Saturday, January 28, 2012


Last Saturday night I was able to partake in a spectacular  "NOIR CITY" double feature at San Francisco's Castro Theater, one of those increasingly rare sort of things you always remind yourself are the reason you haven't moved to the suburbs (yet). Two 1960s films, both steeped in the film noir tradition, both seeking a way out of it & into the realm of the personal and the weird - and both starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. The films were 1964's "THE KILLERS" and 1967's "POINT BLANK". As it turns out, Ms. Dickinson was on hand between the screenings to shoot the proverbial breeze about her life and to thrill the several hundred gay men in attendance, who flock to the Castro with bells on every time an aging female legend shows up. I reckoned this was something I probably needed to check out.

Both films, particularly the latter, have been high on my I-need-to-finally-see-the-goddamn-thing list for some time. Let's take them in turn, shall we? First, "THE KILLERS" hews pretty tightly to classic noir form, even though it's in glorious technicolor. Guy (John Cassavetes) gets caught up with the wrong crowd on account of a dame. The dame (she's actually referred to as a "dame" throughout the film - I'm serious) corrupts him and helps turn him into a bad fella. Meanwhile, two murderers-for-hire, who start the film out by taking down Cassavetes in cold blood, retrace their steps trying to figure out why he seemed to want to be murdered. Something's a little....screwy about the job they were asked to do. Maybe they ought to travel cross-country to figure out who's paying them - and if needed, murder them too.

It goes without saying that Lee Marvin, one of the contract killers, is a total badass. Dickinson is pretty and peculiar and sassy in that strange way of hers (definitely not the classic beauty queen but totally eye-grabbing nonetheless). But what's really jarring about this film are two of the other stars - John Goddamn Cassavetes and Ronald Wilson Reagan (in his last-ever role - four years later he'd be governor of California). I can't tell you how awesome it was to see two people I know from totally different contexts (legendary director and American president) acting together. Both are crooks! Reagan even smacks Angie Dickinson! Can you imagine Cassavetes and Reagan hanging out together on the set? What did they talk about? Had Reagan seen "Shadows"? Did Cassavetes give him an early screenplay for "Faces" to look over? Did Reagan try to get him to vote for Goldwater? Anyone know?

Totally fun film - like I said, right out of 1946 instead of 1964, with a little weirdness around the edges that hints at the film era that was waiting in the wings. Next, the pompous host of the evening, a flatulent guy who calls himself "The Czar of Noir", brought 80-something Angie Dickinson to the stage so he could badger her with sexual suggestions and discuss his erection with her - and no, I only wish I was joking. What a tool. Aside from having to interact with him, she was great. I don't know that much about her to be honest, but I gathered she may have been getting busy with Frank Sinatra and possibly even JFK back in the day. She talked about Reagan always saying to her, after he became president, "I didn't really hit you, you know", and about Cassavetes being somewhat melancholy on the set of this film, already complaining about being an actor and how he wanted to follow his true passion of directing instead. Good stuff. Oh, and she said Lee Marvin was truly depressed, a guy who'd seen some nasty stuff in WWII and Korea and was therefore a little bit unusual to be around. I loved that every time she'd dis or half-dis someone she'd immediately follow it up with, "Oh, he/she was so wonderful". Total Hollywood.

"POINT BLANK" was probably the last real noir, and that's definitely stretching the term a bit. It reminded me more of "Dog Day Afternoon" than it does anything before it, truth be told. Marvin truly is the center of this film. He's a tough guy named Walker who gets double-crossed on a theft job on Alcatraz and spends the rest of the film essentially trying to get even after getting out of jail. The first third of the film is surreal and doesn't even make all that much sense; it turns conventional (to a point) around the time we learn that all Walker really wants is the $93,000 he was entitled to from the botched job so many years ago - oh, and to kill the man that hoodwinked him and stole his wife while he rotted in prison. Walker infiltrates "The Organization", the mob that has his money, and basically kills his way through the group until he ends back on Alcatraz with the final person who can pay him - still looking to get that $93,000. To say that the ending is ambiguous and unconventional would be understating things. 70s filmmaking had  already arrived, right there in 1967. I loved it, though admittedly not at first.

As I passed the Betty Page-coiffed cigarette girls on my way out, I thought about the last time I'd watched two full movies back-to-back, and then I got too tired and decided to not think so much. Great night out - rent either or both of these when you get the gumption.

