Friday, September 29, 2017

What Protest Would You Consider Acceptable?

Colin Kaepernick
I realize what I’m about to say could sound sarcastic, and I have a history of mouthing off on this blog. So please understand, I ask the following question because I sincerely want to know, because many people whom I really like, whose opinions I trust, have given me what I could charitably describe as contradictory answers. I ask with an open heart, and hope you will respond likewise:

What form of protest would you consider acceptable?

Over the past two weeks, we’ve witnessed athletes kneeling during the national anthem becoming a virtual national security crisis. Private citizens have taken sides, while the President has spent more public time excoriating kneeling football players than engaging in public diplomacy about North Korea. Not since Miley Cyrus twerked on MTV has a story with no import for Americans’ lives dominated the news cycle so thoroughly.

And repeatedly, the question arises: is it acceptable for professional athletes, mostly black, mostly paid significantly above the national mean, to fail to stand at attention during displays of for-profit patriotism?

In 2015, when African Americans in Baltimore rioted against the acquittal of police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, news reports flooded in calling rioters mean-spirited thugs and demanding they protest nonviolently. These reports, often in the form of Facebook and Twitter memes, included orphan quotes from Dr. King, reminding us that he espoused nonviolent means to achieve political ends. Why, they asked, couldn’t protesters be quiet and respectful like Dr. King?

This interpretation overlooks several important facts. First, Dr. King was hardly quiet. I’ll permit more informed scholars, like Michael Eric Dyson, to explain how politically canny King’s strategies really were. However, if you think mass marches on seats of government didn’t jolt and inconvenience the power structure; if you think lunch counter sit-ins didn’t disrupt private enterprise; if you think bus boycotts didn’t threaten the structure of the city, then you haven’t thought through the implications.

That said, in decrying street violence following the Freddie Gray injustice, people, including many of my best friends, at least recognized that violence wouldn’t improve civil society. When the powerless rise up in arms against the powerful, they occasionally win great victories; in practice, rebels from Thomas M√ľntzer to the Tiananmen Square martyrs, generally get crushed. Dr. King’s nonviolence was strategic as much as ideological.

Colin Kaepernick answered this top-level violence, often committed under color of authority, by… assuming the posture of prayer. Doing it during the national anthem, on consideration, makes great sense. Anthems, standing in unison, the hand-on-heart salute—these are all acts of Christian liturgy. Performing the national anthem before sporting events serves the purposes of America’s national religion. What better time than during liturgy to pray for justice?

Yet even this, apparently, is too much for Americans who enjoy the protections of our contemporary power structure. (I’ll avoid saying “white,” since the breakdown isn’t strictly racial these days, but certain tendencies survive.) We’ve heard outraged claims about disrespecting the flag, from people who wrap flag bandannas around their heads. I’m not the first to comment upon the inconsistency.

Most important, we have a breakdown of what constitutes objectionable behavior. I’ve heard, from people I otherwise consider significantly well-informed, that the Charlottesville marchers, who waved Nazi flags, chanted racist slogans, and surrounded a Black church while waving torches, were simply exercising free speech. I’m baffled to comprehend how that’s acceptable, but kneeling during the anthem merits outraged vulgarity from America’s highest elected office.

So I return to my original question: what form of protest would you consider acceptable? Since neither armed uprising, nor a single silent gesture, are considered acceptable anymore, what’s left? I doubt whether any protest which doesn’t inconvenience the powerful of the nation, can even be considered a protest, so don’t say protests shouldn’t offend your sensibilities. If the protesters believe your sensibilities are the problem, then saying your feelings are hurt only emboldens their protest.

Perhaps you’d prefer a protest that doesn’t impinge on the public sphere. I answer: the Freedom Riders didn’t start a letter-writing campaign. Protests that happen privately, and quietly, seldom make any difference. In order to change deeply rooted social injustice, protesters must first make that injustice visible. If they took their protest from your view, you could continue believing nothing’s wrong, as indeed many people have. Your anger is a sign that problems really do exist, and need addressed.

Because these problems exist. And they’re not going away simply because saying so hurts your feelings.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Grown-Ups Deserve Some Playtime, Too

Steve McDonald, Fantastic Machines: a Coloring Book of Amazing Devices Real and Imagined
Cate Anevski, Invisible Cat Activities: a Complete-the-Drawing Book
Tim Leong, Star Wars Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Dude, why the hate for adult coloring books? We know coloring helps children improve manual dexterity, spatial recognition, and tri-dimensional vision. Coloring increases the chance your kid will become an engineer, doctor, or other highly qualified professional, besides being just fun. Do we think adults don’t deserve such educational play? Or have we become so strangled by social roles that we cannot allow ourselves to breathe freely for five minutes?

