Monthly Archives: May 2011

Das Cinegold

One of my summertime must-sees is the new Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life. Along with his instinct for gorgeously shot images, Malick shares with Stanley Kubrick a genius for using music — found music, usually classical — to create moods. The opening of The New World, set to the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold is a case in point:

One of the boldest choices in Malick’s 1973 debut feature, Badlands, was the use of  Carl Orff’s”Gassenhauer” to give the film a feeling out of time. Only once does his use a Fifties vintage song, and his austere approach guarantees it has plenty of impact.

In the scene where Kit and Holly burn down her house after killing her father, the beauty of the imagery is sometimes too much — you worry about losing the horror of what’s happening. But that is precisely Malick’s point: Kit and Holly live in their own world, with Holly providing a narration cobbled from romantic cliches and movie-magazine gossip.They are so divorced from the reality of their atrocities that Kit’s affable greeting every time they meet a potential victim becomes devastatingly creepy.

Judging from this trailer (and this tasty preview from Alex Ross) The Tree of Life will be a similar orgy of classical and original music. Judging from the trailer, some of the music is overly familiar but still capable of giving pleasure: it’s been ages since I listened to “The Moldau,” but the passage here reminded me of long-ago days when Smetana’s music flowed through the house. I can’t wait to experience this movie.

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The Bonfire of the Inanities

Word that winger filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon, the auteur behind Fire from the Heartland and Battle for America (and, it should be noted, actual movies such as Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner and Julie Taymor’s Titus), has produced a feature length documentary about Bailin’ Palin inspired Balloon Juice to solicit title suggestions. Mine is up top, but you can offer yours here.

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The lines of a lifetime

I came to rock and roll fairly late, as a high schooler, and I came to Bob Dylan’s music slightly later, as a high school junior. I was an avid reader of Rolling Stone magazine, where Dylan’s name was used with the kind of reverence reserved for powerful magic spells, but there’d always been something a  little forbidding about him, and I wasn’t sure where I wanted to start.  But then, while listening to the radio, the deejay played “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” after which he recited the chorus: “And then time will tell/ Just who fell/ and who’s been left behind.” I was at the tail end of a long wallow in unrequited love, and the words acted like a stiff breeze on a foggy morning, clearing away murk and letting me see the beauty of what was around me. It isn’t very often that a song does that for you. You remember things like that.

A month later, Blood on the Tracks came out, marking the start of Dylan’s annus mirabilis — i.e., nineteen hundred and seventy five. It was, and is, strong stuff: a grown man and a powerful artist taking stock of past romances, owning up to his mistakes, and teaching himself to walk tall with heartbreak. There was also a surrealistic Western, a howling jeremiad against celebrity, and a multifaceted narrative in which perspectives constantly shifted and doubled back on themselves. It was a great album to start with, and though I’ve ranged back and forth over the man’s catalogue many times, Blood on the Tracks remains the benchmark for all things Dylan. In fact, the beginning of my days as an obsessive bootleg collector began when I learned there was an earlier version of Blood on the Tracks, which led me to Joaquin Antique and a host of other unauthorized discs.

It’s one thing to say you grew up with an artist, but it’s quite another to realize an artist helped you grow up. I sang “Forever Young” to my children when they were infants. I was listening to “Boots of Spanish Leather” when I topped the first span of the Pulaski Skyway and saw the plume of smoke coming off the World Trade Center, and I was in Madison Square Garden a couple of months later when Dylan spoke about how much New York City meant to him. Not a week goes by that I don’t play one of Dylan’s songs or think about one of his lines.

So now he’s seventy years old. There was the starkly beautiful and haunting early folk music phase, the articulate anger and spiky intelligence of the Highway 61 Revisited phase, the oddball Americana of the Basement Tapes, the forays into country and gospel, the long stretch of confusion and artistic uncertainty, and now the elder statesman phase. Each phase carried a bounty of extraordinary songs. Dylan has always been skeptical of the idea that songs can change anything, but I can’t help thinking this world would be a much different place if his songs hadn’t been there to help illuminate the journey. I can say this much for certain: I would be a different person if I hadn’t had Bob Dylan’s art winding through my life and thoughts.

