Saturday, June 12, 2010

Canadian Swagger: CTV Vancouver 2010 Olympics DVD

Back in February as Canadians went on to win more Gold Medals ever as host country in a Winter Olympics, we all walked around with our chests (somewhat) puffed out, strutting our stuff, the cock of the walk. And yet, even within that braggart moment, we managed to maintain the legendary (mythical?) Canadian niceness. Want proof? Take a saunter through CTV's five-disc DVD of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that recently arrived in my mailbox (it was promised to arrive six weeks after the Games - in other words mid-April, but in fact came out last week of May/first week of June).

I've not managed to make my way through all five discs (one disc alone on the hockey takes up four hours of Disc 2), but what I have watched -- the intro documentary, the recap of the early rounds of the men's hockey, the final minutes of the Canada-US men's final, men's skeleton, women's and men's short-track speed skating and men's half pike snowboard finals -- is beautifully presented. Except for the recap docs, most of it is just commercial-free, pristine versions of what was broadcast, broken up by the occasional (but generally not intrusive) set-up commentary by principle host Brian Williams. And that's okay, because what this is all about is a memory piece that tries to allow us to recapture the feeling of pride and excitement we had during those ten days of competition.

Some of it works really well:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Roads Not Taken: The Tug of Broken Bells

Every now and then, a song gets up in my head. Lately, that empty space has been reserved for “The High Road,” an ethereal and esoteric ballad by Broken Bells. Before an invasion of the brain snatchers, I was only marginally familiar with Danger Mouse, a multi-instrumentalist producer who reverts to his given name of Brian Burton for the collaboration with James Mercer, lead singer-songwriter of the Shins -- previously not on my limited musical radar. This cut from the new band’s eponymous debut album is literally mesmerizing; I feel compelled to close my eyes and let it carry me away every time. Maybe I’ve got some sort of zen thing going: An experience beyond rational thought; a universal spirit that can zip through each of us, bringing enlightenment.

I wish somebody would enlighten me about the meaning of “The High Road.” On the material plane, the lyrics seem to obliquely address the post-traumatic stress disorder plaguing many veterans, a form of psychological damage that was once called battle fatigue. There are several specific military references: “This army has so many heads/ to analyze...” and “A solider is bailing out/ His lips curled on the barrel...,” for example. Apart from that, however, the imagery is beautifully elusive. The minimalist music video features co-composers Burton and Mercer walking at night down a forlorn two-lane blacktop with flashlights in their hands. They encounter random apparitions -- a traffic accident, a child with a remote-controlled toy car, a burlesque dancer in what appears to be a one-woman girlie show -- but no symbols suggesting the armed forces. The words do not batter a listener with messages. Yet, a sense of foreboding seeps in thanks to lines such as “I don’t know if I’m dead or not/ to anyone...”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting it Wrong, Getting it Right: Beyond the Sea and Ray

Whenever Hollywood produces a film biography of a famous figure it’s seldom about the nature of their genius. More often than not, it’s a redemption story. Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), for example, contained little of the John Nash one found in Sylvia Nasar’s intelligently absorbing 1998 biography. Where she thoughtfully examined how the schizophrenia of this mathematical genius became permanently intertwined with his gift, the movie is about how John Nash gets redeemed by love. Often an assumption gets made by producers that audiences won’t respond to the unique gifts of the film’s subject so they conceive a concept perceived as accessible to a mass audience – a concept that ensures box office success and potential awards. The irony, of course, is that without the special gifts of a John Nash there wouldn’t be a movie about him in the first place. Back in 2004, there were two radically different movies made about two great American musical figures (Bobby Darin and Ray Charles) that attempted to get at what made these artists fixtures in American popular culture – but only one of those films got there.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mazel Tov: Dick Dale's Hava Nagila

When an Israeli friend of mine got married last summer, she was trying to think of a unique version of “Hava Nagila” to play after the traditional breaking of the glass. Without question, I told her the most original version I know is Dick Dale & His Del-Tones’ surf-rock arrangement from the mid-'60s.

Although Dale became an amateur surfer in Los Angeles, he was actually born in Massachusetts to a Lebanese father and Polish mother. Although I suspected that there probably wasn't much of a surfing legacy there, my friend Naomi Boxer (with tongue-in-cheek) asserted otherwise. "On a historical note, regarding Poland and surfers, perhaps you have made a slight oversight here? Have you not heard of the (in)famous Minsker Boys? There is strong historical evidence that they were a Jewish group of surfers from the city of Minsk. Usually part of Poland but slurped up by Russia during The Partition of Poland. According to the cultural lore that I've heard, they surfed the Black Sea in the earlier part of the 20th century in home-made (by their mothers of course) water-proof clothing with layers of chicken fat for warmth. The image that the Minsker Boys evokes certainly flies in the face of traditional Eastern European Jewish stereotypes." Who would have guessed?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Chick Flicks: A Bogus Phrase for a Bogus Genre

