Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chelsea Wolfe: Black Metal Lullaby

Atmospheric, haunting, gloomy.  Think Portishead’s Dummy minus the hollow midi tones while still replete with sweeping effects, and fronted by a young and strong PJ Harvey taking over for the ever so fragile Beth Gibbons (though Wolfe’s end phrasing is reminiscent of a less affected Bjork).  In interviews Wolfe has stated that she’s heavily inspired by heavy metal and has recently toured with Liturgy, a New York band categorized as “transcendental black metal” (these guys apparently build their own churches before burning them).  

Some have described her songs as folk-metal—okay.  But unlike the occasional acoustic outliers many heavier acts recorded to get in rotation on MTV circa 1994, nothing about Wolfe’s songs sounds geared toward commercial dividends.  That said, her music, though brushed with a ghostly opacity and often progressing like a leg-shackled dirge, still catches your ear.  It makes you sing the vocal melody but not the words, seeing that by comparison—with all the overdrive and Wolfe’s voice having been lowered into the mire (gambits that make the album perfectly engaging)—Kurt Cobain’s infamously garbled lyrics present themselves with the saliency and articulation put forth by an English barrister.  All of which befits the dour genre, the vocals adding to the album’s lush and otherworldly aesthetic without committing to exacts, the vague suspicion of a ghoul out of frame enchanting and unnerving a spectator’s mind, roiling up her longings and personal turmoil.  After all, the moment you march a specimen, no matter how horridly deformed, before a committee, they've no choice but to acknowledge the subject as real, earthly. Listen

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Good Chow #2

Japanese comfort food. What is it? Well, as exemplified at the Sunshine Café, a small but not tiny one-room eatery in Andersonville, it is large bowls of delicious donburi, soba, udon, and much more served in hearty portions. What is it not? It is not sushi (not usually, at least), and it is far from expensive.
I've been coming to this place for years. Usually stuff myself with a friend on several appetizers (shumai, potato croquette, tsukemono) and then a main course and end up being presented a bill of around thirty dollars. Just a great value.
And to top it all off, Sunshine is BYOB. I recommend pilsners, pale ales, most white wines (but find Sancerres, pinot gris, and Southern Rhone blends to pair best). Or if you’d prefer red, as I often do, stick with something light and simple: pinot noir or cabernet franc, especially the latter from either the Loire Valley or the Finger Lakes; or maybe a syrah if you plan on getting a pork dish, such as the always flavorful katsu don (pictured above).
And make sure to try the specials, such as the rainbow trout. They never disappoint.
Is it fine dining? A far cry (though the service is quite good). But that’s the point: to eat, drink, and relax, to make the taste buds smile while using whichever damn utensil you prefer.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fiction #3 Ant Farm by Douglas Schubert

Douglas Schubert has created over 400 minutes of broadcasted material for feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, and PSAs. Two of his videos reside in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) and two at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum. He currently works as a script doctor and writer for several companies and has polished features like The Man from Elysian Fields, Casino Jack, Boogie Nights, Swingers and Barcelona among others. His work has garnered 2 Clio Awards, 9 MTV Video Music Awards, and resulted in the most requested TRL video of all time. His short fiction has been featured in New York Press.
He also worked as a speechwriter for then incumbent Rhode Island governor, Bruce Sundlun.

