Sunday, March 27, 2016

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XVII

It's not a surprising irony in the late Sixties and early Seventies, just as many Americans were feeling like unwitting spiritual exiles and no longer wishing to be part of their own country, that many movie-makers began impassioned quests to find it. The results could be as powerfully masochistic as Easy Rider (1969) with its strain of pop religiosity which featured its hippie heroes romantically doomed to crucifixion by the power structure. The outcome could be as ambivalent as John Schlesinger's 1969 Midnight Cowboy (which loved its lost heroes but strangely shared no empathy for the country that produced them). The sojourn could also have the operatic sweep and depth of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) which embraced the tidal pull of the nation along with the very elements that would come to corrupt it. Regardless of the quality of films – from Alice's Restaurant to Nashville – movies were committed to taking the pulse of a country in decline and in distress. 

In the epic striving of Jan Troell's The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), recently released by the Criterion Collection in their full Swedish versions and immaculately restored on Blu-ray, the director takes in America as an untested promise, or a fever dream that brings forth deliverance. Based on Vilhelm Moberg's epic four-volume novels which account the long journey of Swedish farming families to settlements in Minnesota in 1850, Troell captures in a largely naturalistic style for over six hours both the cost and renewal of that promise without embellishing the hopes of those making the quest, or romanticizing the claims of the new land (which the farmers discover is stolen land from the Sioux). Troell, who shoots, edits and directs his own movies, removes our awareness of film language as if the camera were a portal in which to comprehend realism. When he focuses on the life and marriage of Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullmann), featuring two actors whose iconic definitions through their work with Ingmar Bergman couldn't be more recognizable, Troell clears a path for both performers to shed that skin and to cadence their work with fresh character etchings. Those nuances not only reveal how the arduous journey tests that marriage, but also the many ways it fulfills it. The marriage between the settlers and their environment, where nature is both unforgiving and inviting, is equally a test of endurance and purpose. That Jan Troell has been an invisible giant on the cinematic landscape – despite the enduring depth of later works like Flight of the Eagle (1982), Hamsun (1996), As White as in Snow (2001) and Everlasting Moments (2008) – may well be due to his gift of letting the story dictate the style rather than imposing his style on it.


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"The Weight" is a moral parable. It's a song is about a search for community, a quest for comfort, a place to find comradeship and to set down roots to lessen the burden of what the singer is carrying – but with no guarantee of being relieved of it. The key to this song is that there are many singers present in the performance – not just one – just as there is a cast of characters in 'The Weight' who deepen the riddle. Aretha's voice carries those voices alone and rings that story from rooftops where those communities might not only hear, but rejoice. Yet the song wouldn't be complete without the singeing accompaniment of Duane Allman on slide guitar which rings like the peeling of bells from those rooftops. “The sound of his slide was well suited to her tone; their interplay was a conversation,” Duane's daughter,Galadrielle, writes in Please Be with Me: A Song for My Father (Spiegel & Grau, 2014). “Duane was confident enough to echo the feeling and richness of her voice.” Duane Allman not only echoes it – he completes it.


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Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who makes Wynton Marsalis break out in hives, is an urban impressionist who builds structurally on the current of improvisation right at the heart of the music. But unlike Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, whose 'free jazz' experiments were driven by the powerful emotional drives of the artists themselves, Taylor's work (especially on the 1966 album, Unit Structures) can seem almost cerebral by comparison. But speaking in different tongues – musically as in literature – can still bring forth appealing narrative colours as this portion of "Enter, Evening (Soft Line Structure)" does for me.

Jazz critic Gary Giddens puts it this way: "Taylor is almost like a tabula rasa in the sense that listeners read into him whatever they happen to know about music...A lot of bad teachers steered students away from [James] Joyce by telling them that they couldn’t read Joyce until they had read everything from Homer to Vico and all of the previous Joyce works to get to Ulysses. You could spend a lifetime just doing all the preparation and then you are supposed to carry around a thousand pages of footnotes. What pleasure is there in that? But, just take Ulysses on vacation with nothing else and you will find out how truly pleasurable Joyce can be, as long as you don’t expect to get every single line. Listeners have that same expectation of Taylor, that listening to him will take a tremendous amount of work. It is when you put your defenses down and let yourself respond to the music that you can really learn to love it."


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If Lenny Bruce once brought the backstage sleaze right on-stage in his stand-up and then confronted the audience with what they had come to comfortably consume, Garry Shandling, who died at 66, put the discomfiting obsequiousness of the late night talk show right into the beating heart of his still shuddering The Larry Sanders Show. Nobody nailed the careerist banality of chat in contemporary show business quite like this show did.


