Monday, May 14, 2007


As part of its Jacques Rivette retrospective, the Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago will be showing his twelve-and-a-half hour long magnum opus Out 1 on May 26 and 27. (This is a single showing spread over two days.) Out 1 has been acclaimed a masterpiece by those few who have seen it. But to say it's rarely shown is an understatement: since it was made in 1971, it has been screened fewer than a dozen times anywhere in the world. So if you're living in the Midwest, this may literally be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see it on the big screen. Nor is it available on video or DVD, even bootlegged (as far as I know), though a VHS version was released in 1995 and is owned by a few university libraries. If you're a serious cinephile and live within, say, two hundred miles of Chicago, you don't want to miss this.

The Siskel Film Center will also be showing Out 1: Spectre, Rivette's four-hour reworking of Out 1's footage, on June 9. (Note that Out 1 is sometimes referred to as Out 1: Noli me tangere.)

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Sunday, May 06, 2007


The Carbon Copy Building is described in its accompanying booklet as "a comic-strip opera," and the phrase is apt. Not only did Ben Katchor, known for such comic strips as Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, write the libretto (or "text," as the booklet calls it), but this text is based, if I remember correctly, on a single installment of one of his strips, though not one that's been collected as far as I know. And it is indeed an opera, with music composed by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, the founders of the contemporary music organization Bang on a Can. But if your knowledge of opera comes from Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and company, you may not recognize it as one.

The "text," one of Katchor's typical meditations on "the pleasures of urban decay," tells the story of two buildings. The first, the Paladin Building, was built in 1929 in a prestigious neighborhood in a city that is unnamed, but obviously New York City. The second, the Palaver Building, was built six months later, using the same plans (the "carbon copy building" of the title). Sixty-nine years later, when the opera takes place, the Paladin retains its prestige, while the Palaver, now located in the unfashionable "bent spoon district," has gone to seed and is home to dozens of small businesses.

The story per se is slight. There's no real plot, just uneventful snippets from the lives of a few people working in one or the other of the buildings. But we do hear of a number of the strange businesses which are a specialty of Katchor's, including a firm of out-of-date calendar specialists, a broken cookie consolidator, and a dessert embalming service. The most interesting "narrative" thread revolves around a delivery boy for the last of these businesses, who from working in the Palaver Building has absorbed carbon-paper chemicals into his system, so that whatever he touches is smeared with their residue (although much of his story is told only in Katchor's stage directions).

The music is minimalist in style, with both vocal and instrumental parts made up of short repeating phrases. I'm not familiar with the recent evolution of this style; in fact, the most recent minimalist work I'd listened to before this is Einstein on the Beach. But The Carbon Copy Building's music is less schematic, and much more varied in texture, than was Einstein's music. The first scene, for example, is a melancholy recitative over a lute-like obbligato, while the second has a full-blown rock accompaniment. And the opera itself has a quasi-rock instrumentation: everything is played by four musicians on electric guitar, percussion, keyboards and woodwinds. As with the libretto, the music isn't much like that of traditional operas, even setting aside the unconventional instrumentation. There are "recitatives," but nothing that could be called an aria. As said above, I have little experience with minimalism, or indeed of the whole "downtown" (as in downtown Manhattan) music scene. But I found the music always interesting, and at times even catchy: the best thing about the opera.

On the other hand, the opera's main problem is that there is little connection between the music and Katchor's text. Apart from the opening and closing recitatives, the musical textures seem to have been chosen with little regard for the text. The composers frequently expand Katchor's brief conversations to fill a whole scene by having the singers repeat Katchor's words over and over again. His peculiar brand of poetry gains nothing by this treatment. Perhaps the composers were emphasizing the emptiness of much social conversation, but that is surely far from Katchor's intent. Overall, I can't help thinking that the opera could have been based on almost any strip by any cartoonist and had virtually the same score.

The libretto is profusely illustrated with color illustrations by Katchor. These create atmosphere and add more strange names, but they aren't among his best work: his art is best seen in black, grey, and white, and in comics, not individual illustrations.

