Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bob Dylan: "Tomorrow Is A Long Time" (2/20/78 Tokyo)

Dylan's rhythm section for the first part of the 1978 world tour was Rob Stoner on bass and Ian Wallace on drums. Stoner was a big part of what had made Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue work so well musically. Wallace was new to Dylan, but he had a respectable resumé, including a stint with King Crimson. Not the first band you associate with Dylan, but musically serious, to say the least.

They didn't mesh. Stoner would later complain that Wallace was all wrong. "Ian Wallace, man, had a beat like a cop," Heylin quotes him as saying (p. 318 in my copy of Behind the Shades). Rob Stoner also had a way with words: I never knew what he meant by this, but it sounded like a great way to put someone down.

I mean, I do know what he meant: he goes on to say that Wallace "couldn't swing from a rope." And that may be so. But on this rendition of this song, February 20 in Tokyo (and "Tomorrow Is A Long Time" was only performed nine times, according to Olof, and only in the first leg of the tour, in the Far East), he's awesome.

The arrangement is classic '78: stately in pace and mood, full in instrumentation, with piano embellishments bringing out the finer points of the lyric's lyricism. You can hear it in a January rehearsal here, and that's a well-nigh definitive version. Live, in the version I have, there are two main differences. One is that the country steel guitar is gone, replaced by a gut-twisting gospel-soul guitar part in the verses and a sax solo in the break. The inflection goes from white to black.

The other is that Wallace's drums are much, much louder. He's playing essentially the same part as in the rehearsal, a simple thump, but - probably due to the acoustics of the room and the tape, which is after all a bootleg, so you have to deal with this kind of thing - here it just sounds like he's whacking the life out of his kit. It's a massive, bruising sound, and it makes for a fantastic tension underneath what is supposed to be the tenderest of Dylan's ballads. Beat like a cop, indeed. I love it.

Well, there is a third difference. Dylan's vocal on the live version is, well, live: full of passion and excitement in a way the rehearsal outlines, but doesn't really fill in. Both are great, and both should be released.

I like the Japan leg of this tour more than most Dylan fans seem to. I like Budokan, and I like the stuff that didn't make it to that record.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997)

So I've already hinted that Jackie Brown is my favorite Tarantino. Was, at least, before his spate of 2000s films; and now that I see it again, I think it still is.

Why? I always come back to the emotional resonance Tarantino and the actors find in the relationship between Jackie and Max. It's not just two co-conspirators, it's two people in grueling, dead-end jobs trying to find a way out, it's two people on the wrong side of middle age trying to figure out if life has anything left for them. When they talk about aging - well, I was deeply moved the first time I saw it, when I was still in my twenties, and it still moves me now.

I don't know how much of this comes from the novel it's based on, because I haven't read it. But I think a lot of it has to come from Tarantino, or at least he chose to keep it. The detail that struck me this time was Max's hair. He tells Jackie that when his baldness started to bother him he did something about it, and he's fine with it. But we know he has a bald spot on the back of his head. Does he know? I don't think so: a guy with a lover might only be the second person to know he's going bad, but trust me, a guy alone is the last to know. In other words this is the chink in his armor, the hint that beneath his marvelously matter-of-fact toughness (Forster's performance is brilliantly understated: idle gestures with his fingers convey all sorts of inner calculations) is the vulnerability that will allow him to fall in love with Jackie.

The other thing I noticed, along these same lines, is how Tarantino lets Jackie look her age. I didn't notice this the first time I saw the film: back then, as a kid too young to remember blaxploitation and not hip enough to have discovered it on my own, all I noticed was how good Pam Grier looked. Now, with fresh eyes, I can see that she looks good, yes, but also 44, the age of her character. In 1997 it was already nearly universal practice in Hollywood to force actresses to look younger, pneumatic, even when they were playing old: if all you see is movies you have no idea what 44 looks like. Or how good an honest 44 can look: and that's what this movie gives us. It makes the character's strength, her confidence in her desperate improvisation, much more believable, because you can see and feel how she's survived all this time. I've said before that Tarantino is a feminist.

I feel a little odd naming this as my favorite Tarantino, because it's such a conventional film, in its design and style. It has all sorts of telltale tricks, but by and large Tarantino restrains himself. And it's a wise choice, because the kind of postmodern decoration that made Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill so thrilling would have distracted from the story and the characters here.
It was this film that really convinced me that Tarantino was a great director, and not just a great stylist: it showed he knew when to rein it in, in service of the film. Does that mean I secretly wish he'd just outgrow his stylistic games and make normal films like this one? I don't think so...

The other thing I noticed about this film this time around is how conscious it is about race. Race is a vexed question in Tarantino's work, largely because his characters speak in a fairly unvarnished way about it. Tarantino, through his films, sometimes seems like the white kid who thinks that just because he listens to rap he has the right to throw around the word "nigga." And I'm not going to say there's nothing problematic about the language in, say, Reservoir Dogs.

But I do believe he at least thinks about race, thinks about what he's doing with it. At least twice in this film we get Max, the white guy, dressed in black while he's talking to a black person (once it's Ordell, once it's Jackie) dressed in white. There's an explicit patterning going on here where we're being encouraged to think about race as an issue in these people's lives: the way Ordell talks about it, uses it, and the way Max doesn't, and Jackie doesn't.

