Friday, January 3, 2014


Lester Bangs is one of those writers who is overrated by his admirers, and underrated by everyone else. As a rock critic during the earliest days of Rolling Stone, and later the editor of Creem, Bangs let loose a torrent of words during the 1970s, covering everything from the deaths of Elvis and Jim Morrison, to the blossoming of punk rock. He died young, at 33, of an accidental drug overdose. As a kid, I thought he was pretty interesting. I liked the way he championed garage rock, and how he used his columns as a platform for other topics. A review of an album by The MC5 could turn into a tangent about whatever was on his mind that day. I also recall an interview he did with Dick Clark which I still consider one of the best interviews I've ever read. I outgrew Bangs, though.  Not in a bad way, of course, but in the way that one outgrows a certain hairstyle, or having a  'Frampton Comes Alive' poster on one's bedroom wall. One moves on. One reads different things. One learns that hating Emerson, Lake & Palmer is not necessarily the earmark of a  profound thinker. Apparently, though, as we learn from Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs, Bangs' old pals from El Cajon, CA still revere him.  Deservedly so, I'd say, even if in retrospect Bangs doesn't seem like the trailblazer he's purported to be.

Grossmont College instructor Raul Sandelin put the documentary together,  collecting some interesting anecdotes from fellows who knew Bangs during his teen years. From them we gather that Bangs was a curious sort, interested in all kinds of literature and music, but was a contrary type, losing interest in things as soon as they became popular. In other words, he was a typical fanboy, albeit a hyper, overly opinionated one.  Bangs' biographer Jim Derogatis is all over the movie. Apparently, he's the keeper of the flame regarding all things Bangsian, but it's a bit of a stretch when Derogatis starts mentioning Bangs in the same breath as Oscar Wilde.

The film is such a labor of love that I hesitate to say anything bad about it, but what the hell, Bangs never held back, so in his honor, I won't either. The main gripe is that Bangs' material doesn't sound great when it's read out loud. His writing was often written from a dizzying height, fueled by whatever drugs he was on. It can work when you're reading it, because it's as if his mind is seeping into your mind. But when read aloud it sounds heavy and turgid, particularly since most of the material used in the movie is from his early days, which were heavily inspired by the beat writers of the 1950s, with a dash of Hunter Thompson. His later material was tighter and more professional (in my opinion, far better than his early writing), but since this film is about his formative years in El Cajon, Sandelin sticks with the early stuff.

There's also a monotony that sets in after a while, for most of the people interviewed here say the same thing. By the fourth or fifth time you've heard someone say, "Lester was searching for authenticity," you feel like taking some Darvon and jumping from a rooftop.  Worst of all, Bangs' writing is read here by San Diego music critic Jon Kanis, who sounds like Dale Gribble from the old Fox 'King of the Hill' cartoon. Kanis' reading is unbearable.

Still, it's a well-meaning tribute to a largely forgotten writer.  If his buddies from El Cajon don't stick up for him, who will? This is particularly true now, when gossip passes for journalism, and looking at pictures passes for reading.  

I'll recommend Box Full of Rocks. Since it's not playing anywhere and not available on DVD, here's a link to the Grossmont College website:

It runs about 90 minutes. Go for it. After all, what else are you doing today besides reading my crap?

Insidious: Chapter 2 sees director James Wan back to his old tricks, lifting scenes and images from other movies, shuffling them around in hopes that contemporary  audiences are so ignorant that they don't realize they're watching a rehash.  In the past, he lifted from Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. For this one, he lifts from The Shining and Psycho. At least he's stealing from better movies.

In the first Insidious, family man Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) was forced into a mysterious nether world called "the further," to rescue his son from evil spirits. In this sequel, he's behaving strangely, as if the evil entities have followed him back into this world. Wan gives us all the usual stuff - video tapes with unexplained images, people looking into mirrors and seeing strange things, toys that seem to have a life of their own, spooky children, and creaky sound effects. Wilson chases his wife with a baseball bat, smashing at doors until I half-expected him to say "Here's Johnny." There's even a serial killer who wears a dress and has a domineering mother. Imagine that? This was hackneyed material 30 years ago, but Wan gets away with it. His films are incredibly popular.  What's disappointing about this movie is that Wan also directed The Conjuring this year, which was a much more inspired film. True, The Conjuring  was as derivative as anything else Wan does, but it was lively and moving. This film feels lazy.

There is one bright spot here, and that's the musical score by Joseph Bishara. It's soaring when it needs to be, haunting at times, and in some scenes the strings sound like they're emitting the screams of old souls spinning in their graves. Bishara's approach to scoring a horror film feels fresh, while Wan seems stuck on the genre's well-worn paths.

Director Michel Gondry, most known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is certainly not bound by tradition.  His new documentary Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky, is the most beguiling documentary to come out in recent times.

Gondry sat with activist Chomsky for years discussing topics ranging from religion to science to language, to the mystery of inspiration.  Their dialogue is presented here in animated form, with Gondry creating childlike illustrations to amplify Chomsky's compelling ideas and thoughts. The drama comes from Gondry's struggle with the English language, and his occasional failure to make his thoughts clear to Chomsky. Chomsky is patient, and there's a kindness that emanates from him. Watching this film felt like being in the next room, listening in to a conversation that you wouldn't ordinarily be part of, yet you can't stop listening. Gondry's drawings, cartoonish and surreal, are what we might imagine in our heads as we try to follow the high-blown topics.

Particularly moving is when Chomsky chooses not to discuss his late wife, uncomfortable with such a sad subject. Gondry responds with a drawing of Chomsky and his wife as a childlike bride and groom, walking hand in hand through a surreal woodland area, reminding me of John Updike's description of himself and his first wife, "hand in hand, smaller than Hansel and Gretel." I liked this documentary, particularly when Chomsky says he doesn't give much thought to happiness. What a novel idea! Especially now, when so many people not only treat happiness as an inalienable right, but look down on those who don't chase it like the Holy Grail.


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