Monday, August 24, 2009


This post was going to be about Slumdog Millionaire, which I finally saw the other night. But honestly I'm happy to see a news item that's going to distract me past Slumdog, which is relieving. What's the point of bashing a Best Picture winner? Films that win the top Oscar prize are seldom great art, they speak more to the neuroses of the grizzled, white-haired crowd that holds the bulk of the Academy's votes. Slumdog was as a film marginally better than Bend It Like Beckham, with a witless script with no interesting characters and zero surprises. Its flashback structure made every scene predictable and its gangland storyline showed no advancement from the romantic fiction of Charles Dickens' time. The sound design and music, however, were awesome. Less than half an hour in I just began tuning out the dialogue and listening to the way the sound design mixed ambient noise, rhythmic city sounds, and carefully selected multicultural urban dance music to artful effect. Brilliant as a long-form music video, tedious as a film. Danny Boyle can do better.

But instead of giving Slumdog more paragraphs I want to talk about Michael Beasley, the basketball player for the Miami Heat. I don't like Beasley as a player, because in NBA 2K9 he can't make a 12-foot wide-open jump shot off of a pick-and-roll. Also, he entered the league as a rookie last year opposite Derrick Rose, who plays for my favorite team and has quickly become one of my favorite players. It made me angry all season whenever I read that Beasley and not Rose should win the Rookie of the Year award, because Rose last season was a starting point guard who passed, scored, and orchestrated his team's attack and Beasley was a bench player who barely played any defense and had little offensive game besides ugly short hooks and putback dunks. It was probably silly of me to form a grudge against Beasley, who obviously is the inferior player -- Rose won the award in a landslide. But still I've never thought particularly well of Michael Beasley, another in a long line of guys who dominate down low in college because of their huge strength but can't hack it in the NBA (where almost every team has a couple of seven-footers) because they're not tall enough to play power forward and they're too lazy and stupid to practice their jump shots, free throws, and post moves.

I really hate college basketball, if you can't tell. There's this myth that they "play the game the right way" in college, where in truth what the top teams do is sell their souls to get top recruits, then let these massive manchilds run amok. You think Michael Beasley went to class at all in his one year as a "student" as Kansas State? More likely he lived in a luxury condo paid for by a booster, drove a different brand-new SUV every three months, and smoked marijuana like it was going out of style, which it evidently isn't. This kind of practice is accepted in a disingenuous, disengaged way by most basketball fans, who simply want to eat the sausage, not see it being made.

But perhaps now it will be more difficult for fans to look the other way. I personally can't watch college football or basketball for even a second without being acutely conscious of how the largely black players are being transparently exploited by the largely white coaches, athletic directors, boosters, and administrators. There isn't a spot in the NFL or the NBA for even one one-hundredth of NCAA African-American scholarship athletes, but our "amateur" athletic competitions are openly getting black kids to pass up what's held in the open hand, a free college education, and take what's in the closed fist -- for 99.9% of them, absolutely nothing.

"Come live like a pro athlete for two or three years," the colleges offer. "Sleep with groupies, travel all over the place, be a guest on 'Pardon the Interruption.' Work on your smile and on-camera diction. When the big leagues come calling, you'll already be a superstar." The vast majority of top-flight NCAA athletes are given no courses in budget management, self-awareness, mediation skills, or the grounding in racial and feminist history they seem to profoundly lack as a class.

Guys like Beasley, who succeed despite their shortcomings due to uncommon natural talent and make the big show, dominate the debate whenever it comes time to again indict college athletics. How could this guy be rich and famous and successful and still be a dangerously depressed drug addict, to the degree that he voluntarily entered inpatient treatment this week? By focusing on the sad fact of the many big-time NBA and NFL players who somehow have arrived as superstars without ever being fully socialized, the media has effectively -- and ominously -- moved the debate away from the vast rank and file of excellent college athletes who have to face life after university without eight-figure pro sports contracts. It's shocking and titilating when Plaxico Burress shoots himself in a nightclub or when Michael Vick gets busted for dogfighting, but what about the thousands of former college athletes who get zero real-world skills out of their "educations" and end up in domestic violence incidents, drug rings, thefts, murders?

The fact that the NCAA failed Beasley is sad, but it's not really news. There's a handful of pros out there who are exceptions (Shane Battier and um... did Derek Fisher graduate from college? And Warrick Dunn) but for the most part every big-time player in the NFL and NBA who went to college learned nothing there, except the mechanics of having sex with as many as four basketball Annies at once. Whether there should be a separate kind of program, maybe a compensated one, for prodigies who are clearly just making time until the spotlight calls is a separate debate. The one that likely will have been swept under the rug before the sportwriters all line up to wring their hands over Beasley's dilemma is the fact of all the average athletes who have no shot at pro careers and yet learn nothing in college anyway, for no other reason past the fact that the colleges face no consequences at all for chewing these kids up and spitting them out. Michael Beasley's not out of the woods yet. He could end up broke, like Antoine Walker, or imprisoned like Burress and Vick. The fact is that even with millions of dollars and fancy-degreed experts on call, a signifcant number of black athletes ruin their lives every year. What does that say about how we're socializing our children in this country? What does that mean for the millions of pretty good ballers out there who could play college ball but won't make the pros?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I for One Will Welcome the Apocalypse

The Day the Earth Stood Still
DVD's via DVD Play

An alien civilization sent to pass final judgement on the works of humanity, as occurs in both of these science fiction films from last year, might marvel at the deliberately self-hobbling decisions made by Earthling filmmakers. Judging from the ludicrous contradictions and clunky casting of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Knowing, our extraterrestrial arbiters might well decide to let the human race perish in flames. How can a culture that spends vast piles of treasure on making movies repeatedly make the same stupid mistakes that keep the films from being as good as they can be? For these two examples, why have actors who aren't capable of conveying a normal range of human emotions been cast in the only two roles between the two films that require anything beyond looking gaunt and rapidly intoning plot developments?

