Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, January 31, 2005

The Emperor's New Company

I have seen the future of movie theatres, and it is the Moolah Theatre (http://www.stlouiscinemas.com/) right here in St. Louis. The screen is big, the seats are comfortable, plush love seats, couches, and armchairs (unless you want to sit in the back or the balcony, where seats are more traditional), and there’s a full bar, not just a concession stand. We bought a bottle of wine, were given two real wine glasses, and we sprawled out on a love seat in the second row center as if we were on our own couch at home. But, with a real movie showing in front of us.

The movie in question yesterday – and I swear, I’ll go see just about anything the Moolah wants to show – was “In Good Company.” It has one of those plots that can be described in a couple sentences. Dan Foreman is 52 years old, has a wonderful family life, and has sold advertising for Sports America magazine for years. Suddenly, the magazine is bought out, Dan is demoted from manager, and his new boss is 26. The new boss needs a father figure, so he leans on Dan, but also manages to fall in love with Dan’s 18-year-old daughter. People are no longer happy until eventually, from out of the sky, a new corporate purchase restores the status quo ante bellum.

So, what we have here is a fable, roughly modeled on “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” but roughed out a little to make for a two hour comfortable stretch on the love seat. Herein, the Emperor is Corporate America divided into two roles – youth and synergy. Each are set against the “old” values, which uniquely play the role of the little boy who tells truth to power while everybody else talks about how beautiful those robes look.

Dan Foreman is played by Dennis Quaid, who embodies the Hollywood image of successful middle management fathers. We’ve seen this sort of thing a million times – you wonder if the same architect designs all these two-story giant houses these guys live in. Quaid is terrific, though, bringing nuance and weight to the character. He loves his job, loves his family, and probably hasn’t thought much about changing anything in years. Of course, as in all movies featuring such men, a change is gonna come.

Carter Duryea is Dan’s boss, played by Topher Grace. (I was amused that Grace played somebody who had to call somebody else “Foreman,” since he has that name on “That 70s Show.”) This kid can act. His shifts between confidence and fear, his attempts to reach out for human contact, his ability to let down his guard in the presence of Dan’s daughter, were beautifully human. Though all the other corporate big-wigs were played as caricatures, Duryea was not.

The third true character is Alex, played by Scarlett Johansson in yet another excellent turn. As written, Alex is a series of empty sketches. She’s a good college tennis player who wants to switch to creative writing, who loves her dad but wants independence, and who symbolizes same by sleeping with her dad’s admittedly cute boss. I imagine if I read the script, Alex would be completely forgettable and confusing, but Johansson simply can’t do anything but flesh out lives by the way she moves and talks and looks at people. She’s worried about her future, she’s attracted to Carter yet aware it’s not the best idea yet determined to enjoy him anyway. She’s willfully ignoring his attempts to make their relationship into something serious.

So, that’s what we’ve got, masterful acting in a movie that wants to reinforce our belief systems. We want to believe that the contemporary corporate world is destroying a much better one, despite the fact that we’ve been pretty much shown for decades that corporations are destroying ways of life. There’s nothing new here, except for the obviously shallow language as typified by “synergy,” and the extreme toadying towards the man at the top. (The fetishization of the name “Teddy K,” the CEO of whatever corporation it is that Carter is in, is a constant trope.) But, Dan, a salesman, has obviously never seen Arthur Miller’s play, or even that movie about ten years ago with all the cussing. He’s a simple guy, a human guy, a guy who wants the right thing for his clients. And Carter is just trying to meet some numerical targets from his bosses.

Eventually, Teddy K comes to Sports America, and Dennis Quaid gets to stand up for the humanity which has been taken from his universe. He asks Teddy K (played by Malcolm McDowell in a deliciously creepy manner) what all this stuff really means, and how it really helps anybody. He exposes the nudity of Corporate Synergy. This almost costs him and Carter their jobs, but after a quick run to an old waffling client who will order extra advertising because Dan had punched Carter in the eye, the company is sold again, and Dan regains his old position while all the new blood is on the street.

Oh, yeah, the eye-punch thing. When Dan finds Carter with Alex, he gets furious, and punches him in the face. Here we have all kinds of things tied up in one sock. Fathers who want to control their daughters sexuality, older people who want younger people to be seen but not heard, or at least not in control of their livelihood, workers (even managers) who resent their bosses, the old ways taking on the new. Because this is a fable, Carter even comes to respect Dan a little more as a result of this punch. It’s part of the road to Carter’s great insight, that he needs to have passion in his life, he needs to feel what he does is important. Dan has that; Carter has nothing but empty ambition.

There’s a weird way in which this whole thing reminds me of our political situation. George W. Bush is Teddy K, the man with all the glib – well, whatever word you can use to describe how Bush puts things – words and a following looking to curry favor where it can be found. And Dan is the good man, the one who can restore our country’s greatness with just some well chosen questions and a commitment to human values. I mean, obviously, this is a fable we’ve all wanted to believe, that if we just speak past the empty phrases, we’ll make everybody see the way things ought to be. I know if I’d seen this movie before November, I’d have been even more convinced Bush was gonna be thrown out on his ass.

As we now know, though, the Emperor doesn’t have anybody thinking he’s only wearing one lovely suit of clothes. Nosirree, whether it’s the President or the corporations who put him there, today’s well-dressed illusionists are pushing an entire wardrobe of exquisite designs, and as fast as you can point out their flabby guts are showing, they’ve got a new outfit described to the public, which clamors even more. “In Good Company” is a feel-good movie about something which can’t possibly happen, and which really should only feel good by comparison to how bad things have become. It’s all the more tribute to the powers of these actors that we believe, at least until the wine glasses stopped coming, that it is worth trying, anyway.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Damned Lies About Statistics

I had to watch it when I saw the commercial. Some guys are watching Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers (well, last year, anyway) at bat. One says, “He’s gone 0 for his last 4 games. He’s due.” The other guy says, “There’s no such thing as due.” And then comes the home run.

Baseball has me thinking about statistics and numbers all the time. Well, baseball, and my job analyzing statistics and numbers at a record store. I’ve picked up quite a bit about the way numbers work, but one of these days, if I ever do anything, I’m going to take a class on this stuff, so I can understand regressive analysis and other fancy things like that.

Anyway, as you may have gathered by now, I like to watch crime dramas on TV. (I like to watch other things on TV, too, but crime dramas do seem to spark more essay ideas, at least lately. I mean, I’d love to tell you all about the delights of “Hope and Faith,” America’s most under-rated sitcom, but so far, there ain’t no organization to those thoughts.) So, there’s a new show in town, the ridiculously titled “Numb3rs,” which is kinda like a cross between “CSI” and “Good Will Hunting.”

Well, not really, but there are chalkboards and grad students, so there’s something akin to “Good Will Hunting” going on. The pilot episode, shown Sunday night on CBS, was more or less like “Silence of the Lambs” without any of the psychological tension. Here we go again with the serial criminals, this time a rapist who burns a brand onto his victims and has now escalated to murder because, well, murder is the ultimate possession.

Did you ever wonder how these top cops let serial criminals put up such big numbers before dramatically breaking through and catching them in a one hour episode of constant plot twists? I think this guy had put up 12 rapes before he killed number 13, and, despite enormous manpower and lots of pictures of victims on the walls of the FBI headquarters, no headway has been made in the case. The FBI, the same agency which employs Mulder and Scully and I forget who else, can’t discern any sort of a pattern to the actions of a guy who has committed 12 virtually identical crimes in a very short (albeit unspecified) period of time.

