Friday, February 14th, 2014
Album #15: “Watermark” — Enya (1988)
If all goes according to plan, I’ll be catching Julianna Barwick tonight at the Carrack. Moody and ethereal, her music has been described as Enya for the Indie crowd.
Enya herself has been an ambient darling since her breakthru album “Watermark” in 1988. It’s understandable people might be wary of the record, thanks to the overexposure of its big hit, the overwrought “Orinoco Flow,” but this would be a mistake, like avoiding Led Zep IV because of “Stairway to Heaven.” From the beautiful and haunting opening title track to the Irish lament “Na Laetha Geal M’óige” (Days of My Youth) that closes out the record, this is a perfect album for the dead of winter. “Watermark” is all the more impressive because Enya plays all the instruments and sings all the tracks herself, looping vocals to create a chorus of backup singers from her solitary voice.
February, Enya and looping go back a quarter century for me as well. At the time, I had one of those boom boxes that would continuously play a cassette tape, flipping from one side to the other automatically when it reached the end. If you didn’t hit stop, an album would repeat forever. I was in my first apartment, soon after my roommate had left to move in with his girlfriend. I’d also recently heard from my ex-girlfriend, which put me right back in the metaphysical crater where she’d left me. Alone, broke, and feeling a wee bit sorry for myself one bitterly cold evening, I put on “Watermark” and plopped down on the couch to read. I lost track, but sometime after hearing the click of the cassette flipping over for probably the dozenth time, I finally found the energy to get up and eject the tape. By then, Enya and her moody, ethereal voice were forever burned into my head.
Sunday, February 2nd, 2014
Favorite Movie #15: Rollerball (1975)
Forget the Superbowl. The ultimate championship takes place at the end of Rollerball: “No substitutions; no penalties; and no time limit.” The resulting devastation brings to a head the showdown between the corporate masters of a dystopian future and a global superstar. The 1975 sci-fi cult hit is still probably the best of the bleak “dark future” films of the 1970s. (It has certainly aged better than its contemporary harbingers of doom: “Soylent Green” and “Silent Running.”)
I’ve written before about Rollerball. A lot. Hell, I even designed a board game around it. The title game is that exceedingly rare creation: a fictional sport that is believable as a sport. This is thanks, in great part, to the cast of stuntmen hired for the movie’s action scenes. Between filming they reportedly kept playing, coming up with their own set of rules for the game, and even rewriting their own lines. By the time the film made it thru editing (and an enthusiastic marketing dept., who actually released the official rules as part of the movie’s promotional packet), a completely new game had been invented.
While that isn’t the point of the film — it is a cautionary tale of ceding too much control to corporations — the violence of the game helps drive home the heavy-handed message. Of course the great irony is that the director, Norman Jewison, originally set out make a movie with an anti-violent message; yet if Rollerball is remembered at all today, it is for the three amazing action scenes that showcase this fictional future sport.
Tuesday, January 21st, 2014
Tabletop Game #15: Twixt (1962)
For board games, the 1960s were a golden age — literally. While commercial games had been popular since the late 19th century, and Monopoly a runaway best seller since the Depression, America’s burgeoning middle-class had card tables and suburban rec rooms to fill coming out of the ’50s. Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers and Ideal all saw explosive growth thanks to TV show tie-ins and national ad campaigns. Less than a decade old, Avalon Hill found nothing but success with its line of complex, elaborate wargames. Everybody was making money publishing games — or so it seemed — so it made sort of sense when 3M decided to get into the game.
Yes, that 3M: the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company, home to, among other things, sandpaper, Scotch tape and Post-it Notes. In 1962, 3M released the first of what would become three dozen titles in its Bookshelf Games series. Aimed at adults, they had an air of sophistication about them: each came in a faux-leather slip case (with gold lettering!), the better to sit next to all those leather bound classics on the bookshelves of one’s den, and bold illustrated covers that wouldn’t have been out of place in the pages of Playboy or Esquire. The result, says blogger Codex99, “was a rather elegant and sophisticated house style that has really not been seen since.”
M took advantage of its expertise in manufacturing and design, delivering products with plastic boards and metal playing pieces. They put out financial sims (Stocks & Bonds, Acquire), party and trivia games, and a slew of sports titles, but 3M is best remembered for their efforts to try and create “the new chess” and invent an original abstract strategy game for modern times. They came closest with Twixt, a connect the dots title that still has a following today. Twixt is a deceptively simple game, with two players taking turns placing pegs on a grid. If the pegs are close enough, they can be connected with links; the first player to build a bridge across the board wins. As with chess, patterns quickly emerge. Specific tactics have been developed for every situation, but simply reacting to your opponent will get you crushed; this is a game that rewards thinking ahead.
