Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Radio Noir: The Whistler

Over at The Blackboard, we have instituted a Radio Noir of the Week to go with our similar exercises in film and television. Here is my latest contribution:

The Whistler is a know-it-all. He'll narrate your doom while snarking at your stupidity, posing endless rhetorical questions that you can't hear (but we in the radio audience can). The formula for this popular anthology series was a durable one that lasted almost 700 episodes, and had separate movie and television incarnations as well.

Glancing through an episode list, I noticed the title "Danger Is a Beautiful Blonde," and thought, Well that sounds classic enough. The story was broadcast three times on The Whistler, in 1945 (with war-time references), 1949, and 1951. I listened to the 1945 broadcast first and was immediately taken with the quality of the voice acting and the first act set-up.

Van Stevens is a good-looking young single engineer on assignment in an unfamiliar West Coast city, who gets street-cruised and ultimately picked up by a swanky woman in a nice car on a Saturday night. Given that he was facing a boring night alone, our Van can't believe his good fortune. The dame takes him back to her impressive beach mansion (with a Picasso on the wall), and the game is on. The actors (whom I have not been able to identify) capture the thrill of the pick-up scenario very well, and the atmosphere is thickly erotic. But of course, the young woman has an ulterior motive that's not exactly sexual...

In a movie, with some time to work with, this opening might have been spun out interestingly, but a half-hour radio program only has about 25 minutes of actual plot-time, and this has got to move fast! And so it does, if not entirely satisfyingly. The character of the femme fatale Doris seems dangerous one minute, dippy the next. The closing segment features a genuine deus ex machina in the form of a policeman who is actually completely on top of the situation and able to explain every last thing that has happened! The man is an honest-to-goodness doom preventer for Van Stevens. It's kind of a surprise ending simply because that sort of spot-on official assistance is seldom offered in noir, where typically a good chunk of the problems come from policemen who don't understand a darn thing.

The 1949 re-broadcast tweaks this denouement by briefly adding a character who is only referred to in the original, giving rise to an additional two minutes of twistiness, but arrives at the same end-note. This version features the familiar voice of Jack Webb in the lead, opposite Joan Banks (Frank Lovejoy's wife - I swear, we can't get away from Lovejoy!). The Van Stevens character is called Van Barkley this time (and again in 1951). The dialogue is partially re-written; for example, the exchange about Picasso (which makes Van seem like a culturally with-it guy) is lost.

The 1951 version is very close in its details and overall effect to the 1949; it features Bill Bouchey and Michael Ann Barrett in the leads. Bouchey worked extensively in film and television. Barrett had uncredited parts in The File on Thelma Jordan and The Wrong Man, and worked with Jack Webb more than once in the early incarnations of Dragnet.

The Whistler goes on knowing many things, because he walks by night.

3/5/1945 version:

5/8/1949 and 7/29/1951 versions:

(There is some date confusion on this page. The 7/29/1951 episode is playable at the top of the page, but is misdated 5/8/1948. The 5/8/1949 version is linked at the bottom of the page, but the 7/29/1951 link there is actually a copy of the 1949 version.)

Complete episode logs for The Whistler can be found at these two sites:

The second of these has detailed information on the three versions of "Danger Is a Beautiful Blonde":

79407. The Whistler. March 5, 1945. CBS Pacific net. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". Sponsored by: Signal Oil. A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman and finds...murder! The program opening is slightly upcut. The script was subsequently used on "The Whistler" on May 8, 1949 (see cat. #76091 and #16759) and on July 29, 1951 (see cat. #93298). John Dunkel (writer), Hazel Leitel (writer), George W. Allen (director), Wilbur Hatch (music), Bob Anderson (announcer). 29:48. Audio condition: Very good. Complete as above.

