Odd Unpublished Things


Letter to a Bar Mitzvah


Dear A,

I don’t know much about Judaism, and yours is the first Bar Mitzvah that I have attended, but a bit of Internet research yields the following fun facts:

You are now responsible for your own actions. (Uh oh!)

You may be legally married by Jewish law (Uh oh again! Please wait a few more years at least, because 13 is awfully young to settle down.)

You may possess personal property. (Finally: something that doesn’t warrant an “Uh oh!”)

Obviously, I don’t know anything about the many religious rituals and ceremonies in which you are now eligible to participate, so I won’t presume to hold forth about those. I’m going to talk about your rite of passage in more general terms. I wasn’t brought up in any faith, and I have never been a religious person, but I did survive adolescence. What got me through, what jump-started me into puberty and ushered me into adulthood, what made the whole dreary enterprise seem worthwhile and sometimes even magnificent was rock & roll. When I was confused, or frustrated, or pissed off, or in love with some boy who barely knew I was alive, I could always rely on my music. No matter what I was feeling, I could always find an album that would make me feel understood, less alone in the world. My human friends disappointed me sometimes, but my record friends never let me down. Do you know the Beach Boys song “In My Room”? It goes, “There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/In my room, in my room/In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears/In my room, in my room.” My room mattered to me because that’s where I kept my records and my record player. Nothing could touch me there. My room is where I was my best and truest self.

Most kids these days have iPods, and they can carry their “room” around with them wherever they go, but I think they’re missing out on the magic that comes with having a personal sanctuary filled with sonic totems: a turntable, LPs, dust jackets, real speakers. Vinyl records, unlike mp3s, have an odor, a life force, a physical presence, a past. They crackle a little when they get worn, skip when they’re abused. If you treat your LPs right, they will outlive you. When all the CDs and mp3s have died their little unmourned digital deaths, the vinyl will abide. I own many records that belonged to people who are dead now, and it comforts me to think that my record collection will be dispersed among future generations when I’m gone.

I took good care of my records when I was a teenager (invest in a Discwasher cleaning system, if you don’t have one already—when records are free of dust and debris, they’re much less likely to get scratched—and make sure to replace your needle fairly regularly, about every 6 months if you use your turntable every day), and I hope you’ll do the same so you can bequeath yours to a worthy recipient someday. I still have records that were given to me by my grandparents, parents, ex-boyfriends, and old friends. Some of my albums, I know, are worth a lot more on eBay than I originally paid for them, but their monetary value means nothing to me. How could I put a price on a friend, on a memory? Whatever I paid for the albums in my collection, my investment was returned to me a millionfold. I paid stupid meaningless money for them, money that I might otherwise have blown on Diet Coke and nail polish, and they gave me knowledge, experience, passion. They helped me make sense of it all: the hormonal maelstrom, the endless hurdles, the darkness and doubt.

The albums I’m giving you today aren’t supposed to be comprehensive, some kind of starter kit for a young collector. I picked out 18 from my personal stash because Wikipedia told me that the number 18 has special significance for the Bar Mitzvah; supposedly, it represents the Hebrew word for life or something. (Also, given the fact that several of the albums I gave you are doubles, that was the maximum number I could fit in the box.) These 18 albums are not at all representative of a well-rounded person’s taste. The only thing these records have in common is that they meant something to me when I was a teenager, and I know they have something to do with the adult I am today. Here’s a truth that adults never seem to mention when they’re lecturing you about growing up: The Teenage You never goes away. All those lyrics you pore over now will be imprinted on your consciousness forever. You’ll forget your wife’s cousin’s name, your license-plate number, your grocery list, countless appointments and passwords, but the songs you love now will be seared into your soul until you die. They’ll matter to you in a way that songs you’ll love later never will. I can’t guarantee that these albums are going to have the same significance for you that they did for me, but I do know that the Future You will be shaped by everything you love now. So love widely, love deeply, and love well.

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint It Black.”

Rock & Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s no, well, I can go

I won’t make you.

