Thursday, October 30, 2008

Attack the story like a radiant suicide

Quickly, before supervisors come to give me work.

The title comes from a something H.P. Lovecraft wrote to one of the many writers who came to him for advice, as quoted in the awesome Michel Houellebecq's so-far awesome H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, which halfway pretends to be an essay of scholarly study (though in the introduction to the edition I have Houellebecq even admits that "In retrospect, it seems to me I wrote this book as a sort of first novel. A novel with a single character (H.P. Lovecraft himself)") but is really a brilliant manifesto in defense of fantastic fiction and violently against realism. One of my favorite things about Houellebecq is that he very consciously places himself in that French misanthropic tradition (Céline, Camus, Chazelle) of making absolutely sweeping statements with absolutely sweeping authority and a stunning lack of evidence, that one immediately recognizes as true and deeply beautiful, even if later one finds that one disagrees (which to be honest is not often). Or at least that's the case when one is me.

Take, for example, M. Houellebecq's opening paragraphs:

Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All those prodigiously refined "notations", "situations", anecdotes... All they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our "real life" days.

Now, here is Howard Phillips Lovecraft: "I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes."

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). We need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism.

Highly recommended, even for those with no interest in the craft of love.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And again

Another day of actual work. I wonder if they've twigged to my extracurricular activities? Anyway, we'll see if this continues; if it does, this experiment in renewed blugginess may have to be cut short. Watch this space. Or don't, I don't care.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No blugg today

I actually had real work to do today (and good god was it tedious, and good GOD do I work with a moron or two), so no significant blurging for me. But don't worry, I haven't given up yet.

Monday, October 27, 2008


The other week my mother caught Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat playing on Boston's PBS channel, and when I went to my parents' house for my weekly visit the next day it was all she could talk about. Except, of course, she didn't want to say much about it until I saw it. So I moved it to the top of my Netflix queueueue so I could have it watched by the next time. I watched it maybe on Thursday and was pretty impressed, and then on Sunday I went to visit my parents again and my mother, not realizing that I'd seen it at this point, had rented it so we could watch it together. And the thing is, even though we'd both watched it within the last ten days, we both excitedly watched it again. And the second time it blew me away. It's an awesome movie.

Compositionally, it's brilliant, from its opening shot of the funnel* of the freight ship sinking into the water (the camera pans to be pointing straight down at the water after the rest of the boat has gone under, neatly avoiding revealing that they didn't build the rest of the ship), panning over (with one cleverly hidden cut that I noticed) a bunch of objects--Red Cross crates, tennis rackets, a New Yorker**, a deck of cards--and then a German soldier floating face down in the water. From there we pan up to reveal the, if you will, titular lifeboat floating at some distance. We can vaguely make out a figure in it. Finally we cut (there's been at least one cut already, probably more, but they've been unobtrusive; this one is definitive) and come inside the boat. We see that the figure is Tallulah Bankhead's Connie Porter, elaborately made up and swaddled in mink.

From that point on, we're almost entirely stuck on the lifeboat with the characters. Every once in a while a shot will originate slightly off of the boat, and there's one sequence where underwater shots are intercut with action above the surface, but that's it. Most directors would not be able to handle the visual limitations this imposes and would fail in one of two ways: either the look of the movie would get stale, repeating the same shots and camera angles and compositions over and over and over again, or there would be too much flashy variation, and by half an hour in we'd be sighing and saying, "Oh boy, where will he put the camera next." Hitchcock, of course, isn't most directors. His compositions (and Dorothy Spencer's editing) are consistently fresh and interesting, but never call unnecessary attention to themselves. Unless you're a big-time movie nerd like me who's always conscious of these things, you won't notice that there's even a problem to overcome.

