifer King
What are you reading currently?
Last night I started reading Catamania by Adelè Olivia Gladwell. It’s a really smart, nonlinear text about actual women’s voices, film theory, punk…you name it.
What have you found particularly inspirational lately?
Not For Sale by Laura Cottingham. This video discusses the treatment of African American feminists by white women in the feminist movement, and it portrays the way female artists are ridiculed for what they do by men but then have their ideas stolen by male artists. I wish this movie was in every theater instead of fucking Titanic. The other inspiring thing for me lately is Yuka Honda’s production style on the recent Sean Lennon record. Yuka is in the band Cibo Matto, and I think the way she puts sounds together is completely interesting.
Zines have played an important role in Riot Grrrl culture. What are some of your favorites?
There’s one called Bamboo Girl that comes out of New York that’s really good. But I don’t want to be the arbiter of good taste — if you want to find out where and how to get zines, send two stamps to Kristy Chan at Riot Grrrl Review, USF 30334, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa, FL 33620, or visit her Web site at: www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/9352.
What music are you listening to? Do you have any recommendations?
Right now I am stereo-less, so I can’t make any mixed tapes. If I could, I might make a tape like this:
You’re No Good — E.S.G.
It’s Tricky — Run-DMC
Say Yes! to International Socialism — Comet Gain
911 Is a Joke — Public Enemy
Start the Riot — Atari Teenage Riot
Teenie Weenie Boppie — Free Kitten
Rammelzee vs. K Rob — Rammelzee
Eek! — Lung Leg
Birthday Cake — Cibo Matto
Be Good — Frumpies
Majesty — The Need
Now Is the Time — Wipers
Sound of Da Police — KRS-One
Def Fresh Crew — Roxanne Shanté
Mister Popstar — Matrimony
Hey Now — Lesley Gore
Doo Wop (That Thing) — Lauryn Hill
Getting Mighty Crowded — Holly Golightly
Tell the Truth — Ike and Tina Turner
I Just Wanna Puke on the Stereo — Frumpies
I’m Gonna Be Strong — Blue Angel (Cyndi Lauper’s first band)