Monday, October 29, 2012


Tony Judt was a British-cum-American historian who composed the magnum opus "POSTWAR", one of the finest works of history I've ever read, and which I reviewed here. His major critical and historical dalliances have been with the public intellectuals of the 20th century, but more broadly, the history of the 20th century in general – especially the European 20th century. Self-deprecating, witty, combative and self-assured, Judt did much credit himself to the notion of the "public intellectual", rehabilitating the phrase from the academy and the social-justice Left. Unfortunately, he passed away two years ago from ALS, a disease that withers everything but the mind. Judt, knowing that his days were few, composed this part-autobiography, part-history, part-essay collection by dictating it to fellow historian Timothy Snyder (whose idea this book actually was). I'm a big fan of Snyder's as well – my review of his "BLOODLANDS" is here – and these two giants together makes for an exceptionally thought-provoking, if wide-ranging book.

"THINKING THE TWENTIETH CENTURY" is nominally about Judt's early life as a British Jew borne of Marxists, and his wholesale, somewhat belated embrace of both Judaism and Marxist thought, as he become sentient enough to connect the strands of both. Typical of the book, a discussion of how Judt became a short-term Israel-dwelling Zionist in the late 60s then veers into an entire discussion of how the United States as a country came to venerate Israel, and how the Holocaust slowly made its way through world consciousness both during and (way) after World War II. Judt shed his Zionism and his Marxism fairly quickly, by the late 60s, and was extremely moved by intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt and George Orwell who spoke stridently about totalitarianism in their own unique ways.

It's actually a bit of the thrill to see these two authors engage in vigorous debate and discussion about figures such as these, and to work hard to place themselves in the historical place & time in which they're writing and discussing. Judt has no patience for the revisionist historian who doesn't work at understanding the times and morals in which a historical event or passage took place, and a good chapter or two is taken up discussing – more interestingly than you'd think – the proper role of the historian. Topics are deftly weaved in and out of this semi-narrative, including imperialism; Winston Churchill; the role of the Spanish civil war in forming the consciousness of certain intellectuals; a strong and brutal critique of the various "-isms" (feminism, Black Studies etc.) that came to dominate higher historical teaching, especially in the US; the misbegotten appeal of Communism to many smart people; the history of the French Left; and so on.

Judt himself swerved from being a straight-up academic historian and writer of books on history in the 1990s, when he began to engage in composing political essays on current topics for the New York Review of Books. While definitely a man of the left, he articulates a fully-formed, non namby-pamby defense of "social democracy", which he generally means to be a capitalist model with a very strong role played by the government in protecting human welfare. He's annoyingly dismissive about, say, the Margaret Thatcher years in Britain, obsessing over "massive social alienation" that apparently occurred in the 1980s there and made Britian far worse of a place than it otherwise might have been under, say, a Labor government. Laughable. Yet his model society and arguments for it deserve some credit for generally being well-thought out – or at least well-articulated. I don't totally buy them, but I like that it's Judt who's making them.

I know that I was a little daunted by "Thinking the Twentieth Century" when I first encountered it, assuming that it might spin off into a navel-gazing contest between two great thinkers. Turns out that it's really gripping stuff when you get into it, and further underscores the loss suffered by humanity and by deeper thought in losing Mr. Judt at a relatively young-ish age.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


I've spent a fair amount of time building up my latest music-only blog DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE over the past two months. If you're someone who likes music, this just might be the blog for you. I probably should have posted them here, but I let those readers know about the digital coordinates for several musical mixes I threw together and posted on the excellent 8Tracks site (listen on your computer, your tablet, your phone…!). I know I already told you about "Disconnect Yourself", a collection of recent underground pop, noise, garage punk and so forth. Here are links to that one plus the other three I recently made:

STONEAGE TESTOSTERONE – Lost teenage trash from the 1960s. In other words, some totally amazing 60s punk.

PSYCHEDELICO ULTIMA – The dark side of the 1960s rock coin. Wild, guitar-heavy, acid-trip fuzz rock.

DISCONNECT YOURSELF – Modern underground pop, noise, lo-fi garage punk and the like from 45s, digital-only downloads & all corners of the rock universe. Even France.

