Thursday, March 01, 2007

Tonight Angela and I rented four movies from Scarecrow, which is a habit we’ve been indulging more frequently of late; this is the fourth or fifth time we’ve done it. Wednesday is two-for-one rental night there so that’s when we go. After we got in the car, I looked at our goods and determined that, without meaning to, we’ve found ourselves a loose formula for renting: One Criterion Collection title, one comedy, one exploitation movie, and one foreign. This time around it was, in order, the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens/Beales of Grey Gardens twofer, the 1937 screwball comedy Love Crazy (on VHS, a first for us; Angela’s TV has a tape player built in), Switchblade Sisters, and G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Last time, on Valentine’s Day, it was The Third Man (my disc wasn’t in its case; I think it’s still in New York, where about six boxes of my miscellany are safely at Angela’s parents’, in the bedroom she grew up in), Modern Romance (very funny but also very horrifying; afterward we spent about 20 minutes assuring each other that, no, we really didn’t do those things), Detroit 9000 (whose Tarantino shortie, in which he previews other movies in his as-selected-by line, is what inspired the Switchblade Sisters rental), and an insane Chinese comedy/soft-porno/horror/drama called The Love That Is Wrong that has about 800 plot twists, none believable, all kind of riveting since the tone is so ridiculously off-balance throughout.

Scarecrow is by pretty much all accounts the best video store in America, and one of the fun things about renting there is its total lack of hierarchy--everything they can stock they try to, and the staff is at times frighteningly knowledgeable. When we go, we usually have one or two titles in mind and improvise from there. So the “formula” had Angela worried; is it really improvising if we wind up repeating our patterns? I think this is fine: improvisation tends to occur in patterns as a rule, as long as we stay within the moment when we’re picking things out it isn’t likely to stagnate, and even if we start filling in blanks those are awfully broad categories. (Even the most limited, the Criterion catalogue, is up to around 400 titles or so.)

This is a long way from when I started buying DVDs in earnest a few years ago, when I was working at Seattle Weekly and had a consistently sizable disposable income for the first time in my adult life. I decided to start buying as many Criterion titles as I could, and having amassed a good number, I haven’t watched half of them. These trips to Scarecrow are helping me realize why: man cannot live on the classics alone. I crave variety as a rule, and while the Criterion Collection provides that in sheer genre terms, its imposing sense of classic-dom can be a little stifling, even when the movies themselves are not. That and owning a DVD means you can always watch it later, meaning in many cases that they sit on the shelf waiting for that day to come.

The same is true of books a lot of the time. Today I got two, one a promo I’m reviewing, one purchased largely with a gift certificate my roommate Neal gave me for my 32nd birthday two weeks ago. The former is the new Clive James book, Cultural Amnesia, which looks pretty scrumptious and slightly daunting: 110 essays on various cultural and political figures from the 20th century. I’m a sucker for this kind of organizational principle anyway--both People’s Almanacs instilled it in me--and having just read James’s introduction I see he’s gone even further, conceiving of it as a piecemeal overview of the century in humanist terms. There’s something about this that makes me slightly uneasy on initial contact--I want to feel more embarrassed about it than I actually do. James is setting himself up, here, as an elder cramming as much of his amassed knowledge as he can bear into one place and forking it over for a younger audience that might do something with it. A few years ago I’d have rolled my eyes at that--only slightly, but I’d have still done it. But now I think it’s kind of noble, and I’m touched by it as a gesture. The weight with which James puts his intentions I have trouble putting my finger on precisely, but I recognize it as serious without being ponderous, and I’m eager to see where it goes. (Though his depiction of Johnny Rotten as being malevolent seems kind in light of the past 25 years of Lydon-dom; maybe he means something closer to Sid Vicious, dead-eyed nihilism more frightening for being its own dead end instead of a jump-off point the way Rotten’s turned out to be, however limited his jump ended up after Metal Box.)

The book I bought was Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, the first volume of Taylor Branch’s just-completed trilogy. Peter Scholtes named Branch his co-Artist of the Year, along with OutKast, in City Pages in 1998, when Pillar of Fire was published; at the end of last year, Britt Robson gave Branch his full AOTY vote for At Canaan’s Edge. Peter and Britt are both heroes of mine, so via them I’ve wanted to read Branch for a minute, and having a few free dollars helped push me along. No idea when I’ll get to the book--Clive James is going to take a couple weeks, and if anything Branch’s book is more daunting, 1,000 pages to 800. I do figure it’ll be worth it, though.

Shopping at the University Book Store with a gift certificate was interesting. I wanted something slightly over my GC total ($18; Neal explained the number’s significance in a way I remember fondly but not well) and had in hand at various points a number of titles I’ve looked at longingly for weeks or months. The book of various writers’ Top 10 books; the Penguin paperback anthology Read the Beatles; that new hardback about white folks’ relationship with hip-hop with the Alan Light and Mark Anthony Neal quotes on the back jacket. I was also tempted by a new history of Columbia Records, but that seems like something I can get free if I can land a review. This is a serious consideration for me with books, even more so than with albums. To be honest, I figured I’d buy a Proper box set--one of those nicely packaged four-CD comps put together by the English reissue company specializing in out-of-copyright music, of which I own and enjoy many--but when I got to the store it seemed foolish to buy yet more music when I have so much I already haven’t gotten around to. I have acres of books that fit this description, too, and magazines. But the GC was for a bookstore and it would have been foolish to pass up the opportunity. And while I was satisfied with the Branch purchase for a number of reasons, the best was that it seemed weighty, something to dig into, to expend some of your life with, to be rewarded by. That’s what a gift should do.

At 7 p.m., after the bookstore, I crossed the street and saw the Academy Award-nominated animated shorts, plus five others to round out an hour-and-a-half program. Very entertaining, quite rewarding; The Little Matchgirl, was shamelessly sentimental, but it worked on me. My favorite, though, was the winner, The Dutch Poet--least sophisticated animation of the five nominees, most involving and funny and moving story. They showed the live-action Oscar shorts afterward, at 9 p.m., but I had to skip that for Scarecrow. After the video store we watched Switchblade Sisters and Angela went to bed. I have two deadlines I’m avoiding by writing this. Maybe tomorrow night I’ll head back to the University District and see the live-action shorts.