Movie Diary: "Hickey And Boggs"

A recent blog post by crime writer Duane Swierczynski led me to seek this movie out. I guess I'm in kind of a neo-noir mood, because the other two movies I have at my house right now are "Get Carter" (which I've waited two weeks to see for some reason) and "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle." Hopefully I'll get to those soon. Anyway, "Hickey and Boggs." Swierczynski mentions that you can get a clear copy of it from iTunes, but I'm not a watching-the-movie-on-the-computer sort of guy most of the time, so I went ahead and got the crappy-quality DVD from Netflix, and I'm glad I did. Yeah, seriously, I'm glad I saw a shitty transfer of it. This is a neo-noir movie, one of those sunlight noirs that you hear about from the 70s, which was a perfect time for such a movement in B-grade crime films, what with all the New Hollywood guys running around making bleak non-linear films like "Five Easy Pieces" and "Mean Streets"--which just seem to me like arthouse versions of Corman crime films from the late 60s anyway. Hell, there's some movies from the era where it's hard to decide which they even are. Look at "Vanishing Point." Is that a crime film or an art film? Sure seems like there's a thin line between the two, at least at that point in film history, anyway.

So yes, the shitty grainy transfer of "Hickey And Boggs" in which the colors are overexposed and burnt out and the titles look like they were done with a mid-80s dot-matrix printer, is perfect for the aura of burnt-out, grimy despair that the entire movie carries. It reunites "I Spy" costars Bill Cosby (Hickey) and Robert Culp (Boggs), and while I've never seen "I Spy," I've got to figure it was way more lighthearted than this. The film begins with our heroes discussing the woeful state of their finances, and how Hickey has chosen to pay the answering service instead of the phone bill, so that they can still get messages. Of course, they have to return their messages from phone booths now, but when Hickey does so, he makes an appointment for the next morning, at which a mincing queer stereotype named Rice gives Hickey a job--to locate a girl named Mary Jane. He also gives Hickey $500 as a retainer, which seems quite welcome. So he and Boggs jump into the job wholeheartedly, but what they don't know is that Mary Jane is mixed up in some serious criminal activity. She's trying to unload some stolen money from a bank job, and the mafia people who consider it their money are after her and her confederates, as are the police. Of course, Hickey and Boggs are just trying to do a job so that they can keep paying their rent. Hickey is on the outs with his wife, and is trying to win her back by showing that he can make a living and be a responsible husband and father. Boggs seems like he was in the same situation a while back, but now he's given up, htting up strip bars, getting whores, and attempting to unload his house, which has evidently depreciated in value since he got it.

The thing that gets Hickey and Boggs into trouble at first is that every lead they have for tracking down Mary Jane is someone who has just gotten whacked when they arrive for an interview. Now the cops are mad, and they get even madder when some of Hickey and Boggs's leads take them to the same places where the mafia guys are, resulting in shootouts where Hickey and Boggs don't even always know who they're shooting at, or why. Which only infuriates the cops more. Now Hickey and Boggs's PI licenses are on the line, and the papers are writing about them, which lets the mafia guys figure out who they are. And their leads for finding Mary Jane just get weirder, leading them to interactions with militant Black Panther types, even as their original client disappears on them.

At this point, things go straight downhill for our protagonists, and it'd be unfair to give away any more of what happens. But the ending is dark and grim, just as one would expect from a noir film, even one that's as well-lit and bright as this one. That Los Angeles sun is beating down on Hickey and Boggs, rather than shining warmly upon them, a fact that I felt was only driven home by the crappy DVD transfer that this film had. Duane Swierczynski associates this film with Altman's "The Long Goodbye" in both the sunlight-noir genre and the idea that both of them were showing a world that was increasingly hostile to the idea of private detectives. Hickey and Boggs have multiple conversations during this film about how their livelihood is being outmoded, and are told by a cop at one point that they're nothing but glorified process servers now. They're resistant to this fate, but in the end they can't change it. This movie is a dark, fascinating look at their attempt to nonetheless do so. Whether they succeed in the end is a judgment call you'll have to make for yourself.



Update: what I've been reading.

First-person introductory paragraph: good lord, you guys. My reading habits have become a complete shambles over the last few months. I'm not necessarily a one-book-at-a-time sort of person all the time, but more often than not, I am. Occasionally I might get into a second book that I feel needs to be given priority, generally pausing in the first book and returning to it when the second book is done. Sometimes the first book gets shunted aside completely, but that's rare. Lately, though, all of this has been turned upside down. I've been participating in multiple book clubs, some of which read multiple books in each month, and, as always, buying way more books in any given time period than I have time to read. Combine that with my relentlessly expanding blogroll, the half-dozen or so magazines I attempt to follow, and my ballooning comic book subscription list, and what I've got on my hands is a full-scale onslaught of reading material, one that I'm completely incapable of keeping up with. At some point in April, I cracked under the strain--I blame Hunter S. Thompson's gargantuan collection of correspondence, "Fear And Loathing In America," about which more below--and found myself haphazardly reading 10 to 20 pages at a time in at least half a dozen different books. My mood, and therefore my desire for reading material, would change hourly, and I quit trying to keep my reading queue orderly and gave in entirely to my whims. Thus, in addition to the books you'll read about below, all of which I have finished in the last two months, I've also read portions of at least half a dozen other books, including a few I read a long time ago and was rereading (these were mostly short story collections by Harlan Ellison--see my recent post entitled "Dreams With Sharp Teeth." Sorry, no hyperlink, but it's gotta still be on the front page). Furthermore, I've delved into lengthy essays from blogs and magazines, 6 to 12 months of comic backlog, and I still have at least half a dozen half-read books kicking around my room that I have every intention of getting too ASAP. So uh, I'll keep you guys posted, but as of right now my reading habits are a total disaster, and the intermittent nature of these book posts will probably continue to reflect that. I just hope the quality of the writeups won't.