Despite the title, line artist Steve McDonald’s coloring book mostly spotlights real (or realistic) machines: a souped-up funny-car engine. The International Space Station. An ore extractor. A pump-bellows pipe organ. His one-tone illustrations, which look like they were done with a simple lining pen and basic drafting tools, are massively complex, inviting children and adults to apply colors and make the pictures look as realistic as what he’s already begun.

But he does more than that. By inviting participants to color the components of, say the Mars Rover, or a Victorian diving bell, he encourages users to understand the relationships between the components. A London city bus is even more complicated than McDonald’s drawings, and most people don’t contemplate how dependent we are daily on thousands of moving parts. McDonald encourages us to think about things we take for granted.

One of McDonald’s inventions is purely fantastical: a jet-powered flying ice cream truck. It’s pure Jetsons escapism. Yet McDonald renders even this d with intense attention, not only to the device, but the cityscape behind it. That’s why adults should color: because this seemingly escapist gewgaw actually jibes with something more complicated and profound. It makes us think. It encourages us to see the moving parts beneath the surface.

Click to enlarge

Cate Anevski goes a different direction. Inspired by those “invisible” cat memes, she presents minimalist illustrations of cats caught mid-motion, and asks us to fill in the missing background: monkey bars. Duelling pianos. Volleyball. Where coloring books encourage users to imbue life into somebody else’s drawings, Anevski wants us to create new drawings around highly expressive cats doing, y’know, cat-ish things. Because who wouldn’t love that?

The back-cover synopsis shows simple line drawings around Anevski’s cats. But the pages themselves are wide-open beyond the cats, which Anevski depicts as simple line drawings with sepia-toned accents. So be as ambitious, or as simple, as your imagination moves you. When Anevski calls for the invisible beach ball, give her the entire beach: swimmers, partiers, waves, and Jaws. That’s the point: you control the final outcome.

Like coloring, this activity book works for children or adults. It encourages imagination, but sets limits for audiences to work against. It disguises practising complex motor function and brain exercise as simple play. And the pages I’ve tried are simply fun. It requires more personal motivation than coloring books’ pre-established lines, but it works similar parts of the brain, with similar rewards in both mental practice and grown-up playtime.

Click to enlarge

Tim Leong, chief graphic designer for Entertainment Weekly, sadly disappoints with his attempt to create graphic representations of themes running through Star Wars. Not because it isn’t colorful, or packed with content, but because there isn’t much to do. Though beautifully designed, this paragon of licensed merchandising has little content per page. There’s little to hold my attention, and nothing I, the audience, can contribute.

Leong’s brightly colored illustrations sometimes are just cute pictures, like Chewbacca or C-3P0, with colors supposedly representing something informative: how often C-3P0 says “We’re doomed,” for instance. Others are actual statistical graphs, like how much of certain characters have been replaced by cybernetic parts, or who saved whom how many times. Sadly, with little text, readers will flip past Leong’s quite good designs quickly, in less time than most dinners.

And unfortunately, anybody considering this for Christmas presents will be sorely disappointed. By then, Episode VIII will have premiered, and this volume will already be out-of-date. What good is a gift book that’s destined to be obsolete before gift-giving season? This book offers no participation, little complexity, and minimal content. I like the idea, but Leong, a designer, needs a writer to give his content heft.

Click to enlarge

In conclusion. I’m a new convert to coloring and activity books for grown-ups. We adults deserve both the sensory pleasure and the mental complexity that completing the picture provides. But a pretty picture isn’t enough; we need something we can contribute to creating the finished product. Audience members who consider themselves too cool for coloring, only deny themselves the pleasure and education that finishing the picture can provide.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Steve Earle, Road Warrior

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 21
Amos Poe, Steve Earle: Just an American Boy

Back in early 2002, after American politics took a hard nationalist turn, Steve Earle’s producers at Artemis Records challenged him to write a political album. Earle’s politics have always skewed further leftward than his Nashville singer-songwriter would imply, making him a polarizing figure in country music. But when dared to make an explicitly political album, he found himself in a surprisingly optimistic place. The product, Jerusalem, starts bleak, but maps a journey back to hope.

Earle invited punk filmmaker Amos Poe to follow his subsequent tour. Having already directed Earle’s “Transcendental Blues” video, the two had a level of creative trust that permitted The product, a fly-on-the-wall documentary reminiscent of DA Pennebaker’s classic Don't Look Back, shows Earle on a massive creative kick, mixing live performances and in-studio interviews with moments of candid insight. It shows Earle fighting the system, but it also shows his deep, fundamentally traditional Texas heart.

