Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hi izuru tokoro no tenshi by Yamagishi Ryôko



Yamagishi Ryôko 山岸涼子. Hi izuru tokoro no tenshi 日出処の天子. 1980-84.

I finished this a few weeks ago but never got around to writing it up; I was so glad to be done with it that I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. It was another case of my completist compulsion getting me into a series that I ended up disliking but couldn’t let myself quit halfway through.

This is a shôjo manga about Shôtoku Taishi: that places it in the category of historical adaptation, and that’s where it falls down. …It’s mainly concerned with the uneasy relationship between Shôtoku (Prince Umayado), related to the Imperial family, and Soga no Emishi, scion of a powerful noble family. The story starts when they’re both in their teens; Emishi encounters a mysterious adolescent girl bathing in a pond, and she enchants him. The reader soon figures out that this is the Prince, who has powers that seem to include gender-switching; Emishi, for some reason, never quite figures out that the girl is the Prince, even though he and the Prince develop a kind of intimacy that includes exposure to several supernatural phenomena.

The manga’s strength is the strange relationship it creates between Shôtoku and Emishi. Shotoku’s powers are never quite spelled out, but frequently they involve the Prince having special access to a world of Buddhist demons and afterworlds. The Prince doesn’t really understand his gifts – they alienate him from his family and torment him, rather than giving him any pleasure or wisdom. Emishi is the only person he allows to get close, and even they don’t communicate very well; also, Shôtoku’s occasional female manifestations complicate matters and provide extra frissons of sexuality.

In Japanese legend, Shôtoku is an interesting and important figure, with all sorts of miraculous and significant accomplishments attributed to him; he’s considered particularly important in the establishment of Buddhism in Japan. Yamagishi’s idea is to imagine him as this kind of tormented figure whose relationship with Buddhism is less one of faith than of torment; he’s in constant slippage into a sort of Boschian landscape of underworldly creatures. To this Yamagishi adds some antiheroic qualities – Shôtoku’s alienation from his family manifests itself as extreme antisociality and occasional cruelty.

Emishi, meanwhile, is essentially a straight man for the Prince’s peculiarities: wanting to befriend Shôtoku, gradually falling in love with him (as both male and female), but never quite understanding what Shôtoku’s all about and why.

So far, so good. The problem is, this storyline is intertwined with a far too in-depth recreation of the politics of the period. This is the trap Japanese historical fiction all too often falls into: since everybody vaguely remembers reading about these people in high school, authors seem to feel pressured to work in everything that shows up in the textbooks, while at the same time authors often seem to feel that all they have to do is work the events in – they don’t have to dramatize them particularly well.

I’ve seen this in Japanese historical fiction, and it’s the big trap taiga dramas fall into. I watched most of Fûrin kazan last year, because I’m really interested in the potential of the taiga drama form, but it was boring as hell, because it devolved fairly quickly into an intricate recreation of Sengoku military campaigns, and worse yet the political machinations behind them, without bothering to make any of it interesting or meaningful. It’s just like names, dates, places. This manga does that: we get a detailed account of the Soga clan’s struggles against other families at court: but we’re never given a reason to care about them, and the struggles aren’t presented in an interesting way. So it gets tedious real quick.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Yamagishi just doesn’t seem to be that talented a manga author. Her art is fairly rudimentary. She has some interesting pages, but that’s mostly when she’s drawing Shôtoku’s encounters with demons and whatnot, so the subject matter is intrinsically attention-grabbing. Her drawings themselves aren’t particularly accomplished, her page layout is pretty conventional, and her visual narration is, frankly, uninteresting. Lots and lots of pages of people sitting around nondescript rooms talking about politics.

This was a very popular and acclaimed manga in Japan, so maybe I’m missing something. I think what I’m missing is a Japanese education: I’ve studied Japanese history, and I know about Shôtoku and the Soga and the beginnings of Japanese Buddhism, but I did it on my own, because I was interested. I don’t have this history embedded in my brain as the detritus of a high-school social studies curriculum. A Japanese reader might look at this and think, I know I was supposed to learn all this stuff in tenth grade – now’s the chance to get it in a painless way. That might be enough to make it interesting, I don’t know. I should add that I think historical fiction in the West is probably prone to this problem as well, but since I’m not an outsider to Western history I don’t notice it as easily. I am to Japanese history, so I notice pretty quickly when a book stops showing history and starts telling it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Bob Dylan Chronicles: 1958 to May 1961

(For an explanation of this project, see here.)

“Little Richard,” “Buzz Buzz,” “Jenny, Jenny,” and conversation. Recorded 1958, house of Robert Zimmerman, Hibbing, Minnesota. These liner notes aren’t going to try to tell the story of Bob Dylan’s life. So we’re not going to talk about his birth in Duluth, his upbringing in Hibbing, his parents, his high school, etc. We’re just going to talk about the music, and things directly relevant to it. Here, that means observing that the earliest Dylan recordings currently circulating come from sometime in 1958, when Dylan was seventeen. They feature Dylan and his pal John Bucklen goofing around with some instruments and a tape recorder. Fragments of four songs circulate (we include three), along with some priceless snippets of conversation. These came into circulation in 1993, when they were broadcast on a BBC documentary, along with some new interview footage with Bucklen (some of which also slips in here – we’re not going to include interviews in this series, as a rule, but this was kind of hard to edit out).

“Little Richard” sounds like an original, although it’s not much but a riff. “Jenny, Jenny” (Johnson/Penniman/ Crewe) is a Little Richard song, while “Buzz Buzz” (Byrd/Dolphin) is an obscure number by the Hollywood Flames; now it’s maybe better known through Los Lobos’ cover, although their version, too, is pretty obscure.

The interesting thing about this recording (besides the fact that – hey, cool – it lets us hear a seventeen-year-old Bob Dylan) is that it bears out what Dylan has discussed in interviews: he didn’t start out as a folkie, but as a rocker. Here we hear him declaring his undying love for Little Richard – and already laying out his philosophy of singing (although he’d come to reconsider his opinion of Johnny Cash). As maiden recordings go, it’s pretty revealing.

“The Frog Song,” “I Got A New Girl,” “When I Got Troubles.” Recorded 1959, location unknown (presumably Hibbing). More goofing around. “The Frog Song” is probably an original, but to call it a song is to overstate things…he’s just playing at sounding like Clarence “Frogman” Henry. “I Got A New Girl” hasn’t been identified, and it’s just a fragment, too. The real find is the original “When I Got Troubles.” These were recorded by Dylan’s high school friend Ric Kangas, and “Troubles” was released in 2005 on the No Direction Home soundtrack, making it the earliest Dylan performance to see official release. It shows: that at eighteen, Dylan was turning toward folk. Also, what this blur of early recordings demonstrates is Dylan’s willingness, from the very beginning, to assume different voices – we’ve already heard his Penniman bawl, his Nashville Skyline croon, a sort of generic folkster voice, and that weird Frogman thing.

“Gotta Travel On.” Recorded May, 1960, house of Karen Wallace, St. Paul, Minnesota. The song was written by Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six, important figures in the Minneapolis folk scene, and that’s where this takes us. In 1960 Dylan betook himself to the Twin Cities, to college, where he skipped classes and concentrated on trying to make it as a folk singer in the nascent coffee house scene. …As you can already tell, talking about early Dylan kind of turns you into a textual critic, and this tape most of all. In May of 1960, Dylan was recorded at the house of a friend. The tape is probably the most important document of his pre-New York days, and certainly the most extensive document, comprising in its complete form at least twenty songs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t circulate in its complete form. What we have is three different partial versions, dating from a period in the ‘70s when the tape’s maker and owner, Karen Wallace, was attempting to interest Dylan collectors in purchasing the tape. A few songs circulate complete or nearly so in excellent sounding copies (though with Wallace speaking over them), more circulate in decent-sounding fragments that she used to try and interest potential buyers, and most circulate in lousy-sounding fragments taped by a machine literally hidden in the taper’s armpit. No collector is known to have bought the tape, and nobody seems to know what happened to it, or to Wallace for that matter. No selection has ever been released by Columbia, suggesting they didn’t snap it up (more’s the pity if they didn’t). It’s a shame, because it’s a fascinating thing, made all the more tantalizing by the fact that we can only experience it in this partial and often all but unintelligible manner. Why’s it fascinating? Voice and repertoire. The voice Dylan’s singing in here is what people who knew him in Minnesota considered his natural voice – the sweet crooning style he’d surprise the world with on Nashville Skyline. In other words, what we have here is proof that when Dylan sings in an atonal rasp, he does it because that’s how he wants to sound. (True Dylan fans, of course, never doubt that he can sing anything, as good as anybody, when he wants to.) The repertoire shows what Dylan was singing at the earliest part of his career for which we have any extensive evidence, and definitely before his much-talked-about Woody Guthrie obsession really kicked in. The tape contains some Guthrie songs, as any folksinger’s repertoire in 1960 would, but it also contains a lot of other things, in fact a lot of things that we don’t have any indication of him singing after this. Not for years, at any rate: one of the treats of this tape is that it includes several songs, such as this one, that he would return to many, many years later. “Gotta Travel On” appeared on Self Portrait in 1970, and then was an important feature in the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue shows.

