Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Blaster Al Ackerman: An Obituary

"Book in hand, I began to creep toward him. 'Wanna see something pretty?' I called softly."
[from "The Puffin Book", in Corn & Smoke: stories, performances, things, Shattered Wig Press, 2006.]

It started somewhere in 1994, I think. Out of school, working the kinds of jobs a pillow-soft high school graduate can get, ping-ponging between passed out on the curb, puking out the window, and white-knuckle sobriety. I was, obviously, the kind of adolescent who had as a constituative part of his self-identity something called 'being a poet'.

Part of this meant writing poems, and sending them off, to try to validate myself through publication. Being a corn dog in Denver, essentially completely without any connection whatsoever to culture, finding places to send my mediocre efforts to was a DIY affair. I had to buy Factsheet Five or The Poet's Market and work only thus dimly illuminated, with SASE and cover letter and three to five selected pieces, over and over again. (First thing you learn is you always got to buy an issue before you submit.) They list the editors in The Poet's Market, so your cover letter can sound professional—or whatever the analogue for professionalism is in the deliberately self-marginalizing, endlessly self-regarding, pseudo-mystical world of poetry. When I started submitting things to the Shattered Wig Review, their listed editor was Fred Engels. I didn't get it. I failed the test.

I wrote a couple letters to Fred Engels—I bought issues, I submitted stuff. And, page by page, issue by issue, the Wig changed my life. Mainly by way of regular and large doses of the writing of "Blaster" Al Ackerman. Weird little poems—often with faint, unplaceable whiffs of something irretrievably sad—hilarious and nightmarish stories, brilliant and unsettling cartoons. I started chasing him through the small press underground.

You Hear That
you were giving me a ride someplace
that didn't pan out, the movies I think
but that closet's too dribbly to go to the movie
you hear that
Words mean nothing to such a game of wetness and
that's why cats faint as they learn who made us
if not he who made the big purple heads
is like a wet dream of thought now willed
that can make a new being made of elements
which cannot be identified, only spent.
You hear that?
Words mean nothing to such a thing
These transitional expressions really can not be real
Now it seems to have disappeared
No, wait. It seems to be coming back again, a little
But it's becoming broken like a fruitcake
It's dreaming all the while like the blackness of sleep
But what is this? You say sleep is black as night
And yet it seems possessed by nothing but imagination
That is the way sleep goes and we are a lot like Dryden
We cannot be correct
We haven't time
[from JMB]

The most reliable source for the Blaster Al I liked best was John M. Bennett's Lost and Found Times, where Ackerman regularly had a few pages to detail his methodical and playful poem-making practices: "Ack's Hacks". One month he might take a John M. Bennett piece and a Steven Spender piece, rip each down the middle, and splice them together, left halves by Bennett, right halves by Spender. Another month he'd use what I remember he called the "World of Wastebasket": wad up and partially smooth out somebody's poem, and use the words you can see as a word bank for your own poem.

I adored the results, with their roiling mix of perspectives and rhythms, their weird, unpredictable lexical combinations—and a kind of surrealism that went ineffably deeper than unusual image-juxtaposition or unexpected placement—their humor and sadness. I also adored the window into their creation, the frank joy and attention to detail, the constant demonstration that "being a poet" is always dumped and trumped by "working to write a poem". Issue after issue of Shattered Wig Review and Lost and Found Times—and others!—taught by example that "inspiration" is nothing at all, that the poet-persona never matters as against an ass in a chair, doing the work, that doing the work was best done with humor and honesty as the watchwords, tempering the arrogance of making something with the humility in admitting where it came from and the determination to make it as good—and as well—as possible.

