Monthly Archives: April 2011

Blue Monday (The Once and Future Paul Simon Anniversary Edition)

Between the release of his superb new album, So Beautiful Or So What, and the 40th anniversary re-release of Bridge Over Troubled Water, his last album as the songwriting half of Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon is giving us a good long look at his once and future self. Is it any surprise that he holds up quite well under the scrutiny?

Part of my problem with Bridge Over Troubled Water was that when I got around to it (sometime in the mid-Seventies)  I’d pretty much lost my taste for well-scrubbed commercial folk-pop, and the epic title track was already vying with “Imagine” for designation as Most Overplayed Inspirational Song. The screechy strings on the big finale still do unpleasant things to my fillings.

But once you get past the three hit singles that loom at the start of side one — “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “El Condor Pasa,” and “Cecilia” — Bridge Over Troubled Water is surprisingly spry and light on its feet, with a sense of humor that points to Simon’s first solo albums. Bookends has always been the S&G album I return to most often, if only because it was the first recording that allowed glints of humor and wit to break through the clenched grad-school seriousness of their first three records: before that, their idea of lightening things up was “A Simple Desultory Phillippic,” a joke as leaden as its title. But “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied” kick things into higher gear while keeping their tongues firmly in cheek.

There are also three coded songs that forecast the breakup of S&G, and the best of them,  “The Only Living Boy in New York,” stands with some of the best work Paul Simon ever recorded. Even if you didn’t know “Tom” was the codeword for Art Gurfunkel (he and Simon initially performed as Tom and Jerry) you’d know you were getting a glimpse into the mixed emotions of a working friendship, with its mingling of pride in the partner’s accomplishments (in this case, Garfunkel flying to Mexico to film Catch-22 with Mike Nichols) undercut by the other partner’s faint resentment at being left out. Even the recording itself plays into the feeling: Simon singing by himself, with Garfunkel’s ethereal harmonies floating somewhere overhead, a perfect blend of style and content.

On the value-added side, the 40th anniversary edition includes a DVD with “Songs of America,” a 1969 curio that aired once in 1969. I won’t say it should have been left to the bootleggers, but its very much a Sixties antique, both in its format (traveling landscape shots intercut with glimpses of Simon and Garfunkel at work and on stage) and its content (glimpses of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as reminders of what was lost). A specially made documentary, “The Harmony Game,” has plenty of nice tidbits about the recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water — if, like me, you always wondered about the instrumental break on “The Boxer,” know that it was a blend of high trumpet and pedal steel guitar.

As for So Beautiful Or So What, it is indeed all the evidence you need of Simon’s continued creative fire. Not that there was anything wrong with You’re the One or Surprise, but if this turns out to be Paul Simon’s career valediction, we can say he went out on a high note. It isn’t as immediately accessible as, say, Simon’s first solo album, which remains one of the greatest pop records in history, but its offhanded, relaxed charms get through. If “The Only Living Boy in New York” is a great song about friendship, “Dazzling Blue” is a great one about marriage.

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Snobs is as snobs does

If you thought the artistic and commercial success of the three Lord of the Rings films, capped by the 11-award sweep on Oscar night for The Return of the King, would finally earn the fantasy genre some long overdue respect, take a gander at this New York Times review of HBO’s Game of Thrones mini-series and think again.

I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s underlying novel, or indeed any of the books in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, but I have read enough of Martin’s other works to understand that the man is no joke. I was still an avid Analog reader when his early SF stories, such as “With Morning Comes Mistfall” and “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” helped serve notice that the John Campbell era was most definitely over, and I consider Fevre Dream a neglected Eighties classic — one of the most original and ingenious vampire novels ever written. I gather that the bulky A Song of Ice and Fire series is Martin’s bid to write a fantasy epic with the scale and ambition of J.R.R. Tolkien while avoiding slavish imitation (and even staking out higher literary ground). I have no doubt he’s the man for the job.

But, as Jeff Sypeck notes, Ginia Bellafante’s review is a sour-smelling landfill spilling over with the stalest, tritest cliches ever excreted about fantasy fans and authors. There’s nothing in the piece you haven’t read a thousand times already, from the gibes about boys with no dating prospects to the whining about having to keep track of so many names and characters. The craft of criticism is not well served by lazy hacks who disdain the effort of understanding a work on its own terms, and knock it for failing to rise to their limited expectations. A critic isn’t required to like a given work, but the critic is required to show at least some interest in what the work is trying to do. If Ginia Bellafante couldn’t be bothered with this task, she should have stepped aside and let a real critic show her how it’s done.