Suicide’s not even an option. Too lazy to write the note. The unemployed lowlife on the first floor wakes me when cigarette smoke twists into the no-shade window. Don’t remember why I’m here.
A cat’s been nosing around. But now it waits next to the bed like a brass panther, giving me the false significance of waking from a royal nap.
I throw my arms, with as little stomach effort as possible, to move out of bed. I land on balled up trousers. My being here justifies one more stab at love with a new soul, I guess.
I wander out naked into the littered apartment. The cat does an enticing flirt around my skinny ankles and I feel important. I fart so loudly the cat darts under the sofa. An impressive enough accomplishment to enjoy for a moment but pathetic enough to make me question my potential when I catch my reflection in the mirror. This is going to be a good day.
Coffee’s not even an option. Too hard to figure out where everything goes. Maybe she has leftover something or other. She doesn’t. Only a weak refrigerated collection of items remaining from an effort to get it together long ago. I see the note on the door: “You snore.”
The cat pokes out from under the couch and watches my every move. I’m self-conscious. I start playing with cupboards to pretend like I have something to do. I don’t. The cat crouch-walks toward me and gestures to a lazy susan with her butt. I enjoy her efforts to communicate her needs and let her go overboard doing it.
Feeding an animal. I feel powerful. After it puts in enough work I prepare her meal. I start to crave tuna.
Outside. I slink along the rusty fence that cages in a swimming pool. Kids bump into me anyway. One with puffed plastic inflated around tiny arms looks at me with crazy eyes and launches his bony carriage into the pool like he’s on fire. I wouldn’t mind returning to the womb.
Adults eye me with caution. What do they know? In the funhouse reflection of vending machine glass, kids run in sped up motion, bump into things and ricochet in warped directions. ‘No running by the pool,’ says a sign ensued from memory.
I pat myself for coins. A little brat shoves past me and pounds quarters into the slot with a practiced perfection that nauseates me. He selects the last sack of some synthetic salted food, one I was actually considering. It makes no sound as it dislodges from its turning coil. He snatches it and runs off.
I wind up a side stairwell and count the floors as if it matters. I reach the top and decide my lungs feel like plastic wrap laminates them. The door at the top says ‘roof access’. I shove into a sea of fans and antennas.
The roof has a rust finish that shines too brightly so I look away. I move over to a place shaded by something and impress myself with the decision. I decide what to do next. I peer out at the towering buildings all around with people inside them doing what apparently needs doing
It occurs to me that the tin door could have slammed hard enough to trap me. I overcome this neurotic weakness and move into the light. I pull off my shirt to take on the world. A bird, probably a seagull, flies over me and I’m scared of it. It knows how to get food.
A commercial airline, loaded with people apparently going someplace or returning from something to do, roars by. I decide to return to my shaded zone.
A kid in a speedo scoots out the door and scurries to the ledge of the roof and peers down. Where’s the parenting? He listens to his spit smack the pavement then runs to the door and it slams shut.
Thank god the door opens and I go down the stairs. I drag myself back along the original 3rd floor hallway and it feels like I never went anywhere. I didn’t. I throw a fake smile at an aging neighbor who fills her door-space with who the fuck are you concern. I twist the knob on apartment 304 and slip back inside.
Back where I started. I look for something to look at and find the vertical blinds trembling after a truck speeds by. I stretch a bit in the middle of the room and hear my joints pop. I imagine the extra sac of fatty flesh hiding my musculature actually muffles the sound of popping joints.
But then I catch that damn cat watching me. It’s still sitting upright, knowingly, licking its teeth with a condescending stare. I’m useless to her now. She throws a yawn at me. I hiss at the thing. Not a flinch. Just that condescending stare. I lurch and it darts behind the vertical blinds, throwing them into a rattling dance that lets in piercing shafts of daytime. I wish the sun would hurry up and go away.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Beer Ain't Drinkin' Part 2: Electric Boogaloo (natch)

by Jeff Allison

A-Hoy Hoy, All!

For my second installment I will mostly be gabbing about the Dogfish Head invasion at the Bavarian Lodge, in scenic Lisle (or at least what I remember of it). This is the second of what I hope will be an annual event. The area rep from Dogfish Head was there to chat (yet I stupidly/drunkenly forgot to ask him when Punkin Ale and Bitches Brew are coming out), and they had a huge variety of Dogfish Head on tap and bottles (pretty much all of their varieties—roughly a dozen), which the bar had been stockpiling for the better part of a year. The highlights were the Red And White (a white ale brewed with Pinot Noir grapes and stored in Pinot Noir barrels), the World Wide Stout (the world's strongest dark beer—something like 16% and I've never heard of it on tap), Poppa Skull (lighter than I remember but really good), while the Barton Burton and 90 Minute IPA were run through a randalizer with hops picked earlier that day... in Wisconsin. What is a randalizer? you ask. A randalizer is basically a second filter that the beer is run through that is jammed with hops and makes the beers even hoppier. The only downside was I got there after the 120 Minute IPA and Bitches Brew ran out, and I didn't get a chance to eat my big pile of great sausages!

Moving on... France! Well, France isn't usually known for great beer. Cognac, wine, cordials... surely they can't make great beer too! The best known French beer is Kronenburg, a German/Czech-style lager with a good amount of flavor but nothing really special. However, the Flanders region, unsurprisingly on the Belgian border, does make some great world-class beer. I'm currently drinking a bottle of St Landelin La Divine, a Bière de Garde, which has medium hops and is light brown in color, with more than a little sweetness. I've only had a handful of beers in this style—mostly micros that don't do the style as well (although the Flying Dog and Two Brothers ones are worth trying). Really nice. Loads of flavor but light.

