Sunday, January 29, 2006

Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (4.5/5)

Christopher Marlowe is fucking cool. What other Renaissance writer was a goddamn spy? I mean, I like Shakespeare’s plays and all, but as a person he’s boring unless he’s being played by Joseph Fiennes. I often pit two historical figures against one another in my mind, and I wonder what would happen if these two fought. I think I’ve already mentioned what would happen to Kubrick if he ever fought Kurosawa (see the Hidden Fortress review). If Shakespeare and Marlowe fought, Marlowe would bust out his super secret digital watch—that’s secretly a laser—and he’d slice Shakespeare in half. Maybe ‘Speare would have a deadly quill like the Joker had in Batman, but a deadly quill versus a laser? I think we know who would win. I know the digital watch/laser is a bit silly because they didn’t have digital watches back then, but at the very least he’d have an hourglass with a secret laser.

Reading Dr. Faustus I realize what a shame it is Marlowe died so early. Marlowe’s ability to combine drama and comedy was light years ahead of Shakespeare’s. It wasn’t until the second half of Shakespeare’s career that he started writing dark comedies, but Marlowe was interjecting his humor with a dark twist right away with plays like Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta. If Marlowe hadn’t dies so early (in a fight over who was going to pay the bill no less—fucking cool!) then maybe there would have been two playwriting giants in London competing against one another. Just imagine the masterpieces that would have ensued. I bet they would have made King Lear look like A Comedy of Errors.

This is the second time I’ve read Dr. Faustus, and I had forgotten how anti-Catholic it is. The story takes place mostly in Wittenberg, Germany where Martin Luther wrote his famous 95 theses. The location already sets up the tenuous relationship between Protestants and Catholics. This relationship, obviously biased against Catholics, is further represented in the good angel and bad angel that appear to Dr. Faustus several times. The good angel repeats over and over to Dr. Faustus that he can repent at any time and come back into good graces, while the bad angel keeps on telling him it’s too late. The obvious analogy is that the good angel represents the Protestant idea of justification by faith. Not surprisingly, one of the groups of people who Marlowe is rumored to have spied on were Catholics intent on overthrowing what they saw as England’s Protestant government. Furthermore, the first thing Dr. Faustus does when he makes his famous bargain is to play a practical joke on the Pope.

Please, if you’re Catholic don’t let this turn you away from reading this beautifully written play. At times the mixture of slapstick comedy and high brow allusions are a bit uneven, but that was the nature of the beast back then. Marlowe had to play to the peasants as well as royalty.

The trick Marlowe plays on the audience is even greater than the trick played on Faustus. Marlowe actually gets us to care about Faustus by the end of the play. This is either a trick to show us how close every one of us is to making a Faustian bargain, or it’s a trick to show us how unfair these religious traditions were. After all, what did Faustus do that was so wrong? He goes into the deal with plans for making himself a despot, and ends up using all of his power to fetch grapes for debutants and summon Helen of Troy so that others may see her beauty. (Dr. Faustus has "phenominal cosmic power," and all he can manage is playing a few practical jokes and impressing people with out of season fruits.) He’s never punished for his bad acts, but rather because of who he pledged his allegiance to. Over the course of twenty-four years Faustus has actually become a somewhat better person. His greatest crimes are nothing more than playing practical jokes on peasants. He’s not perfect, but he’s also not deserving of eternal damnation.

I see Dr. Faustus as a critique of religion. Others may find that it only reinforces their beliefs, and that’s what makes the text so good. The Faustian bargain finds its way into literature time and again, but it means something different to each author; likewise, Dr. Faustus means something different to each reader.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Yojimbo (4.5/5)

I have never been shy about my admiration for Akira Kurosawa. If you happened to have read my Hidden Fortress review then you probably know this...mannn (sorry, I couldn't resist a Friday reference). While watching Yojimbo I asked myself why I love Kurosawa’s films so much. I think the answer is that he’s able to be a genre filmmaker and yet his films are capable of transcending the genre into art house cinema. The cynical might quip that I’m saying this only because he’s a foreign director. I don’t think that’s the reason at all. Sure, there are films that transcend their genre in the manner that they’re the best Western, Science Fiction, Adventure film out there, but Kurosawa’s films raise the important questions that the average Hollywood drama wishes it could address. There are only a couple films outside of Kurosawa's work that I feel have done this (Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid and 2001). Kurosaw makes us think within a form that entertains as much as it probes.

Yojimbo is the darkest Kurosawa film I’ve seen yet (I must admit that this is only the fifth film of his I’ve seen). There are scenes of a dog taking away a human hand for a snack, the main character chops off a thugs arm, and towards the end of the film the main character is beaten to the point where he can barely stand up. In fact, I don’t’ think I’ve seen a more violent film made from 1961 or earlier.

