RIP Robert Ashley, 1930-2014
RIP Harold Ramis, 1944-2014
Ghostbusters, Back to School, Stripes, Groundhog Day, Meatballs, SCTV—I’m one of the few people that actually really digs Multiplicity. Hell, I even saw Year One in the theater (it was awful, but dude has a lifetime pass that extends now past his lifetime, to be clear). Ramis undoubtedly colored the careers of all the people he worked with—he wrote their lines, made the lines fit into comedies that were smart and dumb and goofy and perceptive all at the same time. RIP.
RIP Mavis Gallant, 1922-2014
The Globe and Mail has reported the death of Mavis Gallant, the Canadian writer who lived much of her life in Paris, writing sharp, observant short stories.
I had never read Gallant until last year, when The New Yorker fiction podcast introduced me to her work via Margaret Atwood, who read Gallant’s story “Voices in the Snow” for the series. Years earlier, Antonya Nelson read Gallant’s story “When We Were Nearly Young” for the same series.
Gallant published many, many stories for The New Yorker (which may consider unlocking some of them, yes?), including “Florida,” which you can read here.
With few exceptions, books of short stories seldom sell well. Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other. A book of stories is not a novel. Someone once said to me, “Katherine Mansfield died before she was ready to write a novel. Perhaps she would never have been ready.” I thought that was just stupid.
RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014
I suppose our capacity to feel shock and sadness and even anger over the death of an actor—someone who we don’t really know, didn’t know, couldn’t know—comes through an emotional identification. I was shocked at how shocked (and saddened, and angered) I felt today when I saw that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his apartment in New York City.penth
I first saw Hoffman in 1997, in Boogie Nights, a film I watched so many times in college that it is imprinted in my mind. Hoffman played Scotty, a boom operator whose not-quite-repressed homosexuality erupts in strange emotional moments. Hoffman brought pathos and humor and understanding to the character, and we could look at it like a template for all the work he would do in the decade and a half after. Hoffman shaded even his smallest roles with depth and spirit. His Scotty could have been a leering freak, a grotesque caricature—but Hoffman knew Scotty was more than that—he made Scotty real, a person, a human whom the audience could feel.
Hoffman continued to work with Boogie Nights writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson. In Magnolia, where he again brought pathos and intensity to a minor role: “See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out”:
Hoffman showed the extension of his range in PTA’s sharpest film, Punch Drunk Love:
But his best work with Paul Thomas Anderson in The Master, where he showcased his deep, penetrating intelligence as Lancaster Dodd:
The Master was one of the few leading film roles that Hoffman got, which perhaps makes sense if you consider the type of character he was often cast into: The creep, the weirdo, the failure, the fat friend, the obsessive. But he brought so much to those roles too, whether it was Phil Parma sneaking Penthouse into his bread order (Magnolia), yes-man Brandt’s repetitive nervous tic (The Big Lebowski), Scotty lunging for a sloppy kiss (Boogie Nights), or Sandy Lyle shooting hoops in the forgettable romcom Along Came Polly. Actually, Along Came Polly is an instructive example of just how great Hoffman could be—he raised the film, was easily the best thing about it, bringing depth to his character (a failed former child actor) and adding the term sharting to the lexicon.
Hoffman was also the best thing about his first major lead role in a film, Capote, where he played the titular writer.
Hoffman played another writer in Charlie Kaufman’s messy postmodernist riddle Synecdoche, New York. Hoffman played Caden Cotard, a theater director whose ambition is to produce a play so utterly real that it transcends fiction. In his commitment to this project, Cotard essentially misses his own life.
Despite these lead roles, Hoffman will likely be remembered as a character actor, but one who surpasses the, “Hey, it’s that guy” label. He’s a cult actor, and with good reason. His death is so sad in part because Hoffman felt like one of us: One of the freaks and the weirdos, one of the guys on the margins, awkward, maybe, but also deeply real, with a soul, with an intellect, with talents that might not announce themselves in the form of rippling muscles or perfect hair. He was often the only thing worth watching in bad or mediocre movies (Charlie Wilson’s War and Cold Mountain come to mind), and he elevated good movies to great movies—I don’t think Spike Lee’s 25th Hour could have been nearly as compelling without Hoffman’s sensitive, flawed friend there as an anchor to Norton’s overcharged performance; he also provided a cynical ballast as Lester Bangs to Cameron Crowe’s airy memoir, Almost Famous. Hoffman was electric when playing against type, as in Sidney Lumet’s too-overlooked thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in which he played the alpha male with savage aplomb (he’d refine the characterization in some ways for his portrayal of Lancaster Dodd in The Master).
