Friday, October 1, 2010

Dragonslayer (1981)

Part of a spate of fantasy movies that came out in the very early '80s (along with The Dark Crystal, Conan, and a few more embarrassing ones that I loved when I was, like, twelve), and part of Disney's turn-of-the-decade effort to crawl into the modern world with live action films in genres kids actually liked (The Black Hole, Tron): given this pedigree, it's amazing that it's any good at all. But Dragonslayer is one of the better fantasy films ever made, and nearly thirty years later, its dragon is still the best one ever caught on celluloid.

So, the dragon: it's worth glancing through the description on Wikipedia of how it was done, because it took a lot of work and ingenuity. It's a shame that this film is mostly forgotten today, because it was intended to be a landmark in special effects, and it was. I'm old enough to have seen it first-run, and I can tell you: it blew me, little dragon-loving pre-teen, away. And the dragon still looks good: and not just because they made it convincing, but because they made it look so darn dragony. They got it right. If Peter Jackson's Hobbit ever gets made, Smaug has his work cut out for him.

I really don't need to write more, because the thing's worth seeing just for the dragon. The fact that the rest of the movie works as well as it does is just a bonus.

It's basically a sorceror's-apprentice story, with Peter MacNicol as the apprentice; he's slightly off-center, for a fantasy hero, a little modern, and that works nicely (if you can get his later TV appearances out of your head) with the off-center heroine, Caitlin Clarke; the casting overall does the job, with suitably crusty-looking fighters and florid noblemen.

The scenery is beautiful - lush forests and forbidding rocky mountainsides. It has that fairy-tale-wonder quality to it that a good fantasy movie needs. But for a fantasy movie, it's surprisingly unsentimental about its medieval setting: society is a mix of superstition and venality, religion is powerless, and magic, the only hope, is equal parts ill-understood science, actual sorcery, and pure chicanery. The movie aims for a sweet spot between Lord of the Rings romance and Conan brutalism, and hits it. I've always remembered the scene at the end where (spoiler alert) the king drives his sword into the smoking carcass of the dragon and pronounces himself the slayer of it. That kind of bracing realism about governments, about human pride, can make a deep impression on a young mind.

A gem of a movie.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1838)

After Pickwick Papers, I was pretty excited to move on to the next Dickens, and the first blockbuster. I was expecting to love Oliver Twist (or: The Parish Boy's Progress). Instead, it was a real effort to get through.

I'm not sure why; and before I start to point to reasons within the book I want to hasten to admit that the fault most likely lies within myself. That is, for various reasons maybe I was just too stressed to have the patience for Dickens this month. Anyway, it rather bothered me that I didn't enjoy it more. This is high melodrama, and I've come to fancy myself to have an unfashionably high tolerance, even appetite, for old-school high melodrama.

But in fact I found Oliver himself to be just as insufferable as most modern critics seem to. The latter half of the book, where he disappears from the narrative for long stretches, is vastly improved by his absence. Problematically, that's the half of the book that doesn't matter.

What matters about this book, of course, is its indictment of contemporary attitudes toward and treatment of the poor. Oliver's stint in the care of the parish, his experiences in the workhouse, and more generally the acidic burn of Dickens' prose when describing anybody with parochial or legal authority over Oliver and other paupers, is essential reading. Even/especially today, when it's increasingly clear that one of the two major political parties in this country would like to see the return of the poor laws, and when the other party, while not agreeing, would rather talk about anything than the poor.

The assumption that underlay the poor laws, the prejudice that excused Oliver's mistreatment, was that the poor were different from you and I: lazy and prone to criminality, they deserved what they got. Therefore, the moment it becomes clear to the reader (and this is quite early in the book, if you're paying attention and are reasonably attuned to the melodramatic wavelength) that Oliver is among the poor but not of them - that he's of solid upper-class stock - a lot of the fire goes out of the book. True bravery would be for Dickens to stand up and say that we should have compassion on the poor because they're no different from us, only less fortunate; instead, he wimps out and says only that we should have compassion on them because one of them might accidentally be one of us in disguise.

