wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: December, 2015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).

I’m not sure Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens offers a single moment of visual beauty.

Nearly every frame of the movie is neat, to be sure; that’s JJ Abrams’s specialty, it’s why people hire him to cocreate the pilots of TV shows and episodes of multibillion dollar film franchises. But Abrams is a film wonk, and he’s made a wonk’s movie.

This is the era of the wonk — witness the rise of Nate Silver, vox.com, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Silicon Valley.

One of the interesting things about the wonk is that he’s very, very easily sold. Wonkishness makes people feel something. It isn’t love or joy, but it’s close enough to fool profitably many of us. The difference between rapture and escape, or relief, can be difficult to perceive. Especially When We’ve Waited This Long, and Been Hurt Before.


Remember, this is a first draft. I am, as the kids say, a little emotional right now.


On the other hand, I watched 60ish minutes of the prequels the other day, just to refresh my memory. And while their dialogue was still embarrassing and the acting (by a cast that looks pretty damned good on paper) still inexplicably bad, George Lucas’s prequels are absolutely gorgeous to look upon — unnecessarily so.

Hapless as they are, they seem in a way bigger than they are.

No, not ‘epic.’ Don’t abuse that perfectly fine word.

But then, on the other hand…

The prequels are not, I think, great or even necessarily good films. But beneath their overstuffed plot is a really good story: A scared little boy with frightening talents is manipulated (for cynical religious-political reasons) into betraying and destroying nearly everyone who’s ever cared for him — including his sensei, the older brother he never had — all the while thinking himself noble. He ends up the servant of a man he hates. His children will hate him, but they will risk their lives to save him anyway. Children are always the ones made to pay for their parents’ crimes.

The original films were about kids fighting to wrest control from their corrupted parents; the prequels showed how the parents lost their souls.

In other words: the prequels, like the Silmarillion (indeed, like Lord of the Rings) or the Matrix sequels, complicate the fairly simple story of the original tale, situating it in a larger history and in the process diminishing it somewhat. They rob it of its purity.

The Force Awakens aims to restore the purity of the original story.

For reasons that I think we can safely call ‘mercenary,’ the makers of TFA have decided that the right way to do so is by remaking all of Episode IV and the Oedipal bits of Episodes V and VI. The Force Awakens, then, is the ‘Good Parts’ Version of Star Wars, with more inclusive casting, better technology, and (mostly) snappier dialogue.

Spoilers follow.

As I write, it’s snowing outside, sort of. Miserable pissing wet sleet. Something to do with El Niño as I understand it. Anthropogenic climate change and instability.

The third act of TFA takes place on an ice planet with a gun in it. The planet is a weapon cleverly named ‘The Starkiller,’ because in the first draft of Lucas’s The Star Wars, the hero (Luke S. — Lucas, get it?) was named Starkiller. It is much bigger than the Death Star. It is basically the Death Star. When the heroes blow it up, they fly down a trench to do so.

The Force Awakens has an ice planet in it because Empire Strikes Back has an ice planet in it, and ice planets are pretty cool. Lightsabers in a forest in the snow are very, very cool. And so’s inclusivity! In this movie, the lightsabers are wielded by a black guy, a plucky young English girl, and the tall skinny guy from Girls with the weird face and very flexible speaking voice. They are three very good things about this movie.

Kylo Ren, who is an Original Trilogy character’s son instead of their parent or mentor like the protagonists of the prequels, dresses like grandfather Darth Vader and talks to Vader’s burnt helmet. When he meets and kills his dad, Han Solo, he does so on long thin bridge above an impossibly deep chasm of no immediately obvious purpose. That confrontation, by the way, is quite moving. Adam Driver and Harrison Ford did excellent work here.

End spoilers.

We can do this all day, but let’s not.

Parts of TFA are shot-for-shot remakes of parts of the original trilogy, and that’s not offensive, or shouldn’t be. You shouldn’t be offended. It’s arguably lazy, and inarguably cynical, but so what? It’s only a movie.

