Monday, November 16, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part Four)


Here is the final installment of the excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:

When Lennon recorded "God" with the purpose of ending The Beatles' storied myth, he didn't consider that he'd eventually become a casualty in the process. In 1980, he was murdered by a deranged fan who felt the former Beatle had betrayed him. Tragically, he wasn't alone. George Harrison succumbed to cancer in 2001, but he had also been mortally wounded in his home a year earlier by another obsessed fan hearing voices. Contemplating Lennon being killed by the gun, and Harrison nearly by the knife, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones confronted the sick irony of "such pleasant guys, who made such beautiful music and never did harm to anybody, [having] to go through that kind of violence." Richards seemed to be implying that The Stones, not The Beatles, had always been identified as the bad boys.

In the years following, the world didn't become any easier or easier to understand. In fact, when you looked out into it, you didn't see anybody wanting to hold anybody else's hand. In 2006, a divisive war was raging in Iraq, where the American government had toppled a vicious dictator with the expressed desire of restoring democracy. What they unleashed instead was more religious and sectarian violence than Iraq had seen under Saddam Hussein. In one day, 130 Shiite pilgrims were killed by a suicide bombing in Karbala. On another, an American private was accused of raping an Iraqi teenager and murdering three members of her family, bringing back horrifying echoes of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam a few decades earlier. Bombs killed hundreds on a commuter train in Mumbai, India, in yet another example of fanatical religious terrorism, while Russia continued to exert its force by cutting off gas to the Ukraine over a pricing dispute. Iran continued its nuclear research while declaring the demise of Israel. Not to be outdone by Iran, North Korea decided to start testing its own nuclear missiles. Bin Laden continued to send death-cult videotapes from his hideout, warning of more terrorist attacks. Inquiries began into the CIA over 1,000 detected secret flights over Europe transporting terrorist suspects to countries that allowed torture. Before the year was over, Saddam Hussein was executed yet religious violence continued to tear Iraq apart. Soldiers of the coalition countries were coming back in an endless parade of caskets.

One grey November day, in the face of all this turmoil, among the endless bad news, dull commercials, and impersonal patter, an old Beatles song, the gorgeous John Lennon number called "Because" appeared on the radio. Filled with that blinding romantic spirit Lennon set out to end on Plastic Ono Band, "Because," originally heard on Abbey Road, broke through the aural clutter. But this version was different from the one on the record. It was stripped of its lovely baroque harpsichord, so the group's rich a cappella harmonies shone forth -- as it also sounded on Anthology 3, the CD box of alternate takes. In the midst of reports of death, recrimination, corruption, the opening lines jumped out: "Because the world is round/It turns me on." Was this somebody's idea of a sick joke? Yet somehow, despite all the horrible news dominating the airwaves that day, in a world that wasn't turning anybody on, you couldn't resist the sentiments expressed in the song; those voices were just too achingly gorgeous to write off. Listening to the song made it easier to dismiss all the cheap sarcasm on talk radio, the monotony of the political pundits, and the self-righteous tone of ideologues. The tune seemed to blow away -- momentarily -- all the horrors of the present, and took the listener to a timeless place where it was once again possible to experience the pleasures of harmony. Even with carnage everywhere, Nowhere Land was once again in view. John Lennon hadn't ended the dream back in 1970, only the reality of the group. The renowned pop melodies were still an inseparable part of our own dreams. While the real world around us wasn't changing as we'd hoped it would, the artificial paradise of The Beatles' music remained.

If one rock band in the history of rock music had captured the hearts and souls of an audience, plus the spirit of a decade, it had certainly been The Beatles. Unlike that of any other group, their music found ways to change our expectations of what pop culture could be. They also helped to bring about a cultural revolution that altered our perceptions of what the world around us might become. The Beatles essentially offered a promise that we could all share in. Beyond being a significant part of the cultural history of the sixties, they were a force that shaped that history. Their musical innovations set high standards among their peers, but as a group, they went far beyond the status of being great pop stars. They were pop artists who deliberately gave voice to their time while allowing others, in the process, the means to find their own voices.

The relationship The Beatles developed with their fans over eight years, twelve albums, and dozens of singles became an intense explosion filled with desire. "What The Beatles touched off was dreamlike in particularly deep and intricate ways," Devin McKinney explains in Magic Circles. "Their mania became a huge, open arena for the unregulated discharge of submerged energies -- their own, and the audience's." The explosion they touched off echoed the New Frontier promised by John Kennedy in his 1960 inaugural speech when he implored, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy's address, which asked America's citizens to become part of a larger dream, made possible the utopian spirit of The Beatles. When Kennedy's idealistic plea was answered with the gunshots in Dallas in 1963, the country's mournful mood was the answered by The Beatles' new hope a few months after his assassination.

Although they were British, The Beatles' idealism took the form of American rock and rhythm and blues music. And why not? "[They resurrected] music we had ignored, forgotten or discarded, recycling it in a shinier, more feckless and yet more raucous form," wrote music critic Lester Bangs. And they chose the most appropriate music in which to lift our spirits: "In retrospect, it seems obvious that this elevation of our mood had to come from outside the parameters of America's own musical culture, if only because the folk music which then dominated American pop was so tied to the crushed dreams of the New Frontier." From the moment The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, they seemed to resurrect the possibility for a better world. "[It was] the last time we can remember believing that life got better every day rather than worse," Beatles biographer Philip Norman recalls. Author and critic Steve Turner, in The Gospel According to The Beatles, confirms Norman's view, while defining our own complicity in The Beatles' hopes. "During such a time of uncertainty The Beatles represented the best of what people longed for," Turner writes. "They represented laughter rather than tears, hope rather than despair, love rather than hatred, life rather than death."

The joy we heard expressed in The Beatles' best music offered us a binding connection to the group. But while that identification brought both the pleasure and belief those two writers describe, in time it would also bring pain and disappointment. The unending riddle of The Beatles' stamp on popular culture is basically this: how did a band so devoted to love, also attract, and occasionally inspire, such hate? "Within [Beatlemania] the symbolisms of desire, fear, and foreboding ran wild," Devin McKinney asserts. "Under its proscenia, acts were committed which could not be consciously acknowledged for what they were. And under its sway, the dreamer had no power over its components, its direction, or its outcome." Within an open-ended dynamic, the contours of their vision housed a passionate love that was riddled with paradoxes. Although the strong fervor of this romance promised better days, it also carried within it the roots of disillusionment, rage, and ultimately murder. The innocent invitation of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in 1964, which cast a bright reflection of deep love would, within a few short years, is answered by the shadow of death formed by the grim prescience of "Helter Skelter" in 1968.

To imply that there is a dark side to The Beatles' utopian dream is by no means to say that the dream is false or inherently corrupt. It isn't either/or. Out of this dream grew hope, an honest desire for change, and perhaps a sense of fulfillment that comes with the realization of what that change can mean. From the moment we heard our very first Beatles song, so unlike any other pleasurable form of pop, many of us believed that the real world, if not our own lives, could change into something much finer than we knew. The joy expressed in a composition like "Eight Days a Week" made us believe that love could indeed extend the calendar, even though we knew it couldn't literally be done. Through the confluence of four disparate men coming together at the time they did, with the songs they imagined, we invested hope that the world they invented in those songs was inherently possible. But we then woke up one day to discover that the world hadn't changed for the better. In time, we had to recognize that The Beatles' greatness lay in the way they changed our perspective on the world, rather than their impact on the state of the world.

Some experienced a profound sense of loss over the fact that something so grand, so powerful, could change so little of the world's poverty and the hatred among nations. For others, the end of The Beatles' dream was a betrayal and that no promise would ever again be great enough to make them feel as hopeful again. The void at the heart of this kind of despair would be seen in the actions of a Mark David Chapman. "In one way, or another, this longing for community -- the dream of self-willed equity and harmony, or at least tolerant pluralism in a world where familiar notions of family and accord were breaking down -- would haunt rock's most meaningful moments for the remainder of the decade," writes Mikal Gilmore in his book Night Beat, about the dashed hopes inspired by The Beatles. This specific longing, though, ran deeper and much longer than the decade Gilmore refers to.

That endless struggle to define community is integral to American culture. Back in 1928, just before the dawning of a horrible depression, folk singer Harry McClintock proposed an alternate world in "Big Rock Candy Mountain" where one's worst trepidations could happily vanish. On Bruce Springsteen's Magic (2007), the narrator in "Radio Nowhere" desperately scans the radio dial looking for a song that will pull it all together, make sense of the turbulent tenor of contemporary American life, but he can't find it. He's not just clamoring for some current hit to tap his toes to; he's searching through time to find some meaning that's lost to him, a timeless song that reminds him that he's part of something bigger and not at the mercy of transient tastes, the whims of the moment. His goal, as the song states, is to be delivered from nowhere. "[T]he covenant between Springsteen and his audience remains strong, in part because he gives them permission to go on believing in trust, even when the world seems to offer so few things to deserve it," writes Robert Everett-Green in the Toronto Globe and Mail after a 2007 Springsteen concert in Ottawa, Canada. You can see the cost of that pursuit of a covenant to trust in Tommy Lee Jones's Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, as he walks through the indifferent murderous American landscape in the Coen Brothers' laconic thriller adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men (2007). "[His] last speech is a contemplation of hope, a dream, about however dark and cold the world might be, however long the ride through it might be, that at the end you know that you will go to your father's house and it will be warm, or to a fire that your father has carried and built for you," Jones told a journalist in 2008. "The last sentence of the movie is, 'And then I woke up.' It's a contemplation of the idea of hope, is it an illusion? Is it just a dream? And if it is, is the dream real?" The question of whether it is all real or an illusion, a question John Lennon posed explicitly in "Strawberry Fields Forever," always remained at the heart of The Beatles' vision. Those of us seeking the covenant they offered were searching for something outside the world we were fated to live in.

