Saturday, October 27, 2012

Notes and Frames: The Neglected Art of Film Music

If you ask most people, they'll tell you that they never notice the music in a film. Many will even go so far as to tell you that if they did notice it, it meant that it was likely bad music. Even classical composers, who should be the film composer's most obvious supporter, generally dismiss film music as 'hack work.' It's a thankless job, they'll say, especially since it's commonly believed a good score can never save a bad picture. How can an art form British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams once described as "containing possibilities for the combination of the arts such as Wagner never dreamed of" end up so demeaned? Especially since music and movies have been intrinsically linked since the silent era. While there's no simple answer to that question, it's possible that since the motion picture has always been a popular art form and not regarded as one of the High Arts, the use of classical music (a High Art form) has been perceived by some as a form of sacrilege. Yet despite the class snobbery, what is clear is that the movies have always needed and desired music as some part of the storytelling.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Big Questions: Walter Mosley’s The Right Mistake

Last week on Metro Morning, CBC Radio’s Toronto morning show, host Matt Galloway talked about a place he likes to go to get his hair cut. If memory serves, he said it is called Not Just A Haircut. What he said he liked to do was go in for a haircut, and then just hang out for two hours after and participate in the wide-ranging conversations that spring up. Sometimes, he said, it is simple things like the news of the day, or recent sporting events, but other times it takes on a more philosophical bent. His comments got me thinking about a book I read recently by Walter Mosley, a favourite writer of mine who’s best known for his Easy Rawlins series of character-driven mystery novels, including Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) which was made into a criminally underrated Denzel Washington film expertly directed by Carl Franklin in 1995. The novel, The Right Mistake (2008), is the third in a series of novels (though the first two – Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997) and Walkin’ the Dog (1999) – were actually interlinked short stories rather than novels, per se) featuring ex-con Socrates Fortlow. (Laurence Fishburne played Fortlow in a 1998 HBO TV-movie of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.) Fortlow lives in the tough region of Los Angeles called Watts. He  is a reforming violent man (‘reforming’, since, like an alcoholic, you are never completely ‘cured’ of violence) who spent almost half his life in prison for crimes he freely admitted he committed, including rape and murder. Violence is never far from his mind, but nor is redemption, forgiveness and reform, and not necessarily just for him.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dousing the Fire Within: Oslo, August 31st

Anders Danielsen Lie and Malin Crépin in Oslo, August 31st

The gifted Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier may feel that he was born half a century too late. Both his features – Reprise, from 2006, and this year’s Oslo, August 31st – have the literate sensibility and allusive narrative approach of French New Wave movies, and they even draw on some of the same cinematic vocabulary. His subject matter is the young Oslo intelligentsia. The two protagonists of Reprise are writers who are best of friends but also competitors; while one (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) has already had critical success, the career of the other (Anders Danielsen Lie) has been sidelined by a nervous breakdown. The hero of Oslo, August 31st is Anders (Lie), a writer and heroin addict who has been living in a rehab facility outside the city. The movie chronicles the last day of his life, when he ventures into Oslo for an interview at a magazine, briefly re-enters his old social circle, and – inevitably – commits suicide with a drug overdose.

Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt (who also collaborated on the screenplay of Reprise), work from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Le Feu Follet, which also furnished the source material for Louis Malle’s 1963 film of the same name (known on this side of the Atlantic as The Fire Within). Malle’s version is about an alcoholic returning to his old Paris haunts before ending his life, and though it’s an adaptation of a French novel, in feeling it comes uncannily close to F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially his great short story "Babylon Revisited." Oslo, August 31st alters the aura by substituting a contemporary northern European milieu for Paris in the middle of the last century, but it’s a plausible switch. Like Malle’s hero (and Fitzgerald’s), Anders returns to a scene that has become poisonous to him, both because he has become the subject of his old companions’ gossip and because he can’t indulge safely in even the lightest partying without endangering his sobriety. Most of them have moved on from the excesses of their youth in any case. His best friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), is holding down a university teaching job and raising a child with his wife Rebecca (Ingrid Olava). When Anders drops in on a thirtieth birthday fête for Mirjam (Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal), with whom he once had a fling, he feels alienated from his former crowd. Their jokes about his behavior on one besotted occasion or another unsettle him, and when he tries to make friends with another young man who once made a play for his girl friend, the stranger’s bitter, insulting retort wounds him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In the Shadow of Sgt. Pepper: We're Only in it for the Money

