Book consumption 2/11/18

I haven’t been using goodreads to keep track of my book consumption, and I need to keep track of it, so here goes.

TL;DR: The Best of Odd Things Considered by Anita Dalton – Dalton’s long-running blog started as I Read Odd Books, a compendium of book reviews of the unusual. It later developed into Odd Things Considered, to cover audio-visual and other media. I’ve followed the blog over the years, and always appreciate finding off-the-beaten-path conspiracy theories and weird fiction and stuff like that, so it’s always been great reading for me. I also appreciate when a review blog isn’t afraid to respond negatively to something, instead of only printing positive reactions and automatic five-star reviews of everything. There was a bit of controversy over this a few years ago, when Dalton went on a tirade about the poor editing and design of several Bizarro books, or her lengthy takedown of Tao Lin (years before the ER Kennedy allegations, when everyone posted a lengthy takedown of his work.)

Full disclosure: Dalton wrote a lengthy review of my book Sleep Has No Master about four years ago, which appears in the book. It’s a little weird to see someone write a long-form review of my work, going through story-by-story. Anyway, regardless of my appearance, I liked having a bunch of her blog archived in 600-some pages of paper, so I can flip open to a random page and start reading about true crime or 19th-century portraits of dead children.

 

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson – A four-story collection that was completed right before Johnson’s death. This, unfortunately, has been marketed as the successor to Jesus’ Son, his absolutely flawless collection of short stories from twenty-five years ago. It isn’t, unfortunately. And it could probably be his last work published, unless Random House decides to pull a Bukowski and re-release another chopped up collection of the same essays and letters each year for the next century. The stories are very good, have a certain depth, but it’s not a five-star collection. It’s like the placeholder he’d release before a major Tree of Smoke-type book. It’s good to see a final book, but bittersweet that it’s a last book.

 

LiarTown: The First Four Years 2013-2017 by Sean Tejaratchi – Liartown is an absolutely incredible blog of expertly photoshopped images: vintage ads for corduroy porn, satirical paperback book covers, bizarre calendars, and other promotional material that at first glance looks professionally done, but contains absolutely absurd running jokes and dark humor. The blog (http://liartownusa.tumblr.com) is excellent, but the book is even better. Full color, 250 pages, complete overload. This is absolutely mandatory.

 

The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird by Richard H. Graham – Every few years, I fall down an aviation k-hole where I end up buying one of these large-format color photo books, and this is the latest. This one is about four and a half pounds of full-color photos of the A-12 and SR-71, a complete summary of the aircraft’s secret testing, missions, and retirement. Lots of facts and stories, plus a bunch of pictures I’ve never seen. Obviously not for everyone, but this is the kind of book I keep on the shelf for cold and flu season, when I’m too out of it to read and want to sit in bed and go through a big tome like this.

 

What Does This Button Do?: An Autobiography by Bruce Dickinson – Every time I swear I will never read pop autobios like this, I fall down some rabbit hole and end up buying one. Iron Maiden was an important bridge in my teenage years between prog rock bands like Rush and thrash metal like Metallica, but I admit I fell off the bandwagon around college, when there were better things to pursue. Dickinson’s led an interesting life, leaving the band to pursue an aviation career, then coming back to it. He allegedly wrote this book, although you know how that goes. (He did write another book of fiction back in the early 90s, so who knows.) What’s odd about this book is that he rushes through the Maiden stuff, and absolutely does not mention family, spouses, lovers, or children. So the pacing here is a bit bizarre, and it makes it seem like a lot is missing. Similarly, his bout with cancer (spoiler alert) doesn’t come up until twenty pages from the end of the book, and then it’s just a quick infodump of his treatment, which seemed almost glued in as an afterthought. Anyway, essential for fans, but a hard sell otherwise.

 

Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness by Chris Kraus – A collection of essays about the art scene in LA from the author of the book I Love Dick, which has recently blown up in popularity due to a Netflix series based on it. These were columns written in the mid/late 90s, and waver between buzzword-laden critical academic writing, and crazy stories of her personal adventures in the gritty world of the end-of-century LA, when too much dotcom money was floating around a pre-gentrified Los Angeles. That academic bits are exactly that, and I felt myself skipping past some of them. But the parts about her experience as a transplanted New Yorker in this weird world can be interesting. There’s a specific mid-90s pomo voice to this writing, which can now seem dated, but it’s an interesting time capsule of a city where I lived long after this was all over, and I liked that.

