Monday, August 29, 2011

Conan The Barbarian, Defying The Ratings

Does anyone bother with movie ratings anymore? There are kiddie movies, then there are adult movies, and no real gradation of the spectrum exists between the two extremes. As for the guardians at the gate, it’s been years since I’ve encountered an adult there, and what 16-year-old is going to tell an eight-year-old kid he can’t go see a “Restricted” movie?

In 1981, when I was 16, getting into a “Restricted” movie required a modicum of finesse. To persuade the adult behind the wicket I’d crease my brow (a few lines on the face to make me look older), then strive for a friendly confidence that didn’t cross the line into presumptuous swagger. I was nervous going into my first attempt, so I enlisted a classmate to tag along for moral support. The old gal who stood at the gate gave us the stink-eye. “Boys, I’m gonna need to see some ID.”

“Sure, it’s right . . . aw, nuts: I forgot my wallet at home.”

A smirk. “Same with your friend, I suppose.”

Vigorous nods, gormless smiles.

She heaved a sigh and wearily shook her head. “Get in there.”

We hustled into the foyer, where we congratulated each other with discrete high-fives. Then we lined up for popcorn — and bumped into another classmate, working the snack stand. She blanched. “What’re you doing here?”

Now was the time for swagger. “Watching the movie.”

“How’d you get past her? She’s tough! If she knew I knew you guys I could get fired!”

“Then stop talking and give us the popcorn already. With butter, please.”

Once inside the theatre, the swagger disappeared. My buddy and I silently contemplated the forbidden mysteries that were about to unfold. What were we going to see? The mind reeled. We had no clue.

What we saw was a joke — Conan The Barbarian. The guy playing Conan was much too large for the role and spoke like someone had wrapped a tourniquet around his tongue. Everyone wore a bad wig and no shirt — including the women, which got old surprisingly fast, even for two horny and hetero 16-year-old dudes. The pacing was sluggish to the point of torpor, and scenes that were intended to shock instead provoked loud guffaws, the biggest of which occurred when the bodybuilder, nailed to an enormous baobab, snacks on a vulture that looks like it mistakenly wandered in from the Muppet Show. So much for the frisson of the forbidden.

That 30-year-old memory played through my mind as I sat in the theatre on Saturday, waiting for the lights to dim and Conan The Barbarian 3D to begin. In a way, it felt like I was once again tempting the fates. To call this movie “critically reviled” is an understatement — even the rejuvenated and now overly-generous Ebert gives it a mere one-and-a-half stars. Now one of the script-doctors has published an anxious post-mortem of the movie in an effort to absolve himself of blame.

I have to admit I was actually thrilled to once again consider the question: just what was I about to see?

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Arrr, matey!" Just What Is The Groom Supposed To Wear?

Last summer we attended a wedding where the bride, dressed in traditional white, was taken captive by pirates — dressed in traditional bandannas, cutlasses, eye-patches, baggy boots, etc. When the groom/buccaneer attempted rescue, he too was taken captive and forced at sword-point to plead for the life of his betrothed. Under this duress, he took a shaky breath, then broke into song and . . . you get the picture.

We knew the groom, and this contribution to the party was him to a “T”: young, dramatic, vigorously expressive, impatient with staid tradition. We'd only just met the bride, and liked what we saw. She and her maids were not only gorgeous, they were also genuinely good-humored, and sweetly indulgent toward the dudes galloping about the other side of the altar. Eventually the wedding proceeded as weddings are expected to. We took it all as a good sign for the couple in question.

The people we sat with at the reception dinner, however, had this to say: “He’s going to regret what he wore.”

Hm. Really? I mean, any more than other grooms do, when the blessed event is a distant memory and the kids are pulling out the pictures for giggles? No doubt there are Flickr accounts devoted solely to bridal gown disasters, but let’s be honest: the groom standing next to the gal wearing the fashion apocalypse is making her look like Coco Chanel. She may, in fact, resemble the Bride of Frankenstein, but he is still, in fact, Frankenstein. No groom escapes that fate.

The second most important question regarding the groom’s attire is, Is he comfortable? If so, than he’s as happy as he’s likely to get during the event. Is he having fun? Bonus! Are they both having fun? Well . . . that’s just magic.

Hey, here’s me in 1994, defying the odds with a bolo tie and ponytail! Timeless — when propped beside my good-humored, sweetly indulgent and drop-dead gorgeous wife.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jack Layton, Loyal Opposition: July 18, 1950 – August 22, 2011

Yesterday's news took my breath away. Four weeks ago, when Jack Layton announced he'd be absenting himself from Parliament for the rest of the summer to focus on his fight against cancer I imagined his was a dire prognosis. But my God, it's been less than a month.