76091. The Whistler. May 8, 1949. CBS Pacific net. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". Sponsored by: Signal Oil. A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman...and finds murder! This is a network, sponsored version of cat. #16759. The script was used previously on "The Whistler" on March 5, 1945 (see cat. #79407) and subsequently on July 29, 1951 (see cat. #93298). Wilbur Hatch (music), George W. Allen (producer, director), Marvin Miller (announcer), Jack Webb, Joan Banks, Hazel Leitel (writer), John Dunkel (writer). 29:43. Audio condition: Excellent. Complete.

16759. The Whistler. May 8, 1949. CBS net origination, AFRTS rebroadcast. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman and finds...murder! See cat. #76091 for a network, sponsored version of this broadcast. The script was previously used on "The Whistler" on March 5, 1945 (see cat. #79407) and subsequently on July 29, 1951 (see cat. #93298). Jack Webb, Joan Banks, Hazel Leitel (writer), John Dunkel (writer), Marvin Miller (announcer), George W. Allen (producer, director), Wilbur Hatch (music). 1/2 hour. Audio condition: Excellent. Complete.

93298. The Whistler. July 29, 1951. CBS Pacific net. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". Sponsored by: Signal Oil. A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman and finds...murder! The script was previously used on "The Whistler" on March 5, 1945 (see cat. #79407) and on May 8, 1949 (see cat. #76091 and #16759) Hazel Leitel (writer), John Dunkel (writer), Michael Ann Barrett, Bill Bouchey, Hy Averback, Earl Lee, Charles Calvert. 29:01. Audio condition: Excellent. Complete.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mammal Watch: Baby Aardvark

If you are in need of a cute animal fix, you have come to the right place, because this would be hard to top - a baby aardvark born at the Brookfield Zoo this January.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More Dennis Hopper Madness

In the email exchange with me about Dennis Hopper at our private Web discussion group, Robert Kennedy mentioned that Hopper's career tanked between The American Dreamer/The Last Movie (both 1971) and David Lynch tapping him for the iconic Frank Booth role in Blue Velvet (1986). It is kind of true - no one was hiring him to direct - but there is another way of looking at those 15 years, as I mentioned when I responded:

Dennis's career between The American Dreamer and Blue Velvet includes some interesting gigs: Apocalypse Now, of course, and later Rumble Fish with Coppola again; The American Friend for Wim Wenders, and some other, very obscure European films; The Osterman Weekend for Sam Peckinpah; The Other Side of the Wind for Orson Welles; O.C. and Stiggs for Robert Altman; Henry Jaglom's Vietnam vet psychodrama Tracks; another post-Vietnam oddity, The American Way aka Riders of the Storm; the Australian outlaw biopic Mad Dog Morgan; James Frawley's stoner western Kid Blue; rock star Neil Young's indie comedy Human Highway; the punk rock drama White Star; and Tim Hunter's River's Edge, which was shot around the same time as Blue Velvet. My favorite IMDB description of a Hopper film during this period is that of Silvio Narizzano's Bloodbath (1979):

Chicken [Hopper], a desperate hippie junkie living in a small Spanish village, is finding it difficult to separate fantasy and reality. This isn't helped by the villagers practising magic and child sacrifice, or his involvement with a group of boozy ex-patriots lost in their own dreams and regrets.

An IMDB commenter adds, "Hopper as Chicken hallucinates frequently, mumbles, rambles, freaks out, shoots up, makes love, quotes Hassan I Sabbah, and terrorises a poor girl by breaking a raw egg in her face and making her sing 'Shortening Bread.' Yup, it's that good."

Hopper's one shot at directing at this time came about by accident, when the original director of Out of the Blue, Leonard Yakir, was fired early in the shoot, and Hopper, on location as an actor in the production, was able to step in. Naturally, he rewrote the whole script.