As far as I know, St Landelin is brand new to America, and I'm looking forward to trying the white and the blonde! The French will pretty much never be known for beer as well the English, or the Czechs, or Germans, Irish, Belgians, Scottish... But believe it or not, they make great beer too! Check out 3 Monts if you can find it, which is probably the best Flanders ale I've had.

In the upcoming weeks: My tour of the Bell's Brewery, which is in the middle of a huge brewery expansion (it's my understanding that once it's done they will be the largest brewery in the Midwest after Budweiser and Miller), through over the years they have made GREAT beers and have been very consistent in quality. And maybe I can get a bottle or two of Oracle! Also, at work we've had cases of Dogfish Head World Wide Stout (from 07, which mellows with age) in our basement for years, and I finally bought a bottle. Should be great!

Cheers, Beers, Steers, and Queers!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Went the Day Well? : A Lesson in Minding Your Surroundings, Chocolate, and Elongated Fives

The propaganda film has had a long, fruitful life, about as long as the cinema itself. True, most bits of agitprop are dry, single-minded lectures that use images and voiceovers to scare, anger, and shame their audiences into acting (or reacting) certain ways, but some such films, sometimes despite themselves, manage to go beyond their inherent designs and become more than the sum of their parts. Films like Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, Triumph of the Will, and its American counterpoint, the mostly Frank Capra directed Why We Fight, transcend their missions and are later declared cinematic touchstones. Still, when viewed today, it’s mostly to admire their craft, the ingenuity of the mise-en-scène, of the camera’s movement, the blocking, the sheer boldness of composition. Maybe we now and again chuckle or shake our heads at the transparent agendas or outdated philosophies, the clunky dialogue, or shudder at the blatant racism and other forms of hatred they propound, but rarely do we suspend our disbelief and let the narrative take us for the sort of ride we cherish with other films. Mostly because these films, even when viewed in their heyday, lack the narrative fluidity and naturalness to cast such a spell on the viewer—they can rile a viewer up, bring him to action, but it’s a different effect than submerging an audience into a new world. But also because, knowing to what ends these films aspired originally, we are aware of the danger.

Then there’s a film like Went the Day Well?, an outlier in the agitprop genre. The film opens with an affable Briton standing in a cemetery addressing us like we're yet another lot of tourists stopping over for a few minutes in the post-WW II English village to take in some history before they finish gasing-up our bus and we move on. He points to a grave etched with several German names and says, “This is all the land they ever got.” We’re then transported to the village years before, when the war was still being fought, just in time to watch the arrival of a cadre of Germans masquerading as English soldiers. They request billeting, which is gladly provided by the curious and excited denizens of the sleepy little village. But then soon after, with the discovery, amongst others, of some enemy confectionaries and a scorecard bearing continental numerals, the fifth column is forced to drop its ruse, and a shitstorm ensues.

Now by today’s standards, this plot sounds familiar enough. After all, films reminiscing about and even fictionalizing and embellishing on the travails of that bloody war are common fare. Thing is, Went the Day Well? was released in ’42, some three years before the war ended, during a time when its outcome was far from a given. The film was made to bolster English morale, remind its countrymen to stay vigilant, and while not to blindly trust anybody completely, to drop class distinctions and work together to fight the common enemy.

But despite its first and foremost being propaganda, watching the film is a pleasure, and I’m surprised to not have come across it sooner. Its mood jumps from somber and didactic to farcical and darkly comedic to murderous and back again without the usual transitional devices. In one scene, two women with rifles hold down the manor. One kills her first German and then feels faint when the full import of her action hits her, while the other hollers, “Good shot, dearie!” between her own salvos. “We should keep score.” In others, what starts off as a bit of calm dialogue between captive and oppressor turns unflinchingly violent without any warning or crescendo, all in the span of a cough.

It’s oscillations in tone like these that make the film engaging, possessing a touch of what will come to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s trademarks. Also like his films, Went Well quickly makes clear that the film is either ignoring or does not know (or knows all to well) “the rules.” Things, good but also bad if not sadistic, are going to happen, so away with the Hollywood playbooks. They won’t help you place any bets here. Nobody will be spared because the test audience wanted so much for him or her to live. All the chaps you thought were introduced to be red-shirted members of Captain Kirk’s away-team don’t even get another cameo, while the main players mercilessly slash and get slashed, if not popped at point blank, without preamble or epilogue. Bang, splat, arms raised (which is classic film argot for, “Oh, they got me, laddie”), half a groan. Moving on….

