Sunday, July 31, 2011

Beer Ain't Drinkin'!

Ladies and gentlemen, our new beer correspondent, Jeff Allison

Ahoy Hoy!
I guess a little about myself is in order—I've been a beer dude at various liquor stores for 16 years. I actually get exited when I go on road trips to find new beers (for instance, if you are ever in the Southeast, try Terrapin out of Athens, GA). I like to use my business card to schmooze free beer at breweries and get free tours, and for the most part I rarely have the same beer twice in the same year (the local bar I go to only carries Abita, so that's the exception). I used to work with JD and he invited me to do a beer blog, so here I go!

Tonight's featured beer—Firestone Parabola. This is a super limited barreled-aged imperial stout. It is a blend of strong beers aged 12 months in a variety of barrels (wine, spirits, beer). The beer dorks on Beer Advocate go crazy for this beer (for good reason) to the point if I put it on the shelf it would be gone in a couple of hours!

So, the beer itself! In Spinal Tap terms it's "none more black"— total opaqueness. I tried this at pretty much room temp (tossed it in the fridge for a hour) and the smell really knocks you back—strong whiskey and a bit of vanilla. And what's important, the taste. Strong vanilla coffee with a bit of chocolate. If you like your beers SUPER rich, track one of these down, the only barrel-aged beer I've had that compares is the Vanilla Bourbon Stout from Goose Island. And now that Bud's bought them up, God knows if they'll make it again!

In other news, I headed up to Traverse City over the weekend and went to Jolly Pumpkin. Got a last minute brewery tour by the brewmaster who was extremely knowledgeable and very friendly. Only time I've ever had green beer (meaning unfiltered and unpasturized) fresh from brewing tanks. He also was a wealth of knowledge about the brewing industry (I had no idea Sierra Nevada had distro deals with Bud or that Magic Hat was bought up by Miller/Coors), and he brews a damn good beer. Their Diabolical IPA is really good—though sadly unavailable in the great state of Illinois, and he gave eye opening reasons as to why).

After the brewery (and a great Clutch show) went to 3 Floyds in Munster. It's really sad: I've been living about an hour away from one of the best breweries in America but have never taken the time to go there. Lincoln (their marketing guy) gave me a quick tour and a list of what their plans are for the future. Then I headed to the bar for a great burger, great beer (Zombie Dust!), and a couple of bottles to go (the best: Ragnarok, great honey porter only available at the brewery).

Cheers, beers, steers, and queers!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Whatever Gets You There: The Writings of César Aira

The man: César Aira. His hometown: Coronel Pringles, Argentina. Some of his books: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Ghosts, How I Became a Nun. His prose: Umm…. Well, seeing I haven’t yet figured out how to describe Aira’s writing style—though Lord have I tried, as I’m excited by his work and have attempted to convey the reasons why to friends—I think the best means at my current disposal is to offer a composite of the elements that make up his narratives and hope that if you then stand back and squint a little you might get some idea of their effect:

His books are short, all novella length; his books are not genre, or rather of one genre, but unlike the writers of the nouveau roman movement in the Fifties, who jumped stylistically from novel to novel, Aira, without affection, does so as often as chapter to chapter. It is said (by him) that he doesn’t revise, edit, or make outlines—his vision of the contemporary avant-garde South American writer is one who always moves forward, doesn’t backtrack, uses all the devices in the modern literary kit to write oneself out of any tight jam. Trapped in a corner in a tale that thus far has read like a 19th Century period piece? Why not enlist the help of an intergalactic portal that wasn’t due for delivery for another thousand years or so (though this hasn’t actually occurred in any of his books that I’ve read, but I’m reluctant to give away any of his far more inventive ploys in this review). In the book Ghosts, a Chilean family—who for the past year has been living in and keeping watch over a construction site filled with hundreds of bare-ass, well-endowed specters—prepares for a New Year’s Eve bash while the previously innocuous aberrations start cajoling the family’s eldest daughter to perform a terrible deed. In An Episode in the Life of A Landscape Painter, a fictionalized excerpt from the life of German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas, two painters dare to traverse the barren land just past the Cordillera de los Andes while heading for the heart of Argentina, only to suffer greatly and be rewarded in turn for their attempts to render the “physiognomic totality” of the land to canvas for the first time ever (get all of that?). And all of his books just end, and never on even the least gratifying of notes, which at first irks the shit out of you, that is, till you find that several months later the story has continued on in your mind.

