Monday, February 28, 2011

Nick Tosches, revisited

I've been thinking about Nick Tosches lately, his past and future.  Here's a review I wrote of The Nick Tosches Reader that originally ran ten years ago, in a slightly edited version, in The Georgia Review:

When I read Nick Tosches I think of Sal Paradise’s wide-eyed, beatified description of Dean Moriarty early in On the Road: “his dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully.” And I hear William Faulkner from his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, reminding us of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which can alone make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Tosches, whose gritty, unfailingly honest writing has kept readers in touch with the unseemly margins of American culture for three decades, offers a generosity of dingy spirit in his best prose, rescuing figures from obscurity and giving form to the “rhythms of silence and wind,” to quote one of his favorite turns of phrase. Faulkner’s agony and sweat pulse through much of Tosches’ most powerful writing, though I’m just as tempted to describe Tosches as “Dante meets Elmore Leonard.” Dirty grace, indeed.

Readers are likely to be familiar with Tosches through his celebrated 1992 biography of Dean Martin, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, or his recent features in Esquire and Vanity Fair. Longtime fans of rock & roll, especially of the rootsy, boozy kind, no doubt own dog-eared copies of his legendary 1982 Jerry Lee Lewis biography Hellfire and of 1984’s Unsung Heroes of Rock & Roll, a collection whose title reflects Tosches’ obsession with our culture’s shadowy borderlines. Less widely embraced—by a mass audience, if not by critics—are his novels Cut Numbers (1988) and Trinities (1994), and his early rock & roll profiles, interviews, and poems, the last widely scattered over three decades in numerous small-press publications. Da Capo Press continues its impressive 25-year literary recovery mission of liberating out-of-print material by asking Tosches to compile the best of his fiction, poetry, interviews, rock writing, investigative journalism, and criticism. Taken together in The Nick Tosches Reader, this work stands as an impressive introduction and as a staggering collection of writing that, while it may irk, offend, or bore some with its vulgarity and swagger, straddles mightily the line between commercialism and integrity. In both his fiction and nonfiction, Tosches’ consistent preoccupation with our country’s underbelly, along with his meticulous researching, shines a light on the complicated shadows thrown by some of our most popular myth-making cultural machines. From forgotten country singers to infamous European financiers, small-time Jersey crooks to the Mafia, Vegas denizens to rock & rollers, Tosches’ many subjects move stealthily; standing near them, he watches, listens, and gives shape to his own varieties of myth.

Reviewing such a compendium is difficult. I am tempted to discuss only the writing itself, ignoring the book’s shape and purpose. After all, The Nick Tosches Reader urges one to take a look at a long career, but it also puts that career in context. Here Tosches himself is the arbiter, and he selects widely if not exhaustively, purposefully ignoring, for example, his early-eighties “pop bio” of Hall and Oates, written in haste and not without embarrassment to pay off back taxes. Like his writing, his editorial pace here is cool and measured, surveying in broad, unhurried chronology a career begun on the side in low-circulation men’s magazines and currently commanding competitive six figure advances from New York publishing houses.

And one of the merits of this book is that it reminds us of the great and honest writing that can occur without the grace of the publishing world’s attention. Tosches, who admits to having had only ten dollars left in his bank account at an early point in his life, began his career as a dogged, committed writer and documentarian, bouncing around Greenwich Village with its many dim bars and grog-fueled lifestyles, scraping together a living. For him, the big payday came in the nineties, but this was after two decades of steady, purposeful, and stubborn writing, a testament to his powerful work ethic and focus. Early in the Reader, Tosches quotes a Hollywood director as saying, “If you’re going to be a whore, be a high-priced whore.” Tosches certainly has followed this advice—a recent profile in Salon.com admires Tosches’ expensive custom-made loafers nearly as much as his literary output—and he even quotes a particularly mercenary (and funny) bromide from Faulkner as the Reader’s epigraph: “‘Now Mr. Faulkner,’ she said, ‘what were you thinking of when you wrote that?’ ‘Money,’ he replied.” To this reviewer, such dollar-mongering is instructive and smart: write religiously, work very hard, trust your writerly instincts, and you too might command lush contracts and movie rights.