Again, I know this isn't an unusual critique of the novel. And now that I come out and say it like that, I wonder if it isn't slightly harsh. Certainly the book would constitute a stronger denunciation of the poor laws if Oliver wasn't highborn. But what's harder for secular moderns to appreciate is the quasi-Biblical resonance of Oliver - there's an echo of St. Martin and the Beggar in his story, and the old Christian idea that Jesus could appear to one in the guise of a pauper, and that this was reason to treat all paupers as if they were Jesus. In other words, what makes the book's critique seem weak to us now might have been what made it cut deep in its own day.

Another thing that bothers me about the book is, of course, Fagin. Irving Howe (who wrote the intro to the edition I read) is right: there's just no disguising the nastiness of Dickens' conception here. There's anti-Semitism in Shylock, sure, but also great humanity; there's no humanity in Fagin. To Dickens' credit it seems that later in life he more or less realized what he'd done, and regretted it, but that doesn't change what he did here.

Again, it's not just that Fagin is the villain, and that his villainy is entirely blamed on his being Jewish, and that his Jewishness is presented as a collection of grotesque stereotypes. It's that, in addition to all that, he's presented as lacking, basically, a soul. Compare his last hours to those of his crony Bill Sikes. Sikes is a murderer, as well as a thief and a batterer, but he's also, by heritage at least, a Christian (or so we're meant to assume, since it's never specified otherwise), and so after killing Nancy he's wracked with guilt. He's miserable with it, driven nearly insane. His last hours are narrated from within his thoughts and feelings - we know he's feeling guilty, and we come to pity him, although we never forgive him. In Fagin's last hours, too, we enter his head and heart, as he awaits sentencing and then execution, but although he's powerfully afraid of death, we're given no indication that he feels guilt. The message is clear: as a Jew, Fagin has no conscience. There's no getting around this.

Real-life ironic twist: as a graduate of a certain Northeastern educational institution whose brand is taking a bit of a well-deserved beating right now, I've been following the Marty Peretz story, and I had just finished this excellent retrospective on him when I returned to Oliver Twist and read Chapter LII, "Fagin's last night alive." Irony, as I say, because Dickens' character is an excellent example of the real-life anti-Semitism that pervades much of Western history, and that, by most accounts, seems to be one of Peretz's driving motivations. But right now Peretz himself embodies bigotry directed at Muslims and blacks. The content of bigotry, its arguments and excuses, never changes. Only its targets.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Jefferson Airplane No. 1

Jefferson Airplane No. 1 is actually all but undocumented. This is the very first lineup of the Airplane, in 1965, the group that Marty Balin put together to play his new nightclub, the Matrix: Balin and Signe Toly Anderson on vocals, Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen on guitars, Bob Harvey on bass, and Jerry Peloquin on drums. Biographers insist that this lineup recorded a demo for Columbia Records, consisting of "The Other Side Of This Life." I've searched the web over and thought I found true love, but I've never found this demo. I'd love to hear it: this Fred Neil cover was the Airplane's true anthem, not "White Rabbit." It best summed up what they were all about, and it was in their repertoire from the very beginning, but they never released a record of it until 1968.

Since JA1 is effectively a matter of legend, we'll just call it JA0, or maybe JA0.5, and let JA1 be the first Airplane for which we have any aural evidence. This is the lineup that consisted of Balin, Anderson, Kantner, and Kaukonen, plus (well wouldja lookit that) Skip Spence on drums and (fanfare, please) Jack Casady on bass.

The original, and just possibly my favorite, Airplane. I know they wouldn't really take off, as it were, until Grace Slick joined the band. But as essential as their next few records would be, they don't sound as much like the organic product of a band as did their first record, the one recorded with Anderson. The factionalization and musical schizophrenia that would eventually destroy the Airplane was there from the moment Slick joined the band (not that she caused it); but it's not apparent on that first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.