And of course race is the big undercurrent in Max's relationship with Jackie. Never once is it mentioned, but it's the big subtext in the scenes where the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time" is used. He has to ask who it is when Jackie plays it in her apartment - clearly he wasn't listening to soul music in the '70s. So later when he buys it on cassette to listen to in the car, it means something - not just that he's into her, but that he's opening himself to a whole world he's never known. It's a very moving moment for me.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love (2000)

Saw this for the first time last night. Among this film's many splendors perhaps the least, but the one I found myself marveling at incessantly for the first half, was how Wong's camera manages to make Hong Kong in 1962 feel both authentically cramped and unbelievably stylish.

The crampedness: the film is almost entirely interiors, and the whole point is that these two people are trapped by the close quarters in which they're living - trapped against each other, and once they begin to figuratively embrace each other trapped by the observant eyes of everyone around them. The only way to be free is to leave the country - and of course even then they can't bring themselves to be free... The camera, though, puts the viewer always about three feet away from these people - no farther than you could get walking past them in a crowded apartment hallway or tiny living room. There's a bit of the Ozu trick here of shooting from a point of view that makes you feel like you're in the room, in the scene - but of course Wong's camera is so mobile that it would make Ozu seasick. Anyway, it brilliantly creates a sense of social claustrophobia.

At the same time the film manages to make this life seem incredibly glamorous. It does it through an incredible sense of style and beauty - dresses, furnishings, neckties are all impeccably chosen. It does it through lighting and color control - every shot is immaculately composed and seductive. But it also does it through the physical presence and performances of the actors - Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are not only beautiful, but they comport themselves with such dignity and grace that it makes their characters seem to thrive in this social claustrophobia.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Heart: "Dog And Butterfly" (1978)

Heart loved Led Zeppelin when it wasn't cool to love Led Zeppelin, but everybody did anyway. Heart had the balls to cover "Rock'n'Roll" in the days when Zep still stalked the earth. Heart had the gentle acoustic/raucous electric thing down cold. Heart could do the metal-funk thing better than Aerosmith.

And their ballads: well, they were delicious. Zep's ballads reflected Plant's love of a California that he imagined as Rivendell. Aerosmith's were groping toward the power ballad. Heart's - well, they're something more unabashedly pop, but Ann's vocals bring enough brassy passion that they always sound like they're coming from a rock point of view.

That's all I really want to say about Heart right now. Others have discussed the Wilson sisters' importance as female rockers, with the accent on female. I just want to point out that they rocked. No need to qualify or amplify that statement: they just rocked. And their music, from that period at least, sounds better and better to me with each passing year: honest, tasteful, gritty, sexy, real.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Robertson Davies: Murther and Walking Spirits (1991)

An Arts editor for a Toronto newspaper, Connor Gilmartin (or Gil) is murdered by his wife's lover. Gil's ghost, who narrates the book, follows his murderer until the latter, a theater and film critic for the newspaper, goes to a film festival. At which point the ghost begins seeing "films" of his ancestors' lives, rather than the classics his murderer sees.

The bulk of the book, then, is about the narrator's ancestry, tracing it from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. It reads less like a multi-generational saga than a series of vignettes, however, because we mostly zero on on significant episodes for each ancestor, rather than birth-to-death chronicles. We start with the Gages, a family of Loyalists in New York during the American Revolution - out of pride and self-preservation they flee up the Hudson River to Canada. We then join a Gilmartin who was an early disciple of Wesley's in Wales, and his progeny in Wales and then in Canada. We end up with Gil's father, a professor of English lit and a WWII veteran.

The story of the Gages was the most memorable, a brief retelling of the Revolution from the point of view of, essentially, Canadians, with the Americans who declared independence seen as rabble, smugglers, traitors, and bullies. Needless to say, a perspective I'd never seen before, and quite interesting.

The rest of the book was a bit disappointing. This kind of broad summary of Canadian spiritual history should have been Davies' masterpiece, since it enables him to tackle head on a lot of the themes that have been submerged in earlier novels, such as the effect of various forms of religion on the modern Canadian character, the particularly Canadian perspective on world-historical events, etc. But I think he handles these themes much better elsewhere - in What's Bred in the Bone, for example. Except for the Gages, I didn't find him saying much new here, and more importantly, I didn't find him saying it in as interesting a way.

Part of it I think is what I noticed about the Salterton books: he's simply most alive when he's able to engage great art and discourses through hyper-intellectual characters. In this book he's mostly returning to Salterton territory - not the town itself (although it does make a cameo appearance), but its Everycanadian kind of people. And it feels limiting to his vision. I don't think it's just that I like these characters less; I think I'd say that his characterizations just aren't as true, his stories aren't as revealing, here.

And his writing, that glory of his past nine novels? Perhaps because the story isn't working, his writing begins to feel like shtick here, employed to compensate for deficiencies in the book's conception, rather than to complete the transmission of any new message. Part of this can be seen in his treatment of the film motif - unlike his stage and opera and cinematography metaphors of novels past, the film metaphor isn't used in a particularly original or effective way. His use of film terminology, for example, is superficial, as if he'd picked up an Intro to Film book and tossed in terms from the glossary without really internalizing them...

Davies would have been 78 when this was published, and I hate to say it, but it reads like he was losing it.

On the other hand, it's possible that I just wasn't into it because I was reading this book in airplanes, airports, buses, and hotel rooms, jet lagged and on very little sleep...