Or, maybe not. But lack of commercial guarantees never stopped Tosches. The best pieces here are marked by the author’s fierce enthusiasm about, dedication to, and respect for his subjects. The Reader displays Tosches’ tireless approach to writing and research: infamously, he types with one finger, and such a resolute manner is echoed in the steely, lively tone of his best writing, a kind of concentrated dramatizing that keeps the focus on the subject while the author’s voice and persona fuel and move the piece. Tosches, in his desire to truly know his subjects—from seventies downtown punk princess Patti Smith to boxer Sonny Liston, evangelist Jimmy Swaggart to country legend George Jones, Screaming Jay Hawkins to Joe Franklin—goes mano a mano with them, and it’s hard to tell while reading which is the more enjoyable discovery.

As a selected collection should, The Nick Tosches Reader charts the narrative arc of a writing career. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, as the son of a barkeep, Tosches felt the calling of The Divine Comedy and crime novels as passionately as he did that of criminal mischief. He alludes cryptically (and a tad melodramatically) in his introduction to having been left for dead in a city-park lake as a young man; he was not expected to live through the night, but he survived the assault. “Somewhere, early on, in the course of that river of dark night,” he states, “I became a writer.” This collection is testament to the deliberate shaping of a life that language and the imagination (and good ideas and hard work) can accomplish. The best pieces in here prove that the literary endeavor shapes not only fictional lives, but real lives as well.

Because The Nick Tosches Reader ranges far across genres and years, it necessarily weakens in places; its form might best be envisioned as an overstuffed warehouse, not a refined, aesthetically pleasing mansion, and not all of the wares are up to snuff. I’m not a fan of Tosches’ poems; inevitably they read as either relined prose jokes or overblown, antiquated imitations. In a 1998 slam of Raymond Carver's poetry, Tosches sneers that Carver’s verse is of “the most prosaic and mundane kind,” lampooning its “desiccated and self-absorbed preciosity” and metrical lameness. In the next few pages he struts out his own poetry self-importantly, including these winning, and apparently agelessly grand, lines:

Let’s see a show of hands.
I want to know, who among us—
man, woman or beast—
Jerks off standing up.

Tosches amplifies this simple smut with greater success in much of his fiction, particularly his stories. There he celebrates, not without welcome doses of self-deprecation, men’s fixation on sex, women, anal sex, women, and bravado. This macho, carnal milieu that Tosches dramatizes is by definition limited: there is little room for dimensional women in much of his writing (and, a reader cannot help but surmise based on Tosches’ autobiographical pieces here, in his life as well). The reduction of women to sexual availability, packaged in and as semi-pornography, is a caution, of course: it is unfortunate, but representative of a male/female dynamic that interests Tosches (particularly in his fiction) and to which he unfailingly applies characteristic attention to wit, detail, and narrative. In some of his nonfiction profiles of women (Smith, Carly Simon, Deborah Harry) Tosches approaches and engages his subjects with respect and admiration, but this doesn’t eclipse the fact that images of women in the Reader remain essentially flat and coopted, one-dimensional snapshots of lipsticked mouths open or shut. That many of the stories (such as the “Frankie” series co-written with fellow gonzo writer Richard Meltzer) are both funny and erotic is testament to Tosches’s skill at weaving humor and pathos within Penthouse- and Oui-style sex fiction, two magazines for which he occasionally wrote. They paid him, after all.