That first album, released in September of 1966, is a masterpiece of something. Not quite of psychedelic San Francisco rock. Of folk-rock, if anything. Truth be told, it's the work of a band much infatuated with the Byrds.

This infatuation is even more apparent on the few fragments we have that predate that album. Let's run them down.

Wolfgang's Vault has a three-song set dating from November 6, 1965: a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe at the Calliope Warehouse. It's the earliest circulating Airplane, and the first show in SF promoted by Bill Graham - for some intents and purposes, the SF scene starts here. Sound quality is a bit iffy, but historical value is unmatched, and musically it's eminently decent. It shows a rough-and-ready band of folk rockers, ethereal harmonies backed by muscular musicianship. Some pitch problems, but that's more than made up for by a sureness of vision. Signe in particular is shown off to good effect in these three songs; in the studio she tended to be buried in the mix, at least compared to the way she was miked live. I might as well 'fess up here and now: I'm unbounded in my admiration for Grace Slick, but I loooove Signe Anderson. All contemporary photos show this cute Oregon girl in pigtails, but then she opens her mouth and she's just a belter. When she and Balin harmonized it was yin and yang, but she was the yang - that was the dynamic, and it's only intermittently in evidence on their album. This live rendition of "Runnin' 'Round This World," for example, is rougher but ballsier than the studio version, and the song benefits from it.

The next thing we have is the session for their first RCA single: December 16 & 18, 1965. The session produced the studio version of "Runnin' 'Round This World," the classic "It's No Secret," "High Flying Bird," and "It's Alright." The first two were released as a single; the second was also released on the first album; the last two were released on the 1974 odds'n'sods collection Early Flight. They're all available on the 2003 reissue of Takes Off, which does what a reissue should, and brings together the album and all the related studio tracks. There was room for more - it could have been better - but it could have been worse, too. ...This is a very auspicious debut. "It's No Secret" is a great first single, tremendously accomplished: a dicey love song in what would become the Airplane tradition, delivered by Balin in his trademark shudderingly beautiful style, and backed by the well-oiled Airplane machinery. It soars. They would soar higher before very long, but it's still a good start. The other side of the single (dropped from the album for pushing the limits of what you could sing about in 1965) is just as good. Less moody, more poppy, more of an accent on folk-rock harmonies, but again with a solidity that sets them apart. This is not just electrified folk, which is what the Byrds were for most of their career; this is rock.

That Byrds comparison. What do I mean by it? Well, the harmonies, sure: Balin, Kantner, Kaukonen, Anderson had all come out of the Bay Area folk scene, and their band from the very start was all about harmonies. And the Byrds had been the first to figure out how to bring complex, shifting folk harmonies into rock. The Airplane have learned from them. But that's not all they learned. Paul Kantner, like Jim McGuinn, is playing electric 12-string throughout the Airplane's early sides, lending an unmistakably Byrdsy vibe to the proceedings. And Casady, while very much his own man from the start, does sound a bit like Chris Hillman at times in these early days - when he plays way up on the neck, four beats to the measure, he adds the kind of march-like power that Hillman displayed on "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," for example.

But they're not Byrds clones. As I say, they're rock. Take Paul's guitar work. As much as it puts you in mind of the Byrds, he's not going for the kind of chiming effect that was McGuinn's stock in trade; instead he plays in a more impressionistic style, pinching the chords and slashing at the rhythms. And again I have to come back to the harmonies: Byrds harmonies were always all about innocence and joy, about bringing Dylan's lyrical image of "starry-eyed and laughing" to musical fruition. There was something churchy in them, no surprise given McGuinn's love of Bach. The Airplane were always darker, more sinister, more jaundiced: the tragic or Satanic side of romantic, and it was right there in their harmonies. In Signe's belting, and Marty's crooning, with its frank admission that he was after more than a peck on the cheek.

