Quickie Review: RIVETHEAD

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly LineRivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Rivethead from the perspective of someone for who lived through the time period this book was written in. Very little of this touches my direct experience except vicariously though the stories of people I’ve known who have lived a version of the life described herein. I mention this because, as in my reading of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, I do have a slightly stronger connection than someone reading this to get off on Rust Belt Chic ruin porn hipsterism.

Those sorts would paint Hamper as a working class revolutionary, an embedded journalist exposing the truth of life at the bottom of the American auto industry in Flint, MI in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Certainly, the book’s blurbs lead you to that line of thinking. But Hamper’s and his cohorts’ enemies weren’t really General Motors, its then-Chairman and CEO Robert Smith, or even the shop foremen of the Truck and Bus plant. Hamper writes, “Our only adversary was Father Time”, that is, the interminably slow second hand of the clock, plodding toward the end of your shift, during which your only choices are to either occupy your mind with plots to sneak out of the plant, inventing workplace-unsafe and semi-violent games like “Rivet Hockey” and “Dumpster Ball”, or numbing your mind with chemicals. Anything to escape the tedium of the “unskilled labor” for which men like Hamper were programmed. Hamper doesn’t (intentionally) expose a corporation’s secret agenda; he’s writing about what he’s living, with skills he gleaned from Catholic high school education, reading and writing poetry, listening to Mothers of Invention albums, and taking LSD. The result is prose that simultaneously delights even as it shames you for thinking, “This, from a shoprat?”

Hamper is very much a product of his time and place, a Boomer writer using WWII and Viet Nam War references to talk about the Midwest cultural clashes surrounding him: Salaried employees vs. hourly employees. Foremen vs. the shoprats. Fathers vs. sons. Mars vs. Venus. Art rock vs. Classic rock. Living and writing within his comfort zone vs. the life he could’ve had, and actually sampled through his association with filmmaker Michael Moore. (The book is worth the price of admission just to read an account of Moore outside of Moore’s narrative.) Thing is, you wouldn’t think a book of pieces written in the late ’80s/early ’90s would be as even-handed as it is about the US auto industry’s competition with Japan, and so you learn things like about how GM didn’t just try to instill a fear of Toyota in its workers, but of Ford, as well.

Consequently, being a product of his time and place, the writing shows Hamper’s exposure to the background radiation of racism, classism, misogyny, body-shaming, slut-shaming, homophobia, and ableism you’d expect from someone who grew up the Midwest in the ’60s and ’70s. (One plus: the use of the word tranny in the book only ever refers to an automobile’s transmission.) I have no reason to believe Hamper would espouse or display the above; I doubt he would in this day and age where he continues to do the occassional reading. But neither does Hamper try to disabuse you of the notion that some of his family and coworkers might.

Hamper is often referred to as Flint’s answer to Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar. Hamper’s output and subject matter certainly bear a resemblance, from life on the job right down to the unique cast of secondary characters from the line. Neither men particularly want your praise or your pity. But even Pekar’s observations occasionally had bright, if rare, moments of optimism. Harvey wanted to show profundity hidden in the quotidian. Hamper, on the other hand, shows you absurdity hidden in the drudgery.

In the end, Rivethead is the story of a man embracing his destiny, for better AND for worse, and ending in a place you don’t expect but by which you shouldn’t be especially shocked.

The truth was loose: I was the son of a son of a bitch, an ancestral prodigy born to clobber my way through loathsome dungheaps of idiot labor. My genes were cocked and loaded. I was a meteor, a gunslinger, a switchblade boomerang hurled from the pecker dribblets of my forefathers’ untainted jalopy seed. I was Al Kaline peggin’ home a beebee from the right field corner. I was Picasso applyin’ the final masterstroke to his frenzied Guernica. I was Wilson Pickett stompin’ up the stairway of the Midnight Hour. I was one blazin’ tomahawk of m-fuggin’ eel snot. Graceful and indomitable. Methodical and brain-dead. The quintessential shoprat. The Rivethead.

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Quickie Review: MAGGIE (2015)

I really wanted MAGGIE to be Arnold’s JCVD, that is, an art house flick that plays with everything we think we know about a foreign-born actor and the American Acton heroes he played in the ’80s. It did not let me down! MAGGIE deconstructs the expectations built up over 30 years of Governator- and zombie-film over-saturation, and subverts them at literally every turn.

