Saturday, April 14, 2012

Titanic: Travelling Into the Dark Side

A scene from the recent Titanic miniseries.

Watching the new Titanic mini-series, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the great ship, made me marvel anew at why this tragedy, out of so many in our history, is one that lingers on in popular culture and in our memories. After all, we’ve experienced more recent disasters, such as the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, wherein seven astronauts perished when it blew up just after launch. But astronauts are something of a rarefied species among humankind – expert scientists and athletes – in a way, with skills that most of us don’t possess. The Titanic passengers were you and I, and, whether rich or poor, also ordinary folk undone by hubris on the part of the ship’s builders and those charged with steering it safely from Southampton, England to New York City. But the RMS Titanic was also testament to mankind’s reaching for the sky, and achieving what had been deemed impossible by so-called experts. But as with President John F. Kennedy, who could envision man landing on the moon and even predict which decade it would occur in, the folks who constructed the RMS Titanic could also dream big.

The ship was outfitted with state-of-the-art luxuries from wireless telegraphs available for personal use to on-board gyms, swimming pools, libraries and restaurants, not that different from cruise ships today. (Speaking of which, the recent Costa Concordia Italian cruise ship imbroglio carried plenty of echoes from the Titanic sinking. Unlike the captain of the Costa Concordia who snuck off the ship as it sunk, Captain Smith did the right thing and went down with the Titanic. However, it is believed his incompetence may have led to the ship hitting the iceberg, just as the Costa Concordia captain’s incompetence may have led to the wrecking of his ship. (Sound familiar?) Yet, due to outdated maritime regulations, the Titanic only had lifeboats for about 1200 passengers and crew, estimated to be a third of its total capacity. And due to human prejudices, while most women and children in First and Second Class were considered worth saving, and were rescued, most of the Third Class passengers in that contingent were not. Even among the men who were expected to be last off the ship, a higher percentage of First Class passengers (about 33%) survived versus 10-15% of the Second and Third Class group. Those class biases, prevalent among many of the rich passengers and directed against the poor immigrants, from various countries, stuck below decks, reflect man’s worst tendencies, but the venue where this all took place also symbolized the best of man’s inventiveness and genius. A contradiction reflected and acknowledged, I think, in much of the popular cultural adaptations centering on the tragedy, including even at times, in some scenes of James Cameron’s otherwise vapid 1997 Titanic film.

Friday, April 13, 2012

So Much Richer: The Diversity and Variety of Modern Music

It arrived later than the other music magazines but the French cultural/political magazine Les inrockuptibless Best of the Year music issue is an illuminating read and listen, both because it’s so different than the Anglo-American annual music lists but also because it provides incontrovertible proof that when it comes to music, unlike other art forms, the critics are on so many different pages.

Charmingly titled Best of Musique 2011 (an apt mix of English and French) and accompanied by a CD of 16 of the mag’s favourite tracks, entitled La bande-son 2011 (Soundtrack of 2011), Les inrockuptibles’ top 100 discs, 50 reissues and 100 tracks certainly offers a cornucopia of sonic richness. But I was especially intrigued by its deviations from Uncut and Mojos top of the year lists. Generally of the top 50 albums cited by those British music mags, about half or so of the CDs chosen differ from each other. They shared a common preference for such albums as Gillian Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest, Wilco's The Whole Love, Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, Tinariwen's Tassili and Radiohead's The King of Limbs but Mojo also picked Glen Campbell's Ghost on the Canvas and Nick Lowe's That Old Magic as among their best discs of the year while Uncut went for the likes of Ry Cooder's Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX's We're New Here. But Les inrockuptibles went even further in charting its own path with some surprising choices on tap. I would expect them to choose some home-grown discs, from French artists François & the Atlas Mountains and Daniel Darc – the Brits tend to ignore most non-English music outside of Africa – but how did they come to focus on an Oklahoma group called Other Lives, which I don’t recall being mentioned by either Uncut or Mojo (who supposedly keep a close eye on the musical output of their Anglo cousins). Other Lives was not the only American band whose album (Tamer Animals) was mentioned by Les inrockuptibles as among the year’s best; other choices included both predictable ones from Bon Iver, Tom Waits and Fleet Foxes as well as left field choices, not picked by the Brits, like M83, Hanni El Khatib and Salem, American artists whom I’ve never heard of. Surprisingly, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So Whatthough featured on both Mojo and Uncut's best lists, was absent from Les inrockuptibles's chart They also focused on Canadian artists like Drake and Timber Timbre who were shut out of the British magazine lists. (Feist's Metals made both the French mag and Uncut's top list but was overlooked by Mojo.) And of course being neighbours and all, lots of British choices, including the releases from Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey, Gruff Rhys, The Horrors, James Blake and Cat’s Eyes, not all of whom placed high in their local lists. Interestingly, Harvey's (overrated to my mind) Let England Shake was Les inrockuptibles's eighth best disc but placed number one with both Mojo and Uncut.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Notes From the Dangerous Kitchen

This summer is the 10th Anniversary of the publication of my book Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, a work that (looking back) was written in a danger zone not unlike its title. While fending off neighbours who seemed to love making excessive noise until all hours of the early morning, Dangerous Kitchen was written sometimes one sentence at a time. Often I was interrupted because of some melee in my building (usually someone trying to kill someone else) that I had to attend to. Nevetheless, my publisher ECW Press gave me the freedom to write a 600-page book about American composer Frank Zappa that allowed me to go beyond the misleading perceptions of him as this deranged freak who warned us not to eat the yellow snow. I was able to attempt a fascinating study that tied serialist classical music, blues, R&B doo-wop and rock & roll to an artist who fused all of those elements into a satiric artistic rebellion against the excesses of Romanticism. So in this act of shameless self-promotion, here is an excerpt from Dangerous Kitchen (which has continually gone in and out of print in the decade since its publication) that focuses on Frank Zappa's first LP in 1966 with the Mothers of Invention called Freak Out!

