Saturday, July 17, 2010

Jungian Sideshow: David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror

“I’ll show you what horror means.”

-- actor Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932).

“Let them see the horror!”

-- Jacqueline Kennedy comments in Dallas after refusing to change her blood-soaked dress after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

In real life, Frederic March and Jacqueline Kennedy would have nothing in common. But in the imagination of American life, with its intersection of popular culture and politics, a peculiar dynamic gets struck wherein true horror produces the same sting as imagined horror. America may be a place where the Statue of Liberty promises (and often delivers) a lamp that lights the way to freedom, but it also has a soul that D.H. Lawrence once called “hard, isolated, stoic and a killer.” It’s a country built on the twisted perfectionist dreams and fundamentalist pursuits of puritans, so it should come as no surprise that the phenomenon of vampires, ghouls, zombies and serial killers also find their way into the imagination of readers and moviegoers. During the eighties, as Ronald Reagan (a puritan in Hollywood garb) portrayed America as a promised land that was waking up to a new morning, author David J. Skal in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (1993, revised in 2001) saw quite another picture – a waking nightmare – where beneath American optimism lay “disenfranchisement, exclusion, downward mobility, a struggle-to-the-death world of winners and losers.” Alongside the insipidly cheerful optimism of this Morning in America was a place where “familiar, civic-minded signposts are all reversed: the family is a sick joke, its house more likely to offer siege instead of shelter.” The Monster Show is an earnest attempt to come to terms with that darker world adding horror as a shrewd form of cultural reflection.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Jesse Winchester, You're On My Mind

Jimmy Buffett’s schtick, which conjures up images of enjoying tequila and triple sec cocktails in the sun, never appealed to me. But the 63-year-old musician suddenly is a notch or two higher in my estimation and not just because his environmental activism -- save the manatees! -- has sharpened in reaction to the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s the primary reason: When the hipster dude who turns out hits like “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” organized a free July 11 concert in his native Alabama, the show included Jesse Winchester.

This singer-songwriter with a soulful tenor voice is the antithesis of a “parrothead,” the term Buffett aficionados use to symbolize the “island escapism” sensibility of their hero. Winchester, also a Southerner, has a rather somber demeanor, even when performing as cheerful an anthem as “Laisse les Bon Temps Rouler.” With a courtly, almost old-fashioned manner, despite the perennial hippie beard, he rocketed to fame in the late 1970s as an artist living in exile who was finally able to visit his homeland again after President Jimmy Carter pardoned America’s draft resisters.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The End of the 2010 South Africa World Cup

It's a photograph that's drawn me in all my life, first as a small, damaged post card, and later as a restored 11" by 17" blow up. The picture shows a group of men gathered in front of a wall as they look purposefully back at the camera. The men are a football team (or soccer team to North Americans), taken sometime around 1917 in Toronto. In the centre of the photograph, kneeling behind a soccer ball inscribed "Young Ireland's Gaelic FC" sits my grandfather, Tom Burden. In his early days, he was sports mad. A superb athlete, family lore suggested that, with proper training (which he never received) he might have been good enough to participate in the early Olympic games as a sprinter. It wasn't to be. (Another thing that wasn't to be, thankfully, was that he had a ticket to come over to North America on the Titanic, but his Mom took sick and he cancelled it, coming over a month later on the about the luck of the Irish!) He was also, by all reports, an extremely talented footballer. So over the last 16 years, he would have been very proud of me, because I finally GOT football [See at the end. After I posted, an Irish friend corrected me on some issues].

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Show, Don't Tell: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once claimed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Filmmaking is not without its own magicians, pioneering landscapes for our bewilderment. Georges Méliès took us on a trip to the moon in La Voyage dans la lune (1902), long before Apollo 11 touched down on it in 1969. In Star Wars (1977), George Lucas piloted us on a journey to a galaxy both far away and long ago. Terry Gilliam has traveled with us through the belly of a monstrous fish, to the moon, and explored the depths of a raging volcano and time itself in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). These are only a handful of the artists who've waved a cinematic wand to make us believe in the impossible. They inspired generations through mystique. We all wanted to know the answer to one question; how was this possible? With DVD bonus features and behind the scenes documentaries we can now answer that question but the true masters have never revealed their secrets upfront. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Live Aid ‘85: 25 Years Later