I found pretty much the whole world in these poems and stories. There was ugliness, horror, and immense confusion; weird rhythms of recurrence; humor that lacerated and healed by turns; references to genre from romance to hard-boiled to science fiction to newsletter to shaggy-dog story to rambling guy in a bar. Maybe sometime somewhere somebody will top The Crab as an exemplar of the personal essay; I'm not holding my breath. Sense was not always on display on the surface—perhaps the Doctor's most notable concession to consensus reality (and certainly his deepest subversion of same; one of the most consistent pleasures in this intensely pleasurable work is the slippage between name and thing and thing and thing—half his narrators spend half their time asking, and needing to ask, and not really getting straight answers to, questions like:

"Do you mean a bat like in baseball or like in 'any of numerous flying mammals of the order Chiroptera, having membranous wings and navigating by night by echolocation?'"2

2 I won't leave you hanging. The answer: "I mean 'bat' as in Batman or Devil Bat."
[from] "The White Bat" (widely reprinted))

Somewhere Ackerman noted1:

so much of what I do is gibberish, but looking at the world, it's hard to say that gibberish isn't the central art form of our time

"Sideshow Days with Your Pop"
[from: Shattered Wig Review 18, Summer, 1999.]

When I found Feh! Press' brilliant Omnibus, the lessons only amplified, clarified, purified. Blaster introduced one piece with this:1

These are words scribbled hastily in the margins of a life, by a man too often taken in drink, some written sitting behind the wheel of a car, waiting for someone to finish their physical therapy appointment

1 This quote is from memory. Forgive my citational incompetence, please: I write these words without access to my full library.

This, then, was how to go about writing. His treatise on the "Tacky Little Pamphlet" was how to go about distributing that writing: you'd write some stuff, you'd stuff it all onto some papers, you'd leave them around, in magazine racks, or at the laundromat, or stuffed into envelopes and mailed to random addresses. This I did.

"Stamp: Can I Touch Your Leg?"
[from: Shattered Wig Review 18, Summer, 1999.]

Eventually, I sent a thing or two to Blaster Al himself. He always write back—his grand scrawl "Get This to:" on the envelope, usually a hand-drawn stamp: there was never any mistaking an envelope from Blaster Al Ackerman. I lost all this correspondence moves and moves ago, I think, but I have retained the kindness and generosity he showed to a nobody from nowhere, some dumb kid just trying to figure out how and what and why to write. He once sent a draft version of an as-then-unpublished story called "Floaters". It was so good, and meant so much to me, that I carried it through six weeks of travelling, Portland to Rome to Barcelona to London to NYC to Georgia to Chicago to Austin to Denver to Portland, nothing but a backpack and not much room for books.

C.S. shifts around in the golf cart, trying to ease his legs. How can there be so many strange and unexplained things in the world, he has no idea. Recently, he has read an article in Playboy about men who are turned on by wearing lobster claws and watching boa constrictors swallow alarm clocks. They are called Dadaists.
[from] "Floaters"

The good Doctor died last week sometime. I found out on Twitter. The link was to this, excellent, remembrance: Dear Blaster. Among the regrets this instanced: I had written him in years. I had not bothered to write this appreciation.

Al Ackerman was a great man. His work was varied and brilliant, and anyone free of dogmas about the inferiority of humor or prejudices about underground writing will find a lot to learn from, and laugh at, and linger over. If you care more about what he nice, I can assure you he was. There is much evidence on this point, and it all agrees with me. The evidence of his genius is even more abundant.

His democratic willingness to engage with just about anybody isn't there, anymore—but if a legitimate titan of underground writing could take time from his medical transportation gig to answer his mail, so can you...and so can I. Good things may come of it!

Back in front of my building, three men were out on the stoop—two of them were having a beer-pissing contest, the third was refereeing from the top step. The referee, I saw, was gross old Mr. Barsh, the building super, who never fixes anything.

Book in hand, I began to creep toward him. "Wanna see something pretty?" I called softly.
[from "The Puffin Book", in Corn & Smoke: stories, performances, things, Shattered Wig Press, 2006.]

In between work and mail and life, and fighting for what dignity and decency we can manage, we can write, or draw, or sing, or otherwise make stuff. Blaster Al did.

I want to close with a couple long sections from my favorite Blaster Al chapbook. They include the powerful repetitions, the humor, the sadness, the horror, the confusion I associate with the best of his work. It's the whole world, in other words—the best words: the words of Al Ackerman. The world is a poorer place without him.


