Auditions Of History: Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

History always auditioning for one last performance that’s never delivered because it’s always rewritten. To, uh, talk of the “lessons” of history suggests…models that can be applied to other instances, when no moment really is enough like another that any model applies, without turning the model into something that’s so much something else as to make it, well, not obsolete, but not all that relevant either.

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Edition: Blue Rider Press, 2017, 300 pages.

Steve Erickson’s latest novel Shadowbahn is set in a fascinating alternate version of America in the near future. It’s a parallel America that could have been and is revealed by taking a road trip on a “shadow highway” that connects both costs of America and is described in the novel as:

[…] a rumored thoroughfare unmarked on any map, a secret highway called the “shadowbahn” that cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.

Twenty years after they fell, the Twin Towers mysteriously reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota. Moreover, the towers seem to transmit music, however, every one of the thousands of people who flock to see this miracle hears a different song. The towers are completely empty of people, except for one resident: a full-grown version of Jessie Presley, the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley, who suddenly awakens on the ninety-third floor of one of the towers and is going mad from memories of events that never happened and of a life where he survived in his brother’s place. Meanwhile, siblings Parker and Zema are on a road trip from L.A. to see their mother in Michigan, when they hear about the strange reappearance of the Twin Towers and decide to take a detour to see this apparition. Oh, and Zema’s body seems to transmit music, too, in a version of America were all music seems to be disappearing.

I know the premise of this novel sounds completely crazy, but since I’ve previously read Zeroville, I had faith in the author’s ability to weave a strange yet thought-provoking story. And he didn’t disappoint. Erickson has created a dreamscape, where he plays with the idea of actual and thematic twins and alternative versions, shadow versions and surrogates. The central theme of the novel is identity: both individual and cultural. Jessie Presley is haunted by a voice in his head that he knows isn’t his, by the spectre of what his brother would have become. He feels that he is the inferior version of his brother, a feeling that is intensified when he meets people that somehow also know that he is the “wrong” twin, and he vents out his frustrations by writing scathing articles in a music magazine and hanging around the artists and outcasts at, what seems to be, Andy Warhol’s Factory.

A significant part of the book is devoted to discussions on the history of American popular music. Parker and Zema’s father is a radio DJ and a very opinionated music snob, who spends a lot of time compiling elaborate playlists, placing songs in a specific, and, what he deems to be, the “right” order. The novel includes separate chapters, which are interspersed throughout the book, that put songs into pairings (in a kind of face-off) and look into the history of these songs and, on a larger scale, the evolution of American music, and how it has shaped and influenced American culture. It also reminds us that rock ‘n’ roll (what we associate with popular 20th-century Western music) evolved from blues music and was essentially invented by African Americans. Elvis was the bridge that brought it into mainstream culture and his absence in this version of America has profound cultural implications on the world. The novel suggests that music is the heartbeat of the country and one of the fundamental elements of its cultural identity that expresses the collective dreams and hopes of its people.

The novel tries to reconstruct the image of America by piecing it together from all these alternative parts. This shadow America is populated by alternative versions of historical figures and the novel seems to be asking, what would be the fates of these famous people in this phantom America, where the political and cultural landscape is different?

I really liked the relationship between Parker and his sister Zema, who was adopted from Ethiopia and struggles with her national identity. They go on a road trip across this alternative version of America that seems to be in a state of disunion. Through their story, the author explores the theme of family legacy, and seems to ask, what is the inheritance that parents leave to their children? In case of these siblings, it is represented by a playlist that was compiled by their father, as well as a notebook with comments about the songs. As they go across this shadow America, they listen to the playlist and are exposed to a wide variety of music that seems to represent the essence of America.

Shadowbahn is an engaging, remarkable piece of writing that keeps you guessing, what will happen next, until the very end. The narrative constantly shifts, weaving several story threads, and it almost feels like the book consists of several novels. I can understand how this disjointed structure and an impressive amount of musical references might seem frustrating for a lot of readers, but I find that the unconventional way he tells the story and the themes that are discussed in this book make this a fascinating and worthwhile read. In this book, as in Zeroville, Erickson demonstrates how to use pop culture references in a meaningful way, instead of just trying to profit off of the latest nostalgia trend. This is only my second book by Erickson, but I already feel that I’ve found a new favourite author.

The human heart commits its greatest treachery by healing. It commits its greatest treachery by surviving the love that was supposed to last forever, that was supposed to be the heart’s burden into eternity, only for that burden to be laid down by too much time and, worse, too much banality, too much of everything that’s beneath love, not good enough for love.

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P.S. Here is a playlist of the songs referenced in Shadowbahn: 

 

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Film Reviews: The Death of Stalin (2017), I, Tonya (2017), The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

The Death of Stalin (2017), directed by Armando Iannucci

“I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.”

a495279130bea28067ff459fa02e8239_500x735A film that created quite a stir in Russia and was banned from being shown in theatres until after the election. This fact, naturally, garnered it more attention from the press also in my country and resulted in sold-out screenings. Even my grandfather, who’s not a big moviegoer, wanted to see this film.

