Saturday, September 13, 2014

Christopher Orr Rates The Coens

I’ve had it in my head to list the Coen Brothers movies in order of greatness — for the last eight years, it seems. My enthusiasm for the project, however, wanes whenever I consider the less-bearable entries. I’ll be happier if I live out the remainder of my days without re-watching The Hudsucker Proxy or The Man Who Wasn't There. I’ve watched worse, to be sure, but seldom more than once.

Well, if you sit on a good idea long enough, someone is bound to pick it up and run with it. And that’s exactly what Christopher Orr is doing over at The Atlantic. Orr’s doing terrific work of it, too. In the case of Barton Fink, which leaves Orr cold, he invites a fella two desks over to make the case for the movie’s lovability — an eminently wise move, considering how much love some of us have for that flick.

All in all a very entertaining discussion of a, to an astonishing degree, very entertaining canon-still-in-progress. Start here, with Blood Simple.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wanting To Enjoy vs. Desperate To Avoid

Are there any popular acts you think you ought to enjoy, but somehow, despite your most earnest efforts, just can't seem to?

Various weblinks this week have brought several to my attention. I've spoken before about Stephen King. His advice on writing and teaching is spot-on. When he climbs on his soapbox, he usually wins me over. Then he releases yet another door-stopper that sounds so promising . . . and I pick it up, read the first few pages, keep going for another one- or two-hundred, and . . . something happens that makes me feel like I've just watched Emeril Lagasse drop the frying pan, only to retrieve it from the floor and keep cooking. No, no — it's alright buddy, keep the pan to the heat. I've just lost my appetite, is all.

Similarly, Elmore Leonard.

Also: James Ellroy — what a character. I love his magazine work, and think the way he openly confesses to and revels in his low-life impulses is a) almost admirable and b) entirely entertaining (I'm in the minority, apparently). The scope and vision and ambition of his fiction is certainly impressive. But the novels leave me cold. It's not a matter of taking offense, or being repulsed. It's just . . . meh, whatever.

“The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.”* So said Paul Hewson, aka Bono Vox, or just plain Bono. Speaking of whom, if there is a group that has nudged me out of indifference into a deep and abiding loathing, it is his U2. And on Tuesday, when I opened the software platform to my Infernal Device, I discovered an entire album in my library that I had no desire whatsoever to encounter. In response, Mr. Hewson has said, “For people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way . . . the blood, sweat & tears of some irish guys are in your junk mail.”

Speaking as someone who's taken money for producing junk mail of his own, let me inform you of a seldom appreciated fact: there isn't a single piece of junk mail that doesn't contain the blood, sweat and tears of the hacks who created it. The elements of BS&T don't make it any more welcome — or even any good.

Anyway, I won't be listening to it, so don't expect a take-down review from me — except for the title of the opening track: “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” Oh, sure: give all the love to poor, sweet Joey. How's about The Miracle of Johnny Ramone, the treacherous, irascible, venomous, right-of-Attila bastard who kept his baffled and befuddled on-the-spectrum band-mate fed and clothed in Levis and leather jackets throughout his entire adult life?

But I digress.

I actually used to be a fan, from way-way-back: Boy days, in fact. If you can predate that, you're not from the prairie grasslands of Canada, you're from Dublin. I remained steadfast right up until The Joshua Tree, when I began to have my doubts about the project (which they nevertheless reached past with the penultimate song on that album). Then came their Ironic Phase, which, at the time, struck me as note-perfect for the age (both mine, and the one I was living in). Even Pop was welcome — the fizzier songs, at least. The more serious songs, on the other hand, made me nervous.

I don't know which track I heard from their next album, but I can remember exactly where I was when I heard it: in the parking lot of a Movieplex, where public speakers were broadcasting a tone of voice and guitar I knew all-too-well. Oh, so now you're sincere again? I thought. Well then, permit me to sincerely retort . . . 

"...and the horse you rode in on!"

The more I meditated on it, the clearer the realization became that with this complete about-face these guys had just driven a stake through the heart of rock-and-roll. All that “best band in the world” shite: even their audience took it seriously. Now every band in their wake would strain to sound like Bono and/or Edge, and good luck trying to get any young audience roused if your drummer didn't photocopy Larry Clayton's frozen-in-the-pocket machine-gun snare-bursts.