The next eight songs – “The Two Sisters,” “Rovin’ Gambler,” “Saro Jane,” “Mary Ann,” “Sinner Man,” “Abner Young,” “Muleskinner Blues,” and “One-Eyed Jacks” - all come from the different versions of the Karen Wallace tape. All are “traditional” (which can mean either written by somebody we don’t know of, or actually shaped by generations of singers, or both) except “Muleskinner Blues,” a Jimmie Rodgers tune that pretty much every folksinger of the time sang, plus all the country singers and, over in England, all the skifflers too. Also except for “One-Eyed Jacks,” which is a Dylan original – long thought to be the first, although the Bucklen tape and “When I Got Troubles” proved that suspicion wrong - and it hurts that we don’t have it in listenable quality. The others are fragmentary, and some only appear on this tape. Others would be revived much later: “Rovin’ Gambler” was released in a live version on a 1998 single, while “Saro Jane” and “Mary Ann” were worked up in wonderful folk-soul versions in 1970. It should be noted that a few fragments of other songs come up in some of these tracks – evidence of bad editing, probably. There’s a bit of “Five Hundred Miles” under Karen Wallace introducing “Muleskinner Blues” – it sounds like Dylan sings the two songs as a medley, although that may not be the case.

“Rambler, Gambler” (another traditional number) finds us again in the realms of the listenable. It was recorded in August of 1960 by a friend of Dylan’s at an unknown location, presumably in the Twin Cities, and released on the No Direction Home soundtrack. The tone is a bit less sweet here – a bit more Self Portrait than Nashville Skyline – but more importantly, the phrasing is more confident, more skilful. It sounds less like he’s singing for himself here.

“Red Rosey Bush,” “Johnny I Hardly Knew You,” “K.C. Moan,” and “Talking Lobbyist” were all recorded in the autumn of 1960 at Dylan’s apartment (supposedly), at a party. In terms of sound quality, the tape is only marginally better (or maybe worse, depending on what kind of noise bothers you most) than the Karen Wallace fragments that circulate, but it’s interesting because there’s almost no overlap with the songs on the earlier tape. Was Dylan really burning through songs that quickly in this period? Just how large was his repertoire? Nobody knows. This tape also finds Dylan doing his best to sing in an accent pitched somewhere, or perhaps everywhere, in the British Isles, for “Johnny,” and then turning around to affect a Memphis Jug Band blues in “K.C. Moan.” “Talking Lobbyist” may be an original, and it’s even more relevant today than it was then.

“Gypsy Davey” and “Remember Me” were recorded in February or March, 1961, at the home of Bob and Sid Gleason, East Orange, New Jersey. What “Talkin’ Lobbyist” does hint at is Dylan’s growing Woody Guthrie infatuation. For a time in late 1960 (by all accounts) and in the first half of 1961 (as evidenced by tapes) Dylan was, by his own description, “a Woody Guthrie jukebox” – he was utterly taken with the man’s work, and his persona. Famously, it was to meet the great man in person that Dylan left Minnesota and hitchhiked to New York. The big jump. He joined the Greenwich Village folk scene, and also visited Guthrie at the hospital. All of this is well told in the Scorsese documentary… What we hear here is from the earliest circulating tape from after Dylan’s arrival in New York, made at the home of some friends of Guthrie’s who befriended Dylan – took him in, really, the scruffy homeless midwestern scrounge boy who wanted to be Woody Guthrie. “Gypsy Davey” is a traditional song arranged by Guthrie, and Dylan would record it for his first all-folk album, in 1992. “Remember Me” is an old song written by Scott Wiseman.

“Talking Columbia” was recorded live on May 6, 1961, at the Indian Neck Folk Festival, in the Montowesi Hotel, Branford, Connecticut. More Guthrie. Dylan spent the early months of 1961 scuffling around the Village clubs, a period he describes with great vividity in his memoirs. Unfortunately, we just don’t have tapes from those performances. This is as close as we have, from a road trip he took (one of many), this one to Connecticut for a “folk festival.” By now his sweet Nashville Skyline voice has been fully replaced by his husky, barky Guthrie voice. Of course he doesn’t really sound like Woody Guthrie. Actually, he begins to sound like Bob Dylan now.

“Ramblin’ Round.” May, 1961, the home of Bonnie Beecher, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Actually the most significant document of Dylan from the first half of 1961 was not made in New York or anyplace near, but in Minnesota. In May he took a brief trip back there, presumably to report back to his friends about how much he was learning and doing in the metropolis. While there, he played about ninety minutes’ worth of songs into a tape recorder at the house of a friend. These have long circulated, and in pretty good quality, and the tape furnishes a really good, complete picture of Dylan at this stage of his development. He’s deep in Guthrie’s thrall at this point – something like half the songs have some sort of association with the bard, and his vocal mannerisms show the infatuation as well. But he’s singing with a certain amount of confidence, and occasional mastery. He’d get a lot better very quickly, but you can hear him growing already. “Ramblin’ Round” is one of Guthrie’s signature Dust Bowl tunes. …Like the Karen Wallace tape, the Bonnie Beecher tape has been left untouched by Columbia’s various releases over the years, suggesting they don’t own it. Part of why I make these Chronicles is out of a suspicion that even if Columbia ever did undertake something this comprehensive (they never have before), it would have holes. Sometimes a fan project can be more complete than a record company release. On the other hand, a Columbia Chronicles would also, doubtless, include things I don’t have access to – nobody knew of the existence of some of these tapes before No Direction Home was released. In any case, the point is moot: Columbia (or Dylan himself) has never shown the slightest interest in putting together a true, complete, scholarly picture of Bob’s career, preferring to let the bootlegs come out a bit at a time. If you want the full picture you’ve got to paint it yourself. So we will.

“James Alley Blues” and the rest of the songs on this disc also come from the Bonnie Beecher tape. This was written by Richard Brown, and shows the other great influence on Dylan at this time, Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology Of American Folk Music (which Dylan would be instrumental in the Smithsonian’s re-releasing in the late 1990s, or so it was rumored). Not a bad pair of influences – the wildest and most mysterious of the old folk, and the most direct and relevant of the new. This performance is a gem, breaking out of the Guthrie mannerisms and hinting at the country-blues inflections that would come to the fore later in the year.

“Pretty Polly,” “Railroad Boy” are traditional murder ballads from the Anthology.

“San Francisco Bay Blues” was written by Bay Area one-man band Jesse Fuller, and was in everybody’s setlist in the early 1960s.

“Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” By gospel-blues singer the Reverend Gary Davis. His songs, too, were great favorites of the urban folk crowd.

“This Train.” Written by Big Bill Broonzy, but closely associated with Woody Guthrie.

“Pastures Of Plenty.” One of Guthrie’s best-known songs. Tom Paxton did the definitive folk-revival version of it, but Dylan’s rendition here comes close. It’s easily the best performance on the 5/61 tape, and probably the best performance we have a recording of to this point in time. He gives the tune a moody gravity that works just fine.

So here we have it: the arrival, it's safe to say, of Bob Dylan. The disc starts with what is undeniably juvenilia, but by the end, he's a real live folk-singer. You may not have been able to predict, based on these performances, that he'd go on to be God, but you might just have tossed a dime in his hat at your coffee shop or invited him back to your folk festival.

Tanuki's Dylan Chronicles: A Manifesto

The Tanuki happens to be a big Bob Dylan fan. One of the biggest, what's technically known as a "sick" Dylan fan. Has been for upwards of two decades now. Unhealthy completist that the Tanuki is, that's led him to collect rather a lot of Dylan. And, inveterate mixtape maker that he is, that's led him to experiment with different ways of anthologizing Dylan. A couple of years ago the Tanuki finally hit on a scope, an approach, and a final product that satisfied him: he called it Chronicles. Of course, the recent release of Tell Tale Signs shot that all to hell, gloriously: the Tanuki is in the process, therefore, of revising the thing. Accordingly, as the mood takes him and he finishes a volume, and the notes for it, he'll write about it here.