The folk-rock roots of the Airplane can best be glimpsed on the only other stretch of live Airplane that seems to be circulating, a tape from January 14-16, 1966, at the Kitsilano Theatre in Vancouver, BC. It's not a great performance, really, but it has a lot of things they either would never record, or wouldn't record with this lineup. They actually cover the Byrds: "Feel A Whole Lot Better." They cover Dylan (a song the Byrds also did): "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." Neither song comes off very well, and you can see why they dropped them, but still they're perfectly illustrative of where the band was coming from. Illustrative of where it was going are covers of "The Other Side Of This Life," already an anthem, "Let's Get Together," and "High Flying Bird." I really wish this last had made the album - it's one of Signe's best moments. ...The tape also includes a couple of r&b covers: "Baby What You Want Me To Do" and "In The Midnight Hour." I'm generally unconverted to Hot Tuna - when they played pop songs they were great, but as a blues interlude in Airplane shows, they were a drag. Jorma has to have been the least convincing blues singer in the entire SF scene.

Shortly afterward, in February and March of 1966, came the sessions for the debut album. What's there for me to say about it? I just love it. From the first, ominous rattle of bass and 12-string to the last sigh of Marty's angst, it's something different, despite all the obvious antecedents.

My take on the Airplane is that they were the inventors, in this country at least, of the idea of rock as art. They weren't the band-for-all-seasons that the Dead were, the life of the party, the band of the people; they were the most determinedly serious band on the scene. The downside of that is the raging ego-trips that ripped the band apart far too soon. The upside is that from the very beginning they had an ambition that most of their peers simply didn't have. For a while, through to the end of the '60s, that was enough.

Favorite moments: the descending bass runs (stolen from Bill Wyman and brilliantly repurposed) in "Let Me In." The impossibly taut upwards modulation in the refrain of "Don't Slip Away." The haunted, forbidden-fruit ecstasy of "Come Up The Years." Signe asserting (not screaming) bloody murder on "Chauffeur Blues."


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dead white males

I read a lot of them, sure, but I try to read some other things too. Anyway, Sullivan today has a post responding to somebody else's essay saying maybe we should shore up the canon. The idea, basically, is that black literature focuses on the experience of oppression, and thus its perspective is narrow. Sullivan writes:

Naturally, if someone has me in shackles, is holding a gun to my head and denying me my basic human rights because of the colour of my skin, I would choose to firstly devote my intellectual energies to addressing that injustice. But it is undeniable that man’s inhumanity to man is only one part of the human condition.

The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm.

To which I say: isn't bondage a metaphysical quandary as much as a physical? Isn't oppression an inextricable part of the macrocosm of human experience? Is a mind that can't see this free in any way that matters? Why doesn't Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic who insists that his temperamental home is with the conservatives, see this?

Oregon Country Fair, 2010

This post and the one before it were meant as run-ups to the present post, which it's taken me a lot longer to get around to writing than I'd expected. On the bus home I was full of ideas, feelings, thoughts, and couldn't wait to write a rhapsody, or more precisely a fu , about it. I don't think this will be that.

The Oregon Country Fair is an annual event at which hippies from all up and down the West Coast, and maybe beyond, gather to a patch of fields and woods in Veneta and let their freak flags fly. It's not Burning Man - and since I've never been to Burning Man I can't take the contrast any furthur than that. I'll just say it's smaller, and it takes place, as I say, in the woods rather than the desert. I suspect that may make a difference.

It grew out of a RenFest first held in Eugene in 1969. This fact resonates with me: in the halcyon days of my wannabehippieism I found the Maryland RenFest, and it was like a revelation; I grew out of that, but now here I am at the OCF, and it feels like coming home.

