Hi guys! It’s Burl here with a question for you all! Do you guys have any incredibly specific micro-genres that you feel you might be the only fan in the world of? I’ll give you an example! I love action or horror movies from the 1970s that are set in the American southwest! That means I love Charley Varrick, The Gauntlet, The Car, The Devil’s Rain, Race With The Devil, and Mr. Majestyk not only for their own virtues, which are considerable, but because they fit into a subgenre I’ve identified as mine alone, and that fact makes me love them and the genre all the more! I also love literature that involves British people in foreign lands, but only when the focus is non-colonial; outsider art where the people have not only made all the art, but have built the buildings which house it; and psychedelic folk-rock from the years 1970 through 1972!
What are your own treasured super-specific genres?
I have a real soft spot for singer-songwriter songs about good books or movies. When I was a teenager, that led me to “filk,” the amateur folk music of science-fiction conventions, which heavily trended toward people writing and singing songs about their favorite stories or films. Often, those songs would lead me to authors or movies I'd never heard of, so they served a valuable proselytizing function, but it was just as gratifying to hear a song about something I already liked, and realize that someone shared my pleasure in that work of art so much that they created their own artistic tribute to it. As an older and more discerning listener, I mostly can’t take filk’s high hit-to-miss quality ratio, but there are a few people out there producing it at a professional level, and it’s still a joy to run across something like Vixy & Tony’s “Mal’s Song,” a Firefly fan tribute that incorporates and expands on the lyrics of the theme song, or Tom Smith’s “Hellraiser,” which goes deeper and more lovingly into Clive Barker’s Hellraiser mythos than the actual movies do. (His “Operation Desert Storm,” about the adventures of Wile E. Coyote, is also a hoot.) And I perk up shamefully whenever A.V. Club buddy “Weird Al” Yankovic puts out a song like “The Saga Begins” or “Ode To A Superhero.” Come to think of it, I have a soft spot in general for songs that tell complete start-to-finish stories, even if they’re in genres or styles I’m otherwise not very interested in. Which is what led to our massive songs as good as short stories Inventory a couple years back. Actually, our upcoming Inventory book similarly has a list of songs inspired by—but not appearing in—movies, and there are a lot of fun ones on that list too.
If I took a lot of time to think about this question, I’d probably have a few dozen answers; I am nothing if not obsessive about my tastes, and there’s probably a lot more thematic threads running through my favorite media than I’ve ever bothered to identify. That said, a few come immediately to mind, and the one that’s the most recognizable is noir films featuring a doomed heist. These are ones where some mastermind puts together the perfect team to commit an elaborate caper with a massive payoff, but noir being noir, something goes horribly wrong and the team falls apart one by one. Among the many examples: The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle, Bob Le Flambeur, Rififi, and Roadblock. I also have a weakness for novels which feature highbrow philosophy and/or theory in an incongruous context, like Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, Robert Grudin’s Book, Tibor Fischer’s The Thought Gang, and Georges Perec’s La Vie: Mode D’emploi. Unfortunately, it’s sort of a difficult concept to explain, so you’ll have to just take my word for it. Finally, and for even more inexplicable reasons, I have long wanted to put together a playlist of old country and folk songs about mules, like “Mule Train,” “Muleskinner Blues,” “Mule On The Mount,” and “Two Mules To Pull This Wagon.” Have I mentioned that I don’t get out much?
Although it’s a laughably narrow vein to mine, I became obsessed at a young age with left-wing British post-punk of the mid-’80s. Nothing artsy or abstruse, but the more straightforward (and hook-oriented) rock from that time and place that tried to revive whatever amount of revolutionary spirit that punk rock stirred up the decade before. The first band that hooked me was The Housemartins, whose video for the jangly anthem “Happy Hour” used to be played regularly on Denver’s TeleTunes video show when I was in high school. After buying their albums and seeing how rabidly socialist they were, I followed the paper trail—not easy back in the pre-Internet days—and unearthed acts like the punky Newtown Neurotics, the soulful Redskins, the blistering New Model Army, and the now-legendary Billy Bragg, all of whom shared much of the unpretentious, left-wing approach of The Housemartins. Another micro-genre I still love is the little-known, scarcely documented new-wave revival of the ’90s. Granted, that decade saw the so-called New Wave Of New Wave make a brief splash in England, but I’m talking about the ragtag, unaffiliated handful of American groups that resurrected the ’80s before its corpse was even cold—among them Satisfact (featuring Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green), Long Hind Legs (an Unwound side project), Romania (over-the-top nü-romantics), the should’ve-been-huge Pulsars, and even the synth-wielding Christian cheeseballs Joy Electric. Each crafted some quirky form of angular, retroactive pop that owed allegiance to The Cure, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, The Psychedelic Furs, and so on, long before it became cool again to love those bands.
