peteg's blog

Atticus Lish: Preparation for the Next Life

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I discovered Red Plenty via a glowing review by Dwight Garner, and his review in the New York Times last November led me to this. Having read it I agree with what he said and have little to add. Powerful stuff indeed. Somewhat perplexingly it is an economical, dense, urgent and necessary type of thing that is rarely beautiful; in fact when my heart was up around my ears it was getting viscerally ugly. But never cheap, condescending or exploitative, and always clear-eyed. I guess the word for this stuff is art. I hope he keeps at it.

Chungking Express

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Last seen about four years ago. There remains a lot to like about Wong Kar-Wai's work. Over several nights.

The Missing Picture

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A foreign-language Oscar nominee for 2014. Over several nights. A personal take on the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia, in clay but not claymation.

Mohsin Hamid: Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London.

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$18.31 from the Book Depository. I got about 350 pages into the Chicago Public Library's inter-library-loaned copy of The Moon of Hoa Binh before my copy from Bennett Books arrived, with some drama as the address omitted my apartment number. I thought I'd chew through this before breaking the plastic wrap on those.

I enjoyed Mohsin Hamid's immediately-previous two novels, but he is a lot weaker in short-short form. This collection of essays is not a patch on Salman Rushdie's Step Across This Line from 2002 (as far as I remember it; see, for instance, his take on 9/11). Coarsely put, Hamid is a good writer but not a deep thinker. Here we get a lot of iteration without too much deepening, which can be somewhat blamed on his aspiration to present the material as closely as possible to its original form. It reeks of laziness a little too often.

I liked his take on Pakistan's Coke Studio (p116), which is perhaps the best thing that company has done for the planet; and of course the people who made the movie of his The Reluctant Fundamentalist had their opening scene ready-made in the form of Kangna by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad from season four. His more serious efforts to canvas the issues of present-day Pakistan flounder as he does little more than paraquote more serious research. In Why they get Pakistan wrong, he observes that the society has low inequality despite loads of corruption; this is commonly attributed to clannish behaviour. In-country charitable donations run at 5% of GDP; this is perhaps in line with zakat, one of the pillars of Islam, which he neglects to explain. (A wealth tax is surely beyond the imaginings of Westerners! What a blown opportunity.) How about a contrast with Turkey, now undergoing a similar Islamization that was hitherto kept in check by the countries's founders? Also (p138) he bemoans how little of the money earmarked by USAID for Pakistan is disbursed. This is unsurprising given how much arse-covering these guys need to do these days — can't fund the wrong madrassas! — and Hamid somehow failed to mention the chilling effect of the US Government's jihad against zakat from American-based Muslims.

At some point he mentions an ugly scene in Riyadh. Is he a hajji? You won't find out here. Often he channels Amartya Sen et al.'s multi-faceted notions of identity without citation. This points to the central problem with this book: it doesn't even try to explain Islam. Moreover his notion of Asia doesn't appear to stretch to the largest Muslim country (Indonesia) which somewhat tarnishes his universalism. He is on surer ground with personal anecdotes about the usual universals, but meh, I can get those anywhere.

Sukhdev Sandhu at the Guardian. The US is also clearly a patchwork country, as is Europe; the pluralistic experiment has been tried in many places at many times, and so once again I would hope for some historical perspective from the author. Duncan White at the Telegraph similarly quotes at length and observes the lack of depth.

A Red Orchid Theatre: Accidentally, Like a Martyr.

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$30 + $4 in convenience = $34. That's three out of three for A Red Orchid Theatre, and two out of two for director Shade Murray. The hour-and-twenty flew past. The entirety of the cast was uniformly excellent. Layne Manzer demonstrated his range by being as coked up here as he was timid in Ecstasy. I recognised Luce Metrius from All Our Tragic. I warmed up to Steve Haggard as he worked his way through the barflies. David Cerda is solid as the older playboy. Doug Vickers and Troy West are completely plausible as cantankerous, duelling furniture in the bar run by Dominique Worsley. Before going I had my doubts about the gay bar setting, but it turned out to be rich in power dynamics, and something of a confessional; the little blood that's spilt is entirely earnt, and the issues universal and eternal. John Holt's bar was perfectly authentic and well-used, just like last time; here we get a bartender's (manager's?) view of the patrons.