Think I exaggerate? Then why don't you rouse yourself some Sunday morning, and go attend worship service at your local Evangelical Superstore . . . erm, church? Listen to the worship band, and tell me you don't catch more than an echo of everything I've just slandered.

Can't get away from them in the mall, or church, or parking lot or even my so-called personal computer . . . yes, indeed: what a debt we all owe those hard-working Irish so-and-so's.

Alright, I've gotta sit down and catch my breath. Read this or this or even Sasha Frere Jones if you need more.

*Quoting, with attribution I'm sure, Elie Wiesel.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Patti Smith, Eleanor Wachtel

My friend the art dealer characterizes The Greats as, “People of serious generosity.” The phrase came to mind repeatedly yesterday when I listened to Eleanor Wachtel interview Patti Smith.

I don’t know why I had this particular podcast mouldering in my Infernal Device for so long (so many podcasts, so little time), but this conversation with Smith is exceptional. Smith comes across as approachable and (of course) articulate, keeping a searing perspicacity in balance with a generous humanity. Her observations about accepting help from others were particularly moving.

I would add to my friend’s observation that the greatest of The Greats have a way of calling to and awakening similar artistic and moral yearnings in others. By conversation’s end, I’d done the full-Zacchaeus and shifted my internal monologue from saying, “I wanna do that” to “I'm gonna do that!”

It's no longer available for download, but you can stream it here. (You probably already know how to record audio-streams, but just in case you don't.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Wall of Plastic

Alex Ross considers the online cornucopia of sound files, and returns to the comforts and rewards of his “wall of plastic.”

I don’t stream music, but I’ve also stopped playing CDs.

At this moment in Canada streaming options are extremely limited. A listener can rig up an internet chain to get access to Spotify and the like, but the sound quality is less-than-ideal. Fussy listeners can subscribe to Google Play, HMV’s “The Vault” or the Sony Entertainment Network — this last option being the only legitimate venue for audiophiles (which I can’t quite claim to be). Sony’s catalog is vast, of course, but has its limits. Still, it's quite the bar-goon.

I still subscribe to eMusic, having grandfathered a super-sweet subscription rate. I tend to download entire albums, partly because I’m fond of the format, and partly because I hope to give beleaguered artists a few more shekels in their pocket.

And of course I have my own wall of plastic, which I’ve arranged to highlight exemplary trophies of liner notes and album art (“The power of the commodity fetish,” as Erik Davis puts it).

Whoever would have thought a band called "Tool"
would cook up the most singularly delightful CD packaging?

But I don’t play any of them. I’ve ripped them all into a portable library of fat, juicy WAV files. At home, I feed them through a DAC and listen to them via my chunky (but still better-than-serviceable) post-college stereo speakers. In the car, well, who cares?

My wife still listens to CDs. She has a half-dozen that are her bedrock of well-being. They have a permanent spot in the car that shuttles her to and from the airport.

My daughters each own a handful of CDs, but they are a particularly concrete form of “back-up.” In the next few years when they embark on their college experience, I expect those CDs will be exactly where they are right now, collecting dust. I have occasionally regretted giving my parents the go-ahead to sell my vinyl, but I doubt my children will experience any such pangs.

I’m the last person to recognize it, but things have changed.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Steely Dan, Sony Centre For The Performing Arts, Toronto, August 23

To celebrate a recent marriage milestone, my wife and I indulged an increasingly rare impulse, and drove in to the city for dinner and a concert — Steely Dan. Not only does she credit me with bringing a love of The Dan to our marriage, she claims this is a good thing. Win-win!

Obligatory crappy phone-shot.

This was a first for us, in fact. Beyond videos (shadows on the wall, really) I'd never seen them play — their concerts here inevitably coincided with family events in the prairies (some years ago when I played best man to my friend the groom, an attendee at the wedding greeted me with, “You're not at the concert!”). This year was exceptional, so there we were.

The Bobby Broom Organi-Sation — a trio of guitar, electric organ and drums — opened, with a set of slyly tweaked and infectious selections from the Boomer Soundtrack, plus a little Fats Waller. I've gone and added Broom to my Saturday/Sunday morning soundtrack.

