Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rank and File: "Coyote" (1982)

The overture hits you in Cinemascope and Technicolor: a big echoey dry wash of harmonica. This subsides into a freight-train rhythm, taut bass and drums against a Monument-Valley sky. Rawhide guitar. Then the vocals, big harmonies, the Byrds meet the High Lonesome Sound. That's the refrain: the verse is the opposite, a tough-as-rusty-wire deep hiccupy drawl, like Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly's ashes blown together in a desert dust storm.

Rank and File were the best country band of the '80s, which was no mean achievement considering their nucleus was a couple of LA punks, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman, augmented by a Mexican-American guitarist (Alejandro Escovedo, who's gone on to slightly bigger things). They more or less invented cowpunk (along with the Blasters, sort of, and X, in their Knitters mode). Their debut album, 1982's Sundown, is one of my favorite records ever. Not a note out of place, not a track that's not totally stacked.

And "Coyote" was their epic, their yelp, a widescreen yearning after cowboy myths. It's the song that introduced me to them (I heard it on WHFS, and was instantly hooked).

What I didn't realize instantly, and in fact not for about twenty years, was that it's also one of the most gut-wrenching songs about illegal immigration, the US-Mexico border, you'll ever hear.

The refrain is tactful. "Coyote, why did you take me so far from home? / Coyote, why did you leave me? I'm all alone" (or "why did you leave me out all alone" - I can't quite tell which it is. Evocative Old West imagery, right? Kind of an impressionistic cowboy blues, right?

But then dig the first verse, delivered in that drawl, but fast, hard, matter-of-fact and unforgiving, so gaunt you might miss the words entirely:

"Well they asked the rancher's son what happened to the lad
Oh, I don't know but we di'n't do nothin' bad
And what's all the fuss
They ain't like us.
They don't matter anyway.
Took their hands and we bound them up with wire
And when the sun went down they felt the fire."

That's one point of view, that of the Arizona (maybe) border kid who finds illegals on his property, but not all of them. He knows there's someone missing, but he doesn't care; he takes the one's he's got, ties them up (none too carefully, because who really cares about a buncha Mexicans anyway? Note the utter bone driness of this, the bare suggestion of an observer (the "they," probably border patrolmen), the guilty conscience, the denial, the rage ("they felt the fire"). You have to hear it to get the full impact, though, the way the country yodel in Tony's voice breaks through on "anyway," and all it implies.

Now here's the other point of view, that of the missing lad:

"Yeah the sun pushed him down and the moon pulls him up
He's all alone and he cries like a pup
My mothers, my sisters, no I don't know
And the cold wind blows
I wanna go home but I'm too far north
And the cry comes for hi-yo, hi-yo, coyote"

Brutalized by his very environment (manhandled by sun and moon), he's reduced to an animal, almost a coyote himself - but of course the coyote is the real animal here, and by this point you realize we're not talking about a coyote that runs on all fours, but they kind that drives a van and accepts money to point people across the desert, to lead or abandon them as the mood strikes, to contribute (like the rancher's son) to the fact that in FY 2009, 213 people died trying to cross the border south of Tucson. Which is where I was driving away from this past Sunday morning, Rank and File's first album blasting in the rental car's speakers, and when this song came on I had to choke back tears, since I'd just read that little statistic in the Star that very morning.

*

Sundown, along with their second album, Long Gone Dead, and a handful of bonus tracks, was released on CD in 2003 on Rhino's collector's label, Rhino Handmade. It was a limited edition: I have number 2159 of 2500. I like to think I had a little to do with getting this released: a couple of years before that I emailed Dr. Rhino a suggestion that they release Rank and File: and then they did. I was very pleased.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Los Lobos: "La Bamba" (1987)

I haven't written here in a while. I was buried beneath a pile of end-of-term duties and unblogged books and movies and records (and more books and movies and records). Don't have time to blog much now, but let me say:

There's nothing quite like barreling down I-10 from Phoenix to Tucson at 80 miles an hour with Los Lobos' "La Bamba" thundering out of the stereo. Is there a more perfect song for the occasion than that? The hardpan crack of the drums, the tumbleweed agility of the percussion, the rattlesnake shake of the rhythm guitars, and that solo! It's aridity itself, a wind off the desert, full of sand and fire. And then the way the whole electric tin-and-gasoline machine dissolves into a lace of mesquite boughs at the end.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White, 12/8/09

Saw Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White at the Hult Center in Eugene last night. More a nice end-of-term treat than anything: we went to it knowing very little about any of the players. I knew who Chick Corea is, but I'm embarrassed to say that I had only the vaguest idea, if any, about the two guys backing him up.

"Backing him up." Hah. So it turns out that in the real world, as opposed to the fog of ignorance the Tanuki inhabits like a cozy hole on a mountainside in Kyushu, Stanley Clarke is a rather well-known bass player. And Lenny White is widely recognized to be no slouch either. No surprise then that the Tanuki and Mrs. Sgt. were riveted to their seats.

This isn't a review of the concert: it won't go there, because I don't know their repertoire well enough to comment on how they played it. I can tell you they played two sets, each of which started out with what sounded like a standard, an up-tempo thing played in what seemed to me to be a standard post-bop style; from there they went into something slower, a ballad, and by the end of each set they were soaring on winds of pure melodic group improvisation. They were all acoustic last night, but it was clear that there was a '70s vibe going on in their music (and yes, I've heard of Return to Forever). In the second set I recognized one number, or thought I did, when they played what sounded like "All Blues" from Kind Of Blue. And the encore was (I gather) Corea's own standard "Spain," with the "Concierto de Aranjuez" intro. But I can't tell you if they played all of this better or worse than they usually do, if they were doing anything new in the contexts of their careers or not, or really much else.

Except that they took us places. Out of that cozy Kyushu hillside burrow and onto the high Venutian seas, sailing on a vessel of solid platonic truth with astral winds singing in the rigging, then on horseback through nebulae cantering, level with demigods, then stopping to contemplate smooth-polished stones on the bed of the river of heaven.

Or, uh, something like that. Good concert.

(Update: evidently they were in Singapore a few days before they played Eugene. This review is of that show, and it's much more informative than my review. It sounds like they might have played more or less the same numbers. But they weren't billed as "Power of Three" here. And, I add ruefully, the place wasn't anywhere near sold out.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (film, 2009)

This is a great one. Kind of to Wes Anderson's filmography what Corpse Bride is to Tim Burton's: the place where he steps outside of his own medium only to find the ultimate expression of his own particular filmmaking concerns. As many reviewers have noted, all of Anderson's Andersonisms feel natural here in a way that (many people feel) they don't in his live-action films. And his themes - the underappreciated son, the paterfamilias who won't grow up, the materfamilias whose role mainly seems to be to try to make him grow up - are all present and accounted for.

As is his care with music. Others will remark on the strangely appropriate Beach Boys placements; I want to point out what's playing faintly in the background of that idyllic scene the Foxes spend in the front yard of their new tree house, when Mrs. Fox is painting, Mr. Fox is reading his newspaper, and the boys are learning how to dive. It's "Love," from the 1973 Disney Robin Hood - in which, of course, Robin and Marian are foxes. Nice touch.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 19: "The Left Hand"

To pick up where we left off: are we supposed to sympathize with the desire to escape self-recrimination at any cost, or condemn it? This is the third episode in a row in which this desire has been foregrounded. Sierra returns to the Dollhouse to escape the knowledge that she killed Nolan. Daniel returns to the Dollhouse to escape the knowledge that he killed his wife/handler. And in between, Madeline says she doesn’t know how she’s going to live with the knowledge that she killed Hearn. What is all this telling us?

One key might be in Madeline’s background, about which we still don’t know much. In “Needs” we see her kneeling in front of a grave. Presumably grief drove her to the Dollhouse. But grief over what: death, or having caused death? My initial suspicion was the latter, and I still may be wrong, but more and more I’m suspecting I was right. If so, get this: she killed, and to forget it she joined the Dollhouse. They helped her forget; during her forgetting, they made her kill again. Forgetting her mistake quite literally allowed her to make the same mistake again. And forgetting that she had anything to forget led her to make another mistake (one she has to be allowed to make, if she’s to be free, she reminds Ballard), one that leads her back into the clutches of further forgetting.

So no, we’re not supposed to be able to forget what we’ve done. Absolution, a clean slate, shouldn’t be that easy. The only way to grow is to know ourselves, remember our mistakes. Wiping our memories doesn’t change who we are. Alpha and Caroline both demonstrate that.