After a 1983 screening of Out of the Blue in Houston, an inebriated Hopper transported the audience by school buses to a local speedway where he performed and somehow survived the "Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act." There is footage of this, that includes Terry Southern and Wim Wenders who were on hand for the excitement:

The detail about the school buses is reminiscent of Andy Kaufman's famous use of 20 buses to take the audience for his April, 1979 Carnegie Hall show out for milk and cookies afterwards. I can't help but think that the violent nature of this Hopper Happening must have been an inspiration to the Jackass crew. Hopper expressed pride that he didn't shit his pants during the stunt.

So one thing that you cannot say about Dennis Hopper in this time-frame is that he ceased to be counter-cultural; he kept it up longer than most, and was kind of a go-to guy for crazy projects.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

This movie has more Gekkos than it knows what to do with - Gordon Gekko Original, Gordon Gekko Reformed, Gordon Gekko Original Redux, Gekko Daughter with Daddy Issues (Carey Mulligan) Gekko Wannabe I (Charlie Sheen), Gekko Wannabe II (Shia LaBeouf), Gekko Retread Without Charm (Josh Brolin). Michael Douglas makes a commanding return as the genuine article, but he is distinctly a supporting character here. Shia LaBeouf is tasked with carrying the movie, and on the basis of the evidence, simply can't do it; he was charming as golfer Francis Ouimet in Bill Paxton's historical sports drama The Greatest Game Ever Played, but is not ready to go mano-a-mano with a Douglas or a Brolin. One IMDB commenter rightly notes that he "cannot pass off as being anything more convincing than a working intern." He is certainly nowhere near as fun to watch as Charlie Sheen was 20 years ago.

Brolin does as well as he can in a thankless role, but I could not build up any hatred for him, or, indeed, any feeling at all, because the conception of the character is tired. Also, Josh Brolin is way too young to be playing someone who is supposed to have been a player in Gekko's early days.

Carey Mulligan serves as another warning of the perils of Stone's Flavor-of-the-Month casting. She tries to give her all but is never remotely credible as the daughter of Gordon Gekko; their DNA is completely unacquainted. You should at least see a hint of the father in the child, even if the child is trying to resist it. The movie raises but then glosses over the interesting issue of the downward trajectory of the sons of white-collar criminals - the sons of Bernie Madoff and Jeffrey Skilling went on to kill themselves, as does Gekko's unseen son in the movie. (Actually, the movie raises a lot of potentially interesting issues and then drops them; it's exceptionally scattered in focus.)

The first act of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is tedious, the last act is ill-conceived (plot twists have become so de rigueur that the only twist nowadays would be no twist). That leaves all the juice (and most of Douglas's performance) in the second act, which has its moments, especially Charlie Sheen's welcome cameo ("So, does Blue Horseshoe still love Anacott Steel?"). The notion that the Bud Fox character turned into a version of the actual Charlie Sheen is the sort of clever thrust this film could have used more of.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dennis Hopper, The American Dreamer

My esteemed friend Robert Kennedy posted a negative, grade D review of L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller's 1971 documentary portrait of Dennis Hopper, The American Dreamer, shot while Hopper was editing The Last Movie in Taos, New Mexico:

I simply had to respond:

Robert, I quite agree with most of your description of The American Dreamer - but not with your assessment of it. I love the movie. Partly I love it because I am glad that it exists, as a memento of a crazy time, and partly I love it for Dennis Hopper's performance as himself (I recall that you recently praised Ameena Matthews for her performance as herself in The Interrupters, so I believe you'll know what I mean). Besides, The American Dreamer documents a director during the editing of a great film - I think The Last Movie is a masterpiece - and what wouldn't I give for more such documents? Although, if I recall correctly, the documentary doesn't focus as much as it could on Hopper's artistic decisions during that process. It simply cannot be true that Hopper has "nothing to say," because The Last Movie is, precisely, one of the richest statements in the history of American film. It could be that Dennis was a wise fool, but I prefer to believe that he was just wily as heck.