A Preferred Blur, by Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins' books of his collected journal entries become both more intriguing and more depressing as the years go on. There's still plenty of awesome travel writing and observations on politics and humanity in this book, as in all of them, but the more personal moments of this book were particularly tough on me. I guess there are two different reasons why that is: one being that I can relate pretty heavily to a lot of Rollins's issues with social interaction, whether it be with friends, girl...more Henry Rollins' books of his collected journal entries become both more intriguing and more depressing as the years go on. There's still plenty of awesome travel writing and observations on politics and humanity in this book, as in all of them, but the more personal moments of this book were particularly tough on me. I guess there are two different reasons why that is: one being that I can relate pretty heavily to a lot of Rollins's issues with social interaction, whether it be with friends, girls he is attracted to, or total strangers; the other being that, as someone who is a longtime fan of all Rollins' work, I've come to care about him as a person and I hate to read that he's having so many troubles with depression. Also, it's kind of hard to see him dealing with those issues the way he does; in this book, he talks often about how he has to minimize his time around people he cares about, how he can't even allow himself to maintain communication with women he's attracted to and DEFINITELY can't ever get into another romantic relationship, and how he can never let himself get too comfortable at home, because as soon as he gets comfortable or feels safe with someone he feels like he's opening himself up to be hurt. I can see the logic behind this strategy, especially coming from someone who has never completely recovered from having his best friend shot right in front of him (he talks extensively about his depression over Joe Cole's murder in this book, which was written 16 years after it happened). But I just can't feel all that good about it, because I feel like the man is depressed either way, and he operates on the assumption that a minimum level of depression is unavoidable and he has to function in a certain way that minimizes human contact that he might enjoy at the time. He sees all such contact as an inevitable path to even deeper levels of depression in the future, and again, I can understand that logic--it's often been that way for me too. But a lot of this book just reads like the thought process of someone who has given up on ever finding personal happiness, and that just bums me out. I don't want to think that that's what someone I have a great deal of admiration for will be feeling for the rest of his life, and--considering how much I relate to a lot of the feelings he describes--I certainly don't want to believe that this is what waits for me in the future. Reading this book was hard, mainly because it made me think that the only reason I haven't quite given up yet is because I'm somewhat younger than Rollins. I don't want to believe that but it seems frighteningly plausible.

I don't want this review to make this entire book seem like some miserable slog of a read, because it isn't. There are definitely parts of the book that are enjoyable in the extreme, and I think if I had been able to separate more from the parts about depression, I could have enjoyed reading them more than I did. Really, though, this book is quite a different animal from Rollins's more comedy-oriented spoken word performances, and fits a lot more closely with the dark, heavy lyrics he used to write for the Rollins Band and Black Flag. Well worth your time if you enjoy Rollins' writing, but go into it expecting a heavy emotional trip, because that's what you're going to get.

The Forest Of Hands And Teeth, by Carrie Ryan
This is an incredibly engaging book. I tore through it in less than one full day. It's a young adult novel, so it wasn't exactly heavy reading, but I never felt like I was reading something that was written below my level, and in fact, Carrie Ryan seems to have quite a bit of writing talent, not just where plotting and characterization are concerned (though she's certainly no slouch in either of these departments), but on a level of individual sentence and paragraph construction.

"The Forest Of Hands And Teeth" is a new take on the zombie novel, which has become a rather popular subgenre in recent years. Rather than concentrating on the zombie apocalypse, as every book about the subject that I've ever read has done, "The Forest Of Hands And Teeth" takes place several generations after the coming of the zombies (referred to as "The Unconsecrated" in the book), in a town with a strong fence surrounding it, outside of which lies the forest of the title. The forest is filled with zombies, which never seem to rot or lose their energy, instead continuing to "live" in the forest and representing a constant threat to the inhabitants of the village. This has caused the village's social structure to adapt, and the inhabitants now live in a manner similar to the Puritans of the 17th century. The cathedral is the social nexus of the town, and is inhabited by the Sisterhood, who preserve the history of the town. Marriage and continuation of familial lines is paramount to the preservation of the town--said by the Sisterhood to be ordained by God, in order to keep humanity alive in the face of the Unconsecrated.

This book is told from the point of view of Mary, a young woman of marrying age who longs to visit the ocean, even as she's told by most of the village that this is not possible, that they are the only humans left and must stay within their village forever. Mary's hand in marriage is desired by Harry, but she loves Harry's brother Travis. After the death of her parents at the beginning of the story, and after Mary hesitates to accept Harry's marriage offer, Mary's brother Jed forces her out of their family home, and she is forced to join the Sisterhood, the one fate she wanted least. However, once in the Sisterhood, Mary begins to learn more about the history of humankind as a whole and the village in particular, and begins to think that many secrets have been kept by the Sisterhood from her and the rest of the village's inhabitants. What she ends up discovering turns her world upside down, but I don't want to explain further, as there are many twists and turns of the plot in this book, and it would be easy to spoil one or another of them. Suffice it to say that the story moves farther and faster than I ever expected based on the first few chapters of the book, and stays entertaining and unpredictable throughout. I'm not sure if there'll be a sequel, though the ending leaves it open, but if there is one, I'll definitely pick it up. And even if there isn't, I'm very interested to see what else Carrie Ryan writes in the future. This book, her debut, is enough to convince me that she's very talented.