But the America that The Beatles bonded with in the sixties, despite the Vietnam War and racial iniquity, still had a covenant worth believing in. In the wake of the Iraq War, profoundly hysterical anti-Americanism had replaced a critical distinction between what was rich and true in the culture and what was empty and false. You can see that lack of distinction, too, in the fatalistic world of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). The picture strikes an empty pose that's devoid of a vision. It offers up a preordained polemical statement that provides little insight and no surprises. Anderson's epic tale of American betrayal implies that there was no American Dream to betray since it was already a nightmare to begin with. The movie provides no tragic dimension to the teeming avarice of the oil man played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Where Walt Whitman once distinguished between an art that decided presidential elections and an art that made those elections irrelevant, There Will Be Blood became art that's too busy counting its ballots. There is no grandeur to the deceived dream to even care about its loss. The Beatles give the lie to the kind of narrow assertions that Anderson deals in by marrying themselves to the most vital and exciting aspects of American culture, the kind that outstrips partisan polemics. They built a dream world based on America's conflicting temptations -- its promises and its failings -- which offer us a wider definition of community, one that also attracts many diverse citizens.

"The durability of The Beatles surpasses pretty much any other music I know," critic Dave Marsh wrote in 2007. "And as much as it belongs to the waking world, it belongs to dreams." It's been close to forty years since the demise of The Beatles, yet they continue to exist in an ethereal place existing somewhere between the waking world and the world of our dreams. From there, The Beatles continue to operate in the realm of our imagination, no matter what shape the world happens to be in. Yet because of The Beatles, we still try to imagine, as well as desire, better worlds to live in. The Beatles' music over the years had become a lifeline for many people, as "Heartbreak Hotel" had been for Lennon when he was a boy. What the re-emergence of "Because" proved was that the music had still retained a distinct quality where The Beatles' spellbinding musical wizardry could always provide hope. But it was a hope that lives only in the realm of our imagination. The Beatles' music didn't, nor could it, make our lives and the world around us better. Even so, there was a promise made in The Beatles' music, but it was a promise that the group (which broke up acrimoniously) couldn't keep. All promises that don't come true, though, can't be considered equal. Film critic Pauline Kael once concluded her consideration of Warren Beatty's Reds (1981), a movie about the ultimate betrayal of political ideals, by saying that promises broken are not the same as promises that can't be kept. In the years ahead, when it came to The Beatles, we came to learn the difference between those types of promises. So did The Beatles.


Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part Three)


Here is today's third installment from Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:

"The Beatles had nothing to do with hope," John Lennon suddenly declared at a June 1970 press conference at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada, to announce plans for a peace-and-music festival in the city with his wife, Yoko Ono. "The Beatles made it, they stopped touring, and they had all the money they wanted, all the fame they wanted, and they found out they had nothing." Two months earlier, Paul McCartney had announced his split from The Beatles and released his first solo record, McCartney, a dramatic move that made clear that The Beatles were officially over. McCartney retreated to his Scottish farm to record a stripped-down collection of love songs written for his wife Linda, playing all the instruments, i.e. portraying all of The Beatles. But Lennon had abandoned the band privately before McCartney did publicly; having found that rock 'n' roll itself was no longer living up to its promise. "The idea of being a rock and roll musician suited my talents and mentality, and the freedom was great," Lennon recalled. "But then I found that I wasn't free. I'd got boxed in. It wasn't just because of my contract, but the contract was a physical manifestation of being in prison. And with that I might as well have gone to a nine-to-five job as carry on the way I as carrying on. Rock 'n' roll was not fun anymore."

By 1969, The Beatles were not much fun anymore either, nor did they inspire in each other much in the way of hope. Their manager Brian Epstein had died of an accidental drug overdose two years earlier, leaving them stranded. Managing their own affairs, starting their own company, Apple Corps, had only bitterly divided the band. After leaving the road in 1966, they had retreated into the studio to record their Summer of Love totem Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. By 1968, their double-LP The Beatles, the contentious "White Album," had inadvertently ushered in a Summer of Hate. A psychopathic fan named Charles Manson heard the record as a call to murder. On August 9, 1969, with his cult followers, known as the Family, Manson murdered five people in Los Angeles including actress Sharon Tate, citing the album as a coded message inspiring him to bring on the apocalypse. On the walls of the murder scene, the title of two songs from The Beatles, "Helter Skelter" and "Piggies," were written in blood.

With the horror of the Manson murders simmering that summer, death hovered in the air. In October 1969, two months after The Beatles finished recording their last album, Abbey Road, a fan phoned a Detroit radio station to inform the DJ that Paul McCartney was dead and, in fact, had been for some time, having been killed in an accident in 1966. An imposter was now playing his role. Since The Beatles were no longer on the road, their clandestine lives in the studio were now clearly inspiring different kinds of dreams from the ones that dramatized Nowhere Land. Citing clues from a variety of Beatles songs and their record covers, the caller insisted that the man claiming to be McCartney was being used as a decoy to keep The Beatles myth alive. Within the month, the University of Michigan newspaper, The Michigan Daily, featured a mock article by Fred LaBour that was picked up by a number of international papers and immediately taken to heart by many Beatles fans who had abandoned all common sense. It became clear at that moment that the promising courtship of the early days of Beatlemania had deteriorated into violence, bitterness, and crackpot conspiracy theories. Within a year of Lennon's Toronto press conference, while the counter-culture was continuing to regress, The Beatles, citing the irreconcilable differences, broke up.

After the collapse, each member embarked on a solo career. George Harrison uncorked the triple-LP All Things Must Pass in 1970, featuring a number of songs he couldn't get on Beatles records. Ringo Starr put together an album of sentimental standards for his mother called simply Sentimental Journey. Lennon, the man who first dreamed up The Beatles, didn't want to quit the group quietly. After entering psychotherapy with Primal Scream therapist Arthur Janov, Lennon didn't just abandon the dream like the others; he decided it was time to end it. In December 1970, he gave a bluntly dismissive interview to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, in which he put down his former mates, asserting that The Beatles changed nothing in the world. South Africa still had apartheid, he ranted, people lived in poverty and corrupt governments had quelled positive change. By protesting -- quite rightly -- that The Beatles could never enact the social change many fans thought they would, he was now going on to deny that their vision had any worth.

That same month, he released his own autobiographical record, named after his new group, Plastic Ono Band, which began as a stark recollection of his traumatic childhood. And one listen to the album's intensely austere songs made it clear that the world of possibility Lennon once heard in "Heartbreak Hotel," the inclusive spirit he once proclaimed on "There's a Place," he was now refuting, denying its quixotic power, for the purpose of discovering the naked truth about himself. "Mother" opened the album with the peeling of funeral bells, as Lennon ranted angrily at the father who abandoned him as a boy, and at the mother who was killed soon after. "I Found Out" expressed his angry contempt for religion and the pop culture The Beatles helped inspire. "Working Class Hero," a mournful old-fashioned folk ballad, despaired of an authoritarian society that stripped its citizens of their souls. Culture critic Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography The Lives of John Lennon, aptly compared the theme of Plastic Ono Band to The Who's rock opera Tommy. "For what is the famous rock opera about," Goldman asks. "A boy traumatized by his mother's cheating loses all his senses but the most primitive, the sense of touch. He employs this mute yet passionate faculty to become a pinball hero -- a symbol of rock 'n' roll. Acclaimed by the world's youth as a pop star, he continues to evolve, becoming first a guru and ultimately a saint. There is the legend of John Lennon to a T."

On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to reveal himself as a new man. The music was different from The Beatles, as well, their colorful sound turned into monochromatic black and white. Besides Lennon, the record featured only Ringo on drums, Klaus Voorman, an old friend from The Beatles' Hamburg days, on bass, and an immensely talented young pianist who had played on the Let it Be sessions named Billy Preston. On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to tear away what he perceived to be the illusory symbols of being a Beatle -- but that wasn't going to be easy. "The Beatles not only incorporated all the elements of John Lennon's fragmented personality but they harmonized these elements perfectly, which enabled them to achieve total self-sufficiency," Goldman also wrote, explaining the difficulty of Lennon's task. Since the self-sufficiency of The Beatles was partially inspired by the image of John Lennon, in order to destroy The Beatles, Lennon had to find a means to destroy their image. He did so in a song he called "God."