The documentary basically follows the trajectory of Earle’s album, without being yoked to it. Like the album, Poe begins with Earle performing “Ashes to Ashes,” Jerusalem’s opening track. A dark, backbeat-driven take on social Darwinism, it depicts history’s winners reveling in a social structure that is simultaneously both godless and foreordained, and whose eventual collapse provides the world justice, while denying it meaning. Earle clearly intends listeners to realize this describes an imminently collapsing edifice.

In interviews, Earle describes the thought processes bringing Jerusalem together. He describes growing up politically engaged and progressive in a Texas already hewn to increasingly right-wing principles. He recounts his rapid run up Nashville’s singer-songwriter hierarchy in the middle 1980s, a run harshly interrupted by an arrest for drug and gun charges. This arrest transformed his previously nascent political leanings, mainly background noise from childhood, into commitment to a whole host of social reform movements.

Steve Earle
This transformation hasn’t been entirely peaceful. He has a history of run-ins with police, sometimes justified (his headstrong ways haven’t smoothed with age), sometimes pure harassment. In one telling moment, Earle expresses terror to be in the passenger seat while a bandmate speeds along crowded commercial roads. You don’t want to get stopped in Nashville, he warns, headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Police, with a celebrity convict and anti-death penalty activist in the car.

Earle growls into the microphone at one point: y’know that saying about just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you? Well, he reminds a stadium full of fans, paranoia is an irrational, unfounded fear of being watched. And while the system might not be watching you, they’re certainly watching me. Earle possesses a well-honed fear of social hierarchies, one earned by hard time, but also probably tweaked by his experience with hard drugs.

Between these political diatribes, Earle wedges in plenty of time for music. This includes not only his politically oriented New-Millennium recordings, like “John Walker’s Blues” or “Christmas in Washington,” but also classics like “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road.” Earle proves himself a master performer, throwing himself wholly into his songs, hair lank with sweat as he pushes himself to give the audience the concert they deserve. He dials it up or down with graceful ease.

>As filmmaker, Poe possibly suffers from excessive intimacy with his subject. His camera lingers much closer to Earle than Bob Dylan ever let DA Pennebaker get, sometimes so close that, in one telling moment, Earle has to adjust his microphone during a live radio interview to accommodate both in his personal space. Where Pennebaker paints Dylan as a dynamic but angry, sometimes untrustworthy, character, Poe’s treatment is undisguisedly heroic. It takes some getting used to.

Some critics dislike Poe’s sludgy, handheld camera work. We accept such limitations with Pennebaker, who shot directly to film with technology from around 1965, but Poe, working with broadcast-quality video, nevertheless gets lost in crowded, low-angle, poorly lit shots. Yet I find myself willing to accept this, because it resembles the atmosphere you’d get in a jostling performance venue. This isn’t a controlled Hollywood production. Poe drops us into a performing musician’s real, unprettified life.

Like the album, this movie ends with Earle’s song “Jerusalem.” Rather than a stage performance, Poe directs a serious video, one which combines new and found footage to embody Earle’s transition to hope. This video also makes explicit Poe’s debt to Pennebaker, implicit throughout the rest of the film. Like the album, it charts one artist’s journey from despair to optimism. In so doing, it gives us reason to hope for progress in reactionary times.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Best Comics Artist You've Never Heard Of

John Higgins, Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd: the Art of John Higgins

As the title suggests, Liverpool-born comics artist John Higgins is best known as colorist (“colourist”) on Alan Moore’s Watchmen novel, and elaborate handpainted watercolor strips in Britain’s Judge Dredd series. He doesn’t have name recognition like Frank Miller or Jack Kirby. Yet this book makes a persuasive case that we should know him: he’s collaborated on Batman, Doctor Who, the Terminator, Star Trek, and more.

Now Liverpool UP collates a massive selection of Higgins’ portfolio for an oversized book that’s half coffee-table art spectacle, half autobiography. The assortment ranges from his early days, paying dues on medical illustrations and line art for children’s game books, through prestige work on the best-known comics titles, for every major publishing house. The story of how he became John Higgins is as engaging as the visuals with which he peppers his memoir.

A school-leaver (what Americans call a high-school dropout) who joined the military to find discipline and guidance, Higgins found himself naturally using available time to draw. Eventually he completed his education at a prestigious British art college. But good-paying art jobs aren’t plentiful, not even in the 1970s, when ambitious young upstarts could schlep their portfolios directly to publishers’ doors. So he spent years paying industry dues.

Before the comics which became his mainstay, Higgins did multiple freelance jobs to develop cachet. He spends an entire chapter on his children’s line art, a style my generation will recognize from our family-friendly horror novels and game books. He shares a selection of cover art he did for science fiction novels. This selection includes full-page spreads at the end of most chapters, allowing readers to revel in the majesty of Higgins’ elaborately detailed art.