Big books

My long march through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire cycle got more than a little bogged down in A Clash of Kings, the second volume. After eagerly gulping down the first book, A Game of Thrones, I found the second book leaden and slow, with hundreds of pages of wheel-spinning as the various kinglings and their factions jockeyed for position. But the last third or so rallied: the depiction of the attack on King’s Landing in all its bloody confusion was superb, and the final surprise twist involving the fate of some important fugitives was heartening — I’d wanted to spend more time with those characters. Meanwhile,  the third novel, A Storm of Swords, is every bit the bacon-and-cheddar awesomeburger fans of the series promised it would be.

Reading these books, as well as some other recent bestsellers, once again shows how often the most successful fiction flies in the face of those storytelling rules so beloved of editors and publishers. Show, don’t tell. Avoid long passages of exposition. Keep the writing tight. Don”t confuse the reader with lots of characters. Dan Brown’s novels and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium threesome (which have a lot more in common than Brown’s fans probably realize, or that Larsson’s fans would care to admit) groan under the weight of big slabs of exposition, and they have enough characters to fill Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Ditto Martin’s novels, which are far more gracefully written but still defy many of those ironclad rules laid down by editors. (The chapters of A Clash of Kings shift among nine separate viewpoint characters, plus a third-person omniscient prologue, which is enough to send most editors staggering to the fainting couch.) And while the Harry Potter novels were officially written for children, they offered enough characters and exposition to tax the memory of the average adult.

None of this is an argument in favor of baggy prose or out-of-control casting, but it should remind us that many readers go to a novel for an immersive experience, and that means complexity and depth. What’s most interesting is that the authors who broke the rules most successfully have all been genre hands, working outside or on the fringes of literary respectability. Which leaves us to wonder if genre editors are more open-minded in their approach to novels, or if genre writers, whose work is considered infra dig by many reviewers, benefit from the freedom that comes with going downmarket.

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Bobness Day

Radio station WBAI is catering to your Bob Dylan needs today with a daylong Bobfest. What more do you need to know?

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While we were laughing…

It was fun having a laugh about Harold Camping and his Rapture nonsense, but this valuable post reminds us of the very real human cost of his religious quackery. Myers is right: Camping should be disgraced and prosecuted for the craziness he unleashed.

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Those Rapture-ready blues

I’d hoped to find some clothing bargains today, post-Rapture, but contrary to expectations there were no piles of empty duds on the sidewalks this morning. At the very least I’d hoped to score some sneakers, maybe a nice hat. Damn. Or not-damn, as the case may be.

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Bathsheba Monk gives good read

Bathsheba Monk gave a terrific reading at the bookstore yesterday, opening with a very funny standup routine and then doing a graceful segue into a chapter of her new novel, Nude Walker.  But you don’t have to take my word for it — read what happened from the lady herself.

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The trouble with libertarians

The trouble with libertarians is that they sound smart and engaging right up to the moment they sound like cloistered imbeciles. End the war on drugs? Start taxing churches? Get us out of Iraq? No problem! But then. . . then the conversation shifts away from the abstract, and weird things start to happen. Your clever libertarian friend starts to sound like a middle-schooler convinced he konws the ways of the world. In my experience, any conversation involving race or civil rights inevitably leads a libertarian to intellectually flatline. Rep. Ron Paul’s recent statement that he would have opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one of the biggest weapons in the fight to end racial segregation, is the perfect example.

It’s not because he’s a racist. Oh heavens to Betsy, not that. It’s just that he has these principles, see, and that means the duty of upholding property rights takes precedence over, say, breaking the economic and political stranglehold Jim Crow inflicted on black Americans. Anyway, Jim Crow was going to wither away on its own, without any government busybodies stepping in. Just like slavery was going to go away on its own, without the Civil War to muddy things up.

The thing is, you can’t go in and tell the owner of that lunch counter he can’t just arbitrarily refuse to serve people on the basis of race, because once you do that it’s only a matter of time before you hear the sound of jackboots coming down the street. In LibertarianLand, the fact that black Americans were already living under police state conditions matters not at all, compared with the theoretical possibility of another kind of police state somewhere down the road.

So, is Ron Paul a principled dolt (i.e., a libertarian too fixated on ideology to address the real world) or a dissembling bigot (i.e., an opportunist who puts on a Milton Friedman Halloween mask to cover his swinish racism)? At this point, the distinction is meaningless — a distinction without a difference. As long as his words and actions give aid and comfort to racists, it really doesn’t matter how many times he’s been personally nice to black people. The best you can say for him is that he’s useless, which serves as a pretty good description of libertarians in general.

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