A Test Of Wills, by Charles Todd
I read this book a few weeks ago but have been doing a poor job of maintaining my goodreads page and so am only reviewing it now. I don't have a perfectly formed review in my mind the way I might have if I'd written about it the day I finished it, but I can remember enough to know that I quite enjoyed it. This is the first in a series of mysteries by Charles Todd, which take place in England in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Ian Rutledge has returned home to reclaim his job as a homicide detective, but he's shellshocked from the war and now suffers a persistent aural hallucination--the voice of one of his now-dead comrades, Hamish MacLeod, speaking to him from over his shoulder. Rutledge knows that Hamis is a delusion, but this knowledge alone is not enough to chase him away, and so he must spend all of his time being careful not to respond to Hamish's non-existent voice in the presence of other people.

Meanwhile, he's still trying to solve murders, such as the one he's sent to investigate in "Test Of Wills," of a retired Colonel. The details of the plot were interesting and unpredictable enough to keep me guessing until the very end, but what I enjoyed most about this book was not so much any of the whodunit aspects but more the characterizations of Rutledge, the suspects in the murder case, and even Hamish, Rutledge's imagined partner. Todd creates a dark atmosphere around all of these people, and shows us the more sordid aspects of their lives, which is a lot of what makes the murder's solution so tough to predict--so many of the characters seem like they could have done it. Perhaps its morbid or pessimistic of me, but I really enjoy reading books that come from as dark a perspective as this one, and I look forward to checking out more of the Charles Todd mysteries.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
So this week my book club read "Starship Troopers." I of course read it when I was 12 and a few times since, none since I was in 9th grade or so. I loved it as a pre-teen. Going back to it, though, kinda ruined it. What I--and most of the book club--realized was that the society depicted within the book is basically fascist, and that there's a lot of Heinlein philosophizing scattered throughout, in which he makes absurd claims like that the juvenile delinquent scare of the 50s was caused by parents not spanking their children enough. The parts that are a space adventure/war story are still pretty good, but they are hugely overshadowed by all the ersatz philosophy. I didn't remember this at all, but nearly a quarter of the book is devoted to lectures in which Heinlein "proves" various theories based on an imagined future history that doesn't even remotely resemble what has happened in the 50 years since this book came out. And thank god, because this would be a military-run fascist society by now if it had.

The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett
At a time when I was already in the middle of several other books (just as I am right now), the bookstore where I work got a shipment of new books in, and this one looked fascinating to me. I dropped everything else I was reading in order to blow through this book in about three days, and I never regretted it for a second. At first glance, "The Writing Class" might seem like a standard cozy mystery, one structured in a similar manner to the endless craft mysteries pumped out by Berkeley Prime Crime month after month. This is far from the truth, though. For one thing, the book's mystery elements seem more secondary than like the primary focus of the book. What this story is really about is a writing class, as detailed mostly from the perspective of its teacher, a middle-aged writer named Amy Gallup who hasn't published a novel in 20 years and does editing work from home in order to pay the bills. She doesn't need the pay from teaching the writing class, but she does it as a way to have regular contact with people other than herself. The group that takes her class in the fall semester of 2007 is unusually interesting, and includes a prankster with a mean streak that gets more vicious with each passing class.

To tell you any more of the plot than this would be criminal, and with that in mind, please do not read the back of this book, as it spoils something that happens two-thirds of the way through it. But do read this book, as it is full of fascinating characters that are lifelike and multi-dimensional, and who have very entertaining interactions. There's also some interesting stuff about the art and craft of writing, which you the reader may find yourself learning alongside the students in the writing class. Perhaps my favorite element of this book was its casual but effective realism; none of the characters are living perfectly happy, fulfilled lives, but none of them seemed like overly maudlin sufferers, either. They just come across as real people, with the sorts of ups and downs that play out in normal lives.

I wouldn't consider "The Writing Class" to be literary in any real way, but I do feel like it's an incredibly well-written book. A lot of more literary writings that I've read in my life have seemed almost to beat you over the head with their brilliance. They may be full of beautiful sentences, but those sentences almost seem to get in the way of the story they're telling. In "The Writing Class," Jincy Willett displays a much more subtle form of talent, writing quietly eloquent sentences full of intelligence and wit that could escape a reader's notice completely if they weren't looking for them. She proves that a writer doesn't have to write a big, important book to display a ton of talent. This is only her third book in over 20 years; here's hoping she writes more soon.

Fear And Loathing In America: The Gonzo Letters Volume II, 1968-1976, by Hunter S. Thompson
This huge tome of Hunter Thompson's correspondence took me approximately two months to read, but that doesn't mean that I didn't like it. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, the format leant itself to being put down for extended periods of time before returning to it. There's not much of any connection or narrative flow between one letter and the next, and most of the time, the other half of Thompson's correspondence is not reproduced here, so the reader is left to guess at what exactly has inspired him to hurl invective at this person or that one. That's most of what he does in this book, too--hurl invective, both at people he likes and people he's sincerely angry with. His correspondence with Oscar Acosta is full of such rancor, and moves over the course of the book from seeming like good-natured bickering between friends to real animosity. One wonders if Thompson and Acosta would have worked out their differences over time, were it not for the latter's untimely disappearance.

