Saturday, September 29, 2012

Time's Mysterious Passage: Penny & The Quarters' "You and Me"

Michelle Williams & Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine
In Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010), when Dean (Ryan Gosling) selects a song that he clearly hopes sustains the love between himself and Cindy (Michelle Williams), he's in a very familiar and popular movie tradition. That tradition includes Dooley Wilson calling up the lost romantic days in Paris for Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when he sings and performs "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca (1943), or Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) holding his boom-box high above his head outside the bedroom window of Diane Court (Iona Skye), the girl he's smitten with, so she can hear Peter Gabriel's touching "In Your Eyes" in Say Anything (1989). The romanticism in these songs not only serves to enhance the desires of the characters on the screen, what you could call an urgent yearning in them to make their love work, but it also speaks to the way pop music so often captures the fleeting innocence of what it feels like to fall in love. While in real life, relationships change, the songs always remain the same, fixed in the time in which they were first recorded. And if the relationship falls apart, or especially if it ends tragically, these tunes can quickly bring us heartache. When they suddenly come on the radio – often in a flash – they remind us of who we once were, but are no more.

Along with his co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, Cianfrance in Blue Valentine seems to understand the ways in which pop songs can define the way we love. He underlines it by introducing the couple's song in a completely new way. And the song he's chosen has a fascinating history of its own which hauntingly mirrors the dashed hopes of the couple on the screen. Blue Valentine is a devastating and accomplished work, a heartbreaking film about the dissolution of the relationship between Dean and Cindy, but it's not told to us in linear time. Throughout the film, we jump back and forth and through the various moments in their love affair and marriage, those moments that are both poignant and ultimately wounding. Cinafrance nimbly contrasts those changes, too, even in the body language of the characters. As they both come to know each other, we can see in their bodies the eager and giddy anticipation of the sparks they hope to set off in each other. (It's there in the musical sway of their courtship.) But that eagerness is then boldly juxtaposed with the present, where the music is suddenly gone and a revulsion at being physically touched dramatically mirrors the ways in which their marriage is coming apart. In most romantic pictures, we usually hear the couple's song the first time they choose it, when it clearly signals the love they begin to feel for each other. And we come to believe in that song, just as Rick and Ilsa believe in "As Time Goes By." In Blue Valentine, we encounter their song early in the picture, but it comes late in their marriage when it no longer has any meaning left for them. It is, in fact, in a moment when Dean is desperately trying to get it back. Then we hear it again, later in the film. But this time, it's right at that moment when it first became their song, a moment that becomes unbearably wounding because we also now know where their marriage is heading.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Definitely an Oxymoron: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Joaquin Phoenix & Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

I’m not really surprised that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie The Master is as atrocious as it is. This is, after all, the filmmaker who’s inflicted Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will be Blood (2007) upon us. But I do marvel anew at the superlatives and fulsome praise being lavished on Anderson by the majority of film critics, even though the over-praising of this director, who actually has little of value to offer, is also par for the course. The Master is being festooned with adjectives – audacious, brilliant, masterful – that are more rightly applied to genuine filmmakers, talents such as Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and Steven Spielberg, directors who've actually made movies that last and have impacted on the cinematic medium in new and unique ways. In fact, The Master, which Anderson wrote as well, isn't deserving of any commendations at all. It’s a film that is rife with idiotic, pulpy dialogue, mannered, artificial acting, sloppy plotting and a storyline that, despite its obvious pretensions to the contrary, doesn't add up to anything memorable at all.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Man and His Masks: Peter Gabriel, September 19, 2012, Air Canada Centre, Toronto

Peter Gabriel - Toronto, September 19, 2012

Peter Gabriel and I have quite a history together. Last week at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto I saw him for the sixth time, which I will discuss shortly, but nothing will ever top the first time on the evening of October 16, 1978, also in Toronto, at Maple Leaf Gardens. And no, I'm not rainman with dates. There's a wonderful, and very obsessive website called that lists all his (and many many perfomers') concerts from the start of his solo career to the present.

