Ebert on Ozu
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
I've recently been watching and studying the films of the great Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. "Studying" as in reading up on him on the internet and watching the films with commentary tracks on with the Criterion editions. In fact, I'm kind of a bit obsessed with Ozu at this point of my life. There's something about his quiet, understated but poetic approach to everyday people that I find very compelling.
In honor of the passing of the great film critic Roger Ebert, Criterion has shared this opening of the commentary track of Ozu's "Floating Weeds" (a film I have yet to see) by none other than Ebert. It makes me want to watch the rest immediately. It also makes me miss Ebert's voice, which I hadn't heard in years. Some 40 seconds in, Ebert sums up Ozu in a way that I could not and which feels absolutely perfect to me. Commenting on the simplicity of the opening credits he explains how this serves notice to the viewer that "You're entering into a world that will not be highly charged with plots and with special effects, but into a contemplative world. a world that critic Paul Schrader wrote about Ozu in his book about Ozu, Bresson and Dryer, is a world about transcendental film, films that try to lift us up out of the ordinary and invite us to contemplate the beauty and the simplicity, the tragedy and the joy of ordinary human life."
To me, the noblest role that a critic can fill is to heighten one's appreciation for a great work of art. Ebert did this often and his work will be sorely missed in this age when snark and glibness pass for serious analysis.
Review: To The Wonder
Sunday, April 14, 2013
To The Wonder
A lot of people are going to hate this film. Maybe even you. Terrence Malick is often dismissed as boring, pretentious, and heavy-handed. But Malick, for whatever reason, has the clout to do what few filmmakers can do and what even fewer have the nerve—or indeed, the intellect—to do. And that is to make a film entirely on his own terms. Love it or hate it. Emphasis on the word “film.” Because Malick’s art can only be expressed through the medium of the film. It’s all about photography, music and –perhaps most importantly--editing. Which indeed where the art of film is most clearly defined and how it stands apart from still photography.
If Malick walked into film school with any of his recent scripts, he’d probably be told to go start with screen writing 101. Where’s the action? Where are the beats coming at 10, 20, 40 minutes? Where is the key dialogue needed to tell the audience what is happening, to heighten their suspense, to fulfill their dramatic expectations? I can only imagine what his films look like on the page, because so much of his art is synthesized through the shooting and what happens in postproduction. So if you want to go see a movie that will give you some cathartic release, a fulfillment of expectations, you don’t go see a Malick film. But if you are willing to let his films wash over you, to let character and story unfold through snippets of action, with minimal dialogue, with characters speaking poetically through voice over, internal monologue, then his films might be experiences worth putting yourself through. For me, they are never short of transformative.
TO THE WONDER isn’t quite as non-linear as its predecessor, THE TREE OF LIFE. It also isn’t as overtly cosmic. But it also tells a much larger, universal story with a minimum number of characters and situations. You won’t see the universe being born, or dinosaurs walking the earth. (Though you do see one lovely scene of a turtle swimming underwater. The closing credits site scenes from Tree of Life, and I’m going to assume this was one that previously was left on the cutting room floor of that film.) To condense it as simply as possible, the two main characters, Neil and Marina, (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, whose characters may never actually be referred to by name in the film) are living together in France when we first meet them. They are enjoying what appears to be, on the server, an almost too perfect romantic relationship. It’s the situation where most characters usually end up in more straightforward romantic story. But then they relocate to Oklahoma, presumably for Affleck’s work and because it’s where he’s originally from. She also brings her ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage with her. It’s not long before disillusionment sets in, and what once seemed like a perfect, arranged-by-destiny relationship turns sour. Mother and child return to Europe and Neil begins a brief relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), someone he knew in his earlier life. It doesn’t last, Olga moves back to the U.S. (sans daughter, who seems to now be living with her father) and Neil and Marina quickly get married.
I won’t say more, although “spoilers” in a Malick film are hardly an issue—it’s how things are said, not what is said that usually counts. And you are left to fill in the blanks of a lot of this relationship, which sometimes moves slowly in idyllic bliss (lots of euphoric twirling and spinning by Marina, which admittedly wears a bit after time) and sometimes, almost shockingly, takes an abrupt and disturbing turn. Love is addressed as not just an emotional issue, but also a spiritual one. Indeed, the loss of love is examined as a certain loss in spiritual direction. Driving this more cosmic aspect of the story is Father Quintana, played by the always-compelling Javier Bardem. But at the same time the priest is trying to give guidance to others, we also very quickly learn that he is struggling with a spiritual crisis of his own.