For the man who once claimed in 1966 that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and had himself claimed to his mates to be Christ at a business meeting while tripping on acid, addressing God directly in a song wasn't far-fetched. But "God" wasn't simply a Lennon riposte. He used the song to tear away not only the illusions of religion, but also the illusions of pop deities who, Lennon felt, paraded like gods. "God" begins with Preston's stately piano introducing a gospel dirge. Lennon's voice speaks over the melody, suppressing the appealing melismas that once drew such affection for his Beatle songs. He tells us that God is nothing more than a concept we use to measure our pain. As if we were too shocked to take in the idea, he repeats the phrase, seizing bitterly on the final words "our pain." At this point, the sermon begins. "God" presents the inverse of a gospel song's affirmations. Reading from a laundry list of injustices, Lennon begins to tell us what he doesn't believe in anymore: Magic, I Ching, Jesus, Hitler, mantras, yogis and kings all make the cut. After kings, he mentions Elvis, obviously no longer worthy of being considered royalty. When Lennon denounces Bob Dylan, another key figure in The Beatles' musical and cultural evolution, he calls him by his true name of Zimmerman. (His ploy becomes confusing here since the name Dylan is the artist's disguise that Lennon means to strip away.) Then he comes to the key line in the song: "I don't believe in Beatles," he states, his voice rising in the mix over the piano, which stops cold on "Beatles." After this deathly silence, Lennon returns to tell us what he does believe in now: himself -- and Yoko.

Throughout the song, Lennon bites hard on the lyrics, careful not to allow the lyrical beauty of his voice to come through. He saves his best singing for a single wistful moment toward the end when, announcing that The Beatles' dream is over, he insists that he's no longer the dream weaver, but a man reborn. He proclaims that he isn't the walrus, alluding to the character he playfully portrayed in one of his best songs, but John. Lennon's voice rises beautifully here, and then lightly falls like a leaf caught in a quick breeze, as he divulges the simple truth that we have to carry on. In what sounds like an irrepressible sob, a final somber glimpse back at an era of great promise, Lennon softly cries out once again that the dream is over, and his brittle voice breaks into tiny fragments swallowed up by the song's silent decay.

The sound of Elvis Presley's voice once altered John Lennon's life. And despite all his intentions in "God," at the end we can still hear Lennon's voice accumulate the power that Presley's had for him. When he recovers the radiance in his voice, when he's letting it all go, he thinks he's ending The Beatles' utopian vision, closing the book on Nowhere Land. But what he fails to see is that the dream is still there -- and it's no longer his alone.

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part Two)


Here is the second installment from Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:


It was February 11, 1963, almost seven years after Lennon had his life changed by hearing Elvis sing "Heartbreak Hotel" on Radio Luxembourg. Now his group, The Beatles, were about to record their debut album Please Please Me at EMI records, not realizing that they too were about to change the course of popular music. After the moderate chart success of their 1962 single "Love Me Do," the follow-up "Please Please Me," recently released, had quickly become a monumental Number One hit. Riding that success, The Beatles were about to record an album of cover songs and original material to try to replicate their dynamic stage performances. After a notable stint in Hamburg, Germany, playing some of the seediest nightclubs, rhythm guitarist John Lennon, bassist Paul McCartney, guitarist George Harrison, and their new drummer, Ringo Starr (who had replaced original percussionist Pete Best), had now become legends in Liverpool. This album was designed to capture not only the excitement everyone was hearing in their music, but also the excitement that was building around the group.

The first song they began recording that day was called "There's a Place," an original Lennon and McCartney composition that took thirteen takes to nail down. Lennon was trying to get the black R&B sound he loved onto the record. Meanwhile, his writing partner, McCartney, came up with the idea of lifting "There's a Place For Us" from the Original Broadway Cast LP of Leonard Bernstein's 1957 hit musical West Side Story. The dream place Bernstein and his lyricist Stephen Sondheim created was an obvious, literal metaphor, invented to accompany the play's rather banal civics lesson that meekly tackled racial and generational discord. Lennon and McCartney's concept turned out to be far more radical. "There's a Place" laid the groundwork for The Beatles' musical and philosophical foundation, and it held all the secrets to the potency of their appeal. Oddly enough, however, many would never realize it: the track became their most underrated song. Perhaps because it was sandwiched on the album between the quaintly romantic ballad "A Taste of Honey" and the forceful album closer "Twist and Shout," "There's a Place" went unnoticed by listeners. But it seems to have also been invisible to the group as well. The Beatles never performed it live during the heyday of Beatlemania. The tune never appeared on any compilation albums, and nobody had ever covered it. In the U.S., Capitol Records ignored "There's a Place" altogether until they released a Rarities LP in 1980. While some critics drew significant attention to the track over the years, most scribes barely acknowledged its existence. Yet this abandoned song, with Lennon and McCartney's most urgent, beautifully sung harmonic pleas, paved the way for some great material to come, like "She Loves You," "All My Loving," "Anytime At All," "What You're Doing" and "Eight Days a Week."

"There's a Place" essentially fulfilled the promise of "Heartbreak Hotel," while simultaneously surpassing it. Like "Heartbreak Hotel," "There's a Place" finds the singer in a blue funk, but the place he takes us to isn't located down some lonely street. Rather than inventing a metaphorical place, Lennon locates it in his mind. Here was a place with no boundaries, no clear definition, a space within which his endless imagination could take flight. In his mind, Lennon could transcend his sadness. For in his mind, he states, he finds no sorrow. Tomorrow won't be sad, either, because there's a place, a place where he can realize love. Coincidentally, the reclusive Brian Wilson also wrote of an alternate place where he could go. But where Wilson goes, in the Beach Boys' beautifully understated "In My Room," is clearly at a remove from a threatening world he sees closing in on him. And despite the song's arresting and seductive harmonies, it's clear that we're not invited to join Wilson in his room. By contrast, the joy and invention we hear in Lennon and McCartney's harmonies tell us that not only are we are invited to this place where there's no sorrow, but that true happiness is contingent only on our presence. The sole pleasure we take from "In My Room" is the relief the singer finds in getting there. The ecstasy underscoring "There's a Place" is wisely tempered by the singer's anguish as he declares his euphoria. You have to know what you're transcending, he seems to be saying, before you can reach transcendence. "In 'There's a Place,' blue states are expressed with minor triads...rather than a pentatonic blues style," explains music critic Walter Everett. "Perhaps this is because in this song, Lennon does not have the blues; he has retreated to his mind, and we suspect that once there, happy memories of his beloved have let him forget whatever it was that brought him 'low' in the first place. Blues aside, both the lyrics and their tonal world express an unusual mix of happiness and melancholia." What Everett describes here is the underpinning of all the ambiguities of The Beatles' utopian dream in the sixties. The track’s mix of happiness and melancholia, where heartache adds depth to pure joy, and pure joy adds relief to heartbreak, sent "There's a Place" past the manufactured posturing of "Heartbreak Hotel."

In less than two minutes, the time it takes to listen to this song, The Beatles take us to Nowhere Land. But this isn't the Nowhere Land of "Nowhere Man," a Lennon song that describes an alienated state of mind. Rather it refers to the Greek meaning of utopia -- “no place” – a vicinity that doesn't exist yet remains a perfect locality. In Utopia, an ironic treatise on the Elizabethan social order written in 1518, Sir Thomas More defined utopia as a fictional island. Through the character of Rapheal Hythloday, More travels to this paradise where he finds perfect political, social and legal systems. Since More, when people think of either utopias or even dystopias, they usually locate them in a real world we can all recognize. The Nowhere Land of The Beatles' music, though, has no literal location. It is sustained by a delicate balance held between the band and its audience, dependent on a common mind created by the diverse group of men who make up The Beatles. The Beatles were part of a different kind of revolution than most of their contemporaries. "The true revolution of the sixties...was an inner one of feeling and assumption," wrote author and critic Ian MacDonald. He called that revolt "a revolution in the head," the title for his own book on the group.

Perhaps it could be argued that The Beatles' artistic progress could not have truly evolved without the audience as their muse -- and their adversary. "If The Beatles had ever embodied any principle beyond the transformative power of rock 'n' roll, it was that every step in their progress would entail the inclusion, through engagement, of yet another community," suggests Devin McKinney in Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. "First they would form a community among themselves; this would grow into a community that encompassed an imagined mass, an ideal audience, and after all the dues were paid and the foundations laid, the community would include, or at least invite, everyone who wished to play a part." As a result of this dynamic between The Beatles and their fans, the implicit message of "There's a Place" can be heard only one way: Nowhere Land exists, and the love it offers is only palpable, if we play our part in sharing the experience of going there with Lennon.

John Lennon had always made himself the pivotal figure in The Beatles' utopian dream. With them, he proposed the possibility of community, the plucky idea that by joining one, you could free yourself. "The Beatles and their fans played out an image of utopia, of a good life, and the image was that one could join a group and by doing so not lose one's identity as an individual but find it: find one's own voice," critic Greil Marcus wrote in a tribute to Lennon shortly after he was murdered. "This was an image of utopia that could encompass every desire for love, family, friendship, or comradeship; while The Beatles were The Beatles, this image informed love affairs and it informed politics. It shaped one's sense of possibility and loss, of the worth of things." Over time, though, things changed, for both the culture, and for The Beatles. Nightmares grew out of dreams. Promises couldn't be kept. For some devotees of the band, some were deliberately broken, tilling the ground for the murderous impulses some felt justified in acting upon. The screams of fans were at one time the sharing in the unbridled thrill heard in the group's best music. But soon it would become either screams for blood, or the screams of bloodied victims. Nowhere Land would in time become a ghost town, abandoned even by the ghosts. Over time, The Beatles were no longer shaping history, but becoming it, their utopian hope turning into a lamentable loss. In their later music, like "All You Need Is Love," they tried to supply answers, rather than pose open questions. In the end, we were left wondering what the dream was worth. Is a dream a lie if it doesn’t come true, Bruce Springsteen once asked in a song, or is it something worse?