Somehow this all makes for some terribly addictive reading.

Finally, if I may end on a personal note here, shortly before my recent trek to Prague, I very much wanted to find one of Aira’s books (what would have been my first) to read on the long flight. But I could not find a single copy in all of Chicago. Three days later, after leaving the Kafka museum, I came across a tiny English-language bookshop in the shadow of Prague Castle, in the Malá Strana (Lesser Town) district. I went in for a look-see, started perusing at A, curious what the average English-speaking Czech or ex-pat read in such parts. The second book on the shelf was Ghosts. I snatched it up and marched it past the many ribald puppet shows, the Gothic cathedrals that peeled with organ recitals, the remaining Communist eyesores that couldn’t yet be demolished but were defaced with gimcracks, and the phalanx of statues with verdigris stains beneath their melancholy eyes, back to my room, where I closed the curtains and promptly fell into the strangest of worlds.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Red Riding Trilogy (2009)

For those who missed their distributors’ thirty-second media blitz last year, these neo-noir films are the real deal. Three films, all directed by different directors—the first shot on 18mm, the second on 35mm, and the last using a Red One digital camera—focusing on murder and corruption in Yorkshire, England, including the Yorkshire Ripper case. Though marginally interrelated, each film stands alone but isn’t quite as engaging without picking up on traces of the previous films travails. The films are based on the books from David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet entitled 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1983, though ’77 was dropped for the adaptations.
To say these films are gritty is putting it lightly, as each instilled in me a recurring urge to dust my television and clean beneath my fingernails. And especially while watching the first film, I was quite thankful for the subtitles feature, as the Yorkshire accent aped by such actors as Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings, Troy) and Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, Never Let Me Go) isn’t just thick but miasmic. Not that you really need to understand every bit of dialogue, as the films are more about atmosphere and the fatalism that pervades this northern English community than plot, but I’m sorta prickly about exacts, in these types of films always wanting to know to what every malevolent thread is attached—who’s strumming it on one end and who’s bleeding on the other.
Overall, these films are wonderfully unforgiving, and like the classic noirs of the Forties, you can wish for a happy ending all you want (I know I still can’t completely keep myself from doing so), but in the end you know it has nothing to do with the luck of the draw, as there never was any in the deck to begin with.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Good Chow #1

Khan's Barbeque is currently my go-to place on Devon (though, admittedly, the options are vast and I'm still exploring). The fare is described all over the web as Indian/Pakistani, but it is my understanding that it's in fact just Pakistani. Some of the highlights on the menu are Tandoori Chicken, Seekh Kabab, Chappli Kabab and Chicken Boti. However, the vegetable sides are great, and can very easily constitute an entire meal on their own (I know because I've gone this route a few times myself). But I won't pull any punches: the room itself is utterly devoid of charm—which I guess you could say, if you're feeling particularly charitable that day, paradoxically is its charm; it's more like a cafeteria in a hospital that from the look of the rooms and wards you're considering requesting a transfer for your loved one before the impending operation. As for the service... well, while I've heard a lot of folks praising the food, many of them come down hard on the service. I myself tend to eat there more than get takeout, and my first few times dining in I have to admit I observed a wariness in the staff. They were polite yet by Americans' jabbering standards quiet, verging on laconic. That said, after a while a staff member ventured over to my table to ask what I thought, and I answered honestly and, I like to think, without affection (I'm all about bridging cultural gaps and whatnot, just not when I'm eating) that I thought the food was fantastic. After which he thanked me and let me get back to my rather undignified scarfing.
All said, for the more adventurous diner, one for whom the fare is the bottom line, Khan's Barbeque is a necessary stop. Though, unlike some less than sagacious reviewers whose lugubrious posts I've read online, do keep in mind that the proprietor is Muslim before you march in with a box of white zin or a bottle of Jack and demand cups. You might not get the reception you'd hoped for.

