Friday, August 21, 2015

The Movie That Got The Fantastic Four Right (Is NOT A Superhero Movie)

The dust has settled but the body count is still being assessed over Josh Trank's Fantastic Four debacle, now currently enjoying its status as the Heaven's Gate of summer superhero blockbusters. (How positive are we that someone has already signed a book contract to write the definitive BTS account of this shitshow? PRETTY DURN SURE.)

Be advised: The Beast is not a fanboy. The Beast never really liked The Fantastic Four. (Except for Ben Grimm, who came off like a cranky Brian Dennehy, they all seemed kind of square and annoying.) But we do remember coming to a belated appreciation of Jack Kirby's dissection of the Eisenhower-era nuclear family thanks to Ang Lee's austere and enigmatic 1997 film The Ice Storm.

Actually, just like The Fantastic Four, it was a book before it was a movie. Rick Moody composed his, well, "moody" seriocomic novel in 1994 -- ironically, the year that a previous F4 movie was wisely shelved. The film stars Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Cristina Ricci, Katie Holmes and a still baby-cheeked Tobey Maguire. The plot, adapted by screenwriter James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain), centers around two white-collar suburban families in the WASP bedroom hamlet of New Canaan, Connecticut during the time of the Watergate trials. (TV images of a sweaty Nixon loom in the background.) Morality is crumbling from the top down and the confusing lessons of the 1960s -- learned and unlearned, mostly the latter -- have trickled down into genteel suburbia, with predictably damaging and embarrassing results.

The main references to F4 come via terminally virginal college student Paul Hood (Maguire). The film begins with him sitting in a gloomy frozen tomb of a railcar (the storm of the title has temporarily stopped any forward progression) reading F4 Issue #141 from November 1973. He explains the plot thusly: "Reed Richards has to use his anti-matter weapon on his own son, who Annihilus has turned into a human atom bomb. The problem is that the cosmic rays that infused Richards and the rest of the Fantastic Four on their aborted moon mission have made young Franklin a volatile mixture of matter and anti-matter." Reading this, Paul comes to a realization about his own family: "Your family is kind of like your own personal negative matter. And that's what dying is -- dying when your family takes you back, thus throwing you into negative space. So, it's like a paradox -- the further you're drawn back in, the further into the void you go."

Natch, Moody's novel goes even further: "For almost a year -- a year in real time, a year in Paul Hood's whirlpool teens, but a few days, no more, in the motionless, imperceptible time of Marvel comics -- Sue Richards, nee Storm, the Invisible Girl, had been estranged from her husband Reed Richards. With Franklin, their mysteriously equipped son, she was in seclusion in the country. She would return only when Reed learned to understand the obligations of family, those paramount bonds that lay beneath the surface of his work."

Moody sums up the subtle ways that Paul sees his own family and its drama refracted in the F4 -- as if both families and comic books have their Golden Eras: "It was a good period for readers of the F.F. Still, the magazine would never equal its first eighty issues, when its creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were at the helm. But it was pretty cool. Twelve years ago, exactly, in 1961, the first issue, with its chronicle of the battle with Mole Man, had appeared. Paul's sister, Wendy, was almost the same age as the book. Fourteen years ago, his family had arrived at its tetragonal shape. In fact, if you thought about it, it was possible that his sister, Wendy, was born during the creative gestation that led to the Fantastic Four. Where had Stan Lee been in those two years?"

Paul thinks of his dad as The Thing ("chunky, homely, self-pitying") and his mom as the Invisible Girl. "These models never worked exactly," Moody writes. "Still, the F.F., with all their mistakes and allegiances their infighting and dependability, told some true tales about family. When Paul started reading these books, the corny melodrama of New Canaan lost some of its sting."

We urge you check out the film yourself for your own interpretations, but so far the Beast picked out some lots of interesting parallels and details:
  • Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) wears a rubber Nixon (i.e., "superhero") mask.
  • Kevin Kline's philandering husband/father is named Ben.
  • Both of the main families are families of four...the "nuclear" family. They sort of "mirror" each other a la The F4 vs. The Frightful Four.
  • The prepubescent Sandy Carver (Adam Hann-Byrd) sets fire to his tiny superhero action figures in a charcoal grill. He is terrified of his own sexuality (i.e., "energy") but entranced by it in others.
  • Combine the creepy characters of "hip" priest Philip Edwards (Michael Cumpsty) and reptilian corporate schmoozer George Clair (Henry Czerny) and you may have a pretty good roux for Dr. Doom.
  • The hair of Elena Hood (Joan Allen) looks almost as odd as Kate Mara's.
  • (Wait, cancel that. NIXON is Dr. Doom. At the very least Mole Man, or Galactus.)
  • Wendy's makeout pal Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) plays with electricity and talks of the ice storm in mystical-scientific ways ("The molecules are not moving, so when you breathe, there's nothing in the's clean."). Mikey has an existential dreaminess inherited from his visionary but sort of head-in-the-clouds father (the excellent Jamey Sheridan), who is a sort of amalgam of Reed Richards and Dr. Storm. Mikey also wears a thick red parka throughout the film, occasionally resembling the Human Torch in certain shots.
"Flame ON, asshole."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Hoo Deep in the Kneepla