This might be too broad a genre to answer ol’ Burl’s question, but I think I’d watch pretty much any movie about a hitman. Or hitwoman, I guess. Or assassin in general. Amid the nonsense lyrics in Beck’s “Hotwax,” there’s the line “wishin’ I was livin’ like a hitman,” which always struck me. When I was 12, it seems like the coolest job in the world, and most hitmen movies even have a sort of moral compass: Either the über-cool hitman is doomed to fail (like Bruce Willis in The Jackal) or maybe he’s convinced himself that he’s doing the wrong thing in life (like John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank) or maybe he only kills truly bad people. (Right…) This enjoyment even explains my not-hatred for the movie Hitman, which I described at length in an installment of I Watched This On Purpose. (And going back and reading it, I realize I also used that Beck quote. Stealing from myself stealing from Beck… I should put out a contract on myself.) What else proves my point that hitmen are the best? Pulp Fiction. The Sopranos. The Terminator. La Femme Nikita. Collateral. Motherfucking Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. The list goes on and on, and they’re pretty much all watchable, if not amazing.
I turned my fetishistic appreciation of movies with scenes set in grocery stores into a very early Inventory (so many exclusions, including Mr. Mom!), but I’ve got a specific musical soft spot for songs about cities and other geographical locations. Before my great iTunes crash early last year, I had an exhaustive playlist of songs about places, which I’m currently rebuilding as a series of smaller playlists. The first stretches from one coast of America to the other, from Blossom Dearie’s “Rhode Island Is Famous For You” to The Thrills’ “Big Sur.” (Somewhere in the middle is Randy Newman’s near-to-my-heart “Dayton, Ohio 1903.”) I’m not sure where this comes from, but I do know the first time I heard Frank Sinatra’s globe-spanning Come Fly With Me, I found one of my favorite albums.
I’ve pitched an A.V. Club Inventory on one of my favorite micro-genres—male-on-male country love songs—at least three times, to no avail, so now is as good a time as any to sound off on it. I’m not taking about romantic love songs here; I’m talking about songs where a defiantly heterosexual male professes deep, profound, almost worshipful admiration and affection for another dude. Kris Kristofferson wrote a bunch of them in the early ’70s, most notably “The Pilgrim Chapter 33”—which is about Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Chris Gantry, and 27 other loveable maniacs—but there’s also Willie Nelson’s “Me And Paul,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me.” Most of these songs involve hitchhiking, whiskey-drinking, and other acts of weathered bad-assery, so nobody is accusing anybody of not being macho manly men here. But there’s something undeniably moving about guys raising a glass to bros who stood by them, even if that means rolling around in the gutter.
Before you’re old enough to have much of an opinion/voice about the music you hear, you’re at the mercy of what your parents play. So almost a decade ago, I made a compilation called Before I Knew What Sucked, which featured exclusively the easy-listening gems of the late ’70s and early ’80s I remembered from childhood. In most of the cases, I didn’t know the artist's name or the song title, so I spent a lot of time searching for lyrics and tracking down the songs online. Some were pretty easy to figure out, like Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” Others, like The Alan Parsons Project’s “Time” and Bertie Higgins’ “Key Largo,” were tougher to figure out. (Thank God for King Of The Hill’s Chuck Mangione obsession—I’m not sure I ever would have found “Feels So Good” otherwise.) The comp has some legitimate jams; I’ll vehemently defend the honor of Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” and Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” (which is from 1969, but still fits). Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader Of The Band”? Not so much. Regardless, it’s fun to hear those songs and be taken pack to a specific time and place. (And needless to say, I was delighted when Yacht Rock appeared a few years later.)
