Zombie Apocalypse

Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills have mostly withered away and I don’t remember the last memorable Neil Jordan flick, but seeing their names and others like Jessica Lange’s on a poster summons certain feelings. It’s not to do with what any of them have done recently but it’s enough to get me to the multiplex for Marlowe.

There are three others in the auditorium, all north of sixty-five. This is par for the course for most adult movie screenings these days. Unless it’s at an art house or cinematheque, the grown-ups generally stay home.

Marlowe is meant to evoke noirs with Chandler’s weary detective donning his fedora yet again but this is warmed over ersatz fare. Despite the elderly couple’s occasional cackles, the wise cracks are some very weak tea. Neeson looks old and tired. I wonder whether he needs a paycheck that bad. At least Jordan still knows how to frame a shot now and then. But everything good to do with this movie is via association to work he did decades ago. If anyone told the director of Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, and The Butcher Boy that he’d be making a stale reboot of a gumshoe yarn he’d have laughed you out of the room without a doubt.

Jessica Lange is a real old-school movie star. She always seemed like she came from another time. But even she can’t put over what Jordan or whoever hired him is trying to peddle.

The only way to enjoy this is to imagine Neeson and Lange in other roles, when they were good. For minutes at a time I forget about the dreck on screen and think about Darkman and Frances. I imagine the many roles they played before ending up in this. You can play this game with any movie or show. There’s only so many memorable players and their best work makes their worst sort of fascinating. But not enough to justify this faded copy of a copy of a copy.

This is how art forms die. When everyone just goes through the motions. Money was spent on period costumes and vehicles but whatever life this cosplay slog might’ve had is dead and buried with however allowed Chandler’s intellectual property to be paraded about in zombie flicks like this one.

I can’t tell if the other member of our little audience is enjoying the movie but the masticating sounds coming from her end of the room indicate she’s at least enjoying her multi-course meal.

It can’t go on this way much longer. These places will soon go the way of pay phones and kerosene lamps and I can’t say I’ll miss them. I imagine movies will be like LPs—a small dedicated audience with little reach or relevance to the mainstream culture. There’s a limited lifespan to everything. Trust me as someone who works in a medium that was pronounced dead over a hundred years ago. I know whereof I speak.

If I’m being optimistic I can see a future where Liam Neeson doesn’t have to embarrass himself by putting on a coat and hat meant for a much younger man, likely dead when Neeson was just being born. The retreads and playacting can stop and the few people making movies can put their energy into producing something with a pulse.

Until then I guess I’ll keep suffering through these death throes at the mall. I can’t give up the habit despite drastically diminishing returns. I’ve been at it too long to change my ways.

I wrote about longtime musician Roscoe Mitchell’s first art show. This review is a product of revisions and compromises with the editor of the fancy international art magazine that published it. I knew going in that I couldn’t say all I wanted to say on the subject of a famous person and their first art show, but that’s the terms of engagement. When it’s not your hamster wheel you can’t insult the fabricator or operator, question the workings of the gears, and expect that they’ll allow you to keep pedaling your little legs forward.

I read a story from Alla Gorbunova’s It’s the End of the World, My Love into a microphone.


I defaced/improved another art-school-era painting. This one was done in my first Chicago apartment, at the corner of Foster & Sheridan. It features the futon on the floor and the Abraham Lincoln lamp I scored at some thrift store. Also a very early attempt to paint books on a shelf—a motif I’d return to repeatedly starting about a decade later. This one had to be done early in 1991 because I moved to Logan Square that fall.

Before I had at it, this canvas was languishing in my parents’ basement a couple decades. I’m not sure it ever hung on the walls upstairs but I could be misremembering. Two earlier paintings of the same apartment hang in their living room but there was always something wrong with this one. Many things, really. The chance to salvage the parts that work was a welcome one. I’d tried to take it back to Chicago on previous visits but didn’t rent large enough cars or had already taken up trunk space with other art.