To sum up, the opera's chief attraction is its music, and I would recommend it to those interested in, or curious about, contemporary composition. (If you're just curious, you can download individual tracks at the link above for 98 cents apiece. You can also download the whole album for $9.90, a savings of six bucks over a physical copy, though presumably you wouldn't get the libretto or illustrations.) For those whose main interest is Katchor, whether you should buy it depends on how much you're willing to spend for minor work of his. And if you have no particular interest in either Katchor or contemporary "classical" music, I would skip it.

I should say a few words about the unusual packaging. The libretto "booklet" is actually the package itself: it has hard covers and a cloth binding, and the CD fits into a paper sleeve attached to the inside back cover. This package is compact and elegant, but unfortunately it's very hard to remove the CD from its sleeve (at least in the review copy I was sent). I wound up storing the CD in a separate case, which sort of defeats the point of the packaging.

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From the sublime -- Marie no kanaderu ongaku -- we turn to the ridiculous, namely Vampire (Banpaia) by Masaya Tokuhiro, a five-volume seinen (young man's) manga series. I own, but haven't read, the second and third volumes.

The vampire of the title is Maria, a beautiful, young-looking woman. It's not clear to me why she's called a "vampire," as she doesn't appear to drink blood or have fangs; but she does have super-strength, immortality, and quasi-invulnerability. Oh, and enormous boobs. They're nearly as big as her head, and may even be bigger than Power Girl's boobs. Unlike Power Girl, Maria doesn't wear a revealing costume, though she does wear boob socks. But she more than makes up for this by frequently wearing nothing at all (she even works as a stripper), and appearing in several explicit sex scenes. One character thinks she's a god, and has constructed a giant statue of her in the nude flanked by cherubs, her porn-star bust proudly displayed in all its glory. Remember the scene in (the original) The In-Laws where the dictator proudly displays the flag he designed?

To be fair, unlike many of the women in contemporary superhero comics, Maria's anatomy isn't impossible, if you assume she has huge implants. And it could be, of course, that the writing is brilliant, though somehow I doubt it.

If my description has left you dying to try Vampire out, it's 524 yen per volume (which is about as cheap as seinen manga get), it's published by Shuueisha, and the ISBNs are:

v. 1: 4-08-859513-0
v. 2: 4-08-859532-7
v. 3: 4-08-859562-9
v. 4: 4-08-859581-5
v. 5: 4-08-859606-4

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Friday, May 04, 2007


Usamaru Furuya is one of my favorite manga creators (see the sidebar), and I have more than once seen Marie no kanaderu ongaku (usually translated as The Music of Marie, but more accurately The Music Marie Plays) acclaimed as his best work. Unfortunately, it had been out of print, so I couldn't read it. A few weeks ago I saw both volumes of the series offered on www.amazon.co.jp, so naturally I ordered them; and yesterday they arrived, a couple of weeks ahead of schedule. My joy at receiving them was somewhat tempered when I discovered that they'd been reprinted recently, so I could have special-ordered them at the Japanese bookstore in Arlington Heights and saved myself about twenty bucks. (I had thought I was buying used copies.) But the books look so good that even that doesn't bring me down.

Marie no kanaderu ongaku is a fantasy, though not the elves-and-dragons kind. Think more of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (even though that's actually science fiction), which Marie's art in fact resembles. And while I haven't begun reading it yet, it looks great, as I said above. In addition to Miyazaki-like characters and landscapes, there are intricate clockwork animals. (The Marie of the title is a gigantic clockwork woman floating across the sky.) In fact, I could almost recommend it for its art alone. I'll say more once I've actually read it.

Marie is published by Gentosha Comics and costs 1200 yen per volume, but the volumes are thicker than the usual tankoubon (paperback manga volume): the first is 276 pages, and the second is 248 pages. The ISBNs are 4-344-80012-5 for the first volume and 4-344-80005-2 for the second.

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