Quick culture picks (and nitpicks)

I’m having a tricky time containing how much I dislike “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s almost laughably feckless evocation of L.A. showbiz in the 1960s that’s by turns sledgehammer subtle, cringingly unfunny, self-enamored and offensively and childishly sadistic. 

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Tripe.

It’s a moronic movie, a blinding misfire, that its critical supporters should be ashamed of liking. Tarantino is 56. He’s still making movies for snickering 15-year-old boys. He’s like Benjamin Button, aging backwards. It’d be cute if it wasn’t so appalling. He’s declared he will make only 10 films. This is his ninth. We grin.

That said, this inveterate malcontent has a crush on a pair of brand-new documentaries — rock docs, if you will:

What do Metallica and Linda Ronstadt have in common? Both made their names in the California rock scene, albeit in different decades and genres, and both are part of two divine new music docs that couldn’t be more tonally dissimilar: “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” and “Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story.” (They’re in theaters this fall.)

The former reveals the beauty and beautiful artistry — that voice could do anything: pop, ballads, rock, operetta, country, mariachi, jazz standards — of Linda Ronstadt with groove and feeling. It captures the ‘70s American rock scene with such texture, heart and authenticity, it’s a woozy time-capsule, transporting and wondrous. The gamut of denim on display is worth it alone. Trailer HERE.

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The latter, the one with lashing hair, banging heads and volcanic vitriol and virtuosity, stage-dives into the 1980s heavy metal scene in the Bay Area, surveying the bands, from Exodus and Slayer to Possessed and Metallica, that influenced global hard rock. The film limns a subculture with a streak of apt aggression and a snarl. It has crunch. It has sweat. It has bite. Trailer HERE.mitfr_photo_gal_59981_photo_1316650371_lrThe current cover story at Slate will make you want to jab your eyes out. It’s titled “The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years” and is one of those blinkered, tone-deaf, willfully confounding listicles peppered with numbskull picks. Among them: The Babadook (No. 24), Jay-Z (No. 4), Sarah Koenig (No. 21), Bridget Jones (No. 17), Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation (No. 8) and Carmela Soprano (No. 1!). It gets worse. Way.

Rankings like these generally give me a brain tumor, and this one is so off, so strenuously eclectic, you know the authors are just trying to get a rise out of you with their labored cleverness rather than commit serious cultural commentary. They’re about as incisive and hilarious as reviled “Star Wars” court jester Jar Jar Binks (No. 6). 

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Yeah, him.

Shot through with the bloody brutality of a Peckinpah or Scorsese, “The Nightingale” is a pretty decent revenge thriller from Australia by Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook” — see above) that’s as unflinching as it is richly affecting.

Set in 1825 in a British penal colony in what’s now Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is repeatedly raped as her baby and husband are slaughtered by a British officer and his mossy-toothed minions. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare (a fierce Aisling Franciosi), hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge.

It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotional and cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling volume of violence. Perhaps a mite too long at 136 minutes, “The Nightingale”  remains sturdy Gothic arthouse fare. Trailer HERE. 

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Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

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The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

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My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

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A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

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Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

Drumming up memories

I’m on seedy Broadway in San Francisco, on stage in a smoke-choked, beer-splashed nightclub called Mabuhay Gardens, aka The Mab, a DIY punk dive nestled amidst a blinking drag of vintage strip joints, including the storied Condor.

449098000000000-00-750x750I’m playing drums, a 7-piece Tama kit that exudes hard rock, in a band with an Aerosmith-y tang called Cheater. Long hair, striped pants and songs like “Knocking Down Your Door,” “Live for Today” and the inimitable “The Girl’s a Fish,” an infectious groove featuring double-bass kick pedals and cowbell. You heard that right.

This night was my second performance ever before a live audience. Prior to it, by mere weeks, I played a high-school talent show in a metal band named Enforcer. We covered Queensrÿche’s “Queen of the Reich” and Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — the first song fast and filigreed and vocally demanding; the second a raw, elemental, melodic stomp that’s become a Metallica classic.

As a nervous introvert, playing before a crowd was no small feat. I could barely give a speech in English class. It was a social and psychological breakthrough, and a dream come true. Rock was my destiny, and I was living it. And having a blast.

That is until my first “professional” show at The Mab. During the second song in Cheater’s set, the nylon strap on my right-foot bass pedal snapped, cutting off all right-pedal action, which meant I had to play with my left-foot pedal. Big problem: the left-foot pedal was strictly for double-bass play; my left foot coordination was weak, only apt for chh-chh high-hat work. (Now, if I had had only one pedal that night, the show would’ve been over.)