Fiction #1

I hope to have other people post some of their fiction on this site, as well as their own articles and miscellany (more on that later).  Till then, I'll start off with one of my short pieces.

No Freebies

The cabin pressure shifted, such a familiar occurrence I didn’t bother looking up from my book.  White noise filled the car, and the thrum of the train’s wheels was no longer muffled or distant, solely rumbling our asses—metal ground against metal with a square-ton immediacy.  Then the side door closed, the outside hiss was again shut out, and everyone continued to ignore each other while the new arrival, who’d just shimmied over from another car, jingled the coins inside his paper cup and grinned.
            “I know y’alls day been a long one.  I’ve been working long myself—it ain’t no thing scraping together a crust and some coffee when you ugly.”  The man made a hocus-pocus hand gesture in front of his pitted face.  “But ugly folk gotta eat, too.” 
            Standing passengers, faces buried in their magazines and reports, shuffled out of his way as he advanced down the aisle.  The initial charm of his spiel drifted as he filled the car with a pungent odor and shook his cup beneath our chins.  On my way to meet a friend for dinner, I’d comprehended little of what I’d read while pondering which hearty course to begin with.  Now I thought I might still manage a crisp salad, with a light dressing.
            “Hey, I got some dough for ya,” someone cried.  
“Much obliged, sir,” the beggar said, in the same carnival barker tone with which he’d introduced himself.
“Well, hold on….  I gotta get some value for my money, don’t I?  Tell a joke.”
I peeked around my book, over at the beggar and a tall young guy whose attire had been trimmed to show off his many red and green tattoos.
“Sorry, my man, but I ain’t recalling any good jokes, at present,” the beggar said, still in good cheer.  “But I’ll be sure to learn a dandy for next we’s on the same tug.”
“ Ah, come on!  Everyone knows a joke.  Tell me one.”
The beggar shuffled his feet while those reading paused on the same crude yet common word.
“Oh, I see.  Got nothing appropriate with ladies being ‘round.  I getcha, Hank.  Always the gentleman, aren’t you?” said young guy, winking.
The grin returned to the beggar’s lips, the cup swayed up a half-inch.  “Yeah, they’s all bawdy as get out, I’m ‘fraid.  Don’t wanna be makin’ nobody run off to no church middle of the week, eh?”
“Okay, okay,” continued the painted hipster.  “Then I’ll tell you what.  I’ll ask you a riddle, and if you get it right, I’ll give ya a dollar.  Cool?”
The beggar rubbed the back of his neck while his cup undulated downward. 
Young guy puffed out his chest and smirked mischievously.  “All right. Let me think.  What has a… No, wait.  I mean, if a newspaper is read all over…  No, shit, that’s the answer!”  Chortling, the hipster waved his hands in front of the beggar and the bobbing cup.  “No freebies, doc.” 
The train halted and the doors opened.  The automated voice announced the stop, and then the next as the train moved on.  Young guy smacked his forehead.  “Damnit, next one’s mine.  Why can’t I think of any?  I know tons.  Ah, fuck it,” he grumbled, while digging into his manicured jeans.  He pulled out a twenty and the beggars eyes lit up. 
“Whoa, how’d you get in there?  I thought it was a single,” chirped guy, while jamming the bill into his jacket’s inner pocket and burrowing back into his jeans.  The thrum of the wheels slowed.  The hand again resurfaced.  In its palm sat a few chucks of copper and a nickel, which were flopped into the cup. 
“Sorry, Hank, thought I had something more to give ya.”  He slapped the beggar on the shoulder.  “Get ya next time we bump.  Cool, brotha?”  The train stopped and the tattooed man hurried off. 
The doors remained opened and a breeze offered some relief from the stench.  Over the intercom the engineer announced that the train would be momentarily delayed.  We looked at the beggar, who looked into his cup before lifting his head and looking back at us.  He started for the doors, not noticing or caring about the few people slipping change and even dollars into his cup, which now hung by his side.  Once on the platform he stopped.  His back rose and fell a few times, and still the doors refused to close.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Peter Evans Floats