I’m not one of those guys who spends his life researching serial killers, but I seem to recall that, with a few very famous exceptions like John Wayne Gacy and the like, most of them go months between crimes, and that’s why it takes a long time for authorities to figure out that the same person is doing it. They also don’t tend to be as methodical and consistent as the ones on TV. But, we love to be afraid of masterminds, don’t we?

One kind of mastermind we’re always afraid of is the mathematician. Those who think numbers have anything to say to us are derided as nerds, as outcasts, as braniacs, as people unwilling to see the obvious. A simple thing like the statement that a batter is due to get a hit after going so many times without one is accepted without question, despite the fact that statistically, it’s as much a lie as anything you could ever pull out of your lips. Over time, batters will regress to the mean of their statistics, yes, but that doesn’t mean that any individual at-bat bears any relation to their other accomplishments. If you say he’s due to get a hit enough times, eventually he will get one, and you’ll feel vindicated, despite the fact that you have to completely ignore the number of times you said it and he made an out.

So, it’s interesting that the twist on “Numb3rs” is that a mathematician can solve crimes that regular police can’t handle. But, in practice, this guy isn’t all that different from our friend Alison Dubois over on “Medium.” As far as we and the FBI can tell, young Charlie Eppes (David Krumholz) is pulling answers out of thin air. That’s why they get so pissed at him when it turns out he wasn’t 100% correct the first time.

Oh, well, Charlie gets to do some serious cipherin’. You can tell it’s serious because he puts a squirreled-up expression on his face, and starts scrawling across the chalkboard faster than most of us can type. Computer generated formulas fly over the screen sometimes, just to add to the excitement. Here’s a fact. Working mathematics isn’t really all that visually cool, and the way they try to pump up the testosterone here just makes me cringe.

Further upping the nerd factor, they make sure to show Charlie as being absent-minded, and they have him and his mentor, the guy who used to be on “Ally McBeal,” talking about solving fancy shmancy theories together. Oh, and they give him a hot, sexy grad student he gets to use as an assistant, and she obviously likes him but he doesn’t notice.

Charlie’s brother, Don (Rob Morrow, who used to be on “Northern Exposure” but I didn’t even realize it was him until I asked my wife Cat halfway through the show whether he’d done anything else) is the FBI guy in charge of investigating this rapist. He leaves his map of the rape locations on the dining room table, and Charlie can’t resist trying to solve the problem. His number-oriented mind sees 13 dots on a map and knows there has to be a way of narrowing down the home base of the mastermind. My baseball numbers oriented mind knows that 13 is a small sample size. But, I don’t know how to make fancy equations like Charlie does, so maybe it’s enough to get us to where the story takes us.

Several false starts later, the brothers are tipped by their dad (Judd Hirsch) that maybe the bad guy’s home base is where he works, not where he lives, so Charlie re-does all his work and narrows things down to a couple of office buildings. Don runs a check on everybody who works there, and comes up with a convicted rapist who’s done his time, who, we realize, has to be the guy because, well, there’s only a few minutes left in the show. No possibility that it could be one of the thousands who work there without any prior convictions, and no recognition of the fact that this guy didn’t seem to have performed the same patterns when he was raping before.

I’m not even going to talk about the breathless rescue sequence as the FBI heroes get to the villain just before he kills again. Instead, I’ll say that “Numb3rs” bears watching, just to see where they go with the math angle. I’m an eternal optimist, and I see a slight chance that maybe, just maybe, this show could make a very slight dent in America’s fear of numbers. Or, maybe we’ll start a drinking game for every time Charlie says something along the lines of “Numbers are everything.” Either way, I think we’re due.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Gene Santoro and Tangled Roots

Gene Santoro, the music critic for the Nation and several other publications, looks at music as a folk art. He loves the way musical genres grow by overlapping with others, how artists build on what has occurred before to create something new, something which speaks to the cultural moment of its creation, something which reveals truths about the culture before, during, and after. For Santoro, music is best when it is authentic, and it is most authentic when it rejects old rules and seeks the new.

I come at music from pretty much the opposite perspective of Santoro. I’ve always looked at music as a high art, as creativity functioning to express individual concerns, as a way of telling us what one person (or a group of persons) sees in the world. I tend to disregard genres, and have been known to overlook combinations of different backgrounds until I’ve read about them in the work of other critics. I don’t care one whit about authenticity, I don’t require music to be new, though I do expect it to be fresh.

And yet, Santoro and I meet in the middle on so many things. “Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Country Music” collects (and revises) columns and features Santoro has written over the last dozen or so years. Despite the expected differences of emphasis, I do enjoy almost all of the music Santoro covers in this book. And, I cannot argue with Santoro’s attention to details I have overlooked for years. He points out subtle nuances, combinations of techniques, emotions, key lyrics, which make me want to hear songs I had long ago enjoyed and almost forgotten.

Our differences, at least in the context of this book, are most apparent in chapters on the Grateful Dead and Ani DiFranco. I mean, I love Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Rollins, the Band, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Cassandra Wilson and dozens of others over whom Santoro rhapsodizes. (I disagree frequently with his choices of high points and low points, though – Santoro cannot forgive talented musicians who fall into what he feels are formulaic traps, but I have no problem recognizing the beauty, say, in the 80s and 90s work of Harris, or, for that matter, the exceptional professionalism and artistic strengths of Motown classics.) But, the Dead and DiFranco, I think, can only be admired for their ideas of merging musical forms. When it comes to execution, they fail far more often than they succeed.

Any damn fool can tell that the Dead are trying to mix Coltrane-styled improvisation with folk and rock idioms in “Dark Star,” but that doesn’t make Jerry Garcia’s sputtery tone or rhythmic irregularity any more listenable. And DiFranco can make for a great story – rugged independence, strong feminist conceptions, mixing of hip hop, folk, and rock traditions – until you actually remember that her songs lay flat when they come out of the speakers.

It’s interesting that in a book which starts with Armstrong, as the inventor of 20th century popular music because of his proof that the folk traditions of jazz group improvisation can be converted to individual expressions of high artistic value, and Guthrie, the man who re-invented folk music in America as a rebellious union of man and subversive guitar (his machine killed fascists, remember) should end with DiFranco. Santoro wants her to be his hope for the future, though he acknowledges repeatedly that 21st century America is a land of cultural subdivisions sprawling all over the place and only occasionally butting into a receptive listener of different background and interests. This land is my land, that land is your land, and yours was made for you, and mine was made for me.

DiFranco has done plenty to energize a political base, but she is never going to speak to those who don’t already agree with her. That’s fine. It’s what we’ve got to work with, and Lord knows I’d rather hang with an army of DiFranco fans than anyone who loves Toby Keith. But, she’s not making a difference in the world, she’s no more a sign of the future than the series of jazz artists collected in the second to last chapter, “New Jazz Fusions.” Here, with quick studies of Jason Moran, Bill Frisell, Greg Osby, Matthew Shipp and others, Santoro is at least on more solid conceptual ground. He has correctly noted that the most interesting jazz artists of the last decade and a half are reaching out across the dividing line between contemporary pop cultures and jazz. Mainstream jazz, as typified by even as talented a creator as Wynton Marsalis, is trying to calcify, to restrict itself from connecting to the current world in which we live, and yet there are many younger musicians finding ways to make improvised music new while remaining true to its traditions.