Even leaning on a cane, he didn't appear hampered by his condition. When his wife Olivia joined him on the platform, the two seemed to get hot and bothered just courting the public vote. The world loves a lover — well, I did anyway. On Facebook I opined that Layton was the only national party leader whose smile didn't creep me out. Friends quickly reported other, quite different, reactions.

I voted for Layton in this last election, as well as some of the previous elections. It's likely he got my vote when he ran for mayor of Toronto, but I can't recall. Having said that, my support was not without criticism or concern. This last time around, in fact, I was determined to hold my nose and vote Liberal. Front page news on the nation's Sun tabloids, put to press in the final days of the campaign and announcing that Layton had been “caught” (and subsequently released without charges) in a massage parlor of ill-repute nearly 15 years ago, changed my mind. Nobody's come out and said Stephen Harper had anything to do with the publication, but considering the man's notoriety for micromanaging his party's campaigns and fighting dirty on the Hill, I daresay I'm catching the whiff of rosewater from Harper's palms.

I think that sums up why Layton got my support with some consistency over the decades. He could court controversy of the sort that threatened to put me off, but when it was time to hash things out in the Commons I usually had a clearer idea where he stood than I did of the Grits or Tories. Jack Layton came closer to embodying the ideal of Loyal Opposition than any of the rest of 'em — including, especially, the sneak who's presently running the show.

Links: Jack Layton's final letter to Canadians. Layton claimed professor Charles Taylor was perhaps the greatest political influence in his life. If you're a twenty-something Canadian you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with this man's ideas — especially if you think Layton's policies were wrong-headed. Start here.

Addendum: Here is a short quote from Prime Minister Harper. It seems likely to be in reference to this episode. It gets me thinking I should perhaps ease up a bit on the innuendo — August 25, 2011.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Well, you do have eclectic taste."

A jolly shout-out to C & M Books of Anchorage, AK, my most recent favorite used book store, where the proprietress greeted me with the above evaluation of the books I queued up to buy. Last Sunday I spent several hours there, poring over the shelves and piles and boxes of books. This is one of those fabulous places of considerable character, where there seem to be an endless supply of unexpected treasures silently pleading to be discovered. C & M Books also houses a formidable collection of aviation-themed coffee mugs. If you're in the neighborhood, do yourself a favor and drop in.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Supposedly Fun Thing...

Took a cruise to Alaska while celebrating my parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary. David Foster Wallace's title comes easily to mind, but the fact is we managed to have a great deal of fun. Still and all, DFW's dis-ease with that particular environment wasn't out of keeping. I have more thoughts on the matter, but 'tis the season for family and the negotiation of terrain. Consider this a promissory notice.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Sheepdogs, On The Cover Of The Rolling Stone — And Deeply Entrenched In My Playlist

My wife recently commented on the monthly fee that eMusic draws from our credit card. “You still get music from these guys?”

“Yep. I’ve grandfathered an introductory rate that still nets me 50 downloads a month — an incredible bar-goon.”

“So 50 new songs every month?”

“More or less.”

“What kind of music are we talking about? Have I heard any of it?”

The answer to the first question didn’t come easily. The answer to the second question did. She has her music, I have my music, we have our music. The girls have Glee. More often than not my monthly downloads don’t qualify for any of those categories.* But I keep with it, because it’s an inexpensive way to satisfy my curiosity.

eMusic’s stock and trade is stuff that gets played at Bonnaroo, or in the sort of nightclubs I lost the ability to locate when I became a father. A glance at my sidebar bears this out. Right now we have The People’s Temple, who seem to have recovered an echo from an unhappily concluded Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test, and, on the super-hip nightclub side of things, the Handsome Furs. A couple of months ago there was Cut Copy, the lushly indulgent disciples of Human League, and Le Butcherettes, who sound like this picture looks:

A picture is worth 1000 words, but I feel like I ought to say more. WP, the quarter-century version, took a cussed and hearty delight in any sonic palette located just to the left of the radio dial.** WP, sliding toward the half-century mark, has become stingy about delight. You kids keep on rocking in the free world: I’m happy to listen. But that’s as much encouragement as you'll get from me.

“So what kind of music are you looking for?” was my wife’s natural next question.

