Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The World's Most Beautiful Libraries

Here, via ALD. Before I saw this I used to get depressed every time I walked through the door of our village's tiny, mouldy, pathetically underfunded public library. I believe I might just upgrade that fever of disappointment to "potentially suicidal."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cohen & Cockburn: Lions In Winter

I last attended a Leonard Cohen concert in 1994, when he was promoting The Future. The staging and light-show were lush, the band and singers incredibly tight, and Cohen was . . . professional. He delivered the goods and maintained a wryly cheerful demeanor, but let slip the odd sign that this wasn’t his first idea of fun. Midway through the night he botched a lyric (while singing, fittingly enough, “Anthem”). When he realized what had happened, he retreated into the shadows to recollect his nerve. The band played on and when they reached the chorus he stepped back into the spotlight and picked up where he’d left off. Although he joked about his mistake when the song was over (“I’ll leave it for the students of my work to determine what that signifies,”) there was no camouflaging the mortification this had caused him.

Since I’m one such student, I’ll accept the invitation: I thought that moment pretty much revealed the heart of Cohen’s performances at the time. The man — this self-proclaimed “Grocer of Gloom” — embodied the Beckettian ("Beckettesque"?) performer who is compelled to sing, even as the specter of performance terrifies: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

The night was certainly angst-laden, and at the time I was in the right frame of mind to enjoy it for that. But fifteen years later, when his agency announced this latest and possibly final global tour, I felt no need to queue up for tickets. I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why I didn’t find the prospect attractive, but certainly part of my hesitancy came from not wanting to see an older man twisted into the same emotional pretzels I’d witnessed earlier.

If Live In London (A) — and every single concert review published since then — are any indication, I needn’t have worried. I also should have bought those damn tickets. Whether it’s through breathing exercises, clean living or tantric sex, whatever knots this guy once had seem to have been untied. He’s lean and flexible as a rope, and he snaps like a whip on stage. His performance has altered and so has the emotional content of his songs. The Beckettian weight isn’t there, anymore; instead there’s something surprisingly light about it all. He’s gracious toward the audience, and he has the necessary poise for taking it all just seriously enough to perform without embarrassment or apology. This may be the end, but rather than depress the man it actually seems to re-energize him. So far, he’s showing no signs of ending the tour until he’s laid out in a pine box.

Now that’s the way to say, “Goodbye.”


I’d ingested roughly a dozen Bruce Cockburn albums before I had my first opportunity to attend a performance. I did not expect what I saw. The guy was funny, and he was clearly having a high time. Judging by his lyrics I’d say Cockburn has no shortage of angst in just about every other avenue of life, but the stage ain’t one of ‘em. Where Cohen might have experienced existential angst over public performances, for Cockburn the stage seems to have always held the opposite: some grand, possibly divine affirmation of who he was and what he ought to be doing.

It can be different for the audience, however. Fans of both performers have cause for some personal anxiety: Cohen and Cockburn have occasionally been frank in their dismissal of the crowd-pleasing faves that larded their pantries. Particularly with a songwriter as prolific as Cockburn, it’s an open question whether or not older material still has any value to the man who wrote it. Cockburn doesn’t bother with songs that no longer interest him, so one of the delights in his recent live album, Slice O Life (A,e) is the song list.

The other delight, of course, is in the performance. The shows I’ve seen usually include a short set with just Bruce and his guitar, but he finally relies heavily on the band he’s assembled. Listening to this double-disc, the very idea of a band quickly seems superfluous. Cockburn’s technique as a guitarist has always been singular, but the space he fills with it during this concert has to be heard to be believed. After all these years he remains joyful in his performance, cracking himself up nearly as often as he does the audience. But his engagement with his own music remains the big draw. This release presents a vibrant lens through which to view a remarkable body of work while whetting the appetite for further additions to it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Obligatory Hockey Post

Blackberry Bazillionaire Jim Balsillie wants to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them up to Hamilton, Ontario. File that under, "A Fool And His Money," please. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman whispers something about moving the Coyotes back to Winnipeg. I've got ideas about exactly where Gary Bettman ought to file that "sales pitch", too. As I've said before: the league is too large, the season is too long, and everyone involved is too fat in the head to do the right thing and downsize.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Promissory Notice

It's high time I shuffled a few things in my sidebar and posted the fourth in my series of three midlife musical musings. All this, and more, is yet to come. But in the meantime, Happy Victoria Day Weekend! (Say, this is the first I've ever heard the holiday referred to as, "The May Two-Four Weekend." If the shoe fits...)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Obligatory Hockey Post

I didn't want the Vancouver/Chicago series to end, and I certainly didn't want it to end the way it did, with the sole Canadian team eliminated from the playoffs. This was my favorite series, and I can't imagine another match-up being nearly as fun to watch. I enjoyed the end-to-end action, and thought both teams were appropriately scrappy. Although I'm sorry to see Vancouver eliminated, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Chicago (both the city, and their beleaguered Blackhawks). I'm looking forward to what they can accomplish in the next round.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek

Well, this is . . . interesting. Star Trek, the television-turned-multimedia franchise that thoroughly wore out its welcome on all fronts, has been resurrected by two writers and a television director who take continuity — the foundation of sand on which the franchise narrative is based — as their starting point. The movie might as well have begun with a rolling script that said, “Attention Trekkies: You now have a new Kirk, Spock, and McCoy who are markedly different from the ones you grew up with on television. Here is how that happened.