Why does the show keep coming back to this theme? I think it has to do with Caroline. In “Echoes” we learn that she got her boyfriend shot and, probably, killed. We’re left to assume that this has something to do with her decision to accept the Dollhouse’s devil’s bargain. We haven’t yet learned all that happened between her boyfriend’s shooting and her entrance into the Dollhouse; with this episode we begin to learn a little, that she and Bennett had some kind of co-conspiratorial friendship. We’re still being encouraged to wonder about Caroline’s past, and specifically about why exactly she’s here. Remember how the whole series started: with us witnessing Caroline signing away her body/her self. That’s the biggest mystery hanging over the series. What does guilt have to do with it?

Why exactly she’s here. Except that, as of the end of this episode, she’s no longer there. Huge development. (BTW, I like the Incredible Hulk-style piano under the shot of her wandering alone through crowded city streets. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry – Perrin’s handler discovered that.)

Enver Gjokaj is a god. His mimicry of Fran Kranz in this episode is dead-on, and provides for one of the great Jossian this-should-not-be moments of the series. It’s wrong in all the right ways when Victor/Topher and Topher/Topher meet. Laughing at each other’s jokes. It’s hilariously meta, but at the same time horrifying: it’s the show’s most direct demonstration yet of the potential of this technology to disrupt our humanity. Dislocate and destroy it.

Equally mesmerizing are the Topher-Bennett scenes. Nerd love in full twitchy bloom. And of course as sincere as their mutual-admiration society is, they’re still each trying to sucker-punch the other. The left hand (John Cassavetes’? or Ursula LeGuin's?) doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. But if you’re some people, you don’t even know which is which (again: who’s Perrin parodying?).

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 18: "The Public Eye"

Once again we see Topher inventing, for the best of reasons, tech that we, having seen Episode 13, know will bring the worst of consequences. This time it’s the psychic raygun that temporarily immobilizes dolls. He calls it a “disruptor,” and hastily points out that it’s a Star Trek reference – TOS, to be exact. A little in-joke for the Whedonites, perhaps: if you’ve watched the interviews on the Firefly discs you know how insistent Joss was that his space opera was a reaction against the later Star Treks – “no holodecks,” he points out, more than once. Joss seems to hold that particular TNG innovation in particular scorn.

On the other hand, what’s the Dollhouse but a twisted, flesh-and-blood inversion of the holodeck idea?

But enough with elaborating the subtext. This episode is about moving forward with the plot, hurtling toward a summation. And not a moment too soon, because in the month between the broadcast of Episodes 17 and 18, Dollhouse was cancelled. How I feel about that should be easy to guess: bummed, not surprised. Glad we got a second season, but apprehensive that ending after two seasons might actually make the show feel more truncated than ending after one… We’ll see.

So a lot happens here.

We find out that Perrin is a Manchurian candidate. No huge surprise there; but it’s nice how they’ve made him a little dig at a recent real-life politician who was also the scion of a powerful political family, but a screw-up in his personal life, until suddenly he got serious and became, look at at that, a president who many nevertheless thought was merely a puppet, a front for shadowy forces.

We find out that not all Dollhouses are necessarily working toward the same goal; we also find out that other Dollhouses have different internal dynamics (not to mention décor schemes). We meet the programmer of the DC house, Bennett (who has always wanted to meet Topher’s tech – she says, fondling his disruptor). It’s nice to see Summer Glau rejoin the Whedonverse, as Bennett – she gives Topher’s opposite number a mysterious, not to say neurotic, aura that promises great things, and interesting parallels and counterpoints to Topher himself. Remember Joss’s fascination with the Dangerous Geek – she’s one, too. We end with her torturing Echo/Caroline – revealing the sadism inherent in Dollhouse technology.

We find out that November does indeed have residual programming. “No one ever leaves here,” accuses Agent Ballard. And then he does – nice move. We can see that he still hates himself for sleeping with Mellie even after realizing she was a doll. Madeline accuses him of being a Dollhouse client – “So that was your fantasy? I was your Girl Friday who you slept with the other six days?” – and he denies it, insists he didn’t know she was a doll. But that’s only partially true; and surely he also realizes by now that even if he never asked November to be programmed to do what Mellie did, the Dollhouse programmed her that way because they knew it would work on him. And it did. November was Ballard’s fantasy, even if he didn’t know it at first. And now Madeline forces him to confront his complicity in the whole thing. That’s why he leaves. And now, at long last, the potential in the character of Ballard is being realized. They even made the kick-boxing training, with which they first introduced him to us, pay off in this episode.

Payoffs. That’s what it has to be about from now till the end of the series. You get the feeling that a lot of these characters are like sleepers, preloaded with programming that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Boyd. Whiskey. Victor. Alpha. And now Bennett. And, still I think, November: she doesn’t know how she’s going to live with the knowledge that she killed a man. Sierra said that last time. Did November say that once before?

Why do people become dolls? With Sierra’s first stint we have one answer: they’re manipulated into it. That’s the subtext to the conversation between Perrin and Echo/Bree in the car, where he says she’s been manipulated into serving the powerful and she thinks he’s talking about her job as a prostitute, and she assures him she likes her job. We know he’s right, and even if she wasn’t a doll, but only a prostitute, wouldn’t he still be right? But with Sierra’s second stint we have another answer: they might choose to become dolls to avoid living with guilt. Is that November’s story? Caroline’s?

And are we supposed to sympathize with the desire to escape self-recrimination at any cost, or condemn it?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

was the next step in our exploration of Roman Polanski. So far, the last, too. Maybe we'll keep going; who knows?

We ended up watching this on Thanksgiving morning, instead of the parades. An odd choice, maybe, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Because we're thankful we don't have children? was the joke of the day.

It was only a joke, but it's the most insightful thing I can think of to say about the film. It's not really a horror film at all, I came away thinking, but a sort of very dark comedy about trying to start a family in the big city.

Rosemary is the country waif in the big city (although there's no way in heaven, hell or Houston that Mia Farrow sounds like she's from Omaha), just starting out on life with her husband the actor. They find a nice apartment - that turns out to be in a building full of devil worshipers. Read "wild partiers" for "devil worshipers" and don't you have every renter's fear? Her husband's career is on the move, but it turns out that's only because he sold her baby. Read "his soul" for "her baby" and don't you have...oh wait, that's still a horror movie. But it's a more conventional one, and also a pretty good description of the compromises we all make to get ahead, the compromises a sheltered young wife (in 1965) might fear her husband is making, compromises that will compromise her too. She gets pregnant, and then it seems like everyone around her including the doctor is colluding to make her life hell - you don't have to read anything for anything to see that as reflecting a deep anxiety about pregnancy, the pain and uncertainty it brings with it, the doctor who tells you to just trust him, that he knows your body better than you do, and oh yeah, anxiety about this invader that's taken up residence in your body...

It's a very funny movie.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Chinatown (1974)

I came to movies late. In my teens I managed to see the occasional blockbuster, the PG ones at least, and once in a while watched something more serious on VHS, borrowed from the local public library. Then once I went away to college I lost interest in movies for about ten years. Saw them once in a while, on a date or with friends, but was too transient or too poor (no VCR) to see many on my own. One of my sisters had a thing for classic Hollywood, but I never thought it was for me.

It was after I graduated from college (after a long break between my sophomore and junior years) that I really got interested in movies. I took a job teaching English in Japan, and lived in company housing for three years, usually alone, but with a TV and VCR provided by the company. And I got hooked on movies. For about three years I watched obsessively, and for the last year or so, after breaking up with my girlfriend, I was averaging one a night, at least. It was a pretty pathetic existence - I knew this at the time - I'd come home from work, get dinner from one of three or four convenience stores within walking distance, and settle in for the night with a video or two. Like I say, pretty pathetic, and oh so bachelor. But I caught the film bug then. I can remember the moment when it hit. I don't remember what movie it was (probably something lame), but I remember the titles coming up and feeling a little thrill - a movie's starting. Something cool's going to happen. Like one of those self-serving AFI things.

I knew nothing. I was just watching whatever I could find in the local video stores (I'd maintain memberships in two or three at once), a pretty random selection of Hollywood stuff, classics and trash and everything in between. I should have spent this time getting into Japanese cinema - I tried, once in a while, but my Japanese wasn't yet good enough for me to feel really comfortable watching Japanese films without subtitles, and I was homesick enough that American films exerted a greater pull on me than Japanese. So it was in Japan that I explored Hollywood.

