Monday, February 23, 2015

Slate arts wonk has a fit over "Boyhood" not getting Oscar Best Picture

Oscars best picture winner Birdman: Boyhood snub is the Academy’s worst mistake in 20 years.:

'via Blog this'
This bit of sour grapes is unseemly and written in what can only be called a snit fit. The result are grandiose claims that are supported only fairly pedestrian and hastily stated opinions. Kois operates from the assumption that "Boyhood" is a masterpiece, certified, no questions asked. It's not a masterpiece, as it lags and lumbers and and is at times near narcoleptic torpor as it goes on and on to create a saga about the small things that otherwise ordinary citizens confront over a period of time. It is, or course, daring, at times engaging, but never enthralling, in my view. It is an admirable piece of work,  but awards should not be awarded merely because film makers were adventurous; the point of the Oscars , we are told, is to celebrate and make note of the best of what was written, filmed, acted, directed, scored, edited from the previous year. Movies that achieved their ambitions.  "Apocalypse Now" was an absolute mess of a film, a   beautiful mess in many ways, but a train wreck for coherence and sequencing. It was a horribly botched narrative, a string of grand standing scenes. I've watched it many times over the intervening years and enjoyed it, but over time I think the Academy used good judgement in denying it a Best Picture Oscar.  I think it suffices to say that the film makers of 'Birdman" had solid ideas of their concept and created the means with which the layered meta-narrative can be brought to the screen. There is a control of the material and an elegant, innovative execution of ideas that "Boyhood" did not have, and "Apocalpyse Now" as well. What we had last night was that rare Oscar instance, the rewarding of  high quality work. Kois can disagree with the decision, but using his platform to claim that this was the worst decision in the last twenty years of Oscar ceremonies just makes him sound hysterical, silly, trivial in his insight. This gives me no reason to read him again. As a public service, I reprint my  initial review of "Birdman" below  (also, I am too lazy to write about this film again).


This film is a about as meta-textual as it gets, concerning a actor named Riggan who, best known for portraying the cartoon super hero Birdman in three live action films, is attempting a comeback on broadway with a stage adaptation of a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love".
The first inside joke, of course, is that star Michael Keaton was the first Batman in two Tim Burton versions of the DC icon, who had the oft circulated take away line "I'm Batman" when the Dark Knight introduces himself to the Gotham crime element. Keaton's character in this new film has a mind that is subdivided with conflict, a string of unresolved issues that force him to hallucinate greatly, not the least of which is a voice that rasps only to him "YOU'RE BIRDMAN", and which harshly chastises him for abandoning the super hero for the delusion that he could become part of the New York arts crowd.

That's all a bunch of shit, the voice insists, and intrudes on the actor's private moments with more berating and demands that he give up this Broadway charade and reclaim his one true calling , the man who is the definitive Birdman. The film, though, is quite a bit more than that, as it brings around a provocative stream of old associations, like an estranged daughter, an estranged daughter he's only recently reconciled with (if imperfectly), acting rivals , all of whom , between hallucinations, have wonderfully nuanced confrontations with Riggan and with each other on the irony latent in the countless attempts we make to rid ourselves of masks and present our true selves to things that matter most , such as marriage, rearing children, authentically gratifying work, only to realize that even the true self presented as evidence of no disguise is itself a mask, a disguise.

The conflicted Riggan is jerked about emotionally and has several instances where the hallucinations, the warring desires, take over and the film is transformed into yet another space, a surreal terrain of tall buildings, floating, spectacles that then dissipate as the conflicted hero emerges from his melodrama and attempts to finish what he's begun, the afore said adaptation for the screen. A fine cast of characters abound here, and a superlative roster of actors to bring their quirks and vulnerabilities to the screen; Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts are sublime and each of them have solidly written, deftly directed roles.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

punk rock

Thinking about God's version of the Draft Board:
 RAPTURE
The mailman drops his parcels and falls to his knees in the middle of the street as a light comes through the clouds and makes the commotions of the city radiate   gold tones like the frozen poses of ancient photographs found under the stairs of every parent’s house that aging children have to close.  You see the mailman on his knees and wonder why he’s praying, hardly aware of the increase in light or the music that blares all the big band music of  trumpets and saxophones that disguise the grind of passing cars, it’s such a shame that religious fanatics are hired to deliver the mail, you think, so much depends  on what comes through the System, envelopes full of  what’s owed and what’s not covered by any plan  that can be written down; you run the water in the sink, you wonder where did the clouds go?  There is no rain anywhere,  says the radio announcer, and the light is tremendous all over the globe, there is not a dark corner in any corner or nook on the earth, And then the radio gives out to static, and the TV releases itself to snow, the music in the street is very loud and swinging hard to the left and the right and then right down the   middle as all the notes scurry brilliantly through the hedges  and up the driveways, into the homes with each reed instrument improvising disembodied melodies that form their own sheet music, That is a very loud set of speakers in that passing car, you think. and the radio announcer cuts through the music and says something you hear as that millions of people all over the world have just vanished in lain site under bright light and big bang music, gone in a wisp and puff of smoke,  You look at your watch and note that it’s time for lunch, the clouds have fallen over the city again, the sky darkens, the shapes of the neighborhood take on their deep hues again, saddened with history, dense in dumb witness to what never ends, You stop, look out the window; you turn off the water you ran, in the middle of the street, by itself, flat on the cement,  The mailman’s bag and his clothes,  topped by his hat, kissed by a cool breeze.

