Saturday, November 17, 2012

Critic's Notes & Frames

I was rather late joining the Facebook revolution (which seems to have now been passed on to Twitter). There was nothing personal in my decision to resist. I welcome innovative technological changes providing we use our powers of discrimination in using them so that we become accountable rather than blind consumers. For me, however, I discovered that what worked best was creating a virtual salon, an ongoing soiree where all my 'friends' could be part of a never-ending discussion on a variety of subjects. Sometimes these items were created by me. At other times, I shared items posted by others. On occassion, it's a quick review of a movie, a song, or a book. It can also be a cartoon, a painting, or a photo with a short comment. Here is a sampling:

...or Barfly for Brats.

Having just seen Spielberg's Lincoln earlier today, I can see why some of my colleagues and friends have found it dull. But I think there's a strong emotional undercurrent in this picture below its formal theatrical structure. And it held me to the very end. In a sense, Lincoln holds up a mirror to the ideals of the current Obama-era by imagining the country Obama inherited but can't yet claim for himself. The picture carries the weariness of unfulfilled prophesy; of the tiredness we also registered on Obama's face during his first debate with Romney.

Lincoln looks back at how the stain of slavery was abolished, but it also connects with us in the present with Obama (who is the true inheritor of the vision Lincoln has for his country). Only Obama can't act on that inheritance with the shrewd political skills of a Lincoln because he is cornered by the lingering racism that Lincoln's amendment couldn't abolish. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner shrewdly submerge the drama of Lincoln's life into a more contemplative examination of the troubled paths taken by Lincoln, his allies, and his adversaries, to keep those promises; promises that would continue to resonate unresolved in the years to follow the Civil War.


For years, I used to end up in long conversations with cab drivers trying to take me home. It would sometimes take hours to arrive there. Once in St. Louis, I almost missed a train to Kansas City because I was in a long discussion with a local cabbie about the Nation of Islam. On another occasion, I unwittingly worried my girlfriend to death when a normally 15-minute drive in the middle of the night turned into a 3-hour epic when the driver (who had turned off the meter) wished to discuss the Velvet Revolution in his native country.

But there was one time when my quick ride home was curtailed by a song on the driver's radio. While listening to John Valentyn's The Blues Scene on CJRT-FM, the track "Insane Asylum" by Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor suddenly came on. While I recognized the melody as one of my favourite jazz tracks ("St. James Infirmary"), the delivery was something else again. As Dixon laments the trip to see his emotionally destroyed girlfriend, Koko Taylor follows up with a method performance that stops you in your tracks. Only Lonnie Mack's "Why," with his blood-curdling scream at the end, has the capacity to raise the hairs on my arm as this track does. For what seemed like days, the cab driver and I sat stunned outside my apartment - waiting - until it finally ended. As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, with the driver giving me a quick wave as he pulled away, I realized that I'd forgot to pay him. He also didn't ask.

...or Julie Taymor in repose.

When there's no Beethoven to Haydn.

Some sad news today as Major Harris, a former member of the "Philadelphia sound" soul group the Delfonics (and singer of the 1975 hit "Love Won't Let Me Wait"), has passed away from congestive lung and heart failure at the age of 65.

While I could choose a storehouse of tracks from the Delfonics' songbook to capture that sweet seductive quality in their music, I think "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" best suits a tribute. Memorably used in the film Jackie Brown, "Didn't I" builds a perfectly solid bridge for the middle-aged Robert Forster to cross and connect with the stunning Pam Grier. Forster is playing a bail-bondsman who has been biding his time until he's arranging the bail for the release of Grier's flight attendant who was busted. Forster initially manages to mask his attraction to Grier until the Delfonics effectively remove his disguise and create out of an unlikely love story one that becomes utterly possible.

Some Like it Wet.

Richard Mourdock's New Constituency.

Ray Davies spent an entire career chronicling the many ways he couldn't fit in. Sometimes it would manifest itself in dismissing the culture that he rejected ("Dedicated Follower of Fashion"); or in bearing witness to the wistful longings invoked by watching lovers from a distance ("Waterloo Sunset"), or wishing his way into a past that no longer made huge demands on who he had to be ("The Village Green Preservation Society"). The Kinks basically built their huge following on a self-awareness that, while you could never find acceptance in the world, your outsider status built for you the perfect perch in which to cleverly heap your scorn upon that world.

But "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" is, to borrow a title from one of The Kinks' best albums, something else. Released as the B-side to their 1966 single "Sunny Afternoon," a catchy dirge that mocks the mundane pressures of the monied classes, "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" gets right to the heart of the scorn brought on by feeling set apart. And it cuts with a razor's swiftness. But it also does it without the safety blanket of that perch to preach from. His brother, Dave Davies, sings it with a bold defiance, splitting the world into a comfortable them-vs-us battleground, but the song offers no comfort to the singer in recognizing that reality. "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" is one of the hardest bits of rock in The Kinks' vast catalogue of discontent, but it's also the most nakedly revealing. Ray Davies' anger in the song towards a world that has rejected him is suddenly inseparable from his deeper pain of having never found a suitable place for himself in it.

