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?