New Zealand: In the summertime

img_0767I’m in my 12th year as a New Zealander now, a statistic which kind of stuns me. That’s about a quarter of my life now, and I’ve been a dual citizen of two nations for several years. And I’m finally starting to think of January as summer.

One of the biggest inversions of American life to adjust to for me was Christmas no longer being the icy, sweater-wearing time of year. I grew up in the mountains of California and had many white Christmases. In New Zealand Christmases are the sparkling blue of the ocean and clear skies (or the splashes of early summer rain), the white of clouds and sun bouncing off golden sand, the red of blooming pohutukawa trees. Instead of sleigh bells it’s the growing buzz of cicadas echoing around the bush. 

In New Zealand, EVERYTHING shuts down for about two weeks from Christmas through New Year’s. Many businesses close entirely. It’s not just Christmas, it’s our summer school holidays, our big break in the year. Throughout January, I get tan, I constantly have the feel of sunblock on my skin, and sand seems to be everywhere. From our house, there’s about 10 beaches within a short drive; hundreds within an hour. 

img_4609I’ve finally noticed these last few years that my mind has shifting toward accepting January as the summertime, toward seeing Christmas as summer holidays. The heat and sun seems normal. In a way, it makes a lot more sense to roll everything together – the bustle of Christmas, the optimism of a  New Year, the languorous stretch of school holidays. By early February or so, things start to get back to normal. Most people return to work in January sometime, and by February, while it’s still summer heat for months to come, school’s back in session, the commutes and chaos of ordinary life all normal. 

It’s Christmas. It’s New Year’s. It’s summertime in New Zealand, and all’s well. 

Year in Review: My top 10 pop-culture moments of 2018

I’ve always dug the year-in-review lists, but I’m kind of an old dude now, and I couldn’t tell you 10 albums that came out in 2018 that I dug and I’m usually about 6 months behind on the streaming thing everyone is talking about.

So instead, here’s 10 moments in pop culture that made my year – whether it’s something new to everyone, or something old and glorious I discovered for myself this year. Because frankly, there’s a heck of a lot of great things in the past that are often way more interesting than whatever is flitting through the world this week. 

InfinityWar5a4bb0e7cdea1.0Superheroic golden age: Every once in a while I think how 13-year-old me would’ve reeled at the idea of a new big-budget superhero movie or TV show every few months. I pretty much dug them all in various ways and all the comic book moments they brought to life — Avengers: Infinity War somehow magically capturing Jim Starlin’s complicated villain Thanos without him seeming absurd; Black Panther’s Shakespearean grandeur, as the king returns to take his crown; the gleefully over-the-top Aquaman, with a pitch-perfect Black Manta/Aquaman battle that had me grinning like a loon; the fantastic third season of Daredevil bringing Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk’s battle to a climax; Ant-Man and the Wasp turning San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf into a size-changing playground. (And I’m still waiting for Into The Spider-Verse to open in New Zealand!)

Orson Welles lives: Who woulda thought we’d see a “new” Welles film 30+ years after his death? I loved The Other Side of the Wind, which was sprawling, chaotic and fragmented like much of Welles’ final work. By its very nature incomplete, it still evoked a dying world of Hollywood legends and graced us with a few more of Welles’ picture-perfect screen compositions. 

Lady Bird: Technically this came out in 2017, but this smart, witty and surprising comedy about a girl’s coming of age in Sacramento is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, with Greta Gerwig building on the promise she’d shown with Frances Ha and other movies. 

robin williams biography main-min“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff: Robin Williams was a remarkable talent who battled addiction and tragedy much of his life. Schlock like Patch Adams made us forget how amazing he could be; this definitive biography brings him back to life and reminds us of what we lost. 

Immortal Hulk: The Hulk is Marvel’s endlessly protean creation, who’s been reconfigured and reimagined dozens of times over the years. This current take by Al Ewing is a moody horror epic that’s creepily unforgettable and shows the Hulk can still surprise after over 50 years. 

John Coltrane: Yep, the man’s been dead for 51 years, but like the best of artists, his work is still capable of endless surprises. I watched the terrific documentary Chasing Trane this year and have been diving into many of Coltrane’s squawkier, chaotic later albums like the superb Sun Ship. It’s not music for every mood, but when it works, peak Coltrane is like watching the sky split open and unfold itself. 

“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson: A biography that truly reveals an entire world, with fascinating focus on how exactly Da Vinci created his masterpieces, and the world he lived in. Made me want to zip off to Europe to see the works in person. 