Nick Cohen in StandPoint has provided the most incisive review of Salmon Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton that I've read so far. He correctly compares the tenor of the fatwa and its moral and political consequences to the Dreyfus Affair. "The Rushdie Affair became the Dreyfus Affair of our age because it revealed how, when faced with such extreme provocation, ordinary political categories collapse," Cohen writes. "Whatever your opinions, if you supported Rushdie, you supported the freedom to write, read and publish what you liked, even when (I would say especially when) books were being burned and death threats issued not in some far away and forgettable dictatorship but in your own land...The enemies of Dreyfus said that they must keep an innocent man in prison to protect the collective honour of the French army and French state. The enemies of Rushdie said that the Ayatollah Khomeini's incitement to murder was understandable or excusable because it protected the collective honour of Muslims. No one who professed a belief in freedom of conscience and thought could hesitate for a moment before taking Rushdie's side. As it turned out, those who shouted the loudest hesitated the longest." In response to the Rushdie affair, Cohen is as damnably critical of the political Right as he is of the Left. "[To the Right], Rushdie was a highbrow scrounger, a champagne socialist, who collected his royalties while milking the public purse," Cohen asserts. "When a snide Prince Charles joined the hostile chorus, Ian McEwan said that His Royal Highness's security cost far more than Rushdie's even though the prince 'had never written anything worth reading.'"

Since Cohen comes from the Left, however, his critique of their response stings even more. "Rushdie writes of how he was criticised from the Left by Germaine Greer, John Berger and John le Carré, whom I never thought of as left-wing, but I suppose is, if leftism is only anti-Americanism," Cohen writes. "Rushdie's sister Sameen understood how left-liberal thought was going wrong from the outset. 'For a generation the politics of ethnic minorities in Britain had been secular and socialist,' she said. 'The fatwa was the mosques' way of destroying that project and getting religion back into the driving seat.' Cohen provides a clearly argued psychological perspective on why some progressives chose to collude with such reactionary forces: "Just as the enemies of Dreyfus anticipated fascism, the left-wing intellectuals who went for Rushdie in 1989 anticipated a future when many on the Left would be happy to go along with reactionary and obscurantist forces as long as they were anti-Western." A smart and sober read.

My Back Pages.

Usually it is the Devil who fiddles while his disciples do the dance of death. Here it is Death himself on the violin calling forth those from their graves to get up and party. You could say that Danny Elfman owes much to Saint-Saëns's "Danse Macabre" in his various scores to Tim Burton films (especially his musical contribution at the end of Batman with the Joker and Vicki in the church bell tower).

But Joss Whedon also used "Danse Macabre" in his Burtonesque episode "Hush" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a terrifyingly funny one where people literally lose their hearts to these Gentlemen Callers. Saint-Saëns shows you the seductive way in which the scratching sound of the violin can magnetize the gorgeous melodies - and the grave-dwellers - that follow its lead.

For Gertrude Stein.

Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers (1969), an album as confused and conflicted in its politics as the era was itself, tries to reach for utopian generosity ("We Can Be Together") only to tell us to get up against the wall while declaring that "all your private property is targets for your enemy." (Does that include their own? Nobody dares say.) The album is a mixed up, passionate attempt to effect change (even if it trips over its own dogma). Yet the record still delivers protean pleasures. It's hard not to feel the hopes of a new world coming in the soaring voices that conclude "Wooden Ships" (which renders the CSN version negligible) while one equally winces over the doggerel of the title track. "Good Shepherd," which guitarist Jorma Kaukonen adapted from an early 19th century spiritual hymn written by the Methodist Reverend John Adam Granade called "Let Thy Kingdom, Blessed Savior," might be the album's strongest track. Like The Band's "The Weight,' which was also about an obligation to community, "Good Shepherd" makes claims that (in retrospect) couldn't be kept. But there is honesty in the asking and one can feel the faint desperate sense of counter-culture dissolution breathing under its surface.

Greetings from Asbury Park.

I'm normally not one impressed by songs that serve as obvious epitaphs - especially when performed by artists who know their end is near. But Johnny Cash's cover of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" cuts and draws blood with the precision of a chainsaw and without a trace of vanity. Reznor's original version with Nine Inch Nails imagines the ravages of addiction while Cash actually shows it. Offering no apologies, while waiting to see if salvation or damnation is at hand, Cash (in the video) is crowded by memories of a past that offers him no answers.

When he once sang Thomas A. Dorsey's "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley," Cash gave consideration to the line "and I'll be changed from the creature that I am." "Hurt" defines the turf of that change. You can imagine Trent Reznor backing out of the room saying, "Take it, it's your's man."

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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