I can’t call myself an expert, but I am inexplicably drawn to graphic non-fiction. It’s a love affair that started with Rick Geary’s wonderful Treasury Of Victorian Murder series, detailed explorations of famous cases like Lizzy Borden, Jack the Ripper, and my favorite, the assassination of President Garfield. (Geary moved on to the 20th century with his latest series, and if anything, the stories have gotten sadder and more resonant as the age of celebrity approaches its apex.) Putting aside the large subfield of graphic autobiography (which for the purposes of this answer, I’m disallowing), most non-fiction comic books are about comic books—histories, pedagogical aids, criticism, guides to drawing them. But the field of graphic biography, current events, and history is growing; consider the acclaimed 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, and recent books covering Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, and Ronald Reagan. My favorite example might not exactly fit, because it was a single-issue comic rather than a novel-sized work, but I can’t get Radio: An Illustrated Guide, a tutorial on producing a segment for This American Life drawn by Jessica Abel, out of my head; its loving delineation of technology and technique is exactly why graphic non-fiction appeals to me. My birthday is coming up, and The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation would really be the perfect gift, if I may drop a hint.
When I page through the TCM guide I each month, I circle all movies that appear to be domestic comedies and melodramas from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. For the most part, stories about families and suburban/small-town living were the province of television back then (and even now, really), and thanks to syndication, I grew up with the TV version of American family life. I enjoy comparing the version I know with the more expensive and frequently more sophisticated Hollywood version, whether it be in a comedy like Father Was A Fullback or a dark drama like Bigger Than Life. And I enjoy comparing the past to now: looking at the houses, the schools, the grocery stores, the offices, and the restaurants, and seeing how much of the way my parents and grandparents lived has survived the past half-century of change.
My initial response to this question was, “Hey, I should talk about my fascination with the American Library Association’s lists of frequently challenged books,” but then I remembered it’s not the books I’m interested in (outside of personal favorites like Catcher In The Rye and The Witches) but the stories surrounding the books and the librarians fighting to keep them on the shelves. Then Leonard mentioned his “mule song playlist,” and my mind jumped to my growing iTunes playlist of songs that sound like refugees from Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. Remain In Light is the kind of record I prize for its singular sound, yet can’t help but wish that more popular music had followed its cues; as such, whenever I hear a song that gets stuck in a moody, polyrhythmic groove (like “Love Is New” by Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning, which recalls the Heads’ live intro to “Crosseyed And Painless”) with shimmering “Once In A Lifetime” synths (LCD Soundsystem’s “Yr City’s A Sucker”) or strangled, Adrian Belew-esque guitar interludes (Prince’s “All The Critics Love U In New York”), into the playlist it goes. I also have this half-cocked concept about musicians and bands whose entire careers could be summed up by a single Beatles song, but that catalogue of artists only has one entry so far: Of Montreal, whose early character sketches, thick harmonies, liberal use of kazoo, playful psychedelia, and eventual descent into sexual abandon could all be inspired by “Lovely Rita.”
It’s not really that small a genre, but I dearly love the later movies in genre franchises, in a way that is generally completely unjustifiable based on their actual merit. Over the last week, I re-watched the Planet Of The Apes film series with friends, and while the first is still a two-fisted classic, the kind of flick that has its heart in its mouth for the entirety of its running time with absolutely no shame, I’m as fond of the sequels as I am of the original, even though none of them are as strong. Partly it’s that the “Dammit, we’re trying to say something here!” feeling in the original lasts for the run of the franchise. (And the last two movies especially deal with race in a way that, for all its clumsiness, is still more honest and forthright than most modern films on the subject ever get.) Partly, it’s the tortured logic that the writers have to go through with each entry to somehow hold the plot together. It’s the latter that appeals to me in stuff like the Nightmare On Elm Street movies, some of the Friday The 13th stuff, and even the Bond films. Not all of these hold true to a single continuity, but most tend to be at least aware enough of what came before to try nodding in that direction, and I love the weird, tenuous conception of reality those nods provide. It’s like getting to watch a game of Telephone that starts with “Mom kills counselors for revenge” and ends up at “Slug from hell must be killed by a relative,” only instead of just whispering, the end results are thrown up on the big screen.
When I think of what John Lennon is most typically loved for, it seems to be for message-y songs like "Imagine," sentimental ballads like "In My Life," or sonic experiments like "Strawberry Fields Forever." However, one of my favored microgenres (the larger genre being The Beatles in general) consists of sad-yet-upbeat John Lennon songs. Lennon said in interviews that he considers "Help!" to be one of his best, and I agree—the ability to take a song with miserable subject matter like "Help!" or "I'm A Loser" or "Nowhere Man" and turn it into a cheery-sounding tune was perhaps his (and the band's) greatest talent. Not only do they force you to consider the melancholy in a happy-sounding tune, or, conversely, to tap your toe to sad lyrics, overall they just end up being some of the band's finest songs.