I’m down with all that, though the reasons I love these players has little to do with their attempts and everything to do with their success. Find me a more soulful guitarist than Frisell, a more muscular yet lithe saxophonist than Osby, and I’ll love that music, too, whether it’s strictly traditional or ultra-modern.

Santoro deserves credit for making a name for himself in the world of pop criticism while remaining staunchly outside the mainstream tendencies of so many others. It’s rare enough to find contemporary critics equally insightful in jazz and pop forms, and rarer still to find one so completely immune to the contemporary flavors of the month. He will infuriate and he will illuminate because his passions and his knowledge run so deep.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Three More Things About Medium

I don’t blame you if you think this is really a Medium fan site, with the occasional blathering on about other subjects. Of course, I haven’t figured out a way to say what it is about this show which compels me to keep watching week after week, and I’m not sure it’s going to last long enough to let me do that. This week, I have three more comments about the twisted sexuality and right wing politics found in the latest adventure of my favorite psychic crime fighter/suburban mom.

1) The opening this week was right up there with last week’s sex and death combination. (And, by the way, Kitten was right in her comment that there was no actual female skin shown during that sex scene; I simply filled it in with my imagination, because it was implied that the guy was enjoying regular old-fashioned missionary position sex with a live lady.)

This time, we find a young couple in a therapist’s office. The shrink is urging the man to stand up for himself and to let his wife know how much something means to him, and how good it would be for her to share this. He’s a little timid, but his wife is smiling, and the therapist is saying how normal all this is, so he stands up in front of her lovely face, and reaches towards his crotch in a move that looks for all the world like he’s about to open up his trousers and show us what he’s got inside.

Okay, so we’re convinced this is some sort of sex therapy, and the couple is going to learn about blow jobs by practicing in front of a teacher. Obviously, this seemed a little weird – okay, a lot weird – but we’re talking about a TV show where the main character routinely talks to dead people, and where last week the villain killed women and then had sex with them for up to two weeks thereafter. How do you define the limits of what could occur in this world?

But, no, remember, Alison Dubois dreams of death, and instead of pulling out a hard dick, this guy pulls out a shiny revolver. Jeez! Sigmund Freud’s corpse must have jumped up and yelled, “I am the winner!” just as John Lurie’s grandmother did playing cards in “Stranger Than Paradise.” As his wife smiles, because you know she wants it, he shoots her in the head.

2) Jump to halfway through the show, after Alison has had her obligatory tense interaction with a cop who seemingly has the run of the entire city without having to worry too much about his superior officers expecting him to work on the cases they assign. This cop is personally interested in convincing the district attorney and everybody else that the rash of murder/suicides over the last couple years by couples who had just passed their first wedding anniversary was not entirely coincidental, but in fact murder. Why does he believe this? Because his sister was the first victim, and she would never do this. Neither would his brother-in-law. Apparently, nobody mentioned to him that it’s common to believe your friends and family aren’t capable of killing themselves.

Anyway, Alison has won this guy over, and honestly, I don’t think there was any good reason given as to how she did it except that it was time to move the plot along towards resolution. She has examined the photos taken at the scenes of each murder/suicide, and she knows that in each case, there is a third presence missing from the photo, presumably that of the killer. But, in the shot of this guy’s sister and husband, Alison says there are four presences.

Bingo! Suddenly, the cop remembers that, oh, yeah, his sister was three and a half months pregnant at the time! Like that detail never entered his mind when reciting his belief that neither his sister nor her husband would kill themselves, or for that matter, when simply expressing his own grief and outrage. “Oh yeah,” he says. “My sister was three and a half months pregnant.”

But, see how slickly the right wing agenda gets promoted here (and see how slickly I co-opted the way the right wing always talks about our agendas on the left?)? That three-and-a-half-month pregnancy is conflated with a human life, not a potential life. Alison senses a fourth person, a full human, albeit one which is still pretty damn far from developing into anything that could survive outside its mothers womb without extraordinary measures. There are many efforts around the country to give fetuses the status of live humans. I’m impressed with the choice of three and a half months here. It’s long enough to make it to the second trimester, when abortion becomes a little less popular with the American public, but well short of viability, when arguments regarding fetal safety can be considerably more convincing. I tell you, you’ve got to stay on your toes when watching seemingly harmless entertainment. You never know when they’ll try to brainwash you.

3) Finally, we come to the capture of our villain for this week. This guy is a pip, quite possibly even sicker than the one last week. Nah, that’s impossible. But, he’s close. He’s a wedding photographer, a guy who likes to follow up each of his clients, surreptitiously, of course, to assemble a collection of candid shots over the course of the first year of their bliss. But, he’s not planning to surprise them with a lovely document of their marriage, nosirree. Instead, he shows up unannounced in their home, always just before the husband arrives from work and while the wife is there alone. (And, holy moley! How did I miss that little gem before I started typing that sentence?) He holds a gun to the husband’s head, and tells the husband he’s conducting a sociological experiment. He hands the husband a gun, puts it to the wife’s head, and tells him to kill the woman he loves. If the husband shoots, then the bad guy will let him live. If not, then the bad guy will kill them both.

Alison figures out from the photographer’s collection of photos that he’s going to strike again in just enough time to get over to the next victim’s house and have the cop replace the husband entering the house. The villain starts babbling about how interesting the sociological experience of being captured is, and, despite having killed several people already, he doesn’t shoot this last woman.

Here, we have a case where the very nature of scientific research, or at least sociological research, is displayed as evil. The producers of “Medium” are none too impressed with facts, either already available or potentially discovered. They are all about instinct, hunches, communion with the other world. Researchers don’t care about right or wrong any more than jurors do (see last week’s episode). If it takes killing enough people to determine statistically how many men would kill their wives of one year if faced with such a choice, so be it. You can’t stop scientific progress, can you? And, hey, if you get caught, well, shift your research around to the process of being caught itself. How much more is there to learn, and why don’t you stop trying to find out things and simply accept the world is the way we say it is?

That’s it, that’s what I’ve got this time. What’s going to run out first, the chances NBC will give “Medium,” or the outrageous points which keep me ranting about it? And, stay tuned, because I really do want to examine what I like about this show, too.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Have You Ever Been Immediately Experienced?

Those that can, do. Those that can’t, criticize. I’ve heard this, or some variation on it, for as long as I can remember. It’s one of those conventional truths that really has no meaning, but which makes it easier for people to avoid thinking about the meaning of what they like. The role of the critic has been downgraded to an arbiter of what is good and what is not good, as if those were the only possible judgments, and as if judging was the only purpose of the critic. In this view, critics dislike things because they don’t know how to do create for themselves.

I could list any number of professional critics whose judgments have oftentimes disagreed with my own but whose viewpoints have led me to think deeper about the music or movies in question. But, today, I’m going to limit my defense to a single exhibit A. For if critics are those who cannot do, then what are we to make of Robert Warshow, whose only book “The Immediate Experience,” I received for Christmas?

I can’t for the life of me remember how I found out about this guy. While the subtitle of the book, originally published in 1962, seven years after Warshow’s death at the age of 37, is “Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture,” and while the cover is a particularly lurid panel lifted from an EC comic book drawn by Al Feldstein, most of the essays contained herein are on movies and books I’ve not seen or read. Warshow wrote for intellectual magazines of the late 40s and early 50s, notably “Commentary,” which he edited for a number of years. There are indications that he didn’t fit in with his contemporary critics, though he was admired by many, especially Lionel Trilling, who put this book together.