SAM ANDREWS, skronk guitar pioneer, RIP

Sam Andrews , the lead guitarist for Big Brother and the Holding Company and the only musician to come up with an instrumental equivalent to the scorched leather vocals of lead singer Janis Joplin, has died at the age of  73. His passing warrants a mention and brief appreciation of the sound he made on the frets. Andrews was not the greatest guitarist in the world, but he was part of that Bay Area tradition where folkies had dropped their acoustic guitars and picked up the electric ones, creating a style of improvisation that was jarring, jagged, atonal, ham-handed, an organic fusion of styles based in the blues but owing much to Indian classical raga music. As with much of what typified the Sixties counter culture, these young bohemians drew from the music the liked and listened to; some had formal training, others did not, but there is a strong scent of do-it-yourself in the over all style of Bay Area guitar soloing that made it at once identifiable .

 Andrews was definitely one of the most visceral of the players on the scene. Others like Hendrix, Clapton, Winter were smoother, faster, more graceful in their execution, but the likes of Andrews, John Cipollina (Quickseilver Messenger Service), Jorma Kaukonen(Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna), Barry Meltzer (Country Joe and the Fish) and Leigh Stephens (Blue Cheer, the Destruction Derby version of a psychedelic band) had a distinct genius for delivering pulverizing , strident solos that veered toward a naive avant-gard niche. It was energy and it was intense and , though often clumsy, it was powerful. I spent hours listening to this stuff, loving every note of their splintering cascades. 

His introductory solo to Big Brother and the Holding Company's version of Richard Roger's song 'Summertime" fairy much illustrates what I'm describing, which is say that it resembles a freak occurrence in the natural world,  blind fury fused with a barely mastered vocabulary of the blues and other folk forms further amplified by technology that can only make what is fed to it a snarling, sparking fury, an air horn in the good hear, a cherry bomb in your pants.Clive Davis, legendary former head of Columbia Records where Big Brother was signed, wrote in his memoir that he played the band's version of the classic song for Rogers, who , Davis writes, was angry beyond consolation and stormed incensed from the office, vowing never to wrote another song. Best review ever, I think.  Derek Baily and Robert Fripp would both have tea in the same room and smirk oddly while this solo played, I imagine. What would make those two smile even more widely is the fire bombing Andrews commits during his solo during Big Brother's version of Big Mama Thorton's "Ball and Chain." While Joplin effectively deconstructs the blues into a series of yowls and hungry, rasping gales, Andrews doesn't so much play guitar as much as force to make sounds heard  only, til that instance , on the outer boundaries of sanity and bad taste. Terrible beauty.




Friday, February 6, 2015

 SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT -- Bob Dylan

The so called Great American Song Book was a body of material written specifically for singers who had better than average singing voices. One needed to not only be able to "carry a tune", but have a pleasant/intriguing/personable/tonally expressive quality to their singing that would make the blend of singer and song a memorable one, or at least one that entertained. Bob Dylan, from this stand point, is an awful singer; his genius as a vocalist was constructed on the fact that he blended his influences--rock and roll, blues, country, old timey folk--and wrote his own songs. He created the opposite effect than the ones regarding TGASB, which was rather than melodically nuanced songs being joined with musically suave vocalists, Dylan's mirror image was that of a ruffian, a street visionary, a man with shamanistic qualities who was in touch with the wild spirit of poetry, especially the surrealist sort, and sought to capture his visions in a neo-primitive format. Smartly simple song structures and Dylan's bracing nasal sneer made it clear that he didn't carry his tunes as forced them on you.

He couldn't sing well, but he could dramatize. So we have this paradox with "Shadows in the Night", a bad singer from a technical viewpoint taking on songs that, from a technical stand point, are sophisticated to the extent that expectations demand a vocalist who can actually hit the notes correctly and do something stylish with them. The result here is an awful , painful album to listen to. It's that simple. I am sure there are subtly argued defenses of what's been done here. I don't buy the apologies. I think less of what's been accomplished with this record and more of what's been committed, as in sin, a crime, a horrible insult to the brain. It's one thing for rock and pop singers noted for singing styles that even the most uninterested among our company can admit to having tuneful voices to attempt the classic songs of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, or a Tony Bennett. It's been interesting, if not always rewarding, to hear vocalists as diverse in approach and grit as Linda Ronstadt (good) to Rod Stewart (awful) to Pat Benatar (middling) try and wrap the gritty edge of their usual approach to a song around the sumptuous curves and segues of songs that beguiled radio and ballroom audiences in World War 2. It's become a career stunt for old rock and rollers to dig into the vaults and revive the songs their parents were listening to  , something that no longer intrigues.