Tuesday, January 14th, 2014
Song #15: “Heart of Glass” — Blondie (1979)
(This recent photo of Debbie Harry by Annie Leibovitz has jump started my 50/50 countdown of favorites. I mean, how can you say no to a woman with a sword? After the last year my ambitions have been tempered, so I’ll be posting 1-2 entries a week, writing about my favorite books, movies, games and songs, until we reach #1.)
Blondie’s “Parallel Lines” should have been in my list of top 50 albums. I don’t know why it isn’t. Debbie Harry’s ying and yang of lust and loathing (“One Way or Another,” “Hanging on the Telephone” “Just Go Away”) is still a skewed and hilarious take on modern love. But it’s “Heart of Glass” that beats them all. I could listen to that rolling syncopation and playful synth endlessly. Here it is, coming in at #15:
Saturday, January 4th, 2014
I spent the last three months time traveling. It is not unlike deep sea diving in that, if you come up too fast, you get the bends.
In preparing for my father’s memorial service, I sort through four score and more years’ worth of family photos and six hours of home movies, unearthing Kodachrome slides that looked like they were taken yesterday, and damaged, dreamlike 8mm footage. —> We are in the large church I grew up in, in a small town in Pennsylvania, greeting friends, neighbors, parishioners. It is as if we never left 40 years ago, even if everything seems to have shrunk a little. <— After the service, my brother and I take his daughters on a tour of the old Sunday School building. Little has been altered since it was built in the 1950s; the steps to the second floor still retain the exact same rubber tread, with its same institutional echo. For just a second, as I run down the stairwell to catch up, I am 10 years old. —> My father served many churches. We are approached by the pastor who now lives in the last parsonage our family occupied. He tells us our dad’s darkroom is still intact in his basement, and we are welcome to salvage it. How can this be? We thought it had been placed in storage when my dad retired, but he apparently left it behind. It is like finding King Tut’s tomb. Still carefully covered in plastic, the phot o enlarger has remained untouched for 20 years. My dad’s crudely drawn instructions are still taped to the wall. I find a note scrawled in black marker, in my handwriting. What year is this? 1988? I wonder if I still have time to call my girlfriend, the one who moved to Paris. <— I am on the campus of a Big Ten university for an academic symposium on cartooning, a few weeks later. It is a bright, bitter fall morning and I am hungover after a night out with fellow artists. At breakfast, the cafeteria’s speakers pump out songs by Simple Minds and The Romantics. I can’t tell if it’s 1984 or not. —> Back in Durham, I start packing in earnest for the move to the new Indy office. Sifting through towers of back issues on my desk, I reduce years of work to a thin wafer of tearsheets, compressing the last decade of my career into a fleet flipbook. We uncover and discard the bones of dozens of failed and forgotten projects and bundle walls of plaques and awards the staff has won in bubblewrap. Didn’t we just do this at the old house on Hillsborough Street? <— The concurrent weekend-long remembrance of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination and the debut of Dr. Who tells me I’m getting close. “OK,” I think, “This is where I came in.” If I can just close the loop, I’ll be back in the present. — JP Trostle
This is the original version of the column I submitted to Indy Week for the Dec. 11th issue. The editor decided to go with a far more convention edit of my piece — it’s OK; you can read it here — but I wanted to get my dreamlike take out there..
Thursday, January 2nd, 2014
Tidying up the final few strands of 2013…
I’ve gotten to work with a lot of talented people at various papers, but it is almost always after the fact, putting together what they bring back to me. One of the disadvantages of being a page designer is that most of your time is spent in front of a computer, waiting for writers and photographers to file something. Creating a great package can be rewarding in itself, but after a few years I realized I was missing out on something key, as I watched reporters and photographers head out in the field again and again to meet people and, for good or ill, have adventures.
That began to change in late 2012 when the Indy got new owners and I got a new boss, and the two of us started working much closer with our two staff photogs. There were a number of shoots I worked on this year, but one of the best was with Derek Anderson for a cover story on “When Bloggers Burn Out.” It involved torching a couple of laptops, and it was one of the strongest covers we ran in 2013.
Derek left the Indy this summer to pursue documentary making, and continues to do amazing work behind the lens. Recently I stumbled across his blog, where he had posted shots of me toasting a set of Apple MacBooks and wrote about the whole adventure of burning computers and designing covers. Good times.
Photo © D.L. Anderson