It’s all Back To The Future plotting, which, when scrutinized too closely, raises more questions than it settles. It's also a bizarrely astute strategy for getting Trekkies on side. We argue about this stuff over weekends in convention centers the whole world over. A series writer takes the podium, his trembling hand lifts a glass to his lips, and we preface our questions with, “I know I’m not supposed to take this so seriously, but isn’t it a problem when . . . ?” Groups of us move these discussions to neighborhood pubs where eventually the most ardent of us concede that none of this makes a lick of sense but we still like it anyway. And we LOVE IT whenever writers/directors/producers demonstrate that they’ve been paying attention.

Attention has been paid. Like most of the people in the audience I thought there were moments when the crew members had been updated with appreciable improvement. I was especially fond of Uhura’s* steely, smart-girl impatience, and Chekov’s** nerdy enthusiasm. Chris Pine’s Kirk is still figuring out how to employ his charm for nobler purposes than pantie-removal. He’s clearly got some daddy issues, but boy is he surprised to discover a Vulcan with an even bigger chip on his shoulder....

And so it goes with the rest of the crew. We recognize them, and their actors seem to recognize a few motivations we somehow missed while watching all those repeats. Most of us, including me, want to see more. But unlike most of the audience, I sighed whenever a character’s catch-phrase was trotted out. Was this really what we wanted to rescue from the old universe to dress up the new one?

You’ll notice I haven’t revealed the movie’s plot, or said anything especially profound about character development. There is a plot of sorts, and some basic character development, but nothing that really sticks to the ribs. Abrams & Co. were primarily concerned with enticing a jaded audience back into theaters, and re-launching the franchise. Between revved-up action sequences and deliberately "borrowed" slapstick scenes from Galaxy Quest (a movie I insist you watch if you haven't yet) they pretty much got the job done.

If this was the first episode of a new television series I’d be ecstatic. But as this is the first of a new movie series, I’m afraid I remain reserved. In two or more years we’ll get another Star Trek installment. And in the Star Trek universe, yesterday’s movie is only as good as tomorrow’s.

*Zoe Seldana
**Anton Yelchin

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Anticipating Star Trek: It's Deja Vu All Over Again

I've just finished reading the comic book prequel to this weekend's assured block-buster. Because I have had been so merrily public in my sneering at Paramount and Abrams, I believe it behooves me to confess: I'm getting pretty stoked!

Second confession: the comic is a hoot.* It has managed to set the stage more sumptuously than any of the trailers have, because it's the first thing I've seen that persuades me the writers are up to the task. Yep: it's deja vu all over again.

The last word goes to The Onion.

*The franchise treatment of time travel remains laughably superficial, but it's much too late to correct any of that now. All we can do is hope the next movie resurrects Edith Keeler.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

"I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well with the chords I'm playing": Exercise & Application

The third in a series of mid-life musical musings.

I once heard a WWII pilot say that the last beautiful moment he’d experienced before combat was hearing a crew member play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on an old piano. The pianist did this strictly from memory. In the pilot’s words, “He played it by heart.”


A couple of years back when I was laid up with pneumonia, the loveliest sound imaginable was the noise of my daughters practicing their piano. Those hesitant, choppy scales, arpeggios and chords ascending through the bedroom floor and tickling my ears ... sheer bliss.


In 1987, when I was a young student, my father offered to transfer an airline voucher to my name. It was on the verge of expiring, so I did a quick survey among my university friends, and settled on New York City as my destination of choice.

The morning of my departure, two customs agents at the airport gave me the skunk-eye. I had no New York contacts, no passport, I couldn’t say where I was staying, my backpack was suspiciously compact. “Have you ever been arrested for transporting narcotics?” I explained this was meant to be a cultural-educational experience, extended over a three-night stay. They exchanged suspicious looks, pawed through my collection of T-shirts, socks and undershorts, remarked on the irregularity of my situation, then finally let me board the plane.

When I landed in LaGuardia, the first order of business was securing three nights’ lodging. I had written down the phone numbers of a half-dozen youth hostels and inexpensive hotels. As I dialed one number after another I realized with increasing distress that booking in advance wasn’t just highly recommended, it was practically a necessity. The West Side YMCA finally came through for me, thanks to a just-completed renovation. I can’t recall exactly what I paid, but I think it was roughly $30 a night for a tiny room with a clean twin bed, a table, a chair and a television.