[from: Let Me Eat Massive Pieces of Clay, Shattered Wig Press, 1992.]

                    Are you sick? drunk?
Well it's good to know that for a few days
Voices come alternately from both sides
Though under normal circumstances the saying that never comes true
Starts to smell after a few years--so that each day, after that, was
     akin to a large doll's face burping outside the window
Whew: that face was the size of a parking lot, and all onions, near which stood a man named Canarse Park
Now forget that

That was no church! That was rodomontade,
Or the moss-hell "false memory"
Of lofting the teeming BALTIC AVENUE DRUGSTORE
To relocate it more nearly above locations that never change when
Proofs of dark, roam and percolate
Nourishing the urge to understand bur not hear about any
Plans to overrun or swarm about in large numbers but still, in the shredded-silver
REFLECTION that goes tearing along overhead
Topped with a drawing (chedderchrome) of mayonnaise congealing on
The lip of the drinking glass the Coca Cola and Jim Beam is in:
It was ten-of-seven
When Hawk realized he
Was unshaven and
Driving a van he had
Never seen toward
Now forget that

Friday, March 22, 2013

If Terry Richardson Remade Badlands...

Harmony Korine creates high concept product for the international arthouse circuit. Spring Breakers (2013, Harmony Korine) is atypical for him because it is unlike the intimate cockroach surviving devastating disaster of nature structure he commanded in Gummo (1997, Korine), or the narratives where he transports us to tag along with obscure communes, Mister Lonely (2007, Korine) and Trash Humpers (2009, Korine); because, in his newest film he ventures for the first time away from his commitment to realism.

Gummo is presented almost as a documentary. Trash Humpers is presented as a home movie. And, while portioning out his aesthetic with equal measures of both, Korine goes all out in favor of a superbly realized stream of images--mostly shot with a shutter over-cranked to the point of tableau--and sounds, to arrive at what I am unfortunately struggling to decide describing as either like a music video, a commercial, or post-Eisensteinian montage. But undoubtedly, Spring Breakers is presented as a dream fantasy.

Music videos and commercials rely on image and sound because they're so short. They also typically feature many cuts. But, whereas they can project a wide array of disparate and unrelated shots, Spring Breakers feels more like a theme; or, like a book of photography.

Spring Breakers is A-list teensploitation. We get no plot or character. The girls are one dimensional: they like partying (sex, drugs, and violence) in bikinis and believe spring break is about finding themselves. The only plot turns are who gets robbed and who leaves spring break. Maybe I'd expected more. But, this is acceptable for the teensploitation genre. The goal of teensploitation is to get teens to spend money on a movie that promises sex and other R rated antics. So, why I would still commend the plot structure of Spring Breakers is because it places the reality of the dangerous crimes being perpetrated in the background, and basically eschews any moral consequences in favor of following each girl's pursuit of their ideal endless spring break.

And the girls' continuous grounding in reckless high-stakes adventure is what sets the movie apart. No one ever interrupts their roadtrip; well, at least no moral laws do. The obsession with the fleeting spring break is all that matters. While the girls travel to Florida, spring break ends. However, they stay and refuse to quit living the spring break lifestyle. And inexplicably, so does the film. The film places all the vice and danger so close you can touch it, and says if you want it, you can have it all and for life.

The setting is magnificently realized. Korine's primary ingredients are several party scenes full of girls in bikinis and topless (Is this a record for number of nipples?), girls making out with girls, girls in ski masks, pistols, machine guns, blunts, lines of cocaine, hard liquor by the liter, beer bongs of the syphon variety, beer bongs of the trumpet variety, and cool cars. And the bulk of the film is precisely about shuffling out these images. The aesthetic is fetishistic taboo. Again, like Gummo, Korine delights in beautifully photographing filthy squalor.

One shot that occurs shortly after the midpoint, that nears sublime, is an image of a girl in a bikini on the beach holding up a beer bong with its trumpet end blown out by the overhead sun behind it--it looks truly sacred.

