Saturday, January 24, 2009

Freewheel Burning by Judas Priest

So the Tanuki got in one of his infrequent metal moods last night (maybe it was all that thinking about Billy Joel) and found himself listening to Judas Priest.

1. Like, I guess, most boys of my generation, I went through a Heavy Metal Phase. I had the good fortune to go through mine in suburban Maryland, the very area immortalized in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. I went to high school with these kids, or some just like them. Glen Burnie was just over the hill and through the woods from me, as was the Cap Center. That accent! The way that girl says "hell yeah" and "jump his beauns!" The way this guy enumerates the good stuff and the bad. C'est moi! Actually, c'est the assholes I used to avoid on the bus 'cause they wanted to beat the shit out of me for being a nerd. I guess that, too, is part of the fun of this video for me. They're forever ambered at seventeen. I got to grow up (sort of).

They were right about one thing, though: Priest rules.

2. Specifically a song like "Freewheel Burning". There's just too much to love here: a drum part that sounds like Keith Moon's most intense three seconds sampled and repeated, classic precision riffing, and Rob Halford at his most psychotic. Check out what he's singing from about the 3:15 mark.

Precision is the key here, I guess. Some metal bands - Sab, Zep (don't bother to tell me Zeppelin wasn't metal: I don't much care about taxonomy) - tried to sound dirty, but Priest's aesthetic was all about cleanness. Notes weren't bent, but ramrod-straight; time wasn't stretched, but neatly subdivided and sub-subdivided. Sounds were loud and abrasive but always clear, always discernible. It's all very modern, industrial even. Which all makes it sound, in a way, very safe, and indeed on one side this kind of thing tended to the frazzled classical graspings you hear in the guitar solo (Yngwie Malmsteen, of course, was the god of that sort of thing). At their best, though, Priest balanced that pristine order with a neurotic, frenzied disorder, which usually crept in through Halford's vocals. Again I'll refer you to the 3:15 mark.

Sometimes the music doesn't really support Halford, and he's left trying to make something wild out of a tame pop record such as "Love Bites," and then he just sounds silly. (Even their pop stuff could rule, though.) But sometimes it all comes together and you have a big slab of awesomeness like "Freewheel Burning."

3. Back to the parking lot. That kid is soooo insistent that Priest and punk have nothing to do with each other. I'm not so sure, and neither are a lot of other writers; it's something of a commonplace now to observe the secret commonalities between metal and punk - grunge showed us how. And it's true that there's often a rage at the heart of both genres, and it's often aimed at the same thing: the corruption, hypocrisy, and limitations of mainstream society.

But for all the boundary-crossing of their contemporaries in Seattle, the kids in that Landover parking lot represent the conventional wisdom of their day in their perception that there was a fundamental difference between punk and metal. Not that they really knew what punk was - chances are their knowledge of it in '86 was about what mine was. Nada. A general impression of style: safety pins through the ears, plastic garbage bag dresses, etc. So were the heavy metal fans rejecting masochism in favor of sadism? Sullen misery in favor of hedonism? Or the vulnerable disorder of the Sex Pistols in favor of the near-fascist monumentality of Priest?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ron Rosenbaum on Billy Joel

I read this today. Ron Rosenbaum excoriating Billy Joel for two pages on Slate. I'm not intending to turn this blog into a running commentary on what other people say about art; I'd rather just concentrate on art itself. But Mr. Rosenbaum did catch me with his lead paragraph:
This may seem an odd moment to bring up the subject of Billy Joel. But the recent death of the painter Andrew Wyeth revived a long-standing debate over whether his art is respectable or merely sentimental schlock. (Say it: good or bad?) It got me to thinking about the question of value in art and whether there are any absolute standards for judging it. It indicates the question is still alive, not relegated to irrelevance by relativism.
Interesting questions, and he's right that Mr. Wyeth's death is a good occasion to think about them. For the record, I like Mr. Wyeth well enough; not enough to leap to his defense here, but well enough.

Which is, funnily enough, how I feel about Billy Joel. Mr. Rosenbaum spends the rest of his article trashing Mr. Joel to prove that there are, or at least can be, absolute standards for judging art. It's an interesting exercise, and at least Mr. Rosenbaum is game enough to define his standards. His objections to Mr. Joel's work boil down, he says, to this:
It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt's backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.
Fair enough. And I'll resist the temptation to write that Mr. Rosenbaum is himself indulging in unearned contempt; I like his work on Shakespeare, so I'll allow he's earned the right to show some contempt, if that's what he feels like doing.