I think my favorite of Hitchcock's techniques here is his tendency to include a whole bunch of people in one shot, but not necessarily the same people who are actively involved in a particular scene. So we might have a scene where Bankhead and John Hodiak are arguing, but on screen we see Bankhead facing the edge of the screen, Hume Cronyn at the tiller, Walter Slezak watching from the background, Canada Lee with his recorder, William Bendix lying half-conscious off to the side, and no Hodiak. The primary actors in a scene, even if they are on screen, aren't always in the foreground, and the people we're listening to are not necessarily the people we're looking at. The impact this had on me reminded me of the first time I saw Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (one of my favorite movies) and was blown away and inspired by the possibilities of having obstructions in the line of sight between the camera and the characters***. If I ever get around to making movies, I'll be studying this one intently for the lessons I can draw from it, and it's even got my brain percolating on ways I could use analogous techniques in written fiction and in music.

The limited special effects, too, are very good; we never remember that the actors are in a fake boat constructed on a soundstage and that the ocean around them is fake. The best part is towards the end, when another small boat is blown out of the water near them. The miniatures, while obviously miniatures, are completely emotionally convincing, and the moment when the boat explodes conveys how truly horrifying the experience must have been far better than a more "realistic" modern effect in less skillful hands could have.

I have a lot to say about the moral implications of the story, too, but I think I've written enough for one blog entry. I may return to the movie later today or tomorrow, or I may not. Anyway, Lifeboat: highly recommended.

*That's what mumsy says it's called, anyway. I have no fucking idea. The big smokestack thing in the middle of a boat. Ship? Boat? I don't care.
**With that one cover that I swear must have been the cover of every issue of that magazine in the first half of the 20th century, the one with the guy in profile with the monocle who's probably someone famous or important but I don't know who.
***It doesn't sound all that interesting, I know, but if you've seen the movie you'll probably know what I'm talking about. And, by the way, if you haven't seen the movie, you really, really should.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Work-related maths while not at work

I don't normally like to use numerals in text, but since I'm doing math, I'm going to here. Also, I know some of the steps are extra. That's fine. I like it this way.

I make $11 an hour. So since I have one of the few full-time jobs where I actually work 40 hours a week, that means my gross weekly income is $440. But those 40 hours aren't the only time my job demands from me. I start work at 8:30, but my commute begins at 7:00, when I leave my house to go to the bus station to pick up the bus to the place I work. Then I get out of work at 5:00 but don't get home until 6:30. So there's an extra 3 hours appended to every day's 8 hours. So in a week my job takes 55 hours out of my life.

Adjusting for that, my real wage is $8 an hour.

But wait--if I'm working more than 40 hours, those extra hours are overtime and I should be getting time and a half. So...let's see, this is the part where I have to start writing it down (embarrassingly, about ten years ago I was really good at math; now, not so much. I have to do something about that). I'm trying to find my actual wage, so let's call that x. Time and a half will be 1.5x. So

40x + (15)(1.5x) = 440

Right? So then

40x + 22.5x = 440

62.5x = 440

x = 440/62.5

x = 7.04

My real wage is $7.04 an hour. Depressing. That's only $0.49 higher than federal minimum wage, and is $0.36 lower than Rhode Island's. Admittedly, this isn't entirely fair. I use the time on the bus to read, and when I get off the bus in the afternoon I run home to get in the daily twenty minutes or so of running that I'd want to do anyway. But still--this is time that I have to spend in a certain way. My choice of how to use that time has been taken away from me by my job. I make $7.04 for every hour where my activities are dictated by my employer. Sure, it's better than many, and at least I'm not currently one of the people helping my state be the Swinginest, Most Unemployedest in the country (Now With More Unemployment Than Michigan!!!), but it's still very silly.

There's one woman in my office who's salaried and who, every Tuesday, reliably has to stay three or four extra hours, for not only no overtime, but no extra pay at all. There have been people like that at every job I've ever had. And this is not a woman who's passionate about her work; she's not a dedicated scientist or an enthusiastic programmer or a studious researcher or a wise-cracking reporter or whatever. She works in payroll.

Americans have exactly the wrong attitude about work. We seem to feel that we owe our employers something, when it's obvious to me that it should be the other way around. I think it's Stockholm Syndrome. I may write more about this later.