Because Tosches writes lengthy books, he can only excerpt from them here—for example, he includes only the first chapter from Trinities, a novel of over four hundred pages—and this unfortunate if necessary editing detracts from the epic feel of his book-length fiction. One really only gets a taste for Tosches here, and should search out his novels and biographies. His magazine-length features, on the other hand, work terrifically in this format, and they—in addition to Tosches’ own at-times-arrogant-but-always-candid running commentary—are the Reader’s real pleasures. The aforementioned profile of George Jones (rejected by Tina Brown at The New Yorker and subsequently published in The Journal of Country Music) is a masterpiece of pacing and desire, and both his in memoriam piece on rock & roll writer Lester Bangs and his interview with Jerry Lee Lewis reveal the nearly gentle and compassionate eye that Tosches often trains on those cultural figures whose American-style poignancy so attracts him.

As much as anything, The Nick Tosches Reader celebrates the disparate panorama of contemporary American publishing. In a parallel rescue mission to Tosches’ own interests and concerns—the salvaging and renewing of the forgotten and shadowed—the Reader collects much work that originally appeared in low-circulation journals or fanzines with sorry shelf-lives. Next to his work for mainstream outlets such as Vanity Fair, Esquire, Details, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and publishers like Doubleday and Little, Brown, Tosches places work from criminally ignored (and mostly long-gone) publications such as Fusion, Teenage Wasteland Gazzete, Raunch Rock, Kicks, and Real Crime Digest, not to mention small book-publishing houses. True heroism, this: salvaging from the dustbin of a mimeographed publishing ethos works that might never have seen broader circulation, but deserve it. Kudos to Da Capo.

“He writes not of the heart but of the glands,” warned Faulkner about the writer who doesn’t steep himself in the truths of the human condition. But Tosches writes of both the heart and the glands, giving shape in his hard-bitten yet graceful prose to the marrow of the American spirit and to the marrow of its body—all of its profane, beauteous humor and tragedy, its ineffability, and its perfumed flesh. Nick Tosches should be read.

~~

Since the publication of The Nick Tosches Reader in 2000, Tosches has written the nonfiction books The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000), Where Dead Voices Gather (2001), The Last Opium Den (2002), and King of the Jews (2005), and the novel In The Hand Of Dante (2002).  His work appears regularly in Vanity Fair still, though infrequently of late, and he was recently hired as a columnist by Playboy.  That will be interesting.  He writes and records poems, contributes introductions and/or text to books about subjects that interest him (neglected, out-of-print novels, crime lit, noir photographs, drawings, paintings, etc.), and makes rare public appearances in New York City.  Judging by reviews and customer comments on Amazon, many wish that Tosches would move from his more intensely (and crabbily) self-referential style of late and move outward, generously, toward big subjects and figures that engage him.  In The Hand Of Dante was, in my opinion, a greater conceit than a novel, but its ambition was marvelous.  Regardless of his critical standing and commercial iffiness, Tosches is truly an American original.  And I hope that he lives a long, healthy life and continues to write and publish, and that his crankiness about his beloved Manhattan doesn't eat him up.

According to IMDB, Johnny Depp has bought the film rights to In The Hand Of Dante and will produce, and play Tosches in, an adaptation.  This news is more than a couple of years old, however—a century in Hollywood Development Time—so I don't know what the likelihood is of this happening.  It'd be nice for someone of Depp's stature to shine light on the corners that Tosches writes about, and increasingly lives in.


Photo of Tosches via Crushingly Beautiful.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Origin Story

At the A&P with my mom when I separate from her somewhere, probably heading toward the candy aisle (are there baseball cards here) or the toy aisle, small among the moms and their carts, shyly glancing at other kids, some in pairs, the air-conditioning against the humid outside cooling me but also generating a sadness that I can't name, an intuition toward the artificial and the florescent as stays against something I can't name, when I find myself in the cleaning supplies aisle, inexplicably alone, and look at the looming shelves above me when I see "Pine-scented Lysol," I like pine trees, I saw them in the World Book article about Arkansas where I've decided I want to live, and I make sure no one's looking and I pull down a bottle and unscrew the top and lean in to take a heady whiff of pine—my sinuses instantly assaulted by the ammonia scourge, chemistry's attack, and with my eyes watering and desperately fighting dizziness and nausea and the white noise in my head I manage to put back the bottle and stagger down the aisle, fighting melancholy that said in a voice I understand but can't translate: There's your future.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"The only eye worth talking about"