Last summer, I wrote in Critics at Large about how The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, a lovely, masterful avant-garde pop confection, also represented a magical retreat from a counter-culture that was on the verge of turning dark and violent. Before that darkness fully overshadowed the utopian spirit of that record, though, many of The Beatles' contemporaries made valiant attempts to duplicate the wizardry of Sgt. Pepper, as if they were trying to decode a secret language. In 1968, for instance, The Zombies ("Time of the Season") matched some of Pepper's technical innovations while adding some rich textures of their own on the exquisite Odyssey and Oracle (which was also recorded, like Pepper, at Abbey Road Studios). The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed (1967) developed precisely in the spirit of Sgt. Pepper. The album, which yielded two hit songs, "Tuesday Afternoon" and "Nights in White Satin," was conceived as a song cycle that spanned an entire day – from sunrise to evening – where every song provided a unique perspective from each member of the group. Days of Future Passed was an evocation of a pastoral mystical innocence worthy of poet William Wordsworth in the age of psychedelia.

The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request

The Rolling Stones, a mere six months after Pepper, would concoct their own psychedelic conceit, Their Satanic Majesties Request, where they abandoned their R&B roots for exotic Indian rhythms, sound collages, and music hall pastiches. But because of their bad boy image, the record felt fake (despite its devious title) with its half-hearted flower power sentiments. There were many other lesser, now forgotten groups, who attempted to capture Sgt. Pepper's lightning in a bottle. One American artist who did respond to the seismic impact of Pepper, but didn't buy into the hippie ethos that blossomed out of The Beatles' landmark recording was Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. This Los Angeles band, who coined themselves "the ugly reminder," may have had long hair but they didn't even come close to resembling the pretty groups sprouting up like flowers in a magical garden.

To paraphrase critic Nik Cohen, The Mothers suggested a band of motorcycle outlaws out to pillage your home and kidnap your daughter – though they were more likely to play her Igor Stravinsky (or maybe "Louie Louie") rather than sexually ravage her. Dan Sullivan in The New York Times once pointed up the significant discrepancy between The Mothers and The Beatles. "The most striking difference between [The Beatles and The Mothers of Invention] is not in their work but in their approach to their work – The Beatles' desire to please an audience versus The Mothers' basic distrust of one." Sgt. Pepper had celebrated the romantic ideal, offering the possibility that love could transcend all of our problems. But Zappa, who had already been railing against the 19th Century Romantic tradition of music, perceived something sinister lurking beneath the flowers, beads, and incense burning. Zappa saw the very concept of flower power evolving into nothing less than a successful fad. So on his 1968 album, We're Only in it for the Money, he decided to go after the fad rather than The Beatles' music. "Sgt. Pepper was okay," Zappa remarked to critic Kurt Loder in 1988. "But the whole aroma of what The Beatles were was something that never caught my fancy. I got the impression from what was going on at the time that they were only in it for the money – and that was a pretty unpopular view to hold."

He may have had a point. Contrary to the more generous ideals attached to the group, The Beatles' career was more often than not preoccupied by the power of money. By 1968, film critic Pauline Kael even shared some of Zappa's distrust when she reviewed the animated film Yellow Submarine. She felt that the problem of commerce undermined The Beatles' image, which by that time, began to change in the wake of all the promotional marketing tie-ins associated with the movie. "Wasn't all this supposed to be what The Beatles were against?" Kael asked. "There's something depressing about seeing yesterday's outlaw idols of the teenagers become a quartet of Pollyannas for the wholesome family trade." Yet, even as early as 1965, when interviewed by Playboy, John Lennon sarcastically remarked that they were moneymakers first and entertainers second. It was this particular aura that Zappa countered on his record.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

For Good or Ill, What Might Have Been: Jeff Greenfield's Then Everything Changed

 "President Robert Kennedy", speaking on August 3, 1969

As a lifelong science fiction buff I must confess that my favourite sub-genre in the field is the alternate-history novel. Likely stemming from my interest in history and its many ramifications (I have a minor degree in it, to go with my major in Political Science) I’ve always been gripped by stories of the Nazis winning the Second World War – being Jewish makes that one more understandable, of course – or of the South triumphing in the US Civil War, among many other tropes. (Clearly I'm not alone, as these two “alternate realities” are the ones that have appeared most often in alt history novels.) That’s because, in my view, history can turn on a dime and one deviation from the norm can trigger any number of side effects or alternate history scenarios, which is absolutely compelling to someone who also likes reading SF as much as I do. (Imagine if Archduke Ferdinand had not been assassinated when he was; or if Adolf Hitler had not attacked the Soviet Union when he did, to name two of the most obvious examples of history changed by one specific action.) And now that the pivotal crucial American presidential election is merely two weeks away, it’s worth examining Jeff Greenfield’s latest book, Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan (G.P. Putnam and Sons, 2011) for a fresh take on the what-if basis of alternate history.

