Sunday, April 30, 2006

Led Zeppelin - DVD

In the early part of this new century Jimmy Page collected and sorted through tons of official and bootleg live footage of Zeppelin stretching from the early days to their last shows in London in 1979. He was even forced to recreate obsolete playback equipment so he could transfer some of the bootleg material. The resulting two DVD set was simply called Led Zeppelin.

It's an amazing collection showing the band evolve over ten or eleven years from a great little hard blues band into a staggering juggernaut. Robert Plant goes from being this almost gawky kid of 20 into a swaggering "blond god of phallic rock" as he once dismissed himself. Jimmy Page starts as an assured session man and ends as an hypnotic, heroin emaciated guitar playing icon. John Paul Jones always look above everything and John Bonham really does come across as pretty much nuts.

Most of the hits are here as well as great album cuts like "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine". There are some over the top bits like way too long versions of "Dazed and Confused" but the final footage come from their 1979 Kenbworth show in England and has "Achilles Last Stand" followed by "In the Evening", "Kashmir" and and great version of "Whole Lotta Love" (a song I don't particularly like). I haven't seen such a monstrous and perfect live performance as in that sequence ever. Dang.

The DVD was released in conjunction with How the West Was Won, a three CD set creating an "entire" concert out of various pieces of two West Coast shows from their 1972 tour. That means you only get songs up to "Houses of the Holy" but who cares? The version of "Stairway to Heaven" is the best I know and "Going to California" and "The Ocean" are outright beautiful.

In these days of crappy pop music Zep's a band to wash out all the bad tastes with. There really wasn't anything else like them and there sure isn't these days.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Violent World of Parker - Richard Stark

Starting in the early sixties crime writer Donald Westlake, using the pen name Richard Stark, created the character of Parker. He's a cold, utterly ammoral thief who does whatever is needed to pull off his heists and deal with the people around him. If it includes murder or kidnapping, so be it. The books were written in a terse, taut style and are brutal and violent.

I finally read the first two (there are 16 original books from the sixties and seventies and a further seven from the past decade or so), "The Hunter" and "The Man With the Getaway Face" and was blown away. I'm on my way to read the third, "The Outfit" as soon as a I finish this. I've never really read anything quite like them before and am looking forward to reading the seven I've got.

These books are models of economy. They're short (about 150 pages each) and tight. The move swiftly and violently and no matter how bad Parker is, which is pretty awful, you want him to succeed. I'm not giving away any of the plots so you can be fully surprised when you open them for the first time. Truly amazing books.

Their biggest problem is that they are hard to come by. The early ones were reprinted but only the first six or so. They can be purchased through ABE or Amazon but they aren't cheap. I just got the third and sixth ones for 15 bucks apiece and am looking to spend even more for some of the later volumes. If you can find them in a used book store grab them when you can because they are absolutely worth it.

Note: "The Hunter" has been filmed twice in the past forty years. Firt as "Point Blank" by John Boorman starring Lee Marvin and the second time by Brian Helgeland with Mel Gibson as "Payback". Both movies have their decent points, particularly "Point Blank". It's a great sixties artifact merging new wave film/storytelling techniques with real hardboiled American style. Lee Marvin is great, though far too warm and fuzzy to really be Parker.
"Payback" stays closer to Stark's novel and is much more brutal and ammoral in tone. Gibson, though, apparently forced cuts to make his character less outright evil and more approachable. There are even moments of outright humor that just don't feel right. Still, they get the opening scene dead right from the book and it's striking.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"The Da Vinci Code" - Dan Brown

So as some sort of penance before Easter I decided to read this amazing book. When done I was struck by the similarity between it and something a retarded monkey might have done stuck in front of a typewriter.

First off, it's fundamentally anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic. I can handle that. My faith is not dependant on someone elses. However, if you're going to write a thriller you claim is based on true historical theories and events you should actually do so.

His theory that the holy grail (and I'm not really giving anything away. His great secrets are pretty much disgorged in the first few chapters. In fact they're portrayed as things everyone already knows) is really the bloodline of the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are based on deliberate frauds that only conspiracy theorists maintain are valid. Brown holds up the Priory of Sion as an ancient secret society bent on protecting the true grail when it was founded by several French conmen in the forties.

He claims that the Templars worshipped an androgynous fertility deity called Baphomet (which seems to simply have been a French corruption of Mahomet) when it was just one of the charges brought against them to destroy them. And it goes on. There are dozens of little errors and bunches of big ones. I want to track down all the reviewers who mention Brown's tremendous historical research and smack them. Can't they spend ten minutes on Google to at least get a glimpse of the nonsense he's claiming historical verity for?

Finally, the book simply stinks. If all his goofy theories were true "The Da Vinci Code" would still count as one of the absolute worst pieces of crap I've ever read. I like junky pulp thrillers. They're a great way to turn off the brain and take a quick thrill ride. Not here. There's little real suspense despite every chapter ending with a cliffhanger and there are no real characters. Everyone exists to spout exposition and make claims that don't bear up to the light of day.

Heck, he even claims radicals bear the epithet leftist because the feminine (and therefore outcast) things were characterized as being left (sinister). No. No. That came from the Estates General during the French Revolution where radicals sat on the left and royalists on the right. If something so basic and elementary is wrong what else is?

