Soundbooth: Lou Reed, circa 1966

velvetunderground1The ultimate success of the late Lou Reed (1942–2013) as a musician and writer was, like with most great artists, never a sure thing. Although he went from obscurity to rock legend in a few short years, he started out pushing an idiosyncratic style of literary talk-singing and mixing old doo-wop harmonies with discordant sheets of noise that was never guaranteed to win him entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, he put his whole life into it: “My God is rock ‘n’ roll,” he supposedly said.

For an example of how the music of Reed’s early years was received, check out this notice from the New York Times in 1966. The story was a society piece about a dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. The evenings entertainment? Something called “The Chic Mystique of Andy Warhol.” On the program was the Velvet Underground:

The high decibel sound, aptly described by Dr. Campbell as “a short-lived torture of cacophony,” was a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and Egyptian belly-dance music.

Most guests voted with their feet and streamed out early. Reed and the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Egyptian belly-dance music (did they play “Venus in Furs,” perhaps?) be damned.

Here’s Reed performing one of his best post-Velvet songs, “Halloween Parade”:

New in Theaters: ‘The Square’

Khalid Abdalla (star of 'The Kite Runner') and Ahmad Hassan, two of the Tahrir Square activists profiled in 'The Square'
Khalid Abdalla (star of ‘The Kite Runner’) and Ahmad Hassan, two of the Tahrir Square activists profiled in ‘The Square’

thesquare-poster1Jehane Noujaim’s incandescent documentary about the Tahrir Square revolution first played Sundance back in January; she went back to Egypt to shoot later developments. The version of The Square that just opened in limited release now has a dramatic arc, from the 2011 resignation of Mubarak to this summer’s coup that toppled Morsi. It’s an elegantly put-together and passionate story of the tragedy of revolutions and the resilience of ideas.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The film is thick with dense collages of tear gas, gunfire, and seas of people leaping and shouting in unison. But it also cuts away to zoom in on a few of these people who would otherwise just be specks in a pointillist portrait. What Noujami has captured is not just a protest, but a diagnostic of the different emotional and political struggles which protesters like Khalid, Ahmed and Magdy are having in the street or on the phone because they don’t live in a country where those arguments can yet be honestly had at the ballot box. 

The trailer is here:


Writers’ Corner: Worst Opening Ever

darkstormy1Is it possible that to learn how to write something grand you should also practice penning something so abominably wretched it should never see the light of day? Probably not, the art of writing probably comes down to something as dreary as trying every single day to hone your craft to a sharp, chisel-like point.

So, if you were going to attempt to write horrendous prose, there’s really no other reason to do it except for a giggle. Because, after all, as  more than one person has noted, somebody already wrote 50 Shades of Grey. So anything you do will be at best, second-worst writing ever.

Herewith one of the many preternaturally horrible opening lines culled from submissions to the Bulwer-Lytton Prize:

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday, his children packed his bags and drove him to Golden Pastures retirement complex just off Interstate 95.


It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.

And, a personal favorite:

The professor looked down at his new young lover, who rested fitfully, lashed as she was with duct tape to the side of his stolen hovercraft, her head lolling gently in the breeze, and as they soared over the buildings of downtown St. Paul to his secret lair he mused that she was much like a sweet ripe juicy peach, except for her not being a fuzzy three-inch sphere produced by a tree with pink blossoms and that she had internal organs and could talk.


New in Theaters: ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in 'Blue is the Warmest Color'
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’


The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is finally getting its American release after months of controversy, hype, and speculation. That’s what will happen with a sexually explicit, NC-17, three-hour romance about two young women who literally seem to fall in love at first sight. Blue is the Warmest Color is opening this week in limited release and should be expanding around the country through the fall; at least to those theaters that agree to screen NC-17 films.

My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

Unabashedly romantic in the grandest, tear-stained way, Blue is the Warmest Color is also a strangely empty epic of the heart. Abdellatif Kechiche’s extravagant film is an indulgently overlong romance of long pauses, watchful glances, and infatuated lovemaking. It features two glowing performances from Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulous as the young women bound up in a relationship whose minefields and fireworks they can barely comprehend, let alone control. This old-fashioned, love-at-first-sight view of romantic attraction is not exactly en vogue these days, so it’s even more frustrating that Kechiche botches it…

The film is based very loosely on Julie Maroh’s gorgeous graphic novel, which is one of the best things to hit bookshelves this year. The author herself had some criticisms of the (male) director’s take on her story here.

You can watch the trailer here:

Readers’ Corner: Fall Football Edition


It’s that time of year when attentions get torn between the World Series and the ever-growing all-encompassing athletic-entertainment complex that is football. Being that the latter has almost definitely overtaken the former as America’s game, there’s no end to commentary and opinion about the gridiron spectacle.


One of the month’s more intriguing notes on football, though, comes from an unexpected source: Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. Here’s a short excerpt (noted by James Wood in the New Yorker) in which the narrator is talking about the ritual of watching Sunday football games out in Las Vegas:

On game day, until five o’clock or so, the white desert light held off the essential Sunday gloom — autumn sinking into winter, loneliness of October dusk with school the next day — but there was always a long still moment toward the end of those football afternoons where the mood of the crowd turned and everything grew desolate and uncertain, onscreen and off, the sheet-metal glare off the patio glass fading to gold and then gray, long shadow and night falling into desert stillness, a sadness I couldn’t shake off, a sense of silent people filing toward the stadium exits and cold rain falling in college towns back east…

Never mind that college games happen on Saturday for the most part; you still have here a beautifully gloomy little snapshot of that autumnal bleakness that always seems to hover around the game.


New on DVD: ‘Before Midnight’

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, still romancing each other in 'Before Midnight'
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, still romancing each other in ‘Before Midnight’

beforemidnightdvd1In 1995, Richard Linklater impressed with Before Sunrise, a sharp, talky piece about Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a traveling American who meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a beguiling young French woman, on a train. Nine  years later, in Before Sunset, the two meet again, nine years older. Both films were redolent with romantic longing and possibility. Now in Before Midnight, the two are married, and it doesn’t seem like mere love is going to cut it anymore.

Before Midnight is available today on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part of it:

Before Midnight turns out to be a bright, good-humored, and painfully combative love story that stings more than it soothes. In it, modern cinema’s most enduring couple discovers what life is like after peeling back the veil of conjoined love and discovering the specters of selfishness lurking behind. Every moment of this swift yet relaxed film (time-compressed like the first two, it all happens over just one sunny day and moonlit evening) feels like a negotiation or a skirmish, viciously fought…

You can watch the trailer here:


Readers’ Corner: Prolific Icelanders

Somewhere in Reykjavik, thousands of people are writing their first (or fifth) mystery novel.

There is apparently no more literate or book-mad place than little Iceland. Even without the benefit of trees, the island nation of some 300,000 people apparently has more writers, published books, and readers per capita than anywhere else in the world. According to the BBC:

It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik. There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”. One in 10 Icelanders will publish one.

“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”

So get busy everybody, or Icelandic fiction will take over the world before you know it.