The Tanuki also wrote a sort of apologia for the project:

Chronicles Made Manifest

Q: Why “Chronicles”?
A: It’s a pretty obvious name, and I think – I’m sure – that at some time in the distant past I actually made a different Dylan anthology using that title. As such, I think it’s a fairly unimaginative name, and my thinking on the title had evolved toward something like “Special Rider” (after one of his publishing companies) or “Skipping Reels Of Rhyme” (from “Mr. Tambourine Man”). But those feel a little gimmicky, which is an aesthetic I don’t mind with some artists but which I wanted to avoid with Bob. And then Dylan came out with the first volume of his memoirs, and titled it Chronicles, and suddenly it seemed like a good idea again. Not so much because it had Bob’s imprimatur, but because what I was aiming at doing would make such a perfect soundtrack to Dylan’s book, if he ever finished all the volumes.

Q: Why chronicle?
A: It’s an old-fashioned approach to criticism, dangerously close to the intentional fallacy, but I like to understand the music of my favorite artists in the context of their careers. So sue me, I do. I like to put it all in order to understand when they learned how to do what I love them for doing, and when they forgot how to do it. And when they learned how to do something else I didn’t know about but come to think is almost as valuable. Etc. In the case of Dylan this is an unusually rich vein to mine. He’s gone through so many changes, and had so many artistic triumphs at every step along the way, that the chronological approach is particularly rewarding.

Q: There are lots of Dylan anthologies on the market now. None of them do the trick?
A: None of them do the trick. They all focus on the glory years and only glance at the later epochs – meaning anything past 1975. Even Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 has that problem, and it starts in 1973. They don’t tell the whole story. They don’t even try. But I can’t really fault them. To tell the story right you have to go into far more detail – make far more discs – than any commercial anthology would ever dream of. This is even true of the ‘60s, which have been fairly well-anthologized by Columbia. “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” is one of his masterpieces, essential to an understanding of his career, but at 12 minutes it’ll never be on a disc marketed to the punters. And even the casual Dylan fan will have the album it’s on. So the whole story can only be told as a fan project, not for sale. Roll yer own, I always say.

Q: Why can’t we just listen to the albums?
A: You can and you should. But Dylan’s best work is not all found on the canonical albums. Any Dylan fan knows this. Many of the rarities – i.e., soundtrack songs, non-album singles, archival material released on one compilation or another – are just as important as his main albums. “Things Have Changed” is, in its own way, just as essential as Time Out Of Mind. And then there are the unreleased things. The infamous bootlegs. There are still quite a few significant studio recordings that have never been released, from every stage in his career, many of which rank up there with his best work; furthermore, none of his tours has been adequately represented on official releases. For most artists, if you listen to the records, you get the picture – as much of the picture as you need to get. With Dylan, you only get half. It may be the best half, but not by much; and particularly if you’re interested in the story, you’re not going to be satisfied with half.

Q: So Chronicles is meant to replace the albums?
A: No, and it’s not meant to replace the bootlegs either. It’s meant to put each in the context of the other, to tell Dylan’s story in as much detail as is practical, drawing from albums, rarities, and bootlegs without regard to source: mix it all together, the thinking goes, and you can finally begin to emerge with an understanding of this artist. An example: my disc for the Nashville Skyline period covers 1968 through May of 1969. It starts with the Woody Guthrie tribute concert songs (live; rarities), looks at the Thanksgiving ’68 George Harrison collaboration (bootleg), examines the Johnny Cash session of February ’69 (bootleg) and the Nashville Skyline album (canonical album, most but not all of which I’ve included), and finishes up with an extended look at the post-NS spring ’69 studio sessions, some of which ended up on Self Portrait (canonical album; also bootleg). Taken together like this, we see how the Nashville Skyline record both fits in with and radically departs from what he’d been doing immediately before it, and how close in time it is to some of the most maligned Self Portrait tracks. We begin to see what a temporal patch-job the latter was, and can appreciate the ’69 SP songs on their own, and how they’re not too different in spirit from what he was doing with Johnny Cash – exploring country covers, exploring music. Which is essentially what he’d been doing with the Band in 1967, and at the Guthrie concert, which is the last gasp of the Basement Tapes, really. It’s a compelling narrative, and good listening, too, since the Guthrie-concert tracks and several of the Cash tracks rank with his best work of the late 1960s. And the discs remind us that he did more work in the late 1960s than the official albums would lead you to believe.

Q: Hmm. It sounds like it could replace the albums. At least, that disc sounds more satisfying than Nashville Skyline on its own is.
A: You may be right.

Q: Isn’t this an incredible waste of time? An amazing example of trainspottery?
A: You may be right. Then again, if you have to ask…

Q: What would you do if Columbia/Sony ever did release something that gave as satisfactory an overview of Dylan’s career as this Chronicles series does?
A: Apologize to Al Gore for wrecking his career, and Old Scratch for wrecking his home.

Q: Where can I get my hands on the Chronicles discs?
A: You can’t. They’ve only been released in Heaven, where they keep good company with a lot of Akbar & Jeff comics.

Q: Where can I get my hands on the bootlegs that go into these, then?
A: I haven’t the slightest idea.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

James Bond review: Goldfinger (1964)

(For my other Bond reviews, and my apologia for the project, see the tags on the right.)

CUT TO THE CHASE: This is where they perfect the formula. You could make an argument for that making this the best of the Bonds, by definition. Again, I wouldn’t quarrel with that.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Let’s just say that in 1964, the producers knew exactly what James Bond was all about. The secret is in the laser scene, and what precisely is being threatened there. When the producers remember this, and aren’t ashamed of it, Bond stands tall. When they forget it, or find the whole thing a bit old-fashioned and, well, embarrassing, Bond, er, wilts.

In Goldfinger, they know what’s what. The plot hinges on it. Why else do you think Miss Galore changes her, shall we say, allegiance?

What Makes Bond Bond: Even when he’s being held prisoner he’s so cool that the CIA guys watching him think he has the situation “well in hand.” Also, he can dismantle an atomic bomb.

What makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: the way he pronounces Miss Galore’s first name.

BAD GUYS: To repeat: Goldfinger is where they perfect the formula. For the first time they clearly divide the opposition into Evil Genius (Goldfinger) and Henchman (Oddjob). This allows Bond to have a Worthy Adversary (alright, I’ll knock it off with the caps already), somebody who can match him witticism for witticism, epicureanism for epicureanism, without having to get his hands dirty with actual physical violence. That aspect of the villain’s duties is left, like a distasteful chore, to a hired man.

This allows for an instructive contrast with Bond, of course, who – as we’re reminded each time he defeats a henchman, and after that his evil genius – has both brains and brawn. The evil genius subcontracts out part of his manhood: Bond does not.

It helps, here, that Gert Frobe is one of the great Bond villains. Even if his dialogue is looped. The offhanded way he carries himself, even as he delivers the two most boffo lines given to any villain in the entire series (hint: they’re both in the laser scene). The way he manages to look menacing even in that ridiculous golf outfit.

And it also helps that Oddjob is the greatest, bar none, of the Bond henchmen. The secret? No, it’s not his silence (although the fact that he simply smiles when he crushes the golf ball in his hand makes the scene work better than any quip could have). It’s not even his razor-brimmed bowler (although, yes, that’s damned close). It’s the fact that he always dresses in tails. The sight of men in impeccably tailored suits doing acts of great violence is one of the things that gives the series its unique character. I’ll have occasion to say this again before the series is through…

Goldfinger and Oddjob are the eternal template for Bond villainy. In large measure, subsequent films will succeed or fail based on how well they rise to the challenge of making us forget, for a couple of hours, Messrs. Frobe and Sakata.

GRATUITOUS SEX: “My name is Pussy Galore.”

I’m tempted to let those five words speak for themselves, because my, do they say a lot. But as with certain scenes in the first two Bond movies, it’s worth taking a step back and realizing how daring she must have been for 1964. Galore, until Bond takes her for a roll in the hay, plays for the other team. “You can turn off the charm – I’m immune.” Now, it’s worth noting that we do not, cannot, condone the fact that Bond takes Ms. Galore’s stance as a challenge, nor do we approve of the tactics by which he finally breaches her defenses. Judi Dench’s M is right, see, when she calls Bond a misogynist dinosaur. We have no argument with that. We have no argument at all. All we can say is, we’re not immune.

Elsewhere in the Department of Gratuitous Sex we might observe that here, too, they begin to settle into the formula. They lose Sylvia Trench: there shall be no recurring love interests for 007. This makes room for the Masterson sisters, as well as the dancer in the pre-title sequence. The girl in gold paint is an iconic image, of course, one that transcends the series; the way Bond catches the first blow in the pretitle sequence is another defining moment for 007’s relationship with women.

We’re not immune.

Total GS score for this one, by the way: 2, with a near miss in the pretitle sequence.