I choked. Instead of finishing the song with my left foot, I stopped playing altogether, meaning the band stopped, too — a concert faux pas. It took a few minutes to figure out that I had to keep going with one pedal — the left one, with which, again, I had minimal coordination. I am not ambidextrous.

Mortified and furious, as I was, my bandmates glared at me, then went ahead with the next song, “The Girl’s a Fish,” which demanded heavy double-bass footwork. I faked it with the left pedal, as I did during the rest of the set. The result was passable. Yet, by concert’s end, I was so mad at myself, so totally disappointed, I kicked drums and tossed cymbals to the point that the rear-entry doorman told me to cool it. An auspicious beginning to my awesome rock ’n’ roll career. I went home alone and moped grievously. 

A year later, post-Cheater, my scrappy garage band again played the high-school talent show. For some reason, the vice-principal thought our group could sell tickets, so he asked me to organize a band for the show. This time we were called THC, and we were more ambitious and ready to show-off than the year before. We wanted to shock and awe, to all-caps ROCK. (Though we ditched the smoke bombs from before.)

2db9a1ec682ed21d9492c60b55bec05bThis time we covered Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” and Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen,” a seven-minute opus of relentless time changes and merciless riffs that amounts to about six songs in one. The songs proved ferocious, byzantine metal symphonies best left to virtuosos and masochists. I beat off more than I could chew, excuse the potentially repulsive pun.

And yet another mishap bedeviled me. This time my monitors konked out during an especially complex passage in “The Four Horsemen” and abruptly I couldn’t hear the rest of the band. I lost my place and had to stop playing for several seconds. It was humiliating. When the sound finally returned, the guitarists shrewdly cut to the song’s main riff and we finished with a flourish. Still, I was rattled instead of rocked.

Soon after, I sat in with a band called — wait for it — Mistress. The deal was I would record a demo tape with them and call it a day. I wound up doing that and a show at Mabuhay Gardens. With songs unironically titled “One Touch” and “We’ll Fight” — all heavier and more intricate than anything by Cheater — we played the San Francisco club without a hitch. Members of Cheater were in the crowd, cheering us on.

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Electronic Roland kit with double-bass pedals

It’s been some time since I drummed. My last kit was a five-piece Roland electronic rack, with one acoustic touch — an 8-inch Zildjian splash cymbal to furnish shimmery accents. I kept my DW double-bass pedal with the set, and stuck with Vic Firth American Classic drumsticks that were a cross between jazz and rock style. I played hard, reducing them to splinters.

I was never a great drummer, mostly competent, deftly intermediate, even though I took lessons from the eminent Jeff Campitelli, the most affable pro and unfailing mensch, who was teaching Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, at the same time. (A secret: It’s all in the wrists, not the arms.)

I love the instrument, and to this day when I hear a favorite song, I might just erupt into spontaneous air drums. Thing is, I’m kind of a better air drummer than an actual drummer (cue rim-shot).

I miss the crisp metallic thwack of the snare and thuddy boom of the kick drum; the brassy, splashy explosion of a crash cymbal and pingy, bell-like precision of a ride cymbal. I miss being a song’s pulse and heartbeat, of driving it with thrust, swing, exactitude, and occasional fury. Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.

Critiquing the critics

Great piece in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “Like This or Die” by Christian Lorentzen. He’s a critic taking aim at the soggy state of criticism, and his article is by turns scathing and amusing and devastating.

After noting that “clichés are pandemic” in newspaper book reviews, Lorentzen says “Endless lists of book recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe.” (Guilty as charged: The New York Times and New York magazine.)

He goes on:

The basic imperatives of the review — analysis and evaluation — are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?”

His sentiments remind me of the youth-pandering boosterism of Vulture and the somewhat more adult slavering of Vanity Fair, to name two obvious culprits that more often than not elect fuzzy over fulmination. They are hardly alone in hailing mediocrities like Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and “Stranger Things,” floridly overpraised series that reveal a critical desperation to like stuff.

Being honest isn’t the same as being sadistic. “Negativity is part of the equation,” Lorentzen says, “because without it positivity is meaningless.”

More from the article, which can be read here:

What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better. Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good.”

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The unhilarious “Bojack Horseman” — yet one example of a series overrated by TV critics desperate to cling onto something in the bleak crap-o-sphere.

A few things revving me up

I’m having a tricky time getting jazzed about too much lately — only Socrates rivals my sage discernment and penetrating taste — yet I am alive, blood sluices through my veins. Some things I’m digging:

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Richard Serra sculptures at Dia: Beacon, New York

Caustically hilarious British TV series “Fleabag”; Sigrid Nunez’s quietly affecting novel “The Friend”; the reliably stirring Dia: Beacon museum, so serenely cluttered with minimalist and sculptural masterworks; poetic Polish romance (and Oscar nominee) “Cold War”; and Weezer’s “Teal Album,” featuring frighteningly faithful covers of Toto’s “Africa” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s a gas.