A recent watercolor of Judge Dredd in Higgins' distinctive, hyperrealistic style

This diligence eventually paid off. Artist Dave Gibbons discovered Higgins by reputation, then eventually met him face-to-face. So when Gibbons and writer Alan Moore created Watchmen, Gibbons knew exactly who to contact for colourist work. The trio collaborated to a degree seldom seen in the 1980s, a time when comics creators were salaried work-for-hire, and colourists about equal to pack mules. This collaboration helped start a new trend.

Higgins deconstructs the comics coloring process for untrained eyes. Though famous for his intricate watercolors, Higgins was forced to compromise for the industry standard in pre-digital comics, CMYK dot printing. As he demonstrates this involved some anonymous color separator, working for pennies per page, probably at a kitchen table in Illinois, literally distributing Doctor Manhattan’s eerie blue glow across the page with the corner of one thumb.

Over thirty years later, it’s easy to forget how innovative Higgins’ pathbreaking color work really was. Though he minimized bright primary colors for Watchmen, favoring muted tones and secondary hues, he lit scenes cinematically, bathing characters in one another’s castoff glow. But he took the exact opposite tack in The Killing Joke, oversaturating colors so everything appeared painfully bright, trapping readers in the Joker’s carnivalesque mindscape.

At times, Higgins was strictly a hired man. His art for cross-marketed properties like Carmageddon and BattleTanx, video games that needed the heft a printed comic provided, showcase his style, but only in serving another’s vision. Later, Higgins graduated to having greater creative control. His title Razorjack never found its commercial stride, but that’s probably an effect of media saturation; the art reproduced here is stunning.

Higgins’ survey of comics technology mingles with his life experiences, though he’s sparing in sharing his personal life. He laughs about finding his three-year-old daughter “helping” complete an early line drawing, with a green permanent marker. Nearly forty years on, he remembers the scene with good humor, though since he describes looming deadlines, I suspect it wasn’t comical back then. Such details, rare but apropos, give Higgins’ professional memoir a poignant touch.

And the art is spectacular. By his own admission, Higgins is best-known for images of monsters and carnage, from orcs and zombies in kids’ books, through the horror boom of the 1990s, and the noir pervasion of Razorjack. Here, his early-career work doing illustrations for medical journals shines: looking at a shuffling corpse, or a cyborg offering a child a flower, one can clearly imagine the bones and musculature necessary for that moment to happen.

It’s possible to read Higgins as only a memoirist of the industry. His autobiography, supplemented by powerful artwork, allows such casual consumption. But there’s something greater happening here, an investigation of how the medium’s capabilities change within one career. Though not famous, Higgins demonstrates why audiences love comics, by pushing the capabilities of the visual form.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Whose Career Is It Anyway?

Bob Kulhan with Chuck Crisafulli, Getting To “Yes And”: the Art of Business Improv

Back in the late-1990s through late-2000s, when improvisational comedy ruled America’s nightclubs and Whose Line secured constant ratings, certain big-city improv troupes invented an idea for increased income. They rented themselves out to corporations for team-building workshops and executive activities. These events possibly encouraged group unity and mutual trust, maybe. But improv performer and management consultant Bob Kulhan questions whether they actually improved bottom-line corporate outcomes.

Kulhan, a Second City graduate, still moonlights in improv, while running his consultancy and adjuncting at Duke University’s business school, a genuine triple threat. He brings his interdisciplinary approach to asking: does improv actually teach anything useful for business? Yes, Kulhan says, but only with modifications that full-time actors probably don’t realize they need. Arguably, though, Kulhan doesn’t realize he’s resurrecting improv’s original purpose.

Improv instructors have an activity called “Yes And.” Two (or more) performers construct a scene by agreeing with one another. One posits some statement—“Well, here we are in Egypt”—and the other agrees, while adding something further—“Yes, and destined to discover King Hatsupbashet’s lost tomb!” Ideally, the performers hear one another clearly enough to build something profound, without contradicting or opposing one another.

This, Kulhan insists, represents how business professionals ought to communicate. Rather than battling for terrain or engaging in one-upmanship, the twin banes of loners seeking individual reward, business people should collaborate, listening intently in the moment without preplanning rejoinders or seeking ways to torpedo colleagues. MBA teachers will say this freely, of course, but actual professionals, desperate to make themselves immune to automation, often squabble for insignificant territory.

Bob Kulhan
Good improv teaches students to listen closely, without preplanning, but with gazes turned toward whatever will produce a unified scene. Self-seeking behavior and stardom undermine the product; improvisors learn to succeed by lifting the whole company, sometimes at individual expense. Likewise, successful business professionals can improve their outcomes by centering their efforts on the project, team, or company, whether that means sacrificing their glamorous personal promotions.