AND VIOLENCE: The pretitle sequence here perfects the formula. The Bond Pretitle Sequence should start the film off with a bang (think Thunderball), feature an innovative fight scene (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) or stunt (The Spy Who Loved Me), take place in an Exotic Locale that the film does not revisit afterward (The World Is Not Enough), and bear only the most tenuous relationship to the main plot (For Your Eyes Only). All of these rules can be broken, but when they are it’s usually in order to call attention to the fact that they're being broken, so that you know you’re in a Different Kind of Bond Movie (Die Another Day; Quantum of Solace). All the requirements are met here for the first time. And it’s a pip of a sequence too - if you can forgive the seagull. Only Sean Connery could come close to pulling that off.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Our first visit to Q Section: here, too, we finally arrive at the formula. Bond visits Q in his lair and sees several unrelated gadgets/gags before Q introduces him to his new car/gun/watch/cellphone. To be honest this could and would get out of hand, but here it works. It helps that the gadget here is the definitive Bond car, that gray Aston-Martin. Not all Bond movies will have a cool car, but a cool car is every bit as important to the Bond image as a cool gun. And this movie knows why: it’s to make up for his “slight inferiority complex,” right? Now, where was I?

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: My one real qualm with this movie is that it spends so much time in America. I’ve never been able to figure out if they were trying to kiss up to American audiences by showing them Bond in their own country, or trying to appeal to audiences in Britain and elsewhere for whom Florida and Kentucky were exotic locales. Either way, it doesn’t ruin this movie. But Bond should go to glamorous places, as a rule. And KFC should never appear in a Bond movie.

ETC.: Shirley Bassey’s title song, like so much else about this movie, both establishes the formula and perfects it: jazz-inflected pop song sung with panache by a woman with a sexy voice, with lyrics that address either Bond or the villain. Or both; in the songs, I suspect there’s really no distinction. If the villain is worthy of Bond, it’s because he mirrors Bond in some fundamental way, and since the songs are about glamor and power and desire, in the end it doesn’t make all that much difference if Shirley’s lusting for James or Auric or both, or fearing either or both: it's all the same thing… Classic title sequence; again, it’s not Maurice Binder, and it’s his loss, because this is probably the defining title sequence for the series, with the camera’s eye oozing over that golden girl… Felix Leiter returns, and it’s not Jack Lord, and that’s a problem… I love how Goldfinger seems to have constructed an entire room in his Kentucky hideout, complete with mechanized floors and walls and scale model of Fort Knox, just so he can show it to his cronies for five minutes. Like, a photo wouldn’t do?

RATING: 007

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Roberto Menescal: Amanhecendo and A Morte de um Deus de Sal

This one I had on a compilation; I liked it, so I bought a whole disc of Menescal. Great stuff.

Take, for example, "Amanhecendo," from 1964. The Conjunto here is Menescal on tasteful electric guitar, a drummer, a pianist, a flutist, a bassist, and a vibraphonist. It's a mid-tempo number, a pleasant melody that alternates between guitar/vibe and flute/piano duet lines; this seems to be something Menescal likes, with each pair of instruments blending so perfectly to create a new and distinct sound. Then we get a piano solo: brief but energetic, really stirs things up. Then a mellow guitar solo takes us into the fade-out, with jazzy piano chords hanging in the background. It's the piano that really makes this record, whether it's comping interestingly behind the guitar/vibe lines or doubling the flute, and that solo.

Or, for another example, "A Morte de um Deus de Sal," also from 1964, also with the Conjunto. Different album, I think, so it may be a different lineup. Same instrumentation, though, except Menescal's on acoustic guitar this time. A very different song, this. A slow, foreboding, almost bluesy (in a jazz sense) bass line starts it off, doubled immediately by the piano, and then the percussionist comes in, with a skittering, tense little rhythm; can't tell if it's a really schizoid 4/4 or a swinging little 6/8 for a while. Again we have the instrumental overlay, this time it's flute, vibraphones, and piano; it's a really cool effect, combining the sustain of the flute with the attack of the vibes and piano. Again the thing climaxes with a jazz-inflected energetic solo, but this time it's the vibes that go crazy. Then we get a flute/piano doubled solo to ease us down.

(Unfortunately the solos don't show up in the samples on the riverine webmerchant's site, so you'll have to take my word for all this...)

Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade


And if that don't bring a smile to your face you might be dead.

Watched this with Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki this evening; part of Christmas with Audrey. This one of my favorite movies. Hepburn at her best, Grant at his best, both effortlessly charming, and with so much chemistry that you forget he was twenty-five years older than her. This is snappy dialogue, Hollywood pizzazz, star power.

As the Wikipedia entry says, it's the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made; it does have that tight, suspenseful plotting, but of course it doesn't have the darkness that you usually find in even the lightest of Hitchcock's films. It has its melancholy moments, though - and they're surprisingly moody for such a frothy film. Hepburn standing forlorn in her empty Paris apartment, or sitting on the veranda of the ski lodge dressed in black and contemplating divorce.

These of course are more than balanced by the humor - Grant showering in his suit ("drip dry," he says) and making faces at Hepburn - and the real sexual tension Hepburn and Grant generate. As I say, this is Hepburn at her most irresistible, her patented balance of womanly sensuality and girlish cuteness; I think she does it here better than she does it in Breakfast at Tiffany's even.

All this plus a Henry Mancini score and Maurice Binder titles. What more can you ask for?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed


So we ended up with a copy of this on DVD this Christmas. Santa brought Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki a bunch of Audrey Hepburn movies, because Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki loves Audrey Hepburn; mostly they were classics like Charade, How To Steal A Million, Sabrina, My Fair Lady. But Santa Tanuki also found this one on a certain riverine webmerchant and got it. Knew nothing about it.

This is the first of Bogdanovich's films I've seen; somehow he's been a blind spot in my exploration of '70s cinema, and his Sopranos cameos are about all I know of his work. This is probably not the best one of his to start with - imagine One From The Heart being your first Coppola.

Enough preamble. This turned out to be a weird film, but I enjoyed it. It's trying to be a semi-screwball romantic comedy in the style of the classic ones Audrey Hepburn starred in in her prime, but with a thoroughly 1981 cast and vernacular. So, snappy dialogue, but delivered with spaciness rather than sparkle. Which sounds disastrous, right? But somehow it's not.

The thing this film lacks that something like, say, Roman Holiday or Charade had is focus. Those films were tightly centered around the story, even if it was a convoluted story; in classic Hollywood fashion every scene and every character supported the story. They All Laughed works in a different way: half the time you're really not sure what the story is, and every character seems to come from a different movie universe entirely. It's a New York romance with a country music soundtrack and private eyes that seem drawn equally from Bogey and Cheech & Chong; John Ritter doing his best Peter Sellers, a hard-boiled female taxi driver, Audrey Hepburn looking like Yoko Ono; Colleen Camp talking like Katharine Hepburn but singing like Joan Baez; frustrating pacing; precocious kids, roller skating, and did I mention lots of country music?

Despite that, and only if you surrender and take the movie on its own terms, it works. All the performances are good, entertaining, memorable, and the dialogue really does have a certain snappiness to it, if you can match its frequency. Some nice camera work (such as the series of shots when Ritter runs up and in to the courthouse; Wes Anderson notes this sequence, too, in his conversation with Bogdanovich on the DVD, so I'm not original here; but it is a nice sequence). You may not know what's going on half the time, but it's not an unpleasant feeling here.

As an Audrey Hepburn movie, on the other hand...let's just say Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki was disappointed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Roberto Menescal e seu Conjunto: Surfboard

I can't vouch for the video, but you can hear the record here. I'm talking about Tom Jobim's "Surfboard" as recorded in 1966 by Roberto Menescal.

I previously knew this song in a recording by Herbie Mann and Stereolab on the compilation Red Hot + Rio. Good set, good track, but...well, the lesson here is that if you're playing bossa nova, you really want your rhythm section to be Brazilian. A previous generation learned that with Jazz Samba, a good record that nevertheless paled next to some of Getz's later cracks at bossa nova, in large part because Charlie Byrd's rhythm section just didn't have the light touch bossa nova requires. Neither does Stereolab, I guess - whatever else they may have going for them.

But Menescal's Conjunto does.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Alan Mills: Christmas Songs From Many Lands


So when the Tanuki was a kid he, like everybody else of his generation, was obsessive about catching the Christmas specials on TV every year. No VHS yet, don'cha know. If you missed them, or your babysitter made you go to bed too early, you were out of luck. We were religious about pulling the TV listings out of the newspaper every week, circling the specials, and marking them on the calendar.

One of my favorites was How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Chuck Jones animated masterpiece, of course: we ignore the Jim Carrey monstrosity, and hope karma takes care of everybody involved in it. We had the Grinch book, too, of course, but we also had one other artifact that the Tanuki remembers quite fondly. Evidently he's not the only one, because at least two others have blogged about it. Yes, we had the lp of Zero Mostel reading the book.

Now, this was awesome. But what was even more awesome was Side Two of the record, which had some guy singing Christmas songs from around the world, just voice and acoustic guitar. I loved this side; as a kid, I'm sure I loved it, but then as a folk-revival-obsessed teenager I loved it more.