But as always with these things—and by these things I mean the deaths of the famous, of actors, of musicians, of etc.—always the sadness we might feel is perhaps born of a selfishness—yes, the reminder of my own mortality, your own mortality implicit within the actor’s death, sure, but in Hoffman’s case something more I think, here too—that we know that this guy was great, was Capital G Great, was almost always the best thing in any film he was in, was smarter and deeper than the script often had a right to lay claim to, that he improved anything he was in, that he compelled the viewer’s attention, that he was so young, that he was so, so young, that he still had so many films ahead of him, so many great works ahead of him, so many years ahead of him…
RIP Amiri Baraka, 1934-2014
RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013
I imagine other folks will put together overviews of Lou Reed’s career that contextualize his dramatic importance to contemporary music—to rock n’ roll—so I’m not gonna bother to do that. Instead, let me shoot from the hip here:
I’m surprised how sad I felt today when I learned that Reed had died. I don’t think I can overstate how important the Velvet Underground’s music was to me when I was young; more significantly, I still love their music today, still listen to it every week. Not all of Reed’s solo albums stuck in my brain, but many of them did, and so many of his songs are wedged so deep in my consciousness that I can hit “play” and hear them in toto without having to actually touch a stereo.
The first Lou Reed song I heard was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I heard on the fucking radio, some time in the late 1980s, when I was still a kid, when I was perplexed and stunned and weirded out by Reed’s storytelling, of Holly and Candy and Jackie, when I didn’t know what to make of a signal phrase like, “And the colored girls go…,” as much as I loved the “Doo do doo do doo do do doo…”
In 1991 my dad gave me a Sony Discman which I lived a good part of my life through. I bought a number of albums through a record club–maybe BMG or Columbia House, probably both (how to explain these scams to kids today…)—and the most important one in the first batch was The Best of the Velvet Underground: The Words and Music of Lou Reed. The songs and the liner notes opened up new avenues of what music could do. After that record I bought Magic and Loss, an album about loss and grieving and mortality that was just way too mature for me, but I loved and still love the single “What’s Good?”
I was one of those kids who scrawled Velvet Underground lyrics all over notebooks in high school; I still remembered the squareheaded jock who sat by me in American Government leaning in to mock the phrase “it’s so cold in Alaska” which repeated over my binder. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, like a lot of you weirdos, the Velvets were and are important to me, they helped me to live.
The cliche that everyone will cite is that line about the Velvets, how they didn’t sell any records but that everyone who did buy one of those records went and started a band…that cliche is true. The Velvet Underground birthed not just bands but whole new genres, art forms, experiences. It’s so hard to explain against the backdrop of the internet, this wonderful tool that grants immediate access to so much music, to the history of music, but pre-internet bands like the Velvet Underground—and the bands they engendered, like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth—were deeply important as curators, as taste makers, as starting points to access the real stuff.
Lou Reed, like any good artist, was an asshole, or at least that’s my suspicion informed by the many, many interviews and articles I read about him, an opinion informed deeply by Victor Bockris’s biography Transformer; I wrote about that book years ago on this site so I’ll cannibalize that writing now:
Lou Reed is a weirdo, and Victor Bockris wants you to know about it. Starting with Reed’s Long Island youth (complete with electro-shock therapy), Bockris’s biography covers pretty much everything right up through the Velvet Underground’s early nineties reunion: Reed’s early apprenticeship in the Brill Building, the nascent days of the VU (plenty of Warhol anecdotes, of course), punk rock, several doomed romances, his years living with a transvestite, his karate skills, his yoga skills, and his all-bran diet, and of course, the drugs. Oh the drugs. Also, Reed’s solo career is also examined (including plenty of material from guitar god Bob Quine). Bockris seems to feel Magic and Loss is something of a watershed moment in modern rock (anyone who accidentally bought this album knows otherwise).
Bockris’s book employs a bitchy, dishy tone, rife with catty comments from everyone whoever worked with Reed: apparently Lou was a total asshole. Bockris reprints some painful comments (e.g. Reed on Springsteen, 1975: “Isn’t Springsteen over the hill?”); the most awkward moment comes in the book’s appendix, in a transcript of a meeting Bockris arranged between Reed and William Burroughs. Bad idea (Reed can’t remember the name of “that book you published”–Naked Lunch).
As I’m putting this together, a friend texts me to chat about Lou. We were in a band together, this friend and I, years ago…We got to open for Moe Tucker’s band, that’s the closest we got to Lou Reed. My friend tells me that he wishes he could “trade Bono” to get Reed back.
It’s strange to feel surprised that a rock star who wrote a song called “Heroin” is dead, but I thought he’d keep living. I don’t know why. All those weird projects (Lulu?!), all that collaboration. And here is where I write some hackneyed line about Reed still living, still being alive through music, some nonsense, and then later when I get in my car with my kids to drive to a pumpkin to buy pumpkins to carve into jack o’ lanterns for Halloween, I’ll push the “next” button on my CD player through tracks from the Smiths and Talking Heads and Luna and Beach House, tracks that I already know are on the mix CD in there, I’ll push through to “Rock & Roll,” one of those songs that inevitably ends up on half of the CDs I make for myself.
RIP Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013
I shouldered a kind of manhood
stepping in to lift the coffins
of dead relations.
They had been laid out
in tainted rooms,
their eyelids glistening,
their dough-white hands
shackled in rosary beads.