Every aspect of the film has been punched by a rainbow. Even the dreary lecture halls are no match for the dayglo candy colored beams emanating from the girls' laptop screens; the Christian church of course, happens to be one with colorful stained glass vignettes of the gospels.

James Franco as Alien is over the top, but doesn't turn the film into camp. He's hilarious, but subordinate to the dangerous warpath of the girls.

The centerpiece of the film is a climactic, character-defining sequence set to the extant, prominently mixed "Everytime," by Britney Spears, from her 2003 album, In the Zone. And here's where I'll end it: I didn't think the use of the song was ironic; I bought into it; I bought into the whole plastic shallow sexy sentimental invigorating sweep of Britney, spring break, uninhibited youth and the whole enchilada. For real. Sometime last year I heard about this and decided it was the biggest thing I would look forward to in 2013--and it is every bit what I'd hoped for and more. This proves Harmony Korine is never ironic or condescending about his characters. When he decides he's found an interesting story, he comes up with art.


Monday, March 18, 2013

The Ladies of Salem

To apply a broad label grouping Rob Zombie's influences, House of 1000 Corpses (2003, Rob Zombie) is very similar to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) with its faux-final girl structure amid a backwoods cannibal family's home; The Devil's Rejects (2005, Zombie) feels a lot like The Hills Have Eyes (1977, Wes Craven) in that wholesome-valued type tourists are abducted by sadistic murderers in a Southwestern desert.

However, the Halloween films showed Zombie transitioning into a more cohesive visionary, in the sense that he turned more serious--Halloween II (2009, Zombie) is cold, and the violence isn't playful. And that film also benefits from Zombie's addition of a subjective dream in Myers' head that runs along with the actual chronological progression of the narrative. For those are his strengths (so far): visualizing fucked up rock n' roll/classic horror inspired set pieces, and, a straightforward plot of terror encroaching upon a final girl.

The Lords of Salem (2012, Zombie) is an onslaught of images for the sake of shock, violence, sex, satanic ritual, metal, and art--the pictures on display at this exhibition are fun, provocative, and inspired by classic Golden Age European horror. Rob Zombie respects vintage horror.

Plot is minimal. Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi Hawthorne, a local DJ for a Salem, MA radio station who discovers a mysterious record by a band simply called "The Lords." The record has a strange effect on her and brings about strange hallucinations of a sacrilegious nature.

Once that's been established, nothing else really happens.

But, I'm not disappointed. At 90 minutes, and with a low budget, the tone is consistent: messed up. Let's say someone took Rosemary's Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) and decided to eliminate all of the plot except for the part about a coven abducting a young woman for a satanic ritual, and try to stretch out that ending and make it into its own spinoff. Because that's what The Lords of Salem is. The urban alienation is there, but Zombie doesn't know how to craft characters. His turf is exploitation though, so I'm not faulting him--I enjoy his stereotypes because at least they're markedly his own (even if I am a little over that Tarantino/Smith/Cody style of pop-naturalistic dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot.)

I admire the brazen quality of this sideshow, but I really can't stand all of the sequences that are imaginary in the first half seamlessly blending into those in the second half. I mean, this movie really doesn't commit itself to much aside from the aforementioned imagery.

So, I'd recommend this to anyone who's up for naked women, goats, chanting, and bizarre pagan fun. What little there is here works for me.

The music is excellent overall, especially the "Lords" drone metal track played several times throughout the movie--I got a kick out of its heaviness.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Adventures of Alvin & Lance

In the summer of 2012, after severe forest fires ravaged the rural town of Bastrop, TX, David Gordon Green snuck under the radar of the press and quickly got together with his cinematographer on every-film-he's-ever-done Tim Orr to film a loosely and spontaneously captured comedy with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in the burnt and overcast backdrop of Bastrop State Park.


Green has crafted Prince Avalanche (2013, David Gordon Green) as a simple, short, camping trip/men at (road) work ballad about loss, survival, and rebuilding. The opening title card places the narrative in Bastrop, 1988, after the wake of a devastating forest fire. A dark, sombre undertone constantly supports a minimalist and bleak menagerie of odd Texas wildlife, with virtually no signs of civilization, except one---

--The road

Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are assigned the task of painting and placing signs along an 8 mile stretch of highway, and they are always moving, fighting, laughing, or getting drunk on that same blacktop.