(from “Thirteen,” by Big Star, on one of the albums I gave you)




List of the albums given:

1. XTC: Mummer

2. The Pogues: Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

3. VA: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 (double)

4. REM: Fables of the Reconstruction

5. The Dream Syndicate: The Days of Wine and Roses

6. The Meat Puppets: Out My Way

7. Thin White Rope: In the Spanish Cave

8. The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies

9. The Velvet Underground and Nico: s/t

10. The Ramones: Rocket to Russia

11. Neil Young: Reactor

12. Gang of Four: Entertainment!

13. Big Star: Number 1 Record/Radio City (double)

14: Husker Du: Zen Arcade (double)

15: New York Dolls: s/t and Too Much, Too Soon (double)

16: The Cramps: Songs the Lord Taught Us

17: The Jam: Sound Affects

18: Elvis Costello: Taking Liberties


On having a high fever and watching Pasolini’s Salò (August 2009)

I thought Salò was very beautiful, in a severe and often disgusting way. It strikes me as very strange that it was considered pornographic, because it seemed me to be a critique of pornography — more than a critique, an excoriation. It seemed to be not only about the corruption and decadence of the big bad fascists but also about the degradation inherent in late capitalism, the commodification of the other as a sexual object and as an object to be viewed/consumed. Pasolini never lets you forget that you, the spectator, are complicit in the degradation. We are all eating shit with a silver spoon. I thought it was a brilliant film, but it was difficult to watch.


The Criterion DVD I watched came with a couple of documentaries, one of which included an interview with Pasolini containing a quote (translated) that I found particularly appropriate: “Hope is something invented by politicians to keep the electorate happy.”

Watching: Blowup
Monday, April 20, 2009 at 1:56pm

Sometimes when I’m browsing the library DVD section I let Mr. Alphabet pick out my movies, or at least narrow the field, which is how I wound up this week with W.C. Fields’s The Bank Dick, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, and a British television miniseries from the 1970s called The Brontës of Haworth. Blowup was the only one I had seen before, but I saw it so long ago that it was almost as if I had never seen it at all. I did have this vague memory of hearing my dad call it one of his favorite movies, which might not have happened but really should not surprise anyone if it did because my dad is a man, and Blowup is for men, especially men who were in their early 20s in 1966, when it came out, like my freshly minted father.

Not to knock the cinematography, which is rather gruelingly pretty, and the soundtrack, which boasts the Yardbirds and Herbie Hancock, and the overall stylishness of the whole Swinging London package, but I’m going to risk my rewarding career as a Facebook public library DVD critic and say something that is guaranteed to make people I like think less of me. Here goes: Blowup is kind of dumb. (But pretty! Like Twilight the movie or certain Vashti Bunyan songs!) It is dumb in the same way that paperback romance novels and chick-flick rom-coms are dumb, and don’t let any dude who condescends to those art forms tell you that Blowup is a great movie, fancy Italian director notwithstanding. What it is is the ultimate male fantasy movie, and it’s not so bad if you’re a lady either. Watching Blowup at its best is like coming across a stack of mid-‘60s British Vogue magazines, or having that dream again, the one in which you suddenly have perfectly straight bangs and extralong eyelashes and your boyfriend is the young Ray Davies. Watching Blowup at its worst is really not so bad at all, as long as you can engage in the same suspension of disbelief practiced by soap-opera viewers and Penthouse Forum readers, not to mention mime fans, for whom the last 10 or 15 minutes of this movie must be the ultimate porn.

It’s about this guy, Thomas something, who lives in the coolest time in the world, in the coolest city in the world, with the coolest job in the world. He photographs high-fashion magazine models and other pretty young women when he’s not lying on top of them or teaching them how to move or making them close their eyes while he leaves the studio for more exciting activities. In addition to a glamorous career, a dreamy convertible, and a full head of golden hair, this Thomas fellow is a serious artist. When he’s not getting paid to grind himself against emaciated women, he’s taking serious pictures, the kind championed by bearded gallery curators: black-and-whites of starving prisoners, war victims, doss house denizens. But Thomas, it turns out, despite having the perfect job and the perfect life, is not satisfied. Like so many great artists before him, he takes the longer, more transcendent view, the one that includes threesomes with aspiring teenage models and possible blackmail but does not rule out angst about same. At one point in the movie, Thomas says, “I’m fed up with these bloody bitches. I wish I had a ton of money. Then I’d be free.” It’s like he’s singing the universal dude anthem. It’s “life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money” for the Carnaby Street set. Thank you! Yes, I would like my bare breasts and marijuana pipes with a side of mimes and Mary Quant outfits.