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part One)


Over the next four days, I'm going to be running a four-part excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream. These installments will give, for those interested in taking the course at the LIFE Institute at Ryerson in January, an idea of the theme of the lectures. For everyone else, hopefully it might raise interest in your reading the whole book.

NOWHERE LAND


When rock 'n' roll first began its promise was pretty basic. The music told us that good times lay ahead. And with that primary assurance, a captivating pact was struck with listeners: The world was going to be a different place than it was today. As early as 1954, Bill Haley proposed a simple pledge when he said we'd find our freedom by putting our glad rags on and rocking around the clock. The song did more, though, than just rock around the clock. Youth riots broke out in movie houses after it was featured in the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), an otherwise cautionary story about juvenile delinquency. In the same year as Bill Haley, The Penguins, a quietly graceful doo-wop group with ultimately only one hit up their sleeve, promised us a world of feasible pleasures when they asked us in "Earth Angel": Will you be mine? In answer, people danced with their hips moving just a little bit closer to their partners'. When Elvis Presley first decided to shake his hips on national television, nations of eager teenagers were given permission to do likewise -- and shake them they did.

But for the 15-year-old John Lennon, from Liverpool, England, there was something more to the promise rock offered than just putting your glad rags on and wiggling your hips. Lennon was looking for a way out of his frustrated life in his indigent seaport town. Often he found himself dreaming of being in a plane, flying over Liverpool, escaping altogether. Other times, he was on a giant horse, galloping unfettered, until his own fears detained him and he ended up home feeling frustrated and defeated. One night, though, in May 1956, Lennon discovered a way out, a possible means of escape, when he caught something extraordinary on Radio Luxembourg, which played all the American rock, blues and R&B music that the BBC didn't allow. Lennon was listening to "The Jack Johnson Show" when he first heard the voice of Elvis Presley singing "Heartbreak Hotel."

Lennon had first heard of Presley through his friend Don Beatty, who had shown him Elvis's photo in a copy of New Musical Express, and told him how great a song "Heartbreak Hotel" was. Lennon had only heard Bill Haley's songs to that point. He would even remember his mother Julia dancing to Haley, but the music did nothing for him. As for "Heartbreak Hotel," the title alone came across as phony and corny to the demanding Lennon. But the great benefit of radio then, now lost to generations used to strictly formatted playlists or Ipods, was that on occasion it offered you the serendipity of discovery. There was always the chance you'd hear something you expected to find or perhaps might never find again. That's how Lennon finally encountered "Heartbreak Hotel" and he knew he had to own that record. "When I first heard 'Heartbreak Hotel' I could hardly make out what was being said," Lennon recalled. "It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We'd never heard American voices singing like that." And more than Elvis's voice, which to Lennon sounded like Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Tennessee Ernie Ford rolled into one; he realized all at once that nothing existed for him but rock 'n' roll. From that day onwards, he thought of little else. Besides containing a sound that encompassed him, it spoke to him of freedom, sex and youthful rebellion. "Heartbreak Hotel" also opened up something else to Lennon. But he wasn't sure what it was exactly.

After Elvis launched his meteoric career at Sun Records in Memphis a couple of years earlier, in 1954, with his startling and still unmatched performances of "That's All Right" and "Mystery Train," "Heartbreak Hotel" became Presley's debut single for RCA Records. The origins of the song began with a steel guitarist from Georgia named Tommy Durden, who had been playing country music in Florida since the forties. In 1955, Durden met Glenn Reeves, a Jacksonville DJ and singer, who promptly introduced him to Mae Axton, a schoolteacher, also an eager publicist for local country music performers. Durden told Axton a story about a man who committed suicide and left a note that said, "I walk a lonely street." In trying to imagine why the man in the story walked to the end of that lonely street, they decided to write a song about where he might have ended up had he not killed himself. That place with no known address became Heartbreak Hotel. Axton went to the annual DJ convention in Nashville in November 1955 and pitched the song to Elvis, who was enticed to record it when he was given a share of the writer's credit. Jack Strapp, who owned Tree Music (and sponsored the convention), purchased the tune and Elvis recorded it in his first RCA session.

Despite the popularity of "Heartbreak Hotel," which would get to Number One on April 21, 1956, it is not one of Elvis's best sides. He puts so much melodramatic affectation into his performance of this torch ballad that it inadvertently comes across as a parody of the blues. But maybe what Lennon heard in the song was what Leonard Marnham, the English post office technician stationed in Berlin, hears in Ian McEwen's 1990 novel, The Innocent. Bored with his routine life, Marnham turns on the radio one night and, like Lennon, suddenly finds "Heartbreak Hotel." McEwen describes Marnham's reaction to the song this way:

It spoke only of loneliness and irresolvable despair. Its melody was all stealth, its gloom comically overstated. He loved it all, the forlorn, sidewalk tread of the bass, the harsh guitar, the sparse tinkle of a barroom piano...The song's self-pity should have been hilarious. Instead it made Leonard feel worldly, tragic, bigger somehow.

No question that the song tells an alluring tale capable of pulling you out of your ordinary life. It's about a man who is abandoned by his girl, as Lennon himself was by his own mother when he was five. He has found a new place to abide, right down Lonely Street, there at Heartbreak Hotel. But the hotel gives the singer no comfort; it's a phantom residence. The singer is alone, and so destitute he wishes he could die. The idea of this metaphorical hotel of the heart, this "new place to dwell," spoke deeply to the young Lennon, who would hear his own loneliness and desolation in the song. But also out of that pain, he would hear his own possible, brighter future. By traveling in his mind to Heartbreak Hotel, John Lennon started to imagine a place beyond it. There's a place in this sound, he thought, to find one's salvation. Of course there is. There's a place, don't you know that it's so?

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Return From Stasis

Sorry folks. It was a longer hiatus than I had planned. Yet it was unavoidable due to some unfortunate circumstances that ultimately led me to retire from active film reviewing (more on that in a later blog). While I’m going to miss the daily flow of excitement and disappointment that comes with responding to new work, I’m not going to miss the business of film reviewing itself (more on that later, too). In the meantime, much is afoot. In December, myself, plus a few former critics, will be launching a blog site called Critics at Large. Our hope and desire is to provide views on a variety of subjects that are untainted by the rampant patronage and blatant careerism so much in evidence in certain professional reviewing circles today. Updates will follow as the site is now being assembled.

On Sunday November 15, 2009, the CBC Radio documentary series "Revolutions Per Minute," which John Corcelli and I conceived, continues with an incisive look at Symphony in Effect by Maestro Fresh Wes. Released in 1989, this was the first Rap/Hip Hop album in Canada. Maestro's "Let Your Backbone Slide" and "Drop the Needle" became the inspiration for many Canadian Hip Hop artists over the past 20 years. Guests include, Wes Williams, Farley Flex and Classified. I invite you to tune in your radio sets to Inside The Music with Patti Schmidt CBC Radio 2 at 3PM. CBC Radio One at 9PM. You can also listen on line in a variety of time zones, in case you miss the local broadcast, at cbc.ca/radio.

In the winter, I’ll also be teaching a course at Ryerson’s LIFE Institute based on my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles’ Utopian Dream. My decision to do this is partly due to a need to try something new away from teaching film. Being forced into retirement as a professional film critic has currently tainted my relationship to movies in much the same way that a sour love affair can sometimes affect your outlook on love. In order to reclaim and redefine that passion, I’ve decided to momentarily move in a different direction. Secondly, since the book publishing world is becoming as addled as the world of print journalism, I needed to make more people aware of Artificial Paradise than the publishers (Greenwood-Praeger) have been doing. Although I’m grateful for their generosity in allowing me to write a longer work on The Beatles than originally agreed, they have sadly done little to actually publicize it. (One critic, who did review it, had to spend over a month begging them to send a copy – which they finally did, only leaving him to cover the cross-border duty expenses.)

Part of the problem of availability and poor publicity is due to the fact that Greenwood-Praeger is an academic press rather than a trade publisher. Basically, they do expensive hard-cover books destined for libraries rather than the commercial market. Secondly, just as my book was coming out, they were bought up by a West Coast group called ABC-CLIO. When I contacted those folks recently about the possibility of negotiating cheaper paperback rights with a trade press, they asked me to let them know if I find somebody. (Isn’t “finding somebody” supposed to be the marketing department’s job?) I originally went with Greenwood-Praeger because I couldn’t find one publishing house in Canada, despite having published four previous books, to consider it. Even with the massive response to the recent remastering and re-release of The Beatles’ recording catalogue and the continued fascination with the band in literature, the reaction was mute (and, I fear, moot). I wrote a book about the world’s most popular rock band, attempting to consider how and why The Beatles, who were objects of intense love and adoration, also drew towards themselves hatred and murder. I provided a view on the band that I believe is a unique addition to the canon of Beatles material out there, and yet nobody is interested in making it more readily available. (Is it any wonder more and more people are turning to self-publishing?)