Dennis Covington, in Salvation On Sand Mountain: Snake Handling And Redemption In Southern Appalachia:
At the heart of the impulse to tell stories is a mystery so profound that even as I begin to speak of it, the hairs on the back of my hand are starting to stand on end.  I believe that the writer has another eye, not a literal eye, but an eye on the inside of his head.  It is the eye with which he sees the imaginary, three-dimensional world where the story he is writing takes place.  But it is also the eye with which the writer beholds the connectedness of things, of past, present, and future.  The writer's literal eyes are like vestigial organs, useless except to record physical details.  The only eye worth talking about is the eye in the middle of the writer's head, the one that casts its pale, sorrowful light backward over the past and forward into the future, taking everything in at once, the whole story, from beginning to end.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Not There

I'm asked sometimes why I write nonfiction rather than fiction.  I've written hundreds of pages about lives other than my own, though on my dark days I wonder if I'm not generous or curious enough about others' lives to be able to imagine them fully.  The truth is, I'm not sure where the autobiographical impulse originates.  It feels as vital and valuable to essay one's life for meaning and sense as it does to conjure a character in a fictional setting, to set her through her paces in revelatory (or non-revelatory) ways.  Peter Ives has said that we do not perceive or write about things as they are, but rather we perceive or write about things as we are; I might add that an autobiographical essayist interprets the world through his or her character as a fiction writer interprets the world through a character he or she creates.

Few photos exist of me between my late teens and early forties.  This was a result of entwined circumstances, some accidental, some cultivated: I didn't own a camera until fairly recently; I'm a bit of a lone-wolf; historically I never aligned myself with a group of friends who took a bunch of pictures, and anyway I tend to shy away from photo taking.  For many years I reveled in what I identified semi-preciously as a maverick streak in me, a willfully contrary stance Against Photos.  As is the case with many personal stances, this was born as much from defensiveness and uncertainty as from values and self-confidence    Amy and I do not have children, who are a source of a generation of family photos and evolutionary exposure(s), and generally we don't feel compelled to take photos of each other, or of ourselves together, something we lament occasionally.

I wonder if my interest in writing autobiographically didn't originate in an attempt to fill in the blanks of my years of photographic absences.  Maybe I write to fill the blank pages in the photo albums I don't own.  There's little proof of me back there, no documents in Polaroid or Instamatic form to insist on it.  And so I write myself into the absences, conjuring with language and memory what light falling onto a light-sensitive surface captures, mentally and imaginatively photo-documenting the past in sentences rather than film.  I don't particularly enjoy looking at photos of myself (who does?) and maybe that's why I prefer the personal essay—the persona essay—where I can morph a bit each time I go back, among personas and Montaigne's many selves, putting the essayistic lie to the photo's tyranny. Or maybe I'm theorizing here out of the worst impulse: to intellectually make amends; to turn away regrets; to make up for absences that can't be filled.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

11607 Every Street

When I was young, maybe 11 or 12, I experienced something novel, soon afterward commonplace, something that everyone feels at one time or another, to one degree or another, but perhaps something that sticks with writers the most.  I was in my parents' car on a long trip from Maryland (to visit my grandparents in western Ohio, I think) and it was dusk, and possessed by that weird, urgent feeling of restlessness I looked out the window at a line of unremarkable houses running parallel with the highway, one of those glimpses of small towns  in the Midwest you see going 70 miles and hour.  I was tired and probably bored, and struck with a cold splash in the chest: each of those homes is like mine.  Like mine was an abstraction too enormous to possibly comprehend: each house has a family, and stories, and photo albums, and basements or attics full of mysteries and heartaches and the ineffable, and people with personalities, and objects and things prized by families and people, and countless memories and stories and laughter and crying all building up and being forgotten and remembered and rewritten, each house has those weird smells that you don't notice in your own house but are squeamishly aware of in your friend's house, each house has a yard where the trivial and the dramatic play out, and fences citing borders....

