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June 2008
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Drive-In Saturday:
Gremlins From the Kremlin

The UBUWEB Film & Video archive is a one-stop source for film by or about the once and future avant-garde.  It is something of a surprise therefore to find at that site, listed alphabetically below Cage and Cale and above Cornell and Cocteau, snuggled up between the Cinema of Transgression ("We propose that all film schools be blown up and all boring films never be made again") and René Clair, the name of Robert Clampett.  Clampett of course, with Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, was a key member of the great troika of talents that made the Golden Age of Warner Brothers cartoons so golden.  To a certain segment of the Boomer generation, he is also fondly recalled for his post-Warner creations, Beany and Cecil.

So, what earns Clampett his unexpected spot among the cutting edge worthies at Ubuweb?  It's the "Russian Rhapsody" of 1944, a touching bit of World War II propaganda (supporting the forces of Good) in which the despicable sociopathic despot of our enemies receives his comeuppance at the hands of the supernatural minions of the despicable sociopathic despot of our friends. 

You know what they say: "Ich bin ein Gremliner!"


  • The Wikipedia entry for the cartoon reports that many of the "Russian Rhapsody" Gremlins are caricatured versions of members of the Warner Brothers animation staff, including the aforementioned Freleng and Jones and Clampett himself.  Illustrated details available here.
  • Additional gremlinalia -- including the involvement of Walt Disney and Roald Dahl in the original wartime popularization of the little critters -- is available on the Toonopedia, here.

The Said-est Music in the World


Composer and Britten biographer David Matthews comments today for the Times Literary Supplement on two new classical music books. 

First up, Music at the Limits, a collection of essays by the late Edward Said, most drawn from his work as music critic for The Nation.  Here is Matthews on Said on Wagner, incorporating a valuable public relations tip:

In a review of Michael Tanner’s book on Wagner, Said will not allow Tanner to dismiss the most unpleasant elements of Wagner’s personality as irrelevant to the appreciation of his music, though he does take to task those who claim that Wagner’s anti-Semitism seeped into his operas.  (We might think better of Wagner if only he hadn’t insisted on putting all his prejudices into print, or telling them to Cosima who devotedly wrote them all down; Chopin’s anti-Semitism was equally virulent, but he is rarely criticized for it, probably because he didn’t publicize it so actively.)

Of more local interest, Matthews also notes Making Music in Los Angeles: Transforming the Popular by Catherine Parsons Smith, focusing on the period from the founding of the City of Angels through the early 1940's.  Here we learn that, notwithstanding its Alice in Lotus Land reputation, Los Angeles historically has been rather the opposite of a cultural backwater:

[Parsons' book] reminds us of a time when classical music had more obvious significance in general culture – when, indeed, it was seen as a vital and active element in the growth of Los Angeles from a town of 11,000 in 1880 to a city of more than a million in 1930.  Opera companies were quick to make visits: the US premiere of La Bohème was given in Los Angeles in 1897, the year a symphony orchestra was established; by 1910, there was a higher proportion of musicians and music teachers in Los Angeles than in any other American city.

That highlighted Fun Fact, I suppose, goes a long way toward explaining why even today Los Angeles operagoers are compelled to put up with so darned much stinkin' Puccini in their repertoire.


Photo: Members of the Albertina Rasch Ballet on the grounds of the Hollywood Bowl, 1930, via the Hollywood Bowl Museum.

Making the World Safe for "Two-Buck Chuck"


The Los Angeles Times today has an obituary for Robert Berning, an unsung but important figure in the recent history of California wine.  Formerly the principal wine buyer for the Trader Joe's markets, Berning was the man who spearheaded that company's long-running effort to sell good quality wine, particularly California wine, at the lowest possible price. 

Much of the material in the piece comes from an interview with "Trader Joe" himself, founder Joe Coulombe.  In large part, it is a rousing story of clever free-marketeers working their way over, under, around, and through outmoded protectionist pricing statutes -- so-called "fair trade" laws -- with the beneficial side effect of publicizing the quality of California "boutique" wineries at a time (the 1970s) when most of the world thought that "California Wine" meant little more than Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

Coulombe said 1970 marked the beginning of Trader Joe's 'aggressive wine merchandising' -- offering wines at lower prices than had been common in the trade.

'Basically,' he said, 'this state had fair trade on alcoholic beverages, so it was against the law to break price on Gallo or any other branded wine, and under Bob's leadership, we learned to get around fair trade.'

As head wine buyer, Berning built Trader Joe's private label wine program, in which various wines from around the world were sold under Trader Joe's own labels, for which it could set lower prices.