So in the spirit of the termite philosophy I’ve embraced, I decided to shift my position in the wood and adapt the text to an 8-week lecture series in January (exactly one year after the book’s “release”). For those interested in taking the course, Artificial Paradise is currently available at the Ryerson Book Store at Victoria & Gould, but good luck in finding it. (They have it stocked in the fashion (?!) section. Don’t ask.) As a teaser for the course, I’ve constructed a sampler from Artificial Paradise which I’ll post tomorrow. It’s called Nowhere Land, the original title of the book, the current title of the LIFE course, and metaphorically the constituency in which the book itself now resides.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

For Now...Until Later

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I will be taking a hiatus from blogging for probably the next month. My thanks to all of you who have been following and responding to my daily whims. I have appreciated your responses. Hope to speak to you all soon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

DVD Review: Waltz With Bashir


The Israeli animated feature Waltz with Bashir is a war movie that resists easy categorization. Writer-director Ari Folman, who served in the Israeli army, examines the traumatic aftermath of the 1982 Lebanese War where Palestinians, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, were massacred by Lebanon’s Christian Phalangist militia. Although the Israeli command were not directly responsible for the killings, they provided cover for the Phalangists to attack. The murders were perpetrated following the assassination of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel.

Waltz with Bashir doesn’t delve into the political dynamics of the war, but it does something more distinct. Like the recent Iraq War film, The Hurt Locker, Waltz With Bashir takes us into the harrowing psychological impact of warfare where, within the tormented and vacant memories of Israeli soldiers, we discover that they haven’t been quite the same since they abetted those horrors two decades earlier. His choice to make this an animated film is something of a bold stroke of genius. The realism of war often inspires nightmares in the participant who wishes to escape its dark memories. Waltz With Bashir is an embodiment of imagined and real war stories that dare the viewer to tell the difference.

Folman goes beneath the reported facts and details into the varied experiences of young soldiers still trying to sort out memory from nightmare. Although his use of animation is somewhat suggestive of pictures like Persepolis, this film isn’t quite so stylistically self-conscious. The sickly, halluncinatory images in Bashir unfold out of Folman’s own growing awareness of his personal participation in the bloody war’s aftermath. Besides being a boldly original memoir, Waltz with Bashir is an evocative, compelling picture that searches for truth just as passionately as it yearns for it.

View the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylzO9vbEpPg

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ellie Greenwich


Overlooked this past week was the death of songwriter Ellie Greenwich. Along with husband Jeff Barry, Greenwich wrote some of the best pop anthems out of the Brill Building in the early ‘60s. Her best known works included the thrilling “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the giddily melodramatic “Leader of the Pack,” the glorious “River Deep, Mountain High,” and (my personal favourite) “Be My Baby.”

Produced by Phil Spector, “Be My Baby” was a hit single in 1963 for The Ronettes. Brian Wilson, who called the tune “the greatest pop record ever made,” built the foundation of The Beach Boys' music on that very song. In subsequent years “Be My Baby” has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (even the Library of Congress added it to the United States National Recording Registry in 2006). What makes this song so great? In the early ‘60s, girl groups routinely sang about love and heartbreak. Many of the Brill Building songs expressed the anguish of broken hearts and doubts of fulfillment (as in “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”). But Barry & Greenwich, in “Be My Baby,” wrote a number where a woman stakes her claim to both stand up to her man and also let him know that if he let her go, he’d be the loser. Who could argue? The memorable opening gunshot of the drumsl, thumping defiantly like a beating heart, ushers in the urgency of Ronnie Spector’s desire. When she pleas for the guy to be her baby, she’s not talking about him doing it maybe next week, she says be my baby, NOW!

“Be My Baby” goes way past seduction into making the listener feel like an idiot for ever considering refusing her. Spector’s voice is so erotically charged that you are hypnotically entranced by the possibilities in the promises that the song offers. In Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese used “Be My Baby” over the opening credits of his fever dream about a petty hoodlum who gets seduced by both the Church and the Mob. The Ronettes here get turned into sirens luring the protagonist (Harvey Keitel) into sin and guilt. What other song would have had the potency to make moral rot look so seductive?

The only other pop song from that period that caught the deeper yearnings within adolescent desire was perhaps The Beatles' exquisite “Eight Days a Week.” Not bad company.

Treat yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PAllQBDVJw

Friday, August 28, 2009

Edward Kennedy and Legacies


It was more than a little disconcerting when I woke up the other morning to the news that Edward Kennedy had passed away. When my clock radio went off, the station was replaying his 1968 eulogy for his murdered brother Bobby. So I came to consciousness rather groggy and thinking that I’d gone back in time. I clearly remember that June morning 41 years ago and waking to turn on my radio to see if Robert Kennedy had won the California primary. It was the primary that would have secured him the Democratic nomination at the party convention in Chicago that August. But what I heard instead was random screaming and horrific voices saying, “Get the gun!” Without a news announcer to provide any context, I knew what had happened. The depressive inevitability of what followed lingered like a bad hangover. But this time, once I realized that it was 2009 and Edward Kennedy had died in his bed due to cancer and not an assassin’s bullet, I was strangely relieved that he got to have a full life. His story now seemed complete. Well…almost.

Edward Kennedy was the youngest son of Joseph P. Kennedy and the one least likely for greatness. Most of his life, he’d lived in the shadow of three older brothers for whom great expectations were a matter of course. But Edward lived, as did his father, to watch them instead die tragically. First, Joe Jr., the favourite one, was destined to be the first Irish Catholic President. He died in a secret air force mission during the Second World War. John Kennedy did become President only to fall to an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, 1963, before he could finish out his first term. And then there was Bobby, the re-born idealist, picking up the broken pieces of his late brother’s legacy, also being killed by an assassin before he could realize his dreams. Teddy saw it all – then all eyes turned to him. Besides being a witness to tragedy, the legacy fell upon him like a burden. Watching him try to be the man his brother’s were was equally tragic. Edward Kennedy was not presidential material and he knew it. But he felt compelled out of family necessity to be somebody he wasn’t. Yet something self-destructive (alcoholism) and destructive (the horrible death of Mary Joe Kopechne) derailed those plans so that he could eventually find himself. Once he did, he was able to fulfill the Kennedy legacy in ways that no one could have imagined.

For one thing, he’d served in the Senate for 46 years and became the most effective liberal legislator in American history. Kennedy prevented Reagan’s odious 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. His recent fight over proper and humane health care had begun in 1969 when he backed health insurance. His bipartisan pragmatism was also refreshing in an age when people prefer to stubbornly dig in their heels and draw lines in the sand. (He had given support to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill.) Kennedy had also demonstrated how to put down the gloves and work effectively with opponents like John McCain on immigration reform, and with Senator Orrin Hatch in providing health care for children.

It seemed that once Edward Kennedy closed the book on his presidential pursuits in 1980, he shook the family burden from his shoulders and became his own man. In the process, he would fulfill the legacies of both JFK and Bobby. Of course, while his older brothers could conceal their weaknesses, Edward wore his on his sleeve. He was a living map of both the idealistic zeal and the horrible folly of the Kennedy family. So when he died the other day, it closed the book on the family chapter. But his final gesture may be his lasting one. When he threw his support behind Barack Obama, he was saying that although idealists can die, both tragically and naturally, ideals don’t.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

DVD Review: Duplicity


Maybe Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) is too smart for his own good. In his latest film, Duplicity, he features Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, two of the screen’s sexiest stars, as corporate spies with a romantic history where they try to pull off the ultimate con. Despite this juicy premise, however, Gilroy gets so caught up in machinations of the con that he forgets the romance. Duplicity is a romantic comedy made without a romantic impulse.

Although Gilroy, who began writing screenplays for genre pictures like Delores Claiborne, Proof of Live and the Bourne movies, has a knack for sharp storytelling, he seems (as a director) to lack the instinct for good pop entertainment. He directs the material as if it’s beneath him. In Michael Clayton, his first directed picture, George Clooney portrayed Clayton, a “fixer” in a large corporate law firm in New York who tidies up messes made by clients and then circumvents any potentially damaging stories that could reflect badly on the firm. One day, his mentor Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a breakdown handling a settlement suit for a large agrochemical company and threatens to rat out the client. Clayton is then brought in to silence his friend.

Although it's refreshing that Michael Clayton takes a different route than most conventional legal dramas like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, the picture doesn’t illuminate the core relationship between the litigators and clients. Moreover, it stretches credibility: Given his emotional condition, would Edens ever be given a case this sensitive to handle? Furthermore, as my friend Steve Vineberg smartly pointed out, Clayton seems in the end more upset that the company tried to kill him rather than caring about what they did to Edens. Clayton never really gets to develop a moral conscience. Tony Gilroy shows a gift for intelligent plotting in Michael Clayton, but seemingly little interest in the catharsis of drama.

Gilroy repeats the same mistakes in Duplicity – except this time he’s made a romantic comedy that lacks romanticism. The story begins with Ray Koval (Clive Owen), an MIB agent, who meets CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) in Dubai. One night, she seduces him and then steals some classified documents in his possession. Years later, we see that Ray is now a corporate spy in New York who works for Equikrom, a consumer product corporation. He gets renunited with Claire while she's doing undercover counter-intelligence at a rival company. When her company announces a new major product development, we see that their meeting was not by chance. It turns out that they both plan to wait for an opportunity to cheat their companies and sell the secret to the highest bidder for their own gain.

Owen and Roberts match up beautifully here, but Gilroy doesn’t develop the heart of the story. Because of the nature of their jobs, the idea in Duplicity is that they can’t trust each other. So as they become more intimate, the more they want to trust each other, but can’t. We're to understand that duplicity works on both fronts: their work and their love life. But since Gilroy is less interested in the romantic charm of his performers, he muffles all the erotic sparks they give off. As well, Gilroy once again gets carried away with creating a dense plot, one filled with flashbacks and flashforwards just as he did in Michael Clayton. Before long, as the movie grows less coherent, you become less interested in it.