Friday, January 27, 2012


"SARAH'S KEY", which concerns itself with a modern American journalist's search for closure once she discovers the a personal connection to the murder of a Parisian jewish child's disappearance during the Holocaust, could easily be called a "weepy". In fact I nearly avoided it for that reason. Weepies, if done well, do in fact bring about the desired effect in me. The problem is, they're usually overblown and rely on soaring music to do their dirty work for them, which instead makes me scoff and retch and laugh at them instead. Not "Sarah's Key". This is the real deal.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the journalist (Julia) in question, and her early forays into reporting on a nearly-forgetten round up of the Jews of Paris into deportation purgatory leads her deeper and deeper into one particular story - that of two children who were caught up in the German-ordered, French-led sweeps. The Paris apartment that she and her husband are about to move into happens to be one in which a little girl (Sarah) locked her brother away in during the frantic sweep of the neighborhood during 1942. In stashing him away, it was to prevent him from being found by the evil Vicky puppet-police. Of course, she and her parents were never allowed to come back to the apartment. Julia beings to piece together this story, out of guilt and out of desire to uncover the truths about an awful period in French and human history.

Meanwhile, her marriage is unraveling, but one thing I liked about this film is that this is put way in the background of the main story. Lesser filmmakers would have probably found some sort of moral or dramatic equivalence between a dissolving marriage and the murder of six million Jews. I only partially jest. Anyhow, it's a thrilling film in its way, nearly a mystery, told in both flashback to 1942 and immediately after the war, as well as in the present. When Julia finally discovers what happened to Sarah, whom we've come to adore by this point for numerous reasons, it's pretty crushing - and then it becomes even more so. I was fairly surprised by how powerful and strong this film was, because it really came & went last year with barely a huzzah. I think it's, if not award-worthy, then very close to being so. Defintely worth a couple of hours and a couple of kleenex boxes of your time & investment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


My pal Jon turned me onto the books of JOHN FANTE over two decades ago. I read “Ask The Dust” – and loved it so much I read it again. Then I read the other books in the “Bandini Trilogy”, all concerning a red-blooded, hard-drinking Italian-American man’s experiences growing up in Colorado, and later learning to be a writer in Los Angeles. Loved those two as well. They were more than “loosely” based on the life of John Fante – they were the life of the real John Fante, with loads of embellishment and dramatic tall tales around the edges. Funny, poignant and amazingly well-written, these books are among my favorites in the pantheon of great twentieth century writing.
So imagine my surprise when I learn that the old man had a son named Dan Fante who’s a hard-boiled, hard-living sort of guy as well, with a number of works of fiction to his name. I stumbled on this new one of his – his first autobiographical novel – in paperback a couple of months ago, and after thumbing through a chapter, knew this was a memoir I needed to read. See, John Fante was one of those “classic” inattentive drinking dads of his era – the 40s, 50s and 60s. You know, the kind who got out the belt when it was time to mete out punishment for transgressions both major and minor. Dan Fante bore the literal and figurative scars of this sort of parenting to deleterious effect; he also had an older brother who hounded him so severely that he ended up injuring young Dan on multiple occasions as well. Save for the love of a good but silent mom, Dan’s childhood was a rough one. He was actually considered “the stupid one” in the family, and wore this mantle like a crown of thorns in a series of teenage and young-adult blunders than nearly killed him, often by his own hand.

Though there are elements of this book that are a “tell all” about what it was like to be John Fante’s son, there’s no doubt that this book is about the life of Dan Fante, a huge percentage of which had very little to do with his father. Dan moved to New York City from his native Malibu fairly early on, after a first two decades of life that call to mind the Dolly Parton song “I’ve Lived My Life” (“…and I’m only eighteen…”). He was a carny. He dated black women in the early 60s (to his father’s, uh, “chagrin”). He drank to blackout excess. He took drugs. He got in bloody, beatdown, near-death fights. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door, and nearly got murdered in the process. He indulged in prostitutes, both female and male. Once in New York, he worked as a cabbie for a long stretch, but at one point was hounded by Black Panthers, who actually came to kill him over the course of months for a dumb bar transgression.