In a moment, I was overwhelmed with this heady stuff, little of which I named as above, and all of which confounded my brain.  This is an utterly ordinary epiphany that feels (and is) remarkable at the moment but is soon slotted alongside other discoveries originating in the subjective.  What I remember feeling explicitly, though, is something that I still think about, and that still feels profound: I remember thinking, This is literally impossible.  No one's home can be like mine, let alone hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions.  Words I didn't use at age 12 but concepts I fully intuited: it was inconceivable that my home—which was overwhelming in the subject and content it presented to me on a minute-by-minute basis—could possibly be replicated, even in a faint way, by another home.  This was beyond simple solipsism and the painful limitations of an adolescent perspective.  This discovery felt so true and urgent as to be quantifiable, an absolute, like 1+1=2 and the sun will rise tomorrow.  My small brain could not possibly accept as irrefutable fact that another home like mine could exist.

Strange stuff, considering that I spent lots of hours in friends' homes, cousins' homes, etc..  But the force of this belief on my part, whizzing past an anonymous row of houses somewhere in Pennsylvania or Ohio, was so strong as to be undeniable.  And so I was faced with a problem (and here's where I think my nascent writer's sensibility was being forged): what to do when a fact you're convinced by is obviously incorrect, and yet feels to you as true and as accurate as the ground beneath your feet?  Go insane?  I feel for young minds that can't comprehend to the point of unhealthy distraction.  Wait it out?  That's the strange engine of adolescence, waiting impatient and hostile for your personal truths to be tested and proven wrong, or broken.  (Can you tell I've been re-reading Orwell and Frank Conroy?)  Yes, we wait it out: the maddening stretch of adolescence when surrealism is your realism.  The walk to school feels infinite, especially if the walker is heartbroken; that man can't be 20 feet tall, and yet, of course, somehow he is; it's impossible that the emotional infinity of my home is present in every house down the street the block the county the state the country the world...before squiggly lines straighten out, and life looks less like an M.C. Escher print every day.

~~

The energy in that contradictory moment—my home cannot possibly be replicated, and yet is replicated everywhere, all of the time—is the conundrum that moves and haunts every autobiographical writer.  The challenge, and where something of interest and value can be shaped out of cliche, is to make sense of that conundrum other than to simply acknowledge, "It exists."  If it exists, and it does, then what are the implications?  My navigation between the hopelessly subjective and the more interesting objective, between the "I" and the "You," might've begun during those dusk moments in the car when I was jolted awake, recognizing, without naming it, that the importance of my own life is simply a house of cards on a block with other houses of cards, in a town full of boys and girls who can't possibly believe that I exist.  It's too threatening to them, too impossible to ever believe.


Detail of "Grass in foreground, blurred house in distance" via Stockphoto; house via Angela Wyant Photography

Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Origin Story

I don't remember when I saw the blood, I know only that it came from my brother's mouth—he'd broken a tooth—and dripped onto the basement step, a kind of suburban aesthetic, red blood on a yellow cinder block, cooling in the conditioned air, found art in the toy-strewn underground, and the blood stayed there for years, may still be there, a thin tongue, and has stayed inside me as images will do, in this case as the wild of the body against the foundation of home, and later when I started looking for art and studying art history I remembered Blood On The Basement, the little cry against suburbia, the body's impasto, the way an image as Pound said can present an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time, seeing that blood in paintings in text books, in paintings in galleries and museums, in movies and on TV, an accident of the mouth anointing an ordinary basement step, a confusing stay against confusion for a kid too early to know about artful rendering.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Party Party"

I've never understood why Elvis Costello—an artist seemingly intent on re-releasing his entire back catalogue—has turned his back on "Party Party," a tune that he and the Attractions donated to the soundtrack to Party Party, a 1983 British film.  "Party Party" has been omitted from Costello's cannon on his official website, hasn't been reissued on any of Costello's numerous CDs, hasn't appeared in digital form at all apart from an obscure singles-compilation on Edsel Records, and has never been played live.  The song was released as a limited promotional single by A&M, but that quickly disappeared.  Costello himself rarely discusses the song.