The Day the Earth Stood Still, a joyless retelling of a scrubbed nuclear-era classic, has the beats and the music cues associated with major revelations, but no actual developments or identifiable feelings beneath them. Technically it's an action film with a massive killer robot and numerous calamities, but the quiet sequences with actors and the CGI scenes don't match up in the least, and the three main characters are unbearable. Jennifer Connelly isn't a strong enough actor to make her character's stupid behavior believable under the circumstances, Will Smith's kid Jaden is way out of proportion to the other performances and way too self-impressed (and his ghastly perm haircut makes him look like one of the cast members from a "Muppet Babies"-like children's cartoon featuring junior versions of Prince & The Revolution), and Keanu Reeves is completely empty of purpose as ambivalent alien Klaatu. The screenwriters know that some sort of human payoff is required for their environmentally-themed reboot and they put all the coefficients in place, but Reeves and Connelly can't make an inert script go. Director Scott Derrickson rushes to the credits without shooting the necessary epilogue so it's entirely unclear at the end of the picture whether the Earth has indeed been saved or more importantly whether any humans learned anything of value from the entire near-death experience. Destructive and stupid humans still nearly make a hash of everything as in the 1951 original when humanoid alien Klaatu and his implacable robot sidekick Gort arrive to incite Judgement Day, but this movie doesn't end with a speech about responsibility and progress going hand in hand. It ends with Reeves unconvincingly shielding Connelly and Smith from an attack of CGI metal bugs, for unclear reasons. I watched two big-budget Hollywood visions of the surface of our planet being scourged last night, and neither was as scary or as memorable as the TV-movie version of "The Langoliers" that ran on cable several years ago.

Knowing is visually more alive than The Day the Earth Stood Still; Dark City and The Crow director Alex Proyas is working from another real mess of a screenplay but his imagination is able to create excitement and tension anyway. He hides bogeymen in plain sight and has the sense to keep a realistic pace long after the film's internal logic has utterly unraveled. Proyas coaches his child actors to be spooky and oddly connected, as opposed to Smith's tiresome, precocious urchin in The Day the Earth Stood Still. His kids here don't behave in a logical way but even though Knowing doesn't make proper sense it has a coherence and feel for the whole that like the impressionistic Dark City proves Proyas's huge talent. It'd be wonderful to see him connected with a screenwriter on his level; like his last movie I, Robot puzzling out the intentions of the director of Knowing is way more intriguing than considering the motivations of any of the characters in the film. In a strangely anachronistic prologue, Knowing introduces a disturbed young girl in the 1950's who starts scrawling numbers on a sheet of paper for no reason. Also for no reason, the paper ends up in the hands of the movie son of Nicolas Cage, who really puts his one facial expression through its paces as the list of numbers inexplicably starts causing planes to hurtle from the sky and subway trains to leap their tracks.

Both of these movies boast the kind of dialogue that would seem too over-the-top for a Beastie Boys video and willfully expensive animated sequences of landmarks crumbling to dust. It's hard to tell because it's so badly handled, but The Day the Earth Stood Still is slightly better written. At the very least the screenplay pays lip service to the idea that the characters need to learn things and change, even if we don't see any of this happening. There's some sort of political point trying to be made by the Condi Rice type played by Kathy Bates, but after seven rewrites and numerous product placements it becomes utterly obscured. Knowing by contrast is utterly preposterous in its timeline, its physics, and its mushroom/Kubrick head shop-poster ending. It's the better film, though, thanks to Proyas, who creates an environment and tone that cry out for better characters and dialogue to inhabit them. Just like Dark City, the director often seems impatient with the limitations of his screenplay and starts telling a story of his own just with the visuals. Knowing would make a smashing silent film or music video, but unfortunately between dazzling uses of current technology (for storytelling purposes, not disconnected spectacle as in the other film) there's a lot of half-hearted acting from Cage and nine or ten whomping logical defects.

Neither movie is much good as a whole, but Knowing is worth seeing thanks to the audacity of a couple of its individual scenes. Both of these movies logically insist upon a total ridiculous, over-the-top sci-fi ending, and Knowing doesn't botch its lead-in. You might hate the movie's exploded, gauzy, allegorical finishing point, but at least it's ridiculous and over the top in a way that's true to the movie's essential silliness. The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, isn't nearly silly enough.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One-World Filmmaking

The International
DVD via DVDPlay

As my movie-watching habits have changed and become more completist, like my music-listening, I've realized that it's possible to appreciate a bad film for a single good scene, just like how the right key track can partially redeem a tepid album. But ultimately a director must make good films, and a band must produce good albums, to stand the test of time.

The International has a very sluggish first hour, inflating a plot that's no less silly than any of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies and an international cast of recognizable types who are exactly as they seem to be with lovely technical shots of European scenery. Then the plot shifts to New York and appropriately to classical film logic it immediately gets a good deal more violent, in the form of a quite glorious sequence set in the Guggenheim where German director Tom Tykwer has fun mincing together Hong Kong bullet ballet, Tarantino-style bloody delight in the practical effects of gunshot impact, and a gleeful pleasure taken in blowing up a lot of scenery just for the fun of it borrowed from westerns of all time periods, with the whizzbang handiwork of a troupe of overcaffeinated Foley artists singing out of all the surround-sound speakers.

Naomi Watts doesn't have much to contribute because she's drawn the short straw in a script full of softly-speaking big sticks (major glower power at work in The International, with Armin Mueller-Stahl's of special notice) but Clive Owen continues to improbably keep the same basic character riff fresh -- some day, a bold filmmaker should make a picture where Clive Owen plays an overworked, insomniac everyman at his wit's end who shows up for work one day and nothing at all bad happens. The movie is part of that new class of American-written, Euro-directed action movies that are beginning to proliferate as the realities of digital distribution sink into the movie business. The International benefits from its international background, both in the authenticity of its locations and cast and the confining factors of its budget. They're not making $50 million thrillers in Hollywood these days, more $250 million blue-screen tentpole sequels, and as such some of these transcontinental projects are keeping alive the tradition of practical stunts and "real" effects in action movies.