This year I finally tracked it down. Turns out it was taken from a 1957 Folkways elpee called Christmas Songs From Many Lands Sung In English By Alan Mills. Like most of the Folkways catalog, it hasn't been released on CD, but you can buy it in mp3 form from the Smithsonian/Folkways website. It's also on Amazon and iTunes.

The full elpee has about twice as many songs as were included (pirated? Folkways used to be fairly lax about copyright, I understand, and I wonder if anybody respected theirs) on the Grinch record, and it's well worth shelling out nine or ten bucks for, if you at all like folk musick.

Mills is very much an early folk-revival kind of singer: impeccable diction, highly trained singing. Professional and classy. Everything that I, as a Dylan fanatic, have been schooled to hate in folk-revivalists. Ain't no mud, no bark, no husk on Alan Mills. And I probably would pass on it normally, but somehow his approach works perfectly for Christmas songs. The record sounds like a recital, not a hootenanny, and that's just fine. He's got a beautiful voice, with nice dark and mellow tones, and the folk-guitar accompaniment (by Gilbert Lacombe, not Mills himself) is nifty, nimble and tasteful.

The songs are well-selected, too: only a couple that are familiar to anybody but carol mavens. The rest are a nice mix of African-American spirituals, English ballads, and lesser-known European carols. Excellent renditions of the Greek "Saint Basil," the Russian "Kolyada," the Czech "Haidom-Haidom," the French "Bring A Torch." As you might expect from a folksinger of his generation, none sound especially "authentic," but they're all tuneful, enthusiastic, understated renditions. The perfect antidote to the schlock you hear over the mall muzak system this time of year.

A note: Folkways evidently made their mp3s from an old, battered vinyl copy of the record. You get fifty years worth of scratches and pops. A nice touch, actually.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jethro Tull, Mk. 3

took shape when Tull Mk. 2 members Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, Glenn Cornick, and Clive Bunker were joined by keyboardist John Evan in 1970. Evan, of course, was a member of Tull Mk. 0, a/k/a the John Evan Band.

The primary trend we noticed with Tull Mk. 2 continues here, and would continue forevermore: the music seems to be entirely Ian's concept, not a band thing at all. It kind of gives the lie to what I'm trying (halfheartedly, occasionally) to do, which is think about each successive lineup as a band... But there it is.

Anderson himself gives us the key to understanding this edition of the band, in the liner notes to the 2001 reissue of this lineup's only album, Benefit. He writes that with the addition of Evan, "the resultant thickening of the musical textures allowed guitarist Martin Barre to focus more on monophonic riffs and solos rather than worry about banging away at chords most of the time."

Those of us who aren't musicologists can probably hear what he means in this lineup's best-known song, "Teacher."* The main riff on this is not quite monophonic - I believe Martin's playing a chord there - and in fact it's backed by the piano and bass, but at the same time it's a lot more out front than most of what Martin was doing on Stand Up. He's developed a sound here, a style: hard and focused, even a little heavy, a nice foil for the frilliness of Ian's flute lines. Certainly there's still a variety of things going on in Tull's music at this point, but Martin begins to take on this defined role right about here.

The album: to my ears the big advance in Benefit is in production. The album sounds clean and open in a way the last ones didn't. Gone is the coy mustiness of the first one (and very charming it was, too), which lingered over a bit into the second one. Here everything's more immediate. Take for example my favorite passage on the album, the one-two punch of "Son" and "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, And Me." Both of these show off Anderson's new Idea, which is combining the idyllic acoustic stuff and bruising electric stuff in one song (wow, dude). They do it extremely well, too, perfectly realizing the father-son shouting match of "Son," and blending it into the escape fantasy of "Michael Collins." But more than the thematic appropriateness, consider the bite of the electric guitars, the very present strum of the acoustics. Very nice. This would be the sound of Tull for a very long time.

Not that every bit of the past had been jettisoned. Clean sound, for example, is dispensed with in one key aspect of "To Cry You A Song," whose ravenswing depressive guitar pattern is overlaid with a very dirtily-recorded vocal, to ravishing effect.

Unlike its immediate predecessor, this album is only about half memorable; the other cuts I go back to are the acoustic closer "Sossity; You're A Woman" (in spite of the unforgivably jejune wordplay of the title: sossity=society, and he even spells it out at the end), the groovy little dance number "Inside" (which actually sounds like it was played by a band, and contains some of Cornick's finest work), and "Nothing To Say" (which is just this much shy of being an anthem of some sort).

This lineup's best work really came on the non-album stuff. This included the jazzy little "Singing All Day" as well as the reworked live "Dharma For One," both of which showed up on the 1972 compilation Living In The Past (the latter was an instrumental on the first album but grew lyrics later). Let's not forget the lush, romantic "Witch's Promise," either, probably Tull's best non-album track yet. Tull were a singles band up through this period, although that would all change with the next record.

"Witch's Promise" is worth a closer listen. In mood and subject matter it fits in perfectly with the mystic-folk strain that was starting to come to the fore in British rock in this period (viz. Fairport Convention, second-period Traffic, Led Zeppelin); Tull would always keep a toe in that pool, although Anderson's vision was always much too cerebral to allow him to get really carried away with the white-witch stuff. But this song also boasts some really nice ensemble work. Most of it is Anderson: that's probably him on acoustic guitar, although Martin may be in there too, and of course that's Ian on flutes. But listen carefully and you'll hear really tasteful piano doubling a lot of the melodic lines. Clive contributes some gentle percussion work, and Glenn's bass comes to the fore with some nice woody lines. And then - heavens, is that a mellotron? Is prog rearing its ugly head?

*The b-side of "Witch's Promise" was "Teacher" - great a/b, that. And therefrom hangs a tail. The song was originally only released as a b-side in the UK, and not on the album; but it was added to the US version of the album. However, these seem to have been two different versions. I'm not entirely sure which is which, however. The familiar version is the one that's on the 2001 Benefit remaster, where it's included as a bonus track (because the album follows the original UK configuration), and labeled "original UK mix." But there's another version of the song on 20 Years of Jethro Tull, and this is labeled "b-side of 'Witch's Promise' UK single." I suspect what's going on is that the 20 Years version is the actual b-side, and the more familiar version (the only one you ever heard on the radio) is actually the US album version: it's the one that was on M.U. and other compilations. This may sound needlessly obscure, but the thing is, the 20 Years version is great. It's a little slower, and instead of flute it has a little more Hammond organ, and another guitar part added, a little raunchy, melancholy figure. Not huge differences, but they make for a sharply different mood, and suddenly it's a whole different song. The standard version is great, too, with that classic punchy riff, but the alternate version is so... seductive is an overused word, especially for outtakes, but this deserves it. I'd hate to have to choose between them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The American Visionary Art Museum

I probably shouldn't be allowed to write about the AVAM - in fact, I probably shouldn't be allowed to mention "Baltimore" in the same sentence as "art" -without having seen a couple of John Waters movies. And I haven't seen any. So, you know, make of this what you will.

Lemme say right up front that I really enjoyed this museum. I dug things like the big falling angel sculpture in the main building, the glass encrusted hearse in the barn, the photos of crop circles, the kinetic sculpture of the guy at his desk... (Wish I'd made notes on the names of the artists and titles of the pieces. Wasn't really thinking about blogging that day.)

That said, I found that my reaction to it has a lot in common with how I feel when I listen to David Byrne - (probably not) coincidentally, someone else who grew up partly in Maryland and then went elsewhere.

I.e., I usually really enjoy his music, but as often as not there's something in the way he sings, if not his lyrics, that tells me he's embarrassed about the music (if he's in his American Naive mode) or embarrassed in the face of the music (if he's in his World Music mode). And I can identify - boyoboy can I identify - but at the same time, sometimes you just want him to shaddup and let the music be what it is. The best example of David Byrne being David Byrne is Rei Momo, an album with some real nice Latin music, real hot stuff, and Byrne playing Self-Conscious White Guy on top of it all. There's art in the tension that creates, of course - hell, I like the album - but sometimes you just want to enjoy the music without the precious ironic positioning. That's when I reach for my revolver.

So: the American Visionary Art Museum. Which is to say, a big three-building museum devoted to what seems still to be known to most as outsider art, but which the AVAM prefers to describe as visionary. There's the Byrne effect, positioning the art for us a little too forcefully. Like, isn't there a lot of art that could deservingly be called visionary, but not outsider? That doesn't fall under the AVAM's brief?

Similarly, you read the wall texts (I spend far too much time in museums reading wall texts, I know), and they spend all this space talking about the biographies of the artists, always emphasizing the same things. It ends up constructing this sort of hierarchy of outsiderness: you know, like, the more time the artist has spent in a mental hospital, the more we're supposed to respect the art. Mmm. I understand the message: you don't have to go to the Right Art School and get your stuff displayed in a Hoity-Toity Soho Gallery to be an artist worth looking at. But overturning the hierarchy isn't destroying it. Reverse elitism is still elitism.