Malick is possibly the most spiritual of all major, contemporary filmmakers. He clearly believes in God, in a higher purpose, in the bigger forces in the universe that have put us into play on this planet. But he also is not religious to the point that he avoids the eroticism of love either. His characters are entirely human (in spite of what a superficial reading of his films might lead one to believe) and the pain they cause to others and feel themselves is entirely real. As Malick sees it, the divine is always present in this world, though it doesn’t necessarily mean his characters are going to attain it or that they are lesser people for not doing so.
Malick’s characters are not spelled out or fully defined. Dialogue is fleeting. Often in his film, you are left in the observer role, much as we often are in real life. What was that fight about we saw that couple having in the restaurant? Look at those two people in love—I wonder how they met? In real life, we’re rarely exposed to all the specifics in the relationships between intimate partners. We usually can only observe as outsiders and try to ascertain the depth of their actual story. That’s sort of how Malick presents his characters. We are voyeurs, but we don’t get to live inside of their heads, much as writers and filmmakers attempt to do with most movie love stories. In Malick’s films, it’s the sum total of these fleeting glimpses that ultimate define what his films are “about.”
Parts of this were hard for me to take personally. I’ve been through a lot of what these characters experience on film. (Without the lavish side trip to France, unfortunately.) And I can say he portrays that bitterness that can develop between people who once loved each other intensely in a way that feels more real to me than most movies with clearer plots and way more dialogue. What isn’t said can often be more deadly than what is. Most people’s lives don’t play out like conventional beat-by-beat screenplays with an important plot turn at 20 minutes, an Act Two revelation and a tidy denouement after the climax. In that way, Malick’s films tend to be sometimes more emotional than intellectual experiences. Which may seem surprising, because I know there are people who dismiss his films as merely cold exercise in technique. But I almost always moved by his films. And that’s not just because of the always gorgeous photography and beautiful music. It’s the way he portrays the spaces between us in the way that can resonate down to the core.
Upon immediately leaving the theatre, it was hard for me to say what I actually “thought” about the film. For me, the difference between films that are merely very good entertainment and those that come close to be art is how much they resonate with me in the hours, days, weeks, months and years after I see them. Some scene that haunts me, some sequence whose importance only becomes after clear after I’ve had a period of time in which to process it. Films that provide catharsis leave us exiting the theatre thinking we’ve seen a really great film and we’ll rush out and tell all of our friends to go see it. I know I can’t do that with a Malick film. Almost every one of his films I see is initially a disappointment in the moments immediately after I see them, mainly because they inevitably, unfairly, have to be compared to his previous work. But I suspect TO THE WONDER is going to resonate with me in a way that every one of his previous films has.
Musical Acquisitions - One In An Inevitable Series
Sunday, November 25, 2012
I admit it. I’m a music junkie. And I am in constant need of new stimulation.
Because I fetishize music, digital downloads don’t cut it for me, except when I find myself in urgent need of a single song that I don’t currently own. I like packaging because it makes the experience felt less ephemeral, more substantial. I like the idea that a musical artist is presenting me with a bunch of new songs to discover all at once. Somewhere in there might be a song that will become my favorite not now, not next week, maybe not even this year. But someday I might find myself saying “Wow. How did I miss how great that song was?” Which is a joyous experience I generally don’t get to have if I exercise too much control over how I listen to the music. I like listening to entire albums so that I can savor the experience of discovering songs.
So far, 2012 hasn’t been particularly noteworthy. It’s November already and I’ve only purchased a handful of albums, none of them particularly memorable. Part of that has been me just not paying much attention. (As you’ll see, some of the albums on this list were released earlier this year.) I almost feel like it’s movie award season time, where suddenly you discover there are a bunch of movies turning up on critics’ best of the year list, none of which you’ve seen, so it’s time to hit the theatres on an almost daily basis in order to catch up. (What? Am I the only one who does this?)