Their puffed knuckles
had unwrinkled, the nails
were darkened, the wrists
The dulse-brown shroud,
the quilted satin cribs:
I knelt courteously
admiting it all
as wax melted down
and veined the candles,
the flames hovering
to the women hovering
And always, in a corner,
the coffin lid,
its nail-heads dressed
with little gleaming crosses.
Dear soapstone masks,
kissing their igloo brows
had to suffice
before the nails were sunk
and the black glacier
of each funeral
Now as news comes in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
the temperate footsteps
of a cortège, winding past
each blinded home.
I would restore
the great chambers of Boyne,
prepare a sepulchre
under the cupmarked stones.
Out of side-streets and bye-roads
purring family cars
nose into line,
the whole country tunes
to the muffled drumming
of ten thousand engines.
left behind, move
through emptied kitchens
imagining our slow triumph
towards the mounds.
Quiet as a serpent
in its grassy boulevard
the procession drags its tail
out of the Gap of the North
as its head already enters
the megalithic doorway.
When they have put the stone
back in its mouth
we will drive north again
past Strang and Carling fjords
the cud of memory
allayed for once, arbitration
of the feud placated,
imagining those under the hill
disposed like Gunnar
who lay beautiful
inside his burial mound,
though dead by violence
men said that he was chanting
verses about honour
and that four lights burned
in corners of the chamber:
which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon.
RIP Elmore Leonard, 1925 – 2013
RIP Kim Thompson, 1956-2013.
I probably first got to know Kim Thompson’s name through the editorial and letters pages of Dave Sim’s long-running black and white comic Cerebus. Sim had this marvelous agon with Thompson and partner Gary Groth, who were, like, the voice of comix (as opposed to, y’know, comics). Their outlet for that voice was The Comics Journal, the often ornery (and often-sued) magazine that maintained the critical and artistic traditions of cartooning against the venal backdrop of superhero comics. Thompson was also instrumental in the vision and quality of Fantagraphics Books, where he edited books by Chris Ware, Peter Bagge, and Joe Sacco, among, many many others. I still have all my issues of his anthology comic Zero Zero, which was instrumental in warping my young mind. I think I’ll dig them out now.
RIP Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013
RIP filmmaker Les Blank, 1935-2013.
Les Blank served as director and cinematographer of dozens of films, mostly documentaries. He’s probably most famous for his 1982 film Burden of Dreams, which chronicles Werner Herzog struggling against nature and humanity alike to make Fitzcarraldo. For me, the two films are inseparable. Here is Blank talking about making that film:
(Les Blank also made Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe).
Blank was also famous for documenting blues, jazz, folk, and other types of roots music in a naturalistic, earthy fashion.
He also loved gap toothed women:
RIP Roger Ebert, 1942-2013
Roger Ebert had a tremendous impact on how I thought about criticism and how a review should be written, voiced, pitched. I didn’t always agree with the guy, but I loved watching his show (usually more than the films he and Siskel reviewed) and reading his reviews, and I loved following him on Twitter, where I’ll miss him most I guess.
RIP Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013
I will never forget the first time I read Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s famous novel that mixes elements of magical realism and postcolonial criticism into the story of brave, stubborn Okonkwo, a killer, an exile, a man too big for his world. I was a high school senior and the book was part of an AP Literature reading list. I found a tattered copy in my classroom library, and compelled by the cover and the book’s name (what a great name!) and the author’s name, I read it. I devoured it. I absorbed it. I read it again.
And I stole the book of course.
And then years later, a student of mine stole it from me, which is as it should be.
I used Things Fall Apart for years in the classroom, reading it aloud with my classes in the inner-city school where I taught. Few of my students were avid readers, especially the angry young boys, who often seemed to show up merely to escape the violent streets they roamed or the chaos at home. But they liked Things Fall Apart and they loved Okonkwo and they understood him, his anger, his pride, his fury. Over the years my class set experienced that special kind of attrition all well-loved books face: The books disappeared, secreted into knapsacks and lockers, loaned to students in other classes. Or they fell apart, fittingly, the spines cracked, the glue brittle and crumbling, the pages torn. This is love, of course.
Achebe was always thrust into a strange position. He had to defend writing in English, for example, and discourse about Things Fall Apart often dwells too much on the book’s final chapters, where British colonials begin systemically decimating traditional Igbo culture. It’s not that that final section isn’t important or meaningful to the book, but there’s so much more there—so much is preserved—and shared—of Igbo culture in the book’s first three quarters. (Achebe’s scathing attack on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness often overshadows his fiction).
If we’re being honest though, let’s admit that what makes Things Fall Apart a great work of literature, a strange, strong work of literature, isn’t merely its anthropological or folkloric or political values. It’s not a book we read again and again because of its allegorical values or its maddening critique of colonialism. The reason that we continue to read and reread Things Fall Apart is that it’s an excellent novel, an aesthetic achievement, a work that produces its own anxieties, that captures terror and pity and humanity. So much humanity.
RIP character actor Charles Durning, 1923-2012