Saturday, January 3, 2009

James Bond review: You Only Live Twice (1967)

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

CUT TO THE CHASE: This is definitely the grooviest of the Bonds.

BOND, JAMES BOND: In which we learn that Bond took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge. And that he’s a Commander in the Royal Navy.

The producers knew this would probably be Connery’s last Bond, and as a result they really play up the character this time. Bond’s back to being a spy – there’s another commando assault at the end of this one, like in Thunderball, but overall Bond’s doing less fighting and more sneaking. He goes “undercover,” even. He fakes his own death, with MI6’s help. And he gets married, sort of. Everything you’ve never seen Bond do, he does here.

Connery looks fabulous in this movie, at least until he turns Japanese. His suits are wonderful. He even manages to look good when he puts on a bad guy’s saddle shoes. He even manages to look good in that pink dress shirt. Like I say, it’s a very groovy film.

But back to Bond and his “first in Oriental languages.” We’ve already noticed how Bond is, quite obviously, a (male) fantasy of a certain variety of maleness. But what we haven’t remarked on, and what becomes obvious in You Only Live Twice, is how Bond is a (British, at this point) fantasy of Britishness. In all the films up to this point, it’s up to British intelligence to save the world, with the CIA relegated to a supporting role. Maybe that’s why they never brought back Jack Lord as Felix Leiter: he was too charismatic, and that didn’t fit the series’s intentions for the Americans.

In this film, Britain’s role is even more pronounced: it’s up to the cool-headed, rational British to prevent the hot-headed Americans and Russians from going to war. Britain can do this because they have James Bond; but James Bond can do this because he’s British. Because he’s cool, stoic, determined, clever, resourceful, educated, cultured, at ease everywhere: in short, because he’s a modern English gentleman with all the benefits of an Imperial tradition behind him. Look at how in control he is in Japan: he’s no blundering American, no blunt instrument (despite what M would one day say). He knows his way around; he knows the temperature sake should be served at. His capability is mirrored, in this film, by Our Man In Japan, Henderson (played by Charles Gray, who has no neck); Henderson notes that he’s been in Japan for twenty-eight years. I.e., since before Pearl Harbor, which is when America began paying attention to Japan.

What Makes Bond Bond: He emerges from his burial-at-sea shroud with his uniform in perfect order.

What Makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: He can almost make you believe he passes for Japanese. Well, not really – but at least you don’t hate watching him try.

BAD GUYS: SPECTRE again, but this time Blofeld himself is the villain. And this means we finally get to see his face. This is both a welcome development and a problem. SPECTRE wasn’t going to be interesting much longer if they couldn’t bring Blofeld out of the shadows, but of course they minute they do he loses his mystique.

This problem could have been neutralized had they chosen the right actor to play Blofeld, but they chose Donald Pleasence instead. I might as well reveal here that my favorite Blofeld is the unofficial one, Max von Sydow in Never Say Never Again. But I think I would have been okay with anybody who managed to have presence in the role; I kind of like Telly Savalas’s performance, too. Pleasence sounds wonderful as Blofeld, simultaneously seductive and truly creepy. Dig the way he says something like “piranha fish.” But when you finally see him, he’s completely underwhelming. Mike Myers didn’t even need to parody him: he’s already a joke on himself.

Blofeld’s scheme this time around is to start World War III – he’s hired himself out to the Chinese (although they’re not named) as an agent provocateur. Fine and dandy, but how he’s doing this is by kidnapping American and Russian spacecraft. One of the powers will send up an orbiter, and Blofeld’s rocket will come up behind it, gobble it up, and then bring it back to earth to hide it in this hollow Japanese volcano. This is insane. I used to think it was a weakness in this movie.

Then I realized how completely and utterly groovy it is.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Karin Dor as SPECTRE underling Helga Brandt is a real letdown after the glories of the last four movies. She’s the first Bond girl I find just plain forgettable, although I know these things are subjective. They try for groovy with her red hair and black eyebrows, but it’s just weird.

Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki and Mie Hama as Bond’s “wife” Kissy, on the other hand, are great. Hama, especially, looks mighty fetching scampering around on the side of the volcano in her white bikini and deck shoes.

Oh, and GS: 3, unless you count (which Bond himself doesn’t seem to) the near miss with Ling in Hong Kong.

AND VIOLENCE: Another commando raid, except this time they’re, like, sixteenth-century commandos. The less said about the ninjas the better, I guess.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Another Q field trip; I like how he arrives with a smart squad of Q-juniors to assemble the gear. Little Nelly is the best gadget this time, an agile little gyrocopter. Connery looks like he’s driving a go-cart, but he makes it look good.