The list below represents two shopping trips in the last two weeks. The first was to Lou’s Records in Encinitas, an old favorite that I returned to for the first time in over a year, following my move out of San Diego. The other was yesterday, to CD Trader in Tarzana, a store I used to patronize regularly ten years ago when I lived in Los Angeles before, and have now returned to several times since moving back. Both establishments worthy of your patronage, though I have to say that Lou’s is sadly only a shadow of its former self. When I first started going there in 2004, it was housed in three buildings: one for new material, one for used, and one for movies. Now they are all in the building that used to just be devoted to the used material and the inventory seems to be a fraction of what it once was, though I still discover the occasional used gem.
Enough with the preamble. Here’s what I got.
First Aid Kit THE LION'S ROAR
Been listening to Spotify a lot lately. One of the features I like best is the “Related Artists.” It’s led me to be able to check out a lot of people I’ve heard of but never had a chance to listen to, and those who I’ve missed entirely. Case in point. Can’t remember what artist I was originally listening to when I was first led to First Aid Kit. Regardless, I loved the album (released in January of this year, if my research is correct) the moment I heard it.
First Aid Kit are two sisters, Joanna and Klara Soderberg, a duet from Sweden, who are ridiculously young to be writing songs this good and playing with such polish. (They were both born in the 90s. Suck it up.) They have themselves created a number of eclectic playlists on Spotify, so one can only assume that they had hippy parents with an extensive and eclectic record collection. And we’re all the better for it. (The song “Emmylou” compares a relationship to those of Johnny Cash and June Carter as well as Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, just to give you an idea of the territory we’re in here.) The girls released a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Fire Mountain Peasant Song” on YouTube 4 years ago (before I even heard of Fleet Foxes), which got the attention of the band and led to bigger things. It’s a great cover. Oh, and they were 18 and 15 when they did it. Talent this good is scary. I also love this video of the title track, with all of its hippie, artistic pretension and moodiness. Is it trite to use the description “old souls?” Shoot me for being trite then. Two girls who could be my daughters (by a lot) have released my favorite album of the year so far and I have no problem saying that.
Beth Orton THE SUGARING SEASON
I’ve been a Beth Orton fan for pretty much her entire career, dating back to her first album in 1997. Sounds odd saying that, because it just doesn’t seem like she’s been around that long, and yet it’s been six years between albums. For me, she’s always flown quietly under the radar. If you asked me to make a list of favorite artists, I don’t know if she’d make the first cut, and yet I’ve followed her loyally for 15 years now. Whenever I play one of her songs, I always think “Oh yeah, Beth. She’s great.” Even now, I’ve had to remind myself she’s been off the grid as long as she has. Of course that’s partly me; years pass like months in my current perspective of time.
Anyway, it’s great to have her back. Played this for the first time on a drive back from San Diego and really enjoyed it. There were a couple of standouts, though I can’t tell you what they were. (I have an old stereo system in my 10-year-old car that plays CDs and doesn’t show you song titles as it plays) Glad to have her back.
Titus Andronicus LOCAL BUSINESS
Unfortunately, this is one of those albums that, no matter how good it might be, will never live up to my expectations. “The Monitor,” its predecessor, is so far my favorite album of the current decade. (Yeah, I’m one of those people who start counting from the 0 year, as in an 80s song has to have an 8 in the year, the 90s, a 9 etc.) It’s an album so good, that it’s frightening. Driven with a raw, punk rock immediacy, but also richly complex and anthemic, simultaneously adolescent and maturely complex. I mean, come on, the guys named their band after a Shakespeare play, used the American Civil War as the thematic thread for the album and climaxed the album with a classic 14 minute rock epic, all while sounding like they grew up on a healthy dose of The Clash. Two years later, and I can’t stop playing it. So I almost wish they had waited a couple of years more for a follow up. But here it and as suspected, its disappointing. Which is such an unfair assessment. But I am so indebted to these guys for releasing one of the Greatest Albums Ever in their sophomore release that I feel I owe them the effort. I need to put on the headphones and listen to it with my undivided attention a few more times to give it a fair shake.
