Friday, December 31, 2010

Unpacking U.N.C.L.E. — Phase One

Merry Christmas to me — and to my family, since we have collectively reached the stage where the television can no longer be watched in seclusion. This was cause for some mild anxiety on my part: while we all seem to be on the same page when it comes to Get Smart, Star Trek and the occasional Bonanza episode, I Spy was given a unanimous thumbs-down and The Prisoner was greeted with cool disdain. As for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it had been years since I last watched an episode, and what I remembered didn't recommend itself.

However the packaging is so gee-whiz kewl! that I momentarily belayed my misgivings and wallowed in its flashy, evocative gim-crackery. When it came time to give the show a spin, I recalled Robert Fulford's dictum that the history of a television series falls into four periods — Primitive, Classic, Baroque and Decadent — and cued up the second season (In Living Color!) first.

It's a hit! Judging from the first half-dozen episodes in season two, it looks like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. found its groove early and shifted from Classic to Baroque the minute it introduced color. At this point the writers still took the characters, peril and complications seriously enough to maintain genuine narrative tension, while the acting and direction indicate that everyone involved was happy to be there.*

U.N.C.L.E. builds on the myth of the office as the place where all the fun happens. Napoleon Solo gets grabby with the secretary in a fashion that would land him in irons today, but whenever he encounters the fairer sex on the field, he and his buddy treat them as an inconvenience if not an outright annoyance. Indeed, everything about the field is an inconvenience. The action can take place in an exotic (inevitably fictional) foreign country where the women are lush and the gadgets are shiny, but both the women and the hardware end up complicating the job, which exists to be completed so that the agents can return to the office as quickly as possible. Compared to the froufrou interiors of various embassies and lairs, the aesthetic inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters is starkly utilitarian. But then that's the aesthetic to most rumpus-rooms from the same era. And there are hints aplenty that these cool kids do enjoy a good rumpus.

Most U.N.C.L.E. fans regard the first season as the best, with the second and the fourth seasons falling behind respectively. Apparently the third season more than qualifies as The Decadent period. The actors speak ruefully of those episodes, which slid into a level of camp that made Batman seem the very embodiment of subtlety. Even the Time Life packagers apologize — more than once — for its inclusion in the set.

That may be the unwatched season in this house. The other three, mind you, remain in demand. Stay tuned for further thoughts, once the contents of the briefcase have been exhausted.

*One episode begins with heartthrob Ilya Kuryakin deep undercover as a street troubador in South America. He strums his guitar, flamenco-style. Then he begins to sing: “Hava Nagila, Hava . . . .” For those keeping track, we are observing a Scottish actor playing a Russian posing as a Hispanic musician singing a Jewish folk song. This is the generation that invented irony.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Music Shorts

My sidebar indicates where my musical leanings are at, and right now jazz is it.

The four albums are a mixed bag, to be sure. The Europeans tend to be freaks for formalism, a tack that often alienates the casual North American listener, but which greatly appeals to me during the Christmas maelstrom. Controlled thematic exploration, formally moderated playfulness — and yet through it all an undeniable yearning and emotional sensitivity. Greg Houben Quartet Meets Pierrick Pédron (e) is earnestly serious about its play, while this recent discovery of an older EST recording is more lyrical — and not a little heartbreaking, when heard as a fond memory of a beautiful musician who's been taken from us.

AfroCubism is a follow-up of sorts to the Buena Vista Social Club, the out-of-the-ether sensation which can still be heard in espresso-serving cafes some 15 years later. The flacks at Nonesuch are branding this as “an album that throws the elements of Cuban and African music in the air and lets them fall in entrancing new patterns,” but as my wife astutely commented when I first played it: “That sounds like West African music.” Indeed — Malian, as a matter of fact. And in a continent that is as huge and musically diverse as Africa, the distinction is worth making.

That bit of parsing aside, the results are remarkable, particularly for listeners with an international ear. My wife's second comment was, “It's curious that this hasn't been done before, given the shared cultural history between Cuba and West Africa.” I don't know if Nonesuch is right to claim innovation quite so boldly, but the music they enabled is delightful, evocative and provocative. It is maybe worth adding, however, that if you were underwhelmed by the Buena Vista Social Club, this sequel isn't likely to make the difference for you.