The best thing about The International's signature gunfight isn't that the scene breaks any new ground, it's that if you know what to look for you can tell the whole thing was done with stuntmen and squibs blowing up in the walls of the set. Rather than using digital matte work to make imaginary bullet holes appear in the real museum, the filmmakers constructed a massive, multilevel mock Guggenheim and then literally blew the crap out of it. That's so much better. The practical vs. digital effects debate in film is not at all dissimilar to the analog vs. digital debate in audio. Only there are actually some circumstances under which digital film effects are justifiable ("Lost," for example, would have been impossible to make any time before it actually was), for example when the danger to a stuntman would make the shot too difficult to film practically. There's no similar argument for CD over vinyl (as a pure listening medium -- I don't care what you do in the car or on the treadmill).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hit Machines

Cadillac Records
DVD via DVDPlay

The money, the licensing rights, and the actors are all in place, so why can't Hollywood make a good 50's or 60's music biopic? Are the irresistible repeating plot points of the artistic lifestyle such that every movie must be variations on a theme, lots of scenes that feel static and obligatory and the only smiles ones of recognition rather than enlightenment? Could be. Walk Hard still stands as the pinnacle of the current interest in the format, as Spinal Tap dominated its own era -- when it's not actually parody, the rock lifestyle is way too close to it for its own good.

Cadillac Records is as empty and disappointing as its slightly ritzier predecessor, Dreamgirls, but for different reasons. The film doesn't lack for good music; even star-turn new versions of Chuck Berry and Etta James songs by Mos Def and Beyonce don't diminish the excitement associated with the material. Dreamgirls looked and felt more historically accurate and perhaps did a better job setting up the larger social context, although it's a bit of an apples to oranges comparison -- set about a decade or so earlier, the advances won by Chess Records' black artists were incremental at best. But at least this film feels the right connection to the music. Dreamgirls went to a weird other place that wasn't very black and wasn't Motown at all when the singing started; Cadillac Records doesn't share that failing. The film is true to the way Muddy Waters and his band sounded and precise about who had what hits when.

What it doesn't do is build much in the way out of real characters out of its historical figures. Jeffrey Wright has the most screen time to build a performance out of his Waters, and he puts some good work in, although it never really feels like the man himself the way Ray was sometimes able to accomplish. Adrien Brody's Leonard Chess seems contradictory and unresolved; the screenplay never makes up its mind entirely whether he was a bold pioneer or a crass, bigoted opportunist. Brody can't play the role down the middle. Beyonce's Etta James goes from new shining face to hardcore heroin fiend in three scenes, the most obvious victim of a screenplay that's long on the sort of pronouncements Walk Hard satirized fiendishly and short on anything that seems like real people talking. Emmanuelle Chiriqui and Gabrielle Union are both ill-served by incomplete Supportive Wife roles, and Cedric the Entertainer's cornpone accent and witless, overwritten monologues as narrator Willie Dixon make this a rare unwelcome appearance for him.

The tunes, however, are excellent, and the major point that the movie should make is not missed -- when Elvis Presley appears on a black-and-white screen singing a castrated cover of Little Walter's hot-sex-on-a-platter "My Babe," you feel kicked in the gut the same way the real inventors of rock and roll did at the time. Dreamgirls didn't club you over the head with the political dimension of the music the way this movie does, but the music didn't feel at all attached to that revolutionary furor. In Cadillac Records, the actors seem like puppets whenever they're not playing, but at least the filmmakers have gotten those most central parts basically correct. That counts as progress in my book, but I'm still waiting for the day when I'll see a serious music film that has as much to say about its subject as Spinal Tap, Walk Hard, and All You Need Is Cash do.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Records I Listened To Today

There will be more music and book writing here for a while, and less movies and TV -- I canceled the cable. Baseball and its cheating, lying players, owners, reporters, TV announcers, managers, and clubhouse boys has lost its appeal on TV for me. I'm still going to read a billion local teams' hometown sports pages every day because I'm addicted to written information, but spending long stretches focusing on or thinking solely about baseball mostly make me angry or sad. I haven't been to a game since April or a Rockies game at all; if I find myself in the Texaplex before October (and I may yet) you may see me shamelessly leaping on the Rangers' playoff bandwagon. (One silver lining, if you're inclined to reach, about the steroid era is that I no longer feel in the least bad about bailing out on the Cubs, A's, Brewers, White Sox, Astros, and Rockies in that order.) It's pleasant that the Rockies are again among the seven competitive teams in the sleepy NL, but it's hard to give them much of a playoff advancement shot with a 1-2-3 of Jason Marquis, Aaron Cook, and Jorge De La Rosa. There's no reason their staff should be this cheap, and no reason Matt Holliday should be a Cardinal now, other than that their rotten greedy owners prefer to cash their revenue-sharing checks and eke out a miserly profit with the park 40% full rather than investing in championship-level talent.

It made it a little harder to sign the paperwork, as I stood at the local Comcast office handing over my two DVR's and massive bundle of wiring, that none other than the truly dreamy Troy Tulowitzki was smiling at me from behind the clerk's desk, encouraging me to execute a Triple Play as he did in his rookie season. Asked and answered: John Valentin is the only other guy to have an unassisted triple play and a cycle under his belt.