Ron-Stallworth-and-Patrice-in-BlacKkKlansmanBlack entertainment: They’ve all got ‘black’ in the name and they all provided strong, uplifting portrayals of the African-American experience – Black Panther, which broke a zillion box office records along the way; Black Lightning, which took a lesser-known DC superhero and gave us one of the realest portrayals of a strong black family on TV in ages; BlacKkKlansman, which was Spike Lee’s strongest movie in years, as feisty, creative and witty as “Do The Right Thing.”  

Let’s go to a gig: I saw some great concerts this year, from Grace Jones’ imperial grandeur at Auckland City Limits to what might’ve been legendary Bob Dylan’s final concert in New Zealand (and the best show I’ve seen from him yet) to cool and somewhat retro gigs by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Billy Bragg and the Breeders. Great times all. 

Universal horror: The best thrills are often the old ones. As I battled a variety of health and personal setbacks this year, somehow I got the most comfort from flickering black and white images of horror and mystery. I’ve always loved the old Universal horror movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and rarely a week went by where I didn’t resurrect Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney for a bit of spooky pleasure. The immortal ones never really die, you know. 

Year In Review: 3 disappointments of 2018

I love a good year-in-review post, and here’s the first of two looking at the highs and lows in the year in pop-culture for me.

I’ll start with the negative, with a look at three pop-culture moments of 2018 that let me down. Let the bummers begin!

doctor-who-s11_entertainment-weekly-3_new-episodic_wide-28f404cb12e08e88cb071a2b942bd5d23107103e-s800-c85Doctor Who: First off, I love the idea of a female Doctor. I think Jodie Whittaker was an excellent casting choice and did a fine job this season. But she was let down by trite and sloppy writing and a general lack of invention and passion in a pretty disappointing first season. I actually would’ve liked to have seen more done with the ramifications of the Doctor’s first reincarnation as a woman after 12 men and 1000 or so years, but the show barely dealt with it. The show stepped too far away from acknowledging the Doctor’s vast lifespan and history, and too often the Doctor came off as an uncertain novice. I was getting sick of the Daleks, too, but few of this year’s antagonists were memorable and the self-contained episodes often lacked real drama. Three companions is far too many, and the stories generally were bland sci-fi 101. The best of the episodes were ones like the Rosa Parks episode or the Indian partition story which felt like they had something to say. The worst were generic “monster of the week” tales like “Arachnids in the UK” with a completely unsubtle Trump stand-in. With the usual keyboard warrior suspects ranting and raving how a woman Doctor might give everybody cooties, I was hoping the show would shut them up with an utterly amazing year, instead of one that was just sort of OK. Let’s hope the next season brings back some of the mystery, invention and drama the best of the David Tennant years had. 

13OctfilmThe First Man: I really wanted to like this Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, but I walked out massively disappointed by its turgid tone, seasick-inducing attempts to realistically replicate the experience of space flying, and disappointed by Gosling’s stone-faced portrayal of a man who admittedly was kind of boring. It had its moments – Claire Foy does a lot with the token doting wife role, and in the moments when Armstrong actually lands on the moon the claustrophobic aura of the movie actually lifts into something actually resembling poetry. But I think I’d rather watch more soaring, less interior space pics like “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” again rather than sit through “The First Man” twice. 

ellisonDeath, devourer of all: This year was pretty rough on my cultural heroes. I know, a lot of them were in their 80s and 90s, but it still sucks. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, creators of millions of comic-book dreams. Harlan Ellison, writer with a voice like lightning and a creator who shaped my worldview more than most. Philip Roth, the last of a generation of great American writers like Updike and Vonnegut. Mark E. Smith, tattered, debauched voice of the clattering UK band The Fall. Legendary voice Aretha Franklin. Endlessly curious mind Anthony Bourdain. “Frasier’s” grand, underrated John Mahoney. The Lois Lane of my childhood dreams, Margot Kidder. Way too many others. Time is cruel, ain’t it?

Up next: Get positive, with my top ten pop-culture moments of 2018!

Review: The Breeders, Powerstation, December 11, Auckland

IMG_4440I’ve been on an unabashed ‘80s music nostalgia kick lately, seeing Bauhaus and Billy Bragg in recent weeks, so it was time to move on to the 1990s and the glorious return of that kick-ass combo of rock’n’roll twin sisters, The Breeders, featuring Kim and Kelley Deal. 

The Breeders, featuring the line-up that put out their hit album Last Splash in 1993, rolled into Auckland’s sold-out Powerstation last night on the final show of their world tour. It was a loose, giddy affair, with the Deal twins clearly having a lot of fun on stage at the end of a big year. 

Kim Deal made her name as part of the legendary Pixies, and was an integral part of their sound, but for my money, her best work has always been the more personal, evocative pop-rock she created when she set out on her own in The Breeders with her twin sister Kelley. The Breeders have been equal parts surreal, goofy and spooky in their career, always anchored by Kim Deal’s crystalline croon of a voice. 