Peter Evans, known for (in addition to his own output) his work with Evan Parker and the irreverent though often snappy Mostly Other People Do The Killing, launches his new More Is More label with Ghosts.  Evans' group is comprised of a standard four-piece including bass, drums, piano, horn, with the addition of live processing offered by Sam Pluta.  While Mostly Other People by design take the collision of eras and tempos nearly to the comical, on this record Evans utilizes many of those techniques but instead strives for a more austere effect.  Whereas certain sections might seem to sound like nearly traditional post-bop if it weren't for something dragging or creaking in the background or off to the left, other sections feel as if you've stepped into a cosmic wormhole, the past, the present, the future, in addition to something parallel to but not of our continuum, all bleeding into the passage.  And then you're back to the relatively safety of the former, checking the clock on the wall to see how long you were away.  Did that just happen?  Is the band gas-lighting you? You could rewind and find out, I suppose.  But that would be cheating.

No Surprises

I love films.  All sorts – classic, foreign, avant garde, silent one, early talkies, Eighties squeakies, anything Seventies, low-watt action films, Last Year at Marienbad, Shadow of a Doubt, The Bourne Identity, Die Hard, Lone Wolf and Cub, When Harry Met Sally, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Bananas, The Great Dictator, El Topo, Cassavetes’ films, Die Hard 2, 3, & 4, Harvey – just can’t get enough.  And with the advent of Netflix, I’ve finally a means of watching all the so-called cerebral arthouse (specialty) films and documentaries that the local stores don’t carry simply because they don’t have the space, nor can they recoup the DVD’s cost, let alone make a profit.  So Netflix is often used for my harder to get viewings, things I want to watch but have to work myself up to do so.  I mean, watching a seventeen-hour doc on New York or one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales is certainly gratifying, but you don’t just lazily gaze at those sort of films, not if you’re going to make it worth your time.  Things need to be remembered, challenging dialogue often requires a good deal of wading through.  It’s part of the process, part of the joy. 
But sometimes, when I just finish working for ten hours or have the flu or just remembered how much I spent (and owe) on my flimsy undergraduate degree, I need something a little more willing to meet me halfway, if not sidle over to the couch and heave the heavy popcorn into my sagging jaw for me.  That’s when I need some two-ply Hollywood fare.  No subtitles.  No grain, that is, smooth and glossy and ever so linear.  And most of all, no surprises.  Not to sound too smug (if not worse), but I can usually tell you who did what and why within the first five minutes of any contemporary Hollywood movie.  They don’t usually verve off the beaten path, which these days flanks you more like a trench.  But that’s just fine; it’s sorta the point.  It’s known terrain, it’s safe.   The murderer will get his, the corrupt politician will end up serving time (or like the villain, plunge to his death), and the innocent will be vindicated.  These are to sort of films I find refuge in when things start to weigh on me, or when I’m only running at half speed.
And for many, nothing is safer and more comforting than the romantic comedy.  With its endless optimism and antiseptic ponderings, the romantic comedy offers an absolute intellectual and emotional barrier to the real world.  Its mannered dialogue and reductive reasoning hypnotizes the viewer for the duration of the film (and for perhaps a couple hours afterward) into believing that it’s all really so simple: just call her and tell her you love her, or that you’re sorry, and she’ll come back; stand up to your boss, because he’ll either respect you for it and give you a raise and offer you his daughter, or you’ll start your own practice and be wildly successful in a few short months and still manage to land the daughter; and a brief stint of chemo, where at most you get bangs beneath your eyes for a few minutes of montage, and good sex cure everything else.  No wonder the studios pump out these movies like the brain does endorphins amidst a freefall.  The world is complicated, and scary, and horribly ambiguous, if not often meaningless.  Of course people are going to eat these easy answers up.  They’re addictive, terribly so, and it’s no surprise that those hooked on them begin to apply them to their actual lives.  I myself, while worrying about a friend’s recent hospital stay, indulged in The Proposal.  And, sure often, within fifteen minutes all the bad was exorcised from the room and I was out like a light.  Thank you, Ryan Reynolds. 
