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Book Review: ‘A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance,’ by Dr., Naveen Sridhar

9781463684372_p0_v1_s260x420Article first published as Book Review: ‘A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance’ by Dr. Naveen Sridhar on Blogcritics, where I’ve logged seven other reviews this month.  Movies: 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal,  The Pierre Etaix Collection, the Vietnamese nail-salon melodrama Touch, and the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me;  a new translation of Sakyo Komatsu’s classic (but really boring) 1960s sci-fi novel Virus: The Day of Resurrection; a reissue series of three Swamp Dogg albums from the early 1970s; and a couple of episodes of River Monsters. This list doesn’t include the weekly writing I do over at DCist, and the outlet I’ll start writing for any day now, Spectrum Culture.

The art of ventriloquism can seem Sisyphean in nature. An apprentice works long and hard on vocal technique and hones routines for comedy audiences prone to heckling, all in order to find their creative voice through the plaster jaws of a blank-eyed familiar. The field has been the subject of a pair of documentaries in the past few years. I’m no Dummy looks at the history of the field through vent greats like Paul Winchell and Senor Wences to contemporaries like Jeff Dunham. Dumbstruck is a moving study of struggling unknowns. Both films emphasize the hard work of throwing your voice, but viewers of the latter film, when faced with the vents who didn’t make it, or haven’t yet … well you can’t blame audiences for finding them a bit creepy.

Ventriloquism is loaded with a stigma of uncoolness. When is the last time you saw a hipster ventriloquist? But more than just square, the ventriloquist often comes off as strange. The travel guide Buenos AIires Bizarrohas a whole chapter on the city’s vent scene. Ventriloquist instruction goes even further into the unknown, culminating in recordings like this mysterious instruction to Throw Your Voice.

Despite these hurdles of societal acceptance, throwing your voice is an intriguing creative outlet. Everyone puts on a mask when talking to strangers; the vent simply externalizes this mask. Several years ago, I was stuck on a writing project when I happened on a jawless ventriloquist dummy on eBay. I called him Mmrma, which is how I imagined a jawless dummy would struggle through the sound of the name Mortimer. With my dummy in hand, I found my story, throwing my literary voice through this damaged conduit. But what if I actually wanted to learn how to use it?

Mmrma, a dummy from the reviewer's personal collection.

Mmrma, a dummy from the reviewer’s personal collection.

I strongly suggest that would-be practitioners of the art consult a new guide to ventriloquism. Dr. Naveen Sridhar earnestly takes the art seriously, even making apologies in an eloquent preface to his book A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance. Sridhar does not make any false promises, and admits that he cannot guarantee that one can learn the art from his book, or any book for that matter. He answers an issue that had never occurred to me: for those worried that such knowledge may “fall into the wrong hands,” Sridhar assures them that “whether it would seduce less serious dilettantes to abuse the art, proliferating it and making it profane, I believe such a fear is unfounded.”

This is a good example of the author’s elegant if slightly awkward language. Sridhar writes with a kind of old-fashioned formality that makes one imagine the book as not a 21st century release but a musty nineteenth-century edition with marbled endpapers and mild foxing. Such is his literary ventriloquism. This formality also lends itself to clarity: He cannot guarantee success, but his instructions, and diagrams, are easy to follow.

The technical aspects of ventriloquism may not appeal to the casual reader, but his tutelage also provides helpful guides to life. In a section on dealing with hecklers, Dr. Sridhar offers his optimistic worldview”All men and women are by nature peaceful and happy.” I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to take up a ventriloquist dummy right there.

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A Review of Harmony Korine’s Book, A Crackup at the Race Riots, Bridging Conventional Critical Practices with Korine’s Fragmented Methodology

condosArticle first published as Book Review: A Crackup at the Race Riots by Harmony Korine on Blogcritics.