'It was a huge success,' said Coulombe, adding with a chuckle that 'it caused our competitors a lot of distress.  They tried to stop us, but we fought our way through the battles until 1978 when fair trade was thrown out. . . .  After that, we and anybody else could price wine any way they wanted to.'

But after eight years of offering wine under their Trader Joe's Winery label, he said, 'we had a head start.'

A grateful wine bibbing public salutes them.  Hic!

[Via LA Observed.]


Of related interest:

In an e-mail last week, Rick kindly passed along a link to a consumer friendly Trader Joe's-related item from the San Francisco Chronicle:

And previously on a fool in the forest:

Photo: "Chuck Wine" by Flickr user Refracted Moments™, used under Creative Commons license.

Drive-In Saturday:
Drive-In Satie Day

This week's Saturday video selection is Satiemania, a 14-minute series of vignettes and impressions running from the pastoral to the grotesque and stopping at all stations in between, encompassing something to appeal to, and something to offend, just about everybody.  Let's run it down:

  • Cartoon naughty bits?  Check. 
  • Ridiculous violence?  Check.
  • Post-war urban angst?  Check.
  • Puckish surrealism?  Check. 
  • R. Crumb-like misogyny and ethnic exaggeration?  Check. 
  • Grosz/Beckmann-style decadence with equal parts sensual romanticism?  Check. 
  • Lovingly animated reflections on the moonlit water?  Check.
  • Men in elegant pinstriped suits, with the heads of chickens?  Check.
  • All of it accompanied by Aldo Ciccolini interpretations of the piano music of Erik Satie?  Check, check, and check.

Czech?  Not a bit of it.  Croatian.  Directed by Zdenkó Gasparovich, the films comes from the Zagreb Studio in what was then still very much Tito's Yugoslavia: heaven knows you could do worse, but still a dreary socialist autocracy.

Although his C.V. before and after Satiemania seems to consist principally of lowbrow American cartoonery  -- Scooby Doo, Rugrats, and the like -- Gasparovich somehow managed to produce this one stylishly eccentric masterwork.  Contrary to the information reported on some sites, the film apparently was not an Academy Award nominee.  But it should have been.

[Should you wish to carry this film around on your iPod or such, a downloadable version can be had via Google Video.]

Long Beach Opera Announces a Season of . . .
Actual Operas!


It has been over a year since I last attended a performance by Long Beach Opera.  I missed out on the past season altogether, principally as a result of scheduling conflicts but also, it must be said, as a result of repertoire choices that were eccentric even by LBO's reliably eccentric standards.  Since the company ventured its miniaturized version of Wagner's Ring cycle in early 2006 (see my intemperate rave here), it has offered up sung drama of various kinds -- monodrama, oratorio, cabaret, art song -- but little that falls squarely into the category of "opera."  No more!  For its just-announced 30th Anniversary Season in 2009, LBO returns to doing what it does best: addressing non-obvious operas -- no Puccini here, thank you very much -- as compelling drama.  With two performances each, the LBO 2009 season consists of:

Vixen is, I believe, the only one of Janáček's major music dramas that neither Long Beach nor Los Angeles Opera have ventured in the past.  Foxy!

Italian Baroque revisionism, featuring the star-crossed, but ultimately triumphant love between the Emperor Montezuma's daughter and the brother of Hernán/Hernando [here Fernando] Cortez.  There's even a happy ending, with Montezuma surviving to rule Mexico as a tributary vassal of the Spanish crown.  As if.  While the libretto was known, Vivaldi's 1733 score was only rediscovered in 2002.  A properly intriguing Long Beach Opera oddity.

Poaching just a bit on LA Opera Maestro James Conlon's Recovered Voices project, Long Beach ventures the best known opera produced in the Nazi camps, Ullman's Emperor.  Coupled, intriguingly, with a Grimm adaptation from rumored National Socialist party collaborator Orff, without whose Carmina Burana the entire business of Hollywood coming attractions trailers would in some deep deep way not be possible.  And apparently to be performed somewhere deep in the bowels of the Queen Mary.  Who can resist?

Do I betray a certain excitement?  Indeed I do,

My hope is to be able to provide reports on each of these productions.  Wish me well, or join me, as the case may be.


Photo: Lobby of the Aztec Theater, San Antonio, Texas, by Flickr user cynical pink, used under Creative Commons license.

Livre Free or Die


A miscellany of recent more or less literary links:

  • More on the July 4 passing of Thomas M. Disch (see below):

[H]e proclaimed himself God, and encouraged readers to set up shrines in their back gardens, so that their gardening tools would be tax-deductible.

  • John Clute in a long appreciation/memorial in The Independent declares Disch "one of the very best second-rank poets of the later 20th century in America." 
  • The McKie and Clute links both come via the recently reactivated m john harrison blog.  Harrison, who knew Disch from the "New Wave"/New Worlds era of the late '60s, provides his own view as well:

He was the best of us.