 

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier – by Mark Frost – a nicely-designed, nicely-printed book filled with Agent Tanya Preston’s notes to her FBI superiors about the goings-on of the sleepy Washington town where weird things are going down. The material sits between the second and third series of the TV show, so it covers things that were briefly recapped in S3, but in much more detail. Good stuff, but it mostly made me realize I need to go buy the S3 BluRay and watch it a few more times in more detail.

 

That’s it for now. I’m still working through a pile of holiday books, and getting other things for review, so I should do this again in a month.

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Paul Auster – 4 3 2 1

Paul Auster’s new book, 4 3 2 1, was a slog. It had a payoff in the last dozen pages, but it took some effort to stay with this for the other 850.

I’ve been reading a lot of Auster recently for some reason, and in the last six months have probably read at least six of his other works. So I threw his latest, still in hardcover, on my wish list for the holidays, and got a copy. I started wading through it a few weeks ago, and initially thought it was a heavy piece of dead tree, but the deckle edges and thick paper add to it, and it felt like it was maybe a 400-page book, but it’s really double that. And I remember twenty-odd years ago, a certain thousand-page book filled with footnotes made the news because of its absurd length and thickness and heft, but now it seems like 600+ page works are becoming pretty common.

Anyway, 4 3 2 1 is the story of a young man named Archie Fergusun, starting with his grandfather’s arrival at Ellis island. The big twist is that the story follows four different instantiations of Archie’s life, and detail how he would have grown, matured, and ended up if little circumstances had changed. It’s basically four parallel books, each with the common characters of parents and aunts and uncles and so forth, but as the back story changes, the four lives fork into much different directions. Each chapter is numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so forth. It’s like an extremely complex choose-your-own-adventure, where you are watching each branch of a tree unfold in completely different realities.

So, simple example, without too many spoilers, is that one Archie has a dad who struggles in the appliance business, has brothers who run the business into the ground, and he goes from job to job as the family lives in semi-poverty. Another has a dad who strikes it rich in the same family business, and the brothers go fuck off to different states as his kingdom flourishes, affording that Archie a much more lavish wife, but a mother who also is “encouraged” to close up her photography store and become a bored socialite drunk, and Archie is much more resentful toward his distant father who is always working. You end up with four very different Archies, all born in 1947, but heading into different versions of the turbulent Sixties, becoming involved in different angles with the youth movement of the era.

The style and stage of the writing is very familiar Auster. Like I said, I read Moon Palace and Invisible right before I read 4 3 2 1, and they all bled into each other. One thing I like about Auster is he has a familiar field he often works with, and I don’t know if the events are based on his own life, or just random things he keeps coming back to. I mean, it’s a known thing that he went to Columbia, and then moved to France, and both of those happen frequently in his stories. 4 3 2 1 has no shortage of these themes, and his modernist portrayal of New York in the Sixties is deep within his canon here.

Auster is also big on using a “gimmick” of some sort to frame his traditional writing about the city or his youth and bend it around into a meta, postmodern structure. This was a big thing in the four-part narrative of Invisible, and this one uses a different approach to take this even further. I don’t mean that a “gimmick” is a bad thing — it’s something I’m always searching for when I try to write something nonlinear or outside the narrative box like this. So it’s interesting to see what he used and how he extended it into such a big book.

Did it work? Yes and no. I didn’t read anything about the book going into it. I read 1.1, thought okay, it’s a story about this kid, his dad, his grandpa, etc etc. Then I read 1.2, and thought, “why the hell is he telling the same story but just changing one or two things?” It was like someone singing a song where the second verse is the first one with a few words changed. Then 1.3 came up, and I had to stop and go read the wikipedia article to see what the hell was going on. And I have to admit, for my no-attention-span brain, it was hard to keep the four stories straight. Like I’d be reading, and then think “wait a second, is this the rich Archie or the poor Archie? Is Amy the stepsister or the girlfriend in this one?” There are four casts of characters, all with similar names, but all different people. It’s a big investment. And I got about 200 pages into it and thought I needed to just quit and go read something else. But I stuck with it, just forcing myself to read 50 pages a night, or get to the end of the next chapter, and eventually, about 400 pages in, it caught me.