It soon moved to nearby Veneta, and quickly seems to have evolved from something strictly SCA to something more along the lines of a gathering of the tribes: less an evocation of a lost romanticized innocent past than an attempt to create, in the here and now, a space where seekers of a variety of non-standard experiences but the same mutually congenial attitude can gather, under favorable circumstances, and, as the old slogan went, freak freely. The space itself is, if not precisely holy, at least sanctified: it hosted this show, and you can still feel the vibes (when I at last stood on that field, in front of a big multicolored silk geodesic sphere, it was a Moment, dude).

Yes, there are deep connections to the Kesey clan.

So what is it?

It's a fair: food, crafts, exhibits, stages. Exhibitors: exhibitionists. The food ranges from the most joyfully carnivorous (we had a wicked po' boy) to the most staunchly vegan (which we acknowledged in the breach), and everything was good. The crafts range from trip toys of every description to seriously nice things (we got some hand-blown wine glasses with delicately colored stems). The exhibits range from the informative (how to make a fire with the friction method - I was a Boy Scout, and I could never do that) to the downright fonky (I can't even begin to describe; fortunetelling is the acceptable edge of it). The stages have things I've already described, and much much more besides: excellent music, just awesome. The exhibitors are a breed apart: not at all the same craftsmen we run into at other local gatherings, these are people who, many of them, quite literally live for the fair. This is the secret generator of Eugene's downtown Saturday Market, and the source of the centripetal force that keeps Eugene counterculturalandIwouldn'thaveitanyotherway.

The exhibitionists: include, of course, people in various stages of nudity, since the only rule is your genitals have to be covered (and I caught an inadvertent glimpse of the side-squigglies of at least one strapping guy's partially-loinclothed package: the rule is kind of honored, like a lot of things, in the breach)(cloth). The nudity is the thing most people who freak out, rather than freak, freak out about.

Yes, you see a lot of boobies. In contemporary America, where Janet Jackson's nipple can get more people worked up than any number of genocides, I guess this might be shocking to some: but it shouldn't. And I say that not just because I'm tired of my countrymen's fake prudery, but because the nekkidness on display at the OCF is so utterly non-sexualized. It's not about provoking anything but a joy in humanity, and an honesty about what human beings are, and how nice it may feel to be mostly-altogether in the dappled shade of the Oregon woods on a Sunday afternoon in July, while you're licking a Hawaiian shave ice. It is, if anything, a very family-friendly kind of nudity.

But there was a different kind of exhibitionism there, the one manifested in the custom of costuming that many, perhaps most, of the attenders followed. (Even I, in my characteristically mild manner, dressed up: Dead t-shirt, Ray-bans, porkpie hat.) There were paid performers, people on stages, elevated from the masses, who were thus placed in the role of audients. But there were also wandering weirdos, people on stilts with improvised suits of junkyard armor or quetzalcoatlian plumage, jugglers, belly dancers, mud-covered drum-circlers, cavemen, a parade of nude people so covered with mud that they seemed to be fresh products of evolution, and there was the crowd itself, everybody with her or his own idea of how to contribute to the overall thing.

I finally got it.

This kind of exhibitionism, this ethos of everybody-is-a-performer, has deep roots in the hippie scene: it was the guiding principle of the Acid Tests, and the Furthur bus. But it's also part-and-parcel of hipsterism in a broader sense, and as such it goes back much earlier than SF, and far beyond the Dead parking-lot scene. The idea of the hip individual, the aesthetically enlightened young person, as being an artiste, putting on a performance for the hoifuckingpolloi, of always being on, look at me, react to me: it pervades any and all scenes, from Sex Pistols shows to Williamsburg to Montmartre. And as I love art but hate stabbing anything, including but not limited to the bourgeoisie, this aspect of the hippie scene always gnawed at me. Which is to say, I always figured that if I'd actually been at an Acid Test, I would have left annoyed. This has always been one of the dark spots on the x-ray of my Haight infatuation.

And I'm sure that's a perception that does apply in certain situations and to certain scenesters. But somehow, at the OCF, it all made sense. All the happeners didn't strike me as attention-seekers demanding a reaction like the guy ringing the bell in the Monty Python sketch, then judging you on it, but as people simply trying to do their part to help keep the plates spinning, the circus tent inflated, the jam going. It all felt generous. I was having such fun that I began to feel guilty for not having dressed up more - for having nothing to contribute.