I forget whether it was Jonathan Rosenbaum or J. Hoberman who pointed out that Hopper was under intense pressure to deliver a hit, since Universal expected another Easy Rider, and the making of The Last Movie had been a media circus, with a cover story in Rolling Stone and plenty of coverage elsewhere. Hopper must have known that the one thing The Last Movie could never be was a hit - it is far too philosophical for that. It is interesting that Hopper allowed Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose The Holy Mountain (1973) is, especially in its concluding sequence, the most spiritually similar picture to The Last Movie, to have a go at the editing of The Last Movie himself, although Hopper ultimately went with his own instincts, and later absolutely refused to re-cut the picture - he had the final edit contractually - when Lew Wasserman of Universal requested him to do so. Wasserman then buried the picture but good.

It is amusing that The Last Movie (which was originally to be called Chinchero) and the confusingly similarly titled The Last Picture Show opened in New York City exactly four days apart, September 29 and October 3, 1971, and were reviewed by Pauline Kael in the same issue of The New Yorker. The two movies have even more in common than that; both were originally BBS productions (Bob Rafelson-Bert Schneider-Steve Blauner), as Easy Rider had been also. BBS bailed on The Last Movie before Hopper began shooting, so it is not included in Criterion's America Lost and Found: The BBS Story box-set (which includes all seven BBS films: Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, Rafelson's Head, Five Easy Pieces, and The King of Marvin Gardens, Jack Nicholson's Drive, He Said, and Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place). Hopper's project landed in Universal's low-budget (under $1 million) independent unit, which was also responsible for Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand, Milos Forman's Taking Off, Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running, and George Lucas's American Graffiti. Those two sets of films, the BBS and the Universal, both of which Hopper had a hand in, are, to say the least, historically significant.

So, even though Hopper appears to be bat-shit crazy in The American Dreamer - and, although I would insist there is a consciously performative aspect to that, may actually have been bat-shit crazy as well - and even though he was undoubtedly consuming massive quantities of drugs at the time, I put forward my strong belief that he was also an artist going full-throttle, that there is nothing necessarily inconsistent in any of these apparently contradictory facts, and that the title The American Dreamer is not in the least ironic, but merely descriptive. Therefore, I do have to demur from the closing lines of your review, which I think are unfair to Hopper's achievement.

POSTSCRIPT: I would entirely endorse this fine IMDB comment on The Last Movie by Chris Bright, whose other reviews there are also very much worth checking out:

It's difficult to see why people have such a hard time with this movie. Anyone who is interested in European art cinema of the '60's or even the novel since Joyce should have no trouble reading the film on at least some levels. Hopper's method here is to try and get inside the head, to put thought and memory on the screen, not just pictures.

Part of the problem may be the sheer complexity. There are probably enough ideas crammed in here for a dozen movies, and Hopper throws them all at us, often simultaneously. There's a story about American imperialism, there's a story about the artifice of film-making, there's a story about the way audiences view cinema, there's a Christ allegory wrapped up with a general sacrificial victim theme, a story about men and women, sex, money and power, there's Hopper's own story, the story of cinema itself, there's a satire of Hollywood conventions in general and the Western in particular, very notably there's a story about the Peruvian landscape, ravishingly shot by Laszlo Kovacs. There's even the story of Hopper's gofer lost in a society he doesn't understand if you want a simple narrative to hang on to. The film combines all these facets into a structure which can only be described as crystalline.

Devotees of "folding" should find plenty to occupy them here - there's the film about Hopper's character "Kansas", the film Sam Fuller is making, the villagers' "film", "The Last Movie" itself, an on-set home movie and probably several others besides.

Hopper gaily references (and steals from) everyone from Fellini and Godard to John Huston and Nicholas Ray, and of course goes bonkers in Peru well before Werner Herzog got around to it (and appropriates tribal culture in a strikingly similar way).

Definitely not a film to be missed by anyone interested in fractured narratives, postmodernism in film or the beautiful image. Vastly underrated and well worth its Venice prize, this is to "Easy Rider" what "Pulp Fiction" is to "Reservoir Dogs". Hopper as a director has never been better.