I really want to talk about the ending, but it’s such a huge spoiler, I can’t. I’ll just say that it’s enough of a payoff that I was happy with it, but I could also see that it would really piss off some people, especially those who invested so much time in the reading. Some reviewers were really unhappy with this; Michelle Dean from the Los Angeles Times also called it “a slog” and “a bad joke.” I had the opposite reaction, but yeah, some people didn’t like it.

I’ve often wondered about Auster’s end game, not to be morbid about it, because it took him seven years to write this book, and he’s recently talked about how he’s been out of ideas. At 70, I’d expect him to keep kicking for a while, but what does that mean — another book, maybe two? Like I said, this is a bit morbid, and maybe driven by my own birthday last week and the constant thoughts/fears about how much more I’ll get on the page, especially since I am tragically out of ideas and beating the same dead horse for the last few books.

Anyway. Interesting book, good stuff, but obviously, a heavy investment. If you haven’t read Invisible, you might want to start there, but maybe put some space between the two books, so you don’t get hopelessly confused like I did.

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Oculus Rift Impressions

I stopped in Best Buy on Saturday, because I’ve been meaning to check out the Oculus Rift, and the demo people are only there a few days a week, and I keep missing them. Usual thoughts on the death of the Best Buy I used to know, although they did seem to be semi-busy. Anyway, I tried out the Rift. Impressions:

  • I was worried that the thing would not work with glasses. My glasses fit fine inside the headset, so no problems there. I had to take off my glasses, put them in the headset, then flip the whole assembly onto my head. It was a slightly tight fit, but worked fine for me. The focus was decent, but did make me think maybe it would work better with my reading glasses and not my dailies, which aren’t that great for close-up work.
  • I did not notice the headset weight, and did not experience any fogging.
  • The controllers are interesting. They each have a joystick and a few buttons on the top, but then you also have a trigger and a squeeze button. They are also tracked, so your hand movement goes into the system. The result is that you have a set of virtual hands in the game, which move around and can point at various things and tap around. There’s also a bit of haptic feedback in the controllers, which was nice.
  • You start in a room in a house. Your head movement tracks, so you can look around. You can even turn around, and then see there’s a Koi pond behind you, which makes it very immersive and cool. In front of you is a wall containing tiles or pictures of each available game or program.
  • The immersive feeling of head tracking is something overwhelmingly cool. Just the subtle movements of your head moving around inside this virtual room is amazing.
  • I tried a few things. One was the basic tutorial, how to move your hands and look at things. Then I went into a climbing game, where you put hand over hand as you moved up a rock wall. Once I got the hand of moving and gripping, I was able to move fast and I quickly forgot I was wearing a headset, and felt like I was inside the game.
  • The freaky part of the climbing game was that I was focused on finding the handholds, studying the rock face. At a certain point, the Oculus person told me to stop and look behind me. When I turned, I could see the full display of the terrain behind me. And below me – I looked down and saw how far up I was and had a sudden feeling of depth, from the height. It was amazing.
  • I also did some weird video thing, which was not interactive except for head tracking. It was basically a 360-degree movie, with some African tribe, various scenes where you are surrounded by tribespeople, throwing spears and talking and whatnot. It was a bit boring, but also showed off the video well.
  • The video – it depends on what you are doing. On the tribe thing, I could really discern the pixelation – it was like standing with your face right up to the surface of a standard-definition monitor, or looking through a screen door. For video game or cartoonish things, it was not as noticeable. I do not think I could watch a movie in it.
  • Surround sound was very good too. I noticed that in the circle of tribesmen, how I could hear one to my right, then swing around to look at him and he’d be in the center of the sound stage.
  • I did not have any issues with nausea or fatigue from having the thing on my head, but I was only in it for ten minutes or so.
  • The Rift is now about $400 with a set of controllers, which is pretty amazing for what you get. The real kicker is you absolutely need an all-out machine, a newer-gen i5 or i7, lots of RAM, and a high-end video card. And the video card is the real problem, because Bitcoin mining has created a GPU apocalypse right now. Since Christmas, most GPUs are running about double MSRP, sometimes more for the higher-end ones. And that’s if you can find one, which you cannot. They are sold out everywhere. And you absolutely can’t get it to work on a Mac. My MBP meets all specs by far, except for the video card. I can run an external video card, and an enclosure is maybe $250, but getting the card is the hard part.
  • There probably won’t be an update to the Rift this year, but the Vive has a Pro model with more resolution. (Pricing and availability unknown.) The rub here is that a higher resolution would probably drive back up the pricing, and would require a rig with much more video horsepower.