            But here is the real reason I felt prompted to write this entry about films: though I live in a relatively populous area in Chicago, there is no longer a single video store where I might rent any of the aforementioned balms at a moment’s notice.  But I’m not just bemoaning the loss of my ability to rent fluffy Hollywood when my spirits are low and I need the world to appear a little softer and a touch more purposeful.  It’s more than that.  I can no longer go grab something scary because Halloween is drawing near and my wife has again worked up my nerve to view something featuring a fiend that is all but unstoppable.  And though I sometimes went to Blockbuster, I preferred my local mom-and-pop because, first off, you gotta shop local, and because their selection was a lot less mainstream than the conglomerate’s.  So there was the possibility of stumbling across something wickedly B-film, camp in its truest form.  By which I mean, the director nor the actors were being tongue-in-cheek -- these weren’t the products of a John Waters who knew the boundaries and then ostentatiously pranced over them feathered with a pocket full of excrement.  As far as they were concerned, on that set, with those borrowed and second-hand cameras and the measliest of budgets, these novice directors and tyro actors were creating masterpieces on par with Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard (or perhaps Freaks -- to each his or her own).  And I would watch these films not because I wished to mock them, but rather to root for its players, to look past their ingenuous deliveries to their intent, and because so often in my own life I’ve also been motivated by such noble intentions, only to have years later come across the artifacts from these endeavors and been moved to blushing and laughter while at once pitying and loving its naïve creator(s).
            But now it’s over.  The stores, the mega-shop and my modest local one, closed in the same week.  I’m in a desert now, often sitting beside my mailbox, awaiting the carrier like I had at four-years-old for the delivery of my box-top redeemed Star Wars figure. And now I always know what’ll she’ll bring, what I’m getting. I’d chosen it days if not weeks ago while arranging my queue.  But I’m not sure if that’s what I want to watch now.  Too late, it’s been decided.  My film viewing life has taken on a Calvinist tinge. 
            I miss the perky schlubs at Blockbuster, and the odd, bordering on rude guy with the Hawaiian shirts and the Aerosmith hemp necklace at the independent shop.  I miss the requisite stains on the formers’ dark blue shirts, their canted heads and quizzical expressions when I asked if they’ve a copy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I miss the latter’s ignoring my question all together because he’s so immersed in whatever he’s watching on the wall-mounted TV with the faded bar running across the center of the screen (or he was just flat out ignoring it, a job perk).  I also miss repaying his slight on occasion by renting the very movie he’s in the middle of watching, which was often followed by his sneer and then touché grin.  
Most of all I miss impulse rentals, the ability to fall into great things, to indulge in the worst, on a whim.  Fair well.  God Speed.  That is, until everything is digitized, of course.  Offered online.  But that’ll still be it’s own thing.  Then you’ll be offered everything, not just what the owners managed to fit into the confines of their slim stores.  No longer will your selection be guided by the limits of the physical world.  After flopping onto your couch, safe and immobile for the rest of the evening, you can spend an entire evening pursuing the online selections, never bothering to start a film, instead just reading synopses and the attached amateur reviews.  There will be no more battered boxes or sticky tabs to pull from the self and float with over to the checkout counter. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Behind the Eight Ball

When I turned 27, I remember being bummed and somewhat awed that that was as far as Hendrix, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson, and, of course, the elephant man got.  And what had I accomplished with those years?  It was depressing.  But now that I'm 33, I'm of course thinking of the Big J (though out of unbridled humility, I try not to compare myself with him – at least, not too often).  And yet, alas, it does put some things into harrowing perspective.  All the while I can't help wondering what would have happened if he'd lived longer, what further joys would John Belushi have brought to this desolate little planet of ours?