In 1966 it must have all seemed intoxicatingly edgy, the strung-out model who falsely maintains that she is in Paris, the naked girls play-fighting, the young Jeff Beck smashing his guitar against his malfunctioning Vox amplifier (Antonioni, it turns out, couldn’t afford the Who or even the Velvet Underground), and, oh, yeah, spoiler alert, the MIMES playing tennis. To 2009 viewers the iconic closing scene may seem a little pretentious, but it pays not to be too picky. Blowup is one of those movies that you can watch for the clothes, or the cars, or the possibility that you’ll trigger the beautiful dream again, the one with you and your bangs and Ray Davies, your boyfriend.

Watching: Let the Right One In and The Visitor
April 16, 2009 at 1:29am

{Warning: If you haven’t seen this movie yet and spoilers bother you, do not read any further. However, you should definitely see this movie, regardless of whether you bother to read my long and–looking back slightly more than four years later–possibly painkiller-enhanced prose. I was very ill for most of 2009 and had, when I wrote this, undergone open-heart surgery about a couple months earlier. So yeah: drug-fuelled for sure. Still, see the movie. I swear to you that it is very, very good. See the Swedish one first–the American one is good, but I like the Swedish version more.}

There are two kinds of vampire stories. The first, more conventional, kind is about vampires we fear. Dracula, for example. The second kind, which includes the recent Swedish film Let the Right One In, is about vampires we pity.

Let the Right One In is a very beautiful film about shame and suffering. First we get the merciless whiteness of Sweden, the silvery birches, the sparkling snow, the incandescently Caucasian boy-hero reflected in a window overlooking more snow—and then, suddenly, the immaculate is maculated: A regular middle-aged human, of the murderous psychopath variety, hangs a kid’s body upside down from a tree so he can drain the blood from the dead kid’s head. He uses a funnel. A funnel! Somehow this ordinary household object makes the scene more horrifying than a football field of fangs.

And also funny! The carcass is discovered by an extravagantly coiffed white Standard Poodle named Vicky, who laps up the bloody snow. This is also horrifying, also funny. And then we get to the real story, which is just as much romance as horror. Oskar, the almost-albino 12-year-old protagonist, spends much of his free time exacting revenge on imaginary enemies, proxies for the boys who bully him at school. While stabbing trees and practicing his tough-guy repartee in the playground of his Socialist Moderne apartment complex, he meets Eli, a reluctant vampire who resembles a pubescent Polly Jean Harvey. One of the first things Oskar says to her is, “You smell funny.” (It turns out that she kind of starts to rot after she hasn’t eaten for a while.) They fall in love. She teaches him to punch back. He kisses her gore-spattered mouth. In what might be the sweetest love scene ever filmed, he shivers against her naked body and asks her if she wants to go steady. To which she responds, “I’m not a girl.” To which he responds, “Oh. Do you want to go steady or not?”

Let the Right One Inis not so much about how vampires are terrifying as it is about how terrifying it is to be a vampire. Eli, it turns out, is living with the homicidal funnel guy because she doesn’t want to kill for the blood she needs to survive. When she finally gets hungry enough to hunt down her own prey—a flannel-clad nice guy whom she lures under an overpass—it’s a little scary, but mostly it’s just sad. After feeding, she breaks his neck quickly and efficiently, to put him out of his misery (and spare him hers), and then she sobs over his corpse. Later, a fortyish blonde woman, another one of Eli’s victims, wakes up and realizes that she has become a vampire. How does she know? The morning sun is excruciating, and the traces of blood around the puncture wounds in her neck smell unexpectedly delicious. She kills herself, which is, I suspect, what most people would do in this situation. Somehow Eli seems even braver and more tragic by comparison, even though it is technically all her fault, since killing herself would have prevented her from turning the fortyish blonde woman into a vampire who needed to kill herself.