More bothersome is the fact that a team of Disney employees and contractors correctly ascertained that what moviegoing audiences want most out of Star Wars Episode VII — what you want, whether or not you can admit it — is a shot-for-shot remake of parts of the original trilogy, with modern (somewhat boring) visuals and (not at all boring) cast.

And how do we learn to want?

I don’t much care about the ‘mythology’ stuff hinted at in the movie — everyone, remember that JJ Abrams is the cocreator of the hollow letdown called Lost — and honestly, on second viewing the dogfights seem characterless and pro forma and the middle bit with the gangsters is a waste of time which shows us nothing we don’t already know. But it’s a perfectly pleasant movie. I liked it.

What it isn’t, which the often-horrible prequels often are in spite of themselves, is beautiful and strange. The final duel on the volcano planet, the underwater city, the throwaway scene amidst the tree-sized phosphorescent mushrooms, Anakin’s creepy Dark Side eyes, Amidala’s costumes, the spit-and-duct-tape construction of Anakin’s pod racer, the Neo-Tokyo vibe of the Episode II chase scene, the slender aliens who create the clone army, the immolation, the POV shot of the mask descending onto Anakin’s face, the final tableau with its familiar twin suns in a radically new emotional context… So many moments in the stupid blasted frustrating prequels invite you to bask in their useless beauty.

And y’know, there’s even one scene in those prequels with a beautiful idea to share too: the Anakin/Amidala conversation on the ark in Attack of the Clones, where he uses the Jedi’s call to compassion, ‘which (he says) I would define as “unconditional love,”‘ to justify his forbidden love for her — neatly encapsulating the entire emotional arc of the prequels in a single line. That scene is clunkier than any scene in The Force Awakens, yes. Lucas writes terrible dialogue.

But I saw TFA for the second time less than two hours ago, and I can’t remember a single line of dialogue from it.

I remember there being a lot of plot. I remember that plot feeling very, very familiar.

I wonder(ed) why I enjoy that feeling of familiarity so much.


This isn’t an argument for novelty. No argument at all, really.

But the original Star Wars represented a giant leap of faith by a guy with two films under his belt — one of them a nostalgia piece about high schoolers and cars. George Lucas then poured all his savings into Empire Strikes Back. The Phantom Menace was the most expensive independent film of all time. Attack of the Clones was a massive public-facing experiment in purely digital storytelling. And Revenge of the Sith tried (perhaps foolishly) to depict one of the most iconic relationships in modern film in painstaking detail, in the middle of a story about subversion of democracy by (in the words of the original Star Wars treatment) a ‘gang of Nixonian thugs.’

George Lucas built his career on a series of massive risks, in service of an idiosyncratic private vision which he stubbornly insisted on at great cost to, among other things, his health and happiness and marriage and public image. Millions of people think he’s a meddling tasteless fool. Yet you watch the first six Star Wars films and he’s right there, all of him, his obsessions and weird story ideas laid bare. The prequels are about his relationship to the original trilogy, in a way.

They’re about (as the man said) seeing things from a different point of view.

The Force Awakens, near as I can tell, is about growing up watching Star Wars and wishing there could be more, more, more of it, and now you have a quarter of a billion dollars to spend and so there can be.

I really liked The Force Awakens and I bet my son’ll love it when he sees it. I hope the other kindergarteners don’t spoil the ending for him.

Alcohol.

Bourbon over ice, dark beer, ruby port, or we’ll need to talk first. A bottle of coconut rum got me into a situation with a redhead once. I had a period of drinking alone in my room, stupidly, bringing no relief from a situation with two brunettes. Threw a half-full bottle of Knob Creek into the sea at an all-night beach party. Summer 2000 I filled most of a thick notebook on two bourbons three (four?) nights a week at a terrible bar on Boylston Street. Now a single whiskey ruins my sleep. But I miss its sweet sting.

Herbie Hancock.