Bellafanate’s clueless wanking reminds us that one of the many blessings of the Internet has been the elimination of credentialism in arts reporting. The days when a Times copyhack could command respect simply by virtue of collecting a paycheck from the Gray Lady are over, and good goddamned riddance. Most newspapers have already dealt themselves out of the cultural criticism game by getting rid of book reviews — after all, why would an industry that depends on readers want to cultivate people who buy books? — and training their lenses on whatever dive Snooki has decided to pass out in. The most informed, passionate and worthwhile arts writing has been exiled to the Internet, and Bellafante’s piece shows why we should be happy about it. There was a time when someone like Edmund Wilson — a valuable and versatile intellectual, but also frequently a ridiculous snob — would take a few sniffs at Tolkien or Lovecraft before cocking a leg over them, and we were all expected to be grateful for the golden shower of attention from a Certified Big Time Critic. Well, in this wide-open arena, the credit goes to writers with wit, style, and knowledge, and none of those qualities apply to someone who writes something like this:

If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

I hope this doesn’t shake you up too badly, Ginia, but this Wire fan understands that stories where the characters wield swords instead of Glocks can have just as much to say about human values and instincts. My literary world is big enough to put Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance alongside John O’Hara and John Steinbeck. When the Game of Thrones boxed set of DVDs comes out, I’ll give it a privileged place in the bookstore rental collection alongside The Wire, Treme, and The Singing Detective. An artist engaged with real human emotions and actions, regardless of the genre he works in, is always more interesting than a two-bit critic scoring cheap snark-points.

Embrace your irrelevance, Ginia. You’ve earned that, if nothing else.

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The invisible auteur

I first began to appreciate the craftsmanship of Sidney Lumet when I read his wonderful book Making Movies, which is loaded with anecdotes about the backgrounds of some of his most celebrated pictures. As he prepped for Dog Day Afternoon, his 1975 film about a Brooklyn bank robbery that turned into a prolonged hostage situation, Lumet approached the extras and civilians who would be milling behind the police barricades during the exterior scenes and gave them stories of their own to enact. For example, he asked a group of women to imagine they were members of the same bridge club, and two of the women suspected the other of being a cheat. The women wouldn’t be noticeable or even visible during much of the shoot, but Lumet wanted to make sure they wouldn’t just stand around like extras — their backstories, he reasoned, would subtly enhance the overall realism of the scene. He was coaching them in how to be invisible, in order to enhance the final product.

Becoming invisible — subordinating oneself to the service of the film — was the closest Lumet came to having an overall style. There is no such thing as a signature camera move or trademarked shot in Lumet’s bulky canon. Like Carol Reed and George Roy Hill, he was more interested in proving himself a storyteller than setting himself up as a genius. Lumet credited this to his background in theater, where the script is the key to everything: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”

The proof is in the storytelling. Two of Lumet’s most celebrated films, Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982), are suffused with the flavor of their screenwriters: Paddy Chayefsky for the former, David Mamet for the latter. In fact, The Verdict gave moviegoers their first real taste of Mamet’s darkly funny mode. My favorite moment comes when Paul Newman’s burned-out ambulance chaser, representing a woman left comatose by hospital bungling, talking to his mentor, tries to dismiss the opposition’s attorney as just another lawyer. The mentor, played masterfully by Jack Warden, fixes him with a who-are-you-kidding stare and says “He’s the prince of fucking darkness. He’ll have people testifying they saw her water-skiing off Marblehead.”

I’ve always thought that Network might have benefited from some directorial interference: the film’s Achilles heel is Chayefsky’s reluctance to give William Holden’s Max Schumacher , the male menopausal voice of conscience, the same harsh satirical treatment meted to the other characters. But there are subtle jabs at the way Schumacher keeps retailing the same war story over and over, which suggests his career may not have been quite as colorful as he wanted people to think, and there’s no denying the scene between Max and his wife, who takes a flame-thrower to his bullshit with a speech that Beatrice Straight savored to the last napalm-flavored drop. But Lumet was smart enough to see there was more than enough gold in Chayefsky’s scenario to overpower the tin-pot crankery of some of the dialogue. Some critics (notably the sainted Pauline Kael) dismissed the film’s satire as too over the top, but as we have learned, Chayefsky was, if anything, too gentle. The contemptible ease with which the existing political-industrial media complex diverts populist anger into ridiculous sideshows is all there in Network, which gave us the bad news a generation ahead of time. The “I’m mad as hell” scene has become a pop-culture icon, still referenced by pundits of all stripes, but look closely at what’s going on there — the way the frothing anger almost instantly degenerates into a bedlam of shouting and unfocused rage, with corporate schemers looking on and salivating at the thought of reaping this whirlwind.