I bought Party Party as an import album when it came out—Costello, Dave Edmunds, Madness, Bananarama, and my raging crush on all-things-UK drew me in.  I've always thought that "Party Party" is a pretty great song.  The lyrics are funny, sarcastic, witheringly accurate and unromantic in their analysis of boy-girl politics and hangover miseries, and the gauche, faux-Latin tune is catchy, appealing, and fun (I especially like the horn section's humorous reactions to some of Costello's more biting lyrics).  It's a smart song about the mindless complications during and after our best/worst drinking antics.

Via wiki:

We're gonna drink enough tonight to drown the average army
By New Year's Day the next door neighbour will be goin' barmy
The milkman arrives at midday with his usual wisecrack
Who knows a girl with Wednesday legs so when's they gonna snap?

Chorus:
Why does everybody have to be so hale and hearty
Can't they see we're tryin' to have a party party party party

The last thing I remember I was talkin' to some fellas
Then she said she'd have a word for me with her good-looking mate
And handed me a pint-pot filled with Advocaat and Tizer
And I woke in the flowerbeds of fear and fertilizer

Bridge:
So shift yourself and shake your bod
You got bullet proof insurance from fire, flood and Act of God
You got to learn from your mistakes
When you got a face like last week's Cornflakes

The doors and the window frames are by Pablo Picasso
The party decorations owned by Michelangelo
The fine music that you hear is by Stravinsky
With overall design by Leonardo daVinci

Two boys are upstairs in your bed
Three girls are downstairs crying
The Alka Seltzer in the glass is roaring like a lion
You think you've aged ten years tonight and still never been kissed
So you overdose on aftershave and try to slash your wrist 

~~

Wiki helpfully points out to this ignorant American that "Advocaat is a Dutch drink, sometimes described as the 'Dutch Eggnog'," and that "Tizer is a red soft drink from the United Kingdom," but I don't understand the reference in the last line of the opening verse (anyone?).  Beyond that, the narrative is clever and witty, and not cloyingly or obscurely so, the downfall of too many of Costello's songs.  What I love most about "Party Party" is the classic Costelloian persona: the nerdy guy, shy with women, but intense and intent on self-destructive romantic tragedy.  There's little meanness here, which is nice, just over-drinking, self-disgust, self-aggrandizement, unrequited lusts, bitter disappointments, and suicidal tendencies.  All in the context of a party party.  I like the "flowerbeds of fear and fertilizer," the face "like last week's Cornflakes," the pretentious but self-deflating "art tour" of the third verse, the Alka Seltzer "roaring like a lion," the last line's mocking denouement of melodrama and ineptitude.  Sounds a lot like high school to me.

I'm not sure what accounts for Costello consigning "Party Party" to the dustbin of history.  Maybe he's embarrassed by the lightness of the song (though even his "light" songs are spiked with bitterness), or maybe he's embarrassed by the made-to-order nature of the song's composition and history.  But he's written far lighter songs than this, not to mention other songs for films, including entire scores.  Turning his back on this little gem, I just don't get.

So here's my defense of, and support for, Elvis Costello and the Attractions' "Party Party."  May it one day be reissued.  Via an appropriately scratchy source:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Wordle with the Killer

Here's a Wordle of Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, and wouldn't you know, the Killer's name leaps right out of the cloud.  Has he trademarked "Jerry Lee" yet?  He should.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Twenty-first Century Family

I'm pretty fascinated by the new Windows7 Cloud software.  You've seen the commercial, the one where the harried mom laments her family's inability to take a decent family photo, when voila, she's inspired to use software that allows her to pick and choose among her family members' "best shots" from poses on the living room couch: 