This is not a man, lineage aside, that you’d have pegged for a guy who’d end up as a self-sustaining writer or to even make it out of his thirties alive. Yet he did, and his writing style has some of the same short, clipped and to-the-point sentence construction of his father’s. Dan Fante basically lays it all out of the page – what happened, how it happened, and what it might have led to – without hyperbole or exaggeration. This is one guy who had so many opportunities to completely destroy himself, it’s a wonder that he’s still among us. The book often returns to his relationship with his dad, who hovers over the book like the proverbial ghost, judging his son’s early stabs at writing with both pointed criticism and praise. Of course, being criticism or praise from “John Fante”, every word has immense, outsized meaning for young and then middle-aged Dan, and when the elder Fante passes, the torch essentially passes, and Dan picks up the mantle in his own unique manner.

Man, I thought “CARDBOARD GODS” was a tough memoir of early-in-life trouble. This is far more bleak (to be fair, it’s a totally different sort of memoir as well – not so much funny and touching as it is tragic and touching), and just as rewarding. Great read whether you’re a Fante lover or have never heard of the big guy until just now.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I’m not above cross-promoting the different parts of the media empire I run from my home laptop. Have you checked out our companion TUMBLR site – The Hedonist Jive Tumblr – yet? I’ve been loading up music and commentary and ephemera there most days. What about following The Hedonist Jive on Twitter? You doing that yet? If I could somehow bust past the 62 followers I have now, at least 10% of which are spam-bots, I’d consider tweeting some pithy 160-character doozies every few hours. If you’d like!

Finally, this blog used to review beer from time to time, but that’s been taken over by my BEER SAMIZDAT site. Check it out this week – I’ve got “exclusive” interviews with some serious shakers and movers from the beer world. That’s my pitch!

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I’ve been listening to this fantastic linear radio show of late on UMass-Amherst’s WMUA called EXPRESSWAY TO YR SKULL, and it’s getting me all inspired to play mixmaster again. I know, I said in this post that linear radio was dead as a doornail, but when you’ve got a curator like this show’s Erika Elizabeth, whose taste & breadth of knowledge in moderne and past DIY/pop/noise music is beyond belief, it’s easy to go back to the “old ways” of learning about music and gettin’ your jamz on. After all, WMUA streams its signal through the web and various smartphone apps, and Erika posts her past shows up on this blog so you can download them to your proverbial heart’s content. Just have a pencil ready, because you’re going to be doing some aggressive track name and record label scribbling during her back-announce.

Inspired by her example, I’m still not committed enough to haul my carcass back onto old school radio - but thankfully there’s 8Tracks, where I’ve posted a number of mixes under the Hedonist Jive nom de plume. My newest is called, “FINE YOUNG MAN, DOING SO WELL”, with title taken from a Charles Albright song that’s part of the set. All tracks come from 2011, most from the back half of the year. This too you can listen to on the web and via the 8TRACKS apps on iPhone and Android. You’ll find that most tracks fit in a loose ghetto of low-fidelity pop, noise and sub-underground independent whatever. I’m predicting these’ll be your new favorite songs in about 45 minutes.

Track List:

1. HOUSEHOLD – Our Song
2. MIKAL CRONIN – Am I Wrong
3. WAX IDOLS – Dead Like You
4. TUNABUNNY - (Song For My) Solar Sister
5. GIRLFRIENDS – Cave Kids
6. HEAVY TIMES – Skull Hair
7. UV RACE – Low
8. THE WHINES – Straybird
9. MIND SPIDERS – Wait For Us
10. PAMELA - Lie Down (Eye Contact)

11. PET MILK – I Don’t Love Anyone

12. CHARLES ALBRIGHT – I’m Just a Fine Young Man & I’m Doing So Well
13. COASTING – Portland
14. SOCK PUPPETS – Summer Jacket
15. RADAR EYES – Miracle
16. HOUSEHOLD – Never After
17. THE SPITS – Flags
18. HUNGRY GAYZE – Pins & Needles

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


You really didn’t hear a lot of talk about THE VASELINES’ second album – and first since 1989 – “Sex With An X” when it came out in 2010. I mean, twenty-one years and all that. I happened to miss the “reunion” shows when they happened upon my town, and regrettably so. I, like just about everyone else, was a huge fan of their 80s stuff when I encountered it during Nirvana-mania in the early 90s. The Sub Pop comp that came out around then, “The Way of The Vaselines”, is among my favorite and most listened-to collections of music, and these Scots are one of the quote-unquote alterna-pop bands against whom subsequent pretenders are typically compared. I figured I’d try to get a little more familiar with the recent one and give you a track to listen to so you could help me bestow summary judgment upon it as well.