Toshiro Mifune plays the main character (we’re never given his real name) who becomes the “hero” of the story despite himself. He enters a town that has been devastated by a war between two gangs and quickly decides he will set the two against each other while making a nice profit in the meantime. After a demonstration of his skills where he kills three people (“Cooper. Two coffins…No, maybe three) the hero sets up a bidding war for his services. Eventually things escalate and Mifune continues pitting the two gangs against each other until they just about destroy the town itself.

Mifune’s character is a protégé of the hard boiled anti-hero that spouts off one liners in modern movies. Compare Sin City’s “It's time to prove to your friends that you're worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying. Sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.” to “I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first.” The movie is based off of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, and is really a mix up of a samurai film and film noir. In turn, it was latter remade into “A Fist Full of Dollars.”

There’s less hope in this film than there is in other Kurosawa movies. Unlike the lost baby in Roshomon or the city park in Ikiru, I get the feeling that there’s no redemption for Mifune’s hero. There are several references to the gates of hell in the film, and this is perhaps the best description of where the hero resides. He’s constantly in a state of limbo where he hasn’t fallen into damnation but salvation seems like an impossibility. When the hero walks off at the end one can only assume he’s going to be wandering for the rest of his life.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Geronimo: His Own Story by Geronimo

Geronimo: His Own Story by Geronimo, Taken Down by S.M. Barret (5/5)

Geronimo: His Own Story is an endlessly fascinating autobiography that belongs in the pantheon of other great American works of autobiography and memoir. This book should take its place alonside other great works of personal non-fiction such as The Autobiography of Malcom X, A Moveable Feast, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and (arguably the best of the bunch) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This is a strong statement, but after reading this short autobiography it's at least an idea that should be entertained. I found things in this book that I was not expecting, and it ended up being a far more complex and intriguing portrait of Geronimo than I had previously entertained. The most fascinating side of Geronimo that comes across in these two-hundred pages is not Geronimo the warrior but Geronimo the diplomat.

S. M. Barrett’s introduction tells us that after Geronimo finished what he wanted to say he would not take questions or add anything more, but merely stated “‘Write what I have spoken.’” These are the actions of a man who has a very specific purpose he is pursuing. After reading Geronimo’s story I believe his purpose in publishing his tale was to accomplish in peace what he was unable to in was—he wanted to deliver his people back to Arizona.

Geronimo dedicates his story to Theodore Roosevelt, because, in his words, he “knows I speak the truth;…he is fair minded and will cause my people to receive justice in the future; and because he is chief of a great people.” Even before his story has started Geronimo strikes a cordial tone. Not only are Geronimo’s words flowing with accolades, but they are also giving Roosevelt something to live up to. By stating that Roosevelt is “fair minded and will cause my people to receive justice in the future” he is almost challenging Roosevelt to live up to this description.

Much of the fighting in Geronimo occurs between the Apache’s and the Mexicans. Geronimo doesn’t try and hide his feelings about the Mexicans, stating not only that he as “no love for the Mexicans,” but also that if he was younger, “and followed the warpath,” he would “lead into Old Mexico.” In fact, his battles with the Mexicans take up a slight majority of the book. He does not make any similarly broad statements when speaking about Americans. Whenever Geronimo criticizes American policy he makes certain that he focuses his criticism on the officer in charge rather than American policy as a whole. Geronimo realizes that merely lashing out at an unfair, but time honored, practice of breaking U.S. treaties would alienate his audience and hurt his cause.

The rhetorical technique Geronimo uses in telling his story is rather matter of fact. This is in stark contrast to some of the more melodramatic works that were popular around the turn of the century. Certainly this highlights a difference in two cultures, but it is also indicative of how Geronimo goes about trying to achieve his goal. Instead of histrionically telling his story he presents it in what seems to be an objective and reasonable voice. When Geronimo gave himself up to the U.S. Army one of the conditions was that his band of Apaches would be sent to Florida with the rest of their families. When the U.S. breaks this condition Geronimo flatly states that this “treatment was in direct violation of our treaty made at Skeleton Canon.” He lets the action speak for itself. If he railed against the injustice committed then he would have turned off a mostly white audience. After all, it was their government who was responsible for breaking the treaty.

I won’t make this into a thesis (although I probably could). Geronimo: His Own Story is a wonderful portrait of one of American History’s most courageous heroes. In the book I was surprised to find out just as much about Geronimo the diplomat as I did about Geronimo the warrior. I’ll end this with Geronimo’s words: “There is no climate or soil which, to my mind, is equal to that of Arizona. We could have plenty of good cultivating land, plenty of grass, plenty of timber and plenty of minerals in that land which the Almighty created for the Apaches. It is my land, my home, my fathers’ land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people , placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.”

