Ned Raggett

Feb 06

RIP Octavia Butler

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I was living in upstate New York in 1984, a happily budding nerd for sf among other things. Star Wars had come out when I was six and some years on my tentative explorations into actually reading sf had led to Asimov, Herbert and others. So I joined the venerable Science Fiction Book Club — shortly afterward, due to an ordering error, I ended up with both rather than only one of the selections of the month. The one I wanted was Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, which is of course great in its own way.

The one that arrived by accident, which I read anyway, was Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark. It remains one of the happiest accidents in my life.

Butler’s abilities as a writer, her imaginative capacity, her sheer presence, is almost shockingly great, though only because we accept so much that is less intriguing in the meantime (and I certainly don’t discount myself from that judgment). She brought so much to the table — thematically, stylistically and more — that to look back on it is to be amazed. She also knew how to talk, how to communicate her ideas in interviews, essays, and more, and more so also had the gift that many writers do not necessarily have to be able to talk about HOW one writes, how one can write and can continue to improve. This interview, though brief, has a telling example:

”I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me. You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It’s just so easy to give up!”

Wikipedia’s entry has more information and starting points. May she rest well and may her work always be cherished.

Jul 05

And more importantly, a great new dance blog

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In which some of THEE best writers on music, electronic beat oriented or otherwise — Jess Harvell, Tim Finney, Ronan Fitzgerald, Brian Mackro, Ethan Padgett, Vahid Fozi (correct me if that is not your last name, Vahid!), Andy Kellman, Phil Sherburne among others — share wisdom, knowledge and brilliant writing in equal measure:

House is a Feeling

Check it out.

Ned’s ego slosh fest alert about a new column

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First installment up on Stylus Magazine, called Scraping the Barrel. All thoughts, abuse, etc. welcomed.

Jul 05

The Flaming Lips ARE the Fearless Freaks (or one was)

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I had heard a bit about an upcoming documentary on the Flaming Lips but didn’t immediately expect to be able to watch a copy on vacation in Europe — but such are the ways of staying with people who get promos. More importantly, The Fearless Freaks is flat out a very good movie — you really don’t have to be a fan of the band to watch it all. As a result, it’s that rarest of beasts, a rockumentary that not only survives beyond its immediate context but arguably thrives.

Keep in mind I speak from a fan perspective on the band, so I’d probably need more distance in the end to make such a claim. Still, what struck me about the film is that for a production that’s seemingly so insular — the director, Bradley Beesley, ended up living next to Lips leader Wayne Coyne in 1991 and almost immediately became their film/video creator for most everything since — is its reach, depth and breadth. You can watch this film less as being about the story of a band — and anyone looking for some kind of hyperdetailed story about each album or the like is in the wrong place — as the story of some people who happen to be in a band.

It’s also the story of, ultimately, three guys from Oklahoma City and their lives, some a bit more than others. For most such productions you might get a few random words about the town/scene a band was from before hitting the road/big time/whatever, but Oklahoma City and the people who live there loom large in the telling. Coyne himself has a reputation of being an enthusiastic, hard-working and sharp fellow and all those qualities come through, but in particular it’s his sense of what he does and how he lives that shines the strongest. Shots of him mowing the lawn might be seen by cynics as false humility, but in context he’s showing life not only in his home town but his neighborhood, where he has lived most of his life and shows no inclination to leave. He acknowledges the rougher aspects of that neighborhood without either apologizing for them or fearing them, and the sight of him happily chatting with a group of young area kids or reenacting a robbery committed at his former workplace with the help of two kids of the current Vietnamese owners is charming because it isn’t twee, it just is.

Similarly Beesley lets Coyne and his family members talk about themselves most of all (Beesley’s own narration maybe consists of ten to fifteen lines total), with both Coyne and core Lips musician Steven Drozd speaking frankly about brothers in trouble with law — again, neither to condemn or affect horror, but simply to tell and acknowledge (and in both cases the respective brothers are with them, and neither seek self-pity or audience pity in turn). Not all is sadness by any means — Coyne’s story of his upbringing, his many siblings and what it all involved is above all one of familial togetherness — but the lack of self-pity reaches its limit with the harrowing depiction of Drozd himself shooting up, explaining without apology about his heroin habit of long-standing, while Coyne speaks of having to deal with the consequences of that in turn. There is, as it turns out, a happy ending, but one gets from the whole sequence a human drama all the more powerful for being understated, based on a process of explanation and implication, of retelling key decisions after the fact. Without being so blithe as ‘just say no,’ it’s possibly both one of the best depictions of addiction on screen as well as putting for an argument for letting go — all without moralizing.