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In his highly readable book, Zappa and Jazz (Matador, 2015), Geoff Wills takes up one of many paradoxical arguments when discussing the work of American composer Frank Zappa. Despite Zappa's protestations that he didn't care for jazz – the music, the musicians and the jazz establishment – his music is filled with jazz influences and musicians who were schooled in the genre. Wills (along with being a former musician and is a clinical psychologist) delves with depth and clarity into the jazz influences that fed the stream of Zappa's work right from the beginning of his musical life. Wills not only knows the jazz canon (even making a sharp and bold comparison late in the book between the career of Stan Kenton and Zappa's), he calls out Zappa's disingenuousness by marking the music he clearly must have known and liked. So where did this oddly dismissive attitude come from? Wills links it to Zappa's anti-establishment stance which marked him an outsider trying to prove that he could do better than those who rejected him. But by nursing only that one persuasive argument is where the book also misses the larger point: Wills' reverence for jazz (and even Zappa's own music) evades the satire that fuels it. If jazz, according to Zappa, smelled funny, Wills doesn't end up uncorking the aroma of the joke.

By actually combining serious contemporary music with rock, jazz, and social and political satire, Zappa created a unique and sophisticated form of musical comedy by integrating into the canon of 20th-Century music the scabrous wit of comedian Lenny Bruce and added to it the irreverent clowning of Spike Jones. His body of work, both solo and with his band, The Mothers of Invention, presented musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire, and then he turned it into farce. Curious for a psychologist, Wills skirts Zappa's absurdism and spends more time chronicling his jazz influences rather than providing the critical analysis that would reveal its satirical intent. He's quite precise at showing us what the music is doing, but not in going deeper into how and why. (When Wills reviewed my own Zappa book, Dangerous Kitchen, he slammed it by providing a pretty solid copy edit of the errors that crept in rather than getting around to taking up its theme.) Zappa and Jazz is at its best and most engaging and lively when Wills illuminates his argument by weaving together in each chapter interviews with alumni and session musicians who articulate Zappa's musical depth as well as revealing much of their own. For a quick read, Zappa and Jazz has a dense intelligence that nevertheless seeps through its own earnestness.


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When The Shirelles first covered "Dedicated to the One I Love" in 1960, originally written and recorded by The '5' Royales in the early Fifties, it was a joyous testimony and performed with as much verve on the subject of long distance love as The Beatles' "All My Loving" would supply a few years later. The Mamas and the Papas would also record it in 1967, but Michelle Phillips would sing the opening lines in a soft and tremulous voice that suggested the loneliness that often hides under desire. When Mama Cass and the others finally join behind her in the coming verses, that darkest hour before dawn quickly becomes bright with sunshine and the song soars with an unbridled optimism that never forgets the desolate place it started from.


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Margaret Brown's elliptical examination of the late Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt ("Waiting Around to Die," "Pancho and Lefty") in Be Here to Love Me (2004) is a loving and beautifully rendered portrait of one of America's most melancholic country artists next to Hank Williams. But rather than simply chronicle the events that gave shape to Van Zandt's troubled career, Brown provides an appealingly impressionistic view of this iconoclastic folk and country performer. She deftly weaves together his songs and interviews in order to give her storytelling a musical texture. Although Van Zandt, who sounds like a hybrid of Hank Williams and Chris Isaak, became a legend to popular performers like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, he always remained on the fringes of popular taste. In Be Here to Love Me, Brown takes us on a sad but fascinating journey to those fringes and amply illustrates why Townes Van Zandt, long before he died in 1997, had already begun haunting the musical landscape.


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Bruce Springsteen once described Gary U.S. Bonds as one of the kings of fraternity rock – songs big with campus sororities – with his early Sixties jukebox hits "Quarter to Three" and "New Orleans." In the early Eighties, he would bring Bonds back into the pop mainstream again with a highly entertaining album, Dedication, which demonstrated that Bonds hadn't lost his touch. There was one track though, written by Steve Van Zandt, that brought out a depth in the singer not tapped before. "Daddy's Come Home" is essentially the story of a broken marriage, but the shattered family comes to also reflect one man's view of a country that's lost touch with itself and with its certainties. A neglected gem.


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Critic Pauline Kael once described the exuberance of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) as similar to "Americans' love of getting in the car and taking off – it's a breeze." The Feelies, a New Jersey punk band, share that same ebullience in their infectious "Too Far Gone" which is happily fueled on the burned rubber of The Ventures and Dick Dale.


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In 1980, when Bruce Springsteen released his epic, sprawling and uneven album, The River, he sought to take the characters who fought for their independence in his triumphant Darkness on the Edge of Town and put their newly found freedom to the test in the larger world.

For instance, the demand for ties that bind in "Two Hearts" would be followed by the need to break them on "Independence Day." The romantic yearning of "I Wanna Marry You" would be countered by the defeat of that yearning in the title song. The open road of possibilities in "Drive All Night" would end with the album's concluding song "Wreck on the Highway." The River would also produce Springsteen's first hit single, "Hungry Heart," an upbeat song about (of all things) abandoning commitment. The album, which is given an in-depth examination in the new box set, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, features a fascinating series of songs that reveal a deeper ambivalence about triumph that would point the way to the unsettling parables later populating the Nebraska album.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

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