Monday, May 31, 2010

Paperback (and hardback) writers

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of books written about the Beatles, individually and collectively: biographies, annotated discographies, musical criticism, and diary-style tomes that cover their every move every day of their seven-year reign over the pop music world. I have read probably 50 of these books, and I still own 27 of them (yes, this pack rat just counted them). Of that number, there are a handful that I consider essential. For their life stories, there's the 2004 Bob Spitz biography (which supersedes the much earlier, and very good but sanitized, Hunter Davies book). For reference, there's Neville Stannard's The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record and Mark Lewisohn's Beatles Recording Sessions (an exhaustive log of every session ever). The best book on their songs (interpretation, influences, etc.) is Tell Me Why by Tim Riley.

Until now, my favorite book about their career and their music in general was The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner. Though that is still a wonderful book (and lamentably out of print), I've found an even better one: Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America by Jonathan Gould. Though the book contains some general biographical information, it mostly focuses on the music and how it both influenced and was influenced by the larger culture. Without dissing anyone unduly or playing favorites (honestly, I can't tell if he prefers Lennon or McCartney, and no Beatle fan worth his or her salt is truly neutral), Gould discusses the songs, the recording processes, the performances, and the critical reception of the music.

Of course, much of the info here has been reported elsewhere, but this is the first time I've come away from a book about the Beatles with a strong overall sense of how the hell they did what they did: record twelve incredible albums over seven years and change the world. Gould makes their chronology crystal clear, especially the areas of cultural overlap: for instance, in 1967, as Sgt. Pepper was soaking into the culture, Brian Epstein died, leaving the Beatles to begin the aimless floundering that ultimately hastened the end of their collaboration: making the ill-considered Magical Mystery Tour movie, going to India for spiritual wisdom, starting the business disaster that was Apple Corps. Gould doesn't go overboard in assigning praise or blame to anyone, but it does seem clear that their decline as a group of people working together (if not necessarily as musicians) dates from the loss of Epstein as their manager; even though by mid-'67, he was mostly just staying out of their way, he was still a grounding force in their business lives.

I love reading Gould on the music. He spends a good twenty pages talking about the music on Sgt. Pepper, and then goes on to discuss the reception of the album by critics, other musicians, and the general public. He does this with each album and most of the singles and always has some new insight or tidbit; for example, that "Long Long Long" on the White Album is essentially Bob Dylan's album side-long "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" condensed to under four minutes. He spends three paragraphs on "Norwegian Wood" and more or less pooh-poohs the general wisdom that the song climaxes with the singer setting the apartment on fire (a reading I never really believed).

Despite the book's subtitle, Gould rarely separates England from America in his discussions of cultural reception, and in fact, the sections on politics and other current events of the day are the weakest parts of the book. Luckily, he always returns quickly to the Beatles and their music. While I don't agree with all of his critical judgments (he thinks a lot more of "Yellow Submarine"--the song, not the movie--than I do), I find his writing and his insights always interesting. This is not a new book, having been published in hardcover in 2007, but I just got around to it and I'm glad I didn't let it sit on the "unread" shelf any longer than I did.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Boondock Saints

Back when I was teaching college freshmen writing, I would often assign a paper in which students had to write about a movie (a review, an overview of critical reception, genre analysis, etc.) and I noticed that every semester, at least a couple of the young men would pick Boondock Saints for their subject. I'd never heard of the movie, probably because it got a very small theatrical release here in the States, but it became a cult hit on DVD and the freshmen boys loved it. I found over the years that my tastes and my students' tastes rarely coincided: back in the 90's, a student told me that, based on my love of the Beatles, he thought I might like Michael Penn's debut album March, and I did, very much, but that was the exception that proved the rule. So despite the rave reviews from my classes, I didn't rush out to catch the movie. My impression was that it was a violent, low-budget vigilante flick that I wouldn't like.