On the other hand, I think he's being a little disingenuous when he tries to locate the problem entirely within Mr. Joel. He as much as admits it later when he writes that
Billy's from my 'hood, mid-Long Island—Hicksville, to be precise (I'm from Bay Shore)—so I'm sensitive to his abuse of our common roots. Once I wrote something about the curse of being from the Guyland. In it I said something heartfelt: New Jersey may have a rep as a toxic dump for mob victims to fester in, but at least it brought forth Bruce Springsteen. The ultimate Guyland humiliation is to be repped to the world by Billy Joel. So I feel entitled to be cruel—
Follow Mr. Rosenbaum's link to his article about Long Island. You'll find this juicy paragraph:
I say "we" because, while I was born in Manhattan and have lived most of the latter half of my life here, I grew up on Long Island, and I'm resigned to the fact that in some essential, irrevocable way I'll always be a Long Islander. Resigned to the fact that, whenever I tell someone my hometown was Bay Shore, I feel compelled to add, pre-emptively, "Yes, that's right, that's the home of Katie Beers's dungeon." Resigned to the fact that every mush-mouthed hayseed in America feels he has the right to say, condescendingly, "Oh, you're from Long Island, you mean Lawn Guyland" -- as if everyone there spoke that way and he was establishing a Henry Higgins-like sophistication by comparison.
Now I think we're getting to the point. Mr. Rosenbaum's contempt for Mr. Joel is that of the the native son ashamed of his hometown, combined with the Manhattanite's contempt for every place that's not Manhattan. (If you call everybody from elsewhere a "mush-mouthed hayseed," how can you criticize them for calling you a "Lawn Guylander"?)

All of this is perhaps a roundabout, although hopefully not unduly ad hominem, way of saying that, like Mr. Rosenbaum, I've often wondered if we can't find some sort of absolute standard for judging art. I've annoyed many a professor and not a few students in my time by insisting we talk about this very question.

Lately, though, I've become an agnostic about the question, because I haven't encountered any absolute standards that aren't pretty easily exposed as motivated by something else. Like Mr. Rosenbaum's Manhattanitis.

I've learned to settle for simply trying to articulate why I like what I like, rather than trying to prove that it is, objectively, good. All I ask (I think; I may prove myself a hypocrite on this) of any other critic is an honest articulation of taste.

Like: everything Mr. Rosenbaum says about Mr. Joel may be true. But I still think Mr. Joel was a pretty gifted or canny crafter of pop/rock records. Songs like "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" or "Don't Ask Me Why," or a dozen other records I could name off the top of my head, boast nicely worked-out melodies, well-constructed verse/chorus/bridge sequences, effective arrangements that usually opt for solid musicianship rather than production tricks, lyrics that if they lack Dylanesque profundity manage to evoke something beyond simple lust. In addition to which, Mr. Joel could be a compelling performer: I've always found Songs From The Attic to be an exemplary live album, making the case that some artists should record everything live, as energy usually trumps precision.

Do I love Mr. Joel as much as I do Dylan? Not on your life. But I don't hate him, and I think I have pretty sound reasons for not hating him. I also think Mr. Rosenbaum has sound, well-articulated reasons for hating him: but I don't think they constitute an aesthetic absolute.

EDIT: One of the commenters on Mr. Rosenbaum's essay reminds us that Slate's own Jody Rosen wrote about Billy Joel a few years ago. Mr. Rosen's take doesn't have the philosophical hook of wondering if we can find aesthetic absolutes, but it is a lot fairer and (this is the important part) more perceptive in its treatment of Mr. Joel's strengths and weaknesses as an artist.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Aretha at the Inauguration

Here she is. It was good all the way through, but the first verse just sent me. That's what you call godly sorrow.

Monday, January 19, 2009

James Bond review: Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

CUT TO THE CHASE: A very Vegas Bond.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Lazenby leaves. Poor schmuck. The producers lure Connery back for one last fling.

The pre-title sequence makes much of this, but in a puzzling way. It’s sort of a montage of Bond chasing Blofeld through a number of exotic locales and luckless informants. The first of these encounters is in Japan, which immediately puts us in mind of You Only Live Twice – are we meant to assume OHMSS never happened? Possibly, although the fury with which Bond is chasing Blofeld now seems to imply that Bond harbors a personal grudge stemming from the events in OHMSS. Regardless, we’re not given enough to establish any real continuity, which is probably a good thing. In any case, the point here is that we don’t see Bond’s face during the first couple of these encounters – it’s all point-of-view shots until we reach the third informant, Marie. She’s lounging in the sun in a bikini. She looks up at the camera approaching, says, “Who are you?” And then we see Connery walking toward us, saying, “My name is Bond – James Bond.” They’re reintroducing him, as if he were a new actor in the role, but of course he’s not, so this becomes a big applause line.