This month, as I drummed my fingers and searched for something on eMusic to fill my monthly quota of downloads, I perused through the works of Vince Guaraldi, the gentle innovator who gave us the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. I picked up the various “lost cues” from the Charlie Brown shows, then added North Beach, a posthumous collection of live and studio recorded material from the late-60s and early-70s. It's all sweetly-tempered music one might expect from the man who came up with the definitive voice for Charlie Brown. On days when I'm sick of the exclusively seasonal, I'll switch my player to Artist > Vince Guaraldi > Play All > Shuffle Songs for an hour or two of unencumbered relief.

Finally, an important announcement for completists and nostalgics alike: Fusion Is . . . Barry Miles is widely available for legal download (including here). A funky staple from the late-70s and early-80s which had a very limited and extremely hard to come-by CD release a decade later — which I missed. Ah, but this technology is good for some things, yes? Now we only need to rescue a few other titles from the Vinyl Tar-Pits.

Friday, December 24, 2010

WP's Magical Mystery Tour

When I was an adolescent with thirsty ears, it seemed to me that all the cool concerts were happening in Toronto. I occasionally caught wind of a car riding down to Minneapolis to see someone big, but the expense entailed was prohibitive. Worse, these people slept in the car -- usually while driving back home. The people who returned from these ventures were usually so zonked, they couldn't remember who they'd seen.

These days Toronto's concerts are accessible to me. But it looks to me like all the really fun concerts happen south of the 49. So I've put together a fantasy tour, which would look something like this. I'd get in the old Toyota, with a few dozen of my favorite CDs, drive down to Cincinnati to catch Over The Rhine and Joe Henry at the Taft. I'd scoot to Oklahoma City for The Flaming Lips' New Years Eve bash. At the end of that I'd quickly beetle over to Chicago to catch The Drive-By Truckers, on New Years Day.

When that was over, I'd wind down by taking an architectural tour through the ruins of Detroit, and cap that off with a Red Wings game. Man, as much as I begrudge them their wins, I do love to watch that team play.

Then I'd return home to shower, shave and sleep.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pre-Christmas Grab-Bag of Links

Today's post is a grab-bag of links I had every intention of riffing off, but never quite mustered up the wherewithal to get the job done. Still, attention must be paid.
Family and friends know me as a quick mimic, with a tonal range that can catch people off-guard. In my experience, there aren't too many cartoon voices that can't be convincingly aped. Fred Flintstone, however, is entirely beyond my reach. This is a terrific homage to Alan Reed, the man who gave us the incomparable voice of Fred Flintstone.
During a recent malaise, I retreated to the comfort of a series of comic books I'd enjoyed in the late 80s: Andrew Helfer and Kyle Baker's tweaking of that hoary old hero of the pulps and radio, The Shadow. In the mid-80s DC Comics briefly dragged The Shadow of old into contemporary Manhattan, with the help of Howard Chaykin. Chaykin's approach wasn't that far removed from the one he used for American Flagg (it's never been far removed from Flagg, really); he does what he does and it pays the bills. When Helfer took over, though, readers got a young writer keen to take the scene into unexpected territory, and an artist — Bill Sienkewicz — who had the surrealistic flair to pull it off. But when Sienkewicz left and Kyle Baker took over, there was a perfect merging of visual-literary sensibility. Jason T. Miles does a terrific job (with the aid of some snazzy scans) of unpacking Helfer & Baker's deft touch with The Shadow. I would only add that by the series' conclusion Helfer & Baker were probably having too much fun: the final six issues detailed, among other things, the travails of the Shadow's sons as they dragged his corpse through one indignity after another en route to Shangri-La.

I don't quite “get” the veneration that significant writers have for the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His stuff strikes me as ornate and overwrought — he's too busy describing the horror his characters feel to bother dispensing any for the reader (this one, at any rate). I suspect, though, that my distance is more a product of having encountered him late in life, as opposed to in my adolescence (the ideal time to encounter any pulp fiction).

Having said that, I'm usually up for reading meditations on his work. Over at PopMatters, Dennis P. Quinn explores the rich ironies that abound among the personalities and subcultures that have taken (typically occult) religious inspiration from Lovecraft's fiction. Lovecraft the man was an avowed atheist who held all religions in contempt; he considered his Cthulu works, for example, an act of ridicule. Ah, but there are acolytes who beg to differ . . . .