In many ways, the immense Live Aid charity concert, which took place simultaneously in London, England and Philadelphia, U.S.A., 25 years ago today, was my Woodstock. (Joan Baez made a similar statement to the crowd at J.F.K. stadium in Philadelphia when she came onstage.) I was way too young to have been able to attend the seminal 1969 Woodstock, N.Y. concert, which crystallized the 60s in many people’s minds. So when almost everyone who was a who’s who in English and American rock and pop music got together, under the auspices of The Boomtown Rats' Bob Geldof and Ultravox’s Midge Ure, to raise monies for the starving millions in Ethiopia and Sub-Saharan Africa, I was psyched to lose myself in the music. And I certainly, like so many, was shocked at the images of starving children, in particular, facing death in the 20th century. That this terrible tragedy could be happening in such a ‘prosperous’ world seemed almost inconceivable. At that time, I was working in a video rental outlet (remember them?) located in a department store in downtown Toronto, fortuitously right in front of all the televisions. So when I showed up for work that Saturday morning of July 13, 1985, I made sure all the TV sets in the department were tuned to the live broadcast of the concerts and also that the TVs were turned up loud. (I still remember one of the older salesmen holding his hands over his ears in silent protest at the ‘noise.’) Later on, after my shift was over, I headed off to a friend’s house to watch the taped ABC special commemorating the event. That whole day, twelve hours long at least, was all about the cause and the music.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Troubling Nature of Love: Before Sunset & Sideways

No two films about the troubling nature of love better bracketed the latter half of 2004 than Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Both films, long available on DVD, are worth watching again over a rainy weekend in August (if we have one), because both are without question masterful if not masterpieces.

Both expertly deal with ‘damaged’ people trying to find their way through pain, depression, self-loathing, what-have-you, to that place where they can let themselves be loved again. Both also happen to be deeply moving and painfully funny. The fact that one of them, Before Sunset, happens to be a sequel to the tiny, perfect Before Sunrise (1995) is just the icing on the cake.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Two New Nashville Albums: Only One Is Fresh

Somedays The Song Writes You
Guy Clark

Just Across The River
Jimmy Webb
E1 Music

“Nashville runs on songs” – Larry Wanagas, k.d. lang’s former manager.

Two of the most prolific composers to come out of Nashville are Jimmy Webb and Guy Clark. Webb is the man who wrote country pop songs for Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix”} and Richard Harris (“MacArthur Park”). Guy Clark, who’s originally from the west Texas town of Monahans, has penned songs recorded by Johnny Cash (“Texas, 1947”) and Ricky Skaggs  (“Heartbroke”).

There’s always been a kind of pathos to the songs of Guy Clark and no less so on his new album Somedays The Song Writes You, but this is a record about the difficulty of writing songs and tapping into one’s muse. The title track laments a common belief that a song can appear in one’s head at any time regardless of your direction. As Clark sings. “There’s no rhyme or reason/Ain’t a damn thing you can do/Somedays you write the song/Somedays the song writes you.” This is a belief every songwriter or poet or novelist must endure to tap into his or her creativity and put pen to paper, as it were. “Hemingway’s Whiskey” brings the artistic struggle together with the personal, clearly talking about American writer Ernest Hemingway. Clark sings, “You know it’s tough out there/A good muse is hard to find/Livin’ one word to the next/One line at a time.” But Clark also points out “there’s more to life than whiskey/More to words than rhyme.” That song, like the whole album, is delightful to the ear.

For Jimmy Webb, who tapped into his muse for some of the most familiar songs in popular music, offers a success story with his new album Just Across The River. It’s a collection of duets featuring Webb’s most famous tunes newly recorded by him with special guests. For instance, Webb is joined by Glen Campbell on “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” one of the saddest songs ever written. Like many of the performances on this album, it falls under the weight of familiarity for me. There’s nothing fresh in the vocals or interpretations. That said, Lucinda Williams does make a valiant attempt at phrasing “Galveston” in a rougher way, but the evenness of the production softens her natural edge. Billy Joel’s efforts on “Wichita Lineman” are earnest but he doesn’t make it past the New Jersey turnpike let alone across the river on that track. Meanwhile, Jackson Browne’s vocal on “P.F. Sloan” is strong because he seems to have that West Coast feel that Jimmy Webb exploits perfectly.

Webb’s songs succeed because he pens a great lyric with a lush musical arrangement. Guy Clark’s songs offer simple, unpretentious, hurtful stories, while Webb’s songs are rooted in country ballads with the twang removed. While Clark is still writing effectively about his personal struggles, Webb has nothing new to say.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.