December 31, 2007
You’re looking at the world through a windshield when, in an attempt to scope out what’s happening to your rear make that "behind you" you glance up at the mirror and get an immediate and incomplete reflection of how things stand. Much of what is off to the side is not apparent. These days, that is a good thing!
A form of denial, to be sure but, in lieu of looking over your shoulder and pondering the political and environmental landscapes, allowing the mirror to narrowly focus upon those sidebars of life dealing with the leisure pursuits also has validity. Rather than a year-end ranking of these escapist and often fascinating pastimes, however, a reflective overview seems more in order.
Books, of course, always loom large around these parts. In fact, around here, you trip over them, stacked one upon the other in a continual rotation that does not lend itself to easy analysis. Subject matter certainly isn’t the culprit. It’s more like shuffling the deck every so often actually, if the truth be known, it’s more like "52 pickup."
Relationships with authors can become complex. You meet one either virtually or actually and the prose or poetry flat bowls you over and you become awash in language so rich that breathing becomes an issue. Then you meet another same story. It’s not your fault they’re all such great company. What’s a guy to do hang with only one at a time?
You find yourself traveling with an entourage of bound volumes, each understanding your attraction to the other, or so you like to think. How could they not? So, with bookshelves brimming, stacks become the viable option. Of course, as is the case with most any vertically-organized outfit, whatever title is on top attracts the most attention.
For a while there, it must be admitted that Helena Maria Viramontes captured most of my attention. Her novel, "Their Dogs Came with Them," followed locals from the evolving Chicano community of East Los Angeles with an elegance that belied the oftentimes harsh realities of life near the bottom of the food chain.
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Quality time spent in that most holy barrio back in the day lent itself quite well as far as providing geographic and cultural context to her wonderful narrative and its intertwining storylines. As in the past with writers such as John Fowles and John le Carré and more recently Cormac McCarthy it is in the writing style itself, however, where art meets the crumbling pavement.
About this same time, Stan Taggart of Evanston, Wyo., folkhero fame, provided Richard Preston’s engrossing tale of how a group of young northern Californians conceived of a method to not only climb the soaring coastal redwoods but also to negotiate the complex ecosystems playing out in their canopies.
"The Wild Trees," with Preston’s almost Krakauer-ish immersion into the lives of both the 40-story trees and the passionate daredevil naturalists, proved nothing short of a "page turner." It refused to be put down. Whether or not you’ve ever visited the northern California redwood groves along that stretch of Highway 101 up near the Oregon border, this will put you on-site in a hurry.
That brings us to the novel that will more than likely define this particular book-stacked literary landscape for 2007 Denis Johnson’s "Tree of Smoke." Defying most every genre discription thown at it, it follows a half-dozen or so central characters through the morass that was southeast Asia during America’s "Vietnam experience."
For others attempting a similar journey, "Tree of Smoke" will be a very difficult act to follow. One of those books they refer to as "a major work," there is this surreal hallucinatory quality that is insinuated into both dialogue and circumstance. It’s deep, man! Think "Moby Dick" on acid.
Filmwise, as Sinatra once put it, it was a very good year. To cull it down to those with a musical component, four stuck to the ribs three from Sundance 2007. "Black Snake Moan" evoked a blues sensibility while featuring a call-and-response redemption of hilarious and touching overtones. Early scenes where bluesman Samuel L. Jackson kept an incorrigible Christina Ricci chained to a radiator for her own good played out as pure southern backwoods ballet.
The Irish film "Once," another Sundance entry, continues to screen around the country. The busker-meets-immigrant-girl story from the streets of Dublin pretty much captured the hearts of everyone who saw it. The principals, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová , dropped by to perform a set at the Star Bar’s "Music Café between screenings.
The documentary "X: The Unheard Music" actually premiered at the 1987 festival. Twenty years later to the day in the very same Egyptian Theater an immaculately restored print screened with John Doe, the linchpin of the seminal L.A. punk band "X," joining in a quite nostalgic Q & A.
Lastly, and the most intricately demanding of the bunch on both filmmaker and filmgoer, is "I’m Not There." The film utilizes six actors to protray six characters, each of whom embodies a different facet of the Bob Dylan persona. Among these, Dylan obsessives get Rimbaud and Guthrie and, in a brilliant job of casting, Cate Blanchette as the invader of Europe from D. A. Pennebaker’s classic, "Don’t Look Back."
Just a few stops along a most culturally interesting year. There were many other highlights, of course, including Alejandro Escovedo, the Grand Theater’s annual production of "Messiah," and a new favorite local band, The Barfly Wranglers. 2008, bring it on! Happy New Year to all!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.