Archive for April, 2009

Escape to Where We Escaped From

Posted in Film on April 13, 2009 by Adam

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New York City lives in the background of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland like a Sugar Candy Mountain that will make all the tortures of a suburban, post-collegiate summer worth enduring.

Yet, despite the freedom that looms 327 miles east of the characters’ hometown of Pittsburgh, Mottola cannot hide the fact that the film is, in many ways, a love letter to the very kind of place that so many young people spend so many years trying to escape. Often, it fits into the same realm of sometimes-everything-crazy-and-life-changing-that-happens-t0-you-happens-when-you-go-back-to-the-town-you’re-from that is inhabited by The Graduate and Garden State, but more than either of those films, Adventureland finds a charm in those moments when we feel stuck yet also, deep down, content.

What is it about the land of our youths that so often ends up drawing us back for for nostalgia-fueled artistic inspiration? For my money, there are a few things that drive artists to make the kind of hometown homage we have in Adventureland.  There is, of course, the occasional beauty of small-town dive bars and realness of Middle America, both of which have been touted in modern art, whether ironically or quite sincerely. But the most honest reason I can think of for this kind of revisiting is quite simple: these are the places we know better than any other. I spent eighteen years in Watertown, Connecticut, a length of time I can’t really imagine ever again spending in one place, and I know the ins and outs of that town far better than I ever could the city I moved to afterward. For many artists, I believe it is this sense of familiarity that makes the hometown legend one of the most appealing tales to spin. It is also what often makes the tales so appealing to the audience.

If the majority of Mottola’s film, with the same characters, had taken place in New York (obviously allowing forvast changes to the narrative), I don’t think there is any way it would have been such an enjoyable experience. To try to learn the true nature of a place as an adult is as difficult as trying to learn how to swim after adolescence. We are no longer as receptive to the kinds of raw data that a place has to offer: we cannot absorb all of a city’s signifiers as adults, because we already have a deep psychological connection to at least one other place, in addition to a prematurely formed idea about any place to which we move. But those hometowns, Mottola’s Pittsburgh, my Watertown, came to us at a time when we were more spongy than we will ever be. The dialects, the geography, the hierarchies, the infinite number of quirks and mysteries that reside in those places that reared us during those years–they are impossible to shake and they influence the way we tell stories more than we are likely to imagine. Luckily, for Mottola and for us, that unshakability often comes out in an honest and funny portrayal of the places that we always call “back home”.

Time and Reading Bolaño Backwards

Posted in Books with tags , , , on April 8, 2009 by Adam

I am currently halfway through Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and I am thinking a lot about authorial chronology. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I recently finished Bolaño’s 2666. Published in 2004,  six years after The Savage Detectives and in the wake of Bolaño’s death, that book is an achievement so epic and crowning that I was equally excited and terrified to begin another one of his novels. While I had an intense desire to dig deeper into his oeuvre, I was nervous about how having 2666 serve as my Bolaño starting point would affect my approach to what may someday be considered his “minor works” (even though The Savage Detectives, in addition to being Bolaño’s breakout book in the U.S., is in no way a minor accomplishment).  And I was right.

The Savage Detectives is very good, so far. It is sprawling and ambitious and full of twists and careens that take the reader into dark corners of a world that is vaguely familiar but also quite surreal. But. It has not the sprawl nor the ambition nor the careening nor the twisting of 2666–very few modern works of literature do. Generally, as luck would have it, I am able to read an author’s earlier works first, and the effect that has on my overall experience is usually one of parallel growth. I am proud if leaps and bounds have been made since the last outing, and I am amused and overjoyed at the sly nods to the past that has been left behind.

But in going from a work as formidable as 2666 to one slightly less formidable in The Savage Detectives, I am left with a feeling not unlike that of looking at pictures from my teenage years. I am slightly embarrassed by the (relatively few) mistakes, and with my hindsight, I am regretful of the things that could have gone differently, slightly better. I look at certain structural aspects and see a brazen youthfulness that, when compared to 2666, can seem like a sign of impatience and hurriedness. I look at the characters and wish that the mysteries surrounding their lives were just a bit more nuanced.

Yet, more than any of that, I read The Savage Detectives and I get a sometimes overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, for even though Bolaño had a grasp on darkness at the time of that writing, there is a kind of innocence in the dialogue and the way the characters think about each other. Certainly not naivete, but nowhere near the kinds of fatalism we see in 2666. And then I think about Bolaño as a man and I think about aging and I think about the ways that our words and how they change over time are as revealing as holding an old photograph up as you look in a mirror. To read backwards, so to speak, is to be sadly aware of what is to follow, and as in physical life, this awareness is usually wrought with all kinds of sadness.

The things we see in 2666, the things we read and know that Bolaño must have thought about as the years wore down, are not things that are easy to forgot as one goes back into time and visits the words of the man at a younger age. They are things that not only show us how his art progressed. They are things that speak to certain truths that can only have been found after years of hard looking. They are things that, when you see the process it took to find them, force you to wonder how your own current moment will appear when you look at it with the same hindsight.

Some works like 2666, which seem so timeless, may actually represent the moment when the ticking clocks that sounded throughout earlier works have finally come to a stop. And to move forth as a reader from that point when a grand and final stillness has set in, to revisit a time of forward progress and passing years from the opposite direction, can be an experience both invigorating and deeply, deeply melancholy.

All in the Akron/Family

Posted in Music with tags , , , on April 2, 2009 by Adam
via flickr user Taylor T-Sides

via flickr user Taylor T-Sides

Sometimes an hour and a half of jumping and chanting and sweating and otherwise acting like a crazed tribal epileptic can leave on impression on you. I had seen Akron/Family once before this past Sunday evening at Union Pool, but I can’t remember exactly when (probably about four years ago) or for whom or they were opening (Danielson Famile?) or many other of the circumstantial details. While I believe I enjoyed that performance, it obviously was not one that has stuck with me to a great extent. Ah, but Sunday.  Just wild.

It would seem that these guys have been holed up in some kind of magical mountainside cave since 2007’s Love is Simple was released. The chemistry between the three core members and brass section that accompanied them–a chemistry that I do believe was somewhat apparent last time around–was the kind that makes you wonder if these people actually learned to play music together. The set also exhibited a nearly perfect structure. After starting off with a few more mid-tempo songs, the band ended up building their way to an absolutely face-melting climax, centered around the new song “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon”. At moments when both the guitars and the brass were at their loudest and fiercest, I could have sworn that I was seeing sound. All of my pores seemed to be bleeding out the sonic ferocity. As the set drew to a close, the band took full advantage of the extra musicians, who added a deconstructed jazz fuzz to the slowly retreating final songs.

Really, the new songs are something special. One of them, “River”, will absolutely end up being my favorite song of the year. Note that I promised myself before writing this that I would avoid hyperbole. I stand by that. Akron/Family have managed to tap into the country’s collective state of mind, with the new songs demonstrating equal parts fear, naturalism, and most of all, a sense of anticipation for some kind of release, some kind of freedom. Their idiosyncracies as a band–shifting roles, a lingering communal primitivism, occasional unabashed bigness–are themselves beautifully American. When Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free is released on May 5, it may not get as much press as some of the year’s other widely-anticipated albums. But rest assured that it will capture the wild spirit of our country and our species in a way that may serve as a quiet revolution.