Lorca, Tim Buckley The record guides universally praise the followup Starsailor, but since I scrupulously collected Buckley pere's digital catalogue and particularly since I began gathering the albums once again in LP form I've always returned most to Lorca. It's Buckley's most abstract album but amazingly soulful for free jazz, and while the grooves are loose the lyrics (at least on the badass second side) are more decipherable and linear than the other songs from the second major period of Tim Buckley's career. I personally think Buckley's early, affected folk records are a bit overrated and his late-period, desperate lounge lizard style is a little underappreciated, but it's clear when he was at his peak. One of the reasons every one of Buckley's 1968-70 studio and live recordings are all of very high quality is the way the singer/guitarist kept the same lead player (the massively talented Lee Underwood) and percussionist (Carter C.C. Collins, also a conductor and arranger) with him but rotated bass players; this gives each album and live date a distinctiveness as the core ensemble reacts to the shifting rhythmic center, particularly since Buckley wasn't using full drums at all at the time. John Balkin, who played electric and acoustic bass on Lorca, isn't as showy as some of the more famous players Buckley featured. He tends to repeat basic figures with slight variations in time and sustain, which works well at keeping the listener anchored on some very slow, dreamy tunes ("Driftin'" is the best example on the LP). What hooks there are on this album are basslines.

Double Nickels on the Dime, The Minutemen One of those albums I discovered relatively early on in my musical apprenticeship and have fallen in love with again anew every few years on the regular. I don't tend to pick up an instrument and play along to records; listening and playing are separate activities for me. I listen to a song until I've internalized it, and later I might pick up a guitar or bass and start trying to work out the chords. But Mike Watt's joyous, wisecracking bass playing on Double Nickels on the Dime is totally irresistible. Watt's lines are incredibly creative and original but at the same time they follow a rock-solid, jazz-based musical theory that's easy to follow the logic of while being quite difficult to really get all the nuances of. In short, they're worthy of study, and after poking at it for about 15 years off and on now, I can play pretty much the whole first LP. If I keep this up, I will be able to start an awesome Double Nickels tribute band by the time I'm 50. I already have a drummer!

A New Tide, Gomez It's one thing to keep putting out great album year after year, but Gomez are wholly unique, at least among contemporary bands. Since their first, the quite accessible Bring It On, which struck me at first as kind of shallow and imitative until I got to see them live and appreciate the originality of their subtle three-guitar approach, they've made five more records. Three of those five, I initially disliked and was disappointed by. Each and every one of those, I came around on, each time more dramatically than the last. That's a pretty odd phenomenon -- I can't think of any other band whose work I initially hated two-thirds of, then came to love almost unconditionally. I can't think of any other band whose work I initially hated two-thirds of that turned out to be worth the time investment to "come around" on. So in that sense, A New Tide is a total disappointment. It's the first Gomez record since Split the Difference, and only the second overall, that I've liked right away. It's baited with some of the most graciously hooky songs they've penned since the debut ("If I Ask You Nicely," "Airstream Driver") and the band consistently pairs its best, most expressive singer, Ben Ottewell, with the most abstract and laptop-glitchy experimental tunes. Some of the chanting, rapping, and intoning by Gomez's lesser throats, Ian Ball and Tom Gray, initially turned some (including me!) off to In Our Gun, the last Gomez album to really throw itself confidently into electronic music. Here the songs are paired well to singer, with Gray's homespun baritone nailing the doo-wop folk confection "Nicely" and Ball's snotty monotone suiting "Driver" and the well-executed "Win Park Slope." Gomez are a band I've made the effort to convert people to the cause of with some success over the years. I'm glad to have fellow fans who are also musicians, like my girlfriend and former bandmates, to discuss the group with because their richness is so very unassuming. (Jim DeRogatis, the condescending Chicago Sun-Times critic, called them "sleepy" and unworthy of the main stage in his Lollapalooza writeup.) Their aesthetic is that of a jam band, but they don't jam. Each guitarist has his own idiosyncratic style, and rather than trying to mesh the sounds, they each kind of plug away and trust that their understated bassist and polyrhythmic maniac of a drummer will make some sense out of it. (I saw Ben, Tom, and Ian as a trio once and was sorely disappointed, none of them is much of a rhythm player and huddled around with acoustics they look hijacked. As a solo performer, by contrast, Ian Ball is terrific and animated.) Gomez couldn't exist if audio technology hadn't evolved to the point where people could plug in and practice, loudly, with a mixture of electric and amplified acoustic guitars and have the sound field be coherent. This is a fairly recent development -- acoustic guitars are a nightmare to amplify.

The Sounds of Things

Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles
Geoff Emerick "and" Howard Massey

As a record collector, Anglophile, and pop culture scholar, I have read more books on the topic of the Beatles than any other single one event, group, or individual -- OK, maybe World War II pips them by a nose, if you count all the Enigma code books. Somehow I've missed out on this one, which isn't is as wide circulation as some more detailed but way more pedantic books by Mark Lewisohn et al. Emerick is one of the very few genuinely famous sound engineers (as opposed to producers) in pop music history -- other than a few engineers posing as real musicians, like Tom Scholz, Alan Parsons, or Billy Corgan. He did in fact produce many records after his time with the Beatles, including three of the four and a half good albums Paul McCartney made as a solo artist and Elvis Costello's chilliest one, no mean feat. Due to the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon of the Beatles, Emerick remains most famous for what he did (stunningly, between the ages of 15 and 23) at EMI studios as first an assistant and then lead engineer under George Martin.

Some basic flaws in the book make getting started, after the teaser of an introduction regarding the creation of the "Tomorrow Never Knows" drum sound, harder than it should be. Emerick's ghost forces unnecessary literary devices where his narrator's pure access and authenticity ought to be enough. They have a particular disconnect when it comes to Emerick's attempt to verbalize what he does as engineer; each time a metaphor begins to extend you grimace a bit. But this wears off quickly as the story quickly moves through the subject's childhood, with an efficient, major-bullet-points treatment that suits Emerick's taciturn character. Obsessed with sound and home taping from a young age, he knew what he wanted to do relatively early on and caught a lucky break when his middle school guidance counselor got him an interview at EMI. He only gets his job, he implies, because his appearance is clean-cut and he strikes a suitably respectful tone with two half-asleep classical producers in their sixties. He is able to keep it, however, because his years spent honing his listening abilities, learning how to single out each instrument in the sound field, make him well-suited to the career.