Turning people into vampires is bad, it’s true, but most of the evil in Let the Right One In is human generated. The boys who torment Oskar are both perfectly cruel and perfectly ordinary. Such boys breed like flies in middle schools, and they kill more kids than vampires ever have. We know that to see them bleed would be Oskar’s greatest bliss, but he holds back, trembling. Apart from one triumphant scene on a frozen lake, Oskar is the one who gets hurt. His submission to this role is the measure of his character, if not his heroism. One of the questions Let the Right One In asks, and variously answers, is, “What is the proper response to evil?” Depending on the circumstances, the best choice could be (a) just stand there still and stoic while the mean boy whips you in the face with a stick; (b) smack the mean boy really hard with a steel pole and rip his ear off; (c) wait for your missing vampire girlfriend to chop off the head of the mean boy before he is able to drown you.If it sounds like I’m making fun of this movie, I’m sorry that I’m not doing a better job describing exactly how great it is, in all of its gooey, gobbety little particulars. Vampires are, after all, pretty disgusting, and gussying them up into Debussy-playing, professionally mussed tween idols, à la Twilight, is a bit of a cop out. Let the Right One In never denies the disgusting: the dark clots that stain Eli’s face, the strange odors, the shame (all perfect metaphors for menarche, if finding metaphors is your thing). What makes Let the Right One In more than another silly kill flick is its humanity. Yes, people are cruel and stupid, and they exude all manner of revolting fluids, but they’re worth loving, even when they’re as hopelessly Other as a girl vampire, an exhausted girl vampire who has to kill to live.

The Visitor

Pockmarked, miserable,

Hides his paunch in pleated pants.

Fela Kuti fan.

Watching: Gus Van Sant’s Last Days
Confessions of a seemingly helpless Gus Van Santichist
April 8, 2009 at 3:14pm

I must have some kind of a thing for Gus Van Sant because, when I stop to think about it, I have seen a fair number of his films, and I’m by no means a film buff, nor even someone who watches a lot of them, fancy or not. A few months ago I went to the trouble of requesting Gus Van Sant’s Columbine movie, Elephant, from the St. Louis Public Library. I watched the whole thing, even as I asked myself why I was watching something so monumentally, unspeakably boring: endless tracking shots of teenage dudes trudging down hallways, inane conversations between inarticulate people about whom I had no reason to give the slightest fuck, long-ass landscape shots that made me wonder if maybe the cameraman had nodded off.

In other words, long as life and twice as boring.

For reasons that I won’t begin to explore but that probably have a lot to do with prescription painkillers, I rented and watched Last Days last night, which is GVS’s Kurt Cobain movie, except there’s no Nirvana music in it. I think I read somewhere that this is because GVS couldn’t get permission, but I’m inclined to think that it’s all part of GVS’s filmic perversity, his libido for the tedious, because, whatever your feelings about Cobain, a few examples of what he did best would have livened up this movie considerably. Maybe GVS was thinking that showing Cobain in a mostly music-free context would bring out other, more interesting facets of his personality, but the fact is, muttering, cross-dressing, guitar-abusing indie-rock dudes on heroin don’t have a lot of facets. Invite one to crash on your couch for a few days, and you’ll see what I mean.This is not to say that Last Days is completely music free. Michael Pitt, the actor who plays Blake, the character based on Cobain, indulges in some laughably subpar Nirvanaisms, in addition to some slightly more interesting noise/improv attempts, and there’s one scene in which his chemically altered bandmates and their fuckbuddy bliss out (predictably) to the Velvet Underground. There is also a very strange, very long shot that consists of an entire Boyz II Men video, as seen on a television set being watched by Blake. I had to keep checking the DVD box to see if Last Days was supposed to be in real time, like 24 or something, because I could have sworn at least 48 hours had elapsed by that point. According to the credits, Thurston Moore was the music consultant for the movie. I wish I could Twitter him (“B2M? WTF!”), but I can’t, so the no doubt fascinating boy-band/grunge connection will forever remain a mystery.

But there’s no denying that GVS movies are pretty, and it’s not just because he stuffs them with pretty people and pretty landscapes (this one also has a lot of pretty furniture, but I can’t say that’s a constant in his movies). I think, when it comes right down to brass tacks, I must like GVS movies because I find them soothing. As a director, he would make a very good still-life artist.

Part Four: Watching American Pimp
April 6, 2009 at 2:55am

(Update: I should probably explain beforehand that Phoebe was in charge of my Netflix queue back then, in the spring of 2009. She gave me a Netflix subscription as a birthday or Christmas present, and I asked her if she would be in charge of it. In my defense, I  had recently undergone open-heart surgery and on more drugs than late-period Whitney Houston.)

