Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Downbeat Goes On

Despite the changes in the music business, particularly from a technological point of view, criticism is still relevant. This particular website is dedicated to reviewing the arts by distinguishing itself as an honest broker of artistic endeavors around the world. Downbeat magazine, which has been the best and longest lasting periodical of jazz, has just issued its 59th annual Critics Poll (August 2011).  As a monthly journal that has adapted well to change, its Critic's Poll and Reader's Poll is an important barometer of what's being heard and reviewed in music.

The August 2011 edition of Downbeat features the critic’s picks for the best in jazz of the past 12 months and as a critic who did not participate in the poll, I was happy to see certain musicians getting recognition, namely, American pianist and composer, Jason Moran. His album Ten (Blue Note, 2010) was voted the best of the year. Moran himself was voted as Artist of the Year and he led the poll in the Piano category by getting more points than Keith Jarrett and last year's poll-winner Brad Mehldau. This is fine company, to say the least, and while I'm generally fickle about "best of" lists, I was very happy to see Moran grace the cover of the magazine and win three categories. Ten made my own list of the top records in 2010, and I have to admit that I'm feeling vindicated for trusting my ears and choosing new releases off the beaten path and rarely with a high profile. Nevertheless, with all the great music and musicians vying for our attention, which is bloody difficult in the 21st Century, it’s nice to see the so-called purists at Downbeat support up-and-coming musicians. In fact, that’s been an important part of their mandate since the beginning.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Man vs. Ape: Fact Trumps Fiction

A scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The five original movies in the Planet of the Apes series, which came out between 1968-1973, were entertaining fun, though only the first one, Planet of the Apes (1968) – which was loosely based on  Pierre’s Boulle’s novel La planète des singes (Monkey Planet – 1963) – could actually be called a quality film. Yet as enticing as the concept of apes taking over the Earth with mankind reduced to the status of ‘animals’ was, the films copped out when it came to explaining how apes actually came to dominate our planet. In a nutshell, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) saw three apes escaping from future Earth when it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb and reaching our present day Earth through a time warp. While there, one of them gave birth to a son, who, in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), eventually led the rebellion that brought the apes to power. But how apes gained super intelligence and learned to speak was never dealt with since the time travel scenario neatly avoided that subject. It was one of those wrap-around puzzles – human astronauts travelled into the future and landed on a planet run by apes, eventually destroyed the planet but not before some intelligent apes escaped and came to present-day Earth and created the future where apes ruled until human astronauts landed on the planet. It never made real sense. The latest movie in the Apes series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, aims to remedy that conundrum. But though it offers a (tepid) explanation for how and why the evolution of the apes began, it’s not a very satisfying answer (I won’t spoil that revelation for you), much like the film itself. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Long Player: Andy Neill’s Had Me a Real Good Time: The Faces Before, During and After

“Why don’t we form a skiffle group?”
“Yeah, great...” After five minutes I said, “What’s a skiffle group?”
(Recalled by Kenney Jones, drummer of the Faces)
This quote taken from Andy Neill’s massive biography of the Faces, Had Me a Real Good Time: The Faces Before, During and After (Omnibus Press, 2011), pretty much sums up the whole attitude of the members of what many called the second greatest rock band in the world. (You can guess who is considered the greatest.) I saw them in concert only one time, thirty-nine years ago, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. They were drunk, and loose, and fun, and they rocked the joint. Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones came together in 1970 and left a legacy of only five albums, but they cut a swath through rock’n’roll that has never fully healed. 

The book is indeed huge. Someone (might’ve been Ron Wood) described it as “Bible-sized” and it is clumsy to hold, and hard to read. Another recent biography of session musician Nicky Hopkins (And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins by Julian Dawson) covers much of the same ground and is more elegantly written. But that just shows the difference between pianist Hopkins and the Faces. Hopkins came to the studio on time, did his work for as long as it took, and went home for a cuppa with his Mum. The Faces, well…didn’t do that.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Peep Show: The Death of Amy Winehouse

You’ll never get my mind right
Like two ships passing in the night
Want the same thing when we lay
Otherwise, mine’s a different way.

Amy Winehouse “In My Bed.”

A week ago Saturday, I was preparing my film clips for my lecture series Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma at the Revue Cinema when the breaking news on television announced that singer Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her apartment. While the news could hardly seem surprising given her continuous struggle with substance and personal abuse, not to mention her disastrous recent concert tour (which seemed to invoke any number of Hollywood melodramas you cared to call up), it still seemed unreal. As the day wore on and my work was finished, I turned to more television coverage only to see that many others seemed to share my unsettled reaction to the news. While some writers trotted out the usual clichés about “the good dying young” and the eerie coincidence of her joining “The 27 Club” (which contains other dead 27-year-old performers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain) others grappled with words to describe their grief. While I searched for my own, I realized that some of the answers were right within the lecture series I was doing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An Inconvenient Conversation: Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together

I’ve always been an advocate for technology. As an information professional, my regard and respect for the tools that help us access, analyse and communicate this currency of our knowledge economy are vital to both our existence and success. Personally and professionally, our social networks matter more than ever to our careers. I do believe it is important to adapt and adopt, or be left behind.