Mostly this entry is a sequel to my December year-end inventory of now-time enthusiasms, stuff getting my juices flowing. These are the current tops:

  • Jade Bird

Strumming an acoustic guitar, her long hair swinging, she sings in a hushed girlish voice before belting like a banshee, loosing a squall of blazing catharsis. She has pipes that purr, then roar, then come back. You sway to twangy folk, then rock with giddy fury. 

Intimate and Velcro-sticky, Bird’s music, performed acoustically or with a small band, circles Americana, punk and soulful indie pop. Country fans are drawn by her evocations of rocky, star-crossed relationships, and there’s country crunch in those folk-rock vocals. Her galloping cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a jam-session joy.

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In this 21-year-old Brit, the Dixie Chicks are at their fiercest, alongside a banging Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, PJ Harvey and other steely indie royalty. Bird’s lyrics pop and sear. In the unreasonably rousing “I Get No Joy,” Bird sings with such speedy agility, she’s almost rapping:

“Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic, which box is your thing?/How many days a week, do you feel/Electric, connected, unexpectedly/Affected, what do you need?”

It’s a kind of sublime whiplash.

(Watch her HERE.)


  • “Capernaum”

His hair is a fluffy fiasco, a brown brushfire, his splotched face the seasoned mug of a gang member. He’s filthy and swears like a sailor. He’s homeless. He’s 12. 

In Nadine Labaki’s Beirut-set stunner, a nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, the boy, Zain, is a resourceful renegade in the scrappy mold of Huck Finn and Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows.” Fed up with his struggling parents and their feckless care of their many children, Zain takes them to court, accusing them of the crime of giving him life. It’s a preposterous idea, a satirical glance at the Lebanese judicial system.

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Zain (the extraordinary Zain al Rafeea) fast becomes a tough street urchin who finds a gig babysitting the gurgling infant of an illegal Ethiopian refugee, played by Yordanos Shiferaw. (The film’s devastating cast of non-professionals play versions of themselves.) When the young mother is arrested, Zain is stuck taking care of the baby on his own. In this harrowing situation — the movie is a tart indictment of Beirut’s corrupt state of child welfare — the fathomless despair can be unbearable to watch.

“Capernaum” — the title means “chaos” — owes much to the children-centric neorealism of ‘80s and ‘90s Iranian cinema, from “The White Balloon” to “The Color of Paradise” — heart-renders told in raw, wrenching lyricism that aren’t without political undercurrents. It’s a street tale alive with miscreants and thieves and few kind gestures. It’s so gritty and grubby the camera lens almost seems smudged. Redemption, however, is in the air.

(Trailer HERE.)


  •  “Asymmetry”

Beautifully written, radiantly spun and shot through with smashing intelligence, Lisa Halliday’s first novel “Asymmetry” bristles with humanity as it mingles conventional and unorthodox structures. It’s a literary feat kneading the fictional form like Play-Doh.

I’m only a third of the way through its brisk 271 pages, but I’m sold. (Being part-way in a book you’re relishing is where you want to be; there’s more on the way to savor.)

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The novel is chopped into three sections. I finished the first section, “Folly,” which traces the May-December romance between Alice, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, and Ezra Blazer, a famous author 40 years her senior. (If he rather resembles Philip Roth, it’s not chance: Halliday had a relationship with Roth while in her twenties.)

And so we get an old-fashioned affair of unpushy comedy and sweet asides set amidst Upper West Side means, with tender banter and the not uncomplicated theme of apprenticeship, much like a Woody Allen movie, without the deep-dish neuroses.

Alice has career issues, Ezra has health issues, and brewing in the background is the launch of the Iraq War. (The war plays a prominent role in the next section, “Madness.”) In this, one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2018 (and a favorite of Barack Obama), Halliday doesn’t flinch from the vagaries of love, including the sort, like Woody’s, peppered with literary chatter and throbbing with aching uncertainty.

The dialogue is unfailingly smart, wry, just right. Alice and Ezra conduct short, gem-cut conversations that bring a knowing grin:

“Is this relationship a little bit heartbreaking?” he said.

The glare off the harbor hurt her eyes. “I don’t think so. Maybe around the edges.”