The “Sex With An X” album is a far cut above your typical reunion album. First of all, Eugene and Frances sound like they just shuffled over to 2010 with every bit of pop and harmonic and sardonic lyric-writing capacity intact from their previous lives. It’s a natural follow up to 1989’s “Dum-Dum” – just not quite at that level across the board. There are a few ringers for sure, like the title track I’m posting for you here. The album is steeped in faux sexual tension and a general sneering condescension toward the past (most notably in the song “I Hate The 80s”), all wrapped in a happy, smiling bow. Really, is there a more uplifting and distinctive voice than Frances McKee’s? She defines Scottish pop for me, and hey, you might as well give her and “Eugenius” credit for the Year That Punk Broke, since they wrote the template for Nirvana and all. I’m a fan of “Sex With An X” and reckon it needs a few more listeners than I perceive it to have received upon its release 16 months ago.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


We may be growing our beards out and listening to Jefferson Airplane a great chunk of the time, but that doesn’t mean the Hedonist Jive isn’t staying on top of the hot young Airplanes of today. HOUSEHOLD, from Brooklyn, are the hottest of our hot band discoveries of the past month. Their debut release “ITEMS” came out just a couple of months ago in both vinyl and digital-download form, and thanks to the magic of the Internet, I just heard about ‘em for the first time this past week. I’d like to get my kudos in early, because these ladies are going to be hot-hot-hot and on every hipster’s dribbling lips a week from now this time.

HOUSEHOLD might or might not be happy to be pigeonholed as “post-punk”, so let’s avoid that and some obvious precedents like The Minutemen, Delta 5, Au Pairs outright. Their 9-song set moves in skittering, forward motion at all times, with propulsive percussion and odd quirks in timing being what makes this thing such a blast to listen to. While insanely frantic in parts, it's also well-rooted in pop & has a light touch when called for. It’s obvious that they’re a band that’s already arrived fully-formed, and once you listen to this debut set you’ll realize there’s no “learning and growing” going on already. Not knowing the pedigree of the three women in the band, and being too lazy to look it up – hey, they could all be in their forties and total veterans of numerous scene wars – they sound young and hungry. “Items” has a smacking, up-front production quality that heightens the tense, wiry sound of the guitar, bass and phenomenal George Hurley-esque drumming here. Overlay a couple of great singers who unite in deliberately imperfect harmony when it makes sense, and yeah, you’ve got one of my favorite records from last year, that I heard this year.

It’s only 3 bucks to download the whole thing. You can afford that.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


From the time I was a little kid, I found it very easy to have a “least favorite band”. That band, by a mile, was JEFFERSON STARSHIP. Until Jane’s Addiction came along, they were my poster children for bad rock music, largely on the basis of their awful 1974-78 songs “Miracles”, “With Your Love” and “Count On Me”. We won’t even talk about “We Built This City”, which is truly an unspeakable abomination and came out long after the band had already almost destroyed music. Exhibit A for my hate for this cosmic/hippie stargazin’ band of travelin’ wanderers were the vocals of Marty Balin, a noxious, Vegas-y croon/warble that sends chills up my spine and kills all the plants in immediate vicinity to the radio. So you can probably understand why it took me a while to investigate the 1960s recordings of JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, the far more heralded band that mutated into the execrable Starship.

Here we are in 2012, and I’m transmitting my first real opinions of Jefferson Airplane’s music. I’m ostensibly a fairly knowledgeable fella about the history of rock and roll and all that, and it’s not like I don’t already know the Airplane story, and could have named every member and his/her instrument at any point in the last thirty years. I’ve lived just about my whole life in the San Francisco Bay Area, 22 years in San Francisco itself, and the late 60s hippie scene only recently (i.e. the past decade) stopped looming large over SF’s musical history. I think it might have been the death of Bill Graham, or the San Francisco Chronicle’s wise-but-30-years-too-late decision to stop letting JoelSelvin write in their paper.