So, mostly good impressions, but probably not enough to dive in right now. I think I could probably buy a prebuilt that would be on the low end of usable for about $750, slap in some more memory and an SSD I have from my old machine that’s just sitting here. But then I’d just want to upgrade to an all-out gaming rig, and I couldn’t buy an affordable GPU, and ten minutes later, the Rift Pro would be announced. So I guess I’ll wait a minute on this one.

 

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Dü You Remember?

Quick link to a podcast about Hüsker Dü, called Dü You Remember:

https://www.thecurrent.org/collection/husker-du/

(It’s also on iTunes, etc. I just searched for it in the Podcast app, but I’m still on iOS 10, before Apple completely fucked it, so your mileage may vary.)

This was a great five-part audio documentary on the band, from Minneapolis public radio’s The Current. It’s mostly interviews with the band and others (both Rollins and Biafra drop in) and covers the rise and fall of the Hüskers.

I was very late on the scene with these guys, being stuck in heavy metal land and all. I heard a few songs on those SST compilations, which I didn’t discover until right around the time they broke up. By the time I got to college and was surrounded by “college rock,” and later “alternative,” the conversation was more about “have you heard Sugar?” and I had to go backward and hunt down all the old albums.

The whole podcast was apparently conceived before Grant Hart’s passing this year, so there’s a lot of footage of him. Definitely worth checking out.

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Latest reading

I’ve given up on Goodreads, and I haven’t been tracking my reading as of late, and maybe I should be doing that. Here’s a few things I’ve finished recently, in no particular order.

Tim O’Brien – July, July

Probably twenty years ago, I had to read The Things They Carried for an undergrad writing class, and it made me dig into the rest of his catalog. For some reason, I dropped the thread on his writing, and then he popped up in the Ken Burns Vietnam thing on PBS, so I looked him up again. This one is about a 30-year college reunion of a 1969 class of a small university outside of Chicago, and it’s an interesting but slightly problematic character study. It follows a slightly too large cast of characters, showing where their adult lives started and how they got to where they were in 2000. That part can be one-dimensional, and it’s hard to keep track of the various marriages, divorces, lost loves, cancers, heart conditions, careers, and failed careers. There are glances of things that have a lot of depth, like a Vietnam vet who was injured in the war, or another guy who ran from the draft in Winnipeg. It was a fun read and an interesting concept, a good way of just writing about the then-and-now of people. But a lot of reviewers didn’t agree, and it’s not like his other work, so there’s that.

Denis Johnson – Tree of Smoke

Also related to the Ken Burns thing. I read this when it first came out ten years ago, and ever since Johnson passed earlier this year, I’ve been meaning to get back to it. I think the book held up, and was possibly better the second time. It essentially follows the story of Skip Sands, a CIA operative whose uncle Francis is a retired Colonel and who also works for the agency. I think the first time I read it, I’d recently read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and my brain was still stuck in that version of Vietnam; this time, my mind was within the footage from the Burns documentary, which worked better. It’s amazing to me how the guy who delivered such compact and highly-efficient writing in the 150-some pages of Jesus’ Son was able to belt out 600+ pages with the same line-by-line potency, but of heavily historical and accurate information. It’s like a flyweight boxer who clocks in at 112 pounds gaining a hundred pounds of pure muscle to qualify as a heavyweight, but still fights with the same game as he did half a body ago, but he’s doing that times four. Amazing stuff.

Nick Bonner – Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK

A full-size flexicover book with color reproductions of the graphic design from within North Korea, as collected by a Beijing travel expert who visits regularly. It’s a strange collection, with all the “store brand” products put out by the government, designed by pen-and-ink pre-digital artists, often cribbing old Soviet designs, and of course working in various patriotic angles and images of Dear Leader. Some of the anti-American comics are a hoot. Plenty of small essays describing Bonner’s travels are nice, but the artwork is the real treat here.