Bob Dylan TEMPEST
Speaking of titles from Shakespeare…
What can anyone say about Dylan at this point? Except that, with nothing left to prove, I just love this relaxed stage of his later career, where he’s just shambling along, putting together these very skillful backing bands, and having fun, releasing an album of new material every couple of years. They’re not going to shake up anybody’s world or even find themselves in the canon of great Dylan albums. (Though they certainly surpass most of his catalogue from the 80s and the pre-“Time Out Of Mind” 90s output.) They are just enjoyable albums to listen to. I’m just grateful to still have Bob, chugging along in his 70s, having a good time and putting out decent records.
M. Ward A WASTELAND COMPANION
In hindsight, I look back on the time roughly between 2005 and 2008 as the most recent of several, personal, musical “Golden Ages” I have passed through. At that time, I was still somewhat new to downloading music as my main means of acquiring new stuff and had a very generous subscription plan (90 downloads per month) with E-music. I was experimenting with new materials (and old stuff I had missed) as much as in any time of my life. And one of my favorites artists I got turned on to at the time was M.Ward. (Aka Matthew Stephen Ward.) He has already released a number of albums by the time I discovered him, but the then-just-released Post-War was, and remains, my favorite. Ward’s a prolific guy, but most of his recent work and notoriety has been through collaborations, such as Monsters of Folk and She and Him with actress Zooey Deschanel. But I’m still partial to his solo work and he’s only released one more solo album between 2006’s Post-War and this one. And yet somehow I missed A Wasteland Companion when it first came out and am only listening to it now, as I type these words. About what I had hoped for in a new Ward solo outing, so far, though the She & Him influence has definitely taken root. Deschanel does vocals on “Sweetheart” and it sounds like it could be on one of their albums together. Nothing otherwise too surprising here so far—nice mix of Ward’s mellower sound and his more rocking, Americana roots.
Andrew Bird BREAK IT YOURSELF
My discovery of Bird came out of that same time period when I first heard M.Ward, as described in the previous entry. With his reedy vocals and sometimes eclectic instrumentation, Bird’s a bit more of an acquired taste. Making music with various bands since the 90s, Bird’s solo career began in 2003, when his first albums were released via Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. In 2007, he switched labels and released Armchair Apocrypha. I’m no Bird expert, but at least in my admittedly limited sampling, I would have to say I regard this as a masterpiece. It’s one of those rare albums that has gotten better and better to me over the years and I still play it regularly. Like Ward, he seems to have been more active in recent years in collaborative and side projects, including some soundtrack work. So it’s good to have him back doing a full-blown album of his own, which came out earlier this year and which I just seem to have gotten around to now. In fact, I just discovered that he quickly followed up Break It Yourself with a companion album titled Hands of Glory, which I also almost picked up yesterday but decided to give this one a go first.
There’s an official video of the song “Give It Away” from this album, but it’s weird and slightly disturbing (well, to me at least) so I decided to go with an unofficial video instead. Google it yourself.
Fiona Apple THE IDLER WHEEL IS WISER THAN THE DRIVER...(etc.)
Hell, did you think I was going to type out the whole thing?
I’ve had a mixed relationship with the music of Fiona Apple over the years. Like a lot of people, I was startled by her sheer raw talent at a very young age when I heard her debut album Tidal back in 1996. Don’t think I ever bought her second album. (Another extremely long title I’m too lazy to type out). Briefly owned 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, which was pretty decent. (But sold in one of my unfortunately periodic and brutal “I’m moving and don’t want to carry all of these and need the cash anyway” purges.) But it was her amazing performance of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You” during a 2006 VH1 Costello tribute concert that forever and permanently endeared me to her. One of the most scary and powerful vocal performances I have ever seen. As you might know, I’m a huge Costello fan and I think this is one of his greatest songs, but she will forever and always own it in my mind because of this performance . So I was predisposed to giving whatever she put out next a chance. Heard enough good things about the album, listened to it a few times on Spotify, so here we go.
Jack White BLUNDERBUSS
Which brings us to the solo debut of Mr. Jack White. In the early 00s, I was a huge White Stripes fan. Yes, just before they became rich and famous. In fact, I’d have to say that at the start of the new century, they were my favorite new band. But admittedly, the Stripes’ simplified, stripped down, retro-blues sound got repetitive and by the time I decided it was no longer sounding fresh to me, the Whites conveniently decided to break up. Never warmed up to Jack’s side band, The Raconteurs. When I heard that he released his first official solo album earlier this year, it barely registered with me. In case you are wondering if playing an album in a record store is an ever an effective sales tool, I’m here to testify “yes.” I had just about picked up everything I was going to buy for the day and this album had been playing in the background. By the time it got to the last track, I found myself thinking. “Is this the new Jack White album? It sounds really good.” And so it got added to the basket. Sounds fresher than the last couple of White Stripes albums. Nice to have him back in the fold.