The Jefferson Airplane’s a band I’ve had a great handle on in every way except actually listening to their stuff. The only LP I’d heard all the way through up until two weeks ago was the 1967 smash hit “Surrealistic Pillow”, the one that gave the world both Grace Slick and their two most popular songs, “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” – two songs just about everyone, including me, likes. All this time I’ve known that other people have many kind things to say about their work, and about the adventurous, experimental California hippie rock that I’ve disdained for many years, save for my faves LOVE and MOBY GRAPE (I have a lot of catching up to do, I know). I decided to investigate (and buy) their other early albums, the ones I hadn’t heard. My findings may shock and surprise you!

“AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER’S” – Jefferson Airplane’s third album, also from 1967 completely wiped the slate clean on the Starship. It’s that good, top to bottom and on virtually every track. The band, having experienced huge success with the aforementioned “Surrealistic Pillow” and its singles, went into an LA studio, drank a ton of booze, dropped acid like it was Razzles, noodled and farted around, layered overdubs and experimental cut-ups, turned the guitars up high & ran them through the fuzz-pedals becoming so popular at the time - and made a phenomenal, non-commercial record.

 I’d read about this one before, and was expecting something pretty unapproachable, but that’s not at all the case. It’s a beautiful album, with a touch of folk here and there (the 45 “Martha”), but with some outstanding psychedelic weirdness and overblown guitar on tracks like “Two Heads” and “The Last Wall of the Castle”. Not only do I admire how bold the band was to record something not tailor-made for the kids, but they did it in such a creative manner, with no two tracks sounding like each other. Sure, the jazz experiments are a little much, and Grace Slick is an acquired taste (self-admitted as someone who can’t really sing). But there’s only one track with Marty Balin on lead vocals (“Young Girl Sunday Blues”)! And it’s good! Pretty fantastic stuff across the board.

“JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF” – So next I listened to their first one, when they were a San Francisco folkie band with a slightly different lineup (Warbling folk singer Signe Anderson instead of Grace Slick; Skip Spence on drums instead of Spencer Dryden). I’m going to say right here it’s not the equal of either “Surrealistic Pillow” and certainly not “Baxter’s”. but it’s a young-sounding record with a lot of Balin and despite that, a lot of good ideas. The songs are often minor-key versions of garage rock, just quieted down in most cases and with a little more freedom to, well – be free I guess. Most clock in around the 3 minute mark, and you can just hear Haight Street starting to crawl with the great unwashed, pouring into Golden Gate Park for the free concerts that this record would help trigger. I need to study this one a little more, I reckon.

Damn it, those hippies have really wormed their way into my head. I’ll be investigating the work of Quicksilver Messenger Service next – any recommendations for where to get started would be most appreciated.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I wasn't around then, and maybe you weren't either, but it's hard to understate the effect that the 1962 trial of kidnapped-&-captured Nazi Adolph Eichmann had on the World's understanding of the Holocaust, of the exceptionally young state of Israel, and of the new reality of how Israel's Jews sought to be understood by the rest of the world. This book really got off on the wrong foot with me, as author Deborah Lipstadt, who achieved some minor fame a half-decade ago for being sued by Holocaust-denying "historian" David Irving for libel, compares her struggle and trial with that of Israel to try and prosecute Eichmann. This goes on for nearly an entire chapter, with a bit of backpeddling (thank god!) - stuff like "Of course I'd never compare what I went through to what the Jews of the twentieth century went through..." before talking about herself at length some more. While I grasped her point, that it is the burden of all of us to not let the Anti-Semite or the denier to gain even a modicum of respect, it was a seriously rocky and ego-inflated start to the book.

Thankfully, she's a hell of a writer and a moralizer, and damn me if I didn't come away from this book even more of a "Zionist" than I already am. "THE EICHMANN TRIAL" has a few aims. First, to simply tell the history of the kidnapping of Eichmann by the Israeli secret service in Argentina and his subsequent trial, conviction and execution for crimes against the Jews (as opposed to "crimes against humanity" - a crucial distinction illuminated throughout the book). Second, to give a sense of the conflicting aims of different parties in the courtroom that year, which I'll talk about in a minute. Finally, and most successfully, to illustrate the mindset of Israelis only 17 years after the almost complete destruction of the Jewish race in Europe, and why it was hard for much of the world to come to grips with this & why it was so easy for Israel (then and now) to be angrily dismissive of what the rest of the world thinks - given the history of the Jews under the boot of just about everyone else.