  • Speaking of M. John Harrison, whose splendid Viriconium I just finished rereading: he reports that he has an essay/review on H.P. Lovecraft forthcoming in the Guardian, which should be worth a look.  Meanwhile he helpfully provides a link to a 1933 newsreel interview with Lovecraft.  It bears itself with an air of verisimilitude, but . . . .
  • John Lanchester, in the London Review of Books, declares himself an "abject fan" of the Library of America, which is now up to its 177th volume:

I own, I find, ten of its volumes: three of Parkman, one each of Henry James, Adams, Baldwin, Frost and Stevens, the new [Edmund] Wilson, and an anthology of writing about baseball.  The books are lovely, lovely objects.  They are about the nicest books I have.  American books are in general printed to much higher standards than British books.  (Ask publishers about that, and they always say that it’s to do with economies of scale: five times as big an audience equals higher print runs equals lower costs equals the possibility to make nicer books.  So they say.)  The Library takes that tendency about as far as it will go: it’s hard not to take the volumes down from the shelves and stroke them, like a Bond villain fondling a cat.

Purrrrr.  I have maintained a subscription to the Library for years now.  Under Lanchester's influence, I counted my own LOA holdings up the other evening, and discovered that I have just recently topped 100 of them.  Oh, dear.  (And that is without even counting the dozen or so volumes I have accumulated from the Library's little sibling, the American Poets Project.)   If Lanchester is "abject," I've no idea what epithet is sufficient to convey my pathetic devotion to the series. 

  • Strict grammarian and law firm disciplinarian Dan Hull of What About Clients? reports that he has been

busy debriefing and then terminating summer help that can't or won't proofread drafts of court documents and check cites because they 'didn't really believe' all along that that was their job, and that we were just joshing.

*Sigh*   While Dan is preoccupied with sacking summer associates and proffering proofreading advice, we caution him to beware the inexorable workings of . . . Muphry's Law:

Muphry's Law dictates that (a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written; (b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book; (c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault; (d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

[Via Radley Balko.]

Drive-In Saturday:
"Drive-In Saturday"

So as to get it out of the way, as our Regular Saturday Video Feature for this week we present the namesake of our Regular Saturday Video Feature:

As a bonus, because she merits such a prominent mention in the song, please join me in welcoming to our blog Miss Lesley Hornby -- Twig, the Wonder Kid!


Somewhat inappropriately in such a definitively English context, the song accompanying Miss Hornby is Serge Gainsbourg's "Laisse Tomber les Filles", performed by France Gall.

Numerous photos of Twiggy and of David Bowie may be perused on the website of Twig's ostensible discoverer, Justin de Villeneuve.

Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008)

On Saturday, in my John Berryman post, I mentioned Thomas M. Disch's use of the suicidal Berryman's ghost as a character in one of his novels.  I had no idea at the time I posted it that Disch himself, sadly, had taken his own life the previous day.

I came by the news first through John Crowley's LiveJournal, where the commenters now include Disch's surviving family members and Philip K. Dick's third wife Anne.  Appreciations, and links to appreciations, can also be found at Crooked Timber, Hit & Run, and 2blowhards.

While he will deservedly be remembered as a very fine writer of science fiction and similarly fantastic fiction, he was also a (to my mind underrated) poet.  I purchased a copy of his first collection, The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, at Cody's bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in the late 70s; it ranks high on my list of books that have somehow got away from me and that I now miss having.  He continued to post his recent poetry among the entries on his own LiveJournal, Endzone.  Simply because it is an interesting poem, and not for the sake of trying to read any doomy foreshadowing into it, here is his entry from June 17:

Tears the Bullet Wept

We know that bullets sing.
Bret Harte transcribed their song.
But give them this: they weep as well,
And theirs are the most precious souvenirs
That venders hawk on the streets of hell.

What is so tragic as the lethal blast
Of thunderbolt or .38
That turns what had been present
Into past?  There he stood
And here he lies at last.
Will you not shed a single tear
For any such?  Is that too much to ask?

Here is a tear. Weigh it,
Please, Sir, on your scale--
And I will tell you the whole tale.
But only when your job is done.
Kill all the rest first.  I will wait.

I had also been trying to think of an excuse to link his "Write about Flowers" from February, just because I smiled over this passage:

Just before bed I'd been reading
Portrait of a Lady
with special reference
to Pansy, James's nightmare of a rich, dumb
American girl. Flowers are about sex, about how
to get bees to rub up against your anthers.
Teenage girls are much the same.

Born on Groundhog Day, died on the Fourth of July.  He would have been able to make something of that.  Ave atque vale.