All for now. What are you listening to?
Mr. Welles Explains It All
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Orson Welles meets with the press on the day after his infamous War of the Worlds radio play. I have only seen shorter snippets of this interview before. Fascinating.
Well, obviously my plans for making October "Orson Welles Month" fizzled out. What can I say? Things happened. But I couldn't let the month go by--and particularly this day--without marking the 74th anniversary of the War of the Worlds broadcast.
Strange though that this was probably the year I've been least interested in revisiting the original radio broadcast. "Superstorm" Sandy, the havoc it created in the New York/New Jersey area, and the continuing coverage of the aftermath presented a real life disaster in the same geographical area where Orson Welles' set his adaptation of H.G. Wells' original novel. I've been held enrapt by the real life events in a way that has made listening to a fictitious one pretty superfluous. Sections of New Jersey have been wiped out, only this time by nature and not by Martian machines.
Nevertheless, Halloween goes on and I'm not about to break the tradition. Here's the complete radio drama from 1938 if you wish to listen.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
Busy day and a late night, so not really much time to put anything substantial together. Just thought then that I'd share this image with you, a period ad for Citizen Kane, featuring a guy who looks nothing like Orson Welles, even at his thinnest. And how about that subtle headline? Anyway, about a month ago I was down in San Diego and was rummaging through my favorite antiques store. Not that I go to enough antiques stores to have an informed opinion about what makes one good or bad. But it's big. And it has a lot of cool stuff I like to look at and I can literally get lost in there for hours. And they have boxes and boxes of movie stills, lobby cards, old print ads, etc. I found a copy of this. (Not the exact one you see here; I stole this image from the internet.) It was cut out from a Life magazine from the period and was being sold for $20. So I grabbed it and I have it and I'm just waiting to find an appropriate frame for it.
And while I'm on the subject of hanging Orson Welles related images on my walls, a belated public thanks to my friend Larry Reynosa who gave me a framed copy of this poster for The Third Man. Larry's loss was my gain and I'm paying it the proper reverence. Thanks again, Larry.
Reassessing The Trial
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
This above clip is the introduction to Orson Welles’ film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. That's Welles' unmistakable voice doing the narration, of course, and the images were created by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker using the pinscreen animation process.
In the past week or so, my opinion on this film has turned around pretty radically. I never understood the praise some heaped upon it, finding it not only muddled and disjointed, but also hampered by the budgetary constraints that seem to plague most of Welles’ post-Hollywood projects. I always found it something of a chore to watch. One of my main problems with Welles' films of this era is the sound. He almost always dubbed in dialogue later, and often when editing the films months and sometimes years after he shot them, he was unable to bring many of the actors back to do their own voices. As a result, smaller roles would be voiced by Welles himself, who had among his many talents, a remarkable ability to mimic and create many different voices. (I was able to identify his voice in at least a half dozen speaking parts in this particular film; I've read that he did even more than that.) The end result was almost always that Welles' European films played like badly dubbed foreign film, even though they were shot in English. The Trial is no different.
Yet after recently reading a glowing essay about the film, I decided to give it another chance. And for reasons I can’t explain myself, the whole thing suddenly clicked for me. In fact, I ended up watching it twice in a matter of days. I actually now find it to be a pretty remarkable achievement and it is currently my favorite Welles’ film after Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.
Why? Well, what once seemed disjointed and convoluted to me now seems complex and richly textured. The low budget aspect, which I once saw as a detriment, I now see as something of an asset. Faced with inadequate funding, Welles was quite ingenius at using found locations and lighting them in dramatic fashion to create arresting compositions. Welles shot the film in various locations throughout Europe and Ssome of the vast and decaying spaces he choose to shoot in only underscore the film’s themes of alienation and disorientation. There's a stylistic consistency that belies the film's gypsy-lie production. (Something Welles experienced on an even greater scale a decade earlier when he made Othello.) The introduction talks about the story’s similarity to a dream or a nightmare and the locations and camera work only reinforce this. The constantly moving camera and at times dizzying cutting style also feel ahead of their time and work to keep the viewer disoriented. It’s as disturbingly surreal as anything David Lynch has done.