UPDATE: Robert wasn't buying it, which is fine, but I kept on with my tribute:

I respect your reaction, but I must have found much more entertainment value in Hopper's over-the-topness, because I recall "The American Dreamer" with the pleasure I experienced while watching it. I wasn't offended, I was simply agape. I love the moment when Dennis describes himself as just a lesbian chick at heart. It's as if he has in mind lines he has yet to say in the movies (in "Apocalypse Now") and cannot know yet except as intuition - "The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad" (but reverse that!) and "Sometimes he goes too far. He's the first one to admit it."

And yet somewhere beyond the ragged fringes of "The American Dreamer" lies the magnificence of "The Last Movie," its ghostly unexplored ostensible subject, which is what makes the two films a wildly fascinating double-bill (and that is how I saw them). I hope you get the chance to see "The Last Movie" soon, now that I've built it up!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston...what is it with all of these troubled stars dying right on schedule? Anna Nicole, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, now this - with the exception of the Heath Ledger death which came out of left field, it's all been very predictable. I don't think we've seen this frequency of deadly celebrity flame-outs since the late Sixties/early Seventies era. Now it's all prescription drug combinations instead of heroin overdoses.

I always felt, with Houston, that despite her impressive instrument, her choice of material was ho-hum. Quite a number of the pop divas - Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion - can sing just fine technically, but unlike operatic sopranos, they haven't got a quality repertoire at hand; their vocal pyrotechnics would tend to overwhelm the Great American Songbook, and the stuff that is written specially for them to show off with is frequently quite lame. They need someone to minister to their voices the way that Burt Bacharach so memorably did with Dionne Warwick, writing excellent and musically complex songs (Tin Pan Alley meets Ravel, Donald Fagen once said) that were tailored niftily for her vocal style.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Someday My Prince Will Come - Not

The premise of the modern romance, that the handsomest man should wind up with the most beautiful woman, is cockamamie. Neither should marry the other, and no one should marry either of them. Here's why.

The CEO stud beloved of romance writers, him of the fortune and power, flawless physique, and abundant sexual technique (notice how in fiction these always go together?) is, if he even exists, an Alpha. The sort of man who can have a lot of women will have a lot of women, and women will always be making a play for him, married or not. No woman who has any expectation of faithfulness will go anywhere near this guy. (Elin Nordegren should have known this! - but of course, if she had, she wouldn't be quite so wealthy a woman today.)

The exceptionally beautiful woman is socialized to expect everything, and thus becomes impossibly demanding and high-maintenance. Nothing can ever satisfy her. She's a bad bet.

Are there exceptions to these rules? Well, possibly. Have I ever met an exception to these rules? Um, no.

Abandon the prince and princess fantasies, people! Return to Planet Earth.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Teaching Art History

This semester, I got tapped to teach the first in a new sequence of three courses at the Mexican university high school (or "prepa") where I teach. The concept is interesting, and quite advanced for high school: comparative literature and art history. The scope is intended to be global, and the division of the three courses is "clasica" (prehistory to Renaissance), "moderna" (1600-1870), and "contemporanea" (modernism to the present). The courses are only offered in the top or "multicultural" track of the prepa, and are taught in English like the bulk of the coursework here.

So, nothing if not ambitious. The ambition is not institutionally backed by much specificity, however, except for the insistence on globalism. There are no textbooks, suggested texts or resources, detailed model syllabi: nada. I'm basically having to write the entire curriculum for the "clasica" course from scratch, and may get to do the same for the two later courses as well. On the literature side, I pluck short texts from the Internet (since the tight schedule doesn't give me time to teach any complete long texts). On the art side, I was lucky that the campus library happened to own the perfect guide for my preparation, Marilyn Stokstad's two-volume Art History published by Abrams (the 2002 edition), which is an excellent, comprehensive, and thoroughly global college-level textbook. It gives full coverage to architecture, which is extremely important for my purpose. Most of the images I use are suggested by this set, and thanks to Google Images, are easy to find in electronic form on the Web.