Skylab Reference, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) Press Kit and Flight Plan

This is the kind of crap I read when I’m sick or otherwise can’t pay attention. I fell down a space station k-hole right around the time I came down with a cold, so I got lost in this for a few nights. (The reason for the k-hole: astronaut Paul Weitz from Skylab 2 passed away a few weeks ago.) It’s a three-ring binder with copies of the press kit for the original launch of the Skylab station, with a bonus press kit from the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission. Lots of dry government tech writer copy on space toilets and food stowage and time schedules and communication frequencies. Plenty of old pre-computer illustrations of what storage lockers and tools are mounted to what bulkheads, although some of the drawings didn’t reproduce that well. Still, fun stuff.

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Mindhunter

I marathon-ed out Mindhunter over the last few days on Netflix. I couldn’t remember the damn name, and for the first few episodes, kept calling it Brainminder, which sounds like a Tupperware product for zombies. Anyway.

It’s a David Fincher-produced thing – he also directed four episodes. Set in 1977, early days of FBI profiling, a couple of agents are both working active cases and going to prisons to interview notorious “sequence killers” to find out what makes them tick. The big selling point is the spot-on portrayal of Ed Kemper, which has already been discussed to death in every other article about the series. Agreed, but I won’t bore you with the story that he now narrates audio books for the blind in prison.

I liked that this was set in 1977, but it doesn’t burn insane cycles saying “hey look, it’s 1977!” That was one of my criticisms of the one-and-done Scorsese-produced Vinyl, which spent way too much time and money depicting a gritty, punk, New York. Mindhunter has the old cars and the rotary phones and reel-to-reel tape recorders, but they aren’t the main character of the series. This reminded me a bit of Fincher’s work with Zodiac, which I ultimately didn’t love, but I appreciated that the focus wasn’t to make the background the character.

I did like Mindhunter’s character development, which was sort of atypical. There’s the “new guy” Holden Ford, and the “old guy” Bill Tench, a common trope for crime fiction. But it’s not a “the old guy is dumb and the new guy tells him how modern life now works” or “the kid is a newbie, and the old guy lays it all out for him.” It’s very non-binary in that both of the characters have some advanced insights and key knowledge, but also have their own shortcomings. It does both of the tropes, but mixes them together in a more realistic way, with the two characters playing off of each other. There’s also the two sides of the institution, the new, groundbreaking professor, and the FBI old guard, and those are a little less nuanced, especially the FBI, but they do feed in little bits of development, especially with Wendy Carr, the psych professor.

The finale — I won’t go into details, but I read from multiple people that it threw them, and it didn’t bother me. It was no Twin Peaks on the WTF scale of the finale, and it didn’t bother me. But I’m not everyone, so who knows.

It will be interesting to see where the show goes in a Season 2. They were vaguely following the antics of a killer more or less modeled after Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. They were mostly just setting it up, though. Maybe the next season will get into that more.

Standard disclaimer applies to any of these VOD shows: it’s great, I watch it in two or three sittings, and then I have to wait six months or a year to get my next fix. I sometimes wish they could crank out five seasons at once, but obviously that’s not an option. (Unless I find out about it three or four years after it happens.)

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Donald Cried (2016)

Donald Cried is a film in the “you can never go back” camp, but it’s also more about the estranged relationship between two friends who were inseparable as teenagers, but took completely different paths into adulthood.

Originally a short by independent filmmaker Kris Avedisian, this was expanded to a feature-length affair with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film starts with the protagonist Peter returning to his home town in Rhode Island to handle the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. He left the small town a dozen years before, and went to New York City to reinvent himself, forget his past, and work on Wall Street. The problem with his quick overnight trip: he’s lost his wallet, so he’s stuck at his grandmother’s old house with no cash, no ID, and a to-do list of funeral home, nursing home, realtor, and everything else involved in closing the last of his involvement with his old life.

With no other options, he turns to his last lifeline, and meets up with his old pal Donald, who he hasn’t seen since high school. Donald is a stoner dropout who lives in his mom’s attic, works part-time at a bowling alley, and is the opposite of Peter, stuck at the same point he was back in the glory days of high school. We quickly find out that Peter was once cut from the same cloth, and had the same love of heavy metal and juvenile delinquency. Peter just needs a ride to pick up his grandma’s ashes and empty out her nursing home, plus a few bucks for bus fare back to the city. Donald is ecstatic about the triumphant return of his old friend. Antics ensue.