Zac Thompson at the Reader. Damn cold out (-9 maximums, ridiculous wind chills). Yellow curry with noodles for dinner at the pokey little pan-Asian Original Thai Tsang Chicago. So-so. While waiting I had a very bland Imperial Stout from the Pour House further south on Wells. It's not a place to just hang out with a book.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: Richard Hunt.

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I returned to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago after an early dinner with Christian-from-work. Lou Malnati's is inferior to Giordano's, just for the record. The exhibition had some nice works but was disappointing in having so few of them.

Jupiter Ascending

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Regal Webster Place 11, 4.30pm, $15.50, 3D. From the initial cringe worthy conflation of astronomy and astrology to the concluding scene of Fenchurch and Arthur going flying for their first date, people like me are relearning that the Wachowskis really only had one movie in them. Bae Doo-na is criminally underused here; I can't even remember who she was working for. The thread of plot originating from Tuppence Middleton still dangles; what was her game? I guess several millenia watching cable leads to this kind of dross. I spent most of the Chicago fight scene trainspotting; the closest I got was a shot of the Merchandise Mart towards the end of it, and I think the skating-rink part was on Lake. So kind of them to put the city back together in time for the next Transformers installment! And the memory-erasure device sure helped me make sense of these past ten months. Just to ruin the repetition: people are soylent, and there's only one man who can save the princess, though he's programmed to rip her throat out in that Twilight kinda way. As in not really. The Wachowskis have this essentialist hangup ("the one", it's not what you do but who you are, or here, whose genes you've got) which is beyond tiresome given Lana's change of gender. Is she now more essentially herself than she was before? If so, let's have a little less fatalistic determinism thanks. Sean Bean looked like a muscled-up Richard Roxburgh. For all that I got what I expected, and at length.

Manohla Dargis is more patient with it. The bureaucratic bit should've gone full-Gilliam.

LAMPO: Arnold Dreyblatt.

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The first piece was a piano-stringed bass fitted with some electronics. He played it by banging it with a bow, which yielded some kind of dance music that evoked the opening of Félix Lajkó's Remény. It had its moments; the preview on iTunes is far more vanilla. The second was all laptop and often verged on audience abuse, and took the artist a few solid belts of vodka (I think) to get through. The bloke on my left was Facebooking the whole time, and the bloke on my right was swigging sake (I think). Both far older than I.

Their blurb:

The Graham Foundation and Lampo are pleased to welcome American media artist and composer Arnold Dreyblatt who will perform two works: Turntable History / Spin Ensemble (2011), a multi-channel sound composition derived from Dreyblatt's own recordings of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scanner, and Nodal Excitation, a 1979 work for amplified "excited strings" bass, strung with piano wire. Arnold Dreyblatt is a composer, performer, and visual artist. He studied music with Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, and Alvin Lucier, and has been based in Berlin, Germany since 1984. Among the second generation of New York minimal composers, Dreyblatt developed a unique approach to composition and music performance. As he began his music career in the late 1970s in New York, he invented a set of new and original instruments and performance techniques, as well as a just intonation tuning system. He has formed and led numerous ensembles, working under the name "The Orchestra of Excited Strings." In 2007, he was elected to the German Academy of Art (Akademie der Künste, Berlin).

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Drumming at Harris Theater.

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Goldstar ticket: $20.00 + $5.25 service fee = $25.25 on 2015-01-23. I figured I'd pay a bit more and see if the seating improved. I was a fair way back but had a great view, which is something when the drummers are this skillful. Before the gig I had a Chicago-style lasagna-pizza at Giordano's near the Harris Theater.