Hell, I’ll bite. As much as I love George, I can’t argue with the chance to see Connery once again display his inimitable charm.

He looks considerably older here than he did his last time out – older than four years should be able to explain. And some of the details of his look are wacky. Sideburns? A great look, but not for Bond. Brown suits and pink ties? Not a great look, but Connery pulls it off. Some of the other looks, the leisure suits and open-necked shirts? Not so much.

But it doesn’t matter. ‘Cause it’s Vegas, baby. This should be a problem. I’ll have more to say about when Bond movies adopt other idioms: I think they get mixed results at best. And I also tend not to like it when Bond goes to America – see my review of Goldfinger. This film is the exception that proves the rule, and it’s because they figured out how Bond deals with Vegas and all its crassness. He saunters through it, in the full knowledge that he’s above it. It’s the Bond equivalent of a Sinatra show at the Sands, where the singer’s aesthetic is to make it look like he’s not trying to hard. Casual, loose, ‘cause what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, baby. And ‘cause all that charm is even more charming when you see, or think you see, that he doesn’t have to work for it. It’s all natural. Baby.

This looseness makes this one of the less coherent Bonds, but at the same time it allows Connery’s performance to be one of his most enjoyable. Again, Sinatra at the Sands: you’ve won a big wad, you’ve got a sexy dame on your arm and a martini in your hand, and Old Blue Eyes is on stage. Does it really matter what he’s singing?

What Makes Bond Bond: He’s an expert craps player, but he doesn’t mind letting the lady roll for him. And doesn’t seem to care when she loses. But he takes the rest of the rolls himself. And wins.

What Makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: When he finally decides he’s tired of waiting for an appointment to see Willard Whyte, Bond, in a tuxedo, strolls out onto his balcony and steps onto the roof of the outdoor elevator, riding it up to the penthouse. The camera slowly pulls back to show us Bond standing on this elevator hundred of feet above the ground. He looks utterly casual about it. But what makes the moment is the way he sniffs the flower in his lapel as he steps onto the elevator.

BAD GUYS: Charles Gray plays Blofeld this time, and he’s utterly bad. He has no dignity – gone is the sense that Blofeld must be classy enough and together enough to make a worthy enemy for Bond. He has no menace either. And of course no neck.

He is fun to watch, however. He’s nothing but a big neckless trapezoid in a Nehru jacket, but he struts around like he owns the joint. And when he appears in drag – well, I defy you to find a more sublimely ridiculous moment this side of Monty Python.

His Nefarious Scheme is to make a killer satellite and use it to hold the world to ransom; it must have been a great idea, because they recycled it for Goldeneye. Here, though, it has holes you could drive a truck through, or at least a moon buggy. Like, I suppose I can buy the conceit that he needs diamonds to construct it, but if he’s trying to keep it secret, why kill everybody who comes in contact with the diamonds? ‘Cause nothing throws the authorities off the scent like a string of murders across three continents.

We’re back to the formula with a vengeance in the Evil Henchman department. Messrs. Wint and Kidd, the assassins who just happen to be gay, are among the most memorable baddies ever to grace a Bond film. Their droll banter, their odd look (Kidd’s hair!), their impeccable timing. All hail Putter Smith and Bruce Glover.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Jill St. John as Tiffany Case knows what it means to be a Bond girl. It means prancing around your apartment in your almost-altogether, and sneering that you don’t dress for the hired help. It means engaging in some very skeevy double entendres (and she gets almost as many good lines as Bond).

Lana Wood knows what it means to be a Bond girl, too. It means leaning precariously over the craps table while wearing an expression that just couldn’t be any more unassuming. And setting Bond up for undoubtedly the skeeviest double entendre of the series so far. Drum roll, please… “Named after your father, perhaps?”

Both are sexy in an overripe way that sets them apart from both the International Supermodel look of the Thunderball girls and the Natural Look that would prevail for the rest of the decade’s Bond girls. Hey, this is Vegas: hubba-hubba, and all that. Between St. John and Wood we have almost more lusciousness than we know what to do with.

Or than Bond knows what to do with, evidently, because for all that, the film ends up with a GS quotient of only 1. Frustrating – but that’s Vegas for you.

