Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Desultory Row

This post is called Desultory Row for a reason. It's Desultory, as in jumping all over the place; and Row, as in Desolation Row, Dylan's 11-minute masterpiece from Highway 61 Revisited, a hallucinatory rumination on the absence of meaning & spirituality in modern life as well as a celebration of nonconformity & the role of the outcast in society (that's my quick take; for a more detailed analysis, see here). It's a song populated by a cast of unlikely and seemingly unconnected characters ranging from Einstein, Robin Hood and the Hunchback of Notre Dame to Casanova, Ophelia and of course "Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower." Pop music had never before seen anything like its brilliantly evocative Beat-inspired imagery, and very few pop songs have surpassed it to this day in terms of sheer verbal joy and poetic ambition. Amazingly, I had never known before today that the mysterious opening lines of Desolation Row: "They're selling postcards of the hanging, they're painting the passports brown, the beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town..." refer to a 1920 lynching of three black men in Minnesota, where of course Dylan grew up as Robert Zimmerman. But I really didn't intend to get all bogged down here in Dylan-ology...that's for another day & another post...except to note that there's a Dylan artifact exhibit running at the Morgan Library here in NYC until January that I plan on checking out soon.

Let's get to my review of A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, a movie I saw last nite about growing up in Astoria in the 1980s, something I know a little about you might say, before I delve into some other matters that are, if not pressing, at least need ironing out. Last week you could say that I reviewed the movie poster, so I figured it's only fair that I see the actual film. I met my friend and fellow Astoria product John the Fireman (aka Johnny Star, Johnny Why & Johnny Schweppes) at around 6 in front of CBGBs to soak up some of the dying embers of the soon to be defunct punk club, then we went inside, where John bought one of those black T-shirts for 21 bucks. Nostalgia just ain't what it used to be.

Truth be told, CBs was never a favorite spot for us; even in our punk primes we preferred places where you could dance to the music, and so a typical night for us in those days was more likely to be spent at Hurrah's on 62nd & Broadway, the Ritz on 11th Street, Heat on Hudson Street, the Peppermint Lounge off Times Square, the old Danceteria -- huge, cavernous venues where you could dance to tunes before and after seeing a live show, followed by a search for a cool afterhours joint. More often than not, such nights were capped off with a near-dawn visit to Dave's Luncheonette. Don't bother looking for it, it's not there anymore, but it was on 14th Street and I forget which avenue...we would sit at the counter for grilled cheese sandwiches and egg creams all around, bullshitting about the night's escapades...

Anyway, the bar at CBs somehow had a really depressing vibe so we left and walked across Bowery Street to another pub and had a few Heinekens on tap before heading to the Angelika to get tickets for the 8:10 show.

For me the best thing about the movie was seeing the tableau I was so familiar with all these years (Astoria Pool, the El) captured up on the big screen. The last movie to use so much of Astoria as a backdrop, if not a character, was 1991's Queens Logic, which I thought was an underrated movie. Anyway, much of Saints was filmed mere blocks from where I live now, altho I also caught glimpses of another apartment I lived in from 1982-89 on 31st Avenue, next to the Holy Cross church, as shown from the N train when Dito & Mike ride to Manhattan.

What initially turned me off about the film was its presentation of Astoria as some sort of urban wasteland. The poster set the tone with its tagline of "Queens, New York, 1986 -- You had to be tough to survive and tougher to get out." First of all, Queens is a big place, with 2 million people and about 100 different neighborhoods, ranging from quiet suburban enclaves like Bellerose and Floral Park to teeming, crowded, noisy nabes like Jackson Heights and Queensbridge, with everything in between, including upper middle class black neighborhoods like Hollis and Springfield Gardens and poor white working class areas like Sunnyside and Long Island City. So they're starting off with gross generalizations and mischaracterizations -- sentiments reinforced by the Angelika flyer that said the action took place in "the toughest neighborhood in Astoria, Queens." I had trouble wrapping my mind around that syntax: Are they saying it's the toughest neighborhood in Astoria or that Astoria was the most dangerous place in all of Queens, or in all of New York City? You see, they didn't need to go there. I mean, if Astoria is the toughest place, then what do you say about places like Jamaica, Corona, Far Rockaway...

That said, it turned out to be a better movie than I thought going in with all my preconceived notions. Now, it was one of those movies that the rest of the audience seems to be enjoying more than you are, laughing in spots that don't think are all that funny and being moved by scenes that you think are just too cliched to ring true. And while there was a lot of both the former and latter, on the whole it was a pretty good indie flick, worthy of about 3 *** stars out of 5 in my rating system. (Here's a fairly positive review from Slate's Dana Stevens.) It was reminiscent of a lot of other "coming of age/coming to grips that life mostly sucks" stories; what saved it was a good cast (Dianne Wiest, Rosario Dawson, Eric Roberts), because a lot of the dialogue was uninspired for me, with lines such as "I like to fuck" coming from one of the local girls and "I'm a piece of shit" coming from one of the hoodlum types. I've seen the same cinematic territory covered more convincingly elsewhere, in films like 1978's Bloodbrothers (based on the excellent Richard Price novel), A Bronx Tale and especially Trainspotting, which is why I can't go beyond 3 ***'s for Saints. And a la Do The Right Thing, the major characters take turns speaking directly to the camera, one telling the audience that "Everyone in this movie is going to leave me" -- by a longshot not the only dramatic device "borrowed" or adopted from Spike Lee's best movie.