Based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is a satire about the chaos and intense political machinations following the sudden death of Stalin (played by Adrian Mcloughlin) in 1953. If you have seen some of Iannucci’s previous work (The Thick of It (2005-2012), In The Loop (2009)), you’ll pretty much know what to expect – dark, edgy humour criticising the incompetence and ambitions of politicians. The film mainly focuses on the main players of the Soviet regime at the time – Nikita Khrushchev (great performance by Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). If you don’t like morbid humour and are easily offended, I suggest skipping this one, because the film constantly takes sharp turns from the silly and darkly comic to the very bleak, even shocking, showcasing the terror that Stalin unleashed on the people.

It’s a very fast-paced film that feels appropriate to the uncertainty and paranoia characteristic of that period, where anyone might be promoted one day and imprisoned or shot on the next. However, it might also make the film confusing and hard to follow for those, who are not that familiar with the historical events of the time. Even though the film tries to keep the audience up to speed, I think that having some prior knowledge about the political landscape of the Soviet Union at the time will increase your enjoyment of the film.


I, Tonya (2017), directed by Craig Gillespie

“I thought being famous would be fun – it was like being abused all over again.”

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I, Tonya is a highly entertaining, energetic, mockumentary style biopic about the life of American Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) and her involvement in the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 that destroyed Tonya Harding’s promising figure skating career.

Margot Robbie gives a truly impressive, emotionally nuanced performance in the role of Tonya and Allison Janney is brilliant as her abrasive, chain-smoking, verbally abusive mother LaVona Golden, who believes that her twisted parenting methods will make Tonya a champion. The film shows how Tonya, despite her extraordinary talent and hard work, was always the outsider of the superficial, highly subjective figure skating world and how she was discriminated by the judges because of her background and failure to comply to the “wholesome” image that the ice-skating establishment wants to project.

The film also shows her turbulent relationship with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who at first seems like a goofy dork but soon reveals his violent side. He and his delusional friend are the ones who orchestrate the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. This results in an incredibly stupid incident that unfortunately cost Tonya her career.

The strong performances, a combination of different genres, fast camera movements, tight editing style (especially during those amazing ice-skating sequences) and great musical choices make this a very thrilling and hilarious and at the same time thought-provoking and moving film. I, Tonya is a cautionary tale about the dangers of surrounding yourself with delusional idiots and it’s certainly one of the best films that I’ve seen this year so far.


The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), directed by Noah Baumbach

“If he’s not a great artist, that means he’s just a prick.”

MV5BMTY1MTA1MjU4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTAwMzE2MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Another clever and sharply comic family drama from writer/director Noah Baumbach. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) focuses on the complicated family dynamics between the ageing, narcissistic father Harold (brilliantly embodied by Dustin Hoffman) and his three children – Danny (played by Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) – who all crave and compete for their father’s approval. The father, however, doesn’t conceal his disappointment that none of them have followed in his footsteps and become artists. Although, it seems that if any of them did, the father would still be competing with his children for the spot of “top artist in the family”.

I’ve been a fan of Noah Baumbach’s work since I saw his first feature film Kicking and Screaming (1995), which is a refreshing and honest look at a group of highly educated, young people, who are struggling to move on and find meaning in their lives after graduating from college. Also, judging from his later work that I’ve seen (Margot At The Wedding (2007), The Squid and The Whale (2005), Frances Ha (2012)), it seems that he is a keen observer of human behaviour and manages to capture in a very honest way the complexities of familial relationships and friendships. He is great at writing sharp and witty dialogue that feels very true to the characters, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is another example of his talent in writing believable characters, who make you laugh in one scene and ponder the tragedy of life in the next.

The Life Of The Mind: Revisiting Barton Fink (1991)

“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind… There’s no roadmap for that territory… And exploring it can be painful.”

1991-barton-fink-poster2Whenever I meet new people and they find out about my passion for film, I get asked that inevitable question to list some of my favourite films of all time. Happens every time. This question usually leads to an awkward silence during which I’m struggling to come up with an answer because I’ve momentarily forgotten the title of every film that I’ve ever seen. After being caught off guard by this question several times, I now have a prepared answer for such situations. A pretty standard list that includes titles such as Taxi Driver (M. Scorsese, 1976), Blue Velvet (D. Lynch, 1986), Manhattan (W. Allen, 1979), 2001: A Space Odyssey (S. Kubrick, 1968), There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson, 2007), Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958), Sunset Boulevard” (B. Wilder, 1950), however, people are usually surprised to hear that the list also includes one of the Coen brothers’ earlier films – Barton Fink (1991), starring John Turturro and John Goodman.