But my favorite gadget is Tiger Tanaka’s private train on which he rides around in luxury deep under the surface of Tokyo. And for a couple hundred yen, you too can ride it: it’s the Marunouchi Line of the Tokyo Metro, with its distinctive red cars. Doesn’t quite look like that inside, though, and it’s usually a bit more crowded…

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Japan was certainly the most exotic locale they’d used yet; the problem is, they overdo it. At times it almost feels like you’re watching a documentary on Japan: Land of Enchantment (“Boy, do they do things different over there!”). Like, spending far too long on the “wedding ceremony,” or having Tôhô’s chanbara b-squad demonstrating their most basic moves. (“Look, that guy can split a block of ice with his hand!”) Whenever the series goes to an Exotic Locale it tends to give you a condensed Baedeker’s view of it – the Junkanoo in Thunderball, the bullfighting in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - so we expect it. It just goes a little overboard here. Is that groovy, too?

On the other hand, when the film takes us through modern ‘60s Tokyo, it is groovy. This was Swinging Tokyo just when it was starting to enter its very own psychedelic era, and you get glimpses of that. Plus, Tiger Tanaka’s headquarters, with their big roundish video screens, hint at the Futuristic Tokyo we all know and love so well today.

ETC.: The theme song is one of the best in the series. John Barry outdoes himself with the elegant Orientalism and subtle fuzz-guitar of the arrangement, and Nancy Sinatra sings it fairly well, too… The title sequence itself is pretty stunning, cool geisha and hot lava… The cinematography in this film deserves special mention, with lots of lush colors and some fairly striking camera angles and cuts: remember the aerial shot of Bond fighting his way across the roof of the warehouse in Kobe?… Let me just say that Tiger Tanaka makes me smile every time: Tetsuro Tanba is as cool as they come. And he deserves special mention as perhaps the only actor in the Bond series to start his own religion. And if that's not groovy, I don't know what is.

RATING: 006.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Godfather, Part III

So, I just saw The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II on the big screen, the new restorations that have been doing the revival house rounds. I was very excited to finally see them on film, although I was rather bummed that the Brattle didn't scrounge up an old print of The Godfather, Part III to show. I consider the Godfather movies to be among the treasures of the cinema. I know that this makes me a very typical American male...

I've seen the Godfather movies more times each than I've seen any other movie, probably, so I'm sure that while this is my first Godfather post, it won't be my last. But since it is the first, I thought I'd better establish my basic perspective on the films. What follows is a user comment I posted a number of years ago on a different website, under a different name. If I was writing it now I'd probably change a few things, but I'll let that be the subject for another time.

Here 'tis:

I don't consider Godfather 3 to be a sequel except in the strict, literal sense of the word: it came after the earlier movie. In the pejorative sense in which the word is usually used of movies - i.e., something that was thought up later to cash in on the success of the first one - this is definitely not a sequel.

Godfather 3 is, instead, just what it says it is: part three of a single, unified story.

I see the Godfather trilogy - stay with me now, stop rolling your eyes - as a tragedy along Greek or Elizabethan lines. Remember how they taught you in high school about the structure of the Elizabethan 5-act tragedy? The climax was in the third act, in the sense that in the middle the tragic hero did something that sealed his fate, and everything after that was just the relentless playing out of the consequences of that single deed.

Looked at in this way, Michael Corleone is the tragic hero of the Godfather movies. And as a tragic hero he's up there with the best of them - just as archetypal in his own way as Oedipus or Hamlet.

Michael is the man who can't live down his heritage, the man who can't escape his upbringing, or, ultimately, himself. Like all good tragic heroes, he has enough potential for good to make him a sympathetic figure- he wanted so badly to get out; even in part three, decades into a life of crime, Michael can make you believe he has always wanted out. But it's his own weaknesses, his own ambition - his own virtue, in a way - that ruins him.

His tragic act, the one which sealed his fate, was ordering Fredo's death at the end of part two. One might say that it came earlier, with the kiss of death he gave Fredo in Havana ("I know it was you, Fredo"), but still, up until the point that he actually ordered the execution, Michael could have turned back. But after that point, his own fate was sealed. He had destroyed, symbolically, the very thing that he had been fighting to protect all his life: his family.

So why make part three? Isn't this all understood at the end of part two?