The thing is, the stuff on display doesn't need all this. There's some really cool stuff in there. That is, stuff that satisfies any definition of Art you'd care to give. My definition of art is pretty all-inclusive, but even by a narrower definition: high degree of craftsmanship, high degree of thought, lots of Meaning, challenging subject matter, tantalizing intertextuality, startling imagery, etc. All the hallmarks of Art. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck.

Did somebody step on a duck?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Franz West and the Baltimore Museum of Art

So, on the same trip to Baltimore that showed us the Basilica, me and Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki also went to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Looking around the web at blogs that discuss Baltimore, it's clear that a lot of people feel compelled to write and talk about how the place is falling apart. I don't have much to say about that, at least not here; partly because that's not what this blog is about, and partly because, well, what is there to say about it? Parts of Baltimore make you realize that The Wire really isn't exaggerating. It's important to understand, but on the other hand, that's not all there is. For what it's worth, the city also has some good museums. Enough, at any rate, to make it worth a weekend trip, if you're into that kind of thing.

I've been to three museums in Baltimore: the BMA, the Walters, and the American Visionary. The Walters I've been to a couple of times before, but we didn't go this time, so I won't blog it. The AVAM I'll try to get to soon. Meanwhile: the BMA.

My overall impression is that it's not well-rounded enough to make it one of the great museums, but some of its collections are world class, and they make it well worth a trip.

The Cone Collection is probably the best part. Some really first-rate work by Picasso, Matisse, and their contemporaries. The highlight for me was a room that recreates one end of one of the rooms in the Cone Sisters' apartment, so you can get an idea of what this art looked like in its natural habitat. Quite revealing, even decadent. I firmly believe great art should be available for public viewing, which conversely gives the idea of the private collection sort of the thrill of vice for me...and like most vice, I wouldn't want to do it, but it's fun to look at sometimes.

The Cone Collection proper is complemented by some choice modernist works in other rooms, both adjacent and on the floor below. Some good representative Surrealists, a fun Klee (is there any other kind? asks Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki). Some Bellows that was a revelation if all you know is his boxers and New York street scenes.

But I also found - and this was true last time I visited the BMA, before I really developed the distrust of the modern that I've sunk into now - that their collection of European masters was quite exciting, if not necessarily all that voluminous. A couple of Halses, a Rembrandt or two, a couple of wonderful van Dycks, and the like.

The special exhibit on right now is Franz West. About whom I'll freely admit I knew nothing before we got there. Very intriguing exhibit. It got me liking things I never thought I'd like. Such as The Ego and the Id (check the link; look at the slideshow; watch the assembly video). You really have to sit in it before you start to get it; when I did, I decided I disagreed with the wall label that said the pink one is the id and the multicolored one the ego. I think they're both the id. Also I liked Mirror in the Cabinet with Adaptives: you pick up this oddly shaped objet and go into this cubicle with a full-length mirror on the wall. Don't worry: nobody can see you. And before you know it, you're doing weird things with the objet. Twirling it like a baton, shouldering it like a musket, whatever. Thing is, the things are so curiously made, with such perfect heft and provocative form, that you can't help but want to play with them.

Play. Like. That's about where I'm going to leave it with West. I'm sure there's something more complicated going on - his 2D work, collages and paintings, make your brow hurt with the insistence that There's Something More Complicated Going On (rather than earning your interest) - but his sculptures are real friendly, while somehow escaping the wiseass feeling that a lot of interactive installations give me. So: I played. I liked.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy

So seeing Robertson Davies's portrait in the Yousuf Karsh exhibit at the MFA got me curious to read Davies. I had read at least the first book in the Deptford Trilogy back in college, so I started there. Here's my take on those books:

Fifth Business (1970)

Written as the memoir of Dunstable (Dunstan) Ramsay, upon his retirement as a history teacher at a Toronto boys’ school in 1970. He realizes the boys see him as ridiculous, and in a fit of indignation he decides to tell the headmaster the story of his life. Fair enough: I think the narrator realizes what a silly figure he cuts trying to justify himself, but at the same time he succeeds in convincing us that his life has some dignity, primarily by claiming for it the precise measure of dignity he deserves and no more. This is where the ittle concept comes in: Davies invented it as a term of European opera, meaning a fifth role type besides male and female leads and second leads: the fifth business is the odd man out who moves the plot forward in key ways for the others. And that’s what Ramsay is: by the end of the story we realize he’s only a bit player in his own life, and in the life of the world. The real story is about Paul Dempster and Boy Staunton.

The central incident of the story happens in 1908 when Ramsay is ten. He gets into an argument with his friend Boy (Percy), who starts throwing snowballs at Ramsay. Ramsay dodges behind some passersby, and a snowball hits one of them, a pregnant woman, Mary Dempster. She collapses, has her baby prematurely, and is never right in the head afterward.

Ramsay’s mother takes it upon herself to care for Mary, and so Ramsay himself ends up doing chores for her. At the same time Ramsay feels tremendous guilt—she took a shot meant for him. The baby, Paul, survives, but is never accepted by the village. The boys all ridicule the Dempsters, and it gets worse after Mary is caught having sex with a hobo. They become outcasts, Paul runs away with a circus, and Ramsay’s guilt grows.

He comes to see Mary as a living saint. Her simple wisdom and charity impress him, and later he sees her raise his brother from the dead; much later, he has a vision of her superimposed on a Madonna, when he’s near death on the battlefield at Paschendaele; still later he learns that the tramp she slept with reformed his life and started a mission for hobos. Ramsay considers these the three miracles required for sainthood.

He’s interested in saints throughout his life, although he was raised Presbyterian (=no saints); as a scholar he becomes a celebrated expert on hagiography, driven partly by his desire to see Mary recognized as a saint, and partly by his attraction to miracles and the possibility of wonder in a world rapidly becoming devoid of it.

He maintains an uneasy friendship with Boy his entire life; Boy is successful at everything, and eventually becomes one of the richest men in Canada. Boy marries a girl Ramsay had once had a crush on and lords it over him ever after (Ramsay lets it get to him, although he had ceased to love Leola long before she marries Boy). Boy seems to feel no guilt at all over what happened to Mary; Ramsay feels it ever after, and as Mary’s family dies, and Ramsay’s, Ramsay becomes her guardian and supports her for the rest of her life.

Ramsay encounters Paul a few times as an adult; Paul has become a magician, something Ramsay had introduced him to as a child. Magic, wonder, mystery, synchronicity, spirituality all play a huge part in the novel; the characters all have one mythic overlay or another, and in the course of the story Ramsay encounters a holy fool Jesuit and a Swiss woman, Liesl, he sees as the Devil; she gives him some good advice and they become sex friends.

The whole thing ends with a revelation and a mystery. Boy, Ramsay, and Paul meet when they’re all old men, and for the first time Ramsay talks about what happened with Mary and the snowball. Paul never knew; Boy says he can’t remember. And Ramsay reveals that the snowball had held a rock, which he has kept all this time. In other words, Boy’s action was serious, more than just a snowball – it would have seriously hurt whoever it hit. Boy doesn’t care; Paul says little. But that night Boy is found to have driven his car off a pier and committed suicide, seemingly; the stone is found in his mouth. Did Paul hypnotize him and kill him? Is this a long-delayed revenge?

You see what I mean: Ramsay plays a key role, but the real actors are Boy and Paul. Ramsay just suffers, just feels guilt – enough for him and Boy. And yet the focus is squarely on Ramsay: the dignity and psychology of the Fifth Business, who knows that’s all he is, and is content with it. Is in fact dedicated to trying to understand life from that perspective.

So: Davies famously employs Jungian archetypes in his fiction. I don’t know much about them. But I can pick up on some of the myth here. Mary=Madonna, Dempster=redemptor; Boy=eternal boy; Liselotte=Satan, he who lies a lot; etc. If that’s all that was in the novel I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much, but Davies gives each of these characters a life and a weight that makes them specific people, as well as archetypes; and sometimes they’re aware of their own or each other’s status as archetypes, although not to a metafictional degree.

There’s a lot here, a lot of plot strands I haven’t even mentioned; Ramsay’s relationships with women, for example, never very successful or ardently pursued. For a relatively short book, it’s packed with quite a lot of stuff. Davies doesn't waste a word, a scene, or a character. And yet it doesn’t feel like that: there’s time for verbal play, for attention to style, to the nuances of Dunstan’s voice, for scenes that feel relaxed and random even if they later prove to have moved key themes forward in an economical way.