By another amazing, magical coincidence, Emerick ends up attending the Beatles' first recording session at EMI his first week on the job, shadowing an experienced assistant engineer (button-pusher) as he learns the ropes. To the authors' credit, the book holds to form as a biography of Geoff Emerick rather than yet another retelling of the Beatle myth here. He would work on bits and pieces of With the Beatles and Hard Day's Night (and is, historical fact, the first teenaged person to have his mind completely blown by the feedback intro to "I Feel Fine") but the career ladder at the venerable studio was strictly defined and after distinguishing himself as a button-pusher Emerick was duly moved on up to mastering. He would only experience Help! and Rubber Soul as other fans did, albeit somewhat earlier and on superior speakers. The book really gets the good stuff in 1966, when Emerick is unexpectedly promoted again -- at nineteen! -- to balance engineer and assigned to work the boards for Revolver, only the single best non-Phil Collins related album in the history of rock.

What's interesting about the psychology of Emerick's meteoric rise is how natural an intermediary he makes between the aristocratic George Martin (not our narrator's favorite person) and the Beatles, who if not all working class lads certainly liked to maintain such appearances. Geoff speculates that Paul McCartney may have agitated in particular for his promotion -- the two had become friends over their mutual love for Little Richard, and McCartney would visit Emerick in the mastering lab regularly when the Beatles were at Abbey Road. The Beatles were beginning to chafe under the particular, regimented way Martin and their first engineer Norman Smith made records, putting microphones in proscribed places and ignoring pleas for louder bass and weirder effects. Ironically, Smith left his engineering chair to produce Pink Floyd. John Lennon to Syd Barrett -- seems at best a lateral move, from a conservative recording engineer's perspective.

So Emerick made Revolver with the Beatles, working the boards for every song. Increased workload made it impossible for him to personally engineer all of Sgt. Pepper, but he was the technical mastermind behind everything from the chicken turning into a Stratocaster to the chopped up calliope samples. Paradoxically, the passages describing the major accomplishments of Emerick's career are the least interesting, as this stuff has been picked apart to hysterical detail by 40 years of intense Beatle studies. The real hook to Here, There and Everywhere, despite Massey's limitations as a ghostwriter and Emerick's own biases, are the interpersonal politics of the most famous rock group ever from one of the very few people who formed his first impressions of them by meeting them, not reading about them in dime magazines.

This is fascinating. For all the lack of insight some of the florid passages regarding the art of sound balancing give into Emerick's character, his distinct renderings of the famous four make up for it. Some of his perceptions are understandably skewed -- he always viewed McCartney as the leader of the band, but characteristically Paul was the only one to make a real effort to befriend the engineers and tape operators when the Beatles recorded. Hunter Davies has a much more nuanced take on the way Paul and John's spheres of influence expanded and contracted, even writing with the incomplete picture he had. Emerick has a nasty habit of grabbing on to first impressions and never letting go. He disliked George Harrison from the first, and evidently grew to really loathe Ringo Starr. He had an odd fannish pity about John -- Lennon was mean and nasty to everybody sometimes, but Emerick seems to grant Lennon a double standard because he considered him a higher grade of musician than Ringo or George. He's surprisingly neutral on some of the crazier John moves of the later years, and amazingly Yoko-tolerant (until she starts making mixing suggestions).

Some of Emerick's biases betray him. As open-minded as he was an engineer, he has some surprisingly stale musical opinions. His dismissive attitude towards George's guitar playing (early on) and Ringo's singing, for example, reflect an utter lack of knowledge of the country and western music that influenced both. His terse dismissal of the entire punk movement (on his way to bragging about his work on one of Elvis Costello's least successful early 80's albums) is undercut by his rather unimpressive 70's body of work as a producer, which peaked with Band on the Run. It's strange that neither author notices the disconnect between repeatedly boasting of drunken vandalism incidents with the younger engineers and then tut-tutting about the Beatles' drug use a few pages later. Emerick grows to appreciate Harrison's Indian influences, partly for the technical challenge of recording the nonstandard instruments but also because he sees how difficult they are to play.

It's funny, having read so many different accounts over the years, trying to triangulate all the different shadings of opinion and guess where the reality might lie. George Martin, for example, had a great deal of admiration for Ringo as a player, since he barely ever lost his place (once he was taught his part by Paul). Emerick, who had to sit in a steaming, cramped room manually starting, stopping, and reloading tape recordings for most of his formative years and was never much of a musician, must have felt Ringo had it relatively easy. And as two very quiet people, they must have grown to resent each other going all those years working closely together without either ever starting a conversation.

Naturally, the extroverted McCartney, the craftsman and closest listener of the band, took the most interest in Emerick. Our narrator seems a little shaken, even after many years, that his steady work with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr individually ceased after the nasty breakup. He took a job building a new studio at Apple headquarters, in part to have an excuse to beg out of some portion of the increasingly unpleasant task of recording the contentious Beatles, and found himself isolated when his advocate McCartney withdrew to begin gathering lawyers. Despite the chaos, Emerick made the recording and mastering subsection of Apple the only profitable element of the entire disastrous venture. Then Ringo decided to knock down the building, leading ultimately to such unforgivable career decisions as working for Supertramp.

The most interesting part of Here, There and Everywhere to this audiophile was the part of the detailed Sgt. Pepper chapters that explains how Paul McCartney would stay on into the early morning after everyone else checked out to work for hours on his bass parts. He and Emerick had a shared fixation on getting the right sound out of the instrument, which they had wrestled with unsatisfactorily for years. Beginning in the 1966-67 period the Beatles turned their backs on an entire recording career's worth of established practice and started recording rhythm tracks without bass, instead overdubbing the instrument at the end of the process. This allowed them to isolate it and for Emerick to shape the whole mix around making each note perfectly clear.