Depressing link of the day: R.I. has nation’s worst jobless rate

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bite: A Reappraisal

I'm in music-collection pruning mode these days. Actually, I have been for about a year. (Of course, I'm continuing to accumulate new music at a rate faster than I eliminate music I have no use for, but at least I'm getting rid of things I genuinely don't want and replacing them with things I genuinely do.) And since I'm methodical and love long-term plans as long as they don't have anything to do with significant life things, I'm going about it by gradually going through all of my music, in alphabetical order, listening to everything and making decisions on whether to keep it or get rid of it. I spent a year or so on my CDs, and by the time I finished a few weeks ago I had gotten rid of about a hundred of them. Now I've started on the records, and so far I've only gotten rid of one, the Tijuana Brass Christmas album. Then I got to Altered Images and expected to cull another album.

I've always liked their first album, Happy Birthday, which combines K Records tweeness, 4AD atmospherics, and Siouxsie & the, y'know, Bansheeness better than anyone could reasonably expect. I've never listened to it much, though, and it was nice to hear it again and notice things I never had before, like the way the opening of the title track is very heavily Steve Reich influenced. So I filed it back away, mentally adding it to the list of albums I need to listen to more often.

Then I moved on to their third album, Bite (I don't have Pinky Blue). Altered Images did that thing that happened a lot in the early 80s where an idiosyncratic new wave/post punk band with a female singer got kind of successful with their first album or two and then for the next album brought in a big-name producer who smoothed out the idiosyncracies that made them appealing in the first place and pushed the band into the background in favor of highlighting the lead singer, usually to the detriment of the music and resulting in very brief success followed by breakup or lingering obscurity.

Here there are two big-name producers, the extremely different Mike Chapman and Tony Visconti. Chapman's good at wringing the sugary pop out of weird sounds like glam rock (with Sweet) and post-punk (with Blondie), where Visconti's good at, well, just about anything, but essentially at making you sound exactly how you want, whatever it takes. And if you want to sound like pop twisted into unrecognizable experimentalism (Low), or vice versa ("Heroes"), there's no one better. As for highlighting the singer over the band, just check out the difference between the cover of Happy Birthday and the cover of Bite. And yes, this was Altered Images' last album before they broke up. I think I had listened to it once before, and vaguely remembered the music as being very bland; I expected to get rid of it after listening to it one more time. But it turns out it's really fucking good.

It's very, very disco (in both the European and Motown styles, and not the honky American style), to the point where it seems like it must have sounded unfashionable in a 1983 that had moved on to...well, a different kind of disco, I guess. The twee sensibility is gone, though Clare Grogan's voice is still pretty precious, but the 4AD atmosphere and Siouxsie Sioux dark-edged punk feel still linger*, to various extents on different songs, and the whole effort to me sounds like what Everything But the Girl would have to sound like (at any given point in their career) for me to like them. The sound is very different (for one thing it's a hell of a lot more optimistic), but the blend of styles reminds me very much of His Name Is Alive's excellent R&B album, Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth.

"Don't Talk to Me About Love", the hit single, is a good song (with great ABBA-style backing vocals in the chorus), but one of the album's less memorable, though it does keep bothering me because I know there's another song that has the same melody in the chorus--something by Kylie Minogue, maybe? Or maybe it's just the similarity between Minogue's voice and Grogan's when in this context that makes me think that. Anyway, most of the album is better. "Bring Me Closer" and "Now That You're Here" are deep disco of the Giorgio Moroder variety, the former closer to his solo work but with a nice gay secondary chorus melody (the "Something that you do to me" bit) and a great cheesy sax solo in the bridge, and the latter closer to his work with Donna Summer, with a fantastic, propulsive drum beat, a gated delay effect on the guitars that I really like, and a catchy-ass chorus. "Another Lost Look" pairs Happy Birthday-style songwriting ("You told a secret but not the truth") with a more straightforward pop production. "Love to Stay" is exceptionally pleasant, an EBtG-style semi-tropical dance number, while "Stand So Quiet" is darker and almost sounds like it could be on Siouxsie and the Banshee's Peepshow. The second to last song, "Change of Heart", is the most ABBA-influenced on the album and also throws in some cheesy 50s touches that I like quite a bit, and then "Thinking About You" ends the album with a somewhat blacker sound, maybe like a slower Gloria Gaynor album track or (almost) a Honey Cone ballad.