They started with three surrounding a kettle drum with some auxiliary percussion in between for Nebojsa Jovan Živković's Meccanico from Trio per uno for Percussion Trio, Op. 27 (1995, 1999), which, being exhilarating, set a high bar the later pieces struggled to meet. Conlon Nancarrow's Piece for Tape arranged for Percussion (arranged by Dominic Murcott) (1950s) was unmemorable. Thierry de Mey's Musique de tables for Percussion Trio (1987) was some kooky wax-on wax-off stuff that evoked my last trip to Campbelltown. I don't clearly remember John Cage's In a Landscape for Marimba (transcribed by Ian David Rosenbaum) (1948), nor Toru Takemitsu's Rain Tree for Percussion Trio (1981), both of which drew me to this concert in the first place. Grr. Steve Reich's Drumming: Part 1 for Percussion Quartet (1970-71) exhibited the skill of all four drummers. Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) was difficult to stomach.

I took the Red Line home due to it being damn cold, a little windy, and my being toasted.

Richard Hunt at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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As forecast, it is snowing like crazy today. I decided to test how bad it was with a 40+ minute schlep down to the Intelligentsia on Randolph, across the river, next to the Chicago Cultural Center. It was not cold but the salt-induced water pooled in the gutters, under the snow, at the road crossings got pretty annoying. I ended up with wet socks. The snow blasting into my face every so often was pretty slushy. At some points the crunchy snow was 20+ cm deep.

I'm not totally sure why there are so many exhibitions of Richard Hunt's work on right now; they claim he's been at it for 60 years and perhaps that's enough. I half-expected to find half an engine block mixed in with the fenders and exhaust pipes; the times definitely suited him. Is scrap rarer now? He is a master with the gas axe. I enjoyed the studies for some of his public art as they demonstrate ideation and evolution; for instance the MLK-commemorating I Have Been to the Mountain (1977, in Memphis) loses a paddle-steamer wheel and gains steps that lead to a slide. The major part seems in need of an audience, so a minor part takes shape. I'm keen to see the finished product now. Uplift is a major theme in his work.

There were two videos, one featuring Studs Terkel, but I wasn't going to sit around for 90 minutes to see them. I do need to chase that guy up though. Hunt takes all the theory people wave in his face with the good grace of someone who figured out what he wanted to do at an early age, and got really good at it.

The culture center itself has a pleasant hang-out space on the ground floor. I'd been there before in 2012 and not since I moved here. Electricity seems in short supply, but I think they do wifi. I took the Red Line subway back up to Division/Clark and watched a car spin out in front of a fire truck at Clybourn/Division. Too much haste, insufficient care.

The Man With The Golden Arm

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Otto Preminger adapts Nelson Algren's famous Chicago novel, which I never got around to reading. In black-and-white. Sinatra plays the lead and got a theme song and Oscar nomination. Barry Adamson later futzed with the former. Kim Novak is the bargirl with a heart of gold / irrepressible crush on Frank, and Eleanor Parker the I'll-never-capture-better desperado who he is responsible for. Darren McGavin is perfect as the drug pusher and general streetwise hustler. The sets are a bit crap, which is a shame as it would've been awesome to see the Chicago of the day. I think the stretch of Clark St they infest is close to where I live, i.e. in River North. The scene where Frank relinquishes junk is a pro forma for Trainspotting: one final fix, etc. but no bucket or tins of soup. He is less adept at trashing rooms than you'd expect. The conclusion is a cheap resolution of many contrivances: Novak's arched eyebrow heading out-of-frame, hand on choose-life Sinatra's arm, as the body of her rival is whisked away in an ambulance.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: Conversation with Richard Hunt.

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$10 bought on 2014-12-20. This was an hour-long chat between Richard Hunt and two hosts: Naomi Beckwith and Daniel Schulman. They showed a video and string of photos of his works and workspace. I'll go back some other day to see the exhibition.