As happened when I taught philosophy last fall, having to organize an introductory course systematizes and extends bodies of knowledge that I only possessed in a scattered way. The process of immersion is also intensely spiritual. In preparing to teach art history, I live every day in the presence of amazing imagery that begins to affect how I see and (I notice with interest) how I dream. So far in the semester, we have covered prehistoric through Roman art, and it has been a visual feast, with unmistakable emergent themes - for example, the importance of animals and human-animal hybrids in ancient art, starting right with the cave paintings.

Of course, seeing artworks reproduced on the printed page or the Internet will never substitute for seeing them in person. Questions of scale become entirely distorted, since a small painting and a large painting reproduced at the same size look comparable. The brushwork of painting, thin or thick, straight or swirling, is
utterly lost. And so on. But getting to look at the images frequently, until they colonize the crannies of your mind, offers a good deal of compensation for those losses.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Super Bowl Addendum

Most sportswriting starts with bad pop psychology - Player A has a will to succeed, Player B is learning how to win, Player C is rattled by recent failures - and then neglects to provide any interesting observations to back up the bald assertions. This is probably because most sportswriters (and broadcasters) are in it not to provide illumination to the public, but to make the scene themselves. They just want the lifestyle of being near professional sports - they actually have nothing to say.

So it is always a pleasure to read sportswriting that gets more technical and more specific, such as Bryce Bennett's pre-Super Bowl analysis of Tom Brady and Eli Manning in n+1 (which reads very interestingly after the event):

To this day, Brady cannot do a lot of things that other QBs can do—he doesn’t evade pressure well and doesn’t always wow you with his arm—but you would never know it watching Brady play, because it is rare that Brady finds himself in situations that ask him to do anything other than what he does exceptionally well. The Patriots have developed a team—even a system—that allows Brady to be the best version of himself.

What Brady does better than other quarterbacks is, 1) reads defenses; 2) makes quick, accurate passes consistently; 3) never gets rattled. His consistency derives from his excellent mechanics. Brady is a natural thrower. He holds the ball lightly like an afterthought in his hands, and his shoulders almost always square fluidly to his intended target. The difficulty of making this motion fluid can be seen in Tim Tebow’s sticky mechanics. Even when Tebow is able to square his lead shoulder it appears unnatural. He has to think about it. Not Brady.

Even when Bennett does discuss the players' psychologies, he does so with more punch than the usual pap:

The quarterback Eli may most resemble is the legendary recent retiree Brett Favre. Eli is not a gunslinger in the way of Favre, but like Favre he is not afraid to throw the ball into traffic, having led the league in picks as recently as 2010. Though he has played almost scot-free football in this year’s playoffs (1 INT thus far), he still can’t fight his urge to throw the ball up for grabs from time to time.

Eli’s mishaps are of a particular sort. He’s too savvy for defensive secondaries to take him by surprise and so his mistakes are miscalculations; but he is always calculating. Where Favre was overconfident in his arm strength, Eli is overconfident in his predictive abilities. Statistically, the late Eli is very similar to Favre—both are elite quarterbacks who throw a lot of interceptions. However, their playing styles are vastly different. Where Favre was an immediate fan favorite, Eli is more of an acquired taste.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Commonplace Book: Soulless Urbanism

The more I traveled in Mexico, the less prepared I was for the United States. Mexico still functions on a profoundly human scale: towns are designed for people on foot, who expect to talk to other people whenever they go into a restaurant, a shop, or a bank. There are always buses going everywhere, and passersby ready to give directions. As a native of New England, which was largely settled in the days before the automobile, I find Mexico much more familiar and homelike than most of the southwestern United States. I had been struck by this before, in southern California and on visits to Texas. Still and all, nothing had prepared me for Phoenix. "The fastest growing city in America," the boosters call it, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, but I have never seen a town so sterile and inaccessible. I...checked into the the dead center of 7:00 in the evening...the nearest open restaurant was a Taco Bell some two miles away and the only way to get there was on foot or by taxi. I walked, and did not meet a single person along the way...Apparently, taxis are not allowed to pick up fares off the street in Phoenix. The taxi companies explain that this is due to the danger to the drivers. No offense to the chamber of commerce, but if this is the fastest-growing city in the United States then there is a deep sickness afflicting the country.