That evening I reconnoitered the neighborhood — Central Park, Lincoln Center. When night fell I bought a slice of pizza for supper. As I ate I took note of the corner stores shuttering up like maximum security prisons, and figured it might be an idea to call it a day. I retreated to my room, checked the lock on my door, then dug out my paperback and settled in.

The floor I was lodged in seemed to be populated by members of a youth orchestra. From every other room an instrument could be heard, riffling through song snippets or simply going over the same warm-up exercises again and again and again. I felt like I had bedded down inside an orchestra pit, and I didn’t mind in the least. After a day of low-grade travel anxieties, this aural immersion was an experience that was at once exotic and profoundly comforting.


My neighbor asked if I’d play guitar at a memorial for a recently deceased family member. I was very nervous, particularly over the two songs she requested, but I accepted. Over the next few days I applied myself to polishing up my campfire strummin’ to something just a little finer.

The memorial was small, two dozen people or so. When it was my turn to play, I stood up and took my time. As I began I focused on technique — pressing fingertips to string and wood, plucking the string. A few bars into the first piece I could hear people sobbing. I concentrated on the structure of the song. There was a very simple progression to follow. It lifted me up, then gently set me back down, and in the tiny space of that moment it proved itself a delicate yet proficient apparatus that served our mutual need.


I believe just about any adult with a modest musical facility could approach the piano for the first time and, after a month or two of serious application, play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” It truly is a classical piece, its structure as stable a bit of Western Civilization as any cathedral. It does contain surprises — it has to, to sustain interest — but they are of a subtle variety, the sort that seem “natural” once the piece is finished. For the young piano student playing this song for the first time the biggest surprise is realizing that this piece has been sitting inside all those warm-up exercises he’s endured for the last three years — the scales, the chords, the arpeggios.

Those exercises were the bane of my existence when I was a child, but as an adult I’m discovering a solace and delight that comes with practicing them anew: on piano, guitar, ukulele ... you name it. The exploration of elementary musical progressions and their emotional evocations isn’t simply a matter of expressiveness, it is a natural and inexpensive form of therapy — music — a gift of incomparable largess.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Transformation of Roger Ebert

I've spent hours and hours in churches all over the world. I sit in them not to pray, but to gently nudge my thoughts toward wonder and awe — Roger Ebert, April 17, 2009
This is not that Roger.
After giving Alex Proya's Knowing a rave review, Ebert checks in on Rotten Tomatoes, and asks: "Is it just me? Or is it everybody else?" I haven't yet seen the movie, but I've been reading Ebert fairly closely since he returned to the printed (or virtual) word, so I'll venture forth and say, "It's mostly Ebert. But why should that matter?"

Since Ebert's return, I've found myself mostly at odds with his reviews, particularly the positive ones. Perhaps that's just me, but again I'd assert it's mostly Ebert. The various life crises that foist themselves upon us can't help but radically shift our perspective. I can recall the one time Ebert changed his thumb-stance: he'd originally panned Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven as lacking imagination, then changed his mind some months later, admitting that the circumstances he'd originally viewed the film in had negatively affected his point of view. Eastwood's film now qualified for his yearly top ten. Is it fair to suggest Ebert's health traumas might have a similar effect on how he now watches a movie, and which way his thumbs tilt?

Gene Siskel's take on watching films certainly took a radical shift when his health woes came to the fore. Shortly before he died he chose Babe: Pig In The City as the best film of the year — a controversial choice, to say the least. The "best"? Really?

I propose shifting the critical terms to "Favorite Film Of The Year." When I watched Babe: Pig In The City, it was six years after its release. My daughters and I were cozying up on the couch, while their mother was in India taking observer's notes on communities dealing with the trauma of that year's tsunami. Let me just say that when you watch this flick with your two children nestling close to your ribs, that is one hell of a fine film. Roosting like a big hairy bird with his two chicks on the family sofa, wondering what sort of "combat trauma" the mother might fly home with, I was deeply invested in the fate of the little pig with "an unprejudiced heart" as he faced unexpected viciousness and cruelty. Any adult father facing his own death would take enormous solace in a film of such delicious spectacle and straightforward profundity.

So does Pig In The City rate as my favorite from that year? Hard to say (in retrospect 1998 wasn't much of a year for movies) but I can understand why readers were rooting for a film with some adult sophistication to make the top of Gene's list. Anyone confronted with their mortal end, though, can be forgiven a little impatience with the games of adult sophistication.

So it is with Ebert. These days I find his blogging more compelling than his criticism. I think this is the forum where he speaks of what concerns him most — those aspects of humanity that (for better and for worse) have crept closest to his heart. From Dan-Dan The Yo-Yo Man to Ebert's favorite rice cooker to seemingly weightier matters, what he explores here might not change the way I see a movie, but it certainly encourages me to attend closely to my environment. And I've gradually come to realize that that was always the quality that appealed to me in his criticism and journalism.