It's a lot of fun to read each individual letter, especially the lengthier ones that delve into more complicated thought processes that Thompson was working through at various stages of completing books or articles. There are several detailed outlines herein for books that were never completed, all of which are entertaining, but also of course frustrating due to the fact that we can't go read those books in full. There are also many interesting arguments back and forth between Thompson and his various publishers, in which we learn his exact feelings (generally predictable but hilarious fury) about the various edits and bowdlerizations he was forced to suffer throughout his career. It becomes clear that Thompson always took his writing very seriously, and had a lot invested in his work being read exactly the way he intended. He also got very frustrated with those who saw his "gonzo" style as just an excuse to make shit up. As far as Thompson was concerned, he was telling the truth in all of his pieces, even if he didn't always use a format that was approved by standard journalists of the time.

I wouldn't really recommend reading this book to anyone who isn't well-versed in Hunter S. Thompson's writing career; in order to be most properly enjoyed, the reader should probably already be familiar with "Hell's Angels," "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas," "Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail 72," and "The Great Shark Hunt," as work that ended up in all four of these books is discussed in detail here. As I said, not that much information is given to the reader outside of the actual text of the letters, so it'll be a lot harder to keep up if you haven't read those books. If you have, though, and you're interested in an even deeper examination of Thompson's life and mindset during that period of his career, "Fear And Loathing In America" will provide you with a very entertaining read. And honestly, you'll probably be better off setting it aside every now and then and cleansing your palate with something a bit lighter before returning. Trying to take this whole book in one fell swoop would probably amount to biting off more than one can chew.

Consider The Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
I took a long time to finish this book, primarily because it was a set of essays and I often took breaks inbetween them. Also, because I've been reading way too many books at once lately, which has led me to feeling overwhelmed and then ignoring all of the books I'm reading in favor of starting yet more new ones, or just reading magazines and comic books, or rereading stuff I've already read... whatever, the point is that it took me forever to finish this book, but absolutely NOT because it wasn't amazing. It is amazing, just like "Infinite Jest" is amazing. It seemed like it would be a complete departure from that brobdingnagian novel, simply by virtue of the difference between formats, but I ended up finding a lot of common threads between the two. Now that David Foster Wallace is, unfortunately, no longer with us, I feel a bit more confident in describing certain of his themes as universal to all of his work, and it seems like those universal themes were just as present in his essays as collected here as they were in his magnum opus, "Infinite Jest." Asking me to specify the themes might result in a bit of evasion though, really just because I'm afraid that I'll describe them badly enough that I end up being wrong. But what the hell: sincerity, compassion, the desire among all humans (and maybe even non-humans) to connect with one another, to feel part of something greater than oneself. This shows up in all sorts of places in this book, from DFW's profile of a right-wing radio talk show host (John Ziegler, he of more recent "How Obama Got Elected" fame), to his review of a dictionary of English usage, to his description of two weeks spent on the campaign trail with John McCain during his 2000 run for president. And in fact, it seems like Wallace's main beef with the John Updike novel he reviews negatively in this collection is its protagonist's narcissistic inability to connect with anyone/anything other than himself/his penis. A lot of times, I see reviewers make allusions to some sort of post-modern ironic-detachment sensibility when they write about David Foster Wallace's oeuvre, and I must conclude that these people just don't get it. If anything, I see DFW's writing as coming from an anti-ironic-distance perspective. He wants us to talk more, and more honestly, with each other. And in light of his depression and ultimate suicide, it seems to me (though I may be overstepping my bounds here) that this impulse in his writing stemmed from a desire to talk openly and honestly, and make connections, with those around him. I don't know if it'd be any comfort at all, but he connected with me when I read "Infinite Jest," and I'd say he's connected even more with this fascinating and brilliant collection of essays.

Burning Fight: The 90s Hardcore Revolution In Ethics, Politics, Spirit And Sound, by Brian Peterson
I feel compelled to give this book four out of five stars simply by virtue of its existence. As someone who grew up in the 90s hardcore scene, who found the whole era to be vital and fascinating, to be filled with musical experimentation and growth on personal and community levels, I've always hated the standard line about how hardcore died in 1986 (or whenever Steven Blush said), about how it just got easier to be a hardcore kid after that, and the music therefore got worse and the kids got wimpier. That's damn near the opposite of my personal experience of the 90s scene, and I've long wanted to write my own book debunking that personal myth. So I'm very glad that Brian Peterson got the ball rolling with his book. That said, I don't feel like "Burning Fight" obviates my own need to write a book about the subject, because the fact is that this one just isn't that good. Peterson, who ironically teaches high school English, is not what I'd consider a good writer, and I'd even feel like I was gilding the lily a bit to call him mediocre. Fact is, the guy is a barely capable wordsmith whose thankfully infrequent interjections of narrative read like the sort of high school senior thesis that might get you a B if your teacher grades on a curve. The passages Peterson wrote for the book are as free of insight as they possibly could be, and tend to explain band after band, movement after movement, in the same tired language. I swear Peterson mentions the Bad Brains and the Cro-Mags as sonic references for at least a dozen different bands, none of whom sound anything alike. It seemed at least somewhat legitimate when he first said it about 108, who are first in the alphabetically-ordered section of interviews with various bands; 108 were definitely influenced hugely by both of those bands. When he brought the same two bands up 300 pages later in a discussion of Unbroken, though, I damn near threw the book across the room. It's lazy writing, pure and simple. And to expand on that theme, 90% of the book is structured like an oral history, leaving the bands and kids who were there to fill in the gaps and provide insight into the subjects that Peterson doesn't explore in any depth himself. It's the luck of the draw as to how much insight the quotes provide, and for every intelligent, well-spoken person in the book, such as Jes Steineger of Coalesce, Vic DiCara of 108, or Norman Brannon of Texas Is The Reason, there are 20 more people whose quotes serve only to demonstrate how little thought they've given to the questions Peterson is asking. Sometimes two quotes on the same page about the same subject will have completely contradictory viewpoints, and while this is interesting in that it shows the multiplicity of opinions and perceptions in the scene at the time, it ruins the narrative framework of the section and makes it very hard to understand what sort of conclusion we're supposed to draw. I feel like a lot of the reason that I was able to get something out of this book was because I was there during those times myself, and could add what new information "Burning Fight" provided me to my own memories, knowledge, and insight. It helped me complete my picture of the scene during that era, but if I were coming into this book with no foreknowledge of the time, I don't know how accurate or fleshed-out the picture I'd get would be.