Tonight Xian and I watched part two in our dear friend Phoebe’s Netflix pimposium, the documentary American Pimp. A thoughtful queue organizer, Phoebe preceded it with another pimp movie, Hustle and Flow, which I watched a few days earlier. (Throw in Lulu, which I watched the week before, and you’ve got a prostitution trifecta.) I will once again make the usual preliminary noise about how I, as a feminist, don’t really think pimps are where it’s at, and given the fact that prostitution is probably inevitable, can’t the women at least cut out the middleman and keep some of their own hard-earned money, since it’s obviously too much to ask that they be treated with respect while engaging in an intellectually fulfilling and less dangerous career?

Because the perfect is the enemy of the good, as Barack Obama used to say, I say legalize prostitution, as Barack Obama, unfortunately, never can say but as my husband’s great-grandfather, a former St. Louis health commissioner, did say, during his quixotic campaign to control the spread of syphilis in late nineteenth-century St. Louis.

But I digress. This documentary, which was directed by those Menace 2 Society brothers, the Hugheses, presents the pimp side, I would argue a bit too affectionately, as opposed to the victimized sex chattel side, although, to their credit, the Hugheses don’t try to cover the pimply ass of their subject’s profession. In one segment the pimps describe how they keep their bitches in line, and I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that their techniques are not Socratic. Not unless I missed something in The Symposium about cutting a motherfucking bitch. Moreover, the pimps scoff at the suggestion that they might share a percentage of the profits with their hos, who were expressly designed to suck dick so as to equip their protectors with gator shoes and golf memberships.

These are not sympathetic characters. In fact, you could make a good case that they’re sociopaths. But the complicated part is that, yeah, these pimps are interesting and often hilarious, and how often do you get to hear a man in a snakeskin hat positing God as the Ur-Pimp? Fillmore, the septuagenarian pimp with the sad eyes and snazzy suits, is charming; the guy who retired from pimping and now sings the blues is actually a pretty great blues singer; the incarcerated pimp, who speaks in mesmerizing sermon-like cadences, makes some provocative points about the pitfalls of the business. The cleverly interlarded ‘70s blaxploitation clips were a hoot. The pimp lingo, the regional expressions, the dialects—all that was fascinating. But you don’t have to scratch too deep to see that American Pimp is actually a snuff film, or maybe a cautionary tale, or probably just the rotting face of patriarchal/capitalist America. And still the movie was fun to watch. I have decided that this is because I am an asshole. Because I gotta let a ho be a ho.

Part Three: Finally Twilight, Already!
April 6, 2009 at 2:51am

So, Friday night, after watching Friday Night Lights (TV show, obviously), I watched Twilight, and yes, thanks for asking, I got my share of teenagers. I’m not going to try to argue that Twilight the movie is the greatest vampire movie ever, much less as great as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series, obviously), although it was definitely better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer the movie. The setting (Forks, Washington, supposedly, although I think the credits said Oregon) was gorgeous, in an austere and sinister way that comes off both gothic and arty, and the acting, for the most part, was subtle and more or less convincing. Despite her expertly applied eyeshadow and impossibly shiny hair, Kristen Stewart plays Bella as a regular girl, a regular girl who just happens to have made several boys in her school, including one unnaturally pale, conventionally handsome 17-year-old centenarian named Edward, fall hopelessly in love with her. Bella, it turns out, is hopelessly in love with this vampire, who can’t bite her because he’s too noble and can’t fuck her because he might lose control and bite her, which would violate the nobility clause, although biting her would, if done correctly, turn her into a vampire, which she wants because it means staying 17 forever with Edward as her boyfriend. But because Edward refuses to turn her, there’s a lot of lip biting and soulful glancing and meadow napping and, in Bella’s case, panting (Edward doesn’t breathe).The plot isn’t remotely suspenseful (then again, I read the book and not that long ago, so whatever I was watching this movie for, it wasn’t the plot), but it unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability that corresponds nicely to the creepy/beautiful scenery. The sorta-handsome/sorta hoosier bad vampire, James, is thwarted and then dismembered in a highly satisfying way. The beautiful hero and heroine slow dance under a gazebo at their prom. Everything seems perfect, and then, whoa!, pan out to the bad vampire’s vengeful pre-Raphaelite bad vampire girlfriend, who is glaring at the blissful lovers from the shadows. Sequel!