Warshow was raised in an intellectual environment. He was a critical thinker by birthright, and he learned how to examine art within the socialist conventions of the 30s. Then, he broke with socialism, or more particularly, with communism, and found himself having to apply his critical thinking skills without a particular school of thought to make everything simpler. In this mood, he suddenly realized that popular culture deserved to be considered more closely than it had usually been. Rarely has there been a more rigorous mind set to work on questions of such seeming contemporary insignificance; rarely has there been more insight into the questions of a cultural moment long since passed.

Reading Warshow is a lesson in how little I know about anything I’ve ever discussed. He notices things, he categorizes them, he reveals connections between disparate works For Warshow, it is the experience of the thing itself .– be it a movie, a play, a book, or Krazy Kat, the only comic actually critiqued - which matters. And it matters not only as an experience, but as a trigger towards further experience, or as a reflection upon the experience of real life.

Warshow believes that movies can be art. (He’s not so sure about comic books, which he thinks are vulgar and mostly trash, though he can discern that EC comics were done better than many others. One wonders what he would have thought of “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.” I feel fairly confident he would have not been too impressed with “Maus.”) He just doesn’t believe they have to be art to be worthy of experiencing. And, he doesn’t believe that their non-art status relieves them of the responsibility of meaning.

Most importantly, Warshow believes that meaning resides in the relationship between the viewer/reader/critic/society and the work itself. Meaning is very specific, but it is specific to the circumstances in which it is found. Famously, Warshow says, in the introduction to this book: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” Perhaps one of the things which drew him to popular culture over the option of further digging into the nuances of Henry James was the chance to let the man react. Warshow operated at a time when there was very little serious attention paid to the culture of the people. There was Gilbert Seldes, to be sure, but from what I gather, not much else.

So, Warshow could make up the rules as he went along, accounting for his delights, discovering conventions which now seem obvious, and requiring a commitment to what he believed to be real. Warshow did not aim for the universal; he in fact spews vitriol when Arthur Miller eliminates particulars to aspire for universality; “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible” are not received kindly in these pages. Warshow is always present in his criticism, which enables the reader to converse with him, rather than to deny ones own experience.

I started to read Warshow a couple of days before I started this blog. I wanted the same sort of freedom he had to examine any subject any time, and to see what could be found that hasn’t been found. We live now in a time of popular culture overload. It’s actually much harder in this day and age to find new writing of much insight about the long-acknowledged classics. But, so much of what I see seems devoid of a full relationship with the subjects on either side. What is the experience of popular culture, and how does it matter to us as individuals? Answering this is my goal, one which I have a long way to reach.

I’ve said that critics shouldn’t really be seen as judges of quality, though I certainly realize the human impulse to seek out those who reinforce our own views. So, just because I write about something in here, I don’t necessarily endorse it as an experience worth having, though that is certainly the norm. I usually stop fairly quickly going through experiences not worth having. But, this is a recommendation to all who want to know what criticism can be, to see how it is something that those who create works and those who enjoy them can truly enjoy. Get yourself a copy of “The Immediate Experience.” It’s a real page-turner.

Sunday, January 16, 2005


When Francois Truffaut adapted Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” it may have seemed that the only thing we had to fear was censorship itself. But, watching the movie last night on TCM, I realized that what I had thought was a drop kick perfectly consistent ideological score for my side wasn’t quite as complete as I had thought.

The movie itself is a pleasure to watch. It’s got that French New Wave view of film, with lots of long shots, simple two-person shots, and simple, straight forward frame constructions. Repetition rules okay, I guess. I love the opening, after the series of menacing television antennas while a cold, dry voice intones the names of the actors. We cut to a firehouse, with men in futuristic, dark, blank uniforms slide down the familiar pole and walk rather carefully to their firetruck. When the truck emerges from the sliding door, we see it’s a rather minimalistic, eerie machine from the future. The men stand stiff as boards lined up on either side of the center. (I’m strangely reminded by the old Keystone Kops sequences here, though obviously those men didn’t stand so still; it’s not entirely coincidental that the scenes of the truck on its way are always devoid of sound effects.) Bernard Hermann’s score drops dissonant chords to remind us how odd this brave new world has become.

We are in some vague future shorn of almost any design not familiar to 1966 audiences, which I thought was an interesting choice. In retrospect, those giant, inelegant apartment buildings and those flat, soul-less track houses of the day were repressive enough. Why bother to recreate the dystopian wheel?

In this world, books have been banned. Possession of books is punishable by – well, we’re never really sure. But, definitely, any books which are found by these firemen are burned. See, all buildings are now fire-proof, so the only use for firemen is to burn books. (No word what they do about forest fires, since there are obviously woods left in this future, as we’ll eventually learn.) When the alarm is sounded, the firemen rush to the scene of the crime. They burst into apartments, and find the hiding places of novels, histories, biographies, mysteries. A favorite hiding spot is inside a fake television set. Once the books are found, they are thrown onto a pile, and burned with a flame-thrower.

In this future world, books have been replaced by television, and a particularly interactive form of TV. The main character, Montag, played by Oskar Werner, has a wife, Linda (one of two roles played by Julie Christie) who is a slave to this television, not to mention pills of both stimulant and depressive qualities. After she overdoses on the pills and receives a blood transfusion in a humorous set piece, she experiences an increase in her drives to eat and to have sex.

So, we see another way in which the population is controlled. There are no scenes of men entranced by the television or the pills; presumably, they still have jobs, and the jobs control them well enough. For those moments when they might otherwise be distracted at home, presumably the side effects of the way women are controlled provide sexual benefits for the men. Here we see a way in which the world of “Fahrenheit 451” differs from the real future which unfolded over the last 39 years. Sexual teasing on the television is used to distract both men and women. It wasn’t necessary to turn women into sex machines for male pleasure.

Anyway, Montag has met Clarisse, a neighbor woman who is Linda’s double, albeit with shorter hair. Clarisse lets on that she reads books, and intrigued, Montag begins sneaking books away from work. Naturally, he is brought to the realization that books are necessary to preserve, a conclusion obvious to anybody who reads “David Copperfield” and a dictionary cover to cover in a few days. Long story short, Montag becomes an outlaw, and ends up in a forest with fifty other readers.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. In a world where paper books are outlawed and the World Wide Web was not imagined, the only way to preserve our literature seems to be to have individual people memorize entire books. They become the books, and in fact introduce themselves by the names of the books they know. (My favorite bit here was the presence of identical twins who have split the difference on learning “Pride and Prejudice,” just so they can be known as one of each word.) Montag commits to joining this enclave. There are apparently others in the world as well. The movie ends with the fifty men and women, most wearing ratty overcoats and other unusual clothes to signify their roles as outsiders, wandering back and forth, hither and thither, muttering their books to themselves.

I’ve spent all these years believing that “Fahrenheit 451” was nearly as important as “1984” or “Brave New World” in telling the tale of resistance to government oppression. But, now I see things a little differently. Because the image that jumped to my mind as soon as I saw that final scene was the final scene in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” when the doctor was revealed to be the keeper in a mental institution, and all the patients were walking back and forth, hither and thither, muttering to themselves.