Even though I tend to agree that (by objective standards) some of their later films surpass Barton Fink, this film has a special place on my personal list of top films because it combines some of my favourite elements in terms of storytelling, genre and visual style. Last week I was suddenly inspired to revisit this film, so I thought I take this opportunity and try to write down some of my thoughts about it.

The film tells the story of a successful, idealistic, left-wing New York playwright Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) in the 1940s, who, after writing a hit Broadway play,  is invited to write screenplays in Hollywood. He is commissioned by the mercurial  Hollywood producer and studio head Jack Lipnick (played by Michael Lerner) to write a wrestling picture, even though Barton knows nothing about the genre and thus suffers from writer’s block. The film plays with the familiar caricature of the eccentric, cigar-smoking Golden Age Hollywood producer with a working class, immigrant background. A self-made man, who has learned the rules of the “Hollywood system” and only produces escapist films that have proven to be successful, while crushing the dreams and ideals of the fragile artist and our main character Barton Fink, who wants to produce work that reflects the problems of the “common man”.

This dichotomy between commercial low art and high art is a central theme of the film. At least at the beginning, the story is set up in a way for the audience to sympathise with Barton’s struggle against the “Hollywood system”, however, soon after it subverts our expectations as we start to realise that the film is not just another satire of the “Hollywood system”, but also a clever and critical examination of the self-centred, idealistic ambitions of a writer, who, in his mind, is fighting to retain his integrity while working on a project that he finds meaningless. This becomes clear from the way Barton interacts with his next-door neighbour, the travelling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who (at least at the beginning) is the perfect archetype of what Barton considers to be “the common man”. The dialogue scenes between the two characters in Barton’s hotel room cleverly reveal that Barton’s interest in the struggles of “the common man” is purely abstract, since he constantly interrupts and ignores Charlie’s stories, and only wants to talk about the hardships of, what he calls, “the life of the mind”.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the setting. Barton stays in an old, eerie L.A. hotel, a character of its own, and the visual shots of the hotel corridor that alludes to the famous corridor shots from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Considering the popularity of The Shining, it is possible that the film expects the audience to make this connection, thus amplifying the sense of unease. I, personally, really appreciate such stylistic choices. The inclusion of film references or familiar clichés challenges and engages viewers by building upon their existing knowledge of cinema. It elevates the film by creating another layer of meaning beyond the images on the screen. The film also adopts some of the stylistic conventions of film noir by presenting the monstrous amidst the ordinary and using archetypal characters such as the fragile artist (Barton), the femme fatale (Audrey), the hard-boiled LAPD detectives (Deutch and Mastionotti) and the talented yet troubled and alcoholic writer (M.P. Mayhew). The film is very dialogue heavy and each character has a distinct, dynamic speech pattern that corresponds to his/her specific character traits or profession.

The film blends satire with the macabre that brings to mind the work of David Lynch. It is full of symbolism, most notably Barton’s small, hot, cheaply furnished hotel room with peeling wallpaper that serves as a visual representation of the deteriorating state of Barton’s psyche. Barton’s final emotional breakdown plays out visually in a powerful scene where the hotel is literally engulfed in flames during the final confrontation between Barton and Charlie, who (in his own way) is also trying to free “the common man” from the hardships of life.

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The film left a profound impression on me the first time I saw it, and I’m pleased to report that, upon revisiting it again very recently, my opinion hasn’t changed. I love the way it fuses different genres and creates a unique view of the world by challenging specific genre barriers and inviting interpretation. I think it deliberately doesn’t provide a tidy or satisfying ending and refrains from making moral judgements to allow the viewer to formulate their own opinion. The open ending also returns to the idea of low-art v. high-art, represented by the picture that hangs in Barton’s hotel room of a girl sitting on the beach alone and gazing at the ocean that is recreated in real life in the final scene of the film. During Barton’s struggles, his gaze constantly returns to this stock image of the girl on the beach. A banal and sentimental image, like you, would find on a cheap holiday card, that is nonetheless somehow comforting, just like the low-art movies produced by the “Hollywood system” that may have a certain value after all by providing some escapism for “the common man” from the hardships of everyday life.

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A New Year, A Fresh Start

When I first started my blog, I envisioned it as a place where I could organise and get better at expressing my thoughts on two of my favourite discussion topics – books and films. Well…that didn’t exactly go as planned. I soon realised how much work goes into maintaining a blog and struggled with finding the motivation to continue once I started comparing my content to other blogs that I enjoy. Also, I became highly (perhaps, overly) critical about my writing, and that took away all the joy from blogging, so I gave up on it very quickly, even though I knew that the only way to get better it is to just keep writing.

However, toward the end of 2017, I often found myself returning to the idea of giving blogging another try, as I think I would enjoy it if I give it a proper chance and don’t get derailed by self-doubt. Thus, one of my resolutions for 2018 was to update my blog and give myself a fresh start. I know that if I stay focused and determined, I will see progress in the content that I create.

So here I am again, striving every day to be more positive about my work and hoping to improve my writing by sharing my thoughts on books and films.

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