Explored it, as I say, almost randomly. I was becoming aware of film as art, but my tastes were pretty determinedly middlebrow. I worked my way through James Bond (for the first time), the Alien series, and the Star Trek movies as eagerly as I did most of Coppola, Scorsese, and de Palma. I tended to gravitate toward what you might call, not quite Guy Movies, but Guy Films - never had much taste for Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but was always a sucker for Serious Mafia Movies and Revisionist Westerns.

One of these Guy Films, one of the best, was Roman Polanski's Chinatown. I saw it several times in that period, but none of his others. Saw The Two Jakes, at least twice, and liked it, but never any other Polanski until many years later, when I was married, and we saw The Pianist, and that was at least as much for Adrian Brody as Polanski.

Why is Chinatown a Guy Film? It's got Jack Nicholson. It's got Faye Dunaway. (Bonnie and Clyde is a Guy Film, too.) It's a noir. It's a neo-noir (meaning it's much more watchable for the modern Guy than the classic noirs, which changing fashions in acting and direction have rendered a little distant). It's got Jack Nicholson (worth repeating).

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I watch a lot of movies, and we try to take them seriously. Netflix is our friend. Recently we decided to explore Roman Polanski a little. The recent resurfacing of the scandal had something to do with it, I'll admit. We started with Chinatown, since neither of us had seen it in so long.

I have nothing insightful to say about it. "Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown" is still one of the great lines in movies. Faye Dunaway is still the perfect neo-noir femme fatale. John Huston is brilliant, and Jack Nicholson is Jack, sliced-up nose and all. The color scheme, burnished yellows and browns, is the next best thing to real noir, a sunstruck updating of the idea. All of this is true, and perfectly obvious, and I'm only the five millionth person to say it.

So there's nothing to blog about here. Except that I loved it just as much as I did the first time, in my little apartment in Fujisawa. And it took me back there.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Titanic (1997)

Can I show my face in polite company if I admit to liking Titanic? I have no guilty pleasures with music - if it gives me pleasure I feel no guilt. I'm less sure of my taste in film, however.

But I do like this.

I liked it the first time I saw it, in the theater in 1997. Then I wasn't a very sophisticated moviegoer: I liked it simply. The spectacle wowed me and the love story moved me.

I've watched it a number of times since, most recently this evening with Mrs. Sgt. T, and I have to say I still like it. Not for exactly the same reasons. I have to admit now that the dialogue is pretty clunky, and the story is mechanical.

But it still works: it's a machine that does what it's supposed to do. And while you'd think being aware of that would keep me from being wowed and moved, instead I find myself wowed and moved (maybe in spite of myself) and, in addition, impressed by the efficiency of the machine.

It's going to sound odd to say this about a three-hour $200 million movie, but Titanic is incredibly economical. The love story exists entirely to show us the various parts of the ship, both before and during the sinking. You could turn this around and also say that the ship is the only thing that gives this love story any interest at all. But the fact is we have both, and they work together perfectly. We do see the whole ship, before and during the sinking, in a way that feels almost incidental to the story. And we do find ourselves caring about Jack and Rose, in a way that almost doesn't entirely depend on the borrowed urgency of the sinking.

Economical in other ways, too. The salvage-mission frame story not only works as a frame, adding/breaking up tension as needed, guiding modern-day viewers into the old world of the story, etc. It also works to draw the stereotypical male viewer into the movie, just as the love story draws the stereotypical female viewer in. The science guys on the salvage ship explain how the ship actually sank, so the guys in the audience can follow the thing as it happens in the background; and notice how we cut back to the frame story, and the science-y stuff, just after Rose and Jack first get intimate? "Enough mushy stuff - let's talk about how stuff breaks!"

And both the science stuff and the melodrama work together to create a sense of the event, a sense that this is what happened to the ship, and this is what happened to the people on it. And all of this is told through perfectly efficient visuals: always striking, always effective, and frequently poetic, in the broadest of senses. If the eerie beauty of the motionless ship half-submerged in a still sea, lights reflecting off the dark ocean, stars and flares overhead, lifeboats tiny all around, doesn't get you, maybe you can't be got.

There's a place in my personal film festival for this kind of movie.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Roy Orbison vs. Linda Ronstadt: "Blue Bayou"

Yuck. I don't like that negativity just hanging there. So let's cleanse our palates a bit. Ladies and gentlemen, here's Roy Orbison, with his 1963 classic "Blue Bayou."

Now the thing about Roy Orbison's Monument records is that they're equal parts schmaltz and genius. The harpsichord, the kitschy harmonica, and those bell-like background vocals (what are they singing anyway?): that's the schmaltz. That valley-of-dry-bones beginning, and of course Orbison's vocals: they're the genius. And the thing is, it's really hard to imagine one without the other. It's a perfect marriage of schmaltz and genius. ...More about that voice. Not only can it make the schmaltziest musical bed sound like the sexiest honeymoon mattress or the barest prison cot... Well, it can do that. That bare quaver, that muscular weepiness: he's crooning from another dimension entirely, about a set of emotions the merely earthbound know in their marrow, and yet can only occasionally summon to conscious articulation.

About that arrangement. The Tanuki's old enough (young enough?) that his first exposure to the song came in Linda Ronstadt's 1977 cover. Her arrangement, despite being pretty California-mellow, is a little more tasteful than Roy's, I always thought. And she can summon a pretty good ache with her voice, too. I don't think anybody can hold a candle to Roy, but she does her honest best, and her version's worth hearing. So here she is in her bloomers, surrounded by muppet frogs, backed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My #@%*$ Generation

Keith Phipps writes, setting up his reassessment of Easy Rider:
Released on July 14, 1969, between the Stonewall riots and the Apollo 11 moon landing, Easy Rider became an unexpected success and, like Woodstock, a touchstone for a generation. Not my generation, though. Before seeing it, I'd imagined Easy Rider as one of those you-had-to-be-there '60s clichés that so irritated those of us who came of age in the '80s—something to be slipped into that-was-then montages between footage of Vietnam and the '68 Democratic Convention.

Film enthusiasts my age had warned me to expect a film with long, often dull, experimental patches and stoner vagaries. When I finally got around to watching Easy Rider, I discovered those warnings weren't entirely unfounded. But I also discovered a more complex and sour movie than the one I'd imagined. More an elegy for a generation that never got where it wanted to go than a celebration of that generation's superiority, it pits hopefulness against resignation and sets the battle on a lovingly photographed stretch of the United States.
Now that's annoying.

First, if you've ever actually seen the film, you're thinking: duh. That's the whole fucking point of Easy Rider: these guys honestly, deeply love America, and they can't figure out why America doesn't love them back. Why does Phipps sound like he thinks he's the first viewer ever to see that?

Second, he's a self-professed film enthusiast, but not only has he never seen Easy Rider, he seems proud of the fact. Pardon me while I gag myself with a spoon. That's such typical '80s-generation idiocy.

I say this as an '80s kid myself. Graduated from high school in 1987, the first (hardly the last) Summer of Nostalgia for the Summer of Love. First learned of the '60s through the very same self-laudatory Boomer clip montages Phipps did. Luckily, though, my parents sat out the '60s, so I never had any Freudian issues with the art of their generation like so many of my cohort did. Sure I found/find Boomer narcissism annoying, that assumption they tend to make that they invented pop culture, but I didn't have to, you know, kill the father in order to listen to his Doors albums or watch Woodstock.

Which is good, because Boomer narcissism aside, there's a lot of great art to be discovered in the '60s and '70s. As there is - and this is my real point - in any era. I don't take anybody to task for liking the culture of their generation and never moving beyond it, but once you take on yourself the mantle of "film enthusiast," or whatever - once you decide you're interested in art/culture for its own sake, in understanding it and contextualizing it and appreciating it and knowing it (in every sense including, perhaps foremost, the Biblical) - then you have no business allowing Oedipal issues to blind you to the good stuff.