The point Gilroy seems to be making by the end is that corporations are too savvy to be taken by amateurs. Gee. What a profound downer. But its Gilroy whose the loser. He gets so caught up in the rouse that he fails to see that in Duplicity he’s conned the audience out of a good time.

trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3_J-KikK2Q

Monday, August 24, 2009

What's Left?


A friend of mine recently lamented that the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election victory seemed to have waned since that thrilling November evening. While I could acknowledge some truth in what he said, fully sensing that the party fizz had flattened somewhat, I also detected something much more urgent in his comment. I suspect that beyond the historical implications of Obama’s win, as well as the ripe possibilities and hopes that it raised, there was also a utopian element at work in my friend’s expectations. It was as if his hatred of George Bush had been so intense that the love of Obama was, to some degree, just the other side of that coin.

For many on the left, Bush had made America the scourge of the planet which meant that (after Obama won) the world would soon be spinning on its proper axis again. The belief seemed to be, with Obama in the White House, that the violent insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan would now put away their toys and play nice. But the world hasn’t changed in that manner and the zealots (seen recently hampering the Afghan election) haven’t gone away. I do think that Obama sensed the unreal expectations being heaped upon him which is why he underplayed the significance of his election. He knew that the world he was about to confront was the same world that the previous President confronted. Their approach to it might be radically different, but he understood that the irrational ideologies threatening democracy were not solely the product of American corporate power.

This observation was further developed in an article in the Sunday Toronto Star by Angelo Persichilli, the political editor of Corriere Canadese, as he speculated on the recent NDP convention. He noticed that the New Democratic Party, in trying to find some relevancy on the Canadian political landscape, was invoking Obama’s name (as if Jack Layton represented Canada’s great hope for social justice). Persichilli suggested that the current economic crisis had “broadened the ideological spectrum” by forcing liberals and conservatives to move further left in fighting the recession. He saw that they were adapting policies historically the domain of the NDP (i.e. the nationalization of troubled corporations and government intervention in the market). Persichilli was criticizing the NDP though for abandoning those values because they were being endorsed by the “enemy” (i.e. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives). Elaborating on that point, Persichilli posed some lucid observations:


“The traditional left is looking to Obama for political inspiration. But Obama has repackaged economic ideas borrowed from George W. Bush. It was Bush who started the corporate welfare binge, giving billions of public dollars to banks and corporations like those in the auto industry. Obama supported this and now his administration is involved in running some of these enterprises and shaping the new economy. Layton, in contrast, chose to vote against the last federal budget without even reading it, consequently becoming irrelevant.”


What Persichilli is essentially saying is that the NDP position is formed more by what it opposes rather than what it actually supports. This is why he believes that Jack Layton prefers “positioning to principle.” None of this, of course, excuses the responsibility the right-wing corporate policies (or overreaching unions) share in creating this current mess. But the left or, in this country, the NDP need to (as Persichilli asserts) “go back to NDP basics and represent the clearly defined interests of the working class.” According to Persichilli, Layton should “drop old ideas based on the conviction that ‘American imperialism’ is the source of all the world’s problems and that socialism is the solution to all of them.” But is this likely to happen? I wish I knew.

In his 2007 book What’s Left? British left-wing activist Nick Cohen expressed these same concerns in a larger context. He looked around in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and saw some of the left acting as apologists for the Iraqi insurgents. Cohen also wondered why Palestine was the major cause for the left and not, say, the Sudan, China or Zimbabwe. (He also was curious as to why the left couldn’t, or didn’t, wish to define what kind of Palestine they wanted to see emerge. It was far easier to criticize solely the Israeli occupation.) Cohen perceived a left that had grown reactionary, rather than responsive, in the wake of 9/11. In that sense, it’s easy to see why the hopes around Barack Obama became so intense during the election campaign. But I wonder, in the years ahead, if the world continues to act out its long battle between secular democracy and religious totalitarianism, if Obama’s constituency will continue to support him with the same zeal. In the wake of 9/11, it was easy to lay all the blame on Bush. But, if the world doesn’t change, who will get the blame further on down the road now that Bush is gone?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Walrus is Paul

Indeed. The Walrus is Paul...that is, Paul Newell. Who the hell is Paul Newell, you ask? I don't really know but he's managed to pull off a stunt that is more than a little uncanny.

Back in January 1994, when The Beatles were planning their Anthology documentary, Paul McCartney acquired two tape cassettes of John Lennon demos from his widow Yoko Ono. These songs, "Free as a Bird," "Real Love," "Now and Then" and "Grow Old With Me" were home recordings of songs that Lennon never completed or released commercially. "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" were made into "Beatle" songs by having the surviving group (with the help of producer Jeff Lynne) provide backing. In the case of "Free as a Bird," they also added new verses and altered the original meaning of the song. (Lennon was writing about his feeling of personal liberation at receiving both his Green Card and the legal settlement of The Beatles' affairs; Paul McCartney added a verse that made the song appear to be about Lennon's nostalgia for the better days of the group.)

In March 1995, the three began work on "Now and Then" even recording a rough backing track that was to be used as an overdub. But, after two days of recording, they stopped work on the song and scrapped any more "Beatle" music. For one thing, George Harrison felt that it would be too much work because they would have to add more verses than they did to "Free as a Bird." There was also a technical defect in the original recording. (Blogger Jeff Chandler will likely complain that there is more than just a technical defect at work in the tune.) But I suspect that they didn't want to complete the song because, like most of Lennon's late music, it was all about his relationship with Yoko. There wasn't a larger perspective in the track that would invite the evocation of the band. They would end up feeling like Lennon's sidemen.

Although rumours continued throughout 2005 and 2006 that McCartney and Starr would release a complete version of the song in the future, it was highly unlikely to happen. But in 2007, a mystery musician named Paul Newell got his hands on the demo and apparently finished what the band couldn't. He not only cleaned up the technical issue that was hampering The Beatles' efforts, he completed the instrumentation on the track, playing guitar, keyboards and drums. What is unsettling about "Now and Then" is that it sounds like a Beatles song - even though they don't play on it. Although it's not a very good track, you can't entirely pull yourself away from the soft ghostly pining in Lennon's voice. "Now and Then" is made even more eerie though by the fact that Paul Newell has invoked the ghosts of The Beatles themselves.

When the group was doing "Free as a Bird," they rationalized their involvement in recording it by pretending that John was going on holiday and he told them to finish it while he was away. My friend Greig Dymond commented, upon hearing Newell's version, that "it's as if Newell is pretending that the whole band was going on holiday and they left it to him to complete it - even though he never met them." Newell posted "Now and Then" on YouTube where you can puzzle out how he faithfully copied Ringo's drum style and Harrison's soft-slide efforts towards the end: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23CcaPQeC0I

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Rube Goldberg Experience

There are practical, useful inventions - and then there are inventions calibrated solely to sweep you up in the process of how they work. The individual who came up with this precisely timed set piece seemed to care little about the invention's ultimate goal (a clue: there are easier, less time consuming ways to accomplish the invention's final act) and more about its ability to carry it out. The inventor keeps you in suspense, waiting for one false step to trip it up. The dime doesn't drop, but your jaw might.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1yv0ETlEls


TO READERS: Part of the fascination in doing daily blogs is working quickly to get my thoughts on the page. In the process, of course, mistakes get made due to working so quickly. I found some typos and gramatical errors in some earlier copy and have gone back to clean the mess. Sorry for that mess. (If some of you care to go back you'll find the copy - hopefully - a little cleaner.) Most of my friends are much more gifted as writers than me, but if I chisel away I can generally make myself pretty clear. But if anything stands out, don't hesitate to let me know. I'm going to try and exercise the same editorial copy-editing I do when I'm preparing a professional piece for publication.

By the way, I'm happy to see more comments appearing. Thank you. Please join in if you haven't already.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Film Review: District 9

The new science-fiction film District 9 has a clever, rather amusing opening premise. Where the alien mothership in Spielberg’s Close Encounters found a welcoming home in the hearts of the American misfits and dreamers of the ‘70s, the spacecraft that appears in District 9 above Johannesburg (in the waning days of apartheid in the ‘80s) finds the exact opposite. If E.T. were aboard, they’d quickly send him home - if not kill him. As it turns out, aboard this ship is a crew of crustacean-shaped creatures (pejoratively called “Prawns” by the South Africans) who are lost, hungry and (before too long) crowded like illegal refugees into ghettos.

While the irony is obvious, director Neill Blomkamp thankfully doesn’t employ a heavy hand in milking it. But, sadly, he doesn’t really develop it, either. Blomkamp begins District 9 in a mock documentary style that looks back to 1982 when the ship arrived, hovering like a cloud over the city, and how the alien refugees became unruly and unwelcome in their new country. But he doesn’t delve into the promising story he sets up. For instance, Blomkamp doesn’t develop the tribal conflicts that were very much part of the collapsing apartheid system as a means to show how both blacks and whites could easily project their grievances on the creatures. The space folk instead are presented simply as a metaphor for the oppressed. They also seem to have very few people on their side. (Maybe if they’d looked like the dolphins in The Cove?) None of the political implications are fully examined, either, and before too long the picture is nothing more than a routine action story. (It’s like a high tech version of Alien Nation.)