Yet in spite of this, there’s a wonderful sense of humor running through what may seem to be on the surface a very dark and grim film. Coming off of his career-defining role in Hitchcock’s Psycho only a couple of years later, Anthony Perkins is perfectly cast as a jittery Joseph K, the protagonist of the story. The cast in general is wonderful and Welles’ even seems to have paid great care and attention to even the extras who have no speaking parts. There are odd and unusual faces in many scenes that are somewhat reminiscent of the kind of people Eisenstein would cast in his films, not for how they could act but for how they looked on camera. Many of these visual and narrative elements are in evidence in this wonderful, extended clip from about midway through the film.
I really cannot stop thinking about this film lately.
Unfortunately, Welles’ The Trial slipped into public domain some time ago, meaning just about anyone with the ability to do so can release the film on DVD. And, as you might expect, the quality of the version you might buy is something of a crapshoot, though just about all of them tend to be crappy. Studio Canal has just released a high quality remastered version of the film on Blu ray. Canal may be only second to the Criterion Collection in terms of the care and attention it brings to their DVD releases. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it only seems to be available in Europe and the UK with no announced plans for a U.S. release. But you can read the details about this edition here. Needless to say, I'd love to own this.
Orson's First Film?
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
Most people know that Orson Welles’ first film was Citizen Kane, made in 1941. However, if you do a little digging into his history, you might find some filmographies that list a 1934 project called The Hearts of Age as the first item on his resume. (IMDB lists it, for example) It’s also turned up on a couple of DVD anthologies as if it were a serious entry in the history of avant garde filmmaking. But to call this short piece his first film would be like including a high school essay in the bibliography of a great author. It’s an exercise in filmmaking that 19 year old Orson engaged in with a group of friends, including his future first wife. It’s a student film made with crude equipment from the era and was quite likely never intended to be widely shown.
The project was forgotten and presumably lost for decades and when it resurfaced in the 1960s, Welles himself dismissed it as something of no significance. Indeed, how much of it was his work and how much credit can be given to his high school friend William Vance we’ll never know. Welles said that they were spoofing the work of Jean Cocteau, though it could also be seen as an amateur homage to German expressionism, Eisenstein, and the works of Buñuel.
At best, it’s an amusing curiosity for diehard Welles aficionados. I personally find efforts to draw parallels to the themes and visual style of his later, legitimate films to be strained. Yes, Welles was a prodigy already deeply immersed in theatre at this early age and certainly had a lot more talent than most nineteen year olds, so it is possible to convince oneself that there is evidence of a nascent auteur at work here. But one still gets the sense that no one was taking themselves all that seriously when they were making this. What is amazing about watching The Hearts of Age is the realization afterwards that one of the creators of this piece went on to make arguably the greatest film of all time a mere six years later.
A more positive assessment of the film and a more detailed history of its making can be found here.
(By the way, it's not really clear in the image above, but that is the actual film, embedded into this post. Click on the image and it should give you the option to play it.)
A Month of Orson Welles
Monday, October 01, 2012
October is always Orson Welles month for me. The 30th of the month is obviously the anniversary of the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. And on October 10, 1985, Welles died at the age of 70. Those are both valid enough reasons, but neither is the main one that explains why I am doing this.
October 1985 was the month I became a major Orson Welles fan. But my interest in Welles was not prompted by his death. Instead, it was put into motion by the publication of a semi-authorized biography of Welles at around this same time. A college professor of mine named Barbara Leaming wrote a biography of Welles with the subject's full cooperation. It was more out of curiosity over a favorite professor's work rather than any sort of driving interest in Welles that led me to pick up the book. (A lengthy preview in the New York Time Sunday Magazine tipped me to its forthcoming publication.) Sure, I knew Welles from Citizen Kane, his TV commercials, and his appearances as a famous celebrity on various Dean Martin roasts and the Merv Griffin show, as well as the perpetrator of the aforementioned War of the Worlds broadcast, but not really much else. Leaming's book proved to be the gateway drug that quickly turned me into a Welles obsessive. (Leaming went on to carve out a career as a celebrity biographer, though I remember her as an enthusiastic and somewhat eccentric film professor from my days at Hunter College, who passion for film was very infectious.)