Then it was on to the headliners. This is, in the main, a band that has been performing together for the last 15 years. “Tight” was surely a given, but I was not expecting the energetic pow! that followed and carried the evening to a satisfying conclusion nearly two hours later. Donald Fagen has famously groused that his audience is increasingly geriatric, singling out Toronto as particularly moribund. While he and Walter Becker are unquestionably producing primo grade Dad Rock, last night's audience included no shortage of daughters several decades removed from their cohort kicking up a fuss in the aisles — until house security shooed them back to their seats (fire regulations, I'm guessing).

There isn't a member of the band that doesn't deserve a massive shout-out, but drummer Keith Carlock was a particular revelation. The norm for the session drummers of most Dan (and Fagen solo) albums is to take a deep cleansing breath, then settle in to the business of holding down the back-beat. Carlock brings an energetic muscularity to the music, attacking his kit with Gene Krupa-like vigour. “Aja” is the acid test for drummers — Steve Gadd's imprint on that track is singularly deep, but Carlock ably walks the high-wire, pulling off a performance that acknowledges the source without succumbing to pallid imitation.

Similarly guitarist Jon Herington has the unenviable task of producing solos which have to be recognizable enough, while adding some element of surprise or revelation to keep the performance fresh — to take what a host of others have carved out, and somehow make the entire mash his own. Formidable task, but damned if Herington doesn't have the chops and the attitude to pull it off with aplomb.

All in all a swell night. No disappointments to speak of, though I would have enjoyed a few more inclusions from their two latest albums (judging from the slightly muted response to “Janie Runaway,” Fagen & Becker might well have taken note from past Toronto dates and steered the playlist predominantly to their 70s catalog). Also, Fagen was clearly fighting some laryngitis-type bug, but what are you gonna do? Dude gave it his all in the “Kid Charlemagne” encore and somehow squeezed out “Yes, there's gas in the car!” — the highest string of exclamatory notes all night. I'm amazed he wasn't pulled off the stage in a stretcher.

Alright, here's the setlist, cobbled together in recollection some hours later, as written, with corrections footnoted (I've likely got the order botched, particularly the later songs, but not the song titles):

- band, unknown (Mancini?*)
- Black Cow
- Aja
- Hey Nineteen
- Black Friday
- Bodhisattva (order could be off after this)
- Janie Runaway
- Dirty Work (girls sing)
- Daddy Don't Live In That NYC No More (Becker sings)
- Green Earrings
- Rikki Don't Lose That Number
- Josie
- Peg
- Babylon Sisters
- Showbiz Kids
(unknown — Ike Turner?**)
- Reelin' In The Years
- My Old School


- Kid Charlemagne
- band, theme from The Untouchables

*”Cubano Chant,” Ray Bryant
**”I Want To (Do Everything For You),” Joe Tex

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Not-Pining For The '90s

When I first read James Wolcott's sniffy disdain for '90s Nostalgia a couple of weeks ago, I thought, This is a put-on. There is no “'90s Nostalgia.'” Then, right on cue, The Onion AV Club launched their '90s Nostalgia series.

Back when I was living out the '90s, I wondered if it wasn't the decade I'd be nostalgic for. I was getting my adult feet under me, and wearing a decidedly youthful bod (and mane of hair). Thanks to WIRED magazine, I finally discovered the internet. Rock music was still cool. So were the Simpsons.

Get a haircut, ya bum.

Oof. Good riddance to all that — yes, even the body. All that youthful energy, directed into youthful anxiety, and youthful aggression, and youthful expressions of a self best left to percolate and age into something just a tad wiser — and kinder — before expressing anything.

No, I'll happily (for the most part) wear the extra flab as the softer self that I sometimes wish had been more present in the '90s. The concern being, of course, how best to be present in the here and now — which I'm already nostalgic for.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy: After Atheism: New Perspectives On God And Religion

A recent 10-hour drive gave me the opportunity to binge-listen to podcasts, particularly CBC’s Ideas with Paul Kennedy (link). And more particularly, the five-part series, After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion by David Cayley. Cayley surveys and interviews five fellas with provocative deep thoughts regarding the contemporary state of the religious mind: Richard Kearney (Anatheism: Returning to God After God), John Caputo (on Jacques Derrida), William Cavanaugh (Migrations of the Holy: God, State & The Political Meaning of the Church), James Carse (The Religious Case Against Belief) and Roger Lundin (Believing Again: Doubt & Faith In A Secular Age).