1. Photographer Larry Clark is best known for the iconic photobook Tulsa, a document of sex, drugs, and violence among young people in Oklahoma. Clark’s 1971 book was accused of exploiting his young charges, and Clark’s admission that he partied with his subjects runs a fine line between documentary and bad-boy indulgence. It seems a natural that Clark would give Harmony Korine his first shot of notoriety. Korine wrote the screenplay for Clark’s 1995 movie Kids, an expose/possible exploitation of another generation of teenage sex and drugs.

2. A dwarf in a Ku Klux Klan hood has AIDS.

3. Korine has since been a kind of cause célèbre, making difficult and some would say self-indulgent movies under the forgiving auspices of independent cinema. He has notable defenders, most prominent among them being director Werner Herzog. Herzog has appeared in three of Korine’s films, and contributes a blurb to the Drag City reissue of Korine’s episodic novel A Crack-Up at the Race Riots . “I was struck from the very beginning that there is a totally independent and new voice in writing. I believe that [he] is a great talent as a writer.”

4. Hand-written notes on celebrities and their muffs reproduced in facsimile evoking the DIY essence of the fanzine as well as its self-indulgence.

5. The writer-director’s latest film Spring Breakers, makes a play for mainstream acceptance but is still very much of a piece with his bad boy sensibilities. The publicity machine made big news out of the fact that he cast a pair or former teen stars (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) along with his wife in an exploitative look at the annual bacchanal, which Korine both revels and despises.

6. Incestuous suicide note, one of a series of eleven with space for the reader’s signature.

7. So now seems a good time for Drag City to revisit Korine’s 1998 book. The fragmented format and edgy attitude of Korine’s “novel” owes a lot to Kathy Acker’s form-busting fiction . But however you may feel about Acker’s work. it seems to spring from a personal, tortured vision. Crackup seems like the indulgent notes of a wunderkind who thinks that every one of his utterances is worth preserving for posterity. It’s not.

8. That said, I liked Spring Breakers.

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Photobook review: Photo Journalism (Getty Images), edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson

Article first published as Book Review: Photo Journalism (Getty Images), Edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson on Blogcritics.

This week’s big news story for pop culture aficionados was the appearance of a newly verified photo of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. The image is only the third verified photo of this elusive figure, who as the story goes sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the talent that made him a musical icon. If anybody’s name should lead that headline it should be Johnson’s. But at least one photo industry report led not with the image’s subject, but with a name that has become, for better or worse, synonymous with images – and image licensing: Getty.

Verification controversy aside, Getty Images is one of the main providers of digital images. Not any specific kind of images, but simply images, and the breadth that such generality suggests is daunting. It means pictures from the latest Hollywood product to stock images as mundane as an artfully prepared double bacon cheeseburger, but also editorial images which over the years have defined the news.

We live in a conflicted age of image making. On the one hand, more images than ever are experienced in bits and bytes, on a computer screen or a smartphone. On the other, we live in a golden age of the photo book, where more and more excellent monographs are presented in ways that further not only the art of photography but the art of the book. Into this environment walks a massive 800-page tome. 

Photo Journalism (Getty Images), edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson for h.f. ullman , is arranged chronologically and by themes like Revolutions, Entertainment, the Third Reich and the Role of Women. From the arrival of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, to the appalling images that came out of Abu Ghraib; from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse, Getty has it. This doorstopper of a photo book samples nearly two centuries of newsmakers as featured in the vast coffers of Getty Images. 

The book has the kind of structure useful in a reference book. But even though I am a voracious consumer of images and photo books, Photo Journalism feels dry and somehow unsurprising. The publishers tried to squeeze too many images into crowded layouts. Given the format, which isn’t as massive, as, say, Taschen’s excellent London: Portrait of a City, it would have been better to use fewer images in layouts that allowed those images to dominate a page spread. The book seems tailored to an internet attention-span, but is too unwieldy to comfortably explore the way one can effortlessly browse a web site.

I wish there had been some way to tackle the collection with more serendipity -an app that pulls up a random image for the viewer would be a way to be continually surprised by the breadth of this collection. The determined photography lover will certainly find arresting images in Photo Journalism, but more than likely the clunky format will send them looking for a better presentation of the image — online.