All you can do is watch. And, yes, you’ve already been told how this ends for the Germans, but nobody said it’d be a halcyon lorry ride for the rest of the village. Which is just another reason why we gotta stick together and prepare for the day the jerries come a-knockin’.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weekend Update

Hey all, no new posts on Saturday, but check out those from the previous week, including the second installment of our fiction series, this time featuring Jesse Jordan.  Also, thanks to everyone who’s checking out the site.  There's been a lot of love for such a short period.  Please go a step further and become a member, as it’ll help us organize some hopefully cool stuff in the future (shows, readings, tastings, releases, manuals on the proper way to install a dumbwaiter), as well as help us—to be frank—pop up sooner on the browsers.  
Takes a minute.  There will be absolutely no spam. 


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fiction #2 : Jesse Jordan's Winter at the Old Rose Takeout

Jesse Jordan is a former deckhand, clock repairman, and high-end olive oil salesman. He is currently an editor and disappointed White Sox fan. He received his MFA from Columbia College, and his work has appeared in FreightTrain, Bluelit, Annalemma, and Ghost Factory, as well as in Hair Trigger 26, where it received the David Friedman Memorial Prize. His first novel, Gospel Hollow, is due out on Casperian Books in 2012.


Winter at the Old Rose Takeout

The old man is sick. Anyone can see that. Even through the layers of worn coats you can make out the fragile shoulders, the dead chest and protruding belly; the tremors. His face is locked in a grimace as he sits on the gravel with his legs pulled up tight. He presses his back to the concrete wall with his arms across his torso, his hands stuffed in his armpits.
            The electronic clock above the bank said that it was four degrees below zero today. The Christmas lights are off in the dim, early morning, and the streets are empty and gray, cold and salt-stained.
            It hurts so much. Jesus Christ does it hurt.
            He tries to force his mind to other places, to turn his thoughts around something that will distract him, that will push it out. But all he finds is the pain. Each breath. He can’t breathe unconsciously anymore. Every breath is an act of will. Pulling the thin, December air in, getting just the smallest bit down to his lungs, horribly aware that each time it will burn and rip a little more than the last. Tears run down his face, the pain and the icy wind compel them. They are not wiped away and quickly freeze at the top of his feral beard.
            One half mile away there is a diner with a pretty waitress, called Old Rose Takeout. It’s a wonderful place. They keep it nice and warm, and nobody wears a jacket inside. The lighting is soft yellow and the coffee is good and strong, and they don’t mind people with no place to go. The owner, Carl, is a big man with dark skin and a hard demeanor, but he’ll have the girls refill your cup for free if you look like you need it bad enough.
            Old Rose smells like bacon fat, coffee, and cigarettes, just like all good diners should. And there’s one waitress there, Emelda, that smiles at you while she pours your coffee, even if you’re the kind of man who’s kinda hard to look at.

            The old man has enough for a coffee, and he’d really like to smile at Emelda today and nod to Carl. Today he needs to feel something warm and familiar.
            But a half a mile may as well be an ocean today. It’s too far. It’s just too goddamned far with the way his body’s fighting the breath. He pulls his collar up again, trying to shield his neck from the daggers of wind. Down here by the tracks you stay clear of most of the wind, but when it does come it comes like a tidal wave. Between the city and the lake, the gusts get caught between the concrete walls and rush into the station along with the trains.
            A rope of icy air makes it into his coat and snakes down his back, touching every vertebrae on its way down. He shivers hard and his breath catches, and when he does exhale it feels like his throat is being stripped.
            With his head down and his eyes closed he thinks about Old Rose. He wonders if maybe his mind is playing with him. Maybe it isn’t such a sweet place, as it seems now, and it’s just that he’d rather be anywhere than here. Maybe any old warm room would do.

            The old man traces the path in his mind. He’d have to stand up first, which in itself feels like a horrible task right now. Then he’d have to walk away from the station, over the loose gravel around the tracks, to the service stairs. The stairs are a couple of hundred feet away, just around the bend in the wall. Just out of sight.
            Then the stairs. Jesus Christ, he thinks. Jesus, there’s no way.
            He stops there. He doesn’t even contemplate crossing the park or Michigan Avenue. Doesn’t think about the last three blocks to Old Rose, because Jesus Christ, those stairs.
            There’s no way.

            Sometimes Carl will come by your table himself with a steaming plate in his hand. And he’ll set it down on the table and tell you to get your shit together, but he doesn’t say it angry. He’ll say someone returned an order, but you were sitting right there, and you didn’t see anyone return an order.
            Scrambled eggs and toast and two strips of bacon, hot and new, just like everyone else eats. Then Emelda will come by and ask if you want a refill and you’ll smile and nod and she’ll pour it to the top, smiling back.
            “This should warm you up,” she’ll say.
            And it does. She has no idea how warm that coffee is.