So here's the twist:

Green takes these two distinct male characters and constantly pinpoints details about their contrasting characters in wide stretching intimate forest vistas--and almost every few minutes this becomes classically, essentially archetypal broad comedy that feels fresh and sincerely sweet, with a hefty resolution right where you'd expect it--the end. Yet, David Wingo & Explosions in the Sky have created a prog rock spacey fun concoction that continuously makes the film something else. The film becomes a score-propelled, shiny, bright, electronic, somewhat 80s new wave ironied adventure that never lags. Additionally, Orr's constant slow-as-molasses zooms cut together in a way that turn this trip practically into a music video. This reminds me of David Fincher's collaborations with Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross because like Explosions in the Sky, Reznor & Ross were already in a band, and also because the music is post rock electronic stuff that is wall to wall and dominant, as opposed to the only other director I can think of who uses that kind of music--Michael Mann; but, Mann uses his cues traditionally in an emotionally underscoring way, unlike Fincher and Green, who show real balls with their sonic experimentations.

The film's themes are etched out by a woman named Joyce, who first appears to Alvin in a trance. (After Lance leaves into town for the weekend and Alvin decompresses, reality becomes subjective.) Joyce's significance in the plot isn't worth mentioning in detail because it's up to the individual viewer to find their own response. However, it is reasonable to say that the film has a kindness that never approaches cruelty, as if it chooses to keep looking until it desperately finds what it needs to survive with a will to love and build.

Paul Rudd works marvels within the role of uptight, anally retentive nerdy outdoorsman against a frequently brilliant Emile Hirsch as shallow, woman-crazy, but really too sweet for his own good underneath all the vanity dude.

And if I would say the film had a centerpiece, it's the drunken montage. Green made a serious comedy that's actually hilarious--rare.


Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Why Punk Rock is not Bullshit

Why Punk Rock is not Bullshit

This is for Mike Watt.

Some things I learned from punk rock. (Note: I am not saying that these are the only things I learned, or that punk is the only place to learn them. Both of those things would be stupid and false. But I did learn these things there, and if you think they aren't worth learning, then I do not think we have much to say to one another.)

I can choose. I can choose what I will and will not participate in. I can choose to assert some modicum of individuality via my dress, body modifications, and deportment, even while playing a part in a capitalist economy I neither like, nor respect, nor view as a good thing. I can choose to avoid debt, to avoid fossil fuels, to avoid eating animals. I can choose to make art because I enjoy it, even while I know that this activity will never be economically or even socially productive in any meaningful way. I can choose to support the efforts and endeavors of my friends and others in my community precisely because they are my friends or are in my community, even when the efforts and endeavors are by some measures lacking. (Note: that I will watch my friends play in a basement doesn't mean I won't go to the opera; I can, and will, and do, enjoy the art of my friends on my walls and regular trips to SF MOMA. Not all choices are exclusions or rejections.) I can shop at places owned locally and enjoy it more than going to the suburbs to hit up Target or Tower. That I can choose means I have the responsibility to choose. Not choosing is a choice.

Just because it's popular doesn't mean it's good. Just because somebody you love made it doesn't mean it's good. Sometimes there are things that are more important than whether or not something is good. You can ask for something better; you pretty much have to.

No matter who you are, thinking for yourself seems to be a pretty good idea. Generosity is a very very important value.

I can do stuff. I can go camping. I can ride my bike from Vancouver to Portland, from Portland to San Francisco. I can cook. I can play in bands. I can write and publish zines. I can send my poems off to other people who might publish them. I can meet my heroes and have excellent conversations with them. I can ask famous people for help with what I'm working on and get it, even as, essentially, nobody. I can go up to bands after they play and tell them how much their work has meant to me for how long, and most of the time, they'll be really cool about it and they and I will feel good about the interaction.