CHICK HABIT - Female-fronted masterpieces from the modern age, including stuff from the 60s, 90s and hell, even from 2012. Everything's got a little bit of harmony, a little bit of dirt and a girl or a woman in the lead vocal position.

Monday, October 22, 2012


I used to talk to this Gordon Edgar fella back when he sold records at the Maximum Rocknroll record store "Epicenter Zone" in San Francisco, around about 1991-93 or thereabouts. Very nice, talkative guy; no attitude whatsoever, and a sort of post-hippie political/peace punk vibe about him, if my memory serves. He's one of the many people of that era whom I used to regularly see at shows or in record stores whom I'd forgotten about or who left town ages ago, so a year ago I was pretty heartened to see that the man was now a "Cheese Monger" - nay, the cheesemonger - at a local grocery co-op, and had written a book about his journey from punk rock to cheese connoisseurship. I've got some pretty esoteric, obsessive tastes of my own, you know, and figured he'd probably have a couple of good tales to spin that would fit into an offbeat sort of coming-of-age narrative.

"CHEESEMONGER: A LIFE ON THE WEDGE", his book, is, in fact and as expected, a fairly fun and none-too-challenging read. You can approach it a couple of ways, or both ways if you wish. One is a personal tale of how Edgar approaches and reconciles his world leading the cheese revolution behind the counter at Rainbow Grocery with his own ideals, values and self-image. The other is a book about great cheese; stinky, rindy, rennet-less or even red, with informative and humorous chapter endnotes that help to educate greenhorns like myself about the various "cheese genres", along with some top-shelf representative examples that one might buy. Edgar's the same sort of humble, no-nonsense, self-reflective guy I vaguely remember from twenty years ago. He's still expressing a great deal of bemusement at how much he now knows about great cheese, to the point where he's an expert flown out to speak on panels and such. At the same time, he works at a socialist grocery store full of "worker-owners" like himself, and deals on a daily basis with the type of smug, needy people a store like that often attracts, from the politically high-minded, to the lactose-intolerant, to the generally intolerant.

I'm always a little skeptical of someone in their forties who still identifies at a "punk", yet thankfully he tones this down for the most part, likely because his world has moved on to be consumed by cheese, by and large. He's also pretty well aware that his "punk morals and values" transfer only slightly to his current vocation, and therefore doesn't try to hammer out any sort of equivalence between the world of cheese dorks and politically-minded punk rockers. Edgar's quite reverent of the family farmer and the many people who get their hands dirty making cow, sheep and goat cheeses for his and other stores (and for rich people), but he also exposes a lot of the marketing BS that goes into artisanal food production and retail in 2012. He definitely has a good-cheese-for-the-people ethos that seeks to educate the masses, and yet he takes pains not to condemn the wealthy folks who generally buy the best cheeses, both at his store and at specialty cheese shops.

I was a bit surprised at how often the book repeats itself, though. The narrative is not exactly linear, and while it's extremely readable, I found myself thinking on multiple occasions that Edgar had made a point in almost the exact same words only a couple of chapters beforehand. Given this gentleman's assumed lack of writing experience, that he can string sentences together this well should be applauded, but the book at times has the feel that there's an editor looming in the background, cracking the whip and shouting, "Longer! The book needs to be longer!". All told, I had a good time reading the thing, and I took some notes for the next time I feel like I wanna blow double digits on a hunk of triple-cream artisanal cheese from a small family-run dairy or some such.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


22 years of living in San Francisco, and a self-professed 60s & 70s film freak, and I'd still never seen "BULLITT" until just two days ago. Mention this 1968 Peter Yates-directed detective thriller to just about anyone, and two things will come right back at you: Steve McQueen as the titular badass cop Frank Bullitt, and the intense San Francisco-set car chase scene, rightly hailed as one of the two great early chase scenes in chase scene history ("The French Connection"'s lengthy car-chases-subway-train scene being the other). I was definitely in the mood for this sort of gritty, grimy, slow-burn sort of detective film the other day, and thus rented both aforementioned films and watched them back-to-back, needing a cleansing shower afterward. We'll get to "The French Connection" in a later edition of The Hedonist Jive;  it was the first time I'd seen that film in over twenty years, and it was a revelation yet again.