Coppola had to make part three for the same reason the Elizabethans had to write the last two acts of their tragedies: the cathartic, morally instructive, and dramatically satisfying part was in watching what came after the turning point. You know, in act three, that the hero is doomed, but you have to watch his doom played out. That's emotionally satisfying, it's morally necessary, it's artistically beautiful.

And that's what Godfather Part III is all about. You know, if you paid attention to part two, that Michael is not going to live happily ever after. He can't: in the moral universe of the movie, but more importantly in the moral universe he has created for himself, he has committed an unforgivable sin, and he must pay. But he doesn't know it yet: being human, he can always convince himself that he'll be able to escape culpability for his actions - until, that is, his guilt is driven home to him.

Thus, when critics complain that Godfather 3 is anticlimactic, they're more right than they realize - it's not the climax of the trilogy. It's the long, tragically necessary playing-out of Michael's doom.

We know how it will end, thematically at least: but there's great beauty and pathos in watching Michael be utterly destroyed. We watch his grandiose plans to save the Church (!), knowing all the time that his hopes are in vain. He cannot be forgiven. Just like the cardinal his confessor says: he could be forgiven, but he himself does not believe it. This is great tragedy, folks. It's entirely appropriate that the last third of the movie be acted out to the backdrop of an opera, because that's what this is.

And this is how the movie's climactic scene should be seen.

When Michael's daughter is killed, he suddenly loses that which is most precious to him - and he realizes, you can see it in his eyes, that it's all his fault. This is a divine retribution upon him for killing Fredo. He wanted to protect his family, and only ended up ensuring their destruction. Michael's scream on the steps of the opera house is one of the great cathartic moments in movie history - moves me to tears every time I see it. You can just see the man's whole life melt there into one sustained cry of anguish. (A brilliant stroke of Coppola's directorial brush, the decision to make the first breath of his scream silent, only music - it makes it that much more intense, and private.)

Performances: uniformly excellent. Pacino's style, in the intervening fifteen years, had become much more demonstrative, but it fits the character, as the steely control of the young Michael Corleone relaxes into the benign self-confidence of the older man.

Diane Keaton, as she did before, gives unbelievable depth to what is still a fairly minor role - somehow managing to conjure up the entire non-Sicilian world in the single character of Kaye. Andy Garcia is fantastic as Sonny's son. Everybody, in fact, gives perfectly nuanced performances, except, of course, poor Sophia, and hers is the most important role!

Perfect conclusion to the best movie ever made.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

James Bond review: Thunderball (1965)

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

CUT TO THE CHASE: How do you top Goldfinger? More of everything.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Which means that Bond gets more girls, and fights more bad guys, than in any of the first three movies. It’s over the top, to say the least, and turns Bond into more action hero than spy. Bond flies! Bond swims! Bond plays with sharks!

Connery does what’s required of him, and to his credit he does it in the only way that would really make this material work: lightly, sarcastically. Thunderball’s plot is the most serious to date, or at least the most bombastic, but Thunderball’s Bond is the lightest to date, as Connery walks around outclassing everyone, kicking all the guys’ asses, turning all the girls’ heads, and never breaking a sweat. If Connery had played it straighter, the movie would have collapsed under the weight of its own silliness; likewise if Connery had played it for laughs. Both mistakes would be made in future installments, but here Connery gets it just right.

What Makes Bond Bond: Fiona Volpe impugns his potency, and he just smirks and says, “Well, can’t win them all.” James Bond’s manhood is not threatened.

What Makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: He flies in with a rocket backpack wearing a stupid-looking helmet, and as he’s putting the gear away in the trunk of the Aston-Martin he says, “No well dressed man should be without one.” Heh.

BAD GUYS: SPECTRE again. An elaborate and fairly well-thought-out plot to capture a couple of A-bombs and hold them for ransom. Blofeld is around again, hiding behind a screen in SPECTRE headquarters in Paris. But that’s his last appearance; as in From Russia With Love, the real villain of the piece is one of Blofeld's top underlings. In this case it’s Emilio Largo.

He’s one of the big problems with the movie. He looks impressive, with his white hair and eyepatch and large, rangy frame. And he’s certainly menacing, with his pool of sharks and all. But he doesn’t have much personality. After Goldfinger, and even Dr. No, Largo is a pretty one-dimensional villain; certainly not an effective foil for Bond.

His henchmen are even less impressive; the only one with any presence at all is Vargas, who is said to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and sex. But he’s never given any scenes in which to develop this monklike behavior, or show that it makes him an effective killer, so his abstinence is reduced to a throwaway detail.