Born to Win

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I have no idea where I drug this one up from. George Segal, junkie. He has a nice and pretty funny scene with Karen Black early on, where she springs him trying to boost her car; a blip on an otherwise terminal trajectory. De Niro has a minor role as a cop.

Nasty, Brutish & Short: Drunken Half-Angel at Links Hall, Constellation.

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$12 + $2.42 service fee = $14.42, booked 2015-01-09. Part of the Chicago International Puppet Festival. The other thing Tony Adler of the Chicago Reader gestured at. I caught the Brown Line up to Belmont, same as for Ben Frost on Halloween, and walked down Belmont looking for food. I ended up getting a serviceable burger on a side street, past where the upscale antique shops give way to latino suburbia. At the Constellation I had a Yin and Yang Black and Tan from Evil Twin Brewing. Scandis who can brew? The world is not as I remember it. Tasty, but I'm not that big on Black IPAs. Their Imperial Stout is likely to be superior.

This was a cabaret by Michael Montenegro, with a band. It sold out, so they added a 10pm show which also immediately sold out. I initially sat in the centre front row, best seat in the house, until an older bloke sat on the living-room furniture just in front of me. I told him he was blocking my view so he sat on the floor, but quickly availed himself of my offer to swap given how uncomfortable it was. Well, that was the best seat in the house, as much happened at floor height.

The best of Montenegro's skits was Calvin, a very sophisticated puppet that reminded me most of Dr Strangelove, or a cat I used to know who showed his affection by ripping into you. The puppet more-or-less kills the puppeteer at some point. Somewhere in there the guitarist pulled out a saw and a violin bow, which I hadn't heard in many years; the poor-man's theremin. The closing piece had him very skillfully manipulating a mouth puppet. Other bits were more obscure. I'd say he could use some help with the dialogue, but has the rest down pat.

Afterwards I schlepped all the way down Clybourn in very mild winter weather.

Memento

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My favourite by Nolan. One of Guy Pearce's finer outings. Great to hear David Bowie closing it out with Something in the Air.

Sounds of the South Loop: Metropolis Quartet.

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Goldstar ticket: $7.50 + $3.00 service fee = $10.50. The 6pm start was a bit awkward. I took a bus down State and grabbed a very quick and quite servicable pad thai at Opart Thai. 2nd Presbyterian Church is quite elegant with great acoustics. I was the youngest in the crowd by at least a decade. The instruments were an oboe, a cello, a viola and a violin, and were all well-played. There was no program so I have no record of the pieces; one was a composition by the Sounds of the South Loop artistic director Kim Diehnelt (I think). I enjoyed the lot.

Realising I had just enough time, I forsake an evening in Chinatown and instead took the Red Line back to Division so I could extract The Moon of Hoa Binh from the Near North branch of the Chicago Public Library. It's on a three-week interlibrary loan. 1700 pages. More on that later.

Blind Summit's The Table.

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$35.00, bought 2015-01-09, with no booking fee or disaggregated tax. Part of the Chicago International Puppet Festival. I schlepped home from work, had dinner, and then over to Chicago Shakespeare Theater via the lake shore in some sub-zero heavy fog / light rain, and back again afterwards for a total of something like 15km for the day. The theatre itself is at the top of six floors at Navy Pier. There was a small bar on that floor (I had a Blue Moon) and sat on the floor due to the lack of seating. Seat C-1 sounded potentially awesome but was in fact wedged on the far left on the main floor.