When Edgard Varèse died on November 6, 1965, Frank Zappa seemed bound and determined to pick up his fallen torch. Michael Gray writes in Mother! The Frank Zappa Story that Varèse's death "galvanized Frank into a stronger-than-ever determination that he was not going to just make records, but change the face of music." Freak Out!, a two-record set released in July 1966, didn't exactly change the face of music, but it had an incalculable influence on the pop scene. Until then, the only rock double-album was Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (which had come out only two months earlier). Yet, unlike Blonde on Blonde, Freak Out! was designed conceptually. The songs weren't randomly gathered in the traditional manner of making an album. There was a strategy at work on this debut. Zappa was presenting a whole new gathering of diverse compositions that hadn't been heard all in one place in American pop.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Song for a Lost Kingdom

A section of Queen Lili’uokalani's quilt, on display in the I’olani Palace in Honolulu

There’s a song everyone has heard. It’s a gentle song, written by a queen some 135 years ago. The queen had watched her sister parting from her lover (and future husband) and been touched by their affection for each other. The song has come to be a sad song of farewell, rather than the song of love it was intended to be. The lyrics are beautiful, although most people might only know the chorus if they know any of it.

Farewell to thee, farewell to thee                   Aloha `oe, aloha `oe
O fragrance in the blue depths.                     E ke onaona noho i ka lipo.
One fond embrace and I leave                      "One fond embrace," a ho`i a`e au
To meet again.                                             A hui hou aku.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Strong-Arming: Gary Ross' The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in The Hunger Games.

If there’s a more cynical slab of emotional manipulation at the movies these days than The Hunger Games, I haven’t seen it. Gary Ross’ movie version of the Suzanne Collins book, the first in a phenomenally successful series of young adult novels, centers on an enforced competition in the wild among teenagers in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian America (called Panem) in which the participants, chosen by lottery and called tributes, one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts outside the Capitol (where all power resides), fight natural and genetically engineered adversaries and each other, while the country watches on TV, until all but one have been killed off. (Ross, Collins and Billy Ray co-authored the adaptation.) The Hunger Games pretends to be a social commentary. Its targets are not only the aristocrats who live off the commodities produced by the hard-working poor in the other districts and are immune to the process that eliminates twenty-three of twenty-four of their young annually – the tributes are a form of tribute paid to the Capitol three-quarters of a century after it put down a rebellion of the twelve districts – but also the voyeuristic mentality that makes Survivor and other reality shows such cash cows. In truth, though, the movie trades on that mentality, turning us into the kind of gladiatorial-combat-style voyeurs whose base instincts we’re supposed to disapprove of. And it’s a queasy argument anyway, since those who get voted off the island in Survivor don’t wind up dead.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Winners and Losers: Death of a Salesman & The Best Man

There seems to be a new production of Death of a Salesman every decade or decade and a half, and always with an actor you wouldn’t want to miss in the role of Arthur Miller’s psychically disintegrating third-rate drummer Willy Loman. Lee J. Cobb, with Mildred Dunnock as Willy’s long-suffering wife Linda, resurrected the play when they performed it on television in 1966, recreating the performances they’d given under Elia Kazan’s direction on Broadway in 1949. (The TV version, directed by Alex Segal and featuring George Segal and James Farentino as the Loman sons, Biff and Happy, was beautifully executed.) George C. Scott gave a frightening rendition of Willy as a walking time bomb in New York in 1975 opposite Teresa Wright. Directed by David Rudman, Dustin Hoffman reimagined Willy as a distinctly Jewish little man on Broadway in 1984; everyone else in the family – Kate Reid as Linda, John Malkovich as Biff and Stephen Lang as Happy – towered over him. (The TV movie adaptation is so badly directed by Volker Schlondorff that it manages to undercut Hoffman’s amazing performance, though it preserves the power of Malkovich’s.) Robert Falls brought a production to New York from Chicago in 1999 with Brian Dennehy that scaled up the expressionistic touches; it got laudatory reviews but it was misconceived, and Dennehy was hammy and self-serious. Now we have Mike Nichols’s revival with Philip Seymour Hoffman and a recreation of the famous 1949 Jo Mielziner set. And though some people (like Ben Brantley in The New York Times) have caviled about Hoffman’s age – he’s 44 and Willy is 62 – both Cobb in the original Broadway production and Dustin Hoffman in 1984 were also much younger than the character. (Cobb was 37, Hoffman 46.) Actually Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb. The trouble is that goddamn play.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Off the Shelf: Nine Queens, 3-Iron and Omagh

Given that it's a holiday weekend, our readers just might find more time to catch up on some movie watching. Rather than recommend some new titles, ones that will already be in demand at your better DVD stores, here are some perhaps less-in-demand foreign-language gems to cozy up to:

Nine Queens is a polished and vastly entertaining caper film that puts the sting back into the con. Argentinian director Fabian Bielinsky, in his award-winning feature debut, smoothly amuses the audience with a deftly elaborate shell game. He provides a divertingly sharp character study that cleverly examines the question of honour among thieves.

Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a small-time crook who gets caught conning a convenience store clerk. Marcos (Ricardo Darin), a big-time swindler, steps in to "arrest" him – with the hope of recruiting him for a bigger job. Soon Marcos's sister, Valeria (Leticia Bredice), contacts him from a luxury hotel where Juan and Marcos team up for a ruse to obtain a counterfeit collection of some extremely rare stamps known as the Nine Queens. Since they have a buyer already in mind, their plan seems airtight – until other scam artists and derailed strategies send their promising racket into comic episodes of misadventure.