If any of this is ringing bells of vague familiarity, Kennedy and Cayley are the same guys who brought us The Myth of the Secular, the entirety of which receives an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Yours Truly. Said I about that: “Every time I’d nod my head in agreement with someone’s sentiment, another would follow to provoke thought in an unexpected direction. And who among us couldn’t stand a little more of that?”

Yeah — what I said.

At the moment the entire series is still available for download at iTunes. You can also stream After Atheism here.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Mark Heard

When Mark died, I wasn’t prepared for how deeply it would affect me. I’m not inclined to be sentimental about death. I have a sort of easy-come easy-go attitude, generally speaking. But there was a small group of us that cared very deeply about Mark’s presence on the planet. It wasn’t a question of his personality . . . It was the fact that he was there doing the quality of work and the kind of songwriting he was doing. And known by so few people. [For] those of us who did know him, it seems like he provided a sort of link among a group of us. And when he died, there was a sort of hole there. Bruce Cockburn, reflecting on Mark Heard.

I dropped in on the Christian Humanists last week, and their July 7 podcast on Mark Heard caught my eye. I have a little history with Heard, so I gambled a stamp and gave it a listen.

Los Tres Humanistas do their usual jolly shtick. Their treatment of Heard and his music is thoughtful and engaging, not just laudatory but also critical and even a bit cheeky, without ever succumbing to the dis — in the main an entertaining and commendable job.

I did, however, think it a shame that Matthew Dickerson’s bio of Heard was not read in preparation for the podcast. Then I went online to check availability, and discovered used copies selling for upwards of $50. I guess Mark Heard has finally become a lucrative property, albeit in the out-of-print bio business. (Yo, Matthew: you have this in PDF format, no? Nudge, nudge.)

Anyway, I reread my copy (not for sale, sorry) to see what elements, if any, might have brought a little more depth to the Humanists’ discussion.

Heard was quite the character, as anyone who listens closely to his music can probably guess — idiosyncratic in the extreme, dogged, determined, critical of and entirely impatient with superficial thinkers, fools and phonies. 99% of the Christian entertainment industry falls cheerfully into all three of those last categories. That’s the scene where he cut his teeth, of course, and even when he finally got his feet underneath him as an independent he was never too far removed from the church basement as a performance venue. Needless to say, his creative efforts were beset with endless professional frustrations.

Yet what struck me in this recent reading was just how much latitude Heard was given by the industry to make his music. When he first signed on with Larry Norman, the plan was to market Heard as a down-from-the-mountain, folky James Taylor type. And Heard was originally amenable to that, showing up for concerts and photo-shoots in his hiking boots, jeans and oversize sweaters, and cooking up the Taylor-saturated Appalachian Melody.

Heard’s restlessness expressed itself early, though, and when he skipped to Chris Christian’s label he strapped on an electric guitar and adopted a blues-based style that didn’t really sound like anyone — certainly not anyone who was selling a lot of records. The Humanists (and others) reach for Tom Petty to describe Heard’s sound, but if he’d sounded anything at all like Petty his label would have covered it with whipped cream and maraschino cherries, and broken out the champagne.

No, the truth was he sounded resolutely like Mark Heard. Give “One of the Dominoes” (Heard’s first single for Christian) a spin, and you’ll quickly spot what made Heard unique — and uniquely difficult to market. Melodically it’s a slightly upbeat song in a major key, but the backbeat drags a bit too long to fit either the AOR or rock mode. Nobody is going to dance to this, in other words. And nobody should: the song is a lamentation — worse: a religious lamentation. We’re screwed! And I’m an intractable part of the problem!

But this was what Heard was set on writing, and that’s how he was set on performing it. Which brings me to the other remarkable characteristic evident in Dickerson’s bio: when Heard entered a studio to record, he was 100% intent on cracking the code and breaking out into the mainstream. And when it was in the can, he was 100% certain he’d finally done it. Indeed, one of Heard’s professional frustrations with Chris Christian was Christian’s perceived reluctance to market Heard outside the religious scene.