A couple other things struck me, and they both have to do with the idea of security.

One is that security was invisible. I'm sure there was security in place. There are rules (no alcohol, for one: I'm sure most people arrive whacked out on something, but while you're within the gates, it's a dry festival), and that means that there has to be somebody to enforce them. And there are weirdos, and that means there has to be somebody to take charge if their weirdness takes a weird turn. In fact I know there was security in place, because I know someone who knows someone who works security there. But the thing is, the security is invisible. In America in 2010, the pervading security philosophy is intimidation: uniformed cops in helmets and jackboots carrying big-ass guns. We're all about fear these days, but the OCF isn't like that. They keep the peace without a big show of authority; their idea seems to be that utopia is going to be a place where you don't need to crack heads to keep order, and indeed that "keeping order" isn't a worthy end in and of itself. The result was that everywhere you looked you saw people at peace, having a good time, being free, with no fear. It was beautiful.

The other thing is that of course this is only possible because the OCF is an attendance-limited event. You have to pay to get in, and the tickets are fairly expensive (more than the county fair, at least), and you can't buy them on-site. You have to buy them ahead of time at a ticket outlet - you have to plan ahead, in other words, and make a non-trivial financial investment if you want to go. What this means is that the only people there are people who want to be there. No frat boys to yell, "Hey, dipshit, the '60s are over!" No right-wing tweakers to call you a Dirty Fucking Hippie. Nobody, in essence, who seriously disagrees with this particular vision of paradise.

That's important. I don't think complete ideological segregation is appropriate for all walks of life in a democratic polity, but it helps when you're trying to hold a celebration. And it does suggest that if you're trying to create a utopia, it helps if you can do it out of sight, or out of reach, of those who'd rather you not create a utopia because it bugs them.

I'm also intrigued by Cascadian independence.

I'm not a hippie. I was born about twenty years too late; and that fact is probably all that allows me to be as close to hippiedom as I am. My stupid contrarian streak probably means that if I had been of that generation, I would have looked down on the hippies. That's how I've mostly missed out on any movement in my own generation worth getting involved in. Whatever: that's who I am.

I'm not a hippie. But I had an intense five years or so, in my late teens, when I wanted to be a hippie (see stupid contrarian streak), and was a hippie as far as my suburban timidity would allow. I never dropped out and followed the Dead (still an option in the late '80s), but I hung around with people who did, sometimes. For a while.

I grew out of it. But not completely. It's fairer to say that my career interests led me into academics, which is a species of bohemianism, and thus congenial to cultural rebels while at the same time being one of the more careerist forms of bohemianism, with all that implies in terms of internalizing the mechanisms of capitalist competition - in short, I moved into a line of life that allowed me to keep some of my old ideals, but only just. And at the same time I went through a long period in which my spiritual yearnings were re-directed into a more conventional channel, one drawn from my own family heritage, and one that is exactly 180 degrees removed from the ideals of the OCF. A particularly straight-edge version of Christianity, one that believes that short hair and long hems are next to godliness. And yet, even at my most orthodox LDS, I never stopped liking the Grateful Dead (insert acid pun here - I never dropped acid, by the way), and I never lost the sneaking suspicion that if Jesus were among us today, he'd feel a lot more at home at the OCF than at a Tea Party. Read yer Bible.

This isn't the place to explore the topography of where I'm at spiritually right now. Suffice it to say that going to the OCF for the first time was like coming home: it was filled with a spirit, a beauty and a freedom and an easy, friendly bonhomie, a funkiness, a wise-ass wisdom, a plain love of rivers and woods, a joy in all wholesome things and, okay, some not so wholesome, that I strive for in my own life, and always have. I can't believe a place like this exists in America in 2010.