In a flash of damning candor, I said, “I miss classic rock. I mean, I’m sick of hearing the standards being played over and over. I guess I want new classic rock.”

Good luck with that.

Occasionally I do luck out. My itching ears were well and truly scratched by the Supersuckers’ superlative Motherfuckers Be Tripping, as well as the neo-Psychedelic musings of Porcupine Tree. Alice continues to oblige, of course. Also, there was a brief moment when Kings of Leon seemed to be huddling over their Coleman stove and cooking up something promising.

And now we have The Sheepdogs, a Canadian band that wouldn’t have caught my ear if they hadn’t caught my eye by winning the Rolling Stone cover contest.

Again, Kings of Leon comes to mind because I think KoL strains to sound this good. The crucial difference is the Sheepdogs aren’t searching for a sound — they’ve nailed it down. If you spin this week’s release, Five Easy Pieces, or better yet, last year’s Learn & Burn, you’ll catch a heady bouquet of worthy influences: the edgy wistfulness of mid-career Guess Who, the tightly-controlled guitar-driven playfulness of Dinosaur Jr., the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, a slapdash of CCR when they were still having fun, and just enough of the Beatles to acknowledge the obvious and move on to the business at hand — putting on a rock show for the here and now.***

The fact that the production of Learn & Burn was financed by pocket change and returned empties astonishes me. At first spin, this does not come off as an “indy” project. The devotion to disciplined songcraft is remarkable — in contrast to the current norm of indecipherable wordplay, most Sheepdog lyrics actually make sense (though the band is still hip enough to title a song “Rollo Tomasi,” something the latent film buff in me deeply appreciates). And the musicianship is undeniably accomplished.

Further exposure brings out some amusingly rough edges. The obligatory traces of studio conversation are there, of course, contributing to a backyard party ambience. Then there’s the inclusion of a sax solo in “Right On,” a pleasing dash of mischief for this listener, and a huge middle-finger raised at what’s left of the reigning music industry. Atlantic is fortunate to sign an act that knows its mind and its sound to this degree. There’s little I’d bother tweaking, although I imagine that whoever Atlantic books to produce the next Sheepdogs album might offer some helpful tips on nailing vocal intonation. To my ears this little nudge could make the difference between great, which the Sheepdogs’ studio sound already is, to knocking the ball out of the park and into orbit.

It’s probably been 20 years since the cover of the Rolling Stone enticed me into a record store. I’m glad for this week’s interruption: Learn & Burn will be on near-continual rotation until Atlantic serves up the next Sheepdogs album. In the meantime anyone able to catch a Sheepdogs show, should, with all possible haste. I expect they’re mighty high from this experience, which will likely bring a whole new level of awesome to their performances.

*Unless it’s jazz, which gets played through the weekend.
** Something like this guy does.
***Prior to
Learn & Burn we have two journeyman albums — Trying To Grow (2007) and Big Stand (2008, currently available as a free download on the band’s site). Although laid down with impressive assurance, these collections probably play best as happy reminiscences of a previously enjoyed live show.****
**** I remember the first two albums by U2 playing the exact same way.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Whither Life? Ivan Illich & Mark Edmundson Report From The Trenches

This link, via ALD, arrives at a remarkable juncture. Last month a friend of ours — a contemporary — died of cancer. He claimed he was ready, and certainly embodied that trait. When I mull over his final days and compare them with my present, I suspect there have been times when I was more “ready” than I am now. If I were to qualify my current existence I might say I am maintaining an uneasy stasis — an illusion masquerading as perspective, of course, but the necessary steps beyond it are not altogether obvious to me.

Not long ago I listened to an old CBC interview with Ivan Illich, who provoked an audience of theologians by opening his lecture with, “To Hell with Life!” Illich was responding in large part to the emerging Gaia movement. Gaia and its offshoots foster an inchoate pantheism, which, perhaps to my peril, I don't find nearly as dismaying as Illich seems to. I haven't read any Illich, so I only have this rudimentary sense of where he's going with his assertion, but I suspect he and Mark Edmundson share a similar concern.

“People now pursue a means — staying alive — as though it were an end in itself. Epic measures of energy invest a rank banality, for in truth there is no sustaining meaning to be had, no triumph to be achieved, simply in the maintenance of biological life.” I keenly await Edmundson's book, Self & Soul: The Human Dilemma. As for Illich, the interview can still be obtained here. Scroll down to Listener's Choice > “Listener's Choice - May 13, 2011 - Ideas - Life as Idol.”