Some previous Disch references (there are others for those who would hunt them up) on a fool in the forest:

Drive-In Saturday:
John Berryman

It has been a video-heavy week here, what with this weblog's 5-year anniversary and the 4th of July and such, but that is no obstacle to another Saturday video post.  For today, the theme is the life, work, and death -- by suicide, jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis on January 7, 1972 -- of the great and troubled poet John Berryman.

Below are two excerpts from a 1967 BBC interview with Berryman, then at the height of his fame following the publication of the first 77 Dream Songs.  Berryman pretty much does all the talking.

In the weeks following Berryman's death, [Robert] Lowell was invited to come up to London for a BBC program remembering his friend.  The focus of the evening was the BBC interview between a very drunken Berryman and the critic, Tony Alvarez.  It had been shot five years earlier in Dublin, when the Berrymans were living in Ballsbridge, filmed half in Berryman's rented house and half in the local pub, which had served as Berryman's study.  'John, close-up, just off drunkenness,' Lowell wrote [Elizabeth] Hardwick that March, misreading Berryman's drunken brilliance for a kind of manic sobriety.  There was Berryman, larger than life, in dramatic black and white, mad beard wagging.  Like Henry [the protagonist of the Dream Songs], Berryman was 'mannered, booming, like an old fashioned star professor.  His worst.'

This first segment concludes with Berryman's rendition of the somewhat famous Dream Song 14: "Life, friends, is boring"

And from the same interview one of the best, Dream Song 29: "There sat down once a thing on Henry's heart"

For whatever reason, there was something of a vogue last year among indie bands for writing songs about, or at least referring to, John Berryman.  The most prominent was probably "Stuck Between Stations" by The Hold Steady, but because I don't much like the song or the band I'll not post that here. 

Much more interesting is the approach taken by Will Sheff and Okkervil River in "John Allyn Smyth Sails" on The Stage Names.  Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, but renamed as a child when his mother remarried following the suicide of his father.  The song is Berryman's envoi from beyond the grave, combining recollections of his father's death with thoughts on his own topped it off with, of all things, a despairing variant on the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B."  ["John B," get it?  Ah, youth!]  Here, a performance in Montreal:


The oddly touching and rather heroic ghost of John Berryman, somewhat the worse for wear after his plummet from the bridge, plays a major supporting role Tom Disch's novel, The Businessman: A Tale of Terror.

Robert Lowell anecdote from Paul L. Mariani, God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry and the Ineffable, at p. 92.

Of related interest, previously on a fool in the forest:

Songs of Our Climate


For Independence Day, I was thinking perhaps I might wade into the ongoing public discussion of the various flavors of American Patriotism.  Unfortunately, as with so many public debates in our great nation, the discussion is so thoroughly awash in Self-importance, Self-interest, and Sentimentality that it is difficult at the best of times to sift through to much that is solid or meritorious.  Plus which, there is little that I could say without the risk of succumbing myself to the 3 S's just mentioned, so on second thought I have chosen to more or less give it a miss. 

At bottom, I sympathize with the likes of Matt Welch and his disdain for those of our politicians who insist that one who loves his or her country "must" do this or do that, a sentiment on which he expands a bit here:

Lord, how I despise every inch of this conversation.  There is something juvenile yet creepy -- [colorful and vulgar simile omitted] -- with the spectacle of people who wake up in the morning dreaming up new ways to draw the precise boundaries around what it means to be sufficiently patriotic.  Especially when the definition of patriotism is in opposition to enumerated freedoms.

And there's something both authoritarian and myopic with the bizarre notion, mouthed constantly by politicians, that the most authentic manifestations of patriotism are military service, government employment, and 'community organizing' . . . as opposed to say, hitchhiking around the Americas, or getting (maybe even creating!) a damned job doing something you love.

Here's a little number that is all about "hitchhiking around the Americas, "sung by a pair of lifelong New Yorkers with whom you may be familiar.  It feels, as it always has, appropriate to the Fourth of July: 

After 36 years in California, Michigan seems like a dream to me now, too.

My own patriotism tends to be of the "concerned but hopeful" school: cognizant of flaws and follies (and worse) in our nation's direction, but basically confident that we will sort things out for the best in the end, even if the end does not arrive so soon as one could wish.  Paul Simon, solo this time and sporting a mustache such as can only be sported in a free and proud republic, performs one of my favorite expressions of that point of view:

Finally a somewhat gruffer, but still I think hopeful, patriotic song from Joe Henry, featuring a major American retailer, a selection of garage door springs, and the greatest center fielder of all time.

Have a hopeful and tuneful Fourth, fellow patriots.


Illustration: The new Ferris Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier by Flickr user Marco Siguenza, used under Creative Commons license.