It’s not the whole story, of course, and what makes the film such a gift in the end is showing everything from the many incarnations of the band’s performing states over the years, building up to the warm cockeyed Disney-with-blood variants of today, to the pride of friends and family members (and fellow Oklahoma City denizens as well), to the explanations for how to get stage blood out of a suit and why Coyne loves Halloween. There’s even scope for including an enemy or two, with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers talking about how he figured the Lips ripped them off a few times (and, interestingly, both Beesley and Coyne provide evidence for just that). There’s a fair bit on Coyne’s own film work with his Christmas on Mars project, which could yet be something surprisingly grand if it ever gets finished. And finally, without giving away anything, the whole film ends on a perfect note (and at the end of the credits, perfect notes), a combination of philosophical understanding that’s not generic self-help hash and salutory melancholy for the dead.

And yes, there’s plenty of music.

Jun 05

COMES A BATMAN (Once again)

Do You See1 comment • 429 views

More scattered and general thoughts on ILE but here’s a quick take:

The advantage of knowing the general story of Batman without knowing the details is handily refreshing. It meant that I could and did enjoy everything from That TV Series to the weird white-eyed version in the 70s Superfriends cartoons to the Miller interpretations to the Burton films as they came, all spinning in their own universes. (The Schumacher films I did not enjoy. But that would take too long to talk about.)

So Batman Begins is something that I approached not cold but not well steeped either, a good balance for something that is meant to be an adaptation but not definitive, not the ‘true’ source. Some random flack article the other day reminded me that Batman screen versions have been attempted in various forms since the forties, so there’s an advantage in seeing this as a new, wholly separate attempt to deal with what’s still a handy story, in fact a striking one. If Superman was the messiah from the sky who had to learn how to deal with ‘being human,’ the all-too-human Batman was, as this great evisceration of Batman and Robin put it, “one of the few costumed crimefighters who chooses to be a superhero.” However this particular film was cooked up, that turned out to be the goal of this film, to outline one potential route and to make, hopefully, something entertaining and moneymaking out of it.

No worries there for Warner Bros., as this turned out to be something close to a slam-dunk, not perfect but really, really good. My feeling when I saw a trailer for the first time was that this could be a good film, not just a good comic book adaptation. It doesn’t quite get there but it gets very close, and in fact improves in the mind upon reflection, though probably that’s due to its strengths coming more to the fore as it’s thought about. Others observed earlier it was less an action movie than a suspense one and I think that’s spot on — the action scenes are directed/edited with more intent to actually *be* action scenes than Burton’s equivalents, say, but when Christopher Nolan and crew call up the idea of Batman as terrifying alien avenger and put that to play, the film is expressly on, full stop.

Well worth it and if you see it like I did on an IMAX screen, really well worth it. Just avoid having to crick your neck, though.

Jun 05

Bootlegs not dead

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Be: DJ Lance Lockarm

Take: Ready for the World‘s Prince/fakeBritfop genius mid-eighties classic “Oh Sheila” — make sure it is the a capella version

Take: Black Strobe‘s ‘ve make you dance the industrial body punish way for those who have forgotten Front 242 are doomed to repeat it’ revival “The Abwehr Disco”

Create: “Sheilium”

Serves millions.

May 05

Tomato sauce 2005

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 528 views

Somewhere in the archives last year I talked about the trials and errors I was doing in making my own tomato sauce — another year and I’ve returned to it with a vengeance, and happily so. I’ve got the basic sauce preparation down to a science and can’t wait to try further experiments (and I’m hoping the visit to Italy in July will give me yet more ideas).

