Saturday, April 26, 2008

Spring reading

I hate that I can't seem to get into any fiction these days. All the best-sellers are romances (not for me) or serial-killer crime novels (I read Michael Connelly's "The Poet" and that was enough for me), and the mid-list "literary" stuff I look at just doesn't grab me. I've drifted away from fantasy and sf in the last 20 years or so, and even old-fashioned genre mysteries (like Martha Grimes) don't interest me much any more. Which leaves me non-fiction, mostly history and celebrity bios and books about pop culture. Even there, I'm in a slump, as most of what I've read lately has left me unsatisfied:

"Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art" by Simon Louvish: The balance of the book is on the art, to the point where the book should have been called "The Films of Cecil B. DeMille." Though there is an almost exhaustive amount of material about DeMille's very early days, once he starts making movies, the focus shifts to plot summaries of films that run to multiple pages, and very little about DeMille the man and what made him tick.

"The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America" by David Hajdu: I very much enjoyed Hajdu's earlier book "Positively 4th Street" about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi Farina, to the point where I went out and bought a CD set of music by the Farinas. But this book, which mostly covers the postwar years when comic books came under federal scrutiny, feels unfocused and disjointed. Though EC comics like Vault of Horror were at the center of the storm (and EC's publisher William Gaines rightfully gets a lot of attention here), Hajdu doesn't spend much time talking about the comics themselves, or the actual contemporary reception of them by their readers. A book about comics should have lots of illustrations, and this book has only a skimpy 8 pages of photos, and black & white ones at that. And "how it changed America" is never really addressed.

"Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography" by Richard Stirling: I opted to read this one instead of Andrews' own recent memoir because hers just covers her early years, leaving out her film career. This book is breezy and easy to read, but it's hardly "intimate"; the author has actually met and interviewed Andrews in the past, but he's not a close friend, and he obviously didn't gain her confidence for a full-fledged "authorized" bio. Still, the book does help bring the iconic figure of Andrews to more full-blooded life, and Stirling does share a couple of fun gossipy tales.

All this bitching makes me think I should end on something positive, so I'll mention "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," this year's Caldecott Award winner for best picture book for children. It's a wonderful story about a young orphan, living alone in a Paris train station, who is obsessed with trying to finish building an automaton left by his father. To quote from the ALA/Caldecott web page, "Neither words nor pictures alone tell this story, which is filled with cinematic intrigue. Black & white pencil illustrations evoke the flickering images of the silent films to which the book pays homage." And that makes reading the book a unique experience. Still, I couldn't help but occasionally wonder about the waste of paper--almost 550 pages to tell a story which can be read in an afternoon. The cinematic swoops and close-ups and far shots are fun, but might have been more effective in a larger page format. But it's still a memorable tale, well told.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Satan in the swamps, God in the Alps

My DVD viewing this week consisted of two wildly different films:

1) The Reaping (2007)--I grabbed this at the library on impulse, knowing almost nothing about it except it was one of Hilary Swank's "gotta pay the rent on my vacation house" B-movies. I figured it for a fun campy horror flick to swill beer and eat pretzels by. It was actually a little better than that, with almost no campiness, but it's ultimately a little too pretentious to take to heart. Swank is an ex-missionary who lost her faith and is now a college professor who goes about debunking claims of religious miracles. A somewhat hunky schoolteacher (David Morrissey) asks her to come to his small town in Louisiana to investigate what appears to be a visitation of Biblical plagues. The townies believe that a young girl and her mother who live in the swamp are devil-worshipers who have brought on blood in the waters, frogs from the sky, and lice in everyone's hair. Swank offers scientific explanations for all the Bible plagues, but soon realizes that things are not quite what they seem in the town, and that science can't explain everything that's happening.