So let's talk about the two popularly-recognized key elements of "BULLITT" and move on from there. McQueen is a brooding, streetwise, angry cop, considered great at his job but one of those rogues who doesn't much like procedure or doing things by the book. Of course his performance is iconic; it actually created an entire typecast. It's a little cheesy today, of course, with films on down the line from "Dirty Harry" appropriating the icon, but in '68 this film stood squarely in the budding New Hollywood canon with "Point Blank" and "Bonnie & Clyde" as violent, tough films with little daylight and ambiguous or unhappy endings. The film really evokes a seamy and dirty San Francisco, with leaking pipes and peeling wallpaper and dirty streets. Hard to square our rich, gentrified foodie town of 2012 with a place that looks like modern-day Bulgaria.

Much of the movie seemed focused on enabling the car chase, which actually stands out a little too much from the rest of the slowly-unfolding film. What a chase it is, though. Much of it is filmed from the driver's perspective, and so when McQueen/Bullitt flies over one hill and then over another, I swear I truly got nauseous and had to look away. It's an age thing, I'm afraid - I won't go on the more puke-inducing amusement park rides with my son anymore, either. This first-person camera in an age before special effects is a hell of a thrill. San Francisco locals will love how the chase starts in Precita Park, heads up the hills toward Bernal Heights, and immediately lands in North Beach seconds later - before getting over to Skyline Boulevard above San Mateo just a few minutes after that.

I'm not going to call "Bullitt" a total classic - I'll call it a genre classic. Some of the most cringe-inducing dialog of all time was unfortunately written for Jacqueline Bissett and McQueen in a scene in which she pleads for him to give up the detective life. Robert Vaughn, as a hammy, corrupt lawyer/political wannabe, overacts a bit as a smug Chicago mob's inside man. And to be honest, I still can't figure out which one was Robert Duvall, one of my favorite actors of all time (someone called Weissberg? Who was Weissberg?). I think I was struck by how much this film was a reminder of things we don't have anymore: Wave-you-right-through airport security; teletype machines; the ability for people to walk into operating rooms, no questions asked; women who make you your breakfast; that sort of thing. Absolutely worth watching and a must for the cineaste; but a small cut below the even darker urban crime films that followed just a couple of years later.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Mark and Jay Duplass made this tragicomedy over four years ago, right after completing the fantastic "BAGHEAD", and then they put it to the side once they started to field more Hollywood interest for their theater of the absurd and the true. They made "CYRUS", and "JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME", and lo, it was good. People began to talk about these directors as being able documenters of a certain time, place and person. Less imaginative critics, while loving their work (just about everyone does), would call them "slacker comedies", forgetting that their films are also usually quite harsh in shining a light on deep, raw human emotion. And yeah, they're also frequently hilarious while being jarring and discomforting. 

"THE DO-DECA-PENTATHLON" poked its head out again in theaters just a few months ago, and it's now on DVD and streaming. It's right in there with their best work. Two estranged brothers reunite at their mom's house for one's birthday, and immediately set to revisiting an aborted, obsessive "contest" they'd tried to finish while teenagers that they called the Do-Deca-Pentathlon. It's clear that there's just a ton of unresolved issues between these two, and it comes out in unhealthy competition in just about every area: swimming, eating, running, laser tag, ping-pong, long jump, arm wrestling and so on. One brother, who in addition to being overweight has obvious pent-up, unresolved residual effects from a bad childhood, also thankfully (for him) has a loving wife who's trying to protect him from him own worst competitive instincts – to no avail, I might add. His attempts to evade her, and complete the series of "events", is high comedy. The other brother is presented, at least initially, as a pot-smoking, gambling ne'er do well who eggs him on, but like other Duplass films, you find that certain harsh characters end up not being quite what you thought at the outset.

I'd hate to think that people might miss this small gem because of its poor distribution and relatively low profile. Let it be said here that your 80 minutes are very well spent with this film.