Dylan's approach might have been interesting had he done this album quite a long time ago, when the raggedness of his singing still had a bit of a range and Dylan was capable of remaining in pitch; one thinks that Dylan of the Seventies and the Eighties, with a voice that was more    versatile than people like myself have admitted, could take the classic songs and truly and surely redefine their melodic and thematic essence. Dylan was not a great singer but he had genius as a vocalist, the same fleeting skill one regards Mick Jagger's work with. He could cajole, announce, exclaim, insinuate, and fashion an effective, reedy croon to dramatize, characterize a lyric. But that is not to be and one can only sigh over what might have been had Dylan attempted a project like this when he still had the equipment to make it credible. One can only wonder, and one is better off not suffering his dead, toneless rasp here.

Monday, February 2, 2015

2 notes: Rod McKuen, and lack of sympathy for characters one creates.

Sometime back in the  Seventies, Dick Cavett introduced the late Rod McKuen on his show by quoting a critic's left handed compliment regarding the writer's work, "The world's most understood poet."That was not intended as praise , and anyone in the business of writing  what's regard as serious poetry , whether a runny-nosed  Beat or a hardened Modernist , would take a the description of their work being accessible as an accolade. Poetry in the 20th century had become increasingly odd and without noticable rules, a development that marked the work of many a genius poet at the time,but the facts is that fewer people read poetry as consumers of printed books, and fewer still seemed to understand what the new scribes were going on about. 

And so, poetry became the new scripture and critics, in a sense , became the new priesthood, discoursing on texts that allow no conventional entry point in terms that were equally cryptic. McKuen dared to be direct , simple in language, easily understood, trafficking much of his writing  career in maudlin , mawkish, garish sentimentality. It worked, to be sure, as he went off to conquer the publishing world, motion pictures, the music industry. It worked and he built a huge audience that  did not read poetry nor had the slightest idea of of the medium's standards of quality might  happen to be on any  given day. He made a lot of money and in the making of his millions, he inspired young people, like myself, to become a writer myself. To be clear, it was a chorus of writers that got my fancy and stirred in me the desire to string words together and indulge in metaphor, not just the recently deceased McKuen. But McKuen was in the gallery of faces that had my attention . My tastes simply matured beyond  what he was capable of writing about. Honestly, I had a man crush on him,so to speak, as a sensitive mid teen desiring to express great things myself--he was part of the collective of Dylan, Ginsberg, Eliot and Paul Simon that made me want to say things that were significant in ways a reader wouldn't expect. 

McKuen did have a knack for slinging words--his much anthologized poem "Camera" is good at the plain-speak verse later adopted by the ever accessible likes of Billy Collins. The poem, though, was clean and lacking the sentimentalism that made McKuen a standing joke and, eventually, an overripe expression of every unconsidered emotion. I should clarify that I went the middle period Dylan/TS Eliot route in poetry and came to prefer a more surreal and harder edge verse. The change , of course, came around when I had some genuine emotional upheavals and realized that experiencing , processing and recollecting such events in the process of forming a real personality trying to engage he world wasn't as simple as McKuen's McPoems would have us think. Though I harbor a soft spot for him, I think his "poetry", such as it was, was indefensible on any grounds as verse. It scratched those places before you had an itch. I hate to seem harsh, but his writing was slick and it was awful. Now and again he could write a few lines that were acceptable because they weren't dripping with the goo of his onerously bathetic persona, but he'd soon enough lard up his line breaks with a defiantly defeatist attitude ---lost again at love, ah sigggghhhh)--and would have us believe that he spent decades turning up his collar and walking the San Francisco water front in the rain and fog, looking for bar to nurse his pain at. Though he was an influence on me as a writer, I consider his writing everything that's wrong with the idea of expression for its own sake.

_______________________
I'm not as interested in feeling sympathy for the character or having an emotional stake in their success as I am in whether the film makers keep me interested in how the activities and motivations converge to a satisfying end. Or at least one that makes sense in unexpected ways; to varying degrees both Nabokov and Updike accomplish this in their stronger novels--"Pale Fire", the "Rabbit" quartet, respectively-- and the inspection of how witless self-regarding imbeciles custom design their machinery of their own destruction is a difficult and rare hallmark for the truly subversive comedy. Coen brothers Joel and Ethan understand the need for the distance from the goings on of the chronic stupidity in "Burn After Reading" so that that their only agenda is imagine what echos in the deepest recess of any of these people's minds while they compound their ignoble fates with layers of strip-mall hubris. What the Coens do with unlikeable characters seeking their own glory isn't an easy thing to accomplish--Brian DePalma managed to turn Tom Wolf's crotchety (albeit readable) novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities" into a loose, baggy monster of a film (to paraphrase Henry James)that demonstrated no flair for comic rhythm. Had the Coens been in charge of that novel, we'd most likely be praising them as we had for their work in "No Country for Old Men", making note of their sharp eye for damning detail and skewed dialogue, and their effective use of an attentive if disengaged tone.