I always have a certain nervousness when returning back to Indiana, and that’s captured too well in this film. It’s a mixture of “this could have been me” and flashbacks of the past that bring out the “man, I was an idiot back then.” My nostalgia issues are a bit contrary to Peter’s in the film, though. He’s trying to remain unseen, and not get entangled in the past. For example, the realtor he gets is a woman he went to school with, and that he had some feelings for back in the day, but he initially acts as if he doesn’t remember who she is at all. I’m not saying I seek out people and reunite with them (I did have an ex-girlfriend sighting at a mall a few years ago, and I ducked in another store to escape) but I do seem to seek out old landmarks and get too mentally involved with the ghosts of the past.

The real star of this movie is Avedisian, who plays the character of Donald. He’s this lanky, bearded guy with an awkward Ray Romano-sounding voice and a Keith Moon haircut, and he’s completely cringe-worthy in his total lack of a filter. This starts as a truly hilarious character, like a Mark Borchardt from American Movie, except with no ambition to make films. At first, he’s just the funny guy to the straight guy, but then you become sympathetic to him, feel sorry for him. My feelings bounced between “wow, what is with this dude” to “wow, how could Peter help this dude get his shit together.” And the latter is a strong one for my personal experience, so it really got me.

The small town setting was also big for me. Warwick isn’t a “small” town — it’s the second-biggest city in Rhode Island. But, it’s only 80,000 people, and what is captured in the film is the small town feeling of cruising at night, bowling alleys and convenience stores, little houses, and that feeling that a lot of people never leave, never forget high school, never move on. The duo go, on Donald’s insistence, to visit another one of their high school buddies. When they get there, he’s sitting in bed, unmoving, watching cage fighting matches on TV, like he’s never left the house in fifteen years. Or there’s the bowling alley manager, a burly guy actually played by former WWF wrestler Ted Arcidi, who’s in his office showing a teenaged cashier his grainy VHS tapes of when he used to be a powerlifter back in the Eighties and could bench 700 pounds. It’s an interesting backdrop, and really sets up why Peter left, and why it is such a strange yet compelling place to visit.

Overall, I have only one big problem with this film: I wanted to write a book that was almost exactly this. I started outlining it two years ago, when I went back to Indiana for a weekend. I had the backdrop, and I thought I had the characters. But I never could quite break the story correctly. And Avedisian showed me that I really didn’t have the depth needed to get the characters down. I gave up on the idea a while ago, and now I’m stuck on the thought that I really should do something with it, but of course if I started working on it, I’d unconsciously ape exactly what he did.

Anyway, it’s on iTunes for rent right now. Not for everyone, but I found it pretty entertaining.

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City of Gold (2015)

City of Gold is a documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. I’m ambivalent about the current spate of foodie-oriented TV and movies, but this was less of that and more about an interesting and quirky artist, and the real main character was the city of Los Angeles.

One of the main focus points is how Gold is the champion of the off-the-beaten-path restaurants, largely immigrant-focused. It’s a healthy counterpoint to the current post-election culture that has swallowed the news cycle, and the doc shows several examples of how he championed a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and made their business explode. An example was Meals by Genet, a restaurant in Little Ethiopia on Fairfax run by Genet Agonafer. She fled Ethiopia for LA with her young son, and struggled through the usual low-pay food service jobs. Her son, through her support, eventually grew up, went through medical school, and became a doctor. When the space on Fairfax opened, he maxed out every credit card he could find to get her restaurant going. When Gold reviewed it, she could not cook fast enough to handle all the new traffic, and now she’s flourishing because of his nod on the 101 Best Restaurants list he publishes.

There are several stories like this, where he writes about his favorite Thai food, taco trucks, Korean places, and works the Pico strip, eating at every small ethnic restaurant along its length. And that’s why I say LA is the main star here. I’m unapologetically a massive fan of Los Angeles, and wish I would have spent more time than the brief half-year I lived there in 2008. There’s some city planning porn in the doc explaining how LA has multiple city centers, and grows outward from each one. Many people — mostly those who have never spent any time there — decry this sprawl. But it’s a feature, not a bug. It means different parts of the city blossom and grow to provide different experiences for a widely diverse population.

Sure, that sprawl means unending chain restaurants. You’ll find at least 150 McDonald’s chains in LA county. But it means there are so many spaces for weird, eccentric, or authentic food. This is one of the big surprises of the city, and shown well in the film. There are big Zagat-reviewed fancy places in LA, which are all stuck in the 90s. But you can roll into a mini-mall in El Segundo and find mind-blowing food from any country or region of the world, sitting next to a cash-for-gold place.