(The New Yorker)


(The Jake Feinberg Show)

(West Coast Sound)

(NOVA Next)


(Mass Appeal)


(Pop Matters)


(Kreative Kontrol)

(Dangerous Minds)

(Point of Departure)

(Wondering Sound)


(Pitchfork Media)


(Open Culture)

(Consequence of Sound)



(The Quietus)

(Search + Restore)


(Do the Math)

(Chicago Reader)

(Red Bull Music Academy)

Friday, June 26, 2015

TRUE DETECTIVE 2: A Summer Reading List

"I'm writing about other people's books when I really should be working on my own."

HBO's True Detective made its much-ballyhooed return this week, and sadly, the online kvetching about "the second season slump" has already proliferated like a colony of carpenter ants. Much of the criticism involves TD2 trading the moss-dipped exotica of the Gulf Coast for the overexposed contours of Los Angeles, a city so synonymous with film noir and police procedural that it passed cliche at least 50 years ago. ("We're in familiar territory here," sighed The Guardian after Sunday's premiere.) This has led critics to ooze pulp in calling up the long shadows that TD2 has to walk under: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosely, Charles Willeford, James Ellroy and the "sunshine and noir" excavations of Ross MacDonald and Jefferson T. Parker.

But hey, comparisons aside, can you remember the last TV show that turned so many voyeurs into readers? Neither can we. And if TD's smashing debut season sent a million viewers to the bookstore, library or GoodReads -- "I couldn’t get enough from the episodes alone," confessed L.A. Review of Books critic Jacob Mikanowski, "I wanted to linger" -- the second season has prompted obsessives worldwide to reference works and conjure book lists that might have influenced series auteur Nic Pizzolatto. Now the first episode has aired, we have a good glimpse at the trademark visual bravura, allusive dialogue, disturbing industrialized musical score (to match the season's fictional SoCal city of Vinci, based in part on the L.A. industrial no-man's 'burb known as Vernon) and creepy existentialism that we hope will take a more cohesive form over the next eight episodes. Watching (and loving) the premiere, the Beast thought we'd throw out our own mix of tomes. While not exactly beach ready, they should help scratch the itch while you re-thumb your copy of Akashic's Los Angeles Noir anthologies while waiting for Los Angeles Plays Itself  to arrive from Amazon. Enjoy!

by Ginger Strand
Here's a book that actually might make you lose sleep between obsessing over the meaning of falcon masks and naked multiple-amputee dolls floating in milk. TD2's stunningly gorgeous title sequence -- which we think is superior to last season's (ditto for Leonard Cohen's proto-rap "Nevermind" over last year's creaky murder ballad) -- foreboding shots of winding freeway interchanges, its plot involving a new light-rail line and that exquisitely creepy sequence of a corpse's bizarre winding journey from L.A. to Malibu, the sinister implications of power and corruption are intertwined with the California interstate system. Author Ginger Strand takes on the psychological and social import of America's freeways, which she calls "analogs of cultural psychosis." The book is a strange mix: half history, half lurid true crime. The true crime comes courtesy of the Golden State and a cast of psychopaths who, mostly in the '60s and '70s, used California freeways as picking up and dropping off points for their grisly deeds. Believe us, the twisted garden gnome Erroll Childress has nothing on real-life fiends like Ed Kemper, Randy Kraft and Herbert Mullin. (Kemper and Kraft are particularly disturbing, their M.O.s involving castration, dismemberment, torture and necrophilia.) But it's the winding, ominous, soulless interstate that is the main character for Strand very much in the same way it is for Pizzolatto. (Fun fact: Pizzolatto's first novel was called Galveston, a city located on the south end of the I-45 highway corridor from Houston; dubbed the "Texas Killing Fields," the corridor is a popular body-dumping ground where the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas once roamed.)

by Charles P. Hobbs
The key term here is "Hidden History." Hobbs, a librarian with a termite's talent for digging into little-known corners of the city's transportation history yields this fascinating narrative about LA-LA land's obsession with building the better people-mover. There's the triumphs: The Vincent Thomas Bridge; Clarence Belinn's Los Angeles Airways (a fleet of helicopters that shuttled more than two million commuters from LAX to downtown) and Horace Dobbins' elevated California Cycleway in the San Gabriel Valley. There's also the epic fails: The numerous plots to turn the L.A. River into a massive carpool lane; the Simpsons-esque attempt at a propeller-driven monorail; the plans for an elevated people-mover on Bunker Hill, a diamond lane for the Santa Monica Freeway and a commuter rail-line between L.A. and Oxnard. There's tales of private transportation dynasties like The Carsons, The Landliers and the Kadletz Brothers, whose Pink Buses shepherded Orange County teenagers to the beach while soothing them with blasts of '70s rock. Our fave chapter is on an obscure African-American doctor named Thomas D. Matthews, who in the '60s and '70s attempted to start a Blue and White bus line that would serve the residents of Watts, who with the death of the Red Cars had been essentially abandoned in their own neighborhoods and cut off from the rest of the city.