That being said, I also believe that the age-old ability to personally connect with ourselves (and with one another) remains imperative to the human experience. A recent stream of events and observations has had me thinking: do our digital tools and connections distract us from caring for those real and most vital relationships? Every so often, I find myself amongst those who tend to sneak a peek at my phone, or email, when I should otherwise be in the moment. I’ve also observed that this addiction has been inherited by the heir to my legacy. My two-year-old once greeted me at the airport gates yelling “Mommy! Black cell phone!” (Well, at least she said my name first.) With any touch screen in her fingers, she goes to work. Even at her tender young age, she knows what all the apps do. What ever happened to just sitting in a sandbox and digging a hole? There’s probably now an app for that.

Of course this behaviour is not quarantined to my household. The epidemic is far more unrestrained outside. I have friends who have informed me that if I do not text, I just won’t reach them. I have others with whom I’ve shared my innermost secrets, via the cold Facebook chat interface. The final straw came when I was recently informed via text messaging that an otherwise seemingly wonderful relationship was ending. (Haven’t been dumped digitally yet? Oh man, you’re missing out! It’s a whole new level of character building worthlessness.) I had to wonder when and how did my important relationships become these aloof, disposable applications? These issues are explored further in MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle’s publication Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books, 2010). Turkle examines how technology becoming less a tool to use in our relationships, and more so the relationship. How we have become so used to carrying out our emotional lives via gadgets and social networking it has led to the “emotional dumbing down” of our society. Throughout her work, she illustrates how while technology has allowed us to achieve great things, our “inability to be separated from these compelling machines” has taken us away from our real lives and relationships. While we are more connected then ever, we are also lonelier than ever. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lessons in Playwriting: Haunting Julia, Rocket to the Moon and Cause Célèbre

Alan Ayckbourn wrote Haunting Julia in 1994 but it didn’t receive a London premiere until this year – when it opened far from the West End, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. But it’s a lovely little play, a three-handed ghost story that disseminates some compelling themes through extremely well-drawn characters, and the modest production, directed by Andrew Hall, does the text full justice. The characters are three men, all of whose lives have been deeply affected by their contact with a prodigious undergraduate musician who killed herself several years earlier. Joe Lukin (Christopher Timothy) is her father, whose care for her – he and her mother moved to be closer to her when she began university – drove her to take a flat on her own, which he has now converted into The Julia Lukin Centre, a sort of museum that preserves her old environs and in which, creepily, a recording narrates in the first person a sentimental, air-brushed chronicle of her life. Andy Rollinson (Dominic Hecht) was her boy friend; he found her body. Now he’s a high school music teacher with a family of his own, but he’s kept up his relationship with Joe and his wife. The play begins when Joe guides Andy through the newly constructed centre – it’s clear to us, if not to Joe, that Andy finds the experience profoundly uncomfortable – and then presents what he believes is evidence that her ghost is haunting it. The third character is a psychic named Ken Chase (Richard O’Callaghan) who turns out to be someone who actually knew her, the janitor who lived downstairs from her with his family, whom she often visited.

Timothy, Hecht, and O'Callaghan (Photo Tristram Kenton)
The play is about the loneliness of genius, about the unrelenting demands of the muse, and about the smothering kind of parental love that can both impede adulthood and drive a grown-up child mad. It’s also about moving on from the powerful grip of a first love – that’s Andy’s story. Ayckbourn doesn’t underline any of these ideas; he allows them to leak out through the development of the narrative, which is a series of surprising revelations after each of which we feel we understand the characters, including the absent Julia, a little better. One of my favorites, really just a detail but an inspired one, is Ken’s referring to the dead girl as Julie, because that’s what he and his family used to call her when, divested of her obligations to her music and to her parents, she dropped by to share their ordinary lives.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Giddy-Up! Writing About Buckaroos and Unearthly Bandits

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in “Cowboys & Aliens”

Although the word “extraterrestrial” was coined in 1868, inhabitants of the Wild West had yet to add it to their vocabulary when the action in Cowboys & Aliens unfolds seven years later. As creatures from outer space invade, folks in and around a scrubby desert town called Absolution think they’re up against them thar demons. (Nobody onscreen actually uses this old-timey idiomatic jargon but you get the idea.) Supernatural beings straight out of hell are the only visual references the locals have to go by in the 19th century.

The film also could have been titled Cowboys & Aliens & Indians & Mexicans & Outlaws, what with those diverse communities coming together in a can’t-we-all-get-along-to-save-ourselves story. The aliens? Not so much. The slimy beasts tend to resist any “Cumbaya” sentiment, though they do have a hankering for the gold in them thar hills. Yes, an addiction as ancient as the third millennium BC apparently has lured these metal-craving monsters from another planet willing to rob, murder and foster mayhem. Much like the worst of humankind but with superior gizmos.

Screenwriter Hawk Ostby
Hawk Ostby and his longtime writing partner Mark Fergus share screenplay credits with several other scribes – including Damon Lindelof, formerly of Lost. Their script is a clever mash-up of genres with a generous dollop of familiar archetypes. There’s Doc (Sam Rockwell), a medic who’s also the trusty saloonkeeper; the crusty sheriff (Keith Carradine); the wise preacher (Clancy Brown); the wide-eyed, plucky kid (Noah Ringer); the loyal Native American tracker (Adam Beach); and the pretty schoolmarm – just kidding. She’s Ella (Olivia Wilde), bearing a sidearm and hiding a major secret. Add some gravitas to the mix: Harrison Ford as an imperious cattle baron named Colonel Dolarhyde and Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan, a drifter suffering from amnesia. “Han Solo and James Bond in the same movie,” Ostby says. “Two acting giants. What’s not to love?”