Part Two: Why I Watch Friday Night Lights
April 6, 2009 at 2:49am


I didn’t read any Stephenie Meyer this weekend, so the preceding confession is strictly preemptive. What I did do was go by Hollywood Video and rent the Twilight DVD. How could I not watch it, given all the hours I’ve already invested in reading the books? And besides, I really liked Thirteen, and Twilight has the same director, Catherine Hardwicke. Also, I liked Kristen Stewart as the hippie nymph in Into the Wild. Luckily for me, the Hollywood cashier didn’t grill me about my motives.

But I didn’t watch Twilight right away. (Hear that, Stephenie Meyer? You don’t control me!) On Friday night I watched the TV show Friday Night Lights, in defense of which I do sometimes make half-hearted noises. Mostly I just love it for the continuing storyline (I’ve always been a sucker for evening soaps, which is why I watched every episode of Melrose Place) and the not-insignificant fact that several of the actors remind me of other, more interesting people. For instance, the main mom on the show, the one who is married to Coach Taylor and who also happens to be the principal of the high school where Coach Taylor coaches and all the main characters are students, reminds me of Neko Case, like a suburban-mom version of Neko Case who makes up in eyeliner and practical relationship advice what she lacks in musical talent and rescued greyhounds. But the real draw is a relatively new character, a kid named J.D. who plays quarterback and gets abused, both mentally and physically, by his dad. This kid reminds me so much of a young brown-haired Jeff Barbush that I have to remind myself Jeff died, and he didn’t look anything like this kid when he died, by his own hand, as the locution goes, although technically it was his father’s shotgun. Anyway, I miss Jeff sometimes, the young, ridiculously talented, ridiculously cocky kid with the perfect blond almost-mullet and the perfect blonde girlfriend and the perfect songs. I try not to think of the one who came along later, disappointed, in pain, alcoholic, suicidal.

J.D., or the guy who plays him on FNL, reminds me of the old Jeff, the one who seemed destined to be a rock star, the one who had those little rock-starrish pouches on either side of his mouth, like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jones, and so many other famous rockdudes of yore. J.D. isn’t really someone I would scream for, but whenever he’s onscreen I remember Jeff Barbush, the early, hopeful, unfairly talented Jeff Barbush.

Another reason to watch the show is all the other characters, who don’t remind me so much of other people but who nonetheless have certain charms of their own. Riggins and Lyla are very pretty. Coach Taylor is gruffly empathic and also one of those dark-lashed men who look as if they’re wearing eyeliner or possibly mascara but chances are they’re not, they’re just lucky that way. I also like Landry, who literally got away with murder last season and who’s supposed to be the good, smart ugly guy, the one who is looking cooler every second because he’s in a band. I do miss the volatile black guy, who graduated from Dillon High, had some legal scrapes, and eventually signed a contract with a historic black college, and the tearful paraplegic former quarterback, who moved to New York, became a sports agent, and won back his peaches-‘n’-cream babymama, but that’s the beauty of a continuing storyline: Maybe they’ll come back in a future episode, and if they don’t, there’s always a new character who’s eventually just as fascinating. (Big caveat: If you’re me.)

A weekend’s watching. Part One: Twilight preamble.
 April 6, 2009 at 2:47am

People don’t seem to be talking much about guilty pleasures these days, either because everything is suddenly acceptable or because everyone’s moved on to the next social-networking meme, such as 15 formative albums or top five books. Maybe it’s just the world according to Facebook, but people in 2009 seem to define themselves in terms of what they feel defines them, or maybe what they can passionately endorse, or what they find beautiful or at least kind of interesting or—OK, “know thyself” and all that—just really fucking cute (see Hedgehog Chewing clip). But it occurred to me recently that someone reading these notes might think my watching regimen was all German avant-garde opera and fancy pimpin’—actually, you could say all fancy pimpin’, since Lulu was the original ho—when, in fact, there is a goodly amount of screentime about which I don’t exactly feel shameful but still have a hard time rationalizing to myself, much less admitting to other people. For instance, why, when I could be learning Mandarin or reading War and Peace or strengthening my core or sterilizing litter boxes, would I read all the books in the Twilight series? (All but the last one, Breaking Dawn, which is on my library request queue, so no spoilers please.)