I can be a curious person and learn things by talking to people. For some reason, a lot of punks tend to be knowledgeable about history in particular. I can privilege an aesthetic that uses appropriation and commentary as large parts of its practice. I can criticize and attempt to revolutionize any/every aspect of my culture, starting with the things and people that are closest to me. I can be friends with people who are dramatically unlike me in any given way. My viewpoint is frequently wrong and I have a hell of a lot to learn, often from deeply unexpected sources. Cleaning up after yourself is almost always appropriate. Humor is a great way to make serious points. Going new places is one of the most fun things anybody can do, and it isn't that hard to do, if you make half an effort.

Most of life is about accumulation of capital. Most of life is about accumulation of spectacle. By default, I am alienated from almost everything important (my food, my fucking, my work, my fun). I can fight this alienation with real effort: analysis, criticism, and action. Direct action gets the goods. It is fun to sing with your friends. It is fun to make things with your friends. It is fun to yell "fuck you" at bullies. Churches and city halls and police stations and schools and businesses are places where a lot of bullies are, and in fact are structures and institutions that are themselves bullies. Don't be a bully.

There are always outcasts, even among the outcasts. This is pretty fucked up. There are limits to the degree to which DIY is a good thing. These limits may not always be where you expect them to be. Most of what most people like is fucking stupid and shitty and should be at least ignored, and probably should be rejected and attacked. TV is a waste of time. Pretty much everything that requires a TV is a waste of time. Sometimes it is okay to waste time, but it needs to be a real decision, not a default. "It needs to be a real decision, not a default" is true of just about everything. Drugs and alcohol are not really rebellious. Sometimes they can be a lot of fun, though. But sometimes they turn you into things you hate. Some rich kids are rad. A little nihilism can be really powerful; harming yourself or others is usually not okay. Punk is best viewed as one tendency of essentially leftist social critique and action, not as a bunch of records by bands. If punks get old enough and stay punk, they turn into hippies. Most don't do this; most just "outgrow" it. In America, punk is generally thought of as a phase. This isn't true everywhere.

Everybody deserves to have a voice. If you say things that give evidence that you don't know what the fuck you're talking about, you should be told to shut up. It is not everybody's job to educate the ignorant; it is, however, really valuable when you can use patient explaining to bring somebody around to a greater understanding. Picking fights is sometimes absolutely necessary.There are many worse things in the world than being pretentious.

Most of the greatest song titles in Western music are by punk bands. Of these, probably better than half were by the Minutemen and Dillinger Four. It is cool to write songs about all the topics there are, not just sex and romance. Folk music can be really great. Some of the best art is made almost by accident. Here are a couple examples of "as much sense as punk ever made". They're both from the Dillinger Four. I could adduce more examples.

It's like picking up the pieces is a daily chore
Thinking of your time card forms a habit
Watching rick folks on T.V.'s like picking a sore
Fuck it all, they can have it
And now I'm loaded like a gun again
Like a plague of locusts heaven sent
Just a ball of dissension with a death perception
I won't sweat the definition of content
They said "better safe than sorry" and "look out for #1" I heard "only play the cards you're shown"
Fuck what they say
It doesn't matter anyway
Only in your grave are you alone
Like grown men staring with little boy's eyes
And actresses speaking with conviction
These people should demand a Pulitzer prize
For various works of fiction
"Judge a book by its cover" And "keep one eye on your back"
I heard "only play the cards you're shown"
I say fuck what they say
It doesn't matter anyway
Only in your grave are you alone
So many people with so much to show
Rotting away in their own little holes
One can only wonder why
I'll celebrate my home
But know that I'm not alone
Only fools are "along for the ride"
In thinking of the size
Of the world that's right outside
Please don't waste it trying to hide
This isn't what we want
This isn't what we need
This is what we can afford
Celebrate this sorry state
With anecdotes of what you hate
And try to take comfort in the fact that you're not alone This isn't you
It's just what you do
Don't mistake the irony of calling it a "living"
If you feel like no one
If you feel like nothing
You've only been taking what they're giving