I was familiar with only the broad outlines of this story - I "knew" that Eichmann was a baddie and undeniably guilty for his part in the Final Solution, but also knew that there had been a lot of hand-wringing over just how central he was to the Holocaust. The lawyer put in place to prosecute him overreached fairly dramatically, essentially putting Eichmann in place as Hitler's right-hand man ("the two Adolphs"). Not true. Neither, however, was it true that Eichmann was just a mere cog in the machine. I remember growing up whenever my dad would do an impression of a Nazi, he's always say, "But I vas just followink orders" - which was Eichmann's defense, and where that trite expression came from. He was a murderous creep who oversaw the transport of hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths or enslavement. Despite the overreaching by the attorneys assigned to close the book on him, it is without doubt that Eichmann lied through his teeth in court about his role and his motives.

For Israel, this trial was a national catharsis. David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli premier, successfully sought to influence the trial and make it a referendum not just on Eichmann, but on the Holocaust itself - given the fact that the world at large was riveted by the trial. Therefore, survivor after survivor came forward to give his or her personal story, even if they'd had no idea who Eichmann was. The trial lasted for months, and even though at the end the Israeli judges railed at the prosecution for bringing forth these survivors, doing so ensured the legacy and importance of the trial. The Holocaust had been quietly commemorated in many countries before 1962; but after this trial, it (belatedly, to say the least) exploded onto the world consciousness.

The Israelis, personified by an angry Ben-Gurion, are portrayed as being deservedly indignant at much of the world's "outrage" over Eichmann's kidnap and prosecution in Israel, a country not even in existance when the crimes took place (Israel was founded in 1948). What they knew, and what most of the world at that time did not quite grasp, was of the unceasing narrative through history of Jews being hounded from their homes, enslaved, murdered and persecuted in every possible fashion. For these people - and indeed for me and for many others - the phrase "Never Again" was the overriding principle that led to Israel's creation, the hunting of Nazis, the Six-Day War in 1967 and so on. To this very day. I personally look at Israel critics with a skeptical and somewhat hostile eye for many reasons - many of which I captured in this blog post a few years ago - and this book is excellent at illustrating why a methophorical middle finger was extended by Israel to the hand-wringing nations of West and East alike.

Finally, there's another chapter in this fairly short book that adds a ton of depth to the historical canon. Lipstadt takes on Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and its central place in describing this trial and the circumstances surrounding it. Arendt, the woman who coined the terms "the banality of evil" and gave the world the first clear definition of the word "totalitarianism", is severely taken in task in this chapter for her inability to understand - in her book, as opposed to in her life - the mindset of the Jews prosecuting Eichmann. What initially appears to be a hatchet job in this chapter turns rather abruptly into a defense of Arendt in general, just not for her trial coverage and summation. It's a very fascinating look into the relatively small number of Jewish writers known outside of the insular Jewish world of the time, and how important what they said and how they said it was to the people within that world.

I still think Lipstadt, excellent historian that she is, could have done herself a lot of favors by writing a seperate book about her own trial experiences without bringing them up here, but my complaints aside, this book exceeded my expectations and is something I'd recommend especially to you Israel fence-sitters out there.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Every Chinese New Year, some 130 million Chinese leave the large cities they work in for their ancestral villages and towns to celebrate with the families they’ve left behind. These migrant workers have been leaving their dead-end villages for the utterly transformed modern Chinese cities the past decade, and the stress they place on the country’s rail system during their pilgrimages back home is the stuff of madness – as this excellent documentary shows. It’s a fascinating picture of what the rapid industrialization of China has done to family life, living arrangements and the process of growing into adulthood.

“LAST TRAIN HOME” has indelible & intense images that will not leave your head for some time. There are numerous aerial scenes taken from above the outside of railway stations, with thousands of people shoving, pushing and desperately waiting for a spot on a crowded train that they may not get. If human beings have ever looked and been made to behave like cattle, it’s here. Yet the film goes far deeper than that, focusing its lens on one family as a microcosm for the whole. The young parents both, together, left their tiny rural village when their daughter was a baby for Guangzhou, where there was machine-shop work creating clothes that you and I may be wearing at this very moment. 15 years later, they’re still there – and only return once a year at Chinese New Year, where they visit their rebellious teenage daughter and preteen son, both being raised by Grandma.