Gold writes for the LA Times, but the movie shows his ascension through the ranks. He started at the LA Weekly as a proofreader back in the early 80s, when he was studying cello at UCLA. He moved up to music editor, then got into food. There are so many interesting intersecting paths here; he’s got the connections to the food criticism world, and you see Robert Sietsema, Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, and so on. But he’s also a regular on KCRW. He was a champion of the early LA gangsta rap scene, spending time with Snoop Dogg in the studio while he recorded his first album. He played with the post-punk band Overman. He was around for the early 80s punk scene with X and the Germs. And it seems like he’s had a thumb in every little food scene within LA, from the old Jewish delis (he actually worked in Spielberg’s mom’s deli back in college) to food trucks to everything else.

One of the things I liked about the film was showing Gold, how he lived in a house filled with books on every horizontal surface, his close relationship with wife Laurie Ochoa (now entertainment editor at the Times) and his struggles with writer’s block, even though he still publishes 150,000 words a year. He’s a jovial looking guy, with long hair and always with a smile on his face, and it’s humorous to see him pecking at his Macbook at the kitchen table, then wandering off to pick up some random book and not get to a review his editor wanted yesterday. We’ve all been there, but I think the rewarding thing was to see him struggle with it and then at the last second crank out such engrossing and descriptive criticism.

The only sore spot with this film is it really, really made me want to go back to LA. Watching those long pan shots of the strip malls and restaurants of West Hollywood and Koreatown and Culver City and Sawtelle gave me such overwhelming nostalgia for the place. There are things I like about Northern California, but we don’t have city centers like that. We have downtowns surrounded by bedroom communities, and it’s just not the same. Yeah, the traffic sucks, but the traffic here sucks too, and we don’t have 350 days of sunshine a year and such an overwhelming food scene. I really wish I was back, to drive down Pico and look at everything, even if I do just end up at Norm’s at three in the morning, eating pancakes. Great film.

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Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater’s new film is titled Everybody Wants Some!! (two exclamation marks.) It’s vaguely named after the Van Halen song, but it’s a movie about going to college to play baseball in 1980. It’s sort of a Dazed and Confused of college, or at least that’s how it’s being sold.

I love Linklater and his films, but I felt this one fell flat. He’s a director that’s much more about moments than plot, and that’s fine. But his plotless movies generally have some device that links together all of the moments, and there wasn’t anything like that here. For example, the movie Boyhood had the scaffolding or gimmick of it being shot over twelve years; Slacker had the idea of leaving one scene on a character and moving to another as you wandered around Austin over the course of a day. This one vaguely had the idea of the first weekend before college, but that’s about it.

The story is pretty straightforward: a guy goes to a Texas college in the fall of 1980 to play baseball. Girls in shorts, bonging beer off the deck of the old house, bunch of jocks living together, etc. The cast of characters on the baseball team: the 5-tool all-american; the dumb type-a guy; the weirdo stoner talking about Carl Sagan; the token black guy, etc. There’s the beautiful non-jock artsy chick the baseball player falls in love with. The coach says no alcohol in the house, smash-cut to scene of keg stands and riding a mattress down the stairs through a wall of empties. You know the drill.

I think part of the reason this didn’t resonate was there wasn’t much depth or feel to any of the moments presented. In a movie like Boyhood, you come out of it knowing much more about the character Mason and his transformation, not only because of the depth covered over the years, but because of his interaction with “real” characters like his mom and dad, also going through their own transformation. There was very little of that here, of the jump from high school to pseudo-adulthood, to being away from parents and on your own, surrounded by other people in the same predicament. There was a token amount of coverage on this, discussion about how all the jocks (and the theater people) were the best of the best at their schools, got to start in sports or were cast in the lead parts every time, and now were competing with the best of the best from every school in the state and beyond. But this was just mentioned, skimmed, and I didn’t feel much out of it.