One thing's for sure: the 30 or so band interviews that make up the lion's share of this book, while doing even more to completely undermine any narrative framework established in the more universal opening chapters than was already done in those chapters themselves, were far more interesting, insightful, and entertaining than the opening sections. While the opening chapters were the sort of slog that I only endured because I was having trouble admitting how far short of my expectations this book had fallen, the band interviews were very interesting and kept my attention throughout. Really, though, they made this book far more like a big fat zine than any real history of an era, and if you want a book that really does a great job of encapsulating 90s hardcore on that level, you're better off with Norman Brannon's "The Anti-Matter Anthology." Or, perhaps, the book about all of this that I'm gonna write in another few years. [Famous last words.]



The death of true spirit.

I've been reading the book "Burning Fight: The 90s Hardcore Revolution in Ethics, Politics, Spirit, and Sound" by Brian Peterson, lately, and it's led me back to a lot of the records and bands I loved when I was deeply immersed in the hardcore scene during the 90s. I mean, not that I ever really go too long without listening to stuff from that period, but still. It's led me back to some slightly different bands than the ones I return to most often, too, and that seems to be the result of Peterson prioritizing different elements of that era than I do. For me, the progression on a purely musical level, the experimentation in sound, that characterized the era is the most important thing to talk about where it's concerned, with the emotional evolution of the community running a close second. Politics, religion, and some of the other elements that he focuses on in this book were definitely important, and I recognize that, but they aren't the pieces of the puzzle that capture my attention most closely.

I have a lot more than just that to say about "Burning Fight," and I wouldn't be surprised if I devoted at least one full post to it at some point in the future (once I'm finished reading it), but right now, I want to concentrate more on a specific thing that I've learned from "Burning Fight," something that I've probably always known on some level but never consciously considered before. About two thirds of "Burning Fight" is devoted to interviews with various important bands from that time period, and while I do not have a problem with the bands Peterson chose to include, I am struck by the difference in reputation that some of these bands have in the eyes of today's hardcore scene, as opposed to others. Some of them--Shelter, Inside Out, Avail, and Integrity are all good examples--are well-remembered, well-respected, and influential in today's scene. Others, though, are almost entirely forgotten. Spitboy, Groundwork, Los Crudos, and Downcast are the most prominent examples of the latter group, and I don't think this is a coincidence; out of all of the groups profiled in "Burning Fight," these are the bands that were most devoted to remaining underground, keeping their bands separate from any hint of the mainstream, any hint of hardcore-scene-as-business.

Back in my teens and early 20s, I was just as deeply immersed in the underground as these bands were. I went to shows that were held in basements, at which bands got paid in gas money and sold cheaply produced records with xeroxed and silkscreened covers. I loved that scene, loved that it was such a tight-knit community with so little of an air of separation between band and audience, and thought the music coming out of it was brilliant. At the time, I didn't question whether there was a wider audience that this scene should be reaching and wasn't. After all, it was reaching me, so whether it reached other people too wasn't something I really needed to worry about. Plus, the strictures of the DIY ethic that all of us observed in that scene really prevented these bands from getting but so far. The zeitgeist of the scene was such that it enforced an incredibly strict code of self-reliance. While in some parts of the punk scene, the definition of selling out revolved around signing to a major label, within the smaller community of the DIY hardcore scene, even releasing your band's records with a barcode on them, in order to make them easier to stock in stores, was seen as a betrayal.

In contemplating the fate of bands like Groundwork, Downcast, and Los Crudos now, it seems to me that the DIY hardcore scene from which they emerged was largely a victim of its own success. There were, at least ostensibly, far nobler reasons for the strict enforcement of the DIY code as it was defined at the time, but one can't help but note upon reflection that other consequences of that enforcement, intended or not, were parochialism, balkanization, and the violent rejection from the community of anyone who became too successful. "Burning Fight" provides at least one great example of the latter--Avail, who were so well loved at one point that they graced the cover of HeartattaCk #4 (more on HeartattaCk momentarily*), were completely ostracized from the scene by the time their third album came out. They hadn't signed to a major label at the time, and in fact never have, even to this very day. But by signing to Lookout Records for their second album, and by doing very well on that more visible but nonetheless completely independent label, Avail grew to a level that the basement show DIY scene no longer wanted anything to do with them. Tellingly, the same decisions that enabled Avail to make their band a self-sustaining endeavor also moved them out of the favor of the DIY scene.