Elijah Wald, Narcocorrido

My sister has recently traveled through Phoenix, and confirms this picture 100%. As automotive America gives way before the reality of Peak Oil, cities like Phoenix will be the first to go; I expect it to be like Detroit in 20 years.


Elijan Wald's Narcocorrido, a fascinating history/travelogue/critique of songs about drug traffic and traffickers, was the first book about Mexico that I read after arriving in Mexico, and I couldn't have made a better choice. Life in Culiacan is dominated by the drug trade, and the music celebrating it is also centered here in the State of Sinaloa, although it has spread out across the country and into the southwestern United States as well.

Corridos are essentially ballads, a folk/traditional form, and often the music accompanying them is in the norteno style, which draws on Central European polka and waltz rhythms and employs the accordion and bajo sexto 12-string guitar as its predominant instruments. In many ways, corridos are very old-fashioned even if they are written on contemporary themes, and they seem to have zero appeal to my urban-sophisticate prepa students, who are into all manner of contemporary pop sounds from hip-hop to Lady Gaga.

Wald doesn't make any great claims for the music itself, which tends towards a sameness, but the point of corridos and ballads generally has always been the words; they can and have functioned as a kind of musical newspaper. Any event can be quickly worked up into a corrido. And certainly the drug world is full of events - and larger-than-life personalities (including the biggest of all, Chapo Guzman of the Sinaloa Cartel, currently on the lam after a jail break and, following the death of Osama Bin Laden, Numero Uno most wanted on both the FBI and Interpol lists).

Several of the corridistas interviewed by Wald, most of whom sound like rather peaceable souls, warn that in corridos about narco bosses, it is almost always inadvisable to get too specific about which boss you are describing. You might curry favor with that boss by depicting him as the toughest guy out there, but you will also intensely displease his competition - and the business is nothing if not competitive; that is what generates most of the grisly executions you read about in the papers. Rival cartels are always fighting for control of the trade in specific "plazas," cities and geographic areas. Although the government tries to portray itself as against all cartels equally, in actuality it cedes each plaza to a particular cartel and comes down on the others, thus working in part as the dominant cartel's muscle (and really, a lot of police and military officers and government officials are on the cartels' take). Details about these unsavory connections can be found in John Gibler's To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War (which was the second Mexican-themed book I read after my arrival; now I'm onto Charles Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields).

As will happen with an extremist genre, however, narcocorridos operate in a "can you top this" atmosphere, and inevitably, many writers and performers have ignored the sensible advice about being non-specific and thrown in their lot with this or that cartel and boss - not least because they might see some money or gifts out of the relationship (although this is always denied by the musicians). The newer, more over-the-top narcocorrido style is known as "Movimiento Alterado":

The second article mentions that some Movimiento Alterado musicians wear bulletproof vests on stage, and well they might, because they are playing a dangerous game. Last November, a young singer, Diego Rivas of the Guaruras band, was gunned down in front of his house in Culiacan, undoubtedly by those who took exception to his lyric praise of Chapo Guzman.

In contemporary Mexico, murders are almost always messages, but this message - Don't affiliate! - has been sent to musicians again and again in recent years, and little heed has been taken. In 2010, it was singer Sergio Vega:

In 2007, it was singer Sergio Gomez:\

In 2006, it was singer Valentin Elizalde:

And just this weekend, as reported at the invaluable blog Borderland Beat, gunmen burst into a Chihuahua nightclub and mowed down the band La 5a Banda, killing five of its members as well as four club patrons:

Among the band's popular songs is "El Corrido de La Linea" a narco-corrido glorifying the group of hitmen that makes up Juarez cartel's enforcement arm.

