Saturday, April 23, 2011

Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist (2005)

This review pretty much captures my take on Roman Polanski's version of Oliver Twist (2005). It's a letdown for a number of reasons, not least because most of the actors aren't up to the characters they're playing. I was particularly disappointed in this film's Artful Dodger and Bill Sykes. (Some of the grotesques really look the part, however: if I'd seen this film as stills rather than as moving pictures, I'd probably think it was perfect.)

But mostly I think the problem is, as the Little Professor notes, Oliver himself. And, echoing LP, I'll point out that this is a problem with the book, not Polanski's adaptation: Oliver is an almost completely passive creature. What I realized, after this film, is that one reason that halfway works in the novel is because we know he's actually highborn - that he actually doesn't belong in this society. He's thus connected with tropes of the wan young nobleman, and more than that of Christ - passive suffering makes sense because we see Oliver as not of this world. That's what weakens the novel's social criticism (as I've said), but I now realize it helps the novel hang together. Polanski eliminates that subplot, which strengthens the social criticism (and of course makes the story easier to film), but it makes Oliver's passivity more of a problem for the narrative.

The other reason Oliver's mildness works in the novel is because everybody else is such a grotesque. We've already established that Polanski moderates the grotesques - and that the other actors (with the exception maybe of Kingsley as Fagin) aren't very memorable. So, again, Oliver's mildness becomes a real problem.

Unless you're like this guy, and see Polanski's Oliver Twist as not a Dickens adaptation at all, but a depiction of Polanski's harrowing childhood. In which case the passivity makes historical and emotional sense as part of Polanski's vision. Unfortunately, I think this writer is seeing what he wants to see: he admits that what he really wants is for Polanski to film The Painted Bird. And he's right: that would be something. I'm almost tempted to agree with him that Oliver's passivity here is an echo of that novel, not Dickens - but in the end I don't think so.

Rather - and I don't mean to pick on a blogger whom I only discovered looking for other opinions on this movie - but I will - that review strikes me as typical of a lot of what I read on Polanski. It borders on hagiography. I often think I see a willingness to overlook imperfections in his films just because they're his - even an eagerness to interpret these imperfections as marks of a personal vision, and therefore evidence of the auteur's genius. Judgment calls like that are difficult for any critic with any artist, to be sure, but I seem to notice the calls going Polanski's way an awful lot of the time.

I'm not as bothered by certain aspects of Polanski's past as some people are (and that's all I have to say about that), but neither am I as taken by his personality as others seem to be. I'm not sure, now that I've seen so many of his films, if I'd rank him a genius. I think he's made maybe four or five films that I'd rank with the best ever - which is of course a great achievement - but a greater number of imperfect films. And while I sometimes see something interesting going on even in the failures, I don't find his failures as fascinating and revealing as I do, say, Kurosawa's or Coppola's. In short, I'm not sure I see the appeal of Polanski as an auteur.

Aaron Neville: I Know I've Been Changed (2010)

I'll admit that picking this up (Aaron Neville's 2010 gospel release I Know I've Been Changed) was a reaction to having picked this up the week before. One good resurrected NPR-ready Americana turn deserves another, right?

This review of the album is worth reading for how it explores the likely role of, as in Allman's record, a big-name roots producer, in this case Joe Henry, in determining the final artistic tone of the record. I'm not up enough on contemporary music, even of the NPR-ready Americana variety, to know Joe Henry from John Henry, but that review is probably right.

This is a successful record in all the ways Allman's isn't.
The intricate arrangements and expert playing never overshadow the singer: Aaron owns these recordings in a way Allman seldom approaches on his outing. You can hear how on the very first track, "Stand By Me." The first half of the track is Aaron singing, first a capella, then over standard gospel-style instrumental washes. Piano trills, dobro resonances, backup singer ooohs. Aaron's all over the place, naturally, but mostly in a lower (for him) register. As I say, this is a standard gospel approach: the lack of rhythm and a melodic through-line for the instruments puts the focus squarely on the singer, and therefore the Message. Halfway through the song, they kick into rhythm, and at this moment Aaron leaps up into his falsetto, where he stays, mostly, until the end of the song. This does two things: it gets him out of the way so we can appreciate the subtlety of the groove the musicians are making, but it also allows him to surmount that groove, so that he's still master of the song. He's owning it, but not through a more urgent assertion of personality: this being Aaron Neville, the falsetto sounds utterly effortless. He's just claiming a territory that's all his own.

It helps that Aaron's instrument is undiminished by time: he still sounds as much the angel as he did in 1967. It's uncanny. And it helps that the production is invisible. I'm sure a lot of care went into choosing players, and making sure they were being recorded right, but there's no intrusive murk, just complete clarity, so that every rasp of the dobro, every piano chord, every thump of the bass comes through perfectly.

Which allows the listener to appreciate the arrangements, which are gorgeous. It's not a typical gospel record in this respect - no church organ anywhere to be found. Instead it's gospel sung with gospel fervor but played as country blues. When a roadhouse electric guitar comes in for the "Don't Let Him Ride" solo it sounds natural. Part of the gestalt. ...The album is bursting with delightful playing, from Jay Bellerose's sensitive drumming to Allen Toussaint's piano, as fresh and sparkling as baptismal water.

This is why I keep collecting records, when I already have far more than I could digest if I lived fifty more years: because once in a while I stumble across a record like this, and I remember why I love music.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bill Wyman on the end of rarity

Every once in a while I still find something worth reading on Slate (and when I do I simultaneously realize how rare it is for me to actually visit that site anymore: it used to be a daily read for me, but I really can't stand their knee-jerk contrarianism and self-satisfied snark anymore. Like, it oozes from just about everything they print. Which, in media terms, probably means they've honed an identifiable brand. Awesome!).

This essay by Bill Wyman ("no, not that Bill Wyman") is one of them (I got there through a link on a Dylan site). It points out that the concept of rarity or scarcity, which once governed the lives of serious aficionados of music or film, is now virtually extinct. There's almost nothing in pop music, no matter how obscure, that you can't find with a little savvy net searching. What does that mean?

It's a great essay, but in the end perhaps a little too technoutopian for me. It is great, no doubt, for everything to be available all the time. I mean, I certainly enjoy it. But aren't there prices we're paying, without even knowing it? In the end he nods toward someone else's thoughts on the early Stones, and how the very inaccessibility of the blues they loved had a lot to do with their early thinking on it, and their goals in forming their own band. Bands today, formed in a surfeit of knowledge about whatever music that interests them, aren't going to have that problem: doesn't that explain a lot of the contemporary music scene? That it's fueled, not by overpowering desire for something that's truly unknown, but by a sort of finicky curatorial discrimination between things that are known too well?*

Of course merely being able to possess all this music doesn't at all mean that we're understanding it - having doesn't equal knowing. I even wonder if having too much precludes knowing, to a certain amount. I wonder about this the bigger my music collection grows - and I mostly confine myself to CDs still. But I've felt myself learning more about music in the aggregate - understanding, or thinking I do, the broad contours of a genre or a label or a period - but at the same time I know I'm failing to take the time to listen deeply, to understand the full dimensions of records. My knowledge is becoming wide and shallow, rather than deep.

All of these are not necessarily bad things - there's a real joy that comes from starting to grasp the big picture. But they are trade-offs. It's foolish to pretend there isn't a price to pay for what we're getting. I'm not even saying we wouldn't pay the price willingly if it was stated up-front, but it's kind of unsettling that we're only dimly aware of the price, and that only long after it's been exacted.

*Okay, I admit I have no basis on which to make that suggestion, since I clearly have no interest in the contemporary music scene.