Ten years later, the movie cropped up on IFC and I decided to give it a whirl, mostly because I had discovered I liked the two lead actors (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus). Set in Boston, the film features Flanery and Reedus as working-class Irish brothers whose tangling with some Russian mob members results in a bloody aftermath (dead Russians in an alleyway). Just as the cops (led by a gay and very eccentric FBI agent, played with relish by Willem Dafoe, pictured above) are getting a citywide search for the killers into high gear, the two give themselves up. They plead self-defense (not entirely untrue) and get off, then decide to continue cleaning up their neighborhood while leading the cops on a merry chase. Dafoe slowly begins admiring the boys and near the end, even gives them explicit aid (by dressing up in scene-stealing drag). The narrative formula: we see the prelude to the killings, then the aftermath as the police collect evidence and Dafoe posits what he thinks happened, then we see the way the killings actually unfolded. The brothers, whose Catholic beliefs are important to the film, are joined by an Italian guy (David Della Rocco) who feels abused by his mob bosses, and there's an odd and not particularly well-thought-through subplot involving a legendary crime figure known as Il Duce (Billy Connolly, with almost no dialogue).

I think my students liked it for the violence, which is copious but not exactly record-breaking for a post-Tarentino crime film. I liked it for its style. The director, Troy Duffy, has a way with a camera and the film always looks good, even when the predictable slow-motion blood-letting starts. The script could be tighter--the plotting in the last half feels rushed and unfinished--but the characters are interesting and the acting is fine all around. Flanery and Reedus underplay nicely, balanced by Dafoe going gleefully over the top. The backstory to the production is soap-opera interesting, and after watching the movie, I suggest checking out the documentary Overnight about the rise and fall of the director; Duffy is undeniably a jackass, but one with talent, and Hollywood is presented as a place that will break all but the strongest or luckiest. I wish I could time travel and share my students' enthusiasm about this film with them.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Dark Shadows drinking game

I'm old enough to remember Dark Shadows, the gothic soap opera from the 60's. Our local station ran it in the morning, and since I was in school, I could only see in the summertime, but eventually they put it on in the afternoon where it belonged. I loved horror movies so I loved Dark Shadows, but I also liked the characters: Barnabas, the somewhat too-friendly vampire (sometimes he was evil, but mostly he was just a misunderstood romantic hero); Angelique, the incredibly sexy witch; Quentin, the ghost who was also a warlock and a werewolf--because plotlines and characters would bounce back and forth in time, not to mention parallel universes, characters might have many incarnations (and actors might play a variety of characters--have fun sorting them all out over on Wikipedia).

Virtually the entire run of shows (almost five years worth) is available on DVD and we have been watching some of them recently. The problem of returning to something from your childhood after such a long time is amplified by the fact that soap operas are definitely not made to be watched one after another. In any given half-hour show, very little actually happens except that people talk, and talk and talk and talk, usually re-hashing the current plotpoints for viewers who might have missed a show or two. So you have to sit through a couple of hours worth of shows before anything of substance actually happens.

I realized that plowing through 2 or 3 hours of these shows might be more fun as a drinking game. For example, any time information is repeated in the same hour: "We can't find David!"; "I wonder where David is?"; "David is still missing"; "David's not in his room"; "Have you seen David?"

Actually, the "question" is the favored rhetorical device on the show, so drinking whenever a question is asked would be the quickest path to passing out: ""Where are the children?"; "What happened to Willy Loomis?"; "Mrs. Johnson saw a strange man, too?"; "Did you or did you not see a ghost at the top of the stairs?"; "Do you really want me to tell all of Collinwood what really happened to your husband?"

Any of the following sentences should be the occasion for at least a sip: "I don't know"; "I don't understand"; "I've already told you..."

When Dr. Hoffman pauses too long between words (as the actress Grayson Hall tries desperately to remember her lines): "I don't know what you're ... talking about"; "Barnabas Collins ... is ... (nervous facial twitch) ... upstairs."; "We've changed all their lives by ... being in 1840"

Each episode begins with brief narration to set the stage. Any of the following lines should be drunk to: "The dark night hides..."; "The daylight brings..."; "In parallel time,..."

Finally, have a drink every time that the matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) is interrupted by someone while she's trying to get her paperwork done.