Kulhan delves into particular ramifications, like idea generation, team-building in time-sensitive environments, and generating enthusiasm even when individuals are fatigued. He doesn’t waste busy professionals’ time with stage games like Freeze Tag or Word Ball, which hone performance skills but have questionable offstage outcomes. Instead, he side-coaches readers on productive conversations where they strive to advance others’ ideas and build team momentum, without seeking the next response or personal reward.

Having done improv in college, and having seen the disastrous outcomes of self-seeking teammates in working life, I applaud Kulhan’s enthusiasm. I’d love the opportunity to employ the principles he describes in my workplace, and perhaps someday, if circumstances break my way, I will. That said, I wonder if he realizes he isn’t actually adding anything new to the discussion. Though the original purpose has gotten lost, the ideas Kulhan describes are why modern improv was first invented.

Viola Spolin used her WPA grant to create numerous improv games, some original to her, others reclaimed from Italian commedia dell'arte tradition. She taught these games in Chicago-area schools and community centers, believing that poor children didn’t learn at home the critical listening skills common to children of the wealthy and upwardly mobile. Her son, Paul Sills, carried these games into theatre, when he co-founded Second City in 1959.

Despite his Second City roots, Kulhan never mentions Spolin in the text or index. She gets one fleeting citation in the endnotes, so transitory that I suspect he doesn’t realize how close he’s stumbled to gold. Rather than creating something new, he’s recaptured the reason Spolin invented improvisation, a reason lost behind a richly decorated history of unscripted theatre. This gives Kulhan’s message a certain poignancy, one which I suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s uncovered.

Honestly, I did improve in college, even staging a successful team performance, without ever discovering this history. I didn’t know Viola Spolin had non-theatrical ends in mind until after graduate school, when I stumbled upon the information accidentally. I presume Kulhan similarly never knew improv’s history as professional skills development, or he’d cite more sources from Spolin and her peers. Like me, Kulhan probably doesn’t know the full lost history.

So, though Kulhan doesn’t say anything necessarily new, he says something much-needed. In a business milieu long clouded by individualists seeking their rewards while fearing the eternal spectre of automation, improv skills offer the uniquely human opportunity of innovation through team unity. Viola Spolin knew this around 1940, but the information got lost. Bob Kulhan brings it back.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Avett Brothers: Rocking That Old Indie Hillbilly Sound

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Seven
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You

Country music became mainstream in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as “rock” music increasingly favored power chords and screaming vocals. Audiences who loved melody and tunefulness found country appealing, especially as the FCC opened new FM frequencies, and country became available in cities, in lifelike stereophonic sound. But like any field suddenly flush with success, country paid a price, audible whenever programmers flood our ears with slick, urbanized “bro country” and formulaic drinkin’ songs.

The Avett Brothers famously began as a revisionist bluegrass outfit, but drifted into acoustic indie folk rock. They even highlight their transition in the first two tracks on this, their major-label debut album. After the ascending piano-driven title track launches the disc, the banjo lick on the second song, “January Wedding,” sounds old but not tired. Probably influenced by the millennial bluegrass revival, and the O Brother soundtrack, the Avetts lovingly burnish restored antique sounds.

But the lyrics further this theme. The alienation from self, the leaving home, in “I and Love and You,” contrasts with the ironic love lyrics in “January Wedding,” where the narrator laments that when he met his girl, she was “sick like Audrey Hepburn.” Ooh, harsh. This album turns on themes of alienation, loss, and disappointment. The self-flagellating lyrics remind listeners how much the narrator, who may or may not be alternating vocalists Seth and Scott Avett, hates himself.

On “Tin Man,” the singer calls himself “warm as a stone” and sings about how much he misses “the feelin’ of feelin’.” That message of feeling dead inside has country resonances going back to Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells. Yet the mildly twangy instrumentation seems to parody the sound of today’s egregiously self-serious Kontemporary Kountry, suggesting the message is actually ironic, a secret joke we get because we don’t just receive music passively, we’re active, thoughtful listeners.

The Avett Brothers' core lineup, from left: Seth Avett,
Joe Kwon, Bob Crawford, and Scott Avett

I grew up enjoying artists like Gordon Lightfoot and Carole King, musicians who disregarded advertizing niches and made music that sounded good, regardless of marketability. The Avett Brothers signal their continuity with that tradition, sometimes blatantly, as in songs like “Ten Thousand Words,” which launches with an intro so reminiscent of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” that, when another song starts, it brutally grabs your attention.

Their ecumenical musical influence increases in the McCartney-ish shuffle of “And It Spread” or the Motown backbeat in “Kick Drum Heart,” though it never overwhelms the band’s distinct musical identity. Heritage, for this band, represents a buffet, from which they sample omnivorously. Country audiences, familiar with how their genre currently appropriates influences from hard rock and hip-hop, may find this approach comforting… or possibly disorienting. Depending on whether you resist the sudden shifts, or accept them.