Preserving literature is vital to our culture, don’t get me wrong. But the model here doesn’t strike me as all that good. Once a person dedicates a life to memorizing a single book, the book may still exist, but it doesn’t do anybody any good. The memorizer becomes the equivalent of paper; he or she can no longer think about the meaning of the books, but must concentrate on retaining the exact words. And, they don’t really spend any time sharing these books with anybody else. This final scene is of a community of solipsists, united only by their equal passion for their individual selves. I’ve always assumed this was a hopeful scene, but it looks to share nightmarish qualities with the non-book society.

Then I got to thinking some more. What are the limitations of this non-book society? Is it a single country, or is it the whole world? There are intimations that things are the same everywhere, that every society has replaced its literature with television and conformity. But, what about the cultures where oral traditions ruled? What about African-American traditions? Wouldn’t the existence of the blues be enough to fuck up this whole system? Or, perhaps they killed every black person. Certainly, Truffaut didn’t hire any to appear in this film.

And, what about the choices of books to be preserved? Every book being recited at the end is a canonized classic, and of course, it’s all from the European culture. Are we to believe that the only chance we’ve got is to make sure we preserve an admittedly talented, but limited set of old familiar favorites. What would a world be like built on what “David Copperfield” has to teach it?

I haven’t seen Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but obviously, he plays off the name of this classic. The assumption is that George W. Bush and his cronies have created a culture that’s not too far removed from the one in “451.” As a society, Americans don’t read that much, and when they do read, they don’t read things which are all that deep. And, of course, Americans let television tell it what to believe – why else would Bush have been elected in November? I don’t want to deny the truths of Moore’s presentation. What I’ve read about it jibes with my own experiences and readings in a lot of ways. But, in retrospect, I wish he’d called his film “Brave New 9/11” or “1984 Plus 20,” or something which builds on a richer, more fully realized version of the horrors that governments united with media can unleash.

I do still like that firetruck, though.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Psychic With a Bad Memory

Or: Massaging "Medium" For More Meaning

The second episode of “Medium” began with sex. Lots of tight close-ups of skin on skin, hands moving over body parts, some perfectly lovely male shoulders and female stomach. Then the cops arrived, shouting that the male partner of the tryst had 30 seconds to answer the door, which struck me as the worst coitus interruptus I’d ever heard.

In come the police, the guy is arrested, and the woman turns out to be dead. Eeew! How gross is that?! I was amazed that the cops didn’t notice any funny odors, and actually considered the possibility that the woman might be under-age, which would explain her complete lack of movement under the covers.

Don’t you just love when TV makes sure you feel guilty for enjoying a little erotic moment?

Oh, I kid “Medium” because I do actually find it a watchable program, but boy, does it ever have its head screwed on funny. Here’s the gist of this week’s bad guy. He’s a serial killer who keeps the dead bodies around so he can fuck them for up to two weeks after he kills them. Now, I’m no expert on necrophilia as a fetish, but traditionally, I believe, the sex stops being good within a day or two.

Television needs to keep topping itself in an effort to make us all even more scared than we should be. (And, one of these days, I’ll focus one of these essays on my recent realization that almost all the crime dramas of the last few years are putting all their efforts into cracking murders of the upper classes as if these accounted for more than a tiny fraction of what actually happens in the U.S.) So, I’m used to hearing about sicker and sicker murderers, but how far over the top did they think they had to go to come up with a guy who has sex repeatedly with dead bodies for two weeks?

As I explained last week, “Medium” could easily have been created by an adjunct of the Justice Department, because this was all in the service of making a case for the death penalty. We’re not gonna dramatize any of those messy, confusing death penalty cases where there may have been extenuating circumstances or the defendant had a lousy lawyer or holy cow, may have been innocent. Nope, we need something everybody can agree is disgusting, inhuman, and worth killing, and I think this pretty much comes as close as possible to being such a thing.

Alison Dubois, our heroine (as played by Patricia Arquette, who is bringing a nice combination of pluck and confusion to the role) was hired last week by the District Attorney, but she hasn’t been asked to do anything yet. Now, he calls her in to his office so he can grill her once again – for those who missed the last episode – on just what she does, and make sure to remind her he doesn’t really believe in it, but he’s willing to try anything. After a jury couldn’t agree to lethally inject a chain-saw murderer, the D.A. wants Alison to help find jurors who won’t consider even for a second the possibility that this guy doesn’t deserve to die.

I have to admit, the whole politics of jury selection thing was pretty interesting. Since the days of “Perry Mason,” we’ve been used to the occasional challenge of a juror, but I didn’t realize just how complicated things could get. With or without a psychic, the D.A.’s office gets a whole bunch of files on potential jurors, and somebody tries to eliminate the ones who won’t be likely to vote their way. (Same thing goes on, presumably, on the defense side.) The fun of the game comes when the D.A. can find somebody the other side thinks he doesn’t want, or somebody the other side will challenge because they think the D.A. doesn’t want this one, and other options just as confusing to spell out in a simple sentence. It reminded me of some of the gamesmanship involved in my rotiserrie baseball draft each spring.

Anyway, Alison does her job, and manages to read the true feelings of several potential jurors, so the death-fucker gets to get injected. Yay for Alison. Now, there is a moment of drama thrown in when they introduce the possibility that it may have been the wrong guy on trial. Alison sees things in dreams, and she saw several dreams of this guy carrying on with his corpses. But, she never saw the real guy’s face until the jury gave its verdict – apparently, she never thought to check out any newspaper or TV coverage beforehand – and when she did, it was a different face from the one in her dreams.

Okay, I’m thinking, maybe they’re throwing us a curve ball, and they will let us see Alison as a somewhat more complicated character with the possibility of being wrong thrown in. Maybe they’ll explore issues of guilt here, and make a statement about the death penalty that isn’t quite so obviously right wing. Nope, it was just TV being cute. It turns out that the face in her dreams was that of the guy on the menu of an Italian restaurant Alison and her husband have been frequenting of late. There were a couple of instances set up early to prove she doesn’t always remember things properly, so she realizes she’s a “psychic with a bad memory.” And, we can all chuckle knowingly that, heh, heh, the bad guy will die.

A word about a sub-plot which took place at the restaurant. But, first, a shorter word about the relationship between Alison and hubby Joe (Jake Weber). If there’s anything that makes this show above average, it’s the interplay between these two. So often, husbands and wives on TV conform to rigid expectations, and never seem to have a past outside the documentation of this week’s episode, or a life outside the confines of the plot. These two seem to actually be attracted to each other, mind and body, and they seem to have worked out ways of interacting with each other and the rest of the world that are subtle but fun to watch. For example, this week, we saw Alison demand sex from Joe when he came home from work because she was in a good mood. Then, afterwords, as they drive on their way to a party, we saw their post-coital glow disappear with some ill-chosen questions by Joe. And, we saw them work out of this problem without really eliminating it with some well-chosen statements from Alison.

Any way, I’m rambling on and I haven’t gotten to the sub-plot. The writers decided to have Alison and Joe join Joe’s co-workers and their spouses at weekly dinners. One of the co-workers was raving about his wife’s discovery of a cure for a young boy who refused to speak. Apparently, she decided to lock herself in a cabin with him for days on end without allowing any sleep or food unless he actually asked for it. In the re-telling of the story, the boy eventually gave in, and his first word turned out to be “Jesus.” Now, she was going to go to New York for a conference of behavioral psychologists to present her great break-through.