Speaking of Cthulu, earlier this year Erik Davis took a close and careful look at the current “Cute Cthulu” meme and was decidedly not amused. I'll post the link in just a minute, but before I do: here is where I riffed off Davis' treatise on Led Zeppelin IV — the best of the 33 1/3 books I've read. On the strength of that I went ahead and purchased The Visionary State (A), Davis' encyclopedic account (with photographs by Michael Rauner) of the various religious expressions unique to modern California. The Visionary State proved to be breathtaking, so I ordered his latest book, Nomad Codes (A), which I'm looking forward to reading through the holidays.

Alright, on to the link. It is NSFW, thanks to a hentai illustration near the bottom of the piece. This might be regrettable to some people, but the truth is Davis could not get to the root of what makes this “Cute Cthulu” business so insidious without referring to hentai. So there it is, and here is the link (NSFW).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Music

I have traveled the highways and byways, beat the hedges and combed the ditches in search of slightly- but-not-too-offbeat new Christmas music. And I have come up empty-handed. That Corporate Repository Of Legal Downloads is giving serious promo-time to Pink Martini, whose interpretations of old stalwarts are snappy enough to keep the group, if not the audience, from falling asleep. I finally gave Bela Fleck's Grammy Winning Christmas album a spin. Fleck nudges the funny-bone without tipping the whole enterprise into Novelty Act.

But, unless you can introduce me to the disc I've missed, I shall rely on the tried and true.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Don Cherry, Exit Stage Right

Rob Ford, Toronto's new mayor, hasn't done much yet to change the shape of his office or the city he's taken charge of, but his mastery over a largely antagonistic media is truly remarkable. The coiffed heads holding out the microphones don't like him, and Ford is often his own worst enemy when he chooses to answer their questions. And yet this week he managed to come out looking sharp, by pulling a sleight-of-hand that completely hoodwinked the camera's (and public) eye. Ford craftily delivered on a flashy, one-time power-play custom-made for voters who'd grown weary of high-minded political prevarication (more later) while conscripting from the audience a loud-mouthed rube to further distract from the mayor's own less-than-appealing public image — one Don Cherry.

Cherry is always game to grab the spotlight, the mic, the camera, the audience member by the ears if he has to. With his pink double-breasted jacket — “For all the pinkos out there riding bicycles and everything” — and his sledge-hammer wit (ibid) Cherry performed to spec, explaining to City Council and the public exactly why Rob Ford “is going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen,” specifically referring to the first act Ford did as mayor-elect: personally and publicly correcting a single instance of bureaucratic bungling that the Toronto Sun had taken on as a cause célèbre. “And put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks.”

I was in my car, listening to the broadcast on the radio, and when Cherry put the emphasis on “kooks” I burst out laughing. Ford took the mic next, and, thanks to this splendidly manufactured contrast, came across for the first time in his life as a gentleman of understated and considerate character. I wanted to stop the car and applaud, but behind my revelry was an edge of nervousness that kept me from truly enjoying the moment. Not for Toronto, mind you, or even for myself: left-wing kooks like me actually take a perverse pleasure in public humiliations that prove us, beyond all shadow of a doubt, completely wrong. Those giddy moments bolster what's left of our flagging faith in humanity. No, I was nervous for Don Cherry, because I think I'm watching him write his own final chapter. And it's looking pretty sad.

Don Cherry has paradoxically managed to charm his way into the hearts of millions of Canadian television viewers (including my own) simply by being who he is. He talks about what's important to him, and what's important to him is often what's important to the people watching him: chiefly hockey, of course, but also the fate of our soldiers, and other hard-working joes having a tough time making a go of it. Like many of the extreme-right blowhards to the south of us, Cherry is incredibly showy, but unlike many of the same it is never just for show. The impression most of us have, thanks in large part to the masterful massaging touch of Ron MacLean, Cherry's HNIC straight-man and long-time friend, is that Cherry will never say something he doesn't believe, or force himself to believe something he's been asked to say.

MacLean, however, is carrying more and more of Cherry's weight these days. Cherry's age is showing, and the moments when MacLean has to feed or finish one of Cherry's lines are increasing. And that's just hockey. As for the politics, once the cheerful questioning of a respectful side-kick has been removed, Cherry's perspective on things starts to look shopworn or, worse, naïve.