That same faux-country sound recurs on “It Goes On and On” and “Laundry Room,” suggesting the Avetts recognize their own hillbilly roots, while standing outside that heritage. Use of instruments like kazoo and musical saw play with this duality. But simultaneously, they play with—and subvert—indie rock conventions throughout this album. This continues a tradition much beloved in the “alternative” community, a sly awareness that the featured artist both relies upon, and resists, the record label.

The Avetts accomplish this, partly, by crafting arrangements that radio programmers will never smoothly incorporate into any genre playlist. “Ill With Want” and “The Perfect Space” both feature austere piano-and-string-bass arrangements that complement their lonely, isolated themes. But the latter track features jarring hard rock transitions, ensuring we can’t rest in their sound like a hammock, or phase them out like elevator music. It also ribs an industry dependent on (and hamstrung by) convenient marketing labels.

Finally, the album concludes with the song “Incomplete and Insecure,” where the singer laments that “I haven't finished a thing since I started my life, don't feel much like starting now.” In fact, he laments this over and over, like a Jesuit wailing “mea maxima culpa.” Yet from award-winning artists known for their musicianship and their stage presence, we know it’s fake, a lampshaded display of irony. By closing on this, they declare their position, both inside and outside the music establishment.

The Avett Brothers demand an attentive, engaged audience, and music buyers have happily given them that. They’ve parleyed the momentum from this album into three further major-label releases, several mass media subsidiary sales, and three Grammy nominations. Well, that’s mainstream success; clearly the establishment tweaks them back. The circle of life continues. And because we love their albums, but mock insidership, that means we’re Avett Brothers, too.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Folksinger's Guide to a Better, Smarter Hometown

Dar Williams, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time

As a touring musician, Dar Williams has witnessed the ways certain cities have evolved over the last quarter century. Some small to medium-sized American communities emerged from the malaise of the middle 1990s stronger, smarter, and prepared to face the tech-savvy new generation, while others didn’t. What makes the difference? Williams, a part-time university instructor, dons her researcher hat to understand.

She starts with an insight revealed by a friend: Proximity. Our closest friends aren’t the people with whom we share the most values and interests, but with whom she share the most time. Successful communities provide opportunities for what Williams calls Positive Proximity, which briefly means, putting the right people together in the right places to cultivate a growing heart. Some aspects of Positive Proximity are easier than others.

Williams identifies three broad categories communities use to build Positive Proximity. She calls these Places, Identity Building, and Translation—that last a subtle concept which she explains somewhat vaguely. We’ll return to that. The first, Places, is pretty self-explanatory. Coffee shops, music venues, and other man-made spaces bring people together to talk. Natural environment makes communities unique. And hybrids of natural and man-made space, like waterfronts, meld the best virtues.

Identity Building emerges from the interactions which begin in Places. These are the activities that give individual communities their distinct flavor: not every town could cultivate a successful food tourism identity, like Williams describes in New York’s Finger Lakes region. (I live in corn country, so believe me, the pumpkin patch market gets saturated quickly.) But successful communities have something, history or industry or land or something, to establish an identity.

Dar Williams
Translation is the process of turning Place and Identity into action. The bridges between economic and social classes, for instance, or between a town and its most lucrative industries. I struggle to encapsulate Williams’ description of this concept, possibly because she struggles too. Though important in turning principles into product, it’s also pretty vague and shapeless. One suspects maybe it’s something we discover by doing.

Williams acknowledges these transitions are often time-consuming and difficult. Some communities may rely upon individual personalities to make such transitions. She describes one innovator in Ithaca, New York, who helped cultivate the town’s identity outside its university, but he died unexpectedly. Ithaca had others ready to step into his shoes, though, and develop the momentum he created. Town councils and real-estate developers often lack the long-term vision real community demands.

She also concedes that her principles can have deleterious consequences. One of the social justice movement’s recent bugaboos, gentrification, often follows rapid community development. People want to live in creative, interconnected towns, and long-term residents quickly get priced out of their hometowns. But that consequence isn’t inevitable. Communities which have plans to manage rapid development often avoid gentrification’s risks, or other perils like crime, in ways Williams describes.

Planning looms large in Williams’ vision for American community. Important, economically lucrative community renewals, like the refurbishment of Wilmington, Delaware’s waterfront district, or Middletown, Connecticut’s recent restoration of ties between Wesleyan University and the city, have concrete, long-term plans, often public/private partnerships. Something Williams says around page 65 really sticks with me: “I always thought love was the answer. And it’s not. … love is an outcome, not a plan.”

Living in Middle America, I’ve witnessed Williams’ principles in action. Many farming towns’ economic plans basically consist of waiting for the Eisenhower Era to return. But cities which plan their development, like Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, or which preserve a unified community vision, like Lawrence, Kansas, just do better in the long run. Williams simply codifies the cultural principles that successful, growing communities under mass media radar consistently share.