The nostalgia trip was also much more incomplete. There were a few old cars, a few references to old music, some people in period-correct clothes, a walk through the quad with a “Carter ’80” booth, and so on. But it seemed like Hollywood central casting, and a very quickly assembled version of a “hey, remember 1980” without much grit or substance to it. And the soundtrack, which everyone raves about, was painfully bad for me. It was the most generic of 1980 greatest hits, and not much as far as deep cuts could go. Throw together “Urgent,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Whip It,” and fucking “My Sharona,” which is like the scratch music you’d use in a trailer about a teen comedy before you picked the real music. Also, there were attempts to graft on the completely different scenes of the the era, like the characters were wandering across a backlot and went through the different sets, like the chase scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Hey, it’s a disco! It’s a country bar! It’s a punk squat! It’s a weird art party! I am guessing there would not be as much scene-crossing in collegiate Texas, and this was an example of taking on too much.

Another big reason this didn’t resonate with me is that I personally didn’t experience any of this in college. I know Linklater actually did go to school to play ball, but my experience was completely different. I went to high school in a jock-centric world, and when I got to college and moved in the artsy-fartsy dorm, the view of jocks was “well, we don’t have to deal with that shit anymore.” And the idea of party montages of mud-wrestling bikini-wearing coeds over a song by The Knack was something from bad eighties movies about college, not reality. This movie was less about the college experience and more about nostalgia for Animal House and every other movie of its ilk.

I hate to be so critical of the movie. I love Linklater’s work, and I’m the asshole that wrote an overly long nostalgic book about college. But this one didn’t work out for me.

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The Big Short

The Big Short is a film adaptation of the Michael Lewis book of the same name. But in a similar fashion as Dr. Strangelove being a version of the Peter George thriller novel Red Alert, this film is done as a dark comedy, directed by Adam McKay. It’s an oddly-toned film, not a ha-ha funny comedy, but more like a comedy based on the absolute absurdity of the collapsing ponzi scheme of the credit default swap market of the mid/late 00s.

The plot follows a few players: a borderline-autistic hedge fund manager (Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale) who’s got one eye and a Supercuts bowl ‘do, used to be a doctor, blasts thrash metal in his office, and walks around wearing no shoes and the same t-shirt and cargo shorts every day, but is able to zero in on the housing bubble before anybody else. When he calculates that the mortgage industry is going to collapse in about two years, he goes to Morgan Stanley and purchases a fairly new financial instrument which enables him to bet on the collapse of the housing market, which he could do without actually owning any of said market. It’s essentially like taking a fire insurance policy on somebody else’s house. And because the banks thought that metaphorical house was fireproof, they were more than glad to sell him a billion dollars of fire insurance and take his money.

Ryan Gosling plays a trader who hears of this scheme, and accidentally hooks up with a damaged, type-A personality hedge fund manager played by Steve Carell and his ragtag team of misfits. There’s also another team of garage band young investors partnered with a retired banker played by Brad Pitt (whose Plan B produced the film) and gets in on the action.

The movie covers some of the background of the predatory lending market and absurdity of the housing run-up, like mortgage companies handing out loans to people with no income and no jobs (a so-called NINJA loan), but is fairly light on this information. I think the film would have been much more preachy if they spent any time on it (and it already clocks in over two hours) but there’s certainly the case that a different film could cover this human angle much more.

Instead, this film blows through the Manhattan banking side, and at a quick pace. McKay does try to explain this slightly by breaking into celebrity cameos, for example having Anthony Bourdain explain repackaging bad mortgages into investment vehicles by explaining how old halibut is repackaged into fish stew for the Sunday brunch crowd. Even with this, it might be well beyond the ability of an average civilian to grok all the financial background here. I recently read Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia, which was a good high-level introduction to the financial crisis (albeit sensationalized, Taibbi-style. And cognitive bias trigger alert: he skewers Obamacare in the book, calling it a gross giveaway for the insurance industry, which, as much as I love affordable health care, is largely true.) Anyway, without that background, I would have been lost. But with it, the total absurdity of the scenario becomes hilarious.

The other thing I appreciated about the film was the near-past nostalgia aspect of it. The trading aspect starts in Manhattan in 2005, only a few blocks from where I worked at the time, and my company at that time had most of the major players involved as customers. As the timeline of the film advanced, I spent a lot of time in the back of my head calculating where I was or how the events correlated to my own timeline and when I left the city (about halfway through the film.) I also kept an eye on the backgrounds of the street scenes, looking for anachronisms. (License plate colors, guys! And a Ralph’s in Florida?)

Overall, an interesting film. Best picture-worthy? I don’t think so, but it was entertaining without being too preachy, and the absurdity of the black humor made it enjoyable for me.

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