Adding his bellow to the bullhorns wielded by Ford and Julian Fantino is unfortunate for Cherry. No doubt they're fine fellows at a backyard barbecue, but professionally they have already proven themselves to be slippery and frequently contemptible politicians. The lift Cherry gives these candidates will be temporary. Their final effect on him, on the other hand, could likely stick, and not smell nearly so sweet.

That's a lousy way for one of Canada's “national treasures” to go into that good night. But there it is: it's a sin to entice your sidekick into the grave with you, because the Longest Journey is inevitably a solo one. Cherry seems intent on taking those initial steps now.

Text and audio here. It's sheer speculation on my part, but I wonder if this isn't the piece Cherry was railing against — a must-read for any fan of "Canada's Game."

Friday, December 03, 2010

Mel Birnkrant, The Colorforms Years

Cory Doctorow at Boing-Boing links to Mel Birnkrat's reminiscences of designing toys in the 70s and 80s -- a "golden age" by Doctorow's lights. I saw the Outer Space Men display, and figured I was in for a lengthy exploration of Matt Mason & Co., the "golden age" of toys by my lights. Imagine my surprise, then, when the toy company in question turned out to be Colorforms, a name that during my childhood was synonymous with thrift and lockjaw articulation. These were the toys that quickly found their way to the bottom of the toy box, then the garbage can.

Imagine my further surprise when I looked at my computer clock and realized I had actually spent an entire hour poring over this man's memories and illustrations. In the 70s he and a team of artists took their mutual obsession with vintage toys and illustrations and pretty much set the aesthetic template that brought about a mutual renaissance for the licensing suits at Disney and the Children's Television Workshop.

Birnkrat seems a bit rueful about the now predominant image of Mod Mickey with foot out, arms behind back. He won't claim any credit for generating this enduring gust of zeitgeist, but Birnkrat certainly proved himself as a finely attuned weather vane, back in the day. Here's a shot of his desk.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Old Town Hall

Do my eyes deceive me?!

Our current town hall is in the foreground, by the way. And, yes indeed, the shakes and shingles on the old town hall belfry are being replaced -- by professionals.

I haven't yet been inside, so I have no idea what's going on there, if anything. But one could almost take this as a hopeful sign. For contrast, this and this is what the old town hall like four years ago.

Alice Cooper (Yet Again)

One DVD I recently did purchase on impulse is Alice Cooper's Theatre of Death — Live At The Hammersmith 2009 (A). At first glance the package appeared to be an incredible bargain: for less than $20 I got the concert on DVD and CD, with a setlist of 26 songs that pretty much covers his most hummable “classicks.” I didn't take the second glance until I opened the package at home and realized that, in order to run through so many crowd-pleasers in a mere 96 minutes, the act of truncation wouldn't be restricted to the stage guillotine.

While the song-snippet approach reduces the likelihood of me playing the CD a second time, it's certainly an effective tack for Cooper's stage show. The old man and his crew of youngsters don't just canter through his musical ouevre, they sprint through his collected hodgepodge of macabre stage stunts, too. Here, too, the audience pretty much gets the sum total of Coop's legendary antics. I watched it with the kids. I can't remember which one said, “That would be cool to see in person,” but that rather neatly summed up my own thoughts as well.

As I watched the show I took note of a handful of songs I couldn't quite place. The ever-helpful internet informed me they were all from Goes To Hell (1975, A), an album I had yet to listen to. I corrected that oversight, et voila — I discovered toast! Goes To Hell is one very hammy, self-indulgent, entertaining album. And funny, too: the first time the 13-year-old heard Cooper croon, “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows” she burst into giggles.

Thirty-five years later, Cooper's voice has nowhere near the same expressive range, and the Hammersmith show, so tightly focused on delivering spectacle, leaves no room for Coop's former broad smirk. Back in the day he clearly reveled in the absurdity of it all — the growing feedback loop of fame, controversy, infamy — and took deliberate aim at the jocular vein. The clown has been discarded with the infamy, I think. But it's still gratifying to see Alice Cooper working hard to make sure the audience gets its money's worth. It all remains delightfully energetic nonsense.

WP Flashback: 2007 was the year Cooper got my number.