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Addendum to Addendum

First the Canadians voted in a conservative, and now the Palestinians voted in the Hamas. What the fuck! When did the whole world become a bunch of religious extremists. I call for a new age of enlightenment. Science will once again rule the day, and anyone who has religious tendencies will be marginalized or deists. How bizarre is it when the world looked more progressive three hundred years ago?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Addendum to Wolf Parade Review

I heard the Canucks just voted in a conservative Prime Minister. Take that you fuckers, we've just successfully made you our ass puppet. If the U.S. is going down in flames at least we can take you bastads with us. I don't even know if you guys have a Vice President, but now it's officially George W. Hate to break it to you guys, but your our bitch now. America's going down the toilet, but at least we're taking you with us.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Death From Above 1979 - You're a Woman, I'm a Machine

Death From Above 1979 - You're a Woman, I'm a Machine (3.5/5)

Death From Above 1979 play like new wave had a head on collision with metal. They're one of those bands with only two members; you know, like Local H or the White Stripes. While Local H hook their guitar up to a bass amp to put a little meat on their bones, and the White Stripes use the lack of a bass player to reinforce their retro sound, Death From Above 1979 don't really have an excuse. Maybe they just don't want to split their touring profits with a third party (my explanation for any bassless band). Their sound just isn't full enough. To be fair, they are at a deficit considering they play such danceable music, but they have left behind the instrument that could most easily serve their purpose. Without a bass player their grooves just aren't as effective.

Of course, these guys are damn good songwriters, and maybe that's why I'm being so hard on them--I think they could do better. Before I heard Death From Above 1979 I thought I was finished with any band that had even a hint of post-punk influence. I thought the market was saturated and there couldn't possibly be anything more out there. Unfortunatly for me Death From Above 1979 turned out to find a unique approach to the new wave phenomenon. They're good songwriters to be sure and have a handfull of excellent tracks on this album: "Romantic Rights," "Blood on Our Hands," and "Cold War" to name a few. All of these songs showcase the band at their most energetic, but when the songs start to slow down they really could use a bass player to accentuate their sound.

This certainly wasn't a bad CD (I gave it a positive score), but I think DFA79 is capable of more. Maybe all they need is a bass player to flesh ou their sound, or perhaps all they need are songs that more easily fit their lean sound. In either case, I'll be looking forward to what they come up with nexts.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary

Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary (4.5/5)

These damn Canadians have gotten uppity. Ever since the earliest signs of America's decline as the premier superpower (national debt, trade deficit, the European Union, China's rise to prominence) Canadians have seemed a bit smug. They're like the tortoise who beat the hare through slow but reliable progress. Recently there has been a slew of Canadian rockers to cross the boarder, and it's feeling like a slap in the face. I have previously suggested Americans do at least one of two things: 1) kick the Republicans out and get someone in office who know their head from their ass, or 2) show the Canadians we still have better rock music than they do. Option one seems like a long shot, but until recently I would have claimed we could lick the Canuks at option two. I mean Rush, c'mon. Is Geddy Lee a guy or a girl? It seems that the Canadians have decided to take our weakness as an opportunity to bombard our country with overly catchy indie-rock bands. I've even come across a couple friends who have become full fledge Canukaphiles (my solution: internment camps). Well, Wolf Parade won't make option two any easier.

I didn't want to like this CD. I really didn't. They're one of those bands that receives too much hype to be any good (*cough* The Strokes *cough* *cough*). However, I was returning a Christmas present and there was nothing else of interest at Best Buy. It turns out they're really good.

Wolf Parade play catchy, but slightly staggered, indie rock--complete with keyboards, tortured lyrics, and dual singers. The singers, while noticeably unique, share the common characteristic that both sound as if their lungs are too big for their esophagus. Wolf Parade are a band that aren't necessarily remarkable because of what they do, but the fact that they do it very well. They're the kind of band that makes ordinary life seem slightly epic.

The themes of night and day creep onto the album again and again, but not so much as in a dualistic way as in the passage of time. The slow release of our remaining hours, moving towards who knows what. I get the feeling that these guys make it a habit to revisit and reexamine their past. Likewise, ghosts creep into their lyrics on many occasions, and even into their song titles. It gives the feeling of looking back at what seemed like mundane life, but finding something profound (kind of like a poem by Wordsworth--except good).

My three favorite songs off the album are as follows: "Modern World," "Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts," and "I'll Believe in Anything." (On a side note, doesn't "Same Ghost Every Night" sound like a Sponge song?) Once of the strengths of the album is the fact that each song takes on a unique texture all its own. You can readily tell that there's more than one principal songwriter in their group. Despite this the album maintains a strong thematic cohesiveness both sonically and lyrically.