I don’t know how familiar you are with the current Administration’s distrust of science, but this played right into it. In the real world, nobody gets to present any findings based on one example. The scientific method requires replication, and this woman didn’t have any. So, “Medium” is trying to poo poo the methodology of science itself by showing us that it’s all just theories, and that any other explanation could be just as good.

And wait until you get a load of the explanation that was offered. Alison listens to this story, and gets a reading on the truth. It turns out the woman did fall asleep, despite her husband’s denial of this happening. And, it turns out the woman happened to be wearing a shirt with several buttons undone, so her cleavage was especially prominent, and she was lying down in such a manner to appear ready to be photographed for a 2005 edition of a Harold Robbins novel. So, naturally enough, the boy, who appeared to be about 12 or 13, was incapable of maintaining silence in the face of such glorious ta-ta’s, and he cried out, “Jesus,” waking her and convincing her she knew what she was doing.

See how deftly they tie up a lack of respect for science with a little bit of sexual bullshit? Why, oh, why, would this theoretically intelligent woman locked in a cabin with a boy of this age open her shirt to his gaze? Because, I guess, she’s not really interested in reality, but is instead some sort of slut overstepping her bounds, assimilating herself into man’s world, and pretending she was proving something by doing it? Heck, I don’t know. It’s all rather muddled and confusing.

I’m not going to write about every episode of “Medium,” but if they’re all full of stuff like this, I just might.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Blue Rose

It may seem perverse to start talking about one of the greatest jazz vocal albums I’ve ever heard by concentrating on the track that has no vocals, but it’s the track that guaranteed I would buy this six-year-old reissue from the second I first heard it almost two weeks ago. Rosemary Clooney has been one of my favorite singers since I was five and I found my Dad’s 78-rpm disc of “Come On-A My House,” but I’d never heard her collaboration with Duke Ellington, “Blue Rose” until New Year’s Day when I found a used copy at work.

But, as I said, we’re first going to sing the praises of alto saxophone genius Johnny Hodges. It’s not as though this were the only time he ever recorded Billy Strayhorn’s eloquent “Passion Flower,” nor as though there aren’t many other exquisite renditions of same in the annals of jazz history. But, oh, my, the way Hodges lightly caresses the melody, then increases the pressure of his touches almost to the point of squeezing when he climbs up the chorus before swooping down with one continuous glide down the other side! And, then, the Ellington orchestra kicks him in the ass and makes him climb up again, this time with greater insistence on every individual note, and he decides to skip back down a step or two at a time to get to the beginning key for the last time. It’s one of the most breathtaking performances I’ve ever heard.

Clooney and arranger Billy Strayhorn were wise to leave vocals off this track. Anything else would be superfluous, and besides, she gets so many chances to shine. Some of Ellington’s most familiar hits are here – “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, “Mood Indigo”, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”, “Just A Sittin’ And A-Rockin’” – along with a few lesser known but memorable gems. Clooney, who at the time was primarily considered a pop singer, slips into the Ellington sound as though she’d been singing it her whole life. It’s amazing to read in the liner notes – and to remember the reporting in David Hadju’s magnificent Strayhorn biography “Lush Life” – that she wasn’t comfortable because of an unfamiliarity with overdubbing. This was one of the rare 1950s albums where the orchestra was in one city while the singer was in another.

What I love about Clooney in general is her conviction, a sense that the song she’s singing, whether fluff or masterpiece, whether prosaic or poetic, is absolutely the right thing to be talking about at any given moment. She puts the emphasis on the words, but she always hugs the melody, and she has a natural swing which never lapses into the clichéd force of, oh, a Bobby Darin, to name somebody I’ve never liked who’s inexplicably the subject of a major biopic these days.

As a result of her skills, I’ve noticed the lyrics to “Sophisticated Lady” for the first time. To be fair, 90% of all versions of this song are purely instrumental, because it’s such a great base for improvisation, and because the reeds achieve such a luxurious tone on the first melody of the piece. You always get the sense of regret from the instrumental versions, but I’ve never noticed the judgmental part in the second half. See, the words tell the tale of a woman who had love and lost it, hence the sad sense of loss. But, then, without love, she becomes a “sophisticate,” which is apparently not something you want in a woman. She smokes, drinks, dresses up, and dances, all to cover up her lack of love. Who knew you couldn’t have love and fun at the same time?

I think you could spend a lifetime listening only to Ellington, and always hear more in his music. I know I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to the task, but I’ve got a long, long way to go before I get to the bottom of it. “Blue Rose” comes from an angle I’ve not encountered before, and which adds much to my delightful acquaintance with the greatest bandleader and composer of the 20th century.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Plan Aviator From Scorcese Space

“In this family, we don’t concern ourselves with money.”

“That’s because you’ve always had it.”

Martin Scorcese’s “The Aviator” is mostly a series of set pieces, a number of little narratives and genres strung together to create a sense of a life, or at least twenty years of a life. This saga of billionaire Howard Hughes is never more lively than during his visit to the family home of his long-time companion, Katherine Hepburn.

We’ve seen Hepburn movies where the family is a collection of eccentrics who talk fast and lively about culture, politics, dogs, and old times. That’s what we get here. But, suddenly, Hepburn’s mother says what she says about money, and Hughes jumps to the defense of the downtrodden. And, I realize that in some strange way, “The Aviator” takes the point of view that Hughes is an everyman.

Leonardo DiCaprio has a grand old time playing Hughes, and as far as I’m concerned, he completely wipes away any memories I’ve ever had of him as a baby-faced innocent. Instead, he’s a collection of insecurities hidden by bravado, brilliance, and big bucks. The source of his money is only occasionally mentioned – he apparently built on an inheritance, and, if the movie is to be believed, he flirted with bankruptcy half a dozen times and always came up with more.

Hughes is put upon by the media, and he takes it like a man, even when he doesn’t like it. Eventually, he’s the victim of an unscrupulous senator who calls him to the stage for a committee meeting, where Hughes pulls himself together for his own version of “Have you no mercy, sir?” To believe the movie, Hughes spent the 20 years between 1927 and 1947 making very expensive motion pictures, fighting for their release, building airplanes and testing them, and sleeping with virtually every famous movie actress and a harem of teenage wannabes.

And, yet, he has our sympathy, not because of his disability, which eventually (mostly after the movie, though partly during it) turns him into a crazed recluse so frightened of germs that he can’t touch anyone or anything. Nope, the sympathy comes because he embodies such a can-do attitude, such a refusal to let any adversity stop him. In “The Aviator,” the world’s richest man is an all-American achiever. While Stuart Klawans (my favorite movie critic) in the Nation says Scorcese is chasing the ghost of “Citizen Kane,” I think he’s also inheriting the spirit of the “Ed Wood” of the Johnny Depp role a few years back.

Obviously, Scorcese has talent to burn. There are images you’ll never forget in this movie, and a larger-than-life quality all too rare in today’s flicks. So, I’m not trying to say he’s amateurish like Wood at all. But, he’s portraying Hughes as the Wood of Wood’s dreams, the guy who never lets anything defeat him, literally. Maybe Hughes ended up locked in a Las Vegas hotel instead of trying to write porn films, but Hughes created his own reality while Wood was victimized by his. In the movies, however, what we see is not these unfortunate endings so much as the constant forward motion of each of their lives.