The story follows the ambitious bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who is promoted to the role of eviction landlord. He is charged to move over a million “prawns” into a more outlying district so that they will no longer be offending the locals. But while performing his task, Wikus accidentally ingests a can of alien fluid. Soon he starts to transform into a prawn himself (the way Jeff Goldblum turned into the fly). When the military realizes that Wikus is slowly turning into an alien, he becomes part of a medical experiment to find ways to exterminate the space folk. But Wikus escapes from the lab and hides out in the ghetto. His goal is to help the prawns get home providing they can help change him back into his human self.

All through District 9, Blomkamp provides the mechanics of an exciting adventure story, but the picture isn’t terribly exciting to watch. The action might be technically impressive but the picture is ugly and impersonal because the characters are no more than stock genre types. You get the feeling that Blomkamp’s picture would work better in a shorter form because the film’s meaning gets sized up quickly in its concept. (Peter Jackson, who produced District 9, was impressed with Blomkamp’s short film treatment of the story called Alive in Joburg.) The director tries to broaden his story by providing little sub-plots about Wikus’s pining for his grieving wife, or featuring a wise scientist prawn’s mentoring his young son, yet there are no epiphanies reached in these moments. They nothing more than recycled and tired clich├ęs from apocalyptic B-movies.

District 9 succeeds as a technical challenge more than anything else. Since the battle scenes between the creatures and the humans are believably effective, the movie will likely satisfy the SF techno-fans. But the movie has such a ripe and irresistible premise that the rest of us will probably feel deprived of something more. District 9 is a science-fiction adventure story without a vision.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

DVD Review: Tyson

Boxer Mike Tyson didn’t have the lyrical swing of Muhammad Ali, or the dazzling force of Joe Frazier, but he was something of an enigma. Because he appeared as a powerful blunt instrument, it was assumed by some that he was illiterate, that all he could do was fight. In his latest film, Tyson, director James Toback (Fingers, Black and White) delivers a fascinating account of this troubled boxer’s life by allowing Mike Tyson to speak for himself. And he is anything but illiterate. For the full length of the movie, Toback simply places Mike Tyson in front of the camera and (with the occasional inclusion of archival footage), we hear the story from the troubled boxer firsthand. James Toback has always been something of an enigmatic talent himself. Most of his movies, good (Two Girls and a Guy) and bad (Harvard Man), approach movie-making as tests of his character. There’s been a streak of reckless danger in Toback that is both unsettling and fascinating which is why his movies are so erratic. With Tyson, he sublimates his usual improvisational style and lets Mike Tyson seize the moment to nakedly reveal himself.

It’s hard to believe now but early in Tyson’s career many scrambled to associate themselves with this solidly built young man with the gapped-tooth lisp. He was unbeaten 15 times in his first year as a pro fighter due to a left hook that hit opponents as quickly as a gun shot. (He rightly earned the name Kid Dynamite.) In 1986, Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion in pro boxing by dropping World Boxing titleholder, Trevor Berbick, in the second round. His original mentor and manager Cus D’Amato had taken a brutal street kid and turned him into a successful and intimidating fighter. But after D’Amato’s sudden and tragic death, Tyson fell into the hands of Bill Cayton and promoter Don King, who was more the carny barker than mentor. Before long, Tyson’s problems fully erupted. His tumultuous marriage to actress Robin Givens ended. He fired his skillful trainer Kevin Rooney which ultimately lead to the deterioration of his abilities. And then, in 1992, the rape conviction that landed him in prison.

In Tyson, he talks about all of this with a surprising candor that at times is thoughtful, occasionally brutal, even self-mocking. But unlike Barbara Kopple’s wonderfully insightful documentary, Fallen Champ, Toback's Tyson doesn’t put the fighter and his life into the context of the boxing world with its history of corruption and brutality. It’s instead a personal portrait that seeks to reveal the many sides of Mike Tyson’s personality. James Toback, who cast Tyson in a small role in Black and White (where Robert Downey Jr. played a gay man who unwisely hits on the fighter), identifies with the contradictory elements in his subject – as he had years earlier in his friendship with football star Jim Brown. But Toback keeps his own peculiarities out of the picture. Tyson is a clear and clean confession by a man who doesn’t make excuses, or lay claim to our sympathies. The movie asks you to take the man – with all his gifts and flaws – face on. Tyson is an unsettling revelation.

Here's the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ItHFhH1tng

Friday, August 14, 2009

Les No More: Tribute to Les Paul

One of great pioneers of the electric guitar, Les Paul, died yesterday at 94. It’s hard to imagine anyone from The Beatles, Jeff Beck to Jack White without him. But he was not only an extraordinary and fluid player, he also invented the solid body of the electric guitar. His innovation of overdubbing tracks. to create the sound of multiple performers, was a revolutionary process that would leave Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa forever in his debt. Paul went on to invent tape delay and phasing effects which not only enhanced his own performances, but the very process of recording music.

His playing style featured notes that lept off the fretboard like Django and his chording sequences stylistically wed jazz scales and the rhythms of what would become rock and roll. Paul did a series of great pop recordings with his wife Mary Ford in the early ‘50s. Their most famous being “How High the Moon” seen in this TV clip where he gets to demonstrate the overdubbing process.

Watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0B2Wtvznfc

In the end, there was no finer and classier guitar stylist. The continued popularity of the Gibson Les Paul rightly commemorates his legacy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Film Review: The Cove/Julie & Julia

The fervid enthusiasm for The Cove, a partisan documentary that exposes the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji, is so intense that you may experience caution about raising any objections to the film. It’s as if by questioning the movie’s calculated approach to the slaughter of these mammals you're guilty of handing out the spears and harpoons to the killers. But that’s exactly the paradigm The Cove sets up – an Us vs Them dynamic that I believe weakens the story. In an attempt to quickly transform the movie audience into instant activists, The Cove by-passes a contemplative investigation of the hunt and instead uses the nakedly visceral techniques of melodrama to outrage its viewers. Judging by many of the reviews I’ve read, it appears to be working.

Director Louie Psihoyos (who is a former National Geographic photographer) and animal rights activist Ric O’Barry (a former dolphin trainer) are rightly appalled by the cruelty taking place in the cove (where dolphins are rounded up and either killed for food, or sent to a living death in marine parks). But due to government and fishing industry collusion, they can’t prove it. (Apparently, close to 23,000 dolphins are driven into the cove each year.) So Psihoyos and O’Barry decide to organize a team with thermal cameras and night-vision goggles to slip by the secured location and (with hidden cameras) capture the hunt in order to expose the fishermen. Since The Cove borrows the techniques of a thriller it has a certain dramatic kick when we watch the group organize their battle plan like a commando army. And the footage they get is so horrifying it leaves you in a state of helpless anger. But given our anthropomorphic identification with dolphins, doesn't it seem crudely manipulative to use this footage to stir those sentiments in the viewer while simultaneously indicting the hunters? (I somehow doubt that footage of a group murdering sharks would have the same impact on the movie audience.)

The Cove is also an examination of the grief and guilt that O’Barry feels about his former job of training dolphins for exhibition. (He trained the mammals used on the ‘60s television program Flipper.) While there’s no question of O’Barry’s sincerity at wishing to amend for his past acts by now preventing the current killing, the slick style of the film works against his intent. Psihoyos uses techniques no different than the ones employed to invoke sentimentality on Flipper. Besides directing the movie, Louie Psihoyos is also the co-founder of the Ocean Preservation Society, which is to say that the film has an ecological agenda that it wears proudly on its sleeve. Now I’m not suggesting that because of this The Cove traffics in bad faith the way Michael Moore’s pictures do. What I’m saying is that the film is trying to be both a recruitment poster as well as a criminal indictment – and the two styles don’t mix very comfortably. The Cove is a powerful and effective bit of agit-prop that outrages and disgusts. But ultimately its goal is to get the audience cheering when the bad guys are outed. Because of its arm-twisting techniques, the one thing The Cove doesn’t do is encourage you to think.


I’m also a little perplexed by all the praise Meryl Streep is getting for her over-controlled performance as cookbook author Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s new romantic comedy Julie & Julia. Streep’s acting in recent years has been reduced to a catalogue of mannerisms. Those tics and inflections continue to call attention to her acting abilities rather than revealing more about the character she is playing. Meryl Streep has become the ultimate control-freak where every acting movement gets highlighted in the same way an operatic diva’s high C's are designed to get massive applause.

In Julie & Julia, all of Julia Child’s eccentricities and formal presentations end up concentrated in a selection of vocal inflections and self-conscious gestures. Streep’s energy becomes so concentrated in getting those details down that her performance has no lyricism, or cohesion. (She is far more effective in comedies like Death Becomes Her, or routine action films like The River Wild, partly because she gets to act with her whole body rather than breaking her role down into character bits.) When a tape of Dan Ackroyd parodying Julia Child on Saturday Night Live appears in Julie & Julia, his impersonation lays waste to Streep’s performance because you can feel Child’s soul in it. Now Magazine film critic Susan Cole was sharp to pounce on that:

“As you’re chuckling along…you realize that, as the gifted cooking instructor Child, Meryl Streep is herself doing an impersonation, and that does two things. You laugh, much like you laugh at Aykroyd, every time Streep is onscreen, but that in turn vastly reduces the emotional stakes. You just can’t get that invested in the character.”