Davies’s prose is interesting: at least in this book (which is trying to capture a sort of rusticated intellectualism slightly before the author’s own time), it’s a little more ornate than was standard for its day, and yet it’s recognizably modern. The humor is a little schoolteachery, a little fulsome, but this is balanced out by the novel’s pithy unsentimentality. The lack of sentimentality, on the other hand, never chokes off real emotion, never crosses into out and out cynicism. It’s a poised book.

It insists, most of all, on a spiritual dimension to life, on wonders and miracles as a part of human experience, even as its protagonist goes through all the disillusionment and soul-crushing of life in a claustrophic small Canadian town, the Depression,and service in the first World War. Boy becomes an atheist, but Ramsay points out that’s because he only ever worshiped himself anyway. Ramsay always knew there was more: Mary showed him that.

A peculiar book. Courtlier than what I’ve read of American fiction of its day, but no less modern.

The Manticore (1972)

In a way it feels like a middle book: interesting, but dependent on what came before, and ending in a way that only sets up the third book. Except that this doesn’t really resolve anything from the first book, and the third resolves nothing from this.

It’s about, and narrated by, David, the son of Boy Staunton, the guy who dies at the end of the first book. David is a lawyer, a bachelor, and an alcoholic, and he comes close to a breakdown just after his father’s death, and flees to Zurich to see if the Jungians can help him out. The book is mostly his conversations with Dr. Johanna von Haller, his psychiatrist, and as such it’s a straightforward explanation of the Jungian ideas that seem to have influenced the first book, but remained shrouded in mystery there. There’s mystery here, too, but lots of straightforward Jungian theory, too.

David’s story is essentially that he’s always been under his father’s thumb, but he worships his father. Took refuge in cold intellectualism—the law—partly because feeling scared him, with his mother dying and suspicions that she had been cheating on Boy with Ramsay (David is in denial about his father’s infidelities), and even suspicions that Ramsay might be his father… David’s life itself isn’t that interesting. One encounter with sex: his father arranges a night in Montreal with one of his mistresses. One encounter with love: a Jewish girl in Toronto whose parents decide he’s not good enough for her. One major discovery about his ancestry: that the first Staunton to go to Canada was not a respectable person but a bastard whose mother defiantly begged until she could take her child away from England. She had guts, is the word, and this stands David in good stead at the end… The one really new character we get, besides von Haller, is David’s nurse Netty, a domineering woman who may have killed, or at least facilitated the death of, Leola, because she always loved Boy.

In the end, on a break from therapy, David runs into Ramsay, Liesl, and Eisengrim in Switzerland, and they spend the holiday at Leisl’s castle. Leisl takes him up the mountain into a prehistoric cave once used as a chapel for worshiping bears: to get there they have to crawl through this tunnel for a quarter of a mile; coming out is terrifying for David, and he has to call on his great-grandmother’s strength to make it. A confrontation with the atavistic darkness and worshipfulness of the race, and a rebirth.

It’s definitely not the novel its predecessor is. Mainly I think this is because it seems to work so hard to explain the Jungian schematic. There’s more to it than that, but that’s where its heart seems to be, and it means that it falls a bit short of the delights of the first. On the other hand, it’s just as good a display of style, and in a different way. This is written in a pithy, measured, but still elegant style that reflects the lawyer’s love of simplicity, directness, and accuracy. And when it’s not trying to filter its characters through Jung it’s just as vivid a realization of character as the first book is.

This ends with the hint that David is just about to confront a very important woman, the next stage in his anima, someone who will help him complete his spiritual/psychological journey. But that's not what the third book is about.

(Or is it?)

(No, it isn't.)

World of Wonders (1975)

This one is told by Paul Dempster/Magnus Eisengrim. That’s not quite true: it’s Ramsay recording Paul’s life story as told by Paul in several marathon sessions. Paul’s audience is Ramsay, Liesl, and three people who are working with Paul to make a movie about the historic French magician Robert-Houdin. The three are a Swedish film director, Lind; his cinematographer Kinghovn; and Ingestree, a British novelist who’s coordinating the project for the BBC. The narration is taking place sometime after David’s in the second book, and the venue is first Switzerland, and then London, but there’s very little action in the present, just conversation.

But what conversation! There are few things I enjoy more in a novel than well-written dialogue, and this book is all that. My favorite novel for this is Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, with conversations and monologues that go on for chapters at a time, but never get boring. This is a whole book of that.

I dug My Dinner with André, too.

Paul’s life story is this: he didn’t exactly run away with the carnival as a child, as we were told in the first book. He was abducted by the magician, Willard, who was a pederast. The carnival was called the World of Wonders, and Willard kept Paul for most of his teens, raping him regularly until Willard’s addiction to heroin robbed him of the will and strength to do it anymore. Meanwhile, Paul’s role in the carnival was to sit inside this huge, grotesque mechanical Oriental and do card tricks. The important point was that Paul’s identity was completely erased in this way: audiences never saw him, and he sat out of site of anybody who knew his existence for most of each day. It was self-effacement at its purest. Eventually Willard’s addiction killed him, and for the last couple of years Paul was the master conjuror, exhibiting Willard as a geek.

Paul’s carnival years fill essentially the first half of the book. The second half covers what he did in his twenties, which was to join the touring theatrical company of one Sir John Tresize and his wife. This was in the ‘30s, and the Tresizes, we learn, were actors in a romantic tradition that was all but dead by this point, thoroughly despised or ignored by modern critics, although they were still loved by unsophisticated audiences. Paul’s role here, too, involved self-effacement: he was Sir John’s double for athletic scenes, such as a high-wire bit in Scaramouche. This called for another kind of disappearance, as Paul was required to learn how to duplicate Tresize’s every move, every air.

This covers most of the rest of the book, and fills in most of the important points of the Magician’s Autobiography, a genre that is the topic of a lot of discussion in the first and third books, since Ramsay writes Eisengrim’s. From Willard Paul learned conjuring, from Tresize he learned showmanship. The final ingredient came during WWII, which Paul spent in Switzerland fixing mechanical toys for a rich man who turns out to have been Liesl’s father. Paul and Liesl fall in a kind of love, and her money and vision help him to become Magnus Eisengrim. The end.

And an interesting story in its own right, with lots of vivid detail about carnivals and theatricals, lots of entertaining grotesques and romantic cameo sketches. But what makes the book really interesting is that at the end of every chapter (after Eisengrim goes to bed, leaving everybody in suspense), we get the hearers interpreting what they’ve just heard. At first we get the spiritual and doomy Swede, Lind, versus his utterly practical photographer, debating whether or not it’s possible to find and or convey depth in a story like this. Lind is all about the mystery at the heart of human experience, but Kinghovn is all about surfaces: give me the right light, he says, and I can simulate any depth, but in the end it’s all about the light. Ramsay, meanwhile, is of course on the side of mystery, but his main interest is to find out once and for all if Paul killed Boy Staunton.

In the second half the running commentary takes on a different tone, because it turns out that Ingestree had been a youthful member of the theatrical company at the same time as Paul. But Ingestree hated and hates everything Tresize stood for artistically: Ingestree is a Modern, and he locks horns with the uneducated Paul over every detail of the company. This in itself is a very entertaining clash, as Paul tries to make the case for artistic values that are not necessarily in fashion, while Ingestree insists that only what is current is of any worth. It’s pretty clear where Davies’s sympathies lie, but to his credit he makes Ingestree a pretty sympathetic voice.

Paul is kind of an idiot savant: the fact that he has no formal education, but is very articulate and thoughtful anyway, is constantly emphasized (not least of all by himself: one of the more vivid bits of characterization in the book). But everyone around him is so hyperintellectual that it kind of undercuts his insistence on street learning; like the other two, it’s a very erudite book, even as it trucks with carnivals and melodramas.

The vividity of the worlds depicted in the novel present an interesting challenge after the second book. Having learned, supposedly, the basic tools of Jungian analysis in The Manticore, we get the feeling we’re supposed to be able to unravel Paul’s story according to archetypes, but the shiny surfaces (Kinghovn’s territory) distract us. That very tension is part of what makes the book entrancing, though. I don’t pretend to have penetrated its depths.

What of the trilogy? It turns out to be largely the same events, or three sets of intersecting events, narrated by three different participants, with three very different outlooks. Paul is the Doer, in the thick of life in all its unpleasantness: he’s intelligent, but not a Thinker. Liesl says he lives according to almost medieval codes for understanding the world. Ramsay is the Thinker, intentionally sidelining himself from the business of life so that he can study it. He has a late in life fling with action, hooking up with Magnus’s show, but even then he’s relegated to the role of scribe.

What of David, then? I think he’s a substitute for his father. David is a minor character in the first book, and entirely absent from the third; and his story is largely about his father, about him coming to terms with his father. Every boy’s story is, in a way—David is a boy/David is Boy. That’s facile, but if David is not Boy, then Boy’s voice is very conspicuous in his absence. The central event of the trilogy is the snowball that Boy throws at Ramsay that hits Paul’s mother. We get Ramsay’s account, we get Paul’s account, but we don’t get Boy’s. We do, however, get an account by the only member of Boy’s family who seems capable of self-reflection, his son.