Obviously, the success that Avail enjoyed in the late 90s, and still enjoy to some extent, is not the success that I meant when I described DIY hardcore as a victim of its own success earlier. What I was talking about at that time was the fact that that scene's code of self-reliance had the goal of separating it completely from any larger, more well-known or easily discovered musical underground. It became less and less accessible to newcomers, and as kids grew older and dropped out of the scene, the amount of younger kids who came into the scene to replace them grew smaller and smaller. At least in Richmond, where I live, the whole thing seemed to implode around 2003. Somewhere around a dozen bands all broke up in the same six-month period, and suddenly there were only two or three active bands left in the scene. Things rebounded within a couple of years, but it was different. In the late 90s, the emphasis on socio-political issues as well as on strict DIY guidelines made people feel like more and more rules were constantly encroaching upon their ability to speak and act freely. I'm not saying that all or even any of these ideas, characterized by detractors as PC, were wrongheaded or overly enforced, and I'm not saying that there weren't problems in the scene that had given rise to the emphasis on these ideas. I'm not even going to make the objective statement that things went too far. What I will say is that things went too far for a lot of people. People new to hardcore who might have been inspired to be part of the basement show scene in 1995 were, by 2003 or so, feeling like they'd be better off joining some other, less strict, scene. And a lot of the people who'd been around for a long while were getting burned out by the constant conflict, and either dropped out entirely or moved on to other subsets of the scene in which things were more relaxed.

It may not seem this way from reading the last paragraph, but I actually think that this outcome was a bad thing, on the whole. Sure, the dogma was overdone to an insane level, and sure, something had to give. In the summer of 1999, I traveled across five states to go to a music festival, only to have a dozen of my friends get kicked out halfway through because they'd made a joke about one of the more poorly-defined political causes being emphasized by the fest's organizers. This led me to get into an hour-long argument with organizers and members of some of the bands I'd come to see in the middle of a hallway. At points, it felt like as many as 100 people might have been watching me have an incredibly stressful argument over something that never seemed to me even worth the expended energy. I'd put over a hundred dollars into driving to the fest, paying my way inside, and feeding myself for the weekend, and for at least those couple of hours, I wasn't having anything remotely resembling my idea of a good time. It cast a pall over the whole weekend, to be honest, and I wasn't even one of the people who got kicked out. So yes, without a doubt, a lot was wrong with the dominant paradigm in that scene.

But there was a lot that was right about it too. A lot of the political, emotional, and spiritual issues explored by the community at large during the glory days of that scene were incredibly important, and needed to be dealt with. What's more, the decision to emphasize political consciousness as the most important defining element of the scene enabled a lot of people to engage in musical experimentation that pushed the state of hardcore and music as a whole forward. All of this was great. And all of it was lost when the dogma overrode the positive aspects and the scene withered away and died. What's more, the bands (and zines, and artists) who were part of this tiny but richly creative subsection of the scene were mostly forgotten too. That was what reading "Burning Fight" led me to realize. When I saw Downcast right next to Disembodied, and thought of the difference between these bands' respective legacies, it brought home to me just how much has been lost, and how rare it'd probably be to find a 19 year old kid in the scene today who has ever even seen a copy of Downcast's LP.

I'm not sure if things could have been done differently, nor if it's really even fair to say that the scene that spawned bands like Downcast and Spitboy doesn't exist anymore. Whatever does exist probably takes some extremely isolated form that has no effect on the larger hardcore scene, though, and I would expect that it's nigh-impenetrable to outsiders. The more widely available hardcore scene, the one that is accessible to kids trying to find something outside the norm, is no more political than the metal scene, and replicates a lot of the same troubling interpersonal dynamics of mainstream society that are also replicated by the metal scene. Nowhere do I see something truly analogous to the hardcore scene I grew up in.

I don't know what to do about this, nor whether there is even anything I can do. All I can really think to do at this point is to try and preserve the history of the scene I was part of. It's for that reason that I want to write a book of my own about 90s hardcore, one that captures my own perspective about what's important and worth preservation ("Burning Fight," for all its positive qualities, has a very different take on this era than my own). And it's for that reason that I've decided to write in this blog specifically about Downcast, a band that deserves far better than the minimal recognition that history has given them.

I'll get into my specific thoughts about Downcast in another entry, to follow later this week.

(*--HeartattaCk fanzine will be explained more thoroughly at that time, too.)



Dreams With Sharp Teeth.

I've never really been a guy who had heroes. I don't look to other people for inspiration or motivation, per se. Nonetheless, there are people out there in the world, some living, some not, who have provided those things for me at certain points in my life. They've influenced me, maybe to go in the direction with my life that I have, or maybe just to believe in myself a little bit more than I otherwise would have, and regardless of how actively they influence me now, I'll always think of them fondly, because of the positive effects they had on me at some point. I see these people as "my people," a small, select group that are on my team--or, as the case may be, I'm on theirs. Henry Rollins is in this group, and so is Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. Peter Parker is totally on this list, even though he's not real, and none of his creators or writers would make the list. But I'm not here to talk about any of those guys; at least, not tonight. I'm here to talk about Harlan Ellison.