The implications of this in terms of memory and autobiography are interesting.  Of course, we've been retouching and enhancing photographs virtually as long as photographs have been around.  Harry Farid at Dartmouth has a great site documenting this across history, citing as the earliest example an iconic photograph of President Lincoln created from the body of John Calhoun; General Ulysses Grant's photograph in front of troops in Virginia was actually composed of three separate images, and more recently Sarah Palin's head as been fixed atop a bikini-clad girl firing a machine gun.  Milan Kundera's The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting opens with a description of a seminal photograph in Bohemia's history: Communist leader Klement Gottwald is standing on a balcony on a cold day in Prague before thousands of citizens when his comrade Clementis generously places his own fur hat atop Gottwald's head.  A photo is snapped. Four years later, after Clementis is charged with treason and executed, the photograph that had circulated widely in books and posters and in the imaginations and memories of thousands is altered.  Kundera:
The propaganda section immediately made [Clementis] vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs.  Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.  Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head.

What interests me about the Windows7 software is the insidious way it encourages such deceit in the home, where image and narrative are as important as they are in politics.  Families, after all, contain their own cultural and political histories and now, with Bill Gates' blessings,  we can amend them at will. The group photo "as is"—slumped siblings, vacant stares, unappealing countenances, telegraphed resentments, forced smiles, and bad hair, all of which are ingredients in the family—is a wonderful if often painful record of a flawed, thus genuine, human moment.  Played for laughs later, maybe, the cause of mild embarrassment or pain unspoken, the un-retouched family photo captures emotional drama in the ways that only candid images can.  The same way the awful carpeting or wallpaper or chintzy wall hanging both characterizes and dramatizes a certain period in a family's history, so do facial expressions and body language tell a real story caught in real time.

"But photographs are problematic evidence, cropped experience," writes David Lazar in The Body of Brooklyn.  Sure, and maybe Windows7 simply acknowledges this, with the rocket-boost of contemporary technology and consumerism behind it.  All photos simultaneously tell the truth and deceive, but Windows7 sells this as a product incentive, urging consumers to reconstruct the past in a way more fitting, more appealing—and certainly less real, at least in the increasingly-quaint notion of that word.  Diane Arbus says that a photograph "is a secret about a secret.  The more it tells you the less you know."  Windows7 drains a photograph of this kind of mystery, replaces secrets with manipulated half-truths, with spin, with truth arrived at via digital dissembling: not what you are, but what you want to be.

I must avoid sounding like an alarmist here; one can extrapolate too far from a mom's reluctance to send out a disappointing Christmas photo.  But the urge to ignore an all-too-vivid past is there in the software, and in the humorous commercial, where dad's another irresponsible man-child and mom the adult savior. The family is attractive, the situation amusing, the tool innocent enough—then why do I get a faint chill?  Years from now, when Windows7 is supplanted by any number of upgrades, after the family is grown and dispersed, the photo will serve as a document.  What's forgotten will be the manipulation, the doctored heads and pasted-in faces, each telling a slightly different story at slightly different times, a po-mo narrative cobbled together and presented as unifying.  Siblings as collage.  Adolescence as Cubism.  The Twenty-first Century Family.

~~

When I was a kid at Saint Andrew the Apostle I dreaded school photo day, as did nearly everyone.  On the morning of one photo day—I was 10, maybe 11—my kind-of-friend Rob T. invited me to go along on his newspaper route.  Rob was a cool and daring guy, and I genuinely liked him and the prospect of the two of us hanging out was pretty great.  It was a warm autumn day, and by the time we got back, minutes before the bell rang, I was a sweaty mess, panicked that on Photo Day my cursed curly hair would only look wilder, greasier, and stringier.  I'd sacrificed vanity for friendship, and vanity won.  Of course, the photo confirmed my worst fears.  I recall this when I l see it, and how that simple morning was a suburban domino falling onto the next suburban domino.  I might have jumped at the chance to utilize Windows7 software at the time—cutting out an awful me and pasting in a less-awful one—but what I have is the truth of that unexceptional moment: a kid smiling through self-absorption, trying to survive something trivial, now having moved on.


"3D Abstract Family In Green House" via Human 3D.com
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