I hope all of that sounds good, especially if you keep in mind that the whole affair is pervaded by hints of the foreboding atmosphere of Altered Images' earlier work, on some songs more than others but ever-present. If I've made the album sound derivative by comparing it to so many other things, I hope that that's taken as the compliment I intend it to be. Rather than a copy of all those other things, this is a synthesis and recontextualization. I think it's overdue for a reevaluation. And now I've written far too much about that.

Download the whole thing, if you'd like.

*Wow, did I ever get déjà vu typing that. Weird.

Totally awesome link of the day: The Brokers With Hands On Their Faces Blog

Thursday, October 23, 2008


My friend and new bandmate* Chris called me last night excited about a musical idea he'd had and wanting to run it by me. And it's a good one.

I guess he'd been listening to Serena-Maneesh (who, if you haven't heard them, sound a lot better than they look**, and are from Norway, not LA as you might think from looking at them), and noticed that some element of "Selina's Melodie Fountain" sounded just like some element from Neu!'s "Hallogallo" but with one note/beat taken out (sorry for the vaguery, but I can't remember exactly what he said and I haven't had the chance to check it out for myself yet). Which is what gave him the idea.

The idea is to take a very recognizable riff--he suggested "Satisfaction", which is good for this purpose for several reasons--and start out playing it straight through repeatedly, but then as the repetition goes on, eliminate one note (or beat, or fraction of a beat, the specifics have yet to be worked out), repeat for a while, and continue doing that until all that's left is one insistent note, over and over and over again. Obviously there's a lot left to figure out--how do we choose which slice to eliminate at each iteration, how many times do we repeat, is this compelling enough to form an entire song or should it be the basis of something more complicated--but the idea is awfully exciting to me. It's especially good for "Satisfaction", because in addition to how iconic and instantly recognizable it is, it seems like playing it that way would take the already-overwhelming frustration in that song and intensify it out of all known boundaries.

The annoying thing is that the three of us in the band won't be able to get together and work on it until, at the soonest, a week from Saturday, but I'm excited about it now. I made a very very rough sketch of it on Audacity, using a sample of the actual song and a random number generator to pick which beat to remove. Obviously it's rough and not at all the same as how we'd do it as a band, but I find it pretty fascinating on its own, and it actually gives me a lot of ideas for the very sample-heavy music I make on my own, where my usual goal is to create surprising new sounds out of samples with as little effects (pitch shifting, reverb, that kind of transformation) as possible. I can't wait to work on this more.

Oh, and by the way, I know the title's stupid. It's not permanent.

My favorite things about this particular version of the idea are the way it suddenly turns into surf at around 1:38 and the interesting things that happen to the bassline towards the end as bits of it start to go missing.

*"Bandmate" is, like, the gayest word ever.
**They're one of the few bands still doing something interesting with shoegaze.

Terrifying link of the day: We're Going To Attack You If You Try To Get The Power To Stop Us From Attacking You

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

D.H. Lawrence is such a fag

I have a bus commute of about forty-five minutes to and from work, so I bring along books to read (since I started this job I've actually been reading more than I was before, which is nice). This morning I brought along a collection of D.H. Lawrence stories, because my roommate Matthew's been reading Lady Chatterly's Lover and it made me realize that I've never read him before.

The first story in the book (I napped a bit on the bus and only ended up reading one 20-page story) is "The Prussian Officer", which is I think the gayest damn thing I've ever read, and that includes gay porn fiction and Everything About Me Is Fake...And I'm Perfect by Janice Dickinson. I mean, jesus, there's even a bit where the gay-ass officer (who is driven to violence by his shame and confusion over his attraction to his young assistant) walks into a tent full of soldiers and encounters "a hot smell of men, of sweat, of leather. He knew it well." I had no idea that D.H. was ever such a homo.