Adapted effortlessly to the Rhodes/synth phase-transition in jazz. Enormous harmonic vocabulary, populist melodism, and an experimental streak best expressed within his Mwandishi collective, one of the essential 70s bands. Only Miles caught deeper groove without sacrificing rich jazz language (and even then…). Their Sextant and Crossings establish terms of ecstatic prototechno beat science. Headhunters would retreat from their deadliest implications and so achieve enormous commercial success. Modern groups like MMW cross those streams without quite equalling Mwandishi’s purity of spiritual intent or Headhunters’ erotic-machinic pinpoint funk. His cameo in Another Kind of Blue is heartbreaking and beautifully true.

Sympathy for the slightly lesser evil.

It’s difficult to feel sympathy when faced with a popup image that says ‘You’re using an ad blocker, our business can’t survive this technology.’ If your business relies on intrusive advertising that makes the web UX unbearable, then your business has deeper problems than my ad blocker.

‘No problem, we’ll just sell ads’ is an expression of contempt. I don’t want ‘content providers’ to starve, but I don’t want to enable poisonous web advertising either.

René sees the potential in him.

Disney World, at our resort. The woman in the next room attempts to raise the spirits of her husband and teenage son at around 9pm:

‘…he was better with René! He could be one of the best in the country with René! Because René fucking yells at him every day because he see the potential in him!’

‘..you don’t want to do any of the extra stuff, you don’t want to work out, but that’s what it takes…’

‘…everyone has a fucking coach though! They do better with a coach! Connor has a coach, Aiden has a coach…’ (She then listed several more of her son’s contemporaries/rivals who are presently thriving due to the careful pedagogy and almost parental care and support of private soccer coaches.)

‘…they don’t just roll over, they don’t just accept what they’re told, and that’s why they’re the best…’

‘…because that’s what a fucking father does!’

She also referred to the son’s present age as ‘the most important point in [his] life.’

At two points during this inspirational address to the troops, the son piped up:

‘Shut up.’

and

‘Mom, could you shut the fuck up?’

The father spoke at one point but I couldn’t make out his words. One suspects they were a cry for help directed profitlessly at his tormentor.

Have a magical day!

Because I wore a Magic Band I hadn’t thought to bring my wallet — there is no need for real money here in the Magic Kingdom — so when the time came to purchase a broad-spectrum antibiotic at the Super Target, I entered my credit card information from memory. I had a prodigious memory once, but now I have anxieties and a five-year-old son, and difficulty remembering last week in any detail; that said, years of compulsive book-buying from online sellers have driven my card number, expiration date (the card’s, not mine), and security code into my head. Or fingers. I keyed in the appropriate numbers. The credit card terminal claimed to be Unable to Process my Request. I blamed myself. I called the human representative of the credit card and its company. He seemed impressed by my swift sure recall. Together we tried to figure out which machine had rejected my request. He told me that they had ‘not even declined’ my purchase. I said to him, ‘…so this is a Super Target problem.’ Resigned and a little sad. I looked at the thick wire connecting the card reader to the computer — at least I assume it was a computer; from my angle it was indistinguishable from a soda machine, but I know better — and experienced a surge of disappointment in myself, in my way of living which had made me unpalatable to these machines, who want so badly to help, if only I would choose more thoughtfully when given the chance.

The aisle beyond the Super Target’s pharmacy was lined with baskets full of single-use shaving gels, hairsprays, and supplies of dental floss, a dollar apiece. No one sticks around here long enough to need more than that.

daystart freewake upwrite

having awoken at 4am, fought my way back down into a shallow sleeptrough until just after 6, and then bounced back up to deal with this ongoing GI bug and what we around here call ‘racing thoughts,’ and having discovered that there is a world of interesting comics-art blogs, and having found out that the addams family set was originally garish pink and gold (all the better for shooting in black and white, i assume?), and having wondered not aloud whether i should go ahead and write that long thing about Can’s Future Days i’d been thinking about — the one where i talk about ‘ambient’ music not as a genre but as an attitude toward the aesthetic value of information density, then head deep into a comparison of Can and (other) ‘jam bands,’ do a thing about prog rock and the loss of faith in the squeal of the electric guitar as a signifier of liberation, and wind up talking about boredom and the sublime — and but plus also my wife having just come downstairs already shaking her head at all there is to do today, and then but what with me having read the first 60+ pages of david simon’s Homicide last night before bed (it’s very good, but as i said to my wife at bedtime, simon is at his best or at least most-preferable-to-me in mixed company, so to speak, when dialing down his street-talkin’ tough guy routine), let’s get on with the show

Preliminary note about Can’s *Future Days*.

