May 2010 Bookshelf

Open: An Autobiography (2009) by Andre Agassi

For those of you that don’t know the Cupcake, his life outside of this awesome Web site revolves around tennis, so Open was a must-read as soon as it dropped.  Also, you might have read my post earlier in the year about the second-best tennis player of his generation and his odd connection to Tiger Woods (and, more importantly, Tiger’s issues)…

I was not an Andre Agassi fan during the early stages of his career.  This wasn’t exactly a difficult decision since, in addition to looking ridiculous (what with the hair and all), he came off as a cocky prick through often absurd behavior (e.g., his refusal to play Wimbledon because he “hated” grass – this would be akin to Tiger – or anyone – refusing an invitation to The Masters because they “hated” Bermuda grass).  We now know, of course, thanks to this brilliant autobiography, that this was not Andre Agassi.  It was the previously tortured soul named Andre Agassi that endured over a decade of – let’s call it what it is – abuse from his father (under a blazing hot Nevada sun, I might add, making the review of this period in Andre’s life even more painful to endure).  This abuse left Andre with a lot of doubts and confusion over his role in the greater scheme, likely helped him commit epically bad decisions (Brooke Shields, denim tennis shorts, toupees, etc.) and eventually took him down a path of substance abuse.  This last item rocked the world of sports for many reasons, the most crucial in my opinion being the dishonest way he talked his way out of penalties from the ATP Tour after his transgression was discovered.

But all of this is not what makes this book compelling.  What will stick with you long after you’ve finished reading are the relationships Agassi built to insulate himself from his upbringing.  Throughout the book, the bonds Agassi had, first in early childhood with friends, and most importantly, his older brother, and later with coach Brad Gilbert (the “Summer of Revenge” portion of the book involving Gilbert is absolutely riveting), trainer Gil Reyes and his eventual soul mate, Steffi Graf, resonate on such a human level, you’ll have a hard time remembering that this guy was number one in the world multiple times, won 8 Grand Slams and is generally considered (now) to be one of the awsomest people on the planet (excepting that whole “Hit for Haiti” mess…).

The parts of the book involving tennis, while extremely interesting in their own right, pale in comparison to the insight and grace with which Agassi communicates about regular-day life and the sorts of decisions and confrontations we all deal with.  Now, I’ve read some reviews of this book hammering Agassi for A) not actually writing, but dictating instead and B) using this as a platform to pat himself on the back for all the great stuff he’s done.  To those critics, I have this to say to point A: I don’t give a shit how the final product came into existence, it’s one of the best books of 2009.  And, to those same critics, I have this to say to point B: utter bullshit.

Amazing stuff.  Read at all costs.

Napoleon – a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick (1969)

Whether this is an actual product of Kubrick’s is part of the allure of this screenplay.  You can certainly see how it could be.  It’s got all the Kubrick marquees; deliberate pacing, a fairly stripped down sense of emotion and impeccable breadth of vision.  And, it reminded me a lot of Barry Lyndon (1975), the film Kubrick was forced to make instead of Napoleon (the reasons for which I can’t recall off the top of my head, budget perhaps…).  An unfortunate twist no doubt since Kubrick doing Napolean would have been the film equivalent of Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence. That’s no knock on Barry Lyndon, still easily Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece.  It’s so perfect, in fact, it not only used equipment developed for America’s lunar landings,  it even eerily foreshadowed the train wreck star Ryan O’Neal’s life would become through the trials and tribulations of title character, Redmond Barry.

This screenplay proves yet again that Kubrick is able to cover some seriously vast territory with an efficiency unique only to him.  Considering the absurdity of Napoleon’s rise, first fall, comeback (that, in Kubrick’s hand, had an odd similarity to the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory Tour), second fall and exile, this was no easy task.  The level of detail Kubrick employs, for example, during his treatment of the French retreat from Moscow and beyond is so gut-wrenching, you’ll never look at horses the same way again.  The other stand-out dimension is the depiction of Napoleon as a mastermind on the battlefield (along with the sobering mistakes he made at Waterloo).  The sheer technical weight of what he’s written into the film about 18th/19th Century warfare is immense.  Spliced into these historical markers is a healthy dose of Eyes Wide Shut sexual excess, most notably Josephine’s infidelity.

Unbelievably, the most interesting part of the screenplay is not even the screenplay itself.  The final 8 pages are production notes that include a treasure trove of Kubickian nuance; his philosophy on actors (and why high priced actors are a tremendous waste of resources), the plans for keeping the budget down by constructing military uniforms out of paper and a great overview of the lighting technology developed by NASA mentioned earlier.

At 155 pages, this is well worth the few hours it will take to read.

Find it here: Napoleon screenplay

Find more stuff here: Mystery Man on Film

Factory: The Story of the Record Label (2009) by Mick Middles

Home to Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays and other killer bands that gained only fringe notoriety (e.g., The Names, The Wake, Shark Vegas), the Factory Records story is not new in any way.  After films like 24 Hour Party People and Control put the story on the map to a larger audience, (as opposed to people like the Cupcake, who clearly have too much time on their hands), this more in depth, heavy on the business-side of the story, is a welcome addition to the immense amount of work on this subject and helps put the craziness of both those films into perspective.  In other words, despite the jovial, fraternal context so often painted about the scene and time, it clearly wasn’t all shits and giggles.  In fact, having removed the normal redundant track that books like this normally take (e.g., talking about making certain records, touring), Middles frees himself to instead concentrate on complex matters of business (or lack of) and the absurdities everyone involved encountered by trying to manage what was, in its heyday, the most sought after and prodigious record label in the solar system while concurrently managing what was, in its heyday, the most sought after and prodigious night club in the solar system.  That those two heydays occurred simultaneously only made things more chaotic and impossible to manage.

Who knows where the money went.  One thing’s for sure, if only half of what Middles says is accurate, way less than half  the money (the standard deal with every Factory artist was 50% to the artist and 50% to Factory) went to the artists that produced the music that triggered the success of the label and its club.  Morals?  Only one: don’t try to operate a worldwide, independent record label and an internationally acclaimed night club simultaneously while doing loads and loads of drugs on your down time.

The Smoking Cupcake, June 2010

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