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Photobook Review: Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt

Courtesy of Taschen

Courtesy of Taschen

Article first published as Book Review: Neue Welt by Wolfgang Tillmans on Blogcritics.

A picture is worth a thousand words,  so the old saying goes, but words can say something too. The title of Wolfgang Tillmans’ new monograph, his fourth book for Taschen, doesn’t say enough. Neither do the pictures.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt  (New Work) is a seemingly generic title. A long interview with Tillmans by Beatrix Ruf coaxes meaning from these brief syllables, finding resonance with a 1928 monograph by Albert Renger-Patzsch, The World is Beautiful. Tillmans expounds at length about digital versus analog photography and simply regards the digital camera as a different tool, the higher resolution a reflection of the higher resolution of a highly stimulated world. But his summation of this phase in his career could be said by any other photographer: he’s “trying out what the camera can do for me, what I can do for it.”

The images selected for Neue Welt reflect a wide subject range but little depth. Portraits from exotic lands, Family of Man-style images of humanity, are juxtaposed with cold details of cars, sinister banality a la John Gossage, and intermittent abstractions. Color blocks and starlit night skies seem to set up a concept that this New Work encompasses everything. What does it all add up to? The scope of Tillman’s work is ordinary but brings all these images no matter the subject into the same continuum, as if he is channeling all the different schools of the history of photography.

It’s an admirable concept but also unfocused. Neue Welt suggests new eyes, the eyes of a human being trying to take in all manner of stimulus and creating order and sense and meaning out of it. But while I am a fan of the banal school of photography placing these images in context with human faces does not elevate the banality so much as bring down the humanity to a banal level – it’s just another image, whether it’s in Tasmania or London.

Tillmans has recently presented his images in galleries as unframed prints hung flat from gallery walls. Perhaps this is a commentary on the way art consumers expect to have art framed and contextualized, but it’s also comes off as lazy. Tillmans is clearly a hard working, globe trotting image maker, and that his New Work seems lazy could be a reflection on his aesthetic or on the over stimulated world that he embraces and critiques.

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Book Review: The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker

Article first published as Book Review: The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker on Blogcritics.

Nicholson Baker’s literary career began with the auspicious fiction debut The Mezzanine (1988), a stream-of-consciousness novella that takes place entirely in the narrator’s mind as he rides an escalator. And what a fertile mind, musing on the history of the milk carton and the straw in prose that conveyed obsession not as tedium but the insatiable curiosity of the brain. This curiosity is evident throughout Baker’s fiction, including last year’s surreal erotic novel House of Holes. But it also runs through his nonfiction.

The title of Baker’s latest collection of essays, The Way the World Works,  sums up what the writer does, and what Baker does in his obsessive, curious, always readable fashion. The book compiles essays that go back to the 1990s, and is divided into six sections. “Life” is obviously autobiographical, and its chronology dryly follows an intermittent and episodic path through the author’s experience. “Reading” collects prose about books as well as book introductions, including a preface to Abelardo Morrell’s photo book,  A Book of Books. But Baker’s passions really kick in during the section, “Libraries and Newspapers.”

Baker’s non-fiction book Double Fold, now a decade old, looked into what he and many others saw as a destructive practice of libraries looking to the future by destroying the past, in the form of card catalogs and bound newspaper volumes. This section updates this work and follows Baker’s experience trying to save a library system’s card catalog as well as preventing it from discarding valuable books that future-minded new administrators deemed useless.

A section on “Technology” continues Baker’s admiration for a gentler time, as a travelogue of Venice develops from admiration of gondolas to a lament at the speedboats that threaten to overwhelm the city’s fabled canals. Baker has mixed feelings about the Kindle, and it may be ironic that this book is available as an eBook, but in whatever format it’s read, Baker’s observant eye lives up to its title with his dryly inquisitive humor.

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