By a stange coincidence, it was around the time of the Leaming's book's release that Welles passed away. And the media attention brought a bit of a focus on Welles' past work that was not so readily available in those pre-Internet, pre-Amazon days. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and the local PBS station broadcast Touch of Evil. I recorded it and watched that VHS tape over and over again, until the point where I almost wore it out. That fall, a local University screened Mr. Arkadin. I also saw Welles' version of Macbeth around that time, though I don't recall how I came upon it. At any rate, it was the fall of Orson Welles for me those 27 years ago.
And since then, October and Orson Welles have gone hand-in-hand.
I should also mention here that I first heard a recording of the Welles' radio production of War of the Worlds when I was 15 years old, and have listened to it on around Halloween every year since--my first Welles' related October tradition.
So, with October upon us, I have decided to dedicate the blog to Mr. Welles for the next 31 days. I am going to try to post at least one item every day, though it may prove to be a challenge next week when I am traveling to New York for four days. We'll see. The entries may be in the form of a single image or film clip, or some link to an article or maybe even just a quote. I'm not going to put too many demands on myself with this project or it will never get done.
And there you have it. The opening shot of a month long project. We'll see where this goes.
The First Rap Song?
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
I had a dream about Frank Zappa the night before last. That led me to start listening to some of his music again.
"Trouble Every Day" is a personal favorite of mine. It appeared on FREAK OUT, the debut album by The Mothers of Invention, released in 1966. "Trouble" was a song Frank wrote in response to seeing the 1965 Los Angeles Watts Riots on television. The song isn't a typical Zappa song; it's a pretty straight forward blues based rock song with none of the elaborate instrumentation or arrangements of later recordings. What's different about it are the vocals. Frank was never a "singer" per se. But the lyrics in this song are delivered in a very fast, staccato style, in rapid fire succession. The lyrics deal with urban strife and racial conflict (sadly not sounding all that dated today) and also offer Frank's cynical observation of television news coverage. (Also still pretty timely.) In fact, the lyrical themes and the delivery have sometimes led people to conjecture if this might not be the first--or at least one of the earliest--rap songs. Of course Zappa's music didn't have a lot of appeal across racial lines, professional musicians excepted. So I doubt if many of the rap artists who pioneered the genre in the late 70s had ever heard the song, let alone been influenced by it. The music is certainly, clearly rock. Still, it's another case of where Frank was ahead of his time. And as the world continues to become increasingly absurd, I continue to miss Frank's observations some eighteen years after his passing.
Tired of the Old S***, Let the New S*** Begin
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
The handful of you who were following this blog in the past may be wondering, “What happened to all the old stuff?”
One of the biggest decisions I had to make in reviving this blog was what to do with six-and-a-half years of old posts. There was a lot I was proud of writing, but also a lot I was embarrassed by. And there were an awful lot of things that were completely dated. I regretted the possibility of obliterating the running diary aspect of the blog—the fretting over finding a new job in 2005, my progress through my kidney surgery in 2009, etc. There were interesting and thoughtful comments from my handful of regular readers that would be eliminated if I deleted certain posts. I also agonized over deleting the posts I wrote two years ago, when my long time friend Mike Valerio passed away. Would it have been better to have left that as a standing tribute to Mike?
In the end, I decided upon a total purge. But it was extremely time consuming. I knew there was a possibility that I’d regret losing some of those items in the not-too-distant future. So rather than just clicking the “delete” button, I set about copying and pasting the text (along with the html codes) and saving them in a huge collection of Word documents. They are there, along with the images, if I ever decide to share any again. I’m toying with the idea of perhaps running a Blue Chair archives site. At any rate, it was a tedious process and took me months to do.
A big reason for going with this option is what I’ll call the embarrassment factor. Using the blog as a diary has its dangers.
Over the years, I have coped with a certain low level of depression and sometimes I would get on here in my darker moments and decide to share. Not really a smart idea.