Greenfield’s book differs in significant ways from such classics as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, or more recently Philip Roth’s (not quite classic) The Plot Against America – alternate American histories revolving around aspects of a different WWII timeline – in that Greenfield is not a fiction writer, but a political reporter who’s long toiled for television news, covering all the vagaries of American politics. So his book brings a more grounded, perhaps less fanciful look at a particularly pertinent present-day subject: the character of the man who would become President of the United States, or more specifically an imagining of a world where different men became President or were either catapulted into office earlier than expected or won elections that they lost in real life. The results of his literary musings are both fascinating and thought-provoking.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Living in the 21st Century: Now or Later and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet

Tom Nelis and Grant MacDermott in Now or Later, at the Huntington in Boston. (Photo by Paul Marotta)

In Christopher Shinn’s Now or Later, currently on view in Boston in a production by the Huntington Theatre Company, the new president-elect of the United States (Tom Nelis) awaits what seems sure to be a victory in the 2008 presidential election. (He’s a Democrat but he isn’t a black man.) The play doesn’t focus on the presidency, though, but on the repercussions when first photos and then footage of his Ivy League son John (Grant MacDermott) cutting up at an off-campus costume party are leaked on the Internet. In the photos John is dressed as Mohammed and his best friend Matt (Michael Goldsmith) – who is sharing a hotel suite with John outside D.C. as the election results roll in – as a fundamentalist preacher whom John’s father, to John’s irritation, has collaborated with on a media event in the course of his campaign. The Mohammed costume is meant as a comment on the hypocrisy of the Muslim woman throwing the party. In class she accused John of racial intolerance because he didn’t think the students who’d put up cartoons of Mohammed around campus should be charged with hate speech and expelled. Yet in John’s view she’s a hypocrite who sees no contradiction between her unbending stance on how those whose objections to her buttoned-up religion should be handled and her willingness to stage a party where the guests cavort in various states of undress. The footage (which John was too hammered at the party to remember) displays him simulating oral sex on Matt. John is gay, but that’s not the issue for his father and his cohorts – though it is for John, who finds the attitude of all fundamentalist religion toward homosexuality intolerable.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Right Stuff: Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Jump From Near Space – October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner about to step into the void (Photo by Jay Nemeth)

"I know the whole world is watching now, and I wish the whole world could see what I can see: sometimes you have to go up really high to see how small you are."
                 –Felix Baumgartner, October 14, 2012, seconds before he jumped from 128,000 feet

Some weeks back, I wrote about Philippe Petite and Nik Wallenda, two high-wire walkers whose exploits had inspired me. I thought their achievements – walking between the two World Trade Centers in 1974, and walking across Niagara Falls this past summer, respectively – were awe-inspiring. Little did I know that some short months later, Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian pilot and BASE-jump specialist, would trump that in an earth-shattering, perhaps game-changing manner.

As a child, I was completely obsessed with space travel. Like so many people of my generation, I grew while attempts were being made during the Cold War to be the first man on the moon. All the lead up to that event occupied many of my waking hours (though some of it happened before I was four years old): Russia's Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space; Alan Shepard, the first American; Russian Alexey Leonov becoming the first man to walk in space; followed by Ed White, who performed the longest walk in space at the time; the tragic deaths of White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in Apollo 1; then there was Apollos 7 through 10 that proved man could go to the moon and back.

As for Apollo 11 – July 20, 1969. Nothing more need be said.

Then followed the successful Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. The near disaster of Apollo 13, and the herculean effort it took to get the men back alive. I remember mourning the demise of the moon landings, but became excited again when the shuttle missions started in April 1981. After a time, it too became all a little blasé because our astronauts and cosmonauts became, seemingly, little more than transport truck drivers in low-space orbit.