La 5a Banda

As one anonymous commenter at Borderland Beat wrote, "Norteño singers keep glorifying criminals, the price to pay is dead, the fame will be your glory." The old philosophy of "Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse" is alive and well in Mexico.

UPDATE (4/2/2012): The drummer of the band Enigma Norteno, another group that gets very specific in its lyrics, was kidnapped in a Culiacan mall on Friday, March 30, and discovered dead a day later:

And then a mourner was kidnapped from his funeral!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Steam Locomotive

"What American does not thrill to the sight of a speeding train?"

Here is a delightful and informative promotional video about steam locomotives that was produced by the New York Central Railroad in 1938:

Pedro Almodovar's Literary Roots

This wonderful article by Natasha Wimmer about the Argentine novelist Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman) incidentally makes it clear that Pedro Almodovar is coming out of a Hispanic literary and artistic tradition -- "cursi" -- that many of us know nothing about. This is truly illuminating.

Cursi is possibly my favorite word in Spanish, and one of the most difficult to translate. Depending on the context, it might mean sentimental or prissy or precious or affected. It is the polar opposite of macho, which is the more familiar strain (at least abroad) of Spanish and Latin American culture. And yet cursi has a substantial history in Spanish-language fiction and poetry.

Wonder Years

At the Chronicle of Higher Education website this morning, there is a fine piece by Michael Sim (author of a new book on E.B. White) about the joys of growing as a reader and an inquisitive young mind in the Sixties Era:

I have often written about that subject here, and so I could not resist making a comment. Some of this material has appeared in PMD before, but it is always good to write it down again. In fact, if I am ever inspired to write a book, this would be the theme.

This subject certainly resonates with me. I was lucky to grow up in an aspirant middlebrow middle-class household in the Sixties and early Seventies (I graduated from high school in 1976). My grandfather taught me to read at age three because I demanded to be taught - I kept pointing at the words in picture-books. There were wonderful books in our house, all from my mom's family - a complete set of Dickens, a 20-volume set of classics, a complete Shakespeare, many others. I was poking into these at a very early age, reading "adult" literature alongside "children's" literature alongside comic books. I remember that Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" was the first real novel I read, at age seven, and I got special adult borrowing privileges in the town library by fourth grade.

We had a "Book of Knowledge" encyclopedia edition from the mid-Fifties that, like "The Golden Treasury of Knowledge," was arranged thematically rather than alphabetically and was a delight to read. I learned so much from it. Public television and classic movies were a big presence in our household, and later I started to invest my own allowance money (and eventually, earnings from a clerk job at the library) in classical music LPs and classic novels from the used bookstores on Main Avenue in our town of Passaic, New Jersey. On weekends, my mom took me and my brother and sister to historic houses and zoos and other educative sites - the Thomas Edison labs and estate in West Orange were a family favorite. When we took a vacation trip, it wasn't to some amusement park, but to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Cape Cod to soak up history and nature and the atmosphere of small seaside towns.

I will always believe that this was a very good way to grow up, full of curiosity and wonder, and I will always be deeply grateful to my mother and maternal grandfather for providing it. (He lived with us and in addition to teaching me to read, regaled me with thrilling stories of professional baseball in the New York of the early years of the century.) I had good schooling, too, first an excellent public elementary school in Passaic, later a first-rate Catholic boys' prep school. Ultimately I got to Yale, and that was thrilling as well, especially since I was first to attend college on either side of my family (my mom had gone to nursing school). There wasn't anything cynical in my rearing, and it was still possible for my mother to enlist the larger culture in the service of our family's goals, instead of constantly having to fight the larger culture off. This lifestyle was earnest, and it was also great fun.

POSTSCRIPT: Appropriately enough, this is a milestone post at PMD, #700.