There is much more to absorb in this movie, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Cate Blanchett as Hepburn, but I’m neither ready to think of it all right now, nor convinced I could say anything else half as interesting as what Klawans says. I will leave today with the otherwise unremarked upon point that Scorcese hired Rufus Wainwright, his father Loudon Wainwright III, and his sister Martha Wainwright to appear as successive big band vocalists during nightclub scenes in the first hour or so of the movie. All three are magnificent hams, and worth seeking out when you see “The Aviator.”

Friday, January 07, 2005

Without a Trace of Shame

Crime dramas are so reliable, even in this post-postmodern age where the good guys sometimes don’t get the bad guys (or at least they don’t get convicted). They are games, with a series of clues, some of which may not lead to the right answer. The important thing is there are always right answers, and our satisfaction comes from watching our heroes solve problems.

Or, more properly, our satisfaction comes from enjoying the smugness of our heroes as they solve problems. In order to be a TV detective, you’ve got to be smarter than everybody else, and at the same time you’ve got to know you can rely on your team to be almost smart enough to take over for you if you happen to have the flu or something. Watching the detectives is akin to watching a great chess match – except this game has rules we can all grasp without being taught – with color commentary from the players themselves. The trash talk of choice is a cute little pun. I love puns.

Anyway, last night, I watched an episode of “Without a Trace,” a detective show starring Anthony LaPaglia as the guy who’s smarter than everybody else. The twist on this show is it’s not usually about murder. LaPaglia searches for missing persons, and the show updates us constantly on how long it’s been since so and so went missing. I’m not always clear why the FBI, which is his agency, is involved in these cases, but that’s alright. I’ll play along.

By the way, here’s a rule of thumb for this blog. If you don’t want to know how a show or a movie turns out, you should be aware that I’ll spoil it for you darn near every time. I’m looking to talk about what something means, and often, that requires talking about the ending.

So, on last night’s show, this 16-year-old girl is missing. Her 16-year-old friend is capable of lying with a completely straight face to powerful, well-trained federal agents, not once, but two or three times as evidence keeps turning up to contradict her previous stories. The gist of it all comes down to this, though. The missing girl is eight months pregnant, the result of a single encounter at summer camp with a particularly self-serving young man. She swears to her mom when she tells of her initiation – and, how many 15-year-old girls ever try to casually mention such a thing to their mothers – that she used a condom. But, as the abstinence-only educators are so fond of telling us, condoms sometimes break. Or, as I’m so fond of saying back to them, albeit in my dreams, condoms can be a little trickier to figure out than you’d think they are, so you should really teach people how to use them properly.

Moving on, the girl is missing because she went into premature labor – did I mention she hid her pregnancy from everybody else mostly by wearing an ugly poncho starting at the 7th month? – and her friend the liar helps her deliver the baby in an office by reading instructions printed on the internet. I gotta tell you, that was one of the sickest funny scenes I’ve encountered in a long while. I mean, it was horrible, but you could easily see it being true. And that darn internet, it never gives you every detail you need, does it?

The lying friend has to go to school to take a test or something right after the baby is born, so she still doesn’t know where the new mother is. Wandering around town aimlessly, the young miss encounters a friendly nurse who happens to be a smoker. This woman offers to get something to clean up the baby, and to teach the girl how to breast feed it, but of course, she’s having nothing of that. As Cat, my wife pointed out, if this were a medical drama, the nurse would have seized the infant.

Eventually, Anthony LaPaglia finds the bonding mother and child, and he tells her all about the wonders of motherhood. She was afraid her mother wouldn’t forgive her – I guess the surprisingly disturbed tone Mom took when her daughter told her she’d had a one-night stand at summer camp made her think there wasn’t much hope for Grandma to be on her side – but Judd reassures her that being a mother means always wanting to hold your child, no matter what happens or how old they get. Then, Grandma popped out and much crying ensued.

This whole last bit was what got me to write about the show at all. The girl didn’t get an abortion because she didn’t find out she was pregnant until four months in, and apparently, that’s not something that’s an option. I thought it was, but I admit I’m no expert. Still, she was afraid, and she didn’t want to have the baby, so she tried taking drugs on a regular basis to induce a miscarriage. Eventually, she hit upon the plan to run away to California and have the baby with the aid of the lying friend’s older sister. All of this negative feeling went away, however, once she sat long enough with the baby, and especially once LaPaglia extolled motherhood in such a sappy manner.

I understand that this was a drama concerning one individual girl, and I admit there were some good bits of acting to convince me she might have gone this way. But, I was pretty pissed off at the overall belief that women are destined to be mothers, and that mothers will always be perfect. Not that my mother isn’t perfect, mind you, but that I don’t think motherhood is some innate switch that gets turned on once the baby is born. It’s not a destiny, it’s a learned response, and some people are going to be better at it than others.

I once dated a woman who had a child at 16, and by the time I met her, she’d had 19 years of being pretty good at parenthood. But, I’m reasonably sure that she was an exception, and that most teenage mothers are going to have their lives turned upside down in ways this show didn’t acknowledge. The girl knew when she found out she was pregnant, she just seemed to have all that wiped out by the physical reality of her baby. I just hope there’s not a sequel to this episode in a year or two, when that kid turns up missing.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Chronicling Dylan

Bob Dylan never worried too much about the conventions of song writing, so why should he be expected to write an autobiography that runs in chronological order, or even that covers all the highlights of his life? Of course, he hints that the latter nod to normalcy could be made in coming years by naming his book, “Chronicles Volume One,” but I wouldn’t lay any odds that you’ll get anything you expect in future volumes.

Unless, that is, you expect more vivid prose, more spectacularly detailed (and probably partially fictional) recreations of experiences in the life of the man who turned rock’n’roll into a consciously artistic form of expression. Have you ever tried to remember events from your past with the clarity of a novelist? What do you remember even of the most important moments of your life? What clothes were you wearing during your first kiss? What was the weather like? How did your body move towards your partner? Who smiled first? What did the other person say right before you did it?

Heck, I’d really like to know these things, but the details are lost to the ages. Dylan, however, can write paragraphs like this one:

One winter day a big burly guy stepped in off the street. He looked like he’d come from the Russian embassy, shook the snow off his coat sleeves, took off his gloves and put them on the counter, asked to see a Gibson guitar that was hanging up on the brick wall. It was Dave Van Ronk. He was gruff, a mass of bristling hair, don’t give a damn attitude, a confident hunter. My mind went into a rush. There was nothing between the man and me. Izzy took the guitar down and gave it to him. Dave fingered the strings and played some kind of jazzy waltz, put the guitar back on the counter. As he put the guitar down, I stepped over and put my hands on it and asked him at the same time how does someone get to work down at the Gaslight, who do you have to know? It’s not like I was trying to get buddy-buddy with him, I just wanted to know.

That’s one paragraph in a book with thousands of them, full of memories and jokes and bullshit and dreams and insights and images and just plain interesting stories. There’s the guitar circle at Johnny Cash’s house with Dylan, Cash, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Harlan Howard, Kris Kristofferson, and others. There’s the insane encounter with a backwoods novelty shop owner who helped restore inspiration for recording the album, “Oh Mercy.” There’s the hungry way young Robert Zimmerman soaked up Woody Guthrie and Jack Elliott and blues and folk music, not to mention literature. There are the lessons in songwriting and the intention to make bold statements if you’re going to bother to make them at all.