If you’ve seen enough Schwarzenegger and zombie films, you’ve seen every scene setup in MAGGIE before. Thus, you’re not surprised to see tense moments with John Matrix poised to kick ass, or creepy moments where you just know Abigail Breslin (who’s been in similar surroundings before) is about to take a bite out of someone. But few things play out as expected here, and MAGGIE prepares you for this by setting up the characters properly. So yes, you have scenes of Dutch Schaefer brandishing a shotgun, because Ah-nold! But when you write his character as a man clinging desperately to what is best in life, whose former wife instilled in him a love of reading(!) and planting daisies(!!), and then have Trench Mauser play that character convincingly, then you have a Schwartzenegger zombie film where anything can happen.

Quickie Review: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Spoilers ahead, minor and major — YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Suffice it to say, the movie appealed to my inner six year old.  This is a good thing.  It’s also a bad thing.

That aside, I still have to say that AofU didn’t thrill me like the first Avengers film.  It didn’t bore me, though.  There were certainly enough comic book “Fuck yeah!” moments.  But I suspect part of that was my brain trying to keep up with the plot, and not stumble over the holes where things were obviously cut out.  In fact, yes, I felt like I was watching an edited version on FX, “compressed for time”.   On the plus side, though, there was the particular way this film hit my comic book geek spots.

Because if you’re really going to hit all the highlights of Marvel Comics history on film, then fuck it — go for broke, from the creation of the synthozoid Vision, down to creating an “All New, All Different” B-team at the end of it all, just like in the comics.

This past Free Comic Book Day, I found this: a fresh copy of MARVEL SUPER-HEROES Vol. 1, No. 80, one of the first comic books I ever remember reading as a child.  The cover date is 1979, so I was 5 or 6 years old.  (The issue itself is a reprint of THE INCREDIBLE HULK Vol. 1, No. 128 from 1970.)

The Avengers roster started changing in the comics after the second issue.  Characters like General “Thunderbolt” Ross were already missing the classic line-up…

Okay, even as a kid maybe I knew this team seemed a little wanting, just like the team introduced at the end of AofU seems to be.  But six year old me still thought this image was bad ass!  (Don’t worry, Wanda gets her licks in by the end of the issue.)

Just like people have “My Doctor” (i.e. the one they imprinted on as a kid), I have my Avengers.  And my Avengers will always have Goliath, The Vision, The Beast, Yellowjacket, and Wonder Man in the turtleneck and the red pimp safari jacket, because they were the ones in the comics I read after this one.
For me, that’s the joy of AofU.  I enjoyed this retelling of Avengers history!  Very well done, “A” for effort!  I want to see what Captain America, Black Widow, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and The Vision do in the next go-round!
And yet, although I judiciously avoided all spoilers, I knew I’d seen this — well, read this — all before.  Which begs the question of who exactly AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON was written for — six year old boy comic book geek me, or for over-forty dude comic book geek me?  I’m fairly sure much of the praise or scorn heaped upon this movie is based on the answer to that question.
Six year old me might’ve interpreted that scene between Black Widow and Bruce Banner a little more generously than most (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) and might’ve thought Widow’s MCU history reveal probably means something different to the character than it does to people watching the film.  Part of over-forty me believes that.  But the rest of over-forty me knows a reveal like that doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s a shame, too.  A revelation that might’ve offered some additional depth (“My soul is as dark as Banner’s, but I have the same heroic potential.”) is doomed from almost the very start of the movie and it’s “lullaby” scene, and frames things in a way that makes the snarky “cleaning up after you boys” quip a mere one step above that one line in the last movie.  

Quickie Review: NOTHIN’ BUT BLUE SKIES

Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial HeartlandNothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland by Edward McClelland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lest anyone think I read this just to latch on to the hipsterish aspects of the “Rust Belt Chic” trend, know that I was born in Cleveland a mere four years after the Cuyahoga River burned, and I grew up through most of the events in the “Burn On, Big River” chapter of the book. Take McClelland’s writing on Dennis Kucinich’s various rises and falls, for instance. No matter how much prominence he gained after reinventing himself as a national politician, and regardless of how many of his views I might share, I’ll always know him as “Dennis the Menace” because in the late 70s/early 80s, even a six year old like me could read a political cartoon in THE PLAIN DEALER and glean from how the grown-ups talked that that’s what everyone thought of him. We were reading USA TODAY in grade school when the whole the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing came up. And I had one of my first underage drinks just as the Flats was transitioning from a hotspot to a hive of scum and villainy. (I’d left before it finally turned into a “Scooby Doo ghost town“.)