One other member of SPECTRE has a significant role, however, and she almost manages to hold Evil’s end up single-handedly. See below.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Four unforgettable Bond girls here, and each of them brings us something different.

In the early sequence at the health clinic, he beds Patricia (Molly Peters). This interlude harks back to the first two films, where Bond gets to pluck a little English rose before heading off to save the world. But with her pert nurse outfit, mink glove, and fetching way of wagging her finger, Patricia’s a bit more than just a memento of queen and country.

Then when he arrives in the Bahamas, Bond is seen in the company of local MI6 agent Paula, played by Martine Beswick – last seen as one of the gypsy combatants in From Russia With Love. She was Bond’s then, and if Bond’s familiarity with her adjoining room is any indication, she’s Bond’s now, too. This inaugurates the tradition of sexy female MI6 agents assisting Bond; see also, for example, Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun, Die Another Day, and Casino Royale. Unfortunately these liaisons tend not to live long…

Then there’s Domino (Claudine Auger), identifiable by the two moles in an unmissable place; she’s the main Bond Girl in this film, the one he saves, and the one in whose company he most often finds himself. With her innocent air, she’s pretty reminiscent of Honey Ryder in Dr. No – a connection that’s not hard to notice, since the same actress looped both characters’ dialogue. But Domino combines this innocence with a worldliness that comes from being Largo’s pet and mistress.

Finally we have Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), a SPECTRE assassin who seduces Bond in order to position him for a kill. When she reveals her true colors, she gets one of the best speeches in the series: “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing – she repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue… What a blow it must have been: you having a failure!” (Bond’s response? See above.) She’s not the first female in the series to remain an enemy to Bond even after sleeping with him – see Miss Taro. And she’s not the first female in the series to taunt Bond for his inability to persuade her – see Pussy Galore. But she is the first female to sleep with him and then taunt him for his inability to persuade her. In that she’s new, if you see what I mean.

All are luscious in that uniquely wonderful mid-sixties, pre-anorexia, pre-silicone way. And to have them all four in one film – simply dizzying. The Bond girls are far and away the best thing about Thunderball.

Oh, and GS: 4, if you count Martine.

AND VIOLENCE: I gather that the underwater fight scenes were innovative for 1965. That must be why they devote so much of the movie to them. Unfortunately I find them utterly boring; always have. It’s the limitations of the form, I think: characters can’t really speak during these scenes, you can’t see anybody’s faces, the lighting is poor, and everybody’s moving slowly because, duh, they’re underwater. A little of this goes a long way, and in Thunderball there’s a lot of it. As a result, the last third of the movie really, really drags.

As I say, this turns Bond into more action hero than spy, and they exacerbate things by turning the climax into a quasi-military action. Once the cavalry dive in, there’s not much for Bond to do but fight. So when the fight scenes aren’t as effective as they should be, it hurts the movie.

On the other hand, the pre-title fight, between Bond and a French SPECTRE agent faking his death, is Bond for the ages.

BOYS WITH TOYS: They preserve the Q sequence as defined in Goldfinger, and in fact build on it, by giving Q his first field trip. Not his last. Nice repartee, nice array of gadgets, and Q gets to wear a stylin’ aloha shirt.

The rocket backpack is the immortal gadget from this film, though. So far-fetched (yes, I know it actually existed, but why would Bond use it there?), so over-the-top, so silly – and so perfect, so magnificently over-the-top. It’s an icon of the series, and deservedly so.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: France, then the Bahamas, with a side trip to rural England. Yes, it’s back to the Caribbean setting of Dr. No; a bit of a repetition, but forgivable.

ETC.: Evidently, Dionne Warwick singing “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was originally slated to be the title song; if so, replacing it with Tom Jones belting out “Thunderball” was an inspired choice. As a rule, women should sing the Bond title songs; when men sing them, they should sound like Tom Jones. And here’s what I was talking about with the Goldfinger theme song: it’s a hymn to somebody, either Largo or Bond, and in the end it doesn’t matter which… Maurice Binder is back for the title sequence, and it’s elegant in its simplicity. Nude women in silhouette, swimming through brightly colored water. Starts as beautiful, passes through cheesy and comes out on the other side as beautiful again… Another Felix Leiter; just as forgettable as the last one… To top Goldfinger, the producers tried to go bigger, louder, and all-around more. They almost make it. What’s weak here is pretty weak, but what’s strong is really quite strong indeed.

RATING: 006.

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?