So who killed Boy Staunton? This book gives an answer, but I’m not sure I buy it. I’m not sure we’re supposed to buy anything Magnus tells us. I think it was David, and for reasons that are totally outside the text, but I think right up Davies’s alley. Boy Staunton is a Goliath in his son’s life, and a small stone, once slung in anger, is involved in his death. Who slings stones at giants? Davids.

But then, I've just said I think David is his father.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Karsh 100 and the new Ritts room at the MFA

There are two, count 'em two, photography exhibits going on at the MFA in Boston right now. The Tanuki got to take a good long look at both of them a couple of weeks ago.

One is Karsh 100, a big retrospective on Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. I've been aware of Karsh for a long time, although for an embarrassing reason: he did a portrait of Rush for their album Grace Under Pressure, and as an incredibly nerdy Rush fan in high school, I noticed this. Also caught an exhibit of his work at the BYU art museum in '95 or '96, must've been. The MFA's show is far more extensive, though.

It includes selections of his non-portrait work, to give a better picture of him as a technician, an artist, and I guess as a person; some of his experimental early work, before he discovered his gifts (and patronage) as a portraitist, and some of the photoessay work he undertook in his maturity, social-realist views of Canada's cities, industrial utopian jobs for corporate brochures. All interesting, but not as interesting as his portraits.

Which I'm not sure are interesting, at least not in a high-art way. I kept looking for something deeper in the portraits, but all I found was what the sitters wanted me to see - what, presumably, the people who commissioned the portraits (who weren't always the sitters) wanted me to see. Famous things like the iconic picture of Hemingway, all manly beard and weatherbeaten face; this is how people wanted to see him, and Karsh gave it to them, larger than life. Or, to pick an example less well known to people in this country, his portrait of Robertson Davies (can't find this anywhere on the web to link to - sorry), which makes the man look like a palimpsest of Dickens and Pound, which is kind of what his books read like.

And yet: there's usually a startling beauty in the portraits, because Karsh was a master of light and texture. Flesh takes on the luster of marble, hair becomes silk; he'll often focus not just on the face, but on one point in the face, the nose or the chin, and everything else is just a little blurry, but that one point is indelibly captured. How you feel about one of his portraits will often depend on how you feel about the sitter, and the persona he or she projects, but if you can ignore that, there's a lot of surface beauty to lose yourself in.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had recently about a Van Dyck in the Baltimore Museum of Art. When you look at a portrait of a wealthy Dutch patron, do you see the loveliness of light on silk, or do you see capital? They're both there, of course.

The other photography exhibit at the MFA right now is the inaugural rotation of the new dedicated photography rooms they've opened, the Herb Ritts and Clementine Haas Michel Brown Galleries. The theme of this one is the body, and it's a splendid collection of stuff to look at. It ranges from the most experimental of things to the most accessible, and it's all great.

The accessible end of things is Herb Ritts his very own self, and it's hard to argue with his humongous (that's an art historical term) portrait of Sinead O'Connor. I guess I really am hopelessly bourgeois, if this grabbed me as much as some of the thornier pieces in the exhibit. But it did.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

James Bond review: From Russia With Love (1963)


(For my other Bond reviews, and my apologia for the project, see the tags on the right.)

CUT TO THE CHASE: The best of the Connery Bonds. If that makes it, by definition, the best of the Bonds, so be it. You’ll get no argument from me.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The first movie was such a hit that the second one decides to get a little meta on us. They kill Bond off in the pre-title sequence. They don’t bring him back for another ten minutes. When they do, they play with the idea of Bond’s celebrity - SPECTRE’s ruse is of a Russian intelligence clerk who has fallen in love with the glamorous British agent. MI6 and Bond don’t believe it, and of course we know it’s a trap - but in the end of course that’s exactly what happens, the girl does fall in love with Bond. The point being: who wouldn’t?

“Suppose when she meets me in the flesh, I don’t come up to her expectations?” he says, when M shows him the girl’s picture. As if.

And that’s Bond all over: women want to be with him, men want to be him. Connery showed us why in the first movie, but the movie itself was not a perfect success; here he has a movie worthy of his Bond. And it only adds luster to his Bond.

We might note, however, that already we have one definitive change in Bond’s character. The brief hints of loneliness we got in Dr. No are snuffed out here, replaced by the bonhomie he shares with Kerim Bey. For the moment, though, that dark side is not missed: we’re too busy enjoying Bond’s luster, and his lust for life.

What Makes Bond Bond: “Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.”

BAD GUYS: An embarrassment of riches here, deployed in interesting ways, before the Bond baddie became a formula. First and foremost we’ve got Robert Shaw as Grant, formidable and fun to watch; not as colorful as many later Bond villains, but the more believable because of it, and it makes the movie work.

He’s just the henchman, though; the real villain is the immortal Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, ex-KGB, now working for SPECTRE. She’s suitably iron-clad and scary, but with a delicious hint of the sensuality and energy that must have filled her work with Kurt Weill. She’s one of the Bond series’ crowning glories, really - note the barest hint of sapphic interest she injects into Klebb’s appraisal of Tatiana.

But even Klebb is only a henchman. She works for SPECTRE, and for the first time we meet the head of that august organization. Or at least, we meet his hands. And his cat. A brilliant visual signature for the films, by the way, as evidenced by its ubiquity in Bond parodies. Later, of course, we’ll see a lot more of Blofeld, but he’ll never have the impact he does here.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Sylvia Trench is back (luv that name), the only time a Bond girl has made an encore appearance, although she’s really a minor Bond girl, and at least two other actresses have appeared twice, although as different characters.

We’ll pause to take note of the two gypsy girls Bond meets outside of Istanbul; the implied threesome is not only incredibly daring for 1963, it helps raise the gratuitous sex quotient of this film to a respectable four, among the highest of the series.

Of course the indelible Daniela Bianchi is the main Bond girl here, as Tatiana Romanova, the Russian spy who succumbs to Bond’s charms. Like Ursula Andress, Bianchi’s English was insufficient for the part, so her lines were looped by another actress. And looped well: that sultry voice is a big part of the character’s appeal. Another big part is quite small: that velvet choker. Vavavoom. Bianchi, with her Italian sophistication lurking just behind her character’s Russian sex-kitten veneer, is one of my favorite Bond girls.

AND VIOLENCE: Lots of memorable action sequences. Bond’s fistfight with Grant is a classic, the two of them thrashing around in the dark in the train, weird reflections in the shattered window and all. The assassination of Krilencu, as he crawls out between Anita Ekberg’s lips. Klebb’s shoes. The shoot-out in the gypsy camp. This movie is packed; it’s only here you realize how tentative Dr. No really was.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Q! For Quartermaster, of course. Only one real gadget, a tricky attache case. Naturally it comes in handy. But that’s hardly the point. The point is Bond’s attitude toward the whole thing: the politely concealed bemusement with which he listens to Q’s explanation of the gadgets, his game attempt to look relieved at having correctly followed the simple instructions. Bond uses the gadgets - he needs them - but he never welcomes them. He’s above them. Bond is not his gadgets.

Bond is a response to the late 20th-century crisis in masculinity, every bit as much as Fight Club was. But Bond doesn’t need Fight Club: as much as he loves his martinis, his suits, and later his cigars, he is not them.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: The Orient Express: can’t get much more exotic a locale than that. Istanbul, Yugoslavia before it became the former Yugoslavia, and then Venice.

ETC.: If anything, the James Bond Theme is a bit overused here - people liked it in the first one, so they made sure we got enough of it this time. They still haven’t quite arrived at the full music formula, however: the opening title music is an instrumental, although a vocal version appears over the closing credits. There it’s sung, quite authoritatively, by Matt Monro… The title sequence itself is the first of the truly classic title sequences; it’s not Maurice Binder, but it’s a masterpiece of simplicity, logos projected onto belly dancers… No room for Felix Leiter, but Pedro Armendariz is the most memorable of all the Bond liaisons anyway… If you watch it right after Dr. No, and try to forget about the rest of the series, you realize this movie is, first and foremost, a sequel. From the way they overuse the music, to the way they take care to bring back even a throwaway character from the first film like Sylvia, to the way everything is bigger! and better! (more girls, more fights, more locations, more gunplay), it’s clear they’re doing what a sequel does, which is try to give the audience more of what they liked, with enough twists to keep it from feeling like the same thing. The marvel is that the sequel so far exceeded the original that more and more sequels became inevitable. This film was the pivotal one: Dr. No’s success ensured that this film got made, but if this film had failed, I wouldn’t be writing a series of James Bond reviews.

RATING: 007