As a bass player, I owe a lot to Geoff Emerick -- if it weren't for the records he made, every rock album would still be mastered with the bass completely inaudible. But reading this passage helped me nail down another reason why I've just never completely connected with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, as vast as its myth may be, certainly not remotely in the way that I know every note, chord, lyric, and harmony from Revolver, A Hard Day's Night, and Abbey Road. It just doesn't sound enough like a rock record, and now I realize after reading Emerick's book and giving the vinyl an umpteenth headphone airing with special focus on the electric bass that McCartney's woefully overthought bass playing, intricate counterpoint throughout, betrays the proper function of the instrument in the band dynamic. The tunes from Revolver are rock and pop songs, skillfully arranged and performed. The basslines are innovative -- constantly so, "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Taxman," "Got to Get You Into My Life" -- but they perform the function of the electric bass in a rock band, which is to hold the basic shape of the song together between the drums and guitar by emphasizing rhythms and basic chord structure. If you're constantly doodling around with sixths and ninths over blues changes, you better have a damn good reason.

On Revolver, some of the most groundbreaking tunes have few instruments behaving at all conventionally -- besides the bass, which keeps the shape together. "She Said, She Said," where the cymbals are awash in so much gain that the pulse becomes lost, would fall apart without McCartney's repeating triplet pattern. Having all the time in the world to make Sgt. Pepper, versus Revolver where the band was up against a tour schedule, worked against it in my insignificant estimation. I'm all for the creative use of the recording studio as an active element of the recording process -- hey, XTC don't tour. But if you have an infinite amount of time to perfect an unlimited amount of parts, sometimes forest-tree situations arise. Recording quickly, the Beatles had to have a solid rhythm section sound or the few overdubs they did wouldn't work. When they took their sweet time about things, certainly innovation resulted. But also a certain kind of overanalytical fussiness in big-budget rock music, one Emerick alludes to when he criticizes the digital recording techniques of today, has its roots there as well.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Possibly Not the First Part of an Argument for "Deep Space Nine"

Having just completed watching all of my "Next Generation" DVD's, in sequence, for the first time ever, I've returned again to "Deep Space Nine." It feels like coming home. While it took a while (and a writing staff shakedown) for "DS9" to establish an original tone, they had most of the characters nailed from the outset, and a bunch of fine writers who had cut their teeth on the excellent last three seasons of "TNG" and were ready to take more risks and assume more creative control. I'm just going to start counting my reasons for why the spinoff of the spinoff is in this rare instance better than the original.

1. No Wesley. I can't stress how much this makes a difference. Nothing personal against Wil Wheaton, but the conception and execution of the bubblegum perfect future boy strains credulity (by halfway through the first season, he was in regular rotation flying the Enterprise; by the time he left the ship, he was basically a bridge officer) and guarantees three or four unbearable episodes a season until the wide-eyed little bastard finally gets into Starfleet Academy. Then he comes back for numerous obligatory late-season cameos, each a lowlight eclipsing the last until the borderline offensive one with the Native Americans and Wesley running off at the end to becoming a being of pure energy, or whatever. At least in doing so he proved unavailable for the films. Cirroc Lofton's Jake Sisko by contrast has a wonderfully formed (from the first), touching, and realistic relationship with his father. And unlike Wesley, he wasn't first in his class in everything. He was a regular kid who disapointed his dad (pursuing a career as a writer rather than Starfleet) and got in trouble for doing stupid things (a lot). There's a lot of camaraderie in your "Star Trek" shows but not a whole lot of realistic, strongly developed parent-child relationships. I mean, but for the one where Troi got impregnated by Tinkerbell.

2. Alone among "Trek" shows (and most other TV) it regularly and often critically examines religion. The original producers, although they exerted little direct control after about the third season, set the show on the right foot in the pilot by dealing with the fact upfront that the Bajoran people, around whose planet the space station orbits, are a majority religious society. Their religion is heavy on ritual and light (in modern practice) on restrictions but their church's leadership is intensely political and decidely secular in its behavior. The first season ended rather quietly with a religious drama (involving a suicide assassin) that was low on action, but led into a three-part second-season curtain-raiser that involved the Bajoran church's direct collaboration in a military rebellion. Kai Winn, the faithless, ambitious prelate who becomes the leader of the religion in early-season intrigue, is a villain from the beginning and becomes a monster by the end. But the show doesn't lack for positive religious figures either. The saintlike Kai Opaka is too wonderful to work well as a storytelling device for all that long, and is martyred right away. Many others follow, ethical to varying degrees. At the show's climax, the Bajoran "prophets" become an essential part of both the development of Sisko's character and the resolution of the other major storyline of the later seasons, the all-encompassing Dominion War.

3. The crew isn't the best and the brightest. The first Enterprise was assumed to be the best ship in the whole Federation -- clearly, since all the other ships kept getting blown up by Klingons or Tholians and Kirk et al always got out in time for the last commercial. The second ship/show was built on that model, all the way down the line (see also 1. No Wesley). The skeleton crew assembled to look after the abandoned Cardassian space station in "DS9" would not be there if they could have the same jobs on super awesome starships as big as Zapp Brannigan's. O'Brien takes the job because he's a career noncommissioned officer and it's his opportunity to be a chief engineer instead of a transporter operator. Kira's there against her will, because the provisional Bajoran government finds her opinions annoying and her status as a hero of the resistance politically threatening. Dax is a fairly new ranking officer in the guise of Jadzia, as a joined Trill she's socially compelled to avoid generations of former lovers hanging out in the hotter spots of the galaxy (and it's also not every Federation commander who's totally comfortable working with 300-year-old aquatic insects, even ones with hot babe shells). Bashir is a seeming exception, he tells us he had his choice of assignments, but later on we find he had a compelling reason for wanting stay well under the radar as far as job placements were concerned. In short there's far more opportunity for conflict with a bunch of marginal Starfleet officers with murky pasts (or past lives) than there is among the annoying rah-rah "Next Gen" crowd. Kira and Sisko start having shouting matches immediately, and Odo and Quark's enduring mutual (non-Starfleet-aligned) hatred is one of the enduring hatreds of all television science fiction. It's good when regulars argue! They do it on "Battlestar Galactica" all the time I bet.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What Will the Knutsens Think?