Some advance reviewers have complained that Williams voices some left-wing opinions between these covers. This apparently surprises them from a folk singer. Well, compared to her lyrics, this book is refreshingly apolitical; she simply starts from the opinion that people are more likely to love their neighbors (and organize accordingly) if they first know their neighbors. She also speaks warmly of more conservative-leaning towns and organizers. Her insights aren’t exclusive.

Williams emerged from the same generation of singer-songwriter goddesses that gave us Ani DiFranco and Shawn Colvin. A working musician’s life has given her numerous homes away from home, and a distinctive perspective on important  Seeing American cities and towns from an outsider’s viewpoint, she’s witnessed some towns grow exponentially, while others suffer, and some buy on credit what they cannot repay later. The distinction is often subtle.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Keystone Kops and Wrascally Wrobbers

Mike Cooper, The Downside

Finn only steals big stuff: industrial equipment, boxcars, mineral ore. But seven years in prison leaves him wanting a normal, quiet life… until he realizes the Great Recession swallowed the savings he’d squirreled away. Against his better judgement, he accepts a commission from a billionaire who possibly sold him out before. Soon, Finn’s getting the band back together, preparing for a massive payday, if they don’t kill each other first.

I think Mike Cooper wants to recreate those popular post-WWII heist capers, the kind generally made into movies starring Alec Guinness or Michael Caine. He arguably succeeds; this novel has a similar dryly humorous tone, driven by the Rube Goldberg plot and absurd characters. But it’s over-written, slow, and beholden to its outline. It reads like a Hollywood screen treatment, which perhaps Cooper would’ve been happier writing.

Chapter One begins with Finn newly released from a New Mexico prison, where, broke and alone, he finds a beautiful woman offering him dodgy work. That’s stolen from hundreds of big-screen crime capers; my mind immediately revisits Bruce Willis’s megaton bomb Hudson Hawk. As crime capers require, Finn first refuses the job. But when he discovers his last money reserves gone, and his skills unmarketable in commerce, he reconsiders.

Seems Wes, a Manhattan sybarite who combines the worst of Richard Branson and Hugh Hefner, needs rescued. Finn doesn’t trust Wes, who commissioned the robbery that got him arrested, and maybe sold him out, too. But the payday is good. Seems Wes purchased fifty million dollars’ worth of rhodium, a metal more precious than gold, but got bilked, buying rhodium-painted lead. Now Wes wants Finn to steal his “rhodium” before the market finds out.

Mike Cooper
That’s my first problem with this story: an experienced billionaire makes an eight-figure buy without bringing a metallurgist along? (Okay, my second problem. The Prologue commences with Finn robbing a train, like Butch and Sundance, to nab molybdenite ore. Seriously? You can’t fence ore! These numbskulls deserve to get nabbed.) What moron would rather hire criminals to steal his reserves, than perform due diligence?

Wes shows Finn his “vault,” an impregnable fortress surrounded by skilled security. Finn sez no problem, and sets off cross-country to reconnect his scattered crew. Very Blues Brothers. It takes until page 100, of a less-than-300-page book, to reassemble the team. And, surprisingly, that isn’t even the slow part. Finn’s hatched an elaborate plan to burgle the unbreakable safe, a plan we see executed in agonizing detail.

I mean that literally. Cooper’s acknowledgements page credits six technical consultants by name. And he makes the common undergraduate mistake of assuming that, if he researched it, it belongs in the manuscript. We get lengthy scenes of Finn’s henchmen operating equipment and performing elaborate mechanical tasks, while Finn is off romancing Wes’s beautiful, possibly corrupt personal assistant. Meanwhile I’m checking my watch, fearing it has stopped.

Cooper’s chapters run short, averaging barely five pages. This means expository conversations can require two or three chapters to complete. And believe me, that’s what Finn’s dates are, exposition. In movies—erm, books like this, “Tell me about yourself” is an invitation to spill backstory, which you’d better believe will matter later in the plot. Not that these characters need much prompting to spill; they do love talking about themselves.

Nearly every chapter, even the hammock chapters mid-conversation, ends on some revelation, plot twist, or comedic note. It happens so consistently, before very long, you’ll swear you see the camera cuts in your mind’s eye, and hear the soundtrack orchestra. It’s impossible to discuss this book without citing movies it resembles, because Cooper’s prose repeatedly pinches tropes filmmakers use as shorthand cues. This isn’t a novel, it’s a master scene.

I like movies. I recognize the visual boilerplates Cooper recycles because, presumably, he and I watched the same movies growing up. That’s probably why I perceive the different demands which different media place upon writers. Book readers, as James Michener realized three generations ago, want something weightier than film can provide. Screenplays as literature are mostly interesting only to film school students and other screenwriters.