Several years ago, I was in the position to hire a new assistant at my job for DC Comics. At the time, I was in a pretty dark place in my personal life. One day, a young woman came in to interview. The night before, I had written one of my more bleak and dark ruminations. Early in the interview, this woman cheerfully brought up how she had been reading and enjoying my blog. Of course I wasn’t stupid enough not to realize that anyone could have found the blog by simply Googling my name, but I had largely chosen to ignore that possibility. This, however, was a real slap in the face. I think I immediately went to my office, opened the blog and promptly deleted the embarrassing post. Closing the barn after the beast is loose, I know, but lesson learned.
I’ll do my best not to embarrass myself here this time. Primarily, I plan to do my best to stay out of here when one of my blacker moods hits.
In the meantime, here’s this song by the Eels that I really love and which inspired the title of this particular post.
In August of 2004, I began blogging. It was a very popular trend at the time and a number of my friends were joining in. I had enough of an ego to think that the internet was ready for me to share my views and interests. It very quickly became a major, creative outlet for me. Shorter, personal updates would alternate with longer essays and dissertations.
The content included posts about things going on in my life as well as my interest in film, music, news and sports. Occasionally, I delved into politics. This was usually a mistake. Nothing fires the passions like political opinions and sharing mine would sometimes result in lengthy debates in the comments section that triggered a lot of angry feelings and made blogging a less than happy experience for me.
At the time the blog started, I had just recently moved to Carlsbad, California and was working as Creative Services Manager for a videogame company called Sammy Studios. I was married. I really didn’t have much of a social life and felt disconnected from people in my past. The blog filled in some of the gaps I was feeling in my life. Admittedly, it became somewhat of an obsession of mine. I spent way too much time on it. Within a year, Sammy Studios was gone and the idle time I had being unemployed for about seven months allowed me to indulge in the blog even more. The peak years of this blog were from approximately 2005-2007.
A few things contributed to The Blue Chair’s decline. Primarily, there was the rise of social networking. First with MySpace, then with Facebook, I began to spend more of my time sharing things on those sites rather than on this blog. It allowed me to communicate more directly with more people and eliminated some of the frustration I had with the blog only being viewed regularly by a handful of individuals.
Second, the age of blogs felt like it was already in decline by about 2008. Everyone was jumping on Facebook, providing conversation and links to items of interests on the web that turned the site into a kind of one stop shopping location on the net, as well as a great means for renewing connections and staying in touch with a huge number of old friends, acquaintances and professional colleagues. Who needed a blog?
I was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the public nature of blogging. In the fall of 2005, I was hired by DC Comics and began working as an editor at the company’s Wildstorm division in La Jolla. People in and around the comic book industry spend a lot of time on the internet. My professional role put me more in a public spotlight and I began to grow more uncomfortable with the idea of people googling me and reading some of my more personal posts. It also limited things I could say, for obvious professional reasons. Of course my frequent Facebook posts put me in even more of a spotlight. But the blog had more extensive and deeper stories about things going on in my own life and in my own head which weren’t always pretty.
Music may have been the topic I covered the most on the blog and in the latter days, I tried to shift the focus more to that topic. (The title of the blog is taken from the name of an Elvis Costello song.) But by then, it felt like the blog was done. Prior to what you are reading now, I hadn’t posted here in over a year. In the past three years, there have only been a handful of postings in total.
I have frequently questioned the amount of time I spend on Facebook and the amount of sharing I do there. Ironically, though it was Facebook that contributed heavily to the deterioration and eventual dormancy of this blog, it’s Facebook that makes me think it’s time to revise it. I often wonder if I’m overloading the feeds of people who don’t know me well and don’t share my interests. (Believe me, I know the feeling.) Posts about music, for example––the major focus of The Blue Chair––get virtually no traction on Facebook.
So for quite some time, the thought has been building that I should revisit this site as an outlet for my indulgences. The handful of people who follow me most regularly on Facebook can come along for the ride. Of course there’s still a limit to what I can say and do here, but at least I feel that it might give me a vehicle for indulging my interests without boring or annoying the hundreds of casual friends and professional acquaintances I’ve collected on Facebook.
So whether you are here for the first time or back for a return visit, come in and sit down in the new old Blue Chair. We’ll see how this goes.