Any critic, any lover of art, will have loves and hates, or areas of greater and lesser knowledge. But no critic has any business basing his/her judgments on something he/she "imagines" to be true about a piece of art. That's just ignorance. Sure, we all have our blind spots. But we shouldn't be proud of them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

I'm a little late to the party on this one, I know. It's because I almost never read contemporary fiction, non-Japanese. Why? One, because I almost never read contemporary fiction, non-Japanese, so that when I do read a book, I can't properly contextualize it, and I find I have a hard time enjoying art I can't contextualize. So I'm an uptight academic at heart: surprise. Two, because no matter how much I enjoy it (and, to give the lie to that last statement, I enjoyed the bejeezus out of this novel), toward the end I start to feel guilty for not spending this time reading something that might someday contribute to a class, or an article. So I'm an uptight academic at heart: surprise.

But a dear friend recommended this to me, and in such specific terms that I just had to pick it up. Took me a while to get around to it, but.

Well, it is a masterpiece. It succeeds on so many levels, from the exhilarating bilinguality of the narration (I know just enough Spanish to get the frisson of catching some of the asides, and not enough to spoil it by catching them all) to the fascinating composite portrait it provides of, simultaneously, a family of Dominicans, and Dominican society as a whole (a society I freely admit I knew nothing about besides what you'd glean from the Boston media during the age of Manny, Pedro, and Big Papí). Plus, a lot of it takes place in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and by sheer chance I started reading this the day after I got back from a conference there. So I could envision some of the places it talks about...

Two things I want to mention about this book.

It dimly registered while I was reading it that the whole thing's a riff on Hemingway's "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." It's such a magnificent book that you're almost embarrassed for Hemingway: put Oscar Wao in the ring with Francis Macomber, and Wao wins by a knockout in three. But this works to the book's advantage: you so quickly forget that Wao is an allusive variation on Macomber, you so quickly get immersed in the wondrous specificity of Díaz's achievement, that the inevitable ending may still come as a surprise. It was only when (spoiler alert) Oscar is out in that canefield that I found myself thinking, oh yeah, Mrs. Macomber. I mean, I should've been expecting it. That I wasn't shows that the book really worked for me. As an allusive variation. The Hemingway connection enriched the book for me, without overshadowing it.

Also: as something of a Tolkien aficionado, not to mention a nerd for all reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed Oscar's nerdessence. As a whitekid myself I'm always strangely embarrassed and heartened when I encounter people of color who co-inhabit my canon (I mean: why? but also, why not? but also, and again, why? etc.), so that's part of it. But mainly it's because I was moved, as a Tolkien reader, by Díaz's deep application of Tolkien to Dominica. I mean, us Tolkien apologists can talk about how there's depth there, meaning, significance; Díaz demonstrates it, by showing how Tolkien's imagery can, for one fanboy, capture deep feelings and understandings about a real-world event (the Trujillato). That is to say that, on a very deep level, Oscar Wao is about the power of literature in general, and Tolkien in particular, to help us make sense of life: Tolkien gives Oscar (not just Oscar: Yunior: Díaz) a vocabulary to talk about great evil, about torture, about destiny, about great beauty and strength, about death and violence and love.

Thanks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Anthologyology: Supertramp

The Tanuki liked Supertramp when he was a kid. He was of that era: Supertramp got played on the FM rock stations (this was in the very early '80s, when there were only rock and top-40 stations - the "rock" stations became "hard rock" sometime around 1983 and stopped playing things like Supertramp), and the Tanuki heard them, and liked them. He didn't know any better.

Paris was the album I had. I still think it's the best way to hear Supertramp: the live energy, and the unavailability of too many electronics on stage, delivers the band of just enough of their tweeness to reveal the strength of their songs (and dig that cover: how many orthodontist's offices had paintings that looked just like that in the '80s?). Paris was also the only album of theirs I had. Much later, in my first bout of nostalgia for the music of my youth, I picked up a greatest-hits disc. But it was woefully incomplete. I knew what I needed to make the perfect Supertramp anthology. But by that time I didn't care enough to complete the acquisition.

I only just did. For the record, that means I picked up Paris and also "...famous last words..." This last one because their anthologies never include "Crazy" and Waiting So Long," which are worth having. Throw those three albums together and the Tanuki finally has all the Supertramp he really needs.

And now the question he asks himself is: does he really need any Supertramp at all? At this point in his musical education he can plainly hear all the ways in which the 'tramps are derivative of earlier, better artists, artists the Tanuki now loves but which he didn't discover until later. Viz: if you imagine a really accessible version of '70s Yes, add to that the Kinks at their early-'70s gayest and most melancholy, and cut this with liberal doses of Elton John, you get Supertramp. In the ensuing years the Tanuki has developed an undying fascination with Yes, a rapt love for the Kinks in all their permutations, and a healthy appreciation for Reg. So what use does he have for Supertramp?

None, maybe. I'm not finding myself enthralled by Paris the way I was when I was thirteen. That said, I have to admit that, derivative or not, Davies and Hodgson had the goods. "Give A Little Bit" is a bona fide classic, but they had another dozen or so songs just as good. Solid songs, interestingly arranged and well performed, consistently hitting that '70s sweet spot of post-Beatles pop/rock, reasonably sophisticated and experimental, before AOR channeled all such impulses into strict subgenre conventions.

For what it's worth, here's what the Tanuki came up with as an anthology. An inveterate anthologizer, is the Tanuki. Disc One: School (live); Crazy; Ain't Nobody But Me (live); The Logical Song; Bloody Well Right; Dreamer; You Started Laughing (live); Hide In Your Shell; From Now On (live); It's Raining Again; Goodbye Stranger. Disc Two: Take The Long Way Home; Give A Little Bit; Rudy; A Soapbox Opera (live); Asylum (live); Breakfast In America; Waiting So Long; Fool's Overture (live); Two Of Us (live); Crime Of The Century (live).

I am such a geek.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Great Society: Born To Be Burned, Collector's Item

So A Serious Man caught me in the midst of a Jefferson Airplane phase. Been listening to a lot of them recently, and that includes their all-important feeder group, the Great Society. They existed in 1965 and 1966, for about a year, and centered around the sometime menage-a-trois of Grace Slick, her husband Jerry, and his brother Darby. The group broke up when Grace joined Jefferson Airplane as a replacement for their original girl singer, Signe Toly Anderson.

Which means, of course, that the Great Society are primarily remembered today for what they contributed to the Airplane: Grace, of course, plus the Airplane's only two real hits, Darby's "Somebody To Love" and Grace's "White Rabbit." Without the Great Society, the Airplane maybe goes nowhere; without the Airplane, though, does Great Society make it?

Doubtful. Great Society's version of "Somebody To Love" is excellent in its own way - that's the single version of it; the live version is better. But it doesn't have the virtues the Airplane's version does: the pop savvy, the breakneck force of the speed. It doesn't have Jorma. Great Society would never have had a hit with it.

And "White Rabbit"? Well, Great Society's version is eminently worth savoring. It's so different from the Airplane's as to be virtually another song; and I don't think it's actually worse. The soprano-sax-led jam the Great Society append as a prologue really goes places, and the more conventional rock arrangement of the song portion (not the bolero of the Airplane's arrangement) cooks nicely, too. But again, this could never have been a hit.

I say that with the conviction that it matters. I'm enough of a poptimist to appreciate that the discipline and craft involved in making a good pop record can actually improve a song, focus its musical energy. That's certainly what happened with these two songs, transforming them from typically shaggy early San Francisco jams into anthems.

That said, I also like shaggy early San Francisco jams, and I love the Great Society for their own, very considerable virtues.

Let's observe, before we go any farther, that much like the Airplane itself, the short-lived Great Society had personnel continuity issues. Their first lineup was Slick, Slick, and Slick, plus bassist Bard Dupont and guitarist/vocalist David Miner. They recorded almost an album's worth of demos in 1965, and released one single that year: "Somebody To Love" (as "Someone To Love") and "Free Advice." All these can now be found on the 1995 archival release Born To Be Burned. "Free Advice" is now more famous than the studio version of "Someone To Love," because it showed up on the Airplane's 1992 box set, and the Rhino Summer of Love box Love Is The Song We Sing. I love this song: everything about it, from the Cossack march of the rhythm section to Grace's wordless improv, is sui generis, and very effective.

Dupont was replaced by Peter Vandergelder, who played sax as well as bass, and this lineup was captured on tape live at the Matrix; two albums were released in 1968, and combined into one in 1971; they're now available on CD as Collector's Item From The San Francisco Scene.