by Thomas Pynchon
Already referenced a year ago when Pizzolatto made his famous comment about Season 2 taking on "the secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system," Pynchon's breezy slapstick comedy has sinister underpinnings when the protagonist discovers a bugle-like hieroglyphic that leads to dueling secret underground versions of the U.S. postal service. A harbringer of the deep internet or even deep cable, wethinks.

by Mark Arax & Rick Wartzman
Two reporters resolve themselves to investigate one of the Central Valley's most enigmatic (i.e., "press-shy") power brokers, a rancher named James Griffin Boswell III who controls more terra firma and water rights than any land baron in the West. While there are no grotesque murders, the book seeps into your pores as a treatise on the hidden power, exploitation and human cost behind the Central Valley's multi-billion dollar agribusiness empire. After reading, you may drive up the I-5 past the cabbage and bean fields of the Central Valley and think more of giant shiny skyscrapers or soulless business parks.

by James McMichael
Whaaaaat? A book-length epic poem about real estate in Pasadena? Turns out, Nic Pizzolatto filmed a lot of scenes for TD2 in Pasadena. McMichael's widescreen lens and holistic treatment of the SoCal landscape is the next best thing to Justin Lin's helicopter shots in TD2. You can read an excerpt here.

ed. by Gayle Wattawa
ed. by Stan Yogi
These two Literary anthologies of byways and highways that lead to under-represented aspects of the California Dream, in places like Perris, Gilroy, Modesto, Riverside and Fresno. A healthy collection of diverse writers are represented including Raymond Chandler, Mike Davis, Joan Didion, Erle Stanley Gardner, Juan Felipe Herrera, Norman Mailer, Frank Norris, Richard Rodriguez, Gary Snyder, Gary Soto, William Saroyan, Eric Schlosser, John Steinbeck and Susan Straight. Not too shabby.

by Zachary Lazar
Of course, no noirish autopsy of SoCal can be complete without the cult angle. In TD2, the Malibu New Age retreat led by a remarkably unsentimental guru (David Morse) seems pretty benign -- more akin to Big Sur's Esalen Institute or Malibu's Self-Realization Fellowship. In Sway, author Lazar transports us back to the late 1960s for a terse and trippy novel about lost souls drifting down the West Coast like zombie fugitives stumbling towards the golden light. ("There was nowhere left to go...It was a dead world," one of the protagonists thinks in Rust Cohle tones, "There was no point in pretending it wasn't.") This time, the golden light comes in the shape of an elfin, quasi-hippie con artist named Charles Milles Manson.

by Paul Young
This will satisfy the salacious and bizarre aspects of your "pulp genre" jones. You want myths, urban legends and tall tales? You got 'em. Author Young (with whom, in full disclosure, the Beast used to work back in the '90s at a magazine called BUZZ) compiles some doozies: The secret Nazi compound in Malibu, the opium dens of Chinatown, the treasure buried in the Watts Towers, the underground tunnels under downtown, the lake 15 miles west of the desert town of Lancaster that allegedly contains a passageway to Hades. There's also plenty of dish for celebrity-dirt wranglers; The UFO that spoke to Dennis Hopper, the porno that Babs Streisand might have done, the penis that Jamie Lee Curtis might be hiding and the the gerbil that Richard Gere...well, let's just stop here.

by Kem Nunn
You might get a nosebleed from this one. Nunn's classic mindfuck of a novel begins as a sort of a surfing Bildungsroman and then goes way dark and way, WAY whacked out. Drug-fueled Orgies! Satanic cults! Human sacrifices by the sea! Sort of a mashup of TD1 and TD2 for those who like the setting of the latter but like the secret-cult aspect of the former. (Fun fact: With David "Deadwood" Milch, Nunn was one of the co-creators of the ill-fated HBO drama John from Cincinnati, which attempted to mix mysticism and magical realism with the SoCal surfing culture.)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

How Ornette Coleman Created The L.A. Underground

Thanks to the graciousness of its editor Drew Tewksbury, the Beast just published our first story for KCET's Artbound on Ornette Coleman's influence on Los Angeles, which of course contains material from our upcoming book, Midnight Pacific Airwaves. You can read it here.

Also, check out our local colleagues' takes on the quiet, genial Texan who shook up the world: Greg Burk and Phil "Brick" Wahl.