All that to say that if McClelland, a native of Lansing, MI, did enough of his homework to get those sorts of Cleveland details right then it seemed likely to me that his notes about life in post auto industry Youngstown, Detroit, Flint, Lansing, etc. also has a genuine ring of truth. In fact, reading about the stories of these other places and some of the people in them felt like a rediscovery of sorts. I can imagine this is what it feels like for someone who has some weird personality quirk that never made sense to anyone until some previously hidden fact of biological or social history was discovered and gave you the context. I’d never heard the terms “bathtub Madonna” or “Mary on the half shell” before reading this book, and never knew how prevelant they were in other places similar to Cleveland, and yet I’d grown up seeing these little homemade grotto shrines to the Virgin Mary in every neighborhood I ever rode through inside Cleveland.

The book succeeds in giving me what feels like a thorough background about subjects I already knew, or at least in filling in the gaps about things I witnessed from a short distance. I was familiar with the socioeconomic patterns and movements of White Flight and gentrification, but this book clarifies the mechanics of it, particularly with respect to the decrepit housing and infrastructure it left behind (neither of which was really all that great to begin with). McClelland also lists a few examples of what happens when movements born of social justice to serve people crash and burn when they start becoming unsustainable, which many times has to do with internal personalities and politics, as much as whatever the latest company outsourcing or international trade plan is.

I was startled to learn exactly how much politicians in other regions of the country are looking over the carcass of the Rust Belt and still see a couple of things worth stripping even now, like Great Lakes water. A part of me cheered when I read about the political pushback these efforts get; Michigan representatives basically saying, “You wanted to go live in that sand box [i.e places like Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, etc. which have lured people and jobs from Michigan]. Don’t come crying to us when you can’t find anything to drink.”

The one nit I have is that McClelland does a little too good of a job integrating various regional idioms of, to put it mildly, an insensitive stripe. It’s one thing to quote, or report a quote from, various sources and stories, like one in which a Daley political operative tells Chicago Latino voters, “We want you guys to be our minority, because we’re already sick of that other minority [emphasis mine].” But it’s another to uncritically mix them into your own narrative. The author writes, “[Latinos in South Chicago] had their own church — Our Lady of Guadalupe — and they were tolerated by Stosh and Chester [i.e. code for “men of eastern European descent”] at the ironworkers’ tavern, who figured it was them or the colored [i.e. the other minority].” And while I’m fairly certain McClelland himself doesn’t espouse these beliefs, that contention might be a tougher sell for people to whom I might recommend this book. I theorize (but could be wrong) that I’ll have to deal with this in the next book in my Rust Belt reading queue, Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.

But then, personally, I’m a little (too?) used to it. After all, I grew up around that; hell I’m a Filipino-American who grew up in it. And if nothing else, this book goes a long way to telling me why.

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Quickie Review: IN SEARCH OF AND OTHERS

In Search of and OthersIn Search of and Others by Will Ludwigsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I share the author’s obsession with the old In Search of… series starring Leonard Nimoy, and Ludwigsen does a wonderful job writing pieces that resonate with that vibe. It also seems he and I share some other interests and experiences in common: with Appalachia, the mental health profession, and–if the multiple appearances of dead people in rivers are any indication–Raymond Carver’s story “So Much Water, So Close to Home.”

My issue was that, with exceptions, my general reading experience was that of being told. Yes, I realize that may even have been the point. Heck, in the story “We Were Wonder Scouts,” we’re told a story which has a scene in which a secondary character tells a story. But the approach is double-edged. There’s no question Ludwigsen has mad storytelling skills. But I didn’t always feel the sort of tension I like to feel in short-short stories.

The exceptions really touch me, though. “Mom in the Misted Lands” had such a poignancy in its telling and in its theme. “The Ghost Factory” hit a different spot, giving me a (pleasantly!) sickening “There, but for the grace…” feeling.

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Quickie Review: BEFORE THE INCAL

Before the IncalBefore the Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book almost defies your expectations of a prequel for The Incal. Still, you get the origins of pathetic Class “R” detective John DiFool, you see the byzantine and surreal chain of events that push him directly to his role in that story, and you see in the last chapter–which I personally could’ve done without–wherein Jodo feels the need to show every other character in The Incal and how they’re positioned to take up their roles in that book. But that doesn’t take away from how brilliantly the Jodoverse was fleshed out by Zoran Janjetov in true Moebius-like fashion. And while this story is a significantly lighter on spiritual concepts than The Incal, Jodo does a great job highlighting the existential and practical suffering of a world which lacks the spiritual.