            Tears build up in the old man’s eyes and roll down his face. In the cold wind he can feel them distinctly as they trace his lines, finding the markers of age and using them as paths.
            He’s used to feeling nothing. And anger. He’s used to feeling that too.
            But sadness, the pure cold pain of sadness like this, is something he hasn’t felt in a long time. Sadness like this needs a want, a goal that is unattainable. How unfair, he thinks, that it should return now.

            The old man slowly, painfully, pushes himself up to his feet. His knees feel like two rocks rubbing together, and as he unwinds himself the cold gets deeper. He stops halfway up and leans his ass against the wall, his head and torso hanging forward, and tries to concentrate his breathing into slowing down.
            The pain in his lungs, growing constantly, consuming him for years, has him paralyzed, as if some great constricting snake had managed to invade him and squeeze everything inside until he consents. He doesn’t move. He can’t move, and wonders if this is death.
            He tries to listen in his head, to clear everything. If this is death, he thinks, I want to know. He listens for death because he’ll be goddamned if it’s going to sneak up on him; but then his chest unclenches, and the moment passes. He stands up the rest of the way and leans against the wall, looking up at the spare, winter sky. He rubs his beard and feels the tiny icicles break off and fall away from him, and steps forward, only a small part of his mind conscious of his intent.

            There was a day that made the old man love Carl forever. Carl hadn’t been at the diner for a few days and his nephew, a mean imitation of a man, had been running things. He’d kicked the old man out because he said he smelled bad and didn’t have any money for refills. “One cup of coffee,” he told him. “And you should be happy you got that.”
            The next day the old man was back, and the nephew gave him that look of scorn, a look reserved for animals and insects, that the old man was well used to. He bought his coffee and drank it slow, and Emelda’s smile that day was apologetic.
            Then Carl came in. He was wearing blue dress pants and a white, dress shirt spotted with sweat. His sleeves were rolled up and tight just above his elbows and his thin tie was loose and dangling. He came through the door and the bell sounded and everyone looked up at him, his face bright with joy, his white teeth standing out like an announcement against his dark skin.
            “It’s a boy,” he said. “It’s a boy, and Jaquelyn’s fine.”
            Emelda congratulated him and his nephew shook his hand, and Carl took a flask out of his back pocket and drank deeply and let out his air, smiling big and honest.
            Then Carl looked over and saw the old man and his nephew followed his gaze, becoming afraid that he’d done something wrong to even let this trash in.
            “Alright, buddy,” the nephew said, advancing, “it’s time to go. You had your coffee.”
            And that’s when it happened. Carl put his hand on his nephew’s chest and told him to chill. Told him the old man was all right. Then he strode over, his giant legs covering the space between him and the old man’s table in no time, and he poured a little of what was in his flask into the old man’s coffee.
            “I had a son,” he said.
            The old man smiled and nodded. “Congratulations,” he said, and his voice was weak and unused. Then Carl put his big right hand out and said “Thanks,” and the old man took his hand and they shook.
            Carl turned to the heavyset Mexican at the grill and motioned to the old man’s table, and the old man felt his eyes fill up with good, warm tears. He looked down at his coffee so that no one would notice and felt that if he had anything of value in the world he would have given it to Carl at that moment.

            The old man is walking slowly, carefully, because the idea of falling right now is too painful to bear. One foot delicately in front of the other as the gravel ascends slightly up to the first tracks. The rails are visibly, deathly cold, the patina dulled with dirty frost.
            He steps up, over, and between, and repeats, and heads into the valley of gravel between the first and second track. The ascent this time is harder, and unconsciously he draws a deep breath and shudders as he lets it go. He stops on the incline, listening as the cars on Lake Shore Drive honk and accelerate and the rocks beneath his feet crunch and settle.
            There is no thought in his mind. There is no plan. He does not wonder where he is going. Some part of him knows, some part of him is directing, but it is unexamined and he is blank.
            His right foot comes up and forward and is placed down next to the rail on the second track, and with care he sets his left leg over the rail on one of cracked, wooden cross ties. As he does this he relaxes and falls. He controls it as much as he can, sitting down heavily on the icy wood, then letting his torso back, his head touching down harder than he would like.
            From above the old man lies in the middle of the tracks, between the rails. To his right there is one track and to his left there are fourteen, busy and cutting the ground as they head into the station. From above his left foot is planted in the ground, his knee pointing up, and his right leg still hangs over the rail. His left arm is straight by his side and his right is across his stomach. His eyes are open and he’s staring straight up, and he coughs and a tiny rivulet of blood runs over his body lip. Then he’s still, and from above he looks just like a dead man.