For Christian, that would have been throwing good money after bad. Heard’s music was always a niche within a niche. His lyrics were too pointedly overt, and his musical leanings maddeningly counter-intuitive. Overindulging the latter inclination led Heard to produce his first independent album, Tribal Opera — a shiny, synthy mess that achieved immediate obscurity (consult Grooveshark at your own peril).

Heard’s was never a particularly sunny personality, and the epic failure of Tribal Opera threw him into a dark stretch of years, when he occasionally intimated he was through making music. Industry folk kept knocking on his door, though, offering production work. Sam Phillips enlisted him as subdued strummer side-man for her travelling show. Phillips’ hubby T Bone Burnett gave him the occasional nudge. Buddy and Julie Miller dropped by. As Cockburn’s comment indicates, the people who cared for Heard, cared deeply.

Mark with Sam Phillips at Maxwell's, 1988.

Finally Chuck Long, an old musician friend who became a trained anesthesiologist to pay the bills, approached him with cash in hand, and Fingerprint Records was born, with a renewed Heard entering the studio to record and produce his last, and best, three albums.

Do these albums “crack the code”? Did Mark lay down something that could, and ought, to bring him mainstream recognition?

He has his moments, particularly on the intimate and understated Second Hand: “Nod Over Coffee,” “Worry Too Much,”* “Look Over Your Shoulder,” are examples of the poetry and anxiety of everyday adult life, and have — or ought to have — a deep, universal appeal. It remains an album I regularly reach for, and the one out of all of his that I recommend without reservation.

As for the other two, I’m not so sure. They are both heavy with Heard’s jeremiads, some of which have aged better than others. They are, for the most part, well-served by his characteristic shift of focus to the personal. But I suspect their appeal, deep as it is, reaches to the hearts of listeners who are intimately familiar with the tradition he comes from: we who consider ourselves Post- or recovering Evangelicals.

I wish it were otherwise, but there it is. I still miss the guy something fierce. Come August 16, it will be 22 years of wishing he were still alive to say something about these seemingly entropic times we live in.

*Buddy Miller's cover is highly recommended.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Recent Viewing

I recently watched Escape From Tomorrow, in which a straight American middle-class male plays out his mid-life crisis within a Boschian theme park.

"Arms inside the vehicle at all times."
At the time of its release, there was some concern that the physical feat of the movie — shooting the bulk of it on-the-sly at Walt Disney World, inviting censure from Disney's lawsuit-happy copyright trolls — would eclipse what filmmaker Randy Moore was actually hoping to achieve with the film. From the looks of Metacritic and the (increasingly-suspect) Rotten Tomatoes, that fear appears to be well-founded.

"All that sneaking around. And for what?"
I loved it. Moore's surrealist aesthetic brings to mind early David Lynch, and the later, more accomplished films of Guy Maddin. Like Lynch and Maddin, Moore draws narrative tension by exploring the chasm between the deepest and darkest desires of a man, and the object(s) of said desire, framed within an environment seemingly manufactured to inflame, subvert and potentially ruin the protagonist.

So yeah: Lynch, Maddin. But the film I found myself most frequently drawing comparisons to wasn't by either of those guys. No, the film that came to mind was Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder

"Wait a minute: what's that you say?"
In fact, I re-watched the latter, just to see if I was off-track. I'll acknowledge it's a bit of a stretch, but not so far as one might think.

"Where we goin'? Who knows?"
But that will have to be a post for another day, as the usual summer distractions are keeping me from the keyboard. Please stay tuned.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Funnies

While waiting for the fog to clear from my Sunday Morning Brain, I usually scroll through the work of comic book artists. Today was William Stout Day, and after the cursory Google Image search, I clicked over to his website for a closer look.

Selfie by Stout
The site includes a journal, which I didn’t hold out much hope for — most artists don’t have a facility for words, and are understandably stingy about posting artwork online.

Three hours later, I forced myself to finally close the browser. Holy Moly, what a trove! Stout posts artwork (his and others), he critiques and analyzes (his recent posts on Moebius are delicious), he reminisces about his days working in La-La Land, he interviews, he writes (prolifically — check out the man's book) about the Blues. But enough of my yakking: go check him out yourself.

And speaking of comics, this piece by Daniel Rasmus about the bygone era of the Star Trek daily strip has piqued my interest. The strip is considered non-canonical — primo catnip to Yours Truly.