I can’t defend these books on literary grounds. The writing is often amateurish (e.g., “ ‘I’m sorry,’ he apologized”), and the gender politics offensive at worse and embarrassing at best. All I can do is throw up my hands and admit it: Like many teen-/tween-age girls, I find the Edward/Bella/Jacob, vampire/regular girl/werewolf triangle of virtuosic chastity to be unaccountably compelling (as in “unaccountable to me,” since most teen/tween girls are honest enough not to account for themselves). The difference between admitting you like Twilight and supposedly copping to a supposedly guilty pleasure intended to make you look smarter and that may even land you a 33 and 1/3 book deal is pretty stark. I don’t expect anyone to think I’m smarter because I have spent many hours reading many hundreds of pages written by a not-particularly-talented Mormon lady who just happens to have me in her thrall. (Ha, ha, dumb Mormon lady. Showed you!)
April 2, 2009 at 2:02am

Just watched the first three acts of a library DVD of The Tempest, from 1983, starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Prospero and—get ready for this!—Ron Palilo, a.k.a. Arnold Horshack, as Trinculo. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, the best production of the play (which is one of my favorites, maybe even my very favorite Shakespeare play), but, hey. HORSHACK. He plays the role exactly as he might if he were acting out the part on Welcome Back, Kotter (and oh what a great episode that would have been—Mr. Kotter would have been Prospero, of course, and Barberino would have been Ferdinand, duh, and that skinny black jive-talking guy would have made a sweet Ariel.)

But back to the actual DVD: The pudgy little troll-looking dude with the whiteboy dreads who plays Caliban is really great and made me think about his character in a whole new way, but unfortunately for him, he was never in a TV sitcom during my formative years, so I don’t know his name. Maybe I’ll notice it after I watch Acts 4 and 5.

New Walmart TV commercial: “Easter costs less at Walmart.”

Watching (part 2)
March 30, 2009 at 1:16pm

Thanks to my ongoing impasse with fickle Morpheus, I ended up watching another DVD at 2:00 a.m. last night, a French b&w film called A Tout de Suite (All of a Sudden). Directed by Benoit Jacquot and allegedly based on a true story, it’s about a young art student with long blond hair, puffy lips, and those enchanting dark circles under her eyes (“cernes,” the French call them) that my old friend Mike Stuvland correctly pointed out are common to all Parisian women. Anyway, according to the DVD box, A Tout de Suite is a “stylish, erotically charged thriller,” but I thought it was more of a tragic mumblecore homage to A Bout de Souffle — more full-frontal nudity, fewer wacky capers. The gist of the plot, which, pace the thriller tag, is actually sort of inevitable-seeming and dreamlike, is that the main character, Lili, falls suddenly and hopelessly in love with a skinny Moroccan boy, who turns out to be a bank robber on the lam. She accompanies him, his thug pal, and the thug pal’s girlfriend to Greece. Predictably, this ends badly for her, although not as badly as it might have. (In an interesting parallel to my own life, Lili lands a job as an au pair because some sympathetic stranger sees her weeping, takes pity on her, and lands her a job; in Lili’s case, though, the au pair gig turns out to be highly suspicious, since the man she’s working for doesn’t even have custody of his kid.)

This DVD is available at the SLPL, or will be this afternoon, after I return it. Here are the relevant details in case you want to request it:

Title: A tout de suite (2006). Director: Benoit Jacquot. Image Entertainment.
Watching, Listening, Reading
March 30, 2009 at 1:36am


OK, I’m about to return my DVD of Alban Berg’s Lulu to the St. Louis Public Library, and having just finished watching it (three acts, almost exactly three hours) and then scanning through to watch certain scenes again, I want to take this opportunity to urge everyone to obtain this DVD by any means necessary. (Production details appear at the end of this post.)Here are three reasons you owe it to yourself to watch this opera:

1. The story, based on two once-banned plays by Frank Wedekind, is perfectly sordid and perfectly insane. It’s about a woman, the eponymous heroine, who is so desirable that she destroys everyone who falls in love with her, which amounts to everyone who has anything to do with her whatsoever, from a doofy schoolboy in shorts (voiced by the sturdy and sparkling Patricia Bardon) to a statuesque, raven-tressed countess, to the professor son of her doctor husband, whom she shot to death with his own gun (granted, in self-defense). Lulu is sung by soprano Christine Schäfer, luminous in her strawberry blondness, flapper dresses, and melting coloratura. The story’s premise, of course, is deeply antifeminist–yet another femme fatale-gets-hers plot–but the relentless gorgeousness of Berg’s music, especially Lulu’s arias, makes it impossible to do anything but love, admire, and, yes, love Lulu. Her amoral innocence is the purest thing onstage, and it’s easy to see why all her inferiors would ruin themselves for her. Berg makes her irresistible and then, in the usual ways (e.g., death, penury, alcoholism, madness) punishes everyone for failing to resist her. It’s like one of those Eve setups, but there’s no fortunate fall. Lulu goes from being a grande dame to a circus acrobat (in a very fetching tutu) to a boho slut to a prisoner to a fugitive to a lowly street hooker, and then, money shot, she gets murdered (offstage) by Jack the Ripper. That, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère, is entertainment.

2. The DVD box refers to the score as “intensely beautiful,” and that phrase pretty much sums it up, as long as you give the adverb and adjective equal weight. Like a lot of twentieth-century music, it definitely has its dissonances, a kind of craggy inaccessibility, the melodies lurching off like sad alley drunks, the high notes sharp as ice picks. However, there are also shiver-generating lyrical passages, usually when Schäfer is singing, and they’re all the more beautiful, intensely beautiful, pressed up against the atonal parts.

3. The lyrics (not being a German speaker, I’m relying on the subtitle translations) will slay you, I promise. Just a random selection: (1) “When I look in the mirror, I want to be a man. I want to be my own husband.” Lulu confesses this cheerfully, without a hint of shame; her son-in-law, her husband’s adult son, who is, like everyone else, in love with her, knows exactly what she means: “You envy him the pleasure you will bring.” (2) “Divinely gifted people like you make criminals of the rest of us.” Lulu gets blamed for everything, but everything is most expressly not her fault, since you can’t blame someone for being divinely gifted. (3) “There are moments when one’s innermost self seems to collapse before one’s eyes.” How true! How German! (4) “Don’t forget I killed your father.” The allure of that line goes without saying. (5) “You animal, you drag me through the gutter to die a martyr’s death.” Because such statements are what make opera opera and not major-network situational comedy.

The London Philharmonic, conductor Andrew Davis, 1996/2003, Kultur.com

Listening: Dawn Upshaw: White Moon, 1996, Nonesuch; Lydian Quartet: Charles Ives, String Quartets; Super Furry Animals: Dark Days/Light Years; Neko Case: Middle Cyclone.

Reading: Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock (short stories).

Common Grace

Common grace differs from special, in that it influences only by assisting of nature; and not by imparting grace, or bestowing anything above nature. —Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light”

A drop of mercy from your forehead:

You, naturally, above me. If I struggle

it’s because you love to see me give in

to your gift, collecting this other grace.

I flatten like doctrine, a vessel for the exchange

under nature.

To this they fell, and we accept the strange fruit

left-overs, their posterities of sweet decay. The skin

salts over

in response. So much body: to touch is to cross Kansas,

to fall

shuddering by the highway, burying pieces of the

beautiful abomination. You only want to come

home while flesh covers bone. No grace is imparted

to mask this delicious terror, to preserve

our faces falling to softness.

Nothing is delivered here but ordinary mercy.

—René Spencer

(A note: This qualifies as juvenilia for sure, with every pretension the term implies. It actually was published in a Washington University Literary journal, the name of which I have forgotten. I think it was published in 1988 or 1989, when I was still an undergraduate. And not yet married; hence the short byline.)

6 thoughts on “Odd Unpublished Things

    • Thanks, Dede. You are very kind. I think that’s probably the only example of my juvenilia that I will include, however. (Although my teenage diaries are HILARIOUS, I’m not that much of an exhibitionist, even though I am, rather shamefully, now a blogger.)


  1. I know high class juvenilia when I see it, I genuinely like it. I am very pleased you have a blog up and running, Rene. Looking forward to reading more very soon.


  2. It’s a lovely poem, well-crafted and insightful. I’d like to break into the Bodoni museum in Parma and compose it with type hand cut by the Maestro himself and print it on a thick toothy sheet of pure cotton paper and frame it.


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