            The old man isn’t positive. Positive is a very strong word. But he’s almost certain that this is the track that the next train will come down as it makes its way in. He doesn’t time them, but he’s spent enough of the last years hiding from the wind in here that he can see the trains even when they’re not there.
            He hears two trains, one closer than the other. The farther train sounds as if it’s coming in on an outside track, but the close one, that’s the one. He wants to look, but knows he won’t be able to see it anyway, not until it comes around the bend, and by that point everything will be inevitable. The vibrations bring the rails to life. A low hum is close on both sides of him, and where his right leg is thrown over, at the back of the knee, it tickles and sends its message down his leg to his crotch and belly.
            He watches the lean, wintry clouds inch along the sky and in his mind he can hear his own voice as if far off.
            It won’t get any warmer. The pain won’t go away. Death is death is death and the dying is coming with every heartbeat, every movement.
            Just let go, it says. Let go.

            If he was at Old Rose today it would be different. It would be heaven. It would be the only thing he’d ever wanted and he wouldn’t want for more. He’d sit in there, completely there, and smell the butter and bacon, and he’d lean over his coffee and inhale deep and he would want for nothing.
            It would be wonderful.

            The vibrations are strong now. He can tell that the train is just clearing the bend and it’s loud and close.
The horn blasts and he shudders.
The horn blasts again, this time unbroken, long and thundering. He tries to remember a prayer, but the sound makes it impossible to concentrate on anything. He can hear the engine working, the metal on metal where the train meets the track.
The long horn is replaced by urgent, spastic exclamations. Over and over and over and bouncing off the walls so that the sound of the screaming train is multiplied by a thousand. The entire world is noise.
This is the exact moment when he hears a memory, a voice in his head, strong and clear. It’s a man’s voice, and all at once he goes tight with absolute fear and he can’t remember who it was that said it but even before it uncoils in his mind he remembers it in his gut and time is stopped and he can’t hear the train and the words hurt like divine truth.
It is always better to be alive.
He knows he heard it when he was young and he understood it then, and now his mind feels too dull and thick to get it intellectually, but he knows it’s true and he wants to scream and weep. He wants to scream No! No! I’ve made a mistake! Stop!
And he raises his head but he can already feel the power and the noise of the train upon him.
Upon him.
The gray mammoth of steel and glass rips by him on the track just to his left, whipping his coat and beard with wind, and he closes his eyes against the wind and debris and feels it pass through him.

Then it’s gone and the noise recedes into the station. He hears the train’s bells echoing as it pulls in, slowing to a stop. He hears the metal on metal of brakes, clearer now without the horn, and he puts his right elbow down and props himself up. He looks back after the train and watches as it continues to slow.
            He doesn’t move. He watches the train patiently, until it finally, jerkingly, lurches to a stop. Then he rolls over and swings his left leg over the rail with his right and sits up.
            The old man sits on the outside rail, his legs stretched out in front of him, angling down into the valley between the tracks. The rail is painfully cold, even through his layers of pants. He spits a mixture of blood and saliva onto the freezing, white gravel and watches it seep. Then he turns his head to the left, toward the bend in the wall and the stairs up to the park.
            I’ll take a few stairs and rest, he tells himself. That’s it. Just a stair or two and then rest.
            He starts to think about walking across the park and crossing Michigan and Wabash, about getting to Old Rose and falling into a seat and the smell of warmth, but then stops himself.
            Just stand up. His head down, eyes shut.           
“Just stand up,” he says aloud, but again his muscles don’t obey. He grinds his teeth and they squeak together, and his eyes are shut tightly and in his mind the words recycle. Stand up. Stand up. Stand up!
The old man sits on the train tracks, perpendicular to the rails, his head shaking slightly. The metal begins to vibrate as another train rumbles from the Southside of Chicago towards the station, and his right leg begins to inch in towards his body, and there’s a hum on the wind as if he’s speaking to himself, but almost instantly it’s gone, replaced by engines and horns, by the whistles of cops and the unending dirge of shoes meeting ground.



The Record Low, or Just Trust Me About the Headphones

Sometimes you don’t know if something you like is going to maintain, going to make it. Sometimes you’re sorta sure it won’t and you selfishly just hope it does long enough for you to enjoy it a few more times, maybe share it with a few friends, even change the tide. The last of course can be viewed as either romanticism or hubris, or both. But, after all, in addition to a drawer full of ratty ticket stubs and a slight case of tinnitus, aren’t these the makings of a music fan?