I saw one blurb that said the dialogue was like classic rock. I don't even know what that means, but the dialogue in Saints didn't have that zing, that hipster rhythm we saw in films like Pulp Fiction. But I guess it should be stressed that it was a first time director behind the camera. All in all, a positive addition to the Astoria pop culture canon, at the least a small step toward remedying the overbearing Brooklyn mythology imbalance that for centuries has overshadowed poor, neglected, stereotyped Queens.

The best character ironically was not from Astoria at all but was a gay Puerto Rican dogwalker from the Village, played by Anthony DeSando, who gets the funniest lines. I thought Robert Downey was okay as the grown-up Dito, but his part was underwritten in some strange way; I wanted him to respond more verbally to the other characters in some key spots. One scene that did ring true was when Downey comes back to the old neighborhood to see his dying father; he sees a storefront art gallery and tells the woman inside, "Ya know, this used to be a candy store here." It was a subtle, unforced way to make a point without beating you over the head about the gentrification of Astoria. And Chazz Palminteri, as Dito's dad, nicely fleshed out his role, transcending the often trite boilerplate of Angry Italian Father into a near-Oscar-worthy performance.

I guess it's now it's up to me and John to finally put our money where our mouth is and make the definitive Astoria movie we've been planning for years, one that covers what it was like to go from being co-captains on the high school football team to young wiseass punk rockers in a blue collar, working class world that didn't always tolerate or appreciate change or threats to the established state of affairs. Wow. I think I've got the slogan for our ad campaign already!

What a horrible sports weekend. It's bad enuf that I spent large swaths of time sitting in front of my 27-inch non-plasma, non-HD, non-flatscreen TV watching games when I should have, could have been outside participating instead of spectating, but then when my teams lose, it becomes a huge suckfest. First the fucking Yankees lay down like dogs to the Tigers, losing 3 games in a row and getting unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs in the process. Then football Sunday, my Cowboys get beat in the T.O. Bowl in Philly. Now, if you know me at all, football is my favorite sport by like a factor of 10, and so a Dallas Cowboys regular season loss to the Eagles is equivalent to a season-ending playoff loss in baseball.

It looks like Joe Torre is out, and altho I appreciate all he did to resurrect the Yanks over the last decade, the time has come for Joe to go. I think the best metaphor for his recent complacence was when he failed to lift his ass out of the dugout to argue a close play at 3rd base that went against the Yanks. It's the fucking playoffs and you just let that slide? That said it all about his lack of motivational skills in recent years and his overarching loyalty to veterans like Sheffield and Matsui, who automatically got their starting jobs back late in the year when they returned from injury even tho the team chemistry suffered in the process. Let's bring someone like Lou Pinella back or, even better, Joe Girardi. It will probably never happen as long as Steinbrenner is still alive, but the Yanks need to reestablish the farm system and start all over again with young players, as Gene Michael did so brilliantly in the early '90s with building blocks like Derek Jeter, Andy Petite & Mariano Rivera.

The Cowboys played a sloppy, inefficient game Sunday while the Eagles played like it was their Super Bowl, and yet Dallas still had a chance to steal the game with a minute to go, first and goal on the Eagle 6. First down, incomplete pass to the back of the end zone. That's okay, I thought, three downs to go. So what does Drew Bledsoe do on second down? Forces a pass into coverage that gets picked off and run back over 100 yards to seal the deal for Philly, 38-24! I've also had enuf of Bledsoe for the rest of this year. I really think he's a great guy, but his astounding lack of mobility and propensity for throwing INTs at the worst possible time just cannot be overcome anymore. Simply unacceptable for a 14-year veteran of the league. For comparison's sake, Chad Pennington, by no stretch of the imagination an elite QB, had never thrown a red zone interception until last Sunday against the Colts. That's right, not one INT inside the 20-yard line in seven years. It's time for Tony Romo to show if he's the QB of the future. There's nothing more positive for a franchise than a promising quarterback for the rest of the team to rally around. Now, will Parcells make the move? I doubt it, because like Torre loyalty to someone who's gotten the job done for him in the past is of paramount importance. But this would be the week to make the change, with the feeble Houston Texans coming to town. We'll see.

I had a ton of problems with the Dallas game plan, but it was Terrell Owens' histrionics on the sideline that left a bad taste in my mouth. More on that in a minute, but why would you go with an empty backfield against the blitz-happy Eagles? It's like a cop going into a hostage situation with no bulletproof vest. Also, why is Dallas' best pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware, constantly backing off into coverage on third-and-longs? Absurd. How about putting some more screen passes into the playbook. I would run a minimum of two a quarter; we gained 22 yards on the only one I remember being called. For god's sake, Julius Jones and to a lesser extent Tyler Thompson both have the speed and quickness to potentially break a long one every time. I don't get that. No reverses either. You have to do something to offset the blitz. We wasted a strong 100-yard effort by Jones in the process.

Now back to T.O. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was against the Owens signing initially. Just too much baggage. Then when he signed with the Cowboys, he said all the right things about being a good teammate, blending in, taking advantage of another second chance. But as soon as the first hint of adversity pops up and he gets overthrown by Bledsoe, admittedly a horrid pass, he goes ballistic on the sidelines and can be seen screaming Are You Fucking Kidding Me? to his receivers coach and then resumes sulking after taking a seat all alone at the end of the bench. So much for his pledge to be a model citizen. Suffice to say that the next two games are crucial to the Cowboys season, with Houston and then the Giants coming to Texas Stadium. Win both games and we're right in the thick of the division race. Lose even one, it could get ugly at Valley Ranch.

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