Aside from "Free Advice," the studio disc isn't very interesting. The live disc, however, is a classic. Aside from the numbers already linked to above it includes a wealth of intriguing jams. The Slicks were all pretty good on guitar by this point, and were sounding, by the way, very typically San Francisco in their tone and attack. Peter brought, as we've already heard, some jazzy saxophone into the mix, while on stage Grace was allowed to play some Doorsy organ and also recorder. (Even in the Airplane Grace was always underrated as a musician. Her beauty, and her vocal charisma, tended to obscure the fact that she was in many ways the most talented member of the scene.)

Check out, for example, their moody breakdown of the girl group classic (the Jaynetts) "Sally Go Round The Roses." Or their brave take on the standard "Nature Boy." Or this sultry original, "Grimly Forming." (Now that one mighta coulda been a hit. Great underwater guitar work, great bass/drums figure.)

They were a serious band, and at least as accomplished as the Airplane or the Dead were at this point.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ken Kesey: Sometimes A Great Notion (1964)

A month after I wrote this, I finally finish this book. Got through the last hundred or so pages on a flight out of Eugene, and on a train and in a hotel restaurant in New Jersey. That is, I started this quintessential Oregon book just after arriving in the state, and only finish it once I've left (although the leaving is only for a weekend).

I'm not sure if I have much to add to what I wrote last time. Or even to Charles Bowden's formulation in the introduction: "The choice presented is between a brutal individualism that we all secretly love, but can no longer afford, and a dreary collectivism that stills our heart when we even think about it." Chew on that for a while.

It is, among other things, a Labor Movement novel. And, specifically, a Western labor movement novel. Reminded me of Wallace Stegner's great Joe Hill in that regard. It centers around the Stamper clan in the fictional town of Wakonda Auga on the Oregon coast. The whole region is (in the novel) dependent on logging, and the Stampers are in it, too, running their own outfit. The rest of the town goes on strike, but the Stampers (who only hire relatives, and keep them non-unionized) refuse to join, instead seizing all the lumber company contracts and monopolizing their business. So the town hates the Stampers, who are making the strike ineffectual, and therefore keeping the town out of work. And the Stampers - well, they just don't give a damn.

Onto this individual vs. collective struggle we have grafted an almost Biblical struggle between two half-brothers in the Stamper clan: Hank, the young virile tough head of the family business, and Lee (Leland Stanford Stamper: awesome name), the bookish alienated son of Hank's father Henry's second wife. Hank had a sexual relationship with Lee's mother; Lee knew about it, and it destroyed his childhood; now, in the wake of a failed suicide attempt, he drops out of grad school at Yale and comes back to help Hank fulfill the lumber contract and, oh yes, to get revenge on Hank somehow.

Hank, then, is the novel's big representative of romantic, heroic, doomed, destructive individualism - although his old father Henry is still around, and he's even scarier. And Hank's scary physicality is set out in opposition to Lee - but Lee hardly represents the community side. In fact, we gradually come to realize that Lee's intellectualism is just as bullying, just as exploitative, as Hank's physicality, and that he's just as driven by his own desires, and blind to the welfare of those about him, as is Hank. They're both egotists.

Which means the community side doesn't get a particularly charismatic spokesman. But of course that's the point. Community isn't romantic. It's deadly dull to the romantic individualist. It's spiritual death. So those who are in the right position to speak for it (union organizer Draeger, local union rep Floyd Evenwrite) are pretty dull men.

But they're not set out as mirror images or opposites to Hank. Instead, and appropriately enough, Kesey gives us, as representatives of community, the whole damn community. Part of what makes this book so long and such a slog is that Kesey has committed himself to following the stories (in an up-close, stream-of-consciousness way) not only of the main Stampers, but of what feels like a couple dozen townspeople. Everyone from, literally, preachers to prostitutes. All walks of life. We get inside all their heads, sometimes following one of these minor characters for pages at a time, sometimes getting a whirlwind tour of what all of them are up to at any given moment. It's a very effective group portrait of this town. You come out of the book feeling like you know it as well as you can know any place in modern American fiction. (Is this modern? In important ways, it's not: all to the good.)

But that's not the true beauty of this novel, which is that above and beyond the rich themes, the vividly realized characters, and the (eventually, sort of) gripping story, we get a lot of very poetic evocations of nature. Ken Kesey could write like an angel when he wanted to, and he frequently wanted to while writing this book, if passages like this are any indication:

"And in the tops of the huge trees, the very rain seemed to work at fixing the trees standing, threading the million green needles in an attempt to stitch the trees upright against the sky" (p. 567).

An essential book.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Serious Man, cont'd

So in "Somebody To Love," Grace Slick clearly, indelibly, sings, "When the truth is found to be lies / and all the joy within you dies." But the Third Rabbi in the film quotes the lines this way: "When the truth is found to be lies / and all the hope within you dies."

I have complete faith in the Coen Brothers' attention to musical detail. O Brother inspired it. I'm not willing to believe this was a mistake, anymore than I'm willing to overlook the fact that the first rabbi's calendar says 1967 (supposedly - I didn't notice the detail, but others did), but the Columbia Record Club guy is talking about Abraxas, which came out in 1970. I don't know what that last detail means - is Dutton calling from the future? is the film actually set in 1970 and the first rabbi just forgot to update his calendar? is this somewhat sheltered Jewish enclave symbolically living in the past, at a moment when the present is going to come crashing in?

I don't have an answer to the Abraxas conundrum, and I'm not even sure where pondering it could lead us. But the hope/joy one seems just bursting with meaning. Larry Gopnik is in crisis, sure enough: a crisis of what? Faith? Hope? Charity, even? I know that's a New Testament formulation, and thus inappropriate, but it's not out of step with the Second Rabbi's advice to help other people. ...I don't know if he is in a crisis of hope, actually: the thing about Larry, like Job, is that he keeps expecting that life will do him right. Hope is the one thing he does have. He's not giving up. Although that x-ray tornado might just do the trick...

But joy? He doesn't seem to have much of that - and when the first rabbi tells him to appreciate the simple things in life (i.e., to embrace joy?), his example - a parking lot - is so joyless by its very nature that we, along with Larry, can only go, huh?

Larry's hope is in danger of dying. But his joy? Was it ever there to begin with? Or is it something that was never given place in his life, but is seeping in from without, in the "new freedoms" of sex and drugs and rock and roll? Maybe Abraxas is indeed signalling a time lag:
maybe the '60s, like "modernity," didn't arrive at the same time everywhere. Maybe the 1967 that San Francisco hipsters experienced, that Summer of Love, didn't arrive elsewhere until 1970...

Maybe Larry will never discover joy. But his son might - maybe it'll come seeping up from the deepest recesses of his mind like the camera and Grace's voice in that opening (post-dybbuk parable) sequence. Maybe - if he survives the tornado.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers' newest, A Serious Man, came to Eugene this week. Saw it in the town's only art cinema, a converted church - an interesting place to see this very Jewish film.

"Screwball tragedy," this article calls it. As apt a description as any. It's also an existential horror story, a meditation on understanding life, reality.

The secret is not, as that article says, in "accepting the mystery." That's maybe the solution, the only way to live with it, but it's not the secret. The secret is: the math. As Prof. Gopnik says, the math is the reality. Schrödinger's cat is just the picture we show ourselves to help us to understand the math: it's a representation of reality, and sometimes not a very good one. And we often don't even understand the cat. But the math: that is the reality. Understand that, and you're okay.

But who can understand the math? That, I think, is where this movie is coming from. Larry is a physics professor: he understands, he says, the math. Thinks he does, at least. But he certainly can't communicate that understanding to his students very effectively. And compared to his brother... Well, Arthur really understands the math. So well does he understand the math that he can't really understand anything else. He's so in touch with the reality underlying our illusions that he's unable really to function in the world of illusions. Compared to Arthur, Larry is still trying to get by on the illusions. He knows it's the math, not the cat, but he's concentrating on the cat anyway.

In other words: are there answers to the questions Job/Larry asks? Yes, there are: but nobody can understand them, at least not and stay sane. That's not the same as saying there are no answers. It's a different thing from nihilism (and remember how we're supposed to pronounce that), even though in the end it may amount to the same thing.

BTW, the Jefferson Airplane fan in me loved the music in this film. Here's an interesting explanation of the way they segues into "Somebody To Love." I thought that jamming might have been from the live version on Bless Its Pointed Little Head (hadn't heard it for a while), but according to this interview it's new.