Future Days is for the most part an extremely pleasant album from a band whose historical importance far outstrips their bar-to-bar interest. I like it best of the several Can albums I’ve heard, as some Can fans on Twitter who know my tastes had predicted. But ‘not as embarrassingly overrated as Pink Floyd’ isn’t a recommendation, quite.

On Phish books.

The Phish bookshelf is nowhere near as bloated as, say, your Grateful Dead library, but there’s now a healthy number of books on the band, including my two. I can’t be ‘impartial’ on this subject; I wrote my Phish books because I wasn’t satisfied with the existing ones. Still, I’ve treasured several of these volumes. Maybe you know another Phish fan who’d do so as well.

Dean Budnick, The Phishing Manual

An early appreciation of the band written right at the moment when they broke through to national visibility, released in 1996. Useful for its Skeleton Key-style fan glossary, thumbnail history of the band’s early days in Vermont, and section on the Phish’s contemporaries back in the 80s. A song-by-song look at the band’s catalogue was meant primarily as an aid to tape collectors.

The Pharmer’s Almanac

An early resource for touring fans and tape collectors, akin to DeadBase, with a complete setlist file and some show/venue reviews. I read the hell out of mine, back in the day. Out of print, and at any rate superseded by…

The Phish Companion

The Mockingbird Foundation’s paper companion to the phish.net site, full of song histories, show reviews, short essays, and — the book’s real focus — a massive trove of charts, statistics, and canonical setlist data. This was the essential hardcore fan resource in the early 2000s, though cheap ubiquitous Internet connectivity has diminished its utility. Still an excellent gift for the collector in your family.

Mr Miner’s Phish Thoughts (Dave Calarco)

Thick as a brick, beautifully illustrated. Essentially an omnibus collection of edited phishthoughts.com blog posts with a focus on the band’s 2009 renaissance, split (like the site) between breathlessly hyperbolic morning-after show reviews and much more readable tour-by-tour historical overviews — the latter reflecting the intensity of Calarco’s 20+ year fandom.

The Phish Book (Phish & Richard Gehr)

The best Phish book not written by me — a coffeetable collection of band interviews skillfully and puckishly woven into a virtual roundtable discussion. The band comes off as generous, authentic, and productively self-conscious. The book’s greatest virtue might be timing: its focus is on the band’s annus mirabilis of 1997, though the interviews go deep on subjects from Garcia and Zappa to fame, funk, and the festival business. Essential.

Phish: The Biography (Parke Puterbaugh)

Just what it looks like: an authorized band biography, long on behind-the-music stuff, largely superseding the Phishing Manual. Puterbaugh’s backstage access is the attraction: every fan will pick up new facts about the band here.

This Has All Been Wonderful (David ‘zzyzx’ Steinberg)

An idiosyncratic fan diary of Phish’s Summer 1994 tour. No wild’n’crazy drug stories here, just one math grad student’s easygoing narrative of following a good strange band around while carrying, for reasons only zzyzx himself can explain, a clipboard.

A tiny space to move and breathe (yours truly)

A self-published collection of essays, each orbiting eccentrically around one show from the band’s Fall 1997 tour, with occasional prose-poetic interregna and a listicle about girls. Highly variable in focus, looks hard at the music itself for a moment, then tangents away about China Mieville, or DJ Shadow, or playing the Hampton 97 Tweezer for my sleepy toddler. Emphatically not a tour diary, it was the first book on Phish with what might be called ‘literary aspirations.’

Phish’s A LIVE ONE (me again, for the 33-1/3 series)

140ish just-published pages on the band’s double-LP platinum album. As much a belletristic oddity as my other book; much more tightly written, though, and aimed at a general (noninitiate) audience. The most detailed look so far at the band’s musical dynamics, as well as an extended meditation on ‘improvisatory consciousness’ and the experience of immersion in Phish’s musiculture.

