North Adams Transcript
Baloney By Pascal Blanchet (Drawn and Quarterly)
In the dark and funny graphic operetta "Baloney," Quebecois illustrator Pascal Blanchet crafts a wonderful picture book for grown-ups. With a story built around the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich and draped in gothic tragedy, Blanchet follows up his retro effort "White Rapids" with a skillful bravado.
Baloney is the town butcher, whose life is filled with tragedy -- his one-armed daughter is also blind and has a wheel for a leg, and he is a widower, his wife having met a horrible end. He inhabits a cold town -- literally freezing, temperature-wise, and covered in snow -- that is held hostage by the sinister Duke of Shostakov, who owns the area’s only heating business.
Love and hope arrive in the form of a young man who might solve the temperature problems, as well as those of Baloney’s daughter’s heart.
In its brightest moments like something concocted by film director Tim Burton -- although perhaps more in line with the work of Canadian master Guy Maddin -- "Baloney" begins with a wicked form of campiness but unfolds into something darker but just as stylized. Blanchet pulls from the horror of opera and folklore to present a pure small tale. The town may strive for light -- and might just find what it looks for -- but physical light does not promise the same in emotional content. The story pummels the reader as hard as the music from which it derives its inspiration and culminates in a celebration of the worst life has to offer.
Blanchet carries this rather depressing story with his typical playful art style. In its retro form evoking 1950s commercial and picture book art, Blanchet connects the dots to the way classical music was sold on LPs in this era through his renderings. Disturbing tales were given a nuclear age chic through their promise of high culture -- Blanchet gets straight to the point in regard to the melange being pushed in the packaging. "Baloney" is less about the story and characters than the way they are presented -- depressing, personal horror as ironic dark whimsy, tragedy as melodrama.
Bashing (Facets Video)
Japanese society is a continual mystery to Westerners, with any possible aspect that is brought to light only adding to the curiosity. The film "Bashing" continues this tradition with its alternately affecting and alien premise.
Yuko (Fusako Urabe) has returned to Japan following a stint as a volunteer worker in Iraq, where she was taken hostage and subsequently freed. Her homeland is far less inviting than the war-torn country of her calling, though -- somehow Yuko’s course in life has offended other Japanese, and the insults that run rampant tear apart her life and her family’s.
It’s a strange notion that offering your service to a county other than your own would create the urge to make foul-mouthed threats to a stranger, but this is Japan as presented in "Bashing." A country built on polite decorum with an underbelly of rage, Japan as an entity resents Yuko for opening up to foreigners and eschewing her own, as well as for returning alive. One crank caller points out that, if she had died, she would have been proclaimed a heroine, but instead, she lived to rub her country’s face in her betrayal.
The underside of this premise is the extreme nationalism of Japan, as well as a protectionism, and perhaps even a subtle racism. In fact, the shunning of hostages in Iraq who returned to Japan was a part of a national uproar in 2004 -- citizens were angry that volunteer workers had defied government advisories not to travel in Iraq. The overtures that the government had to make in order to get the hostages freed spoke against some cultural idea of personal responsibility and decades of convoluted Japanese views toward their foreign ministry.
Director Masahiro Kobayashi captures the psychology of that moment in time with a slow and somber style. With very little dialogue, the depression of Yuko’s plight hangs in the film like a mist that wraps itself around her family and defines the audience mood as well. It’s a revealing portrait of not just Japanese society but also the individuals within it who are not acknowledged as conformity goes into a rage.
As Kobayashi shows, remaining an individual in the face of that fury is the only real way to escape it, and "Bashing" stands as a silent, stern paean to societies moving forward in the world despite their historical urges to stand back.
Grand Duchy -- Petits Four (Cooking Vinyl)
In Grand Duchy, former Pixies frontman Black Francis -- or Frank Black, if you prefer -- returns with a new band, again featuring a prominent female partner. This time it’s his wife, Violet Clark, who has sung on previous solo efforts from Black.
"Petit Fours" opens with a Frank Black-like grind and growl "Come Over to My House," but there’s something different going on here, and it’s accentuated by a buzz-buzz synthesizer line that’s something out of the late ‘70s new-wave era. Clark joins in the final chorus, but it’s the next song, "Lovesick," in which she intros with a simple chant of "uh huh" alongside that synth and the trademark Black pounding acoustic strum. At a certain point, Clark’s delivery is interrupted by Black’s voice asking her, "What are you wearing?"
They are on equal footing. Unlike in The Pixies, where Black traded vocals with Kim Deal, this is a team where the egos aren’t butting heads against each other, but entwined and in unity. The team hits full duet form in "Fort Wayne," a ‘60s-tinged pop song, and this continues in various forms throughout the album. It’s great to hear him share his songs with someone else for the first time in well over a decade.
It’s also nice to see Black open up his sound again. His early albums were big on production and arrangement. His later work has been a reaction against that -- stripped down, live studio affairs that are big on ideas but with scattered success. Black is such a musical monster -- such a prolific performer who doesn’t seem to break from writing and recording very often -- that it was only a matter of time before he began playing with the arrangement of sounds as well as the rudiments of songwriting again.