Unfortunately, the collection consists of not one but two(!) pricey(!!) coffee-table(!!!) books. Yo, IDW — call me when you release the digital version, please.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Weird Al's Weird Blitz

How do you like Weird Al Yankovic?

Oh, Al: in my eyes you'll forever be preserved in the pastel-hued amber of 1984.
If you’re a guy in my demographic (straight, Canadian, on the cusp of fifty, too clever by half for most of that time) you like him just fine — happy to have him around, adding his goofy-gas to the pop zeitgeist; a living, breathing, accordion-playing Alfred E. Neuman.

Not that I've bought any of his albums — catching his parodies on the Dr. Demento Show or MTV was exposure enough for my taste. Mind you, I’m the father of daughters — parents of sons usually acquire a disc or two (or more) by the ten-year birthday celebration. I imagine these parents feel a tad more conflicted about the wavy-haired joker, much the way I’m ambivalent about Hairspray! The Musical.

Anyway, the video for “Tacky” just came out. I giggled, of course, and came this close to sharing it on a couple of platforms, before stopping myself and thinking, I know at least a dozen people who are going to do this: what do I add to any of that? Then he followed that video up with two more in the span of days, plus of course the brand new album. And now I’m wondering why in the world have his people taken this route of sudden saturation? And why an album? With some performers, there’s an inherent appeal to the structure of an album: 45-to-90 minutes of music, thematic explorations, altered movements that cohere in resolution, etc. Weird Al has at times indulged in that, but he’s chiefly the master of the one-off. I’d think that puts him in an ideal position to exploit the new media for all they’re worth.

I’ll be curious to see how the album fares. Are today’s ten-year-old boys buying anybody’s CDs? No, of course not. But how about their parents?

Addendum: Al responds directly to "Why an album?" with typically disarming candor.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Gone Fishin'

Took some books for the shade: Peter Mathiessen's In Paradise (link), The Friedkin Connection, by William Friedkin (natch), and The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper & Canada, 2006- by Paul Wells (discuss).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Her: Why Is This A Movie?

We watched Spike Jonze’s Her the other night. I enjoyed it, and found the story, the aesthetic and dramatic execution gently provocative. But when the end credits rolled I was left wondering, “Why was that a movie?”
"Maybe for the movie poster?"
The reflexive answer (not the one I’m after, but let’s out with it) is, “Why shouldn’t it be?” No reason, of course. People make movies of just about anything, and good on ‘em. But my question isn’t directed against Her’s existence; it’s more of a “Why this, not that?” question. In this case, why is Her a Big Movie, and not a long short story? What does it accomplish as a Big Movie that it couldn’t possibly in the pages of the New Yorker (where it could have surely found a home)? My two cents: the aesthetic aside, not much. So why is it a movie?
It's a question I asked — a lot — back when Kenneth Branagh was throwing Shakespeare at the Silver Screen. Branagh's abilities as a Shakespearean actor were unparalleled, and he clearly had what it took to nudge similar levels of insightful performance from his cohorts. I had few doubts he was a sensational director for stage.
Branagh's grasp of cinematic potential, on the other hand, was rudimentary. Long, static shots, close-ups that forced the actor to twitch and snort to hold viewer attention. And one hoped in vain for any cut-away to supply ironic contrast.
In that same era, Richard Loncraine's direction of Ian McKellan was gloriously distinct from all that. Here's the memorable, “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue, in which Loncraine and McKellen exploit cinema's full potential to dramatic effect.
It's brilliant enough that Richard begins by publicly toadying up to a roomful of people he justifiably holds in contempt, then morphs to the inevitable admission of self-loathing — in the pissoir. But using a dollyed close-up of the bathroom mirror to break the Fourth Wall? For the second time in two minutes? To invite and incriminate the viewer in Richard's evil scheming? Oh, bravo, sirs — bravo!
The closest Branagh came to realizing similar cinematic success was his We're-sayin'-all-the-words! Hamlet, an epic production that would have had a much harder run of it on-stage.
Anyway, I saw all the Branagh movies, usually more than once, and certainly didn't begrudge the time spent. But for most of them, the question, “Why is this a movie?” had only one plausible answer: “To reach a wider audience.” No small thing, that. Wider audience = industry recognition = a better shot at career longevity doing stuff that genuinely engages the artist, and not having to put on a Starfleet uniform to pay the bills.
Ditto: Her. More people will watch a movie than read a New Yorker story. Fair enough, no hard feelings. But coming from the director of Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation, I'm just surprised the bar wasn't set a little higher.