Another carryover from Lumet’s theater days was his obvious love for actors and the things they could do with the right material. Though Network didn’t get the Oscar for best picture (it was beaten out by Rocky, of all things), it swept three of the four acting categories. The silent scream at the climax of The Pawnbroker (1964) remains the defining moment of Rod Steiger’s career. In The Hill (1965), Lumet gave Sean Connery one of his earliest chances to prove there was more to him than James Bond, and underlined the point with The Anderson Tapes (1971) and the unjustly overlooked The Offence (1972).  As late as 2006, Lumet rescued Vin Diesel from years of bad choices by casting him in the underrated Mafia comedy Find Me Guilty. The Godfather (1972) gave Al Pacino his breakthrough, but it was his two collaborations with Lumet, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, that gave him a career, and when Lumet received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 2005, Pacino repaid the debt in full with a speech of almost Wagnerian splendor.

Along with a respect for scripts and a love for watching actors cut loose with their material, Lumet’s career was distinguished by an appetite for stories exploring morally ambiguous terrain, particularly in matters of law and justice. Unless you’re a Viewer of a Certain Age, who remembers the way the sanitized television police dramas of the early Seventies shaped the public’s view of cop shops, its hard to imagine the sheer startling impact of Serpico (1973), which erased the well-scrubbed moral certainties of Dragnet and Adam-12. Considering that this was the same period in which Joseph Wambaugh was writing from the inside about the realities of urban police work, I’m surprised Lumet and Wambaugh never collaborated. What wouldn’t I give to see The Onion Field directed by Lumet?

But if I had to pick one Lumet film for desert-island status, it would be Prince of the City (1981). Serpico was one of the first films to expose the way the siege mentality of stressful police work could lead cops into a moral swamp, but Prince of the City broke new ground in its depiction of the way the futile grind of the drug war forces narcos to become almost as bad as the dealers they stalked. Few moments in film are as horrifying, or as gripping, as the sequence in which Treat Williams’ narco must abet the robbery of one of his snitches, then stand by as the snitch beats his girlfriend for using up the drugs he’d been counting on to cushion the pain of his loss. Lumet, as resolute as ever in making a film for grownups, doesn’t provide any easy catharsis or grandstanding moments. The low-key ending, in which the disgraced hero has been relegated to teaching classes at the police academy, tells us all we need to know about the rest of his police career. I agree with Digby that Prince of the City points directly to The Wire and its skeptical, hyperrealistic view of police work. That’s some damned good company.

Lumet’s resume has its share of clinkers: Power stumbled around its subject, throwing punches and missing like a barroom chump. Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks —  the less said the better. When he strayed from his favorite mode of gritty realism, the results were often disastrous: The Wiz, anyone? But when I look at Sidney Lumet’s filmography, the first word that comes to mind is “grownup.” He made grownup movies for grownup viewers, and its hard to think of anyone who could follow in his footsteps, much less fill his shoes.

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Gray studies

Regular readers of this blog know that I consider Michael Gray the best writer on Bob Dylan walking the planet. I also greatly enjoyed his recent biography of blues master Blind Willie McTell, so needless to say it was a real treat to have Gray drop in at my bookstore for a Sunday afternoon reading and Q&A. A small crowd of fellow Dylan obsessives showed up, some driving in from rather far away (Hunterdon County is a bit of a trek) to hear the man speak.  It was probably all timed to raise the profile of his spiffy new Web site, though I couldn’t say for sure.

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Tooning in

The reliably brilliant political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has packed up and left Salon for the big orange circus tent at Daily Kos. That’s news in itself, but even more intriguing is the fact that Kos, while running Tom Tomorrow’s cartoons, has also taken on the job of building a political cartoon section for Kos.

I love that idea. One of the many ingenious things the newspaper industry has done to destroy itself is to dumb down op-ed pages, shrink comics down to postage-stamp size, and shy away from political cartoonists. There was a time when Pat Oliphant, Herblock and Paul Conrad were as well known as columnists like Art Buchwald and David Broder. I’d love to see the Internet foster a resurgence of political cartooning, above and beyond what exists now.

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I’d vote for Sarah Palin

Wait a minute . . . what’s today’s date again?