Janis Joplin: Pearl (1970)

Sitting here listening to Pearl and it strikes me, as it always does, what a goddamn tragic thing it is that Janis Joplin is dead. I mean, there have been a lot of premature rock and roll deaths, but I can't think of anyone who strikes me as having gone too soon in the way Janis did. Morrison and Cobain: they were always going to go sooner rather than later. Hendrix: no death wish there, but he'd already gone so far with his art that you can really imagine he just kind of used himself up. Pigpen, Jerry: anytime was too soon for them, but you could hear the long slow decline with each of them, so there was no surprise.

But Janis. She wasn't done by any means. She was just hitting her stride with Pearl. And listen to it: she's so happy on that album, so full of life. And, and, unlike Jimi, you can totally imagine where Janis might have gone from there. I would have loved to hear her Nashville album, her disco album, her underrated minor-label Muscle Shoals album, her synth-heavy '80s contemporary album, her Arista comeback album with guest spots by Lauryn Hill and Santana, her Jack White-produced hipster disc, her Bessie Smith tribute album, her Summer of Love-nostalgic Big Brother reunion tour... She would have done all that, and done it with grace, and it would have been awesome. But instead she's dead. And if that doesn't make you cry, on All Saints' Day, I don't know what will.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Happy Halloween. We celebrated it like we usually do, at home waiting for trick or treaters who never come and watching Francis Ford Coppola's Film Of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

On the first point: in Boston, and now in Eugene, every year that we're in America for Halloween, we buy a bowlful of candy (mini candy bars, because that's what I most loved to get when I was a kid) and hope we'll get trick or treaters. Mrs. Sgt. T, being Japanese, has never had the experience of giving out candy to trick or treaters. It's one of those American things she's always wanted to do, see all the kids in their cute costumes, hearing them say thank you when you toss candy in their orange plastic pumpkins.

But we never get any trick or treaters. Is it because we live in an apartment? When I was a kid we used to love trick or treating apartment buildings - lots of candy in a short time, very efficient. But then again we were always a little nervous, going inside a strange building, where the porch-light-equals-candy code was inoperable. Do today's kids avoid apartment buildings? Or maybe nobody trick or treats anymore at all? Is the world too dangerous for parents to feel safe sending their kids out to knock on strangers' doors? Anyway, this is one more year when we have a bowlful of Almond Joys left at the end of the night. Like we need the sugar.

On the second point: we love Coppola's Dracula, and we make no apologies for it. Yes, Keanu Reeves can't act. Yes, it has an early-'90s big hair vibe. Yes, it goes way over the top. But... Actually, not "but" on that last point. Going over the top is an aesthetic we like, and it certainly helps this film. The operatic love story, the Jesus pretentions of this view of Dracula, the unsubtle Victorian-modernity subtext, the rococo editing techniques... It's all wonderful. It's Coppola's detailed visual genius at its finest.

Two favorite moments:

Dracula chasing Mina around the cinematheque, then he catches her. She faces him, he reaches out to her, and over his shoulder you can see what looks like one of the Lumiere films, a train barreling down the tracks toward the viewer - toward Mina.

And: every scene with Sadie Frost in it as Lucy Westenra. Coppola's version of the story really ramps up the eroticism, in keeping with our current understanding of the vampire mythos, and Frost represents that part of repressed Victorian-modern sexuality that just can't wait to be liberated by the Count. She's on fire with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 17: "Belonging"

At long last we know the full background of one of the Dolls: how she came to be a doll, and why (I’m not convinced we know Caroline’s full story yet). And the surprising thing is, that wasn’t even the most exciting thing about this episode.

It was welcome, though. That tantalizing scene we got between Sierra and Nolan in Episode 8 (“Needs”): we get everything it promised us. Nolan was using the Dollhouse as a date-rape drug; also as revenge, and sick entertainment. We get closure on him; in Priya’s desperate plea to be cleansed of the memory of what she did to him, we also get a hint of why some of the other dolls might have agreed to their contracts. Memories (like Victor’s: is he there to “recover” from post-traumatic stress disorder?), guilts (November, and now Sierra), they’d do anything rather than have to live with (which is it for Echo?). Notice the view we get of Priya right after she kills Nolan? She stands up, and we see her in silhouette against her old painting of the bird. It turns out that it’s not Nolan who’s the big black shadow threatening her avian freedom: it’s she herself.

We also get the answer to the real question Episode 8 left us with, which is: how much did DeWitt and Topher knew about Nolan and Sierra? The answer is, not much. They thought she was crazy, and under his care: they thought they were helping her. When they realize they were wrong, they’re horrified.

It’s a well-named episode, because this is the one where everybody has to answer the old labor movement question: which side are you on? (And of course one way to read Dollhouse is as a metaphor for capitalism: we’ve got owners and workers, management and labor, exploiters and exploited. Somebody among the workers has awakened to their plight, and is going to try to organize them.)

It’s all about belonging: deciding which side you belong to, or trying to make others your possessions. Nolan uses his connections with the Dollhouse, and his knowledge of neurochemistry, to try to make Priya belong to him. When his plot is exposed, Topher tries to free Priya; but in the end, her attempt to assert her autonomy results in her signing herself over to the Dollhouse, some parts of her permanently. She belongs to the Dollhouse in a deeper way than she did before.

Topher and Adelle have to choose sides, too. Adelle thinks this house belongs to her, and that she can run it as she sees fit. The Rossum corporation makes it clear to her that she’s wrong: she belongs to them. Either she toes the line or she goes to the Attic. She, in turn, tries to make Topher play ball, saying he has no choice: she even reminds him that he’s in this job because he has no morals, and therefore belongs in/to the Dollhouse. He chooses differently, but his choice goes so wrong that, like Priya/Sierra, his dependence on the Dollhouse is only strengthened. Rossum’s grip tightens, and our characters begin to feel it: they can choose to accept it, like Adelle, or be made to accept it, like Topher, but either way, they’re owned.

Adelle thinks everybody in the Dollhouse is owned by the Dollhouse. We know she’s wrong: Echo is free, in her mind. And, as of this episode, we begin to see where Boyd stands as well. All season long we’ve been able to see that Dollhouse discipline, that Panopticon watchfulness, has been slipping: Echo’s constantly displaying signs of wakefulness, Sierra and Victor are plainly in love. Saunders’s alienation (then flight), combined with Boyd’s indifference, explained it: but now Boyd has taken a side. He knows Echo is awake, and he’s chosen to abet her in whatever she’s planning. We always suspected he was a good guy; now we know.

At the same time, we also now know he can supervise the cover-up of a murder, and the dismemberment of a body, without batting an eye. Boyd’s a little bit scary now. Ex-cop? Is that all?

All of this to think about, and so little time in the episode to think about it, because you were too busy feeling it all. It was probably the deepest episode yet, emotionally: just wrenching. Topher is more and more becoming the emotional center of the story, as we watch him wrestle with his conscience. Here we see him, really for the first time, begin to sense that what he’s doing might go horribly wrong. “Epitaphs” tells us both that it will and that Topher does have enough of a soul to be driven mad by his role in it; now we see that soul emerging in the present.

How cool is it, by the way, that it’s a book that reveals that Echo is awake? It could only be a book. The point is that she has broken out of the eternally-refreshed now state of the Doll: she’s engaged in a long-term, multisession learning project, one that implies progression, directionality, awareness of past, present, and future…it couldn’t have been a newspaper, or a blog, for example. Or, more to the point, a typical TV show, where each episode stands alone, allowing you to pretend that last week’s episode never happened. It could, however, have been something like Dollhouse…

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yes: Symphonic Live (2001/2009)

This is a document of Yes's 2001 tour, in support of Magnification. It was recorded 11/22/01 in Amsterdam. A video of the show was released in 2002, and some of the tracks from the soundtrack were released on various limited edition discs over the years. The full show finally made it into mass release this past spring. I just picked it up.

The reality of this round of Yessing was that they'd cast second guitarist/ keyboardist/ co-songwriter/ unsung hero Billy Sherwood loose early in 2000, and fired main keyboardist Igor Khoroshev late in 2000. This left the ancients Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, and Alan White without a keyboardist, but with a feeling that three and a half studio albums in five years, plus four straight years of touring, had given them some long-needed career momentum that shouldn't be squandered. Since they had already gone through every keyboard player in the known universe, some of them twice, none of whom would speak to them again, they had no choice but to do something else. They hired a film composer to write orchestral arrangements for their new songs, and put out an album, Magnification, where the orchestra (mostly) filled the keyboard slot. Then they took it out on tour.