Yesterday for the first time I found myself with some pasta and prepared sauce by me in the freezer, so I went ahead and cooked it all up. The sheer richness of the sauce — not in terms of, say, creaminess or anything, but in terms of the overload of delicious tomato I had overseen creating was simply a pure, wonderful treat. Eaten out on my balcony in a warm afternoon with the dying sunlight and some wine to drink — pure bliss. What a great summer this should be!

Who needs Dr. Spock when there is Dr. Fegg?

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A recent bout of Pythonism — it happens every so often — prompted me to break out the apparently out of print Dr. Fegg’s Encyclopedia of All World Knowledge, as written by Messers Jones and Palin of said troupe. Much like good ol’ Hitchhiker’s this is inextricably a nostalgia fix (and in comparison to Adams nowhere near as strong, being by definition a bunch of scattershot one-off bits, from Famous Five parodies to a five page newspaper story about Miss Ireland) but I liked the fact that it wasn’t much to do with Python outside of a sentence or two and more to the point was mostly about blood and gore. Well, sort of.

An uneven book but it has its moments — the Gilbert and Sullivan/pantomime parody Aladdin and His Terrible Problem contains a showstopping bit by one Depravo the Rat, there’s a board game included called Plaguo! (goal: to catch the Black Death and die), while buried near the back is a joke that my dear friend Brian loves to this day, provided as part of a series of camping tips:

Select your camping spot very carefully. Very often, you will find people in tents and caravans blocking your view and generally getting in the way. These can usually be dispersed by naming your dog ‘Cholera’ and calling him in loudly last thing at night.

Not a Star Wars post

Do You SeePost a comment • 416 views

I refer you to this thread instead, where you will find love and hate of an epic proportion. I am on the love side and I care not what you think. (Not entirely true, but you’re not going to change my mind!)

Instead I wish to talk to you about the two absolutely horrific as hell trailers we had to suffer through first on the way to said film. The first was for Stealth, and while the actual trailer you see on the website was a bit different, the net effect was the same: “ARGH! DIE DIE DIE AND ROT!” The hearty boos directed towards it were so satisfying. To my mind it was just astounding because after the glory that was Team America, seeing something that was trying to do this kind of thing seriously was so wrong; all that was missing was the “IN A WORLD…” dude. Top Gun meets Broken Arrow meets D.A.R.Y.L., apparently, but without the charm.

Then there was Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the existence of which I had been blissfully unaware of until that moment. Oh dear dear dear dear. This says more about my relative unfamiliarity with the actresses but it wasn’t until the end of the trailer that I realized it was supposed to be Angelina Jolie instead of J. Lo. Brad Pitt, meanwhile, looks like he’s been through a pressed meat plant and extruded via a tanning bed. The plot revolves around secret identities and guns, which I’m normally more than fine with, crossed with The War of the Roses, which I probably liked more at the time than I do at present (there’s an advantage in not having seen things for fifteen years). I want to assume the intent of the filmmakers is satiric, for their sakes. I suspect it isn’t. The chorus of boos was even louder.

But then the Batman Begins trailer ran. OH HAPPY DAY! (Just so long as Bale’s not sticking post-its to himself.)

An American considers the Crazy Frog

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…huh. I admit to the same disappointment Jess feels here — surely the whole point of a frog doing a cover of “Axel F,” aka the world’s greatest example of form following function (we have a synth, we shall play on the synth, it is a synth smash!), would be to have the frog croak, gargle, gasp etc. whatever the riff, much like, say, those dogs who sing “Jingle Bells.” Instead it’s just the same riff but somehow sounding even flatter and not as grippingly modern — it did sound modern one time, you know — and said frog, whose cell phone noise I’d not yet heard before and who just makes some noise over it like the hamster in the Cuban Boys song. The hamster admittedly hadn’t been dancing around with his wang hanging out, so clearly the UK populace is driven by little more than sex (this might perhaps be an incorrect assumption).

But yeah, it’s keeping Coldplay from a number one, so while I understand Alex’s frustration at the paucity of choice, to us here in America it’s more like “Those nutty British, they like novelty songs like that Mr. Blobby thing.” (But then Coldplay tops the album charts here too and I have to strangle myself in fear and loathing.)