Dylan could have written a straight-forward story, but I really like the way he did this instead. There are five chapters of varying length. The first hundred or so pages tell of his arrival in New York, and the steps he took to move from the tiniest coffee house stages to the bigger folk clubs. Then, there’s a 35-page interlude regarding the creation of “New Morning,” by any standard one of Dylan’s minor (yet good) works (albeit the first Dylan album I ever owned, given to me as either a birthday present or Christmas present when I was 23 years old by my friend Rene Spencer Saller, who wasn’t Saller then but who told me that she figured I should own at least one Dylan album if I was going to be a rock critic). Then, we move ahead to the late 80s, and 80 pages on the genesis of every song from “Oh Mercy,” one of Dylan’s many “comeback” recordings. (In here is some of the most intense lunacy on the subject of how Dylan changed his vocal style to enable his concert performances to be more than rote renditions of the same 20 songs; it’s so crazy you almost have to believe he believes every word, but then again, this is Dylan, and you just never can tell.) And finally, we’re back to the beginning, with Dylan meeting John Hammond and being signed to Columbia Records.

We never learn how Dylan started writing songs which matter, but we find out a lot about how the seeds were planted for same. We do learn how he wrote songs which he himself admits are not as important, which is not to say he dismisses their worth. “New Morning” was made when he wanted to turn his back on all the pressure of being BOB DYLAN, and who can blame him for that? That doesn’t mean he didn’t put anything into making these intentionally simple songs at all. (He does imply, however, that he did put virtually no effort into recording “Self Portrait” and “Dylan,” which makes plenty of sense to anybody who ever suffered through listening to them. I remember when I was a teenager, I heard Bob Dylan was somebody I should check out, so I borrowed “Self Portrait” from the library. It took me several years to realize that was not the right place to have started.)

But never mind all the things we learn, the true beauty of this book, the thing which makes it the autobiography equivalent of his songs, is the constant free association details he keeps spitting out. There is never a moment when Dylan seems bored or unsure of himself. His tone is vastly different in each period of his life, from eager student of all that art has to teach him to weary icon trying to escape his image to excited and combative veteran looking for new ways to make music. Assuming he can conjure up this sort of thing again and again, I’m ready to read five or six volumes right now. I’m also ready to read this book again soon, to pick up on all the tidbits which sped by too fast the first time.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Beausoleil on DVD

The members of Beausoleil have a pretty good racket going. Called the “Best Cajun Band in the world” by everyone from Garrison Keillor to the lowliest newspaper calendar copywriter, Beausoleil has merely to live up to the expectations of a fan base looking to drink beer and dance two-steps or waltzes. Keep the rhythms flowing, and they can play pretty much anything in the melodies. I fully expect these guys could get away with a medley of Ornette Coleman and Jay-Z, as long as the words were sung in French and the chink-a-chink kept beating.

All of which is cool by me, since I’ve been that guy twirling that girl around the dance floor, and I’m usually the guy with his jaw dropping to the floor at the exquisite melodic turns of fiddler Michael Doucet and the flat-picking delights of his brother guitarist David Doucet. Which is not to say I don’t love accordionist Jimmy Breaux, the third cog in the Beausoleil front line. I don’t mean to overlook him, because he nudges the traditional accordion styles quite nicely.

“Beausoleil Live From the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival” is a wonderful DVD document of a typical concert performance. It was recorded two years ago, and pretty much shows me what I’ve long thought – that Jazz Fest is full of great music, but I wouldn’t want to subject myself to the enormity of it. So, bring on more DVDs, folks, so I can hear what else I’ve been missing. (As an aside, I was pretty much shocked, though I certainly shouldn’t have been, to suddenly see St. Louis’s own dancing machine Beatle Bob front and center in his own private, secure area at the foot of the stage.)

Beausoleil start out here with some reels, then a ballad or two, then some two-steps, and then about half-way through, they start mixing influences from outside the Cajun tradition. The guitar, accordion, and fiddle meld on the melodies, while the bass, drums, and percussion drive home the familiar beats. Michael Doucet’s singing is another delight, though I can’t figure out how to tell you about it. It’s the solos that send me into raptures, anyway. All the rest is just context for short and inventive improvisations which bend the familiar into new shapes.

Each member of Beausoleil was interviewed for the extra features, though I haven’t watched them yet. The little snippets included in the film are inconsistent. The brothers Doucet have the most to say, though bassist Al Tharp’s enthusiasm for his participation in such exquisite musicianship is fun to see.

Medium Has a Message: Watch Your Back

“For what it’s worth, she’s happy.” Alison Dubois, played by Patricia Arquette, says this to the pedophile she’s trying to help convict in the pilot episode of “Medium,” a new TV series based on the belief that our fate after we die is to be John Ashcroft’s wet dream of a 24-hour surveillance system on the living.

The happy girl is not the victim of the pedophile, it’s his sister, and we are to presume he loved her because her joyous post-death scene showed her lying belly down on her old bed listening to the Hansen album he had bought her back in the days of corporeal reality. And, apparently, her enjoyment of this gift from her brother was not tempered by the fact that in the very house she haunts, he raped and murdered a six-year-old boy.

“Medium” is a muddled mess, one which wants desperately to be thought of as artistic – you can always spot the aspirations when a show is televised in the letterbox format – but which doesn’t really have anything it wants to say deeper than follow your dreams, even if those dreams tend to be nightmarish scenarios of real-life murders from around the country. Arquette can’t seem to decide how she wants to play her part, though the decision seems to have been made for her that she should only take her frustrations out on her husband, Joe, played by Jake Weber. His role rang a lot more true to me, as he slipped back and forth between trying to be supportive and feeling put upon by his wife’s super powers.

Dubois spends most of the pilot trying to convince a Texas Ranger with an army of SUV-driving underlings with no necessary role except to look imposing in long shots that she knows where the missing boy’s body is buried. Once she does convince him, the decision is made to avoid digging it up because apparently you need a search warrant for such a thing, though I’m assuming they had one earlier when they sent the dogs roaming all over the same area. But, because Dubois doesn’t have weather forecasting powers, and apparently the Rangers don’t have the Weather Channel, nobody realizes a huge hurricane will wash everything away early the next morning, removing the evidence needed to keep the bad guy in jail.

Not to worry, though, because Dubois meets with the pedophile, and talks to the dead guys who hang around him. There’s the guy who molested this kid a few years ago, and the guy who molested that guy, and the guy who molested that guy, and so on ad infinitum. One of these dead molesters apparently feels sheepish enough to help Dubois out, and tells her that the kid had told everything to the guy in the cell next door. Then, it’s just a matter of tricking that felon into telling what he knows, and somehow the word of a presumably convicted criminal is enough to put our pedophile away for life, even without any other evidence.

But, I don’t really want to talk about what “Medium” is trying to do so much as what it does accomplish. It’s set-up is the ultimate fantasy of those who don’t believe in civil liberties. The world is full of bad people, very bad people, getting away with horrible things, and we need more control over them. Ashcroft wanted to set up a network of neighborhood spies all over the country, rewarding neighbors for reporting suspicious activity. He never thought of enlisting all the spirits who obviously wander the earth, just looking for the right Volvo-driving housewife/law intern to tell what’s happening under everybody else’s nose. At the very end of the pilot, when Dubois is telling her family she’s been hired part time by the law firm which now recognizes her special gift, she mentions she’s going to be used on special cases and to help with jury selection. So, the dead will make sure that juries will side with the lawyer for whom she works? That should weed out the bleeding heart liberals once and for all.