The gig was three people (Mark Down on head, right arm voice; Sean Garratt on left arm and bum; Laura Caldow on feet) and one puppet, Moses, and they had all been to Chicago before. Apparently created for a 1984 production, he ended up starring in The Other Seder, which was commissioned by the Jewish Community Centre in London. They took some (but not many) cheap shots at the Americans, and most of the generally cheap innuendo could have been omitted to everyone's benefit. I think it was mostly improv, anchored by some scenes from biblical-Moses's life and puppetry didactics. At times it almost got ecumenical, pointing out that Moses features in the Torah, the Bible and the Koran, and for the atheists, that he nonsensically wrote the canonical account of his own death at the hands of a God who brooked no competitors. Large chunks were funny, though there was a point where they totally lost momentum, and a few too many uninspired overly-repetitious bits. The puppeteers clearly enjoyed themselves.

I got the original pointer to this and Friday's Drunken Half-Angel from Tony Adler in the Reader; here he is from 2013.

William Gibson: Distrust That Particular Flavor

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This is a mostly-drecky collection of offcuts. The author himself more-or-less admits this in the afterwords that follow each piece. Somewhere in the middle is a pleasant but abridged history of Japan and its entanglement with the U.S.A., which may have been the cause of the suggestion from somewhere that this book was not quite so drecky as it is.

Blackhat

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4.20pm, $10.29 + $1.23 (inflated freedom) tax = $11.52, at the AMC Loews 600. three rows from the front (and still a little too close). I really liked Michael Mann's Thief, and I vaguely recall Heat being some chop. Well, this movie was unsound.

The opening is pure Fight Club, subbing silicon for biology, and before too long we get beefcake with a side of beef Hemsworth/Thor as a not credible arch computer geek. He has no quirk. He is not weird. He is no geek. It is like Rooney Mara never happened. He is unmentionable next to Mann's previous leading men (de Niro, Pacino, James Caan). His facility with violence comes from where exactly? I know violent geeks but they are not beefcakes. True to form he does wield a hammer/axe at the Chinese reactor. Let's not stop to think what the radiation does to that delicate, semi-unique brain of his. The truly funny scene in The Matrix where to-be alpha guy Neo chokes in the face of imminent arrest by the agents is totally, absolutely, resolutely, irrevocably beyond the scope of Thor. Thor pumps iron, not irony. Fire the casting agent.

Mann really blows it in Asia, passing up the opportunity to make Hong Kong, Macau or Indonesia look as awesome as Wong Kai-Wai does. Why go there if you're not even going to try? There is some nice camerawork evoking Heat back home in America, and also a retread of the climactic container scene. The vibe seems to be that we can fix this new cybercrime/war with old school violence, presumably in the maximalist tradition. The politics could have been more interesting than the hacking, or at least something could have been decent. I was glad to see John Ortiz's pained dial in some scenes (literally phoning it in). Wei Tang struggles a bit in English, or with beefcake. Last time I saw her she was getting it on with Tony Leung, so I can understand her diffidence.

This may well be one of the last computer-centric movies made by someone who clearly does not understand them, or how Gen Y understands them.

Manohla Dargis may have talked me into it. I wish I'd seen what she saw.

A Most Violent Year

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$12, 4.40pm, Landmark at 2828 Clark. I went on the spur of the moment; I walked halfway-there to go to a cafe and figured I'd just keep going. Oscar Isaac is solid even without a cat to act opposite, and it gets harder to understand Anthony Lane's beef about him. I would have liked to see more of Jessica Chastain's character; they strike sparks off each other in every scene they share. The remainder almost seem like a waste in comparison, excepting Isaac's speech to his fellow oilmen, his dealings with the orthodox Jews, his encouragement of his employees... OK, perhaps it simply overflows with riches. The intrusion of the state via D.A. David Oyelowo is too slight in comparison. Alessandro Nivola is in full-on Ozymandias mode. I kept thinking that Mean Streets must be something like this, if only I could remember it.

I had dinner at the Taj Mahal on Halsted afterwards, a thali of too much. Tasty, and I'll probably go back.

Dana Stevens is a bit more scathing than I felt this deserved. She's right that the problems are structural. A. O. Scott got right into it. Not at all sure where David Denby got the Colombia thing from.