Related: P.T. Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Baz Luhrmann, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson love 'em, hate 'em, or both those cats are clearly making Movies, dammit.

Friday, June 20, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up: Finale

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3. Phase 4. Phase 5.

Kafka was a fan. Not just of The Man Who Was Thursday, either — I'm talking the whole ball of wax. Weird, huh? The man who gave us Gregor Samsa enjoyed reading G.K. Chesterton.*

Anyway, my conclusion to the debt we grubby Neo-Pagans owe Chesterton will be as scattered as the post that kicked it all off. Consider yourself forewarned.

If you head over to goodreads and check out the “fair-to-middling-to-poor” reviews of The Man Who Was Thursday, you’ll find a common observation among them. The book divides neatly into three acts. The first act enchants, the second takes some of the shine off that effect, and the third baffles and alienates. Frankly, it's a fair summary of my own experience as a reader.

Thursday’s first act presents itself as an ominous and enclosed mystery, which threatens to overwhelm the last of our compromised hero’s remaining virtues. The second act, to most readers’ surprise, subtly shifts from a paranoid fatalism to an absurdist caper. The third act is almost all explication — making sense, insofar as sense can be made, of everything that led up to it. A seemingly inescapable solipsistic tragedy has flowered into a great, romantic awakening.

The almost universal approval of the first act is curious to me. Fatalism has its own romantic appeal, of course, and who among us can resist a good conspiracy theory? The contemporary reader, however, is disinclined to be “freed” from the conspiracy. Philip K. Dick is commonly referred to by Thursday's goodreads reviewers, and with good reason. If there is a predominant (and predominantly appealing) Post-Modern narrative, surely it's that of the Grand Conspiracy. It can spin apart via entropy a la Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, or disappear down the solipsistic rabbit-hole a la the Wachowski Sibs' Matrix trilogy or V For Vendetta. Neither option dodges the sensational spectre of fiery, apocalyptic blood-letting. Nobody wakes up from the nightmare — the Post-Modern hero just does a subtler job of apprehending it.

This, then, is the predominant motif within the Magisterium of the Western Imagination. Approach with caution.

"Also: an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered..."
*This, with other factual observations, comes courtesy of A.S. Dale's The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. The errors, on the other hand, are all my own.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 5: Re-Essaying Jacob's Ladder

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3. Phase 4.

The rabbi whose identity continues to morph from Saul to Paul spent the rest of his life trying to communicate how his understanding of things had changed after the interrupted trip to Damascus. Clearly, that change was radical.

Paul and his followers are not an easy read. I’ve read their letters all my life, and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve sensed just what a revolutionary cross-pollination of religious* understanding they represent — and promote.

My penny-dreadful summary: in the death and resurrection of this itinerant Jewish rabbi “Jesus,” who’d devoted the bulk of his time, energies and teaching to the outcasts of the empire and his own religion, the entire species’ presumed Pantheon was turned upside-down. God-through-Jesus brought into harmony not just Jewish efforts at atonement, but pagan ones, also.

“Overturned” is not “obliterated.” Paul anticipated that at some point all Powers will submit themselves to the authority of Jesus — either as willing and grateful servants, or as damned subjects. “Powers” seems a vague appellation — a nearly empty metaphor — to a modern imagination beguiled by the West’s simplistic dualist execution of secularism. There was nothing vague about it to the ancient imagination, which saw an elaborate (and corrupt) Chain of Command that led directly into the ether.

I believe Lewis’s imagining of Bacchus’ place within Narnia’s Pantheon is an exercise inspired by, and respectfully aligned with, Pauline cosmology. Moreover, any Christian who presumes the banishment or outright obliteration of all pagan modalities has a severely impoverished and predominantly egoistic comprehension of the cosmology to which they claim subscription.

If it is true a person cannot comprehend Christianity without some comprehension of its Jewish origins, I would suggest this is equally (if not more) true of its pagan origins.

"Overturned," not "Obliterated."
*Or “mythical,” if you’d rather.