Miller's Crossing
Indieplex via DVR

I wrote yesterday that I had seen all the Coen brothers' movies except for Blood Simple. Whoops! Forgot about this 1990 period piece, made towards the end of the phase of the brothers' career where they had to give their lead roles to outside "name" actors. Shortly afterwards they were to reach a level of notoriety that allowed them to use Frances McDormand and Bill Macy as leads if they felt like it; some time later they became so high-profile that most of their close personal friends now are major Hollywood movie stars.

Gabriel Byrne never quite gets the accent or the tone for his character Tom Reagan (Robert Duvall in The Godfather, of course, was Tom Hagen) right, although Miller's Crossing otherwise boasts a number of good performances. John Turturro and Steve Buscemi, Coen regulars, get a wonderful speech apiece. Albert Finney is dominating without being physically imposing as a crime boss and Jon Polito steals the picture as his rival. Marcia Gay Harden is a bit miscast as the two-timin' dame who brings all these hard men into conflict, but the movie's shortcomings are more on the filmmakers than the actors.

The two leads are the ones we see by far the most of, since Miller's Crossing is structured much like The Big Lebowksi (and the countless noirs that inspired them both). The lead investigates a mystery, running into a number of shady characters along the way, all of whom are exceedingly colorful and inhabit dazzling sets. Here Joel and Ethan Coen are mixing and matching elements of noir and more sprawling gangster epics. The sets, which are both minimalist and colossal, reflect this uncomfortable blend. Noir movies with their slow pace and smaller scale usually put more emphasis on character. Gangster movies almost universally emphasize plot, as the casts of characters themselves tend to shift over the longer time periods involved. Miller's Crossing has a small cast of speaking roles and a big cast of extras; it nails transparent details from both of the genres it has feet planted in but gets the subtleties of neither. Specific scenes that ought to pay off for the characters don't because the technical shotmaking and directing is so distracting. One, where Finney turns into the Terminator and annhiliates an entire army of gangsters sent to assassinate him in his bed, is so memorably over the top (reminiscent of a similar inferno in Barton Fink) that you forgive it for turning the movie temporarily over to exploitation violence. Another, where Finney's character finally realizes his girl is no good and his right-hand man betrayed him, stops working on an emotional level the moment Byrne is pushed backwards into a hallway with 20 times more extras than necessary and then staggers backwards through a series of abstractly beautiful camera angles. Frequently in slow motion.

You're probably not that big of a Coen fan if there isn't a bit of pure cinemaphile in you, something in your soul that sees oversized prop tommy guns swaying up a stairway in unison in closeup that sings a little. Miller's Crossing delivers an above-average number of phenomenal compositions and signature editing tricks (and sound design marvels, like when a close lens zooms out from a record rotating on a victrola and the tune is muffled until the camera pulls out far enough so that we can see the trumpet-shaped speaker). It's similarly filled with dialogue so tasty the actors seem loathe to relinquish speaking it and many characters and costumes that are pitch-perfect. Sadly, nothing of consequence really happens in any of these beautiful shots, sets, and hats (Byrne's hat, in particular, is better than the actor sitting under it). It's hard to do everything right every time.

Also: More movies should have gratuitous director-buddy cameos as good as Sam Raimi's in this film.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Recent Movie Roundup

Burn After Reading
HBO via On Demand
Eagle Eye
HBO via On Demand
Saw V
DVD via Blockbuster's 4 for $20 bin

I've seen every Coen Brothers movie except Blood Simple, and I've had a wide range of reactions. Fargo and Barton Fink and of course The Big Lebowski rank among my favorite films. Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother Where Art Thou are all worthy works, with wonderful elements and annoying pretentious downsides in equal measure. And there are a few they've done like Man Who Wasn't There and Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty that didn't work for me at all. Didn't even mention their biggest award-winner, No Country for Old Men, which is a wonderful film but is more of an identifiable type of movie with clear antecedents than the very best work the brothers otherwise known as Roderick Jaynes are capable of.

But whether their movies have been memorable or labored, I can't recall seeing one that didn't have some sort of point to it. Until Burn After Reading. The Coens are dearly fond of ridiculous, deliberately anachronistic big themes for their pieces, but their very best stuff is low-key (the snail-like pace of Barton Fink, so essential to its tension), rooted in character (remember Bill Macy's kid from Fargo who took accordion lessons and had Lawrence Welk memorabilia all over his walls?) and assured in tone (the sublime Lebowksi, which needs no further praise from me -- but I just learn that the "private dick" in the Beetle was played by Jon Polito from "Homicide: Life on the Street" and this seems like a good place to mention it). Their second tier of movies, Hudsucker and so on, are weakened by an attempt to adhere to the conventions of a chosen type of genre -- be it noir, screwball, romantic comedy, or what have you. No matter how well they execute these homages, there's always a certain amount of visible effort on screen that their more mongrel, oddball movies avoid.

Burn After Reading feels odd because it's not shot particularly like the Coens usually like to work, and other than a few character names it's very light on whimsical dialogue. Among modern filmmakers this pair skews more toward the personal than the political, but it is odd that they've made here a movie that's all about either Washington insiders or people who feel very acutely their exclusion -- and yet the movie has no political agenda to speak of. It's hermetic to the degree that one suspects that that's the intended point, that our particular government has become dysfunctional to the extent that it's no longer even governing in a meaningful sense.

There could be something to that, if every performance in the movie didn't ooze cynicism in one way or another. Frances McDormand gives a wonderful effort in what I think is an ultimately impossible role as a woman who is obsessed with plastic surgery. That's sort of an interesting idea, but the character doesn't fit into the story, and other than reminding us of it in dialogue regularly, the actions she takes don't reflect the lack of sexual aggressiveness and confidence such a genuinely pathological person would probably display. The script fails McDormand, but Brad Pitt and George Clooney do themselves in with smug, lazy performances. Pitt is supposed to be an idiot but plays his part like Tyler Durden, too handsome and charming to have to make an effort to be socialized. Clooney is at his unmotivated worst as a bearded cad who has nothing much interesting to say but a knack for setting up sight gags. John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton are wasted as the film moves quickly past their characters after the first 15 minutes or so in the hopes of maybe finding some more laughs elsewhere. Few are forthcoming.