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Quickie Review: IF I WOULD LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND: STORIES

Just thought I’d start 2015 by catching up on some reviews…

If I Would Leave Myself Behind: StoriesIf I Would Leave Myself Behind: Stories by Lauren Becker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The writing in this collection of flash pieces captured me. I got so caught up in the moment by the oft-times brutal economy of language, of the images of despair, ferocity, hope, and survival that I was pretty breathless by the time I was done with it. So much so that when I try to sit down and wrote about the collection in aggregate, I feel like I somehow missed the forest for the trees and so I’d reopen the book, go back over a few pieces, only to find myself breathless again. I’ve done this three or four times now, so here, 5 out of 5 already!

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Quickie Review: SYLLABUS: NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL PROFESSOR

Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental ProfessorSyllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first sought out Barry’s comics years ago because Filipina! Okay, part-Filipina but enough to hook me with a panel of an elderly woman, sitting on a couch with one elbow resting on her raised knee, declaring “Ay, nako!” But Syllabus was my first encounter with one of Barry’s artistic how-to books. It’s a compilation of syllabi, courses, and exercises she’s used in the various classes she teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Other artistic how-to books emphasize the importance of play, but this is the first one I’ve read that has shown me exactly how to leverage that idea. Barry’s thesis is that when we were drawing or writing as children, the last thing on our minds was whether or not we were creating works of art; at least in my case, she’s right. And thus, I get something extremely valuable from this book: a method for RE-training myself to suspend any judgement at all about writing as I’m writing. (That stuff is for editing and polishing later.)

Syllabus gets 5 stars because after a mere two weeks, the exercises within–more or less in practice; definitely in principle–have already yielded dividends as far as filling some of the gaps in my writing practice that I’ve been struggling with since the day I started. I can feel the techniques reshaping my artistic process the way I used to feel muscles being shaped while working out (another experience I haven’t had in awhile), and it feels great!

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Quickie Review: ILO ILO (2013)

A screening of this Canne Caméra d’Or-winning film was hosted by the dayjob and I went, having prepared myself to go all Hooper from Chasing Amy during the Skype Q&A with Singaporean director Anthony Chen. But this film about a Hong Kong family who takes on a Filipina maid during the Asian financial meltdown of 1997 thankfully wasn’t rage inducing.

During the Q&A, the director mentioned having been taken to task for not providing any critique of the OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) system. I was just happy that we didn’t get either of the two “typical” OFW horror stories–Filipinas being physically or sexually victimized, or victimizing the families they work for, stealing money, abusing children and elders, etc. Hell, I half-expected Teresa (the maid) to have some anting-anting which makes her some Asian Mary Poppins who teaches young Jiale about, I dunno, love and family or somesuch. 

(She probably would have if this was some Hollywood film.)

Anyway, I’m fine that the film wasn’t about the plight of OFWs for two reasons. One, I think Chen gives a pretty even-handed representation of the part most people play in that whole system, in a way which jives with the memories I’ve had as a child observing Filipinas who were brought over to the United States to help with the families of other Filipinos. And two, that kind of message would’ve taken away from the film’s focus on the compelling study of how four very different people cope against forces outside their control.

5 out of 5.

Quickie Review: THE ONE I LOVE (2014)

If I had it to do over, I’d Netflix this one but I definitely wouldn’t pass it up. If you liked 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, you’ll probably like The One I Love. There’s something to be said for a movie that resists being described in other reviews because to do so even in the slightest would spoil it.

Other reviews have noted similarities to (and the film actually name-checks) The Twilight Zone, and it does so as more than simply a code for “something freaky’s going on here.” The film’s plot absolutely feels like something out of a Richard Matheson episode. And of course, I can’t even reference which Matheson episodes came to mind as I watched this, because spoilers.
The one thing this film has over a Twilight Zone episode is the feeling the film’s resolution leaves me with, which I can only describe as the same feeling described by Bruce Sterling in his oft discussed and debated definition of “slipstream,” namely “…a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”  If slipstream is that form which is, as it’s said, “some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly anti-real” then I’d definitely call this a slipstream film.