That, near as I can tell, was the reality. The official story was that Yes fans had been clamoring for decades to see the band play with a symphony orchestra. They actually said this in some press release somewhere - I read it in a number of articles at the time. This, despite the fact that histories of the band had all agreed that the one time they'd done this before, with 1970's Time And A Word, the results had hardly been an unalloyed success. But, no matter. Can't fault the band for trying to sell tickets, can you?

But see: the proof that the band knew full well fans hadn't been waiting for thirty years for a symphonic Yes was that the 2001 tour featured not a single song from Time And A Word. In fact, the tour only featured three or four songs from the new album. Mostly it was the same stuff they'd been playing for the last four years.

More proof: they hired a keyboard player. They found someone willing to work with them, to play a prominent part in the music and then allow his name to be buried in the credits. A young New Jerseyan named Tom Brislin. They used him, then let him go the minute Rick Wakeman woke up.

Do I sound cynical? Well, perhaps I am. But I'll admit to liking Magnification a great deal. The frustrating thing about Yes is that no matter how ugly the circumstances behind one of their studio albums, I almost always find the music sufficient to redeem them.

Tours, live albums, are another matter, and it's Symphonic Live we're here to discuss.

I have limited use for Yes live albums. I have every one of them - I'm a fully paid-up member of Yes fandom - but rarely spin most of them.

Live albums can either offer good listening in their own right, or function as a sort of souvenir, allowing fans to relive a moment in a band's history. Occasionally live albums can do both. So far, most of Yes's live albums do neither very well.

Why? On count one, musical content: I've said it before: Yes have always been a compositional unit, not an improvisational one. They seldom vary their performances from what's on the album, and when they do, it's seldom an improvement. Seldom - but not never. Each of their live albums, each of their tours, seems to have one or two things to recommend it to the serious Yes listener. On Yessongs, it's the great jammed-out "Yours Is No Disgrace," the bruising rhythmic drop-out/drop-in near the end of "Siberian Khatru." On Yesshows it's the glam energy of "Going For The One." I get the live albums to find these moments and extract them like diamonds from a deep, dark mine.

On count two, documentary value: due to membership shifts, label issues, or sheer lack of foresight, Yes has never managed to properly document their live work. It may seem contradictory of me to wish they would, since I just got finished saying most of it's dross; very well, I contradict myself. The fan in me would like to see Yes put out one album to document each of their bouts of touring: either a complete show or a composite, it doesn't matter, but something to commemorate (commit to public memory) each iteration of the Yesshow. Even Yessongs doesn't do this, you know: it covers two tours, by two different lineups.

So how does Symphonic Live stack up?

As a document, it's fair. It's almost a complete show, which makes it more than we have for most Yes tours, but less than it could have been. The minimal packaging (recycled CG from the DVD package, incomplete performance credits) suggests how cheap an affair it is, taken straight from the DVD soundtrack, which is no doubt why we don't get the complete show. No liner notes explaining anything, needless to say. In terms of helping the fan get a (legal) sense of what this tour was about, it's better than nothing. But it could have been more.

As music? I would have been curious to hear the orchestra actually try to replace the keyboards, as was apparently the original plan. Instead, Brislin's there, usually playing a pretty good facsimile of the original keyboard parts. He's a fine keyboardist in fact, acquitting himself quite well on "Starship Trooper," for example. Which leaves the orchestra to do what, exactly? Mostly they're relegated to the background, adding emphasis and frills, but not much actual music.

The band, meanwhile, sound a bit tired. Howe's guitar work...well, it's been years since he had a fire in the belly to match the lightning in his fingers, and he plays it pretty cool here, too. Hits the notes, mostly, but with a sound and an attack that are for the most part doe-eyed, not wild-eyed, not like he used to be. Well, so be it. (But why keep playing the old stuff if he's not that into it anymore?)(Money. Why listen? Hmm.) Squire and White bash it around as energetically as ever, but the orchestra tend to detract from the rhythms, predictably.

There are a few gems. The orchestral backing on "Long Distance Runaround" adds a lot more than color: some really nice countermelodies, a great introduction, and a nice excuse to end the thing rather than go into "The Fish." "Don't Go," a forgettable pop gesture on the record, is surprisingly convincing in this context. "The Gates Of Delirium" provides perhaps the best glimpse of what things could have been, with the strings adding a real grandeur and texture to the band's sound, while they Brislin goads Howe, Squire, and White into kicking out something resembling the jams.

(Tanuki's condensation: Side One is "Long Distance Runaround," "Don't Go," and "Starship Trooper"; Side Two is "The Gates Of Delirium." Slap on a Roger Dean cover and there's yer vinyl Yesshow 2001.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Duke Ellington: Ellington Uptown (1952)

It really was my next acquisition after this. It just took me a while to write about it.

The music currently available as Ellingtown Uptown is: versions of "Skin Deep," "The Mooche," "Take The 'A' Train," "A Tone Parallel To Harlem (Harlem Suite)," "Perdido," and "The Controversial Suite," all recorded between December 1951 and July 1952, plus "The Liberian Suite," recorded in May/December 1947. All of this is happening in the early days of the lp record. "Liberian Suite" was released as a 10-inch lp in 1948, while "Skin Deep," "Mooche," "'A' Train," "Harlem Suite," and "Perdido" were released as a 10-inch lp in 1952. The latter was also issued in a 12-inch version that substituted "Controversial" for "Harlem Suite," if I understand it right.

So this is really music from two different periods, with considerable differences in the lineups. The Uptown material is mostly rerecordings of classic material, and it benefits from the new format. Ellington and his orchestra can stretch out and develop solos and themes more than they could on a 78. "Mooche" is six and a half minutes of hypnotic groove, while "A Train" nearly becomes a suite in its own right, with the addition of a vocal section courtesy of Betty Roche. "Skin Deep," meanwhile, gets to devote three minutes to one of the most explosive drum solos this side of Keith Moon. Really, nobody needs me to tell them how great Duke Ellington is. And this is great Duke Ellington. And it sounds great: still mono, but compare it to the prewar versions of these songs. Night and day.

"Liberian Suite" even lacks a little in the fidelity department compared to the later material. It's brilliant stuff, though. I guess I have to say I prefer the longer tympani solo in the LCJO version, and it's a sheer toss-up on the vocalists (Al Hibbler's creamy croon or Milt Grayson's stately recitation? they're both awesome). But listen to the violin-trumpet tango in "Dance No. 3." The little drum fills behind the vibraphone solo in "Dance No. 2." The way the horns blend everywhere.

Life is richer with Duke Ellington's music in it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sopranos

So this might be worth mentioning.

Finished watching The Sopranos this afternoon on DVD. I never watched it while it was running: a combination of revulsion against the hype (was it the New York Times that called it the greatest work of popular culture ever? please) and being too cheap ever to have HBO. But once it was all out on DVD I finally gave it a shot. That was about a year and a half ago, and I finally finished this afternoon.

Obviously, I don't think it was the greatest work of popular culture evah. How could you even make a case for that kind of claim? I was pretty damn impressed, though, particularly with the first season. But for me it went pretty much consistently downhill from there. Mrs. Sgt. T lost interest somewhere in Season 3; sometime in Season 4 I conceded she was probably right.

I won't bother to say what I liked about it: when I thought it was good, it was for the same reasons everybody else did. Writing, characters, texture, sense of place, detail, subtext, etc., all more complex than anything TV had seen before (although not since: I'm one season into The Wire and one season into Mad Men, too).

Where it fell down for me is a more interesting question (to me, at least). I get, I think, the show's central critique of contemporary America: that our screwed-up past and our present self-indulgence are destroying us, but we're too screwed up, self-indulgent, and self-deluded to do anything about it. It's a cogent critique, and I largely agree with it.

But it poses a problem for a show that runs for six seasons. The whole point of Tony Soprano is that he'll never change. And this makes for kind of a static show. That wasn't a problem in the first season, because we're not sure he can't change. I mean, he's in therapy, right? And he actually seems to be making progress for a while. But somewhere in the middle seasons I got the point, that he'll never change, and after that...nothing really mattered.