In 1978, I was a broke university student, so I could only afford nosebleed seats in the greys high up in MLG's rafters. A friend and a girl I was seeing at the time came with me. After a terrible opening act (what they were thinking putting Nick Gilder on as Peter Gabriel's opening act is beyond me. We booed him off the stage in 15 minutes – poor bastard – though we gave him polite applause for his one hit that I can recall, “Hot Child in the City”), I snuck down to the top of the reds with my camera, telephoto lens and high-speed black and white film. I hoped that the lens and fast film would allow me to get good shots.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jimi Hendrix Drifting

When Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, over forty years ago this month, I was in high school. It was a time when a number of key pop figures – all in their twenties – never got to see thirty. A year earlier, it was Brian Jones of The Stones, and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison would soon follow Hendrix to the grave. Besides sobering you with a taste of death's final victory (right at that moment when you saw nothing but life straight ahead), you also realized that a person's genius, their gifts, even their youth, could do nothing to protect them.

Hendrix's death hit me harder than the others because I came to truly love the paradoxical nature of his music. (In a song that fundamentally came out of the blues like "Burning of the Midnight Lamp," he combined a harpsichord with a wah-wah electric guitar and a chorale section to create a powerfully intense emotional soundscape.) Although Jimi Hendrix was always fully recognized as a virtuoso and theatrical guitar stylist, he was rarely discussed in any great depth in terms of his gifts as a poet, singer and music innovator. (For those insights, it's best to read David Henderson's 1978 biography 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky which still hasn't been equalled.) But John Morthland, writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, captured key aspects of those many gifts that Henderson elaborates on. "As a guitarist, Hendrix quite simply redefined the instrument, in the same way that Cecil Taylor redefined the piano or John Coltrane the tenor sax," he wrote. "As a songwriter, Hendrix was capable of startling, mystical imagery as well as the down-to-earth sexual allusions of the bluesman." Those sexual allusions though also led to a particular kind of theatricality that the artist himself was growing tired of indulging. Joni Mitchell, who met Hendrix in Ottawa towards the end of his life, recognized immediately his frustration about the public and critical perception of him based on those sexual allusions. "He made his reputation by setting his guitar on fire, but that eventually became repugnant to him," Mitchell told The Guardian in 1970. "'I can't stand to do that anymore,' he said, 'but they've come to expect it. I'd like to just stand still'."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Comedy at Its Highest Peak: The Big Bang Theory

The cast of The Big Bang Theory

Note: The following contains Spoilers

Two of the best American comedies on television, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, come from very different sitcom traditions. But they also cross over in interesting ways. The Big Bang Theory (CBS), which begins its sixth season on Thursday, Sept. 27, features an old fashioned laugh track, uses two cameras, and is a studio shot comedy in the vein of The Honeymooners, All in the Family and Frasier. Modern Family (ABC), which heads into its fourth season on Wednesday September 26, and which I’ll write about next week, eschews the laugh track, is filmed on real locations and is more in the naturalistic vein of M*A*S*H and Mad About You. Yet The Big Bang Theory still boasts the kind of sharp wit and subtle jokes that makes it quite contemporary in tone; and Modern Family has a decided penchant for slapstick, spit takes and pratfalls. Both shows are very funny and, in their own ways, unique comedies.

When The Big Bang Theory debuted in 2007, it did seem like a long shot for ratings success, even though it was the creation of Chuck Lorre, who had already scored big with Two and a Half Men (a crass comedy decidedly inferior to The Big Bang Theory in every way). After all, who but a bunch of science fiction obsessed nerds would want to watch a show about people like that? But Lorre was onto something. He realized that thirty years after Star Wars, SF, fantasy and gaming had so penetrated the popular culture that there would be quite a lot of interest in its goings-on from the outside world. Not to mention, the series offered one strong female character that functioned as the fulcrum for the guys and their shtick and provided  a ‘normal’ counterpart to the male oriented geek brigade (There are now three women on the show.) Five years on, The Big Bang Theory is an enormous hit (some 16 million American viewers, up 23% from the year before) and a smooth running ensemble, with not a weak link among the cast.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon’s beloved novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a stunt, but a brilliant one. Haddon imagines the coming of age of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy through the perspective of its hero, Christopher Boone, who discovers – in the course of trying to solve the murder of the next-door neighbor’s dog – that his father has lied to him, claiming that his mother died of heart disease when in fact she ran off to London with the neighbor’s husband. The shock of discovering dozens of letters his mother wrote him (and his father hid) – and his fear that his father, who admits to having killed the dog in a fit of anger, might just as easily kill him – drives him to find his way from the provincial town where he lives to London, a feat that, given the limitations of his perception, requires a stunning combination of courage and invention. The book itself is a feat of sympathetic imagination and of tonal imagination too. Christopher can’t read other people’s expressions of their feelings and he can’t convey his own in any conventional way, yet the novel is poignant; he doesn’t comprehend humor, yet it’s funny and charming. It’s a sort of revision of Alice in Wonderland with a protagonist incapable of lying who falls down the rabbit hole when he has to parse the great lie that’s been told to him and then journeys all the way to London, which might as well be the end of the earth.