The band barrelled through most of Last Splash and a lot of this year’s All Nerve, easily the Breeders’s best of their sporadic albums since Splash came out 25 (!!) years ago (and far better than the newer Pixies reunion albums minus Kim Deal have been).

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Photos by myself

The sibling banter of the Deal twins was often a highlight, but the powerhouse drumming of Jim MacPherson and bassist Josephine Wiggs anchored the songs with tremendous force.

The band romped through excellent new tunes like “Wait In The Car” and the sultry “Walking With A Killer.” Kelley Deal took centre stage for a show-stopping solo vocal turn in “Drivin’ On 9” while the sole Pixies tune of the night, Kim Deal’s “Gigantic,” had the audience pogo-dancing in glee. And of course, they played inescapable groove of “Cannonball,” one of the coolest songs of the 1990s, which sums up the Breeders sound nicely – rambling, groovy and always taking unexpected turns, combining classic pop riffs with grunge-era clatter and feedback.

(Edit: And here’s another excellent review by the Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Flynn-Scott)

What’s probably my last time in a video store

VARIOUSI visited what’s probably just about the last surviving video store in Auckland the other day. It won’t be there for long, as it’s shutting its doors December 31 and was having a massive clearing-house sale.

The internet and digital media have knocked around book stores and music stores relentlessly, but some are still hanging in there. But the humble video store has been systematically annihilated in the last decade or so. I’ve lost track of how many ‘closing down’ video stores I’ve seen in Auckland in the relatively short time since Netflix finally launched streaming in New Zealand in March 2015. We were a few years behind the US, but the doom came calling here. 

Hey, I get it. I stream, too, but there’s an awful, awful lot of film history you can only find on home video. Also, I own it, and don’t have to suffer the whims of some corporation that decides to drop titles from their catalog at random. 

lsThe groovy Videon in Mount Eden, Auckland was never my regular video store – I lived too far away from it – but it was a part of my family’s lives, and it was the kind of classic, curated and smart video store that film nuts loved – carefully organised by directors, countries and detailed sub-sections, with an extensive selection that blows away anything on streaming when it comes to film history. 

I scooped up rare treasures like Tod Browning’s creepy classic 1932 “Freaks,” rare Robert Altman movies from the 1970s, and more, and I thought once again about how while streaming has its up side, its big down side is that movies from before 1990 or so barely exist. Little NZ doesn’t even have the smaller niche streaming services that the US does, so for us it’s Netflix and a few other competitors, and that’s it. 

I worked at a video store part-time in California almost 20 years ago now, in that brief era when they felt like the centre of the entertainment universe. DVDs were barely a thing yet and battered VHS tapes ruled the land. This store even had a back room full of obsolete Beta tapes. Even now any time I see movies of that time like “Blade,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Pleasantville” and “Ronin” I can picture their cardboard boxes lining a shelf, the greasy plastic cases holding the tapes piled up high at the rental return counter each morning. 

kimsVideo stores, while they lasted, provided a sense of community that staring at your laptop while scrolling through likes on your phone really doesn’t. Going out to ‘rent a video’ meant interacting a bit more than pushing a button. Sure, they could often be understocked or over-corporate or full of trash and porn, but still, the very best of the video stores, when they flickered through their brief life span, were a wonder. 

I kind of feel like this weekend’s big DVD clearance sale might well be the last video store I ever go into in my lifetime. I filled my arms with zombie horror and ‘40s melodrama and Orson Welles and Werner Herzog and bid one last farewell to an era.

Roll credits. 

Robert Altman’s “Nashville” 43 years on

fullwidth.98a99c88I’ve been on a Robert Altman kick these last few months, working through the late director’s diverse body of work. I watched what many consider his masterpiece, 1975’s Nashville, for the first time in years, and it’s surprising how relevant a 43-year-old movie about life in America still feels today.

OK, sure, it’s steeped in ‘70s fashion and style (Shelley Duvall’s barely-there groupie wardrobe deserves its own biopic), but underneath Altman’s sprawling loose-limbed tale of a diverse group of country musicians and politicians over a few days in Nashville is a keen eye for the eternal conflict in America – between messy reality and the urge to mythologise itself. 

Altman clearly saw the two Americas back in 1975 that we still have today, where one man’s entertainment is another man’s outrage, where one man’s favourite song is another man’s cheese. There’s multiple perspectives to be had on almost every moment in the film, depending on where you view it from. 

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A waitress believes she’s a great country singer despite the evidence. A smug BBC reporter constantly holds forth yet is quietly despised by everyone she interviews. One star country singer is an emotionally fragile wreck, another is a fading star worried about his own coming irrelevance. A black country singer who performs at the Grand Ole Opry is terrific, but reaction shots of the all-white audience show a lot of staring, silent faces. 