If ever there was film genre term that I wish would disappear it’s the chick flick. As one who always champions movies as a democratic art form, it’s beyond ludicrous to hear people – usually women – dismiss the opinions of men when it comes to (mostly) romantic stories just because they happen to be a member of the wrong gender. I first encountered this dubious term back in 1993 when I told a group of women that I found Nora Ephron’s romantic weeper Sleepless in Seattle rather creepy. In the movie, Meg Ryan pursues (you could say stalks) a wistful widowed man (Tom Hanks) until he finally hooks up with her. I suggested that I didn’t find the premise the least bit romantic because if the roles had been reversed, and it was Hanks shadowing Ryan, the picture would have been a sleazy thriller. Think Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) rather than Sleepless in Seattle. A few of the women though dismissed my observation and stated that I just didn’t get Sleepless in Seattle because I was a guy and didn’t understand a chick flick when I saw one. (My response: What the fuck is a chick flick?)

Following the insanity of that line of gender demarcation, it would stand to reason then that only guys should review action films that blow up shit real good. And maybe only blacks should weigh in on anything starring Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah. Perhaps Jews are the only ones qualified to discuss the oeuvre of Adam Sandler. Anyway, I think you get the idea. I thought of all this when reading the reactions to Toronto Globe and Mail film critic Rick Groen’s pan of the second Sex and the City movie. A number of women (and a few men) cried foul because, since Rick was a man, he obviously didn’t understand what made the movie appealing to females. First of all, the idea of designating such a limiting, condescending term as chick flick to movies like Sex and the City is insulting to both men and women. It suggests that only women like romantic stories, so therefore they should only be allowed to review them. Forget that I know many women who love action fare and despise sentimental movies, just as I know many men (including me) who loved Gillian Armstrong’s stirring adaptation of Little Women (1994). And while we’re at it, why not bring up director Katherine Bigelow, a woman who made a number of (mostly) redundant violent action pictures until, with The Hurt Locker (2009), she finally made a powerful film about the very underpinnings of the genre.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Lost Moment: Clint Eastwood's Invictus (2009)

There just wasn't enough time. When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, he was already 76 years old. After spending 27 years in an apartheid prison on Robben Island, few would have condemned him for seeking a measure of justice, if not outright revenge, for his treatment at the hands of South Africa's whites. Instead he chose a higher road. He wanted to reconcile with the white South Africans in an effort to end the cycle of violence that could have easily continued when the apartheid regime finally collapsed in 1994.

When he became President, he accomplished many things, especially trying to bring peace to his fractured country. It was as simple as using both black and white bodyguards (that integration itself spoke volumes to the nation), and as complex as embracing South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks -- a team that was a symbol of white rule in South Africa -- on the cusp of South Africa hosting the Rugby World Cup in 1995. The Springboks were a woeful team that everybody assumed would make an early exit from the tournament. For Mandela, the success of the team became a personal mission. He contacted the team's captain, Francois Pienaar, and encouraged him to win the World Cup for South Africa. It was a tall order. With the assistance of a new coach, Pienaar's drive, and Mandela's complete support, the Springboks trained like demons and, remarkably, went on to win the title. Both these decisions were symbols, nothing more, but they were symbols of what can come out of hope.This is the material that is covered in Clint Eastwood's flawed film, Invictus (latin for 'unconquered') and it is a matter of historical record.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Winona Zelenka Interprets J.S. Bach’s Six Suites For Solo Cello: Earthy And Immediate

Completed in 1723, the J.S.Bach suites BWV 1007 – 1012 are a rite of passage for the cellist. The history of the composition and its reputation for cello players around the world has produced high expectations due to their familiarity with audiences and with fellow musicians. For Canadian cellist Winona Zelenka it must have been a rather daunting task to record the suites and then be subject to comparison to every cellist who's come before. Mstislav Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky, Yo Yo Ma, Anner Bylsma and the great Pablo Casals, to name five, have recorded the Six Suites for solo cello.

The cello suites offer a musician a technical and emotional trip than is demanding, playful and contemplative. As Baroque compositions, they offer dances and rhythmic variations that require the deepest commitment and concentration of the player. This has, to my ear, been a mixed blessing for Zelenka, who makes tempo changes more frequently than her predecessors whose interpretations were based on either Baroque or Romantic styles of playing. (Baroque style favours more use of open strings) In other words, a level of expectation about "how" to play these pieces leaves little room for interpretation, strictly speaking. That said, how does this recording measure up? To begin, the suites have been separated on two CDs: Suites 1, 3 and 5 on disc one and Suites 2, 4 and 6 on disc two. Already a statement in itself, separating the suites says something about our expectations: should we listen to them in sequence? Zelenka would suggest 'no'. (or at least her producer may have thought so) Curiously, they weren’t recorded in sequence or in one or two weeks. The recordings were made between 2007 and 2010 as clearly stated in the liner notes. Perhaps I didn’t need to know that in advance, but time can alter a musician’s approach to music, either emotionally or technically.