This is a deadly serious flick with no sense of humor, but there is fun in finding the many references (in plot and visuals) to other films, most obviously The Omen, The Exorcist, and Rosemary's Baby, but also The Blair Witch Project, The Birds, Carrie, The Ten Commandments, and in its ridiculously overdone climax, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Swank and Morrissey work well together, and 13-year-old AnnaSophia Robb is very good at being creepily enigmatic for most of the movie. An odd little subplot with Stephen Rea, which feels like it was almost literally dropped in at the last minute for the sake of exposition, doesn't work, but the plague effects do work quite well, with the best saved for next-to-last, a hellish swarm of locusts that quite creeped me out. Some critics have said this movie was intended for the "God" market, but I don't see the pious faithful going for this; it's directly in line with religion-tinged horror films like The Exorcist.

2) Into Great Silence (2005)--This is usually described in summaries as a documentary about life in a monastery in France, and might, like The Reaping, be taken as "God market" bait. But this isn't really a documentary, and with a slow deliberate pace, a running time of 160 minutes, and no narration or explanation of what we're seeing, this is most assuredly not for the folks who ate up The Passion of the Christ. The director, Philip Groning, spent six months living in the Grande Chartreuse monastery with some 30 Carthusian monks who live in austerity and silence. Though we do get a sense of time passing, both in the larger sense (a snowy winter becoming a warm spring) and the smaller (the daily rituals of the monks), this is more an impressionistic take on the lives and circumstances of the monks.

The experience of watching this film is more like looking at a work of art; the visuals are always stunning, and often we're looking at men in robes and cowls not moving (in prayer or meditation, napping, sitting for hair cuts, studying) for long periods of time. The camera gets in remarkably close to the men's faces so we have an unusual sense of physical closeness to many of the monks. There is no music except for the monks' chants, and almost no dialogue except for occasional snippets of talk during the monks' weekly outdoor walks. The movie has an odd rhythm, with lots of lots of long, mostly immobile takes, interspersed with some choppy shots of candles and water. Though the look of most of the film (as I saw it on DVD on a hi-def TV) is absolutely sharp and crystal clear, there are some sequences with heavy film grain, which gives those scenes an evocative antique look. There is one beautiful shot I will remember forever: a time-lapse scene of stars and clouds moving across the sky over the monastery during one 24-hour period. This takes patience to get through--I wound up watching it over two nights, though I suspect it's more effective in one sitting--but for a unique experience, I would recommend it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

My favorite Beatles songs, period.

It's difficult to pick just a few songs out of the Beatles canon as my favorites. It would be easier to make a list of my least favorite Beatles songs; it would be a short list, less than 10, maybe "I Need You" and "Old Brown Shoe" and "Doctor Robert." There are some I tend to skip when I play albums, like "I'm Looking Through You" or "Mother Nature's Son." I can tell you my least favorite Beatles album is the American release Beatles VI. But generally, a Beatles song is a good song; I've even listened to "Revolution 9" more times than I can count, certainly more often than I've listened to any other avant-garde sound collage ever recorded (unless "Pump Up the Volume" counts). So heres a baker's dozen of Beatles songs that give me the most bliss (aside from the first two, in no particular order):

1. "Hey Jude"--such a simple song, endlessly sing-alongable. Some think it's too long, but for me, it always fades out a little too soon.

2. "Strawberry Fields Forever"--fabulous studio trickery that doesn't feel like trickery. And all the variant versions from the Anthology and the bootlegs are also worth hearing more than once.

3. "Can't Buy Me Love"--I think of the Beatles as having three phases in their career: the happy, peppy early stuff; the slower, depressing songs of '65 and '66; the psychedelic stuff and beyond. This song is the epitome of the early stage, a happy opening burst of sound, a swinging beat, and those naughty choirboy harmonies. "A Hard Day's Night" is almost as good.

4. "I Am the Walrus"--the lyrics are total nonsense, but when I was 12, I was sure there was something sinister and profound going on, and who knows, there might be. The definition of "psychedelic music" in about four minutes, rather than the 6 or 8 or 12 minutes it takes Pink Floyd. [BTW, the Oingo Boingo cover of this song is damned good]

5. "A Day in the Life"--another song that struck me as unutterably profound when I was young; now I just think it's brilliant, especially the beautiful orchestral crescendos.

6. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"--druggy, dreamy poetry with meandering ethereal verses and a kickin' chorus.

7. "Boys"--a Ringo Starr rave-up. I don't know why he's singing to his girl about how wonderful boys are, but it's too fun to think much about.

8. "For No One"--Paul's most depressing song; simple, sad, evocative, and with a killer ending, musically.

9. "Tomorrow Never Knows"--the birth of psychedelic music, and I don't care if that's a lie. Like a scary window into an H. P. Lovecraft world.

10. "Across the Universe"--a mellow cosmic meditation; like Strawberry Fields, a song that is worth listening to in its various versions and remixes, and the covers by Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright are both fine.

11. "Blue Jay Way"--another wonderful hazy dream.

12. "Things We Said Today"--to this musically unsophisticated listener, this melody sounds complex and adventurous, but still fun to sing along with.

13. "Norwegian Wood"--the best folky song the Beatles did; like others on this list, a little scary sounding with a meaning that seems to be hidden just below the surface.

And how can I leave off "Eleanor Rigby" and "Penny Lane" and "She Loves You" and "The Two of Us" and "Fool on the Hill" and "Back in the USSR" and "Come Together" and "Dear Prudence" and "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Lovely Rita" and ...

Sunday, April 6, 2008

My favorite Beatles songs that no one else likes, part 2

On to round 2 of, well, what the subject line says, with maybe a little less commentary than in part 1:

3. "Flying," the one and only official Beatles instrumental from their pre-Anthology works, on Magical Mystery Tour. It's almost too short to feel like a full-fledged work (and it actually does have voices in it, albeit singing "la-la-las" rather than lyrics), but it has a distinct melody and atmosphere to it. I wonder if a longer version of it is buried in a vault (or on a bootleg album) somewhere.

4. "I'm So Tired," from the White Album; a song about insomnia, possibly triggered by stress or drugs or unleashed creativity, we don't know, though the singer (John) does note that his mind is set on "you"--just as George Harrison's mind was set on "you" many years later. John's voice is effectively rough-edged, especially when he sings the lines, "You know it's three weeks, I'm goin' insane." It all sounds gloomily real and yet still melodic and entertaining.

5. "Your Mother Should Know," from Magical Mystery Tour; Paul's contributions to the Beatles canon, aside from "Hey Jude," "Helter Skelter," and "Yesterday," often get accused of being too fluffy, too much outdated music-hall pop. Many of them are, but that doesn't automatically make them less worthy of critical consideration. This one is as blatantly old-fashioned as "When I'm 64" but is not as well thought of. Still, it's a charming little ditty with a catchy melody and lush harmonies and a nice minor-key break in the middle.

6. "Good Morning Good Morning"; for me, all of Sgt. Pepper is ecstasy-inducing, but I rarely hear this raucous John Lennon song talked about outside of its Pepper context. It's about the everyday routine of a young working-class guy, but it's full of pent-up frustration, expressed through fuzzy guitars and blaring horns. I used to think the singer had a wife he was cheating on, until I learned that "Meet the Wife" was a British TV show.

The last 5 are all songs from their pre-Rubber Soul days, and all, to my ears, are just as wonderful as any of their early hits, but these tend to get overlooked because they weren't released as singles:

7. "Things We Said Today" from the American album Something New.

8. "Tell Me Why" also from Something New.

9. "Not a Second Time" from Meet the Beatles.

10. "Don't Bother Me," George Harriosn's first Beatles song, from Meet the Beatles.

11. "Misery" from the British album Please Please Me.

I don't have much to say about those songs individually, but I like each one just as much as any of the more well known hits. In fact, "Things" is probably one of my top 5 Beatles songs of all time, perhaps partly because it didn't wear out its welcome through incessant radio airplay.