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Take a scene where Keith Carradine sings his Academy Award-winning love song, “I’m Easy,” to Lily Tomlin in a crowded bar. It’s a heart-tugging, gorgeous romantic moment, but the sentiment it’s filled with is undercut almost instantly because we know Carradine’s character is hopping from bed to bed, casual enough about it to call his next hookup while his current one is still getting dressed in his hotel room. That song is just a song. 

A maverick, outsider presidential campaign is a running thread throughout Nashville. The fatuous bromides and slogans coming from presidential candidate Walker’s truck that echo throughout the film could be Trumpisms, Bushisms, Clintonisms from any era. 

“It Don’t Worry Me,” the theme song that pops up again and again in Nashville, plays darkly into the climax, as a plucky singer sings it to raise the spirits of a crowd at a political rally following a tragedy. It’s a rousing anthem yet it’s also a defeatist one, a song where the singer shrugs repeatedly at life’s problems because, what else can you do? 

I can’t help but think it feels like a better American national anthem these days than any other:

“You may say that I ain’t free

but it don’t worry me…”

President George H.W. Bush and me

in-the-oval-office-former-president-george-bush-president-news-photo-568874837-1543650570

One of my weird hobbies is a US presidential history fixation. I keep it separate from my politics, which like most things seems a lot harder to do in 2018 than it once was. What I’m interested in is the personalities, the stories and the things that drove the men (so far) who’ve lived in the White House. 

So the death of a President for a prez-nerd like me is a kinda big deal. George H.W. Bush wasn’t my favourite President, nor my least favourite, but he seemed significant to me. 

He’s the first President I ever voted against, and his 1992 and 1988 campaigns were the first ones I really paid attention to. I turned 18 a year too late to vote in the 1988 election, but I was an unashamed Dukakis fan who was set up for the first of many electoral heartbreaks. My high school friends and I were what the kids today might’ve called “woke” and actually cared about the election; I remember some organising a day for everyone to wear black after Bush, the uncool candidate, won the ’88 race easily. #Occupymyhighschool!

BUSH DUKAKIS DEBATE 1988

In ’92, I voted for President for the first time, with Bush, Clinton and wayfaring stranger from another planet Ross Perot battling it out. On Election Night a dozen or so friends gathered at my apartment to watch the results, pretty evenly divided between Bush, Clinton and Perot supporters, a combination of partisan friends which seems harder to imagine happening today. 

It’s been 12 years since a President died and America went through all its elaborate mourning rituals. I remember clearly where I was when each President in my lifetime died – Richard Nixon, in 1994, I was in New Orleans visiting the family of a short-lived girlfriend. In a bizarre cosmic coincidence I met Hunter S. Thompson there the day after his nemesis Nixon had died. 

In 2004 I was working the weekend shift running a newspaper in Oregon and splashed Ronald Reagan’s death on the front page; in 2006 when Gerald Ford died I was at our beach house and didn’t find out about it for days. When George H.W. Bush died I’d spent the rainy Saturday watching Spielberg’s Lincoln movie with my son and also reading some of the massive history of President Ulysses S Grant I’ve been working on for weeks now. It was a very Presidential day. 

For a brief four years or so, the fumbling Bush dominated the culture, much like Trump does today. Dana Carvey mocked him on SNL, he beat up Homer Simpson, his wife wrote a book about their dog and apparently people actually bought it. I rather like Maureen Dowd’s reminiscences about Bush in The New York Times, which captures something of the man’s goofy embarrassing uncle vibe and the kernel of compassion which kept me from ever truly hating him. bush-56a9b7835f9b58b7d0fe5472

I didn’t love him and he made a lot of mistakes – being in a gung-ho conservative Southern college when the Gulf War broke out in 1990 and having people in my dorm cheer about “killing rag heads” in “Bush’s war” was one of those moments when I realised what side in life I wanted to be on. But I didn’t loathe him quite like I’ve come to loathe some who’ve followed him (as the writer Peter David puts it, “every president who passes away from this point on will have to face one question: Was he better than Trump?”). I sneered at Bush a lot in his life, but yet, I wouldn’t have balked at shaking his hand. 

There’s something strange and evocative to me about when a President dies. It pulls a firm curtain on whatever era they stood for, reminds us that no matter how big a deal someone gets to be they all face the same end. A lot of people are talking about how Bush was the last President who wasn’t loathed by a massive percentage of Americans, the last Cold War president, last World War II veteran president and maybe the last of what he called a “kinder, gentler nation” too. 

I may not have voted for President Bush, but he was a part of history for better or worse, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about what all that meant.