(the others)

Phish books I don’t know: Nathan Rabin’s You Don’t Know Me But You Hate Me, a well received look at the author’s experiences in two oddball fan cultures (Phish’s and Insane Clown Posse’s); Run Like an Antelope by Sean Gibbons, a tour diary which no one seems to like; and a reviled band bio called Go Phish.

A couple of album reviews…

…to make sure the wheels are properly oiled. One of these things is not like the others, of course.

Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence

Paradoxically (or not, I suppose), her/their individual songs seem small and tired when set end to end — you’d be forgiven for calling them ‘all the same song.’ But with just one feeling or idea in your quiver you don’t have to work too hard to build a coherent psychic topology, as long as it’s an interesting feeling or idea, which I’m not sure ‘resentful exhaustion’ is, though it sure does sound pretty. And maybe it is interesting; I keep listening, after all. Perfect for a long nighttime ride on a crowded bus, or walking alone through a busy square; well adjusted grownups will need only a small dose, and will feel bad afterward. Which is, I’ve decided, not interesting after all. But it still sounds pretty.

Master Musicians of Jajouka, Pipes of Pan at Jajouka

A ‘visionary’ experience overflows formula, refuses to simplify to convention. Visions are by definition irreligious: they emerge whole from a whole person, unbound, unconsidered. True visions are revolutionary by nature, and any institution built upon a vision — rather than, say, an earthly desire — will sell it out in time. Can’t help it.

Creative work that’s centrally concerned with visionary experience corresponds to our rule-based notions of Art only by accident, in passing.

Brian Jones’s dubby ‘field recording’ of these Sufi musicians is beautiful the way biting a lover’s lip and drawing blood can be beautiful: the danger and pain flow directly from the experience’s intimate intensity. I won’t try to talk here about the music itself; if you’re not in the mood for a specific brand of abrasively nasal horn playing and odd-meter drumming, it’s probably going to put you off. But if you think you could fall in love with a creature from another species, another planet — if you can let go of your standards of ‘taste’ altogether and move instead to a frequency human ears can’t usually detect — then you absolutely must hear this recording.

Ornette Coleman, ‘Midnight Sunrise’

Coleman traveled to Jajouka in the mid-70s to play with the aformentioned Master Musicians, and what remains of the night’s collaboration is two tracks totaling less than nine minutes of music, available on the expanded Dancing in Your Head album he cut with his Prime Time group. (The Jajouka experience is what inspired Coleman to put together Prime Time in the first place.) The recording is just what you’d expect: the masters to one side, the mystic on the other. Ornette’s discursive responses to their partly improvised figures sound like tongue-talking, i.e. like all of Ornette’s solos. The recordings are deeply, inexplicably beautiful, especially the feverish alternate take with Robert Palmer joining in on clarinet. From here it’s a short flight to the rest of this classic ‘harmolodic funk’ album.

Dave Holland Quartet, Conference of the Birds

Intensely focused play based on melodies which live up to both the title story’s ludic naturalism and its mysticism. Listening to this one right after spending some time in Ornette’s musical world, as I’ve just done, is like returning from space to find out that in your five-year absence human speech has advanced a millennium, is now unrecognizable. Braxton and Rivers complement each other perfectly, Altschul’s drums are everywhere, and beneath and within the ensemble is Holland’s mighty bass playing. The album’s vision is perfectly coherent, expressed in deep melody and rigorous freeform. I’m embarrassed not to have heard this until recently, but I’m making up for the oversight by listening to it every day. And taking notes.

Grateful Dead, Cobo 1976 (Set II)

Surely someone out there has made the case for 1976 being the Dead’s best year, right? 1977 is where the new kids start, 1972-74 is the convergence, but shows like Cobo 76 — with its darkly beautiful Playin’ > Wheel > Good Lovin’ > Comes a Time > Dancin’ > Not Fade Away > Dancin’ > Around & Around sequence — capture a band that hasn’t yet backed away from its jazzesque early-70s approach but can already muster 1977’s swaggering danceadelia. Seamless performance, intoxicating atmosphere, and not a moment of filler.