I've felt like Harlan Ellison was one of my people ever since I first encountered his writing, at the age of 11. I had to run downstairs and check my copy of "Harlan Ellison's Watching" in order to verify that, and it informed me that that first film review essay that I read by him was published in the July 1987 issue of The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction. That was the first issue I received when I subscribed to that magazine (through the Publisher's Clearinghouse, if I remember correctly. God, remember those big yellow sweepstakes envelopes? Am I dating myself?), and I was 11 that month, so there you go. Anyway, Harlan's exuberant essay style drew me right in, got me thinking, and got me laughing. Here's a choice bit from that first column:

"Woody, that brave little beast (as Moorcock once called your humble columnist), was the fauna (or was it faunum?)(what the hell is the singular of fauna?)(who the hell am I?)(it only hurts when I screw the electrodes too tightly, doctor) who saved all of us from the cockroaches, but to buttress my new faith in the human race you also have to thank the flora called Audrey."

I barely knew who Woody Allen (the Woody in question) was at the time, had no clue who Moorcock (Michael, author of the Elric saga, which I'd love in less than two years time) was, and understood that "Little Shop Of Horrors" was a remake of a 60s film but not who Roger Corman was. But I was enjoying reading these little rants, which, unfortunately for me, only seemed to make every third or so issue of the magazine. What really blew my head wide open, though, was his February 1988 column, which savaged both Mel Brooks's "Spaceballs" and the juvenile sense of humor (plus total lack of wit) of the sci-fi fan community at large. By now, I was 12, which certainly seems quite an advanced age when you're living in it but seems from my 21-years-on vantage point almost impossibly young. But regardless of how mature I really was, I connected with what Harlan was saying. I was tired of morons and bad puns too. After all, I was a 12 year old boy. That was the level of humor I was surrounded by. But really, I was just inspired by Harlan's pure, incendiary rage. I pretty much hated everyone I knew at that age, and though I would never admit it then (and probably wouldn't now, under any other circumstances), the real reason I hated them so much was because I was better than them and yet all they did was push me down and tell me I sucked. I was torn between believing them and knowing how wrong they were, and I still am. Harlan Ellison had a tremendously powerful literary voice, and the righteous fury that he expressed with it struck a chord deep within me. I'm not sure if it was he or Stephen King who first made me feel like I wanted to be a writer, but the two of them were definitely the first examples I had, the first two writers I unconditionally loved.

Since those days, I've moved through phases where Harlan is concerned. Sometimes I devour his stuff insatiably, and at other times I go for years without reading anything by him. I have nearly a dozen of his books, and I feel ashamed to admit I've only read a little more than half of them. But no matter whether I'm reading him that week or not, I always think when I hear the name Harlan Ellison--"That's my man right there."

The reason I'm telling you all of this is by way of introducing a documentary called "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," which was released last year and aired earlier this month on the Sundance channel. Of course, I saved it to my DVR, and as soon as I got the chance, I watched it. Tonight, I watched it again, my second time in less than a week. It's reignited a fire in my guts for the work of Harlan Ellison, reminded me of every reason that I loved him so much back when I was 12--and, really, still do.

I'd love to tell you that "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is a brilliant documentary. It sure seems that way to me. However, I'm a particularly biased audience, and not just because of my Ellison love. It's also because I'm predisposed to like documentary films, regardless of their quality or subject. I'm a process nerd; I like hearing about how things happen, and especially about how artists and creative types come up with their work. Sometimes I feel a bit weird about this, like I'd rather read a book about how a movie was filmed or an album was recorded than watch the movie or listen to the album. And sometimes, that's probably true. Should I feel guilty? I don't know. But the truth is that I have trouble, at this point in my life, engaging with the work of Harlan Ellison, because I don't really do too well with short stories. I prefer a novel, one with a world that I can get lost in and not resurface until I've read the whole thing. Short stories want you to resurface in 10 or 15 pages, then plunge right back into a completely different world. That's tough for me to do. It's not really how my narrative imagination works. This is also probably why a lot of my Harlan Ellison books are only half-read; it's not the novels or the essay collections that suffer from that problem, it's the short story collections.

So then, of course I think "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is brilliant. It gives me a look into the philosophy, the personality, the life and times of one of my favorite writers. It's a document of process, and of the little details that came together to form the character that Harlan Ellison is. And to top it all off, it actually makes me want to read his short stories. There are several spots within the movie, gaps in the narration, that are bridged by shots of Harlan reading from one story or another of his. All of them are absolutely gripping. That amazing voice of Harlan's, which came through in his film reviews so well that it grabbed the attention of an 11 year old boy (and hasn't completely let go anytime since), is present in his natural speaking voice. He reads his stories like he's speaking off the cuff, saying the words for the first time, and in so doing, breathes life into them that makes you want to stop the movie right then and there and go read the rest of the story he's just read from. I own several of them in one collection or another, and since watching "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" for the first time, I've located my copies of "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman," which I'd read before (and loved), and "All The Lies That Are My Life," which I'd never read before, and now can't believe I'd missed for the 15 years since I bought the collection in which it appears (also named "Dreams With Sharp Teeth").

God, I'm afraid I'm making a hash of this whole thing. I'd love to have some obvious, linear narrative in my head for this rambling appreciation of both the writing of Harlan Ellison and the documentary about him, but I don't. I'm just jumping from one thing to another willy-nilly, in whatever order they come to me. But hey, at least I'm writing. As some of you will no doubt have noticed, this has been hard for me to do lately. I've left this blog un-updated for most of the past two weeks, and before that, I was posting those short movie diary things that I write with almost no forethought. I haven't even done movie diary entries for the last two movies I've seen, and I think they might just get skipped. This bothers me on an obsessive-compulsive level, but I think this time I'm gonna fight through the compulsion and let it go. Best to just keep typing, getting out what's in my head and keeping the flow moving.