I came across The Record Low in a fairly roundabout manner. I attended a small play produced in an old, beautifully drab church, where I strained to hear the dialogue but was nonetheless mesmerized by the actors’ presence in the middle of it all, their relationship to one another shifting in the dry light of the kliegs on the minimalist stage. Good way to spend an evening.

While reading the program afterward, I saw that the playwright made mention of a local band whose songs had inspired much of the work’s mood. In fact, it was one song in particular, “What If I’m Wrong.” I asked those who’d attended the production with me if they’d heard it. To which I received a few pained looks and the explanation that it had been played at least twice in the course of the evening—before and after the performance. I shrugged sheepishly, muttered something about how it mustn’t have been very good if I hadn’t noticed, and then again sought refuge in the program till the waiter brought our food and drinks. Though while doing so, I reminded myself that I had been pretty enthralled with the venue—the organ’s towering and tarnished pipes alone merited the price of admission—and it’s not unlike me to fixate on something, try to capture it somewhere in my mind, all the while oblivious to the three-ring circus complete with human cannonballs brushing against my aisle arm.

So I went home and pulled up the band’s website. They had a pay-what-you-can Mp3 server. I ponied up what I thought fair, downloaded the album entitled Away From Us, and then listened… not bad, a little dreamy, emo for my tastes, but I sorta got it. I listened to the album on my stereo while reading a book, then closed my laptop and went off to bed, unofficially condemning the album to the deep, forgotten recesses of my hard drive, probably forever.

However, the next day, while loading up my iPod, I came across the album and decided, what the hell, and tossed it on. That night, as the sky added yet another coat of snow to the city, I popped it on, and what came through my headphones was much richer than what I’d heard the other night (and excuse the pride here, but my home stereo isn’t a total piece of crap, either).

The songs were soft and sad without being lugubrious. Solemn in the way an adult should be permitted to embrace now and again without indulging in atavistic desires of bodily mutilation or other such gothic teenage posturing. And one of the great things about the lyrics was, even though their delivery was often melancholy, their import was not a constant stream of lamenting, of surrender, but rather that of a man in a desolate environ chiding the cowardly while promising his own eventual victory over the forces that had brought the land to ruin in the first place. The music had pathos, not bathos. Theatricality, not histrionics. It transcended its genre and made you want to write stories (or plays, I suppose) based on a few key phrases hovering in the fog of the guitar’s effects. As the hiss and reverb of the vocal track cut in and out (which can only be heard on the cans), you got the feeling that the message was being transmitted from a bunker. Not an SOS or a cry for sedition. Rather, just a message declaring, for the time being at least, that they survived.

A few weeks later I was just as pleased with the live show.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lucian Freud 1922-2011

The British portraitist Lucian Freud died last week. I’ve always been pleased to come across one of his paintings, whether I’m out of town or one of them is making a pit stop at the Art Institute of Chicago (most recently on display was his, as is the case with much of his output, calmly disquieting Sunny Morning—Eight Legs) because with their muted palettes and eerie compositions, it’s like peering at a tableau vivant from a theatre of the absurd production—just study the picture with its minimal and drab staging for a few moments and then fill in the missing narrative.

Unlike Freud’s earlier paintings, which are more surreal and of a flatter texture, his later work often depicts his subjects, in addition to their almost always possessing despondent gazes, as having sagging, mottled skin that looks as if it’s trying to crawl off the person’s bones as well as off the canvas. Which was doubly horrible for his sitters, seeing that first off they were rewarded for their patience by being transformed into terrible monstrosities, but also because apparently when you sat for Freud, you sat… for a long damn time. Up to five hours a day, over a span of weeks if not months. One painting required a subject to sit for sixteen months sans only four days! Art critic Martin Gayford, who himself sat for Freud for forty days (though I’ve nothing regarding the nights) described Freud’s gaze as penetrating and “omnivorous.” Sure….
Regardless, Freud would say that he knew a piece was completed when he began to feel he was working on somebody else’s painting.

Freud attributed his change of technique and subject matter to his appreciation of the work of Francis Bacon, which is fairly evident if you compare the artists’ works side-by-side. But even more so than with Bacon’s work, I see much similarity with the paintings of Ivan Albright, whose depiction of human skin, like Freud’s, has quite a visceral effect on the viewer (personally, I can only look at Albright’s work for a few moments before having to move on or forfeit lunch).