Their interactions say a ton about the new China. On their visits the parents continually harp on their kids – who barely know these parents, let alone respect them – about the importance of incessant studying and of being at the top of their class. The kids, meanwhile, now knowledgeable about and envious of the modern, culturally-rich world of the big cities, can’t wait to drop out and escape the villages and lead a life of fun that was never an option for their parents or grandparents. This produces much tension, which plays out on camera in ways that are obviously not forced nor staged. You’ll see what I mean when you see it.

Europe and North America and most of the rest of the world are very much as they were twenty years ago, with the addition of a little digital this-and-that everywhere. China, meanwhile, is almost another planet compared to where it was merely two decades ago. This film’s an excellent eye-opener about that reality, both visually and dramatically, and should be required viewing for anyone wanting to do any armchair pontificating about China and the effect of its rapid transformation on its citizens.

Monday, January 2, 2012


Perhaps the first or second of my many obsessions - I believe stamps may have come first - was baseball cards. Like Josh Wilker, who essentially tells the tale of his very messed-up life through the baseball cards he collected in the mid-to-late 1970s, I was absolutely smitten with the thrill of opening a new pack. Break the seal, jam the stale pink sheet of awful, sugar-overload bubble gum into my mouth, and start rifling through the players in hopes of either some San Francisco Giants or some big-deal bomber like Greg Luzinski or George Foster. Wilker's and my peak card-collecting years coincide almost identically - 1975-1979. His life was quite significantly weirder and less tethered than mine, and he clung to his cards as a island of preteen sanity while trying to navigate a very confusing home life.

I picked this 2010 book up after one of the ESPN "Baseball Today" podcast hosts called it out as his best sports book of all time - and once he described it as not really being a sports book per se (it definitely isn't), I decided to give it a go. It's kinda like "Friday Night Lights" - sports is the backdrop for a much deeper and emotional story. In many respects, though, "CARDBOARD GODS" is a comedy. Wilker and his older brother have to negotiate life with a mom and dad who initially live communally with "Mom's special friend Tom", before their square accountant Dad gets fed up and moves to Manhattan, while Mom & Tom try to live off the land in Vermont. Hippie Tom tries his hand at being a blacksmith (!) at a time when that skill is virtually obsolete. Mom paints signs, milks the goats, all in a rural Vermont filled with white trash rednecks who love to beat up and mock the nerdy Wilker boys.

Josh Wilker, already out of place with his peers, devotes most of his mental attention to his cards - and finds in them some of the strange quirks of humanity and of life itself. He tells his growing-up story with individual cards serving as illustrators of each short chapter's theme; for instance, the dashing and chisel-jawed Los Angeles Dodgers all-star Steve Garvey as a metaphor for an unattainable perfection and stability, a figurative ocean away from Wilker's rocky childhood. Many lesser lights show up as well - I remember the Kurt Bevaqua card from 1977 extremely well myself, but I had forgotten that he won an MLB contest for largest bubble gum bubble blown. Can you imagine today's players competing in something like that? 35 years is a long way away when you think about it.

Likewise, many of the cards he picks are players with ridiculous names, Afros, hairstyles, neck acne or stoned expressions. Sure, I remember Bake McBride & Oscar Gamble, but I'd totally forgotten about John Wockenfuss, and even Lyman Bostock. I had to laugh when he calls out my San Francisco Giants during the late 70s in particular as being so anonymous and awful that he could never remember any of the players' names and mixed them up constantly. Ironically, this was the absolute height of my Giants obsession, and I could tell you everything about everyone on those mostly wretched last-place teams.

There's one particularly great scene that stood out for me. Wilker and his brother convince their nebbishy dad to take them to a Ted Nugent concert around '77 at Madison Square Garden, even though neither isn't really sure of what Nugent sounds like. They watch him play, scared and annoyed by all the baked burnouts and shitkickers around them, while their dad tries to stay sane - and then, confused, rush to leave after "he" plays. Turns out that, not really knowing anything about rocknroll and just trying to fit in with their Vermont peers, they left before Nugent even played and watched opener AC/DC instead.

"CARDBOARD GODS" has its share of pathos and hits a few pretty rough emotional ditches, particularly as Wilker tries to navigate his twenties away from home, but it's all told with a fairly light hand and without much overwrought prose. Cliche as it may sound, I recognized a bit of myself in this tale, particularly the awkwardness of being sports-crazy but not particularly good at sports, and of being girl-crazy but not particularly adept with them either. Definitely a solid memoir and a nice break from the Holocaust books I've been spending time with lately.