Luke Treadaway & Paul Ritter (photo by Manuel Harlan)
The National Theatre dramatization, which reached international audiences via HD this month, is a faithful transcription by playwright Simon Stephens, staged by Marianne Elliott (co-director of War Horse) in the National’s smallest space, the Cottesloe. The intimacy of the venue, combined with Elliott’s novel use of the space (wonderfully designed by Bunny Christie) and Peter Constable’s lighting, which often uses darkness to sculpt the environment, presents difficulties for the National Theatre Live HD series that previous productions haven’t. It takes a long time to get used to the visuals; I’d say it takes a long time to negotiate where you are in relation to what’s being played out in front of you, but in fact you never do, and you’re not supposed to, since the arena, a grid on which projections are constantly playing (usually of numbers, to suggest Christopher’s fixation on mathematics), is continually shifting to imitate the patterns forming in the young hero’s mind. Sometimes the HD version includes aerial views of the stage, which helps considerably and isn’t really a violation of the original theatrical experience, since anyone who sits in the balcony of the Cottesloe has pretty much a straight-down view of the stage. In any case, the challenges are worth meeting. This is a splendid production, with a remarkable young actor named Luke Treadway in the starring role. Treadway has amazing physical and vocal technique and an entirely novel kind of wit and ebullience. He finds dramatic equivalents to communicate Christopher’s diverted emotions (Haddon’s point is that they aren’t blocked, just deviated) and his unassailable logic.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

One For Two: Dwight Yoakam's 3 Pears & The Time Jumpers

The first sound you notice on the new Dwight Yoakam album is a peculiar “yelp” at the end of his phrases. Fortunately, this annoying affectation is only heard on three of the songs on his new album, 3 Pears (Warners, 2012), released last week. The songs “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and “Nothing But Love” are loaded with a pseudo Buddy Holly twitch, plus an affectation that distinguished the Texas rock ‘n roller. Even though Yoakam’s songs thrive on his ability to shape his lyrics with humour this record lacks any of the cool turns-of-phrase that have highlighted his work over the years. (See: Gone or Blame The Vain) The one exception would be the title track, “3 Pears,” as he plays off the synonym “Three pairs of glasses/Three pairs of shades/Three pairs of other things/All there in spades.” It’s not much, but when Yoakam puts the words into the context of a song, the sarcasm lingers.

That said, the strongest songs on the album come at the hands of co-producer, Beck Hansen (aka Beck). “A Heart Like Mine” and “Missing Heart”explore a more interesting arrangement of Yoakam’s distinctive baritone, but on this album his voice is beginning to sound a little tired. Nevertheless, Yoakam puts in a good performance on a album closing version of “Long Way To Go” featuring only piano accompaniment. It’s a deeper emotional journey for a singer who, for the past 20 years, wears his heart on his proverbial sleeve. So while it’s nice to hear from Yoakam after such a long stretch (this is his first album of new songs in 7 years), I was disappointed by the unevenness of the record and the poor mixes, especially the more rock-oriented tracks. The drums, which crash and burn on most of the cuts, are either too loud or too heavy-handed. To me, Yoakam’s talent lies in his ability to straddle the Bakersfield sounds of Buck Owens with contemporary Nashville honky tonk, with a small dash of wit attached. (I highly recommend any of the Pete Anderson produced sessions from the 1990s) So while this record has put Dwight Yoakam back on the proverbial country music map, 3 Pears bears little fruit.