I think if I'd been able to follow the intricacies of the mob stories, the stagnant subtext wouldn't have bothered me. But surprisingly (because I thought I loved mob movies), I got bored with the plot fairly quickly. Just too damn many characters to keep straight, especially since the show very pointedly didn't give most of them proper establishing scenes - artistically a nice move, of course, but inconvenient for the viewer, to say the least. Plus, I didn't really like any of the characters - again, not a strict necessity, but it would've helped, over the long run.

So that's that.

Can't rag on it too much, though. It got Dylan to record "Return To Me." Here's a live version.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Gemini (1999)

Gemini, Japanese title Sôseiji 双生児, which could just as well be translated "Twins," although that isn't very creepy, which this movie is supposed to be. It was directed by Tsukamoto Shin'ya 塚本晋也 and released in 1999. Based on an Edogawa Ranpo short story which has been translated (as "Twins"); good story, although most of what's in the film is Tsukamoto's fantasia on Ranpo's themes.

A bit hard to follow at first, but pretty soon you're entranced. Imagine David Cronenberg remaking something from Suzuki Seijun's Taishô trilogy: that's this film. An elegant, classy setting for some truly sick jewels.

And it's the setting that I found myself drawn to, more than the jewels. The crime, the violence, the horror felt very Ranpo, which is to say sort of Poeish, and therefore were more or less what I expected. But I loved the film's vision of late-Meiji/early-Taishô Japan.

Weird hairstyles. No eyebrows. Lines clean, clothes neat, behavior unbelievably poised. Until you get to the slums, which are Dickens on acid. The period details, in other words, are recognizable, but defamiliarized. This is past-as-foreign-country stuff, exoticizing early 20th-century Japan, putting domestic audiences in almost the same position as their foreign counterparts vis-a-vis the country's past. Sort of the opposite of nostalgia. Very interesting.

Mokkun, by the way, is great in it. Even without eyebrows.

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Don't Be Afraid...The Music Of Charles Mingus (2005)

It was released in 2005, but it was recorded in 2003, at the same time as this one. It's their most recent release to date (that I know of).

In some ways it's their most puzzling release. As a jazz modernist (I know, all jazz is modern), he's as daring a choice as Coltrane, but then again, since he often wrote for a large lineup, maybe he's not: of all the modernists he's the best fit (unless they want to tackle Gil Evans's work for Miles) (hey, now there's an idea). So why do him? Of course they started out mostly recording Ellington, who was a perfect fit, not an adventurous choice at all; but then again, Ellington was due for a revival, and most of his recordings had been made with primitive technology: for the sonic upgrade, if nothing else, he was worth doing. But Mingus? His records still sound good today. So again: why do him?

I've got no answer. I'm just familiar enough with Mingus to know the above facts (plus, that he's awesome), and not familiar enough to tell you if they're doing anything radical with his stuff here. But I can say: it sounds good, and preserves the humor and weirdness of Mingus's music, if not quite the soulfulness. What I've heard of Mingus never sacrifices grit for glitz; this sometimes does.

So: I've now listened to all of the LCJO's records (except for the ones where they're just Wynton's backing band, playing nothing but his compositions: I figure those belong in a different category). What do I think?

I think they're best experienced live. In concert it becomes clear that their mission is the thing: to present a broad cross-section of the history of jazz, and to do it with a lineup big enough and versatile enough to do it all some justice. And bringing it all together like that, the Duke next to Wayne Shorter, WC Handy next to Fred Rogers next to Dizzy Gillespie, it all makes a certain kind of sense, and of course the music itself is fine.

On record, they haven't quite figured out the best way to present themselves. The discs devoted to the ouevre of a single artist are spotty and even at their best it's hard to think of a truly persuasive reason for their existence. I think their most successful records are the two that just draw from their tours, with eclectic track selections and this historiographical aspect of their work in full swing (pun intended). If they had just released one record a year, documenting each year's repertoire, I'd probably buy them all. That would be something. It might even go further toward making the case for them as an artists' collective to be reckoned with, rather than the combination tourist attraction/PBS special that they seem to be thought of as now.

Then again, that seems to be working out for them. So.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (1963)

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is the English title; the Japanese title is Kikunojô henge 雪之丞変化, which translates to something like "Kikunojô Transformed." Kikunojô is the kabuki actor of the title, and he transforms himself in several ways over the course of the story.

So what I saw was the 1963 version, directed by Ichikawa Kon. The story has an interesting pedigree: although on film it feels about as Edo-rooted traditional as you can get, the Japanese modern novel it goes back to was itself based on The Avenging Twins by American adventure author Johnston McCulley. (This is all per Wikipedia.) You never can tell.

But as I say, the 1963 film version (which is all I've seen) feels about as old-fashioned Japanese as you can imagine. Wikipedia says it was the sixth film version of the story in less than thirty years, and yet it was an all-star Daiei production (Katsu Shintarô, Zatôichi himself, is in a bit part, and figures large on the poster - looking nothing like he does in the film). Meaning, I think, that the mandate was to celebrate the clichés, not challenge them.

Which Ichikawa does. The melodrama is handled straight, and so you get a stirring revenge tale, the tragic death of innocents, the well-deserved death of villains, dark secrets out of the past, spunky women and doomy men, romance and action.

Where Ichikawa allows himself to play is with the visuals. This is only a year before he'd make Tokyo Olympiad, one of the most exciting color spectacles in Japanese film; here he's a little more subtle, but just as sure-handed. We get sudden swathes of yellow or red filling the screen - not abstract or unreal as in Suzuki Seijun, carefully worked into the diegetic color-scheme, but still bravura, still startling. The color work is matched by playful compositions, bold use of shadows, thrilling camera work. As melodramatic as the story is, that's how playful the visual rendering of it is. Lovingly playful, I should add.

My favorite sequence is the opening. We see Yukinojô onstage (he's a female impersonator, and of course any serious account of this movie should deal with the awesomely ambiguous sexual undercurrents that connect him with thte other main characters: but this isn't a serious account), playing a dance scene in the snow. It's stage snow, and one of the nice things about the film is the way it shows details of mid-19th century kabuki staging that I hadn't seen before, such as the confetti used for snow, and the candles used as footlights. We start out seeing him and the stage from the audience's perspective, but then we see from his perspective, looking into the audience, and we focus in on a group of people who turn out to be the ones on whom he's sworn revenge. We enter his head and hear his thoughts as he recognizes them. But as this happens the stage morphs into a real snowscape - Yukinojô is so into his performance that it's as if he's really outside in a snowy forest, although at the same time he's looking at his enemies in the balcony seats. A nice nod to the intensity of an actor's concentration, and a great visual effect.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New York, New York (1977)

I don't even remember how this ended up in our Netflix queue, but somehow it bobbed to the top, so we watched it tonight. Might have had something to do with this one, which seemed to sort of be in the same ballpark; anyway, it was one of the few Scorsese films I hadn't seen, so I was game.

I can see why it bombed. For me, it has nothing to do with the staginess of the sets (no problem). It's all about lame dialogue and zero chemistry between the leads.

Most of DeNiro's and Minelli's scenes together feel half improvised, and I don't mean that in a good way: they both repeat and restate, gesture and hem the way some actors do when they're improvising and the words aren't coming quite as fast as the feeling. So instead of '40s-style snappy dialogue we get '70s-style Method growling.

DeNiro, in fact, becomes downright irritating, fairly quickly. Neither character has any depth, but his Jimmy Boyle is abrasive and at times scary (Taxi Driver hangover) when he's (probably) meant to be comic and half-charming. Liza's Francine Evans isn't much better, but in her case it's because she's given so little to say. She spends most of the film gazing doe-eyed at Jimmy, for reasons beyond the viewer's comprehension.

By the time the big musical medley starts, you're certainly ready for it. Unfortunately, you're so tired that any goodwill it sparks dies out pretty quickly.

And then there's the song. It's an undeniable pop masterpiece, instantly recognizable and impossible to get out of your head. Unfortunately it makes no sense in the context of the movie. Jimmy's supposed to be a bebop-loving jazzer, and yet when he writes a melody, it comes out a flouncy showtune? Okay, sure, he's supposed to be writing it for Francine, so maybe he's writing it to be something she could sing in her act - except nothing in Jimmy's character leads us to believe he has any clue as to what Francine could or would sing. He's too self-centered. He'd only write the kind of thing he'd want to play. And that wouldn't be "New York, New York."

In most movie musicals this kind of absurdity wouldn't matter. But from Martin Scorsese, I expect better.