Add in two tacked-in scenes by J.K. Simmons trying to staple some further lack of context on the overall haze (as a character who does not interact with any of the others in the entire cast), and you've got something that seems rushed, disorganized, and utterly average -- an supposed uproarious farce with A-list stars that isn't funny and reflects badly on every name on the poster. That happens sometimes.

Eagle Eye, if you accept from the top that its modest ambitions are no more or less ludicrous than the average Nicolas Cage vehicle, doesn't miss its considerably lower mark so badly. Shia LeBeouf has had a bit of an interesting career path, beginning as a teen on a family sitcom, spending his early transition into adulthood largely on costume indies, then running off a string of blockbusters with hardly a break in between. He didn't embarrass himself in the Indiana Jones revival (any more than anyone else did), he brought as much of a human pulse as was possible to Michael Bay's Transformers, and he elevated the slight Hitchcock riff Disturbia into a minor gem. Eagle Eye is probably the worst thriller-by-committee script LeBeouf has signed on to do thus far, and that's saying something. This story of an defense-department artificial intelligence gone haywire has more plot holes than a first-season "X-Files" episode, and way fewer pithy lines. Not a line of dialogue is believable, and all the characters (even the one played by Billy Bob Thornton, seen in a few scenes counting his money) are stock. But the chase sequences are bang-on, LeBeouf is absolutely stellar at looking stressed out and desperate, Michelle Monaghan is the new Bridget Moynahan, and it's just as entertaining a CGI-filled action movie for your buck as, say, Minority Report, except without the extra 45 minutes of pretentious screenplay filler. Not bad at all.

They're making a sixth Saw movie, which makes me feel less bad about giving away the ending of the fifth one, which I watched the other night finally after buying used a few months ago. I have watched and enjoyed every movie in this slightly demented series, and I've often reflected on how odd it is that its villain will go down as one of the all-time greats in the horror/splatter field -- despite the fact that he has almost no dialogue in the original. What we know of Jigsaw we know largely from a series of sequels that (but for the third one) are way less ingenious, cruder imitations of the very good original.

The massive self-contradictions of the second movie, some of which Saw V tries (weakly) to retroactively correct through flashbacks, can be blamed on the fact that in the rush to get it made less than a year after the original a totally unrelated horror movie script was repurposed to cram in Jigsaw. Fans of a forgiving sort can convince themselves that the serial killer had a bad reaction to his cancer medication sometime between the first movie and the third explaining why he suddenly became way less rational and organized for one evil plot then really got his A game back right before his big death (in Saw III). Now that the series has somehow outlasted its original nemesis for three whole films, there's a more basic, internal reason for why the "traps" now seem less inspired and repetitive -- a way less good new killer is carrying on Jigsaw's work after his death.

If you really care, I imagine you probably know by now. But stop reading if you're more than two films behind! Detective Hoffman, played by Costas Mandylor, is the "new" Jigsaw. For a very small snatch of Saw V, directed with gory efficiency by series production designer David Hackl, it seems like maybe somebody else (possibly earlier Jigsaw apprentice Amanda, less probably but more hopefully the man himself) might really be pulling the strings. But after four movies with trick-bottom endings, rewriting series continuity within a few seconds of quick flashbacks, Saw V nobly tries a different route. There's no twist here. At the beginning, Mandylor squares off against the other token survivor from the previous sequel (who is amusingly played by Scott Patterson, Luke from "Gilmore Girls") and it's clear one of them is going to kill the other. We already know from Saw IV that Mandylor is the new bad guy, so there's no drama in watching the blood drain out of various stock victims until he can finally viciously knock off Luke at the end. The actual murder is a pretty good one, like the crushing room from Temple of Doom only with no escape and Jigsaw Jr. has an amazing seat, lying in a glass box immediately under the people-smushing device.

Hackl seems less inclined than some of the music video guys who have helmed earlier Saw installments to employ whip-pans and Avid frame-dropping tricks to the degree that the camerawork itself (and not the visuals) make you want to hurl. That's good, and so is the use of some repeated geometric motifs in the traps that gives the movie a tiny bit more style than a nonstop abbatoir training film. But the trouble with spinning out movie horror sequels forever is that slasher movies demand blood, and this franchise has consumed both its heroes and its antiheroes at a hysterical rate -- Jigsaw had cancer when he was first unveiled, Amanda didn't make it past one movie as his chosen apprentice, and the list of good genre actors unavailable for future sequels because they're already dead in the Saw universe is massive. No Danny Glover or Michael Emerson or Ken Leung or Dina Meyer or Donnie Wahlberg, even. All dead!

So we're reduced to a decent TV actor (Patterson) being chased around by the heroically impassive Australian Mandylor, who has survived long enough to become the villain (thanks, Dark Knight) because he was the one detective uninteresting enough to escape the writers' bloodlust in Saw III. Tobin Bell's Jigsaw was hardly the most demonstrative movie psychopath out there -- the true believer's robotic, assured calm was what made him creepy, in the Hannibal Lecter tradition. The Saw braintrust got lucky after the first movie, where Bell barely had anything to do besides some voiceover narration. Turns out the veteran character actor was more than capable of carrying the series through two more movies as a living presence (and less effectively, two more movies since in ubiquitous flashbacks). But lightning doesn't always strike predictably, and the producers haven't struck the jackpot again in Mandylor. The most terrifying scene in Saw V isn't scary because of the impressively visualized sight of the proprietor of Luke's Diner losing one of his dimensions, it's scary because of the expression on the murdering genius face as it goes down. Mandylor, bless him, has the exact same empty look on his face as in every other scene he's appeared in for three whole movies now.