Whereas Bacon’s paintings, though surely haunting and gruesome in their way, smack more of adolescent angst and in today’s culture would fit quite well in some of the darker-themed graphic novels being produced. Which are undeniably art in their own right, just the points of departure and raisons d’etre lead to different audiences and ends. 

All this said, don’t trouble yourself thinking Freud squandered his life being all work and no play. Apparently with his passing, his estate will be divided several times over, as he left behind a couple ex-wives and a rumored forty children.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where From Here? : Polly Stenham's That Face

The Play: That Face (Midwest Premiere)

The Playwright: Polly Stenham (written in 2007, when she was just 19)

The Venue: Red Twist Theatre

The Gist: Boozy woman has bizarre relationship with enabling son while daughter is a bit of a loose cannon who nearly kills classmate by slipping her some (read: a good deal of) Valium and husband now lives in Hong Kong with new family.

Thoughts: The cast, as is often the case at Red Twist, do an admirable job with the script. Personally, I’m a fan of the company (case in point: I’ll be doubling back this week to see their production of Tracy Letts' Bug), but I can’t say this time around that any performances really stuck out. Though whether that’s due to the script or the acting, I’ll try to circle back and answer a little later.

First, some background on the play: As mentioned above, the playwright Ms. Stenham wrote the script at the ripe old age of nineteen. It became a hit at the Royal Court and then made its way to the West End where it was as sonorously applauded. A new, fresh voice had arrived, cried the London papers, the successor to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee no less. Next the play headed to America where it premiered at the Manhattan Theatre club and received… well, mixed reviews. Though, to be fair, it’s not uncommon for a play to be heralded in London and then shrugged at here, and vice versa.

The play itself opens interestingly enough, as two teenage girls hover over a younger girl bound and gagged in a chair. The teenagers punch and slap the girl, taunt her. You quickly wish for the younger girl to drop her stoic posturing and reveal the location of the other half of the amulet, when you realize it’s an initiation ceremony, which for some damn reason puts you at ease. Then you notice that something else is amiss, a wee off. Then one of the teenagers does as well.

Next we’re in a bedroom, and a young man lies on a bed at his mother’s feet (subtle, right?). The woman awakes, apologizes profusely for letting it happen again, and things continue from there. Admittedly, the situation isn’t amazingly original, could even be said to be derivative, but the dialogue snaps now and again; and good theatre isn’t necessarily determined by which depot it departs from, but where it takes you.

Problem is, though the writing is sound, even adept at times, the script doesn’t really take you anywhere that you haven’t been before. Sure, a few bits of artful “crazy” are tossed in, and when they are you again rub your palms and think, “Okay, here we go.” But a moment later you find everything is back on the rails, making the now familiar stops in Dysfunctionalfamilyville.

So why all the praise? Why the laurels and comparisons to a couple of the 20th Century’s most distinctive voices in English-language theatre? The playwright’s youthfulness? Perhaps. If recent history ever provided precociousness with an outlet, next to the piano I guess we’d have say the theatre has often come in a close second (paging Orson Welles). But because Ms. Stenham’s first script falls short, doesn’t make the most of many of its opening conceits, now that the hype has passed and she’s a whopping 25-years-old, does that mean she and this play should be dismissed wholesale? I don’t think so. Firstly, because as disappointed as I was at times, I have to credit the playwright for piquing my interests enough in the beginning for there to even be a letdown. And disappointed or not, my attention was engaged to the end. Secondly, the play is a worthy document of a young artist’s first steps into the public eye. What you crave while watching one play may not be gratified in the same. Perhaps not until one or two or five scripts later will the playwright get around to scratching that itch for you. Clearly, this is a “long game” view, but if you’re really hungry for new experiences, to come across less traveled yet still worthy paths to hook onto from the interstate, rarely, after a certain point in your life and amount of cultural exposure, does it happen in one play/film/novel—that is, in a single shot. Whether from one author or cobbled together from numerous (questions from here, motifs from here, the perfect cadence over here), at this point a few installments are usually necessary to construct fresh mosaics. And though it yet remains to be seen, it appears Ms. Stenham may have more good things to bring to the process, if not even a few answers.

So returning to the earlier question of whether the script or the actors limited this production, I’d have to say the cast did a splendid job with a script replete with upper-class British argot and a temperament that would never have survived a Midwestern reinterpretation. A young woman while brazenly working to establish her literary voice wrote a script, and the cast of devoted actors unapologetically presented the product of her efforts. What more can you ask?