I was originally gonna write this entry last week, after seeing "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" for the first time. I had a lot to say, and was feeling inspired both to read Harlan Ellison stories and to write. Harlan always inspires me to write--that's one of the great things about reading his stuff. He makes writing seem both falling-off-a-log easy and set-the-world-on-fire important, and if I feel guilty when I don't write anyway, I feel twice as guilty if I'm thinking about what Harlan would say if he knew. I know, I know, like he would care what some 30-something blogger who has barely even tried to get published was doing... and yet, I feel like he would. I feel like he'd tell me that if I wasn't pounding on that keyboard every day, I was wasting my potential and my life. And he'd be right, god damn it, that's the worst part. I know I could do this every day if I could just fight through my own ennui. I've always got something to say, and the hardest part is always just making myself sit down in front of the keyboard and fire up the word processing program instead of checking my fucking email for once.

Harlan Ellison never holds back on anyone, and that's one of the most interesting aspects of his personality documented in "Dreams With Sharp Teeth." In particular, the first third or so of the movie is gut-bustingly funny, listening to Harlan tell stories about mailing dead gophers to publishers that fucked him over, and reading the riot act to TV producers who didn't want to give him his due (monetary, creative, or both). The man seems to have a vigorous love-hate relationship with everything in the entire world, and as he admits early on, pretty much everything makes him angry. His problem is that he has tons more intellect than patience, and not only can he slice through the world's bullshit like a hot knife through butter, he can't stand the fact that he's then left sitting there waiting for the idiots to catch up. This is another thing I love about Harlan. He's always been someone willing to stick his neck out for what he believes, to call out the rest of the world on their shit, and to let his ass get beaten if that's what's necessary to stand up for what he honestly believes is right. I could draw parallels to my own life, most efficiently to the time I got beaten up by 20 tough-guy hardcore kids because I "talked shit" about their "crew." I was tired of seeing people get beaten up at shows because they didn't know the right people. I was tired of watching a bunch of assholes intimidate an entire room just because nobody wanted to be the one to get punched. Harlan would understand exactly why I stood up and said things when no one else would, why I basically put myself on the line to take one for the team, to be the guy who got punched for saying things that everyone else felt but were afraid to say. Harlan marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama--you think a bunch of crew kids would have scared him? And you've gotta respect a guy who stands 5'5", weighed maybe 110 pounds in the prime of his life, and yet never backed away from a fight.

In fact, during the course of "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," it's this toughness in the face of all easily observable adversity that introduces the flip side of Harlan's personality--a deeply vulnerable sensitivity, that of a person who grew up his whole life being told he was inferior. He was a Jewish kid born in small-town Ohio in the 30s, back when anti-Semitism was pretty much the norm, and all the other kids in his class towered over him. Plus he had a big mouth, and the combination of the three factors surely sealed his fate where bullies were concerned. Maybe they thought if they beat him up on the schoolyard enough times, they'd cow him into submission. If anything, it had the opposite effect. The more shit Harlan had to take, the more determined he became to take no shit from anybody. He'd show them all what he was made of. And he did--going on to be one of the most respected writers of the 20th century is not too shabby. But then, in one of the interstitial bits, he reads from a piece he wrote when he was 35 years old, entitled "One Life, Furnished In Early Poverty." He talks about how he went back to his old hometown, having finally become the success that they always said he'd never be, seeing all of his old school bullies worn down and working dead end jobs. But instead of feeling vindicated in his triumph, the whole thing just depressed him. I can't really explain the feeling that he's describing in that short excerpt, but I sure have felt it.

I think maybe I'm losing the thread here, so let's just wrap this up. "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is a tremendously engaging film, documenting as it does the fascinating life and brilliant work of an endlessly entertaining man. With the sort of off the cuff storytelling prowess Harlan displays throughout this film, not only in recently filmed interviews but in archival material going back several decades, it's clear that the movie could have been amazing even if all it contained were shot after shot of Harlan ranting, raving, and reeling off anecdotes. But there's so much more than that here. Throughout the stories of his triumphs and struggles, his fighting with fandom and extoling the virtues of other brilliant writers, his successful TV work and his many lawsuits against various major Hollywood players (check out the bit about him suing James Cameron and winning), runs a deep, unifying thread. Harlan's entire life is a consistent embodiment of his personal philosophy. This man, raised Jewish and now proudly atheist, has a fierce moral code, and cannot break it or allow others to do so. He's angry all the time, but he uses his anger towards a very noble goal--that of ensuring that he and his fellow humans are all treated fairly. Underneath all of his curmudgeonly behavior, he's an incredibly sensitive person, and he just can't stand to sit idly by, watch people do the wrong thing, and not do something to try and stop them. At the end of the movie, he says something about the fact that he's extremely hard to live with, and that most people would blow either his or their own head off if they had to. But then, as the credits roll, he tells a great story about a man coming upon an ant lying on its back in the dirt, raging at the sky. The ant tells the man that he's heard that the sky will fall. The man asks him what good his current course of action can possibly do, and the ant looks up at the man and says, "I do what I can." Harlan does what he can, and while he may not accomplish everything he wants to accomplish, he sure has managed to create an incredible body of work. Long may he rage.

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