Am I taking this all too seriously? Probably, but I couldn't help it. It's so miserably bad a book I couldn't help myself from ranting.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sam Peckinpah Westerns Collection

Sam Peckinpah made some pretty awful movies, particularly in the last days of his career, and he made some pretty pedestrian ones, but he also made some amazing and beautiful ones that stand up to the dross being spewed out of the studios today.

This collection (reasonably priced at Best Buy for about $43), includes "Ride the High Country", "The Wild Bunch", "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid". They're all sad, melancholy looks at men's loyalty to each other, the prices we pay to discard that loyalty and place of violence amongst men.

The only one with any sort of real notoriety is "The Wild Bunch" which was groundbreakingly violent for its time and turned him into an international sensation with the ability to make a few more movies as he saw fit. With a cast of old stars (Robert Ryan and William Holden) and the cream grizzled character actors (Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, LQ Jones, and Strother Martin) Peckinpah assaults viewers with deep betrayal, casual as well as epic violence and serious questions about living with dignity. The movie, set along the US/Mexican border during the Mexican Revolution, is epic in scope and brutality. Even to this day its violent finale goes pretty unmatched.

"Ride the High Country" is very much a traditional western with none of the graphic violence Peckinpah started using in "The Wild Bunch". Instead it looks at a pair of tough, old men who've lived past the end of the West that let them become notable. It stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, both of whom had been notable Western stars for decades. Both came out of semi-retirement to make this movie as a clear meditation on age and the end of the frontier. Supposedly both felt it served as a fitting cap to illustrious careers and a fitting commentary on the Western as a genre. Scott fully retired and McCrea only made a few minor appearances aftewards.

"Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" is fascinating and works similar ground to "The Wild Bunch". Sherrif Garrett (James Coburn) is forced to track down his friend, Billy Bonney (Kris Kristofferson) as the increasingly settled and civilized Lincoln, New Mexico can't stand for his outlaw behavior any more. It's a slow moving film that was butchered by the studios and has been restored from Peckinpah's notes and original cuts. There are some amazing sequences (Slim Picken's and Katy Jurado's short appearances as a sherrif and his wife is one of the most moving things I've seen in any movie lately) but it does suffer from a slackness at times that is disappointing. Bob Dylan appears as one of Billy's men and he composed a great country folk score.

The last movie included is "The Ballad of Cable Hogue". It stars Jason Robards, Stella Stevens and David Warner and has none of the violence people (and the studio) expected from Peckinpah in the wake of "The Wild Bunch". Again, Peckinpah presents us with a movie about age, obsolescence and revenge. This time it's done on a small scale with sweetness and a gentle touch.

If you have any interest in Westerns or just like downright great movies you could do much worse than buy this collection. There are three great films and one pretty dang good one.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I'm slowly reading "The House of the Seven Gables". Slowly because, as usual, I'm detouring through the papers and magazines bought each day and the early issues of "Hellboy." Of the latter, if you haven't read it or just seen the movie, check 'em out. I'm unsure if Mignola's a better artist or writer but it's surely a close call. Beautiful and smartly put together. The first story's a bit weak but things only get insanely better right away.

Also, I've been reading in bits and pieces David Thomson's"Biographical Dictionary of Film" and Phillip Lopate's "American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now"

Monday, April 03, 2006

Borders' Cowardice

The corporation that owns Borders and Waldenbooks has decided not to carry the upcoming issue of the Council for Secular Humanism's magazine "Free Inquiry" because it will contain 4 of the Danish cartoons about Mohammed. Their mealy mouthed statement about it reads "We absolutely respect our customers’ right to choose what they wish to read and buy and we support the First Amendment,” Bingham said. “And we absolutely support the rights of Free Inquiry to publish the cartoons. We’ve just chosen not to carry this particular issue in our stores"

Originally I was going to try and write something nuanced and at least a little respectful of Border's parent corporation for siding strictly on the side of its employees' safety. The heck with that.

Seems they have a series of ads claiming they've never met a banned author they didn't like. I guess that only matters when it offends the non-violent majority. The minute some group offer violence as the solution to material it finds offensive they crumble. You can't use fighting censorship as a marketing ploy and then not expect at least some of your customers not call you to task for skimping on it over an issue that's incredibly important. Imagine the indignant laughter if Catholics asked Borders not to carry "The Da Vinci Code" or liberals didn't want anything by Anne Coulter stocked?

This isn't a question of anti-Islamic sentiments but of moral cowardice in the face of threatened violence. This isn't a question of blaspemy as there's no hard and fast Islamic law about depictions of Mohammed, but about a refusal to brook any sort of criticism. They were even carried in an Egyptian paper without any problems. This inability to face criticism (and for the record, many of the cartoons were actually attacks on the soliciting editor for staging what was seen as simply a stunt) when it's being heaped on me and my values all the time is disheartening.

This is a manufactured crisis that demands to be able to be examined objectively. Cowering in fear is not the way. If respect for different traditions is demanded I expect it to be accorded to my traditions as well. I don't see that happening any time soon so I guess I'll just go about my way which includes free speech, a free press and the ability to display satire without fear for my life. I also expect firms that make their money off those values to actually abide by them and stand up for them.