Apologies to the Queen Mary is a devastating loss in the Canuk/Yankee indie rock war. However, it is not a loss we can't come back from, and the end of the war is still far off. All you Yankee musicians need to get off your asses and start writing some damn fine music.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Super Furry Animals - Love Kraft

Super Furry Animals - Love Kraft (4/5)

Super Furry Animals have always had a bit of a retro feel. Ever since their first release their more atmospheric songs have always recalled a bit of the 1960's or 70's. Love Kraft seems to take that retro feeling to the extreme. Perhaps it's the mere fact that this is a more laid back album than most of their previous work, but the flower power sounding title suggests that that they are in fact consciously recalling a late 60's/early 70's feel--listening to it I'm tempted to go out and buy a black light.

The relaxed pace of the album may have led to boredom with a lesser band, but Super Furry Animals are such consumate craftsman that despite the slow moving pace they layer their songs so well you're ears are constantly alert. It's one of those albums where if you put on headphones you realize they hid a fucking rainforest in there somewhere. Despite their talent as songwriters the album still lags at parts. The beginning of "Walk You Home" could easily garner the backhanded compliment that it sounds like a Bond theme song. The only song that attempts to rock out is "Lazer Beam"--it's roller derby-tastic! I do feel strongly that the album should come with the following warning: do not take mind alterning drugs while listening to "Psyclone." Seriously, though, DON'T! I can just imagine someone dropping acid while listening to the album, and then having their head cave in at song nine. I can barely handle it's excentricities while wearing headphones. You'll know what I'm talking about if you listen to it, but I don't want to describe it for fear that some of you may be on mind altering drugs at this very moment.

Perhaps the Super Furry Animals felt that in a world of religious fanatics who march others into a war against those of different beliefs (I'm talking about America, of course) they needed to make an album that tackles all these problems with some 60's optimism. "Lazer Beam" is about escaping "imperial colonial bastards" by leaving earth in a spaceship, after all. If you think about that long enough it's not too far from the kind of thinking you'd get from a hippie, but the hippie wouldn't be joking. You just have to smile at the lyrics from "The Horn": "drink, smoke, love enjoy the ride/Right or wrong/Hair down long." I guess you can't be cynical all the time, and a little dose of retro optimism is needed now and then. My three favorite songs: "Ohio Heat," "Lazer Beam," and "Frequency."

I've avoided using the rock critic phrase that most aptly fits this album, but my will power is fading. Here it goes: while it won't win them any new fans, Love Kraft will definitely satisfy the devoted. Since I'm already one of those devoted I will probably go out and grab the aforementioned black light, and see if this thing corresponds with a famous musical. Maybe Fiddler On the Roof?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliott

The Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliott (4/5)

The Shroud of the Thwacker is the debut novel from the not-so critically acclaimed Chris Elliot...and, well, it's actually good! I'll admit that I got this book as a present, and probably wouldn't have picked it up on my own. In fact I read it half as a favor to the person who gave it to me, and half out of boredom, but I must admit that I actually enjoyed it.

This book outpaces all of Chris Elliott's other works. That's right, it's better than Cabin Boy! All right, I know what you're thinking, Cabin Boy sucked. How about this: it's better than There's Something About Mary! Not your cup of chai, then I have one more for you: The Shroud of the Thwacker is even better than Get a Life. Yes, you heard me correctly, and I know I might get tarred and feathered for this but Chris Elliott's new book eclipses that flash-in-the-pan 1990's sitcom.

Now that I have your attention I can tell you a little about the book. The set up is this: Chris Elliott (the author) is investigating the notorious Gilded Age murders of the Thwacker. We follow both Chris' investigation in the present as well as that of several "historical" characters (including a pre-presidential [and pre-Spanish American War] Teddy Roosevelt) who were hot on the trail of the infamous serial killer.

The Shroud of the Thwacker is basically a parody of Caleb Carr's Alienist novels, historical fiction, popular history, fictional history, and steals a bit of From Hell. The book is crammed from first to last page with jokes, and if one doesn't strike your fancy the next one probably will. He manages to fit wry literary allusions ("the price of oil had skyrocketed ever since the sinking of the Pequod") next to a running gag about Teddy Roosevelt's flatulence. Elliott's main purpose is to tell jokes, but at a certain points he lets a bit of social commentary slip through. He skewers historians who often wear rose colored glasses when writing about the past (one of my pet peeves) by playing up the most unpleasant aspects of late 19th century New York. Instead of the Statute of Liberty, Elliott instead claims that New York had a statute of Nathan Forrest, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. There are also giant wooden cell phones, time traveling, Yoko Ono, and other bits of wackiness.

Of course, the plot makes absolutely no sense, but in the end it doesn't really matter (several plot holes are actually made fun of). Chris Elliott manages to write an imaginative, joke filled, crass and clever book. Hey, maybe I've been underestimating this guy. Maybe I'll go out and rent Cabin Boy again. ("Would you like to buy a monkey?") On second thought, maybe not.