Monday, January 28, 2008

Brains and music

When I was very young, my mom won a boxed 20-album classical music set at Bingo. Neither of my parents liked classical music much, but I was fascinated with the set, especially the discs with Strauss's waltzes and Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre." The only other music I remember listening to back then was my mom's album of the soundtrack to "Love Me or Leave Me" by Doris Day (and to this day, snatches of "Sam the Old Accordion Man" or "Shakin' the Blues Away" come unbidden into my mind). I have vivid memories of sitting on the floor, head over the portable record player, watching the vinyl spin and smelling the warm phonograph tubes and listening intently to the music. When the Beatles hit it big in 1964 (when I was 7), my babysitter got me interested in them and I bought all their singles and albums for a couple of years, then lost interest. The only records I bought after that were soundtracks... until 1968, when I suddenly found myself immersed in top 40 music. WCOL-AM was on my transistor radio all the time, and most of my allowance was going to buy records at downtown Lazarus (2nd floor). I can't recall a specific "conversion" moment, I just that by the summer of 1969, all of my spare time was devoted to listening to and reading about music. I largely lost interest in current pop music in the mid-90's, but music still plays an important everyday part in my life.

All of this tedious personal detail is just prelude to my very brief discussion of a new book, "This Is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin, a former rock musician and producer who is now a professor in the "psychology of electronic communication." The book looks at how music is processed by the brain, and how the brain conjures up all the visceral and emotional reactions we have to music. I thought I was the perfect audience member for this book, as music does cause all kinds of reactions in me; mostly I'm interested in how vividly sights and smells and events from over 30 years ago return suddenly when I hear music from my past. Levitin uses a wide range of examples of music to help make his points, though he largely ignores classical music (I wish he'd devoted some time to ambient music, though his interest in clearly in popular music). My problem is that, just when I think I understand what Levitin is saying, he delves into scientific jargon and loses me. He does a fairly good job in the beginning with explaining musical terminology (timbre, harmony, tones)--as much as I love music, I never really got into playing it; I sang in a high school chorus, and taught myself guitar in college, but I never really mastered it, or reading music, so his explanations are appreciated. But the larger points about the brain were lost on me. I did like his last chapter in which he makes an argument for music having a part in our evolutionary history, but overall the topics of the chapters feel a bit randomly chosen and placed. I also would have liked a little more anecdotal evidence. I admit to skimming several chunks of the book; I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad I got it from the library.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

She spies, with her little eyes, dead people

In terms of media consumption, it's been a slow new year around here. My partner Don has been brought quite low by a nasty little cold/flu/bug so we've mostly been watching game shows, comfort movies, and TV on DVD (Don spent his first two days off work re-watching entire seasons of Firefly, Wonderfalls, and Arrested Development). But last night we watched The Eye, a Hong Kong horror film from 2002 which has been remade by Hollywood and will be released in a couple of weeks. Since it was made in Hong Kong and Thailand, I guess it's not officially part of the Japanese "J-horror" genre (such as the original versions of The Ring, The Grudge, and One Missed Call), but it certainly partakes of those films' conventions: ghosts, female leads, children, a sense of dread).

A young woman, blind since the age of 2, receives a cornea transplant and, while learning how to process the visual information she's missed most of her life, realizes that she can see dead people, both the ghosts of the recently dead who have not found rest in the afterlife, and the newly dead being led off by spooky grim reaper figures. With the help of a handsome young therapist, she digs into the background of the dead girl whose corneas she got and helps the girl's ghost get redemption. The movie could end at that point, but in a final scene which, despite the elaborate special effects, feels tacked on, she foretells a mass traffic disaster but is unable to make people believe that they're going to die (reminiscent of the climax of The Mothman Prophecies). The movie looks good (and looks like it was shot on digital video or film), and the leads, Angelica Lee and Lawrence Chou are very good, though Chou, while quite nice looking (see pic above), is way too young to be believable as an experienced psychologist. It feels like a variation on The Sixth Sense and as such is quite predictable, but the ghostly atmosphere is nicely done, and in mostly bright colors rather than shades of gloomy darkness--with lots of effective out-of-focus camera work for the ghost scenes. The effects in the ending are spectacularly done, but as I noted it doesn't feel organic to the story, as though the producers thought the film needed more gore. I don't know if I'll bother to see the American version with Jessica Alba, though I admit that the presence of the hot Alessandro Nivola might make it a must-see eventually on DVD. (Shame on IFC for not showing this widescreen movie in a letterbox format, and for keeping their damned logo on screen the entire time!)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Poor Jon Stewart!

I said earlier I was tired of Jon Stewart withdrawal, as he's been off the air for several weeks now because of the writer's strike. He's back on, but I may have another withdrawal state coming up. Without his writers, the show is a little painful to watch. Some have suggested that he may deliberately be aiming low in sympathy with the Writers' Guild, to which he belongs, but it's just not working very well. Stewart's strengths are his comic news bits in the first half of the show, and those are not suffering quite as badly as I thought they might without his writing staff, but with only a token appearance by "correspondent" John Oliver, it's just Jon on stage, and I guess he really needs someone to play straight man to every so often. Plus, he's not really a very good interviewer, and the last couple of nights, his interviews have taken up more of the show than usual. The first night, his 15 minutes with a Cornell professor talking about the strike and labor relations in general was painful; the guest didn't seem to understand that he was on a comedy show, and Jon was clearly obsessing about the strike. His later interviews have just emphasized how bad he is at interviewing people with serious topics to discuss. He awkwardly stepped all over David Frum, a political writer who probably would have been genuinely interesting if Stewart have felt more at ease, or had more notes from his writers. From what I've seen of Stephen Colbert, he's handling the strain better. Whatever the problem, if the strike isn't cleared up soon, I may soon be going through Jon Stewart withdrawal again, even if he remains on the air!

Monday, January 7, 2008

A history of The Merm in Ethel Merman. I just finished Ethel Merman: A Life by Brian Kellow. Merman is one of those celebrities whose brilliance will probably fade much sooner than it should because her talent was in live performance, specifically the musical theatre, and few records of her performances exist for the public to see. (And even if we could see them, filmed or taped records of stage performances are almost always dim reproductions of the exciting original event; I suspect you really had to see Merman live to appreciate her.) The two Broadway roles she was most famous for, the leads in Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy, were given to other actresses when Hollywood committed them to film. Most baby boomers like me probably know her from appearances on talk and variety shows, and from her very funny cameo in Airplane! Cast recordings of her shows do exist, and her reputation remains solid among Broadway devotees, but her film and TV appearances, I suspect, don't do her justice.

This book is very readable, and falls in the middle range of celebrity bios: it is not academic or scholarly in its scope, but it does not rely just on gossip or previously published material. Kellow has done a lot of reading and interviewing, and he constructs an easy-to-follow timeline of her life with a good appendix which lists all her shows, movies, and most of her TV appearances. He talks to many of her close non-celebrity friends, which helps to round out her personality, but few direct voices of her actual colleagues or peers are included, which is a weakness; it winds up feeling a bit like a "through the keyhole" story told by "the little people." The book's biggest strength for me was the way it opens a backstage window on the classic-era Broadway musicals. Kellow devotes quite a bit of time to chronicling each of Merman's productions (from the 30's through her stint in 1970 in Hello, Dolly!), from writing to producing to casting to previews to opening night and beyond, and he makes this material come alive. The book made me sorry that Merman's legendary performances are mostly lost to us now, and also makes me want to give Call Me Madam, one of the few film adaptations of her shows that she starred in, another look.