  • “United Skates” 

In urban roller rinks across the country thousands of African-American roller-skaters are lacing up and getting down. Beneath rays of twirling disco balls an underground roller renaissance thrives among a force of skate buffs who throw after-dark rink parties and commit kinetic art on waxed wood floors: backflips and break-dances, tag-team acrobatics, backwards trains and other daredevilry. Many revelers simply trace ovoid loops in a kind of roller-boogie bliss.

With new and archival footage, much of it contagiously groovy, “United Skates” directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the hip-hop-fueled scene with at once bracing and brooding electricity. They hopscotch the nation — Los Angeles to Baltimore — and capture the community-building soul of skating as well as the heartrending gentrification that’s swiftly shutting down classic rinks, dinosaurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few will survive.

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Next to dwindling skate spaces, the film locates other troubles: the apparent profiling of black skaters at certain rinks that ban rap and the skinny wheels many black skaters prefer. When skaters organize “adult nights” — “Code for ‘black night,’” says one — police fill the parking lots and security is thick. No such hysterics are apparent on a typical “white” night. It’s a familiar microcosm of current race relations.

Yet the party rolls on. The subculture retains a die-hard exuberance not easily snuffed. The film’s final scenes are far from elegiac; against all odds they are tonically celebratory.

(Starting Feb. 18 on HBOTrailer HERE.)

A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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Cubby

My best fiend: remembering a childhood pal

My best friend between ages 5 and 10 was a freckled scamp named Gene, who even at that age seemed to conduct life on the razor’s edge, courting trouble with a highly evolved sense of mischief and the occasional snap of malice.

Always cooking something up for us to perpetrate, be it leaving dog poop on someone’s porch then doorbell ditching or setting small fires with gun powder in his bedroom, Gene earned the nickname “Gene the Machine” from my dad, who didn’t know the half of it.

Small and short — he sat on a tall step stool at the dinner table — Gene provided my unsentimental education. He taught me every cuss word I know. When he blurted “Go to hell!” at a girl in our fourth-grade class, I was too overcome with snickers to be shocked. He introduced me to nudie magazines, some of which he buried in plastic bags in his backyard. He sold me on the rock band Kiss and the dubious pleasures of pyromania. 

Boy holding burning matchstick

Matches and firecrackers were always on hand. We scorched many things, including, by accident, ourselves. At our mildest we would torment plastic army men, igniting them and watching them melt, black, acrid smoke curling up. Eventually Gene, with another pal, burned down a large field. (That misbegotten episode attracted the authorities.)

Something of a holy terror when he was in form — like the time he tortured to death two frogs he found under a rock — Gene also exposed me to twin thrills: the breathtaking delights of high-impact rollercoasters and the gnarly waves at our Southern California beaches. To this day, a mean, uncompromising rollercoaster is a peerless high.  

And then he’d do something reckless, like toss shotgun shells into a bonfire or pour rubbing alcohol on the garage floor in a circle, light it and stand in the middle of it as if performing some kind of pipsqueak pagan ritual.

We were young and he made me laugh harder than anyone. Yet this incorrigible gremlin exposed me to dangers and things wrong and taboo, even illegal. (Where were our parents amid the devilry?) Once he convinced me to throw rocks off a cliff into dense traffic. A man, enraged, saw us and we ran like hell.

Even Gene’s jokes were warped, naturally. He told me that he was going to stick a firecracker in the neighbor poodle’s butt and light it. Seeing my horror, he admitted he was kidding. Thing was, I didn’t put it past him. (Then again, he was a bleeding heart animal lover, lavishing cooing affection on his dog and pet rat.)

After I moved, at 10, from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco Bay Area, Gene and I kept in touch, seeing each other twice a year to hit the next rollercoaster, smoke cigarettes on the railroad tracks and listen to heavy metal as our teenage years blossomed.

Gene picked up the guitar and played metal like a madman — he was good at whatever he tried, from surfing to skiing — and I continued playing the drums I started as a kid. We jammed, copying riffs we heard on vinyl by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Metal Church and Metallica.

And then Gene’s heedless path took him down bum detours, drug addiction being the worst of it. We saw less and less of each other as we hit our 20s — college, jobs. He struggled mightily with his demons, and lost. At 26 he was dead from an overdose. I was a pallbearer at his funeral with a few other guys I’d never met before.

I still have dreams of Gene — impish, funny, alive. He made an enormous imprint on me, shaping and influencing me in ways to live (loud, with a scrap of healthy risk) and not to live (like a kamikaze). Age has tempered, filtered and refined all that. I’m (arguably) well-adjusted, considering the Gene factor.

In the end, Gene was just a neat kid, scrappy and irrepressible, taking a bite out of life with enviable gusto if too little restraint and a sometimes shaky moral code. I facetiously call him that devil child. But, thing is, I don’t think he’s anywhere near hell.