It sat facing the wall a few months until I got to it. When I put it on the easel its oddity struck me again. There’s no way to travel back thirty years to ask the younger me what I was shooting for. The composition is fragmented and the objects in it are oversized, somehow out of proportion. I’ve never been one to sketch or plan but this one sure could’ve used some idea to jump off from. It wasn’t difficult to identify weak points and cover them up or rework them.

One of the joys of using old work as a ground for new is the chance that something inert or failed might be renewed, be given a chance at another go around. The flatfiles and portfolios filled with past failures are now full of possibilities.

They’re a gift I didn’t know I was giving myself.

Listen to my talk with singer/writer Jessi Phillips and with Mallory about Freaks.

I’m reading in public for the first time in a while. It’ll go much better with you there—

Torch Job

Dear J,

I found your last letter in a drawer the other day. Been schlepping it around from apartment to apartment thirty years now. It’s on Oxford stationary. You say you don’t know if you’re coming back. You outline what I should do with the contents of the storage unit should you not cross back over the pond. What block of books will go to which favorite former student.

Then I had to call you international long-distance to say the storage building had burned down. If you had any doubts about coming back to this city that call would remove any lingering ambiguity. As if the town was telling you not to let the door hit you on the way out.

I didn’t follow the story in the news. Never learned who set the fire. But a cookie-cutter yuppie subdivision sprang up soon after the wreckers and scavengers hauled off the last bricks of the former factory that housed your decades of books and papers.

I don’t blame you for not keeping in touch. Why would you? I know I was a kid that you liked. I took so many of your classes. Freud, Nietzsche, Kant, Hume. You made totally unintelligible philosophizing clear to a roomful of art dummies. Even then many of us knew you were way over-qualified. Slumming it for the benefit of high-school washouts who were rarely capable of stringing together more than a couple sentences, much less formulating a coherent argument. You entrusted me with your belongings over your sabbatical year and look what happened.

I’m not proposing metaphysical or magical forces. Whoever torched that building did so for the most worldly reasons rather than to send a sign to an itinerant academic. Still, afterwards, I imagine your memory of me would inextricably be linked to those flames.

All that remains is the uncomfortable armchair and ottoman. It’s been in the corner of my parents’ living room, rarely used over thirty years, awaiting your return. I didn’t take it with me when I moved back to Chicago. By then it seemed to belong where it was. Plus, as I mentioned, it’s really not very comfortable.

I imagine you’ve amassed a library to replace the one that burned up. I can see decades more of grateful former students writing you letters with their updates. News of publications, exhibits, marriages, babies. Bet you answer every single one. None remind you of things going up in smoke. Maybe you leave your wife or husband for one of them. Upend your life a time or two. In the absence of any actual information all I can do is suppose and invent.

Would you have come back if that building hadn’t burned? Would we be friends now? This letter would never have been written. Instead you’d get texts and email, maybe an occasional postcard. Not an unsent letter. Like all the others this letter isn’t really meant for you but for strangers and for myself. The people who will read it don’t know you and never will. That long ago arson doesn’t play any role in their lives. Maybe they have some other disaster in their memory that will come back when they read about what happened to you. Some will have had a teacher who they kept in touch with long after graduation. Some will live in Chicago. Maybe even in the very development where the storage building used to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the one that went up thirty years ago has been demolished and replaced with another by now. It’s not in my part of town. I don’t pass by very often.

But when I do, it all comes rushing back. All my dumb philosophy papers. So utterly certain. How your gently ironic red-pen notes nudged me toward nuances I wouldn’t fathom till years later.

Are you still teaching? Are you even alive? Many of these notes are to people I know are dead. Even the living are dead to me. Because we are not in touch. They only exist in my mind and on these ancient pieces of handwritten paper. The person they’re addressed to is unrecognizable even to himself in the mirror. No stopping change. It’s the only constant as some Buddhist or Existentialist or Fatalist once said. If you were here you’d correct me. Cite the relevant text. Tell an appropriate anecdote to extend the resonance of the idea. I hope you’re doing that for someone somewhere.

You were so good at it. A rare gift to be a true teacher.

Listen to a conversation with my old friend, Ben Terrall, and read a review of a mess of play.

Made you another playlist.