The upshot of it all is that the whole thing is kind of violently, uncomfortably hot, including the scene where (SPOILERS!!!!) the assistant murders the officer:

The spur of the officer caught in a tree-root, he went down backwards with a crash, the middle of his back thudding sickeningly against a sharp-edged tree-base... And in a second the orderly, with serious, earnest young face, and underlip between his teeth, had got his knee in the officer's chest and was pressing the chin backward over the farther edge of the tree-stump, pressing, with all his heart behind in a passion of relief, the tension of his wrists exquisite with relief. And with the base of his palms he shoved at the chin, with all his might. And it was pleasant, too, to have that chin, that hard jaw already slightly rough with beard, in his hands. He did not relax one hair's breadth, but, all the force of all his blood exulting in his thrust, he shoved back the head of the other man, till there was a little "cluck" and a crunching sensation... Heavy convulsions shook the body of the officer, frightening and horrifying the young soldier. Yet it pleased him, too, to repress them. It pleased him to keep his hands pressing back the chin, to feel the chest of the other man yield in expiration to the weight of his strong, young knees, to feel the hard twitchings of the prostrate body jerking his own whole frame, which was pressed down on it.

But it went still... How curiously the mouth was pushed out, exaggerating the full lips, and the moustache bristling up from them. Then, with a start, he noticed the nostrils gradually filled with blood. The red brimmed, hesitated, ran over, and went in a thin trickle down the face to the eyes.

Mr. D.H. then goes on to describe how, now that the life is gone from the hated officer, the orderly finds the body strangely appealing.

Sad link of the day: Dee Dee Warwick dead at 63

Trying again

1. So once I had a blog where I listened to an hour of commercial radio and wrote about it. It was fun, but it was god-awfully time consuming. So I stopped.

2. Then I had a blog where I reviewed every new movie I went to see, but then I got a gig reviewing movies for Stylus, so I stopped. And then when Stylus stopped publishing like three months after I joined the writing staff, I didn't start back up again.

3. Then I had a blog where I just tried to write about something at least once a day, which I kept up for a while before posts became intermittent and then stopped entirely.

4. Then I briefly tried to re-start the radio blog on Vox, but I hated Vox and spending an hour listening to shitty radio and then longer than that trying to write wittily about it didn't get any less time consuming, so I stopped really quickly.

a. Then...oh, let's see. There was the police blog idea, where I was going to record every instance I saw of cops breaking traffic laws, but that never got off the ground, so I'm not counting it. I still think it's a good idea. Actually, speaking of cops breaking traffic laws, a few weeks ago I was walking to work and while I was walking across an overpass I saw a cop pull someone over on the highway and noticed that he didn't have his headlights on even though it was raining and his windshield wipers were on. Since I was essentially right next to him but completely unreachable to him, I figured, when am I going to get this chance again, so I yelled, "Officer!" He turned and looked up at me. So then I said, "Turn your damn lights on. When your wipers are going, you need to have your headlights on, dick!" Nothing he could fucking do about it. That was nice.

5. Um, anyway, that blog attempt doesn't count, especially since it wouldn't have been a very creative-oriented blog anyway, so we're still on four. Number five...there was the one where I wrote a pithy little something about every piece of music I listened to, which I really liked but which ended up consuming far too much of my life. So I stopped.

6 (?). Then there's the one that my friend Chris and I keep talking about writing, where we would write little essays about albums we think musicians should listen to for inspiration and then TOTALLY LEGALLY UH-HUH post the albums for download. We haven't gotten around to that yet, so I don't know if it counts.

6/7. So. That makes this my sixth or seventh attempt at being a blogger. This one might turn out better, at least for a little while, because I currently have a skull-crushingly dull temp job with lots of autonomy, not much to do, and internet access. So assuming I can think of something to write about, which I usually can, I should be able to write something pretty much every day.

Oh, and I'm thinking about having this feature at the end of every post--

Terrifying link of the day: What kind of “Election Day unrest” are we talking about?