AND VIOLENCE: The fight on the elevator in Amsterdam is one of the best action sequences in the series so far. It was evidently quite a trick to film it in such a close space, which makes it a technical innovation, but with uncharacteristic subtlety: onscreen it just looks like two guys throwing punches at each other. But it’s taut, visceral, exciting.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Another Q field trip, to Vegas this time. The gadgets themselves in this film are fairly understated – some prosthetic fingertips here, a belt-rigged climbing cable there. But Q’s slot-machine joy buzzer is memorable.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: After brief stops in Japan, Cairo, and elsewhere, the movie takes us (but not Bond) to South Africa before settling in Amsterdam, then Las Vegas. See above.

ETC.: Again, not a great title sequence; gauzy, glittery, but not especially sexy. Bringing Shirley Bassey back for the theme song, more than anything, was begging the audience to forgive any of the previous film’s indiscretions. But who’s complaining? It’s another sultry vocal performance on a great song given a surprisingly forward-looking, almost dance-floor ready, arrangement… Casting country star Jimmy Dean in this film could have been overwhelmingly kitschy, but strangely enough it works; he brings a confidence and energy to the role that stands in sharp contrast to Charles Gray’s odd Blofeld. Plus, they had the wisdom not to let him sing the theme song. If only they’d shown the same restraint when they cast Madonna in Die Another Day… Okay, so far in the series Bond has driven cars (assorted Aston Martins, Bentleys, and other makes), boats, a rocket backpack, a miniature helicopter, skis, a bobsled, jet-propelled scuba gear, and now a moon buggy. We’ve barely scratched the surface… In the next couple of films we’ll slam head-on into the phenomenon of Bond imitating other genres of action film; here it’s not quite doing that, but look at the movie’s depiction of American gangsters and then imagine a parody version of, say, The Godfather (“I got a bruddah”). That film wouldn’t be released until 1972, but it was shooting at more or less the same time as Diamonds, and of course the novel had been a bestseller since 1969. A connection? Maybe not, but the gangsters are definitely a little more wiseguyish here than they were in Goldfinger

RATING: 005.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Heather Havrilesky!!

I don't watch Battlestar Galactica, so I didn't pay much attention to anything past the third paragraph of this column. But Heather Havrilesky is one of those Salon columnists (King Kaufman is the other) who are worth reading regularly even if you don't give a damn about the subject, because they're good, funny, insightful writers.

And the first three paragraphs of the column I just linked to - well, I want to carve them in stone and set them into the wall of my own personal Shrine To People Who Hate Hipsters As Much As I Do. Brilliant stuff.

P.S. If you get addicted to King Kaufman, you might like his buddy Paul Lukas, who runs Uni Watch. Again, fascinating even if you don't have the slightest interest in sports. You can read Lukas entirely as a history of popular design in the U.S.

Audrey Hepburn and William Holden in Paris When It Sizzles

Wikipedia says this was filmed back-to-back with Charade, and the two movies share more than some sets. Both of them worship at the altar of snappy dialogue and head-spinning switcheroos.

But in Charade, as befits its aspiration to be the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made, the dazzling repartee and narrative reverses are all placed in service of a plot and two sharply realized characters. Here the snappy dialogue and switcheroos are quite explicitly ends in themselves.

In short, Charade, for all its chaos, was really about order, as any good thriller is. Paris When It Sizzles is anarchic in spirit.

It's also metafictional enough to please Donald Kaufman, and almost shockingly cynical about the whole idea of film, balancing vicious swipes at French New Wave directors and method actors with wicked commentary on traditional Hollywood moviemaking. Delicious, and it's amazing to realize that this was made in 1964. It feels quite contemporary.

But of course the movie's chief pleasure, in age-old Hollywood fashion, is watching two actors with great chemistry. Never mind the rumors, Holden and Hepburn really sparkle here. Holden hits every mark as the washed-up screenwriter in love with his own charm (and also as the international jewel thief, the spy, the monster, etc.): he does an excellent job of showing us a character who's primarily acting to himself, to his reflection in a glass of whiskey, and only intermittently connecting with the other person in the room.

Hepburn, meanwhile, turns in one of her best comic performances. She's so charming that you tend to forget how gifted a comedienne she was - she sneaks up on you. Then she'll employ that gangly body in a bit of slapstick - the way she leaps when Holden surprises her on the balcony at the movie studio, a perfect cartoon leap, kicking her heels up behind her. Or she'll modify her timing so that she's transformed herself into a hard-bitten French jailbird, insisting on her "professionalism." And she'll have you squealing with delight. She's good. And she's great here.