Who knows when, exactly, I lost interest in this story. I know it became transparent around pate 75 that Cooper’s characters were entirely subject to his outline, and wouldn’t change the story particularly. And around page 130, when I realized which Rat Pack members Cooper mentally pre-cast in which roles. All I know is, around page 175, I set this book down, and forgot to pick it up again.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Tick: a Superhero For Post-Heroic Times

Griffin Newman (left) and Peter Serafinowicz in the pilot episode of Amazon's The Tick

Commenting on Amazon’s reboot of Ben Edlund’s The Tick from a cultural mythology perspective is pretty worthless. Since the Tick himself (Peter Serafinowicz) cites Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth in the pilot episode, and gauges sidekick Arthur’s (Griffin Newman) development by stages on the Hero’s Journey, that approach is already taken. This critical approach, still innovative when I discovered it five years ago, is now widespread enough to parody itself.

Not that anyone should mistake this series for parody. Like the best comedies, it has a deadly earnest heart, commenting not upon superheroes or genre media, but upon us. It presents a world where superheroes become so ubiquitous, they’re banal. Arthur, who serves as both series protagonist and audience surrogate, is the kind of dweeby, damaged nerd who, twenty years ago, would’ve embraced a superhero appearing in his apartment. Instead, he appears bored.

As tragedies do, the Tick barges into Arthur’s life unwanted, when the subject believes he’s established a working balance in life. Of course, Arthur already knows this: a flashback in the pilot episode reveals he fantasized about becoming a superhero, until a crashing Arthur is a mix of preparedness and chaos: he has spent his adult life intricately demonstrating that his city’s most notorious villain survived his putative destruction.

But once that evidence comes together into concrete proof, Arthur has no plan. He’d rather relinquish the villain to “proper authorities”—who prove equally unprepared for the actual weight of responsibility. Given the opportunity to vanquish the demon that has haunted his life from childhood, Arthur finks. Without the collusion of the Tick protecting him, and his enemies attacking, he would probably never rise above self-imposed paralysis.

We could make a drinking game of identifying the psychological role everyone plays in Arthur’s life. His sister and primary social contact, Dot (Valerie Curry), encourages Arthur’s grown-up meekness. But her hobby is violent roller derby, a hobby she subsidizes doing under-the-table medical work for the mob. Once he falls into superheroism, he gets pursued around town by the sexy, vindictive Ms. Lint (Yara Martinez), who epitomizes the allure and destructiveness of libido. Et cetera.

Before the first X-Men movie hit cinemas in 2000, superheroes belonged almost exclusively to people like me: socially isolated dreamers who saw superhumans as a repository of our own Jungian archetypes. When Batman and the Joker pummeled each other into their now-familiar stalemate, they weren’t just characters enacting a story. They embodied their’ audiences familiar battle between id and superego: return the monster to the asylum until we need him again.

The mainstreaming of superheroes permits non-nerds to share this externalized struggle. But as with indie rock and video games, the transition coarsens the object we once loved. Since the millennial superhero boom, so many people now read comics and watch related movies that they’ve stopped being art, and become a money factory. Marvel and DC each publish nearly 400 titles monthly, a mix of repetitive (another global crisis? *Yawn*) and and churlish disruption (“Hail Hydra!”).

Arthur occupies a nameless city. In his boyhood, he dreams of becoming a superhero, until he watches a hideous devolved psycho destroy both his city’s entire superhero roster, and his father, simultaneously flattening both the Freudian and the Jungian landscape. Heroism and virtue exist, for him, “out there” somewhere, in other cities and other families. Like his city, Arthur limps through life, a ghost of his own childhood expectations.

But don’t we, too? Don’t we enjoy superheroes, and explode when Zach Snyder mishandles our childhood icons, because we believe virtue exists? Maybe not in our own lives, clouded by moral compromise, the pressures of adulthood, and the need to feed our families. But Batman’s Gotham or Professor Xavier’s Westchester provide repositories of our hopes, a sort of Big Rock Candy Mountain of moral expectation.

So. Arthur believes morality and virtue exist, somewhere. He believes his life does some good, abstractly. But he’d rather be stable, self-supporting, and adult, than live his childhood virtues. Is that what Jesus, that ultimate moralist, meant when he said “Let the children come to me”? We can pay adult bills, or we can live in moral fullness. But not both.

This show acknowledges its psychological depths, implying (though unstated yet) that Arthur created the Tick from his own subconscious. But that’s where heroes come from. By marrying ironic self-awareness with a reluctant willingness to believe, The Tick tells audiences it’s acceptable to remain cynical about superhero overkill (rimshot for the fandom!), while believing virtue is still possible.