You don’t really get too heavily invested in Julie & Julia either. It contains that genteel romanticism common to Nora Ephron’s work (Heartburn, Sleepless in Seattle). (It still amazes me that I have female friends who don’t recognize that if you reversed the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan roles in Sleeping in Seattle, you would have a very creepy stalker picture.). Yet even though there’s a quaint air throughout, where well-meaning people struggle to find recognition and love, Julie & Julia has a certain delicate charm that her other films lacked.

The movie is made up of two stories that run parallel. One is a contemporary story where Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a frustrated young married woman living in Queens and growing tired of her self-centered friends and a New York government job that deals with the aftermath of 9/11. To find herself, she’s encouraged by her editor husband Eric (Chris Messina) to start a blog. She decides that the blog will be about her journey in cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s epic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This task ultimately leads her to write her own book about the experience. Intercut with Julie’s story is one about Julia Child’s excursion to Paris with her diplomat husband Paul (a touching Stanley Tucci), where she falls in love with French cuisine and ultimately sets out to write a book that introduces it to Americans.

Since Streep’s performance is so dominant, it might be easy to overlook the fine, subtle work of Amy Adams. If Streep compartmentalizes her character, Adams is completely fluid in letting Julie’s fluctuating moods flood into hers. She is so vividly alive that I wish the film had just been about her trying to invoke Julia Child in order to find her own voice. I think that’s what Nora Ephron is aiming for in Julie & Julia anyway. But judging by the results, she only gets halfway there.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

How to Burn Bridges (Without Knowing That You Have Any Matches)

Back in 1995, my career as a journalist had hit a very hard wall. Suddenly, after 15 years of producing, co-hosting and movie reviewing in radio, I could not find work anywhere in the field. Some of my misery was caused by circumstances completely out of my control. Some of it was also caused by circumstances I set in motion. (In a couple of other cases, I ended up at the mercy of the control of others.) I became aware during that time of a different and disturbing climate emerging in the media. And it had little to do with the standards I encountered when I first came in. Most of what I was seeing now was a kind of survivalism. People spent more time trying to figure out what they needed to do to keep their job rather than continuing to develop their talents at their job. In that kind of environment, I knew my chances of continuing to make a living as a journalist and film critic were in peril.

When I found myself suddenly "unhirable," it was also a strange sensation. After all, it wasn't like the skills I had been developing over the years had suddenly vanished. So why was I suddenly persona non gratis? I decided that it might be a good idea to write an article about this survivalist mentality and use what had happened to me as an illustration of it. (Besides, I had to start thinking of other ways to make a living using what I knew.)

I quickly got an editor at Toronto Life magazine interested in publishing it. All I had to do now was write it and he'd take it from there. Unfortunately, during that time, I lost my apartment due to the running out of funds. Since there were no Internet cafes in which to compose copy in those days, I could write very little, and often it was sporadic. The process took longer than I originally planned. The other problem, of course, was my anger at the circumstances before me. But the last thing I wanted the piece to be was just an ugly rant. Unfortunately, everything I wrote became coloured by my growing displeasure at what happened. As a result, I kept delaying the finished product (while continuing to write sketches of where I wanted the piece to go).

Ultimately, the article never came to be because I went to Boston for a number of months and when I returned I began writing books. I even mananged to review movies at CBC Radio again for about six years until a regime change sent me back out on my ass. Recently, while moving some old files into my new computer, I came across some of the article's early sketches. I thought they held up pretty well and seemed darn relevant today. I had already used some of the unfinished article in a couple of my books because parts of the argument fit nicely into certain sections of Dangerous Kitchen and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. So here is a short portion of the piece that was once titled (to the Toronto Life editor's great amusement) "How to Burn Bridges (Without Knowing That You Have Any Matches)." In this section, I tried to describe the process that I felt lead to the Survivalist Culture emerging in the mid-'90s:


“During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the barriers between what was considered high and low culture had begun to wither. It was possible to be simultaneously open to the classical Indian sounds of Ravi Shankar and still be in tune with the driving force of The Rolling Stones – without being considered a snob or somebody lacking in taste. The prosperity of the time had brought a wealth of cultural alternatives into the mainstream. But when the affluence of the ‘60s turned into the severely pinched ‘70s, our culture began to move dangerously inward. Before long, our reality wasn’t shaped by the outside world that we once openly experienced. The self and our own well-being was now the only reality worth recognizing. Self-worth was also no longer determined by ideas, thoughts and abilities, but by our status within our social and working environment. Worthiness was earned, too, by emulating whatever (or whoever) was popular and smoking hot – and ignoring whatever and whoever wasn’t. A social amnesia (where something could be popular one minute and forgotten the next) evolved out of this stargazing. By the ‘80s, solipsism quickly became the yardstick by which politics, art and popular culture were measured.

The upheaval of the ‘60s and early ‘70s had sought alternatives to this kind of conformity by encouraging individual dissent within the boundaries of a collective culture. By the ‘80s, though, a desperate need in the middle-class to survive – at any cost – planted the seeds of what would soon become yuppie careerism. Driven by desperation, some of those individuals turned to the self-serving banalities of pop psychologists. The spoken goal of this was self-knowledge, but the hidden desire was to find ‘enlightened’ ways to regain lost prosperity and find social acceptance. What was sacrificed in this process was a more complex understanding of behaviour, provided to us by hundreds of years of literature, philosophy and psychology. A generosity of spirit that comprised a worldview wider than the contours of our own navel was also deemed expendable. Diversity of opinion began to dissolve as well, in favour of a bland homogeneity that welcomed received wisdom rather than intelligently thought through arguments. In this new age, it was more important to shape the public’s taste into something that could make dollars rather than sense. So when the latest fad stopped proving lucrative, it was abandoned. We soon saw how a crippling economic recession would not only narrow our pocket-books, but also the tolerance for intelligent and open debate about important issues.

The ‘80s and ‘90s would often be defined by the entrepreneurial phrase ‘Go For It!’ This particular kind of junk-bond philosophy, which ate away at our economic infrastructure, extended itself, as well, to how we thought. Pretty soon, even in the places where creativity was once encouraged, even nurtured, you could find yourself becoming obsolete. The first thing that I decided to do, when it was apparent that the sharks were out and there was blood in the water, was to find a new place to swim.”

And that was as far as I got in that section.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Day John Wayne Met Paul McCartney

No doubt there have been stranger meetings than this, but the incongruency of the Duke handing out a Grammy to Beatle Paul (for the music for Let it Be) is still something strange to behold. Even stranger, perhaps, is (as Greig Dymond wisely pointed out) Paul taking the stage with wife, Linda, when she had nothing to do with the music. (Greig rightly suggests that Yoko would have made better sense.) But then, in 1971, John and Yoko weren't on - shall we say gently - friendly terms. If Paul's terse thank you speech seems too abrasive only consider that the movie he just won for captured the break-up of The Beatles. And the music was badly mangled (without Paul's permission or involvement) by Phil Spector.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7kOkFIIYhE&feature=related

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Film Review: Funny People

To describe Funny People as funny is applying a misnomer – there’s no funny people in it. Unfortunately, that seems to be the movie's point. Director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) has now become an industry onto himself - he writes, produces and directs scatological comedies (Superbad, Pineapple Express) with an underlay of social commentary. Now he wants to make his own version of Terms of Endearment (not my idea of a ringing endorsement). But instead of a dysfunctional family finding its mettle in the face of cancer, we have instead a group of desperate comedians learning to value life with all its emotional commitments. But where Terms of Endearment hit a nerve in some people, perhaps because they were moved by the sentimental notion of a determined mother (Debra Winger) desperately bringing her bickering family together (while bravely confronting her own mortality), Funny People is filled with stoners and malcontents learning life’s lessons. The picture drowns in its own wetness.

The story follows George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a successful infantile comedian (much like Sandler himself) who has made a number of hits out of low-brow infantile comedies (much like Sandler himself). Although he’s rich, famous and popular, the undercurrent is that - hold your breath – he’s actually an unhappy man with no close friends and divorced from the woman he truly loves (Leslie Mann). To make matters more miserable, Simmons has been diagnosed with leukemia. His doctor provides an experimental medication that gives him a slim chance for survival. As Simmons ruminates over the fame and ruin of his life, he decides to go back to his roots in the small comedy clubs where he made his success. It’s there that he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), an aspiring young comic who works during the day in a deli (where most comics seem to get their start). Wright shares an apartment with his best friend Leo (Jonah Hill), another stand-up on the rise, and TV star Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), an annoyance who happily gloats about his financial and sexual success.

The night Simmons and Wright meet, Simmons delivers a morose set of comedy routines that Wright (who follows) parodies. Simmons watches the young upstart make fun of his work and later decides that this kid should write routines for him. While becoming Simmons’ assistant, Wright comes to learn about his boss’s condition. The picture examines how Simmons mentors Wright to be a good stand-up, just as Wright gets Simmons to stand up to his responsibilities and reach out to those who care, and to those he cares for.

For about the first hour, Funny People appears to be showing us how very funny people are actually truly desperate, lonely people. But there’s nothing fresh about that particular revelation (which was also given a thorough working over a couple of decades ago in Punchline, with Tom Hanks and Sally Field), nor is it a very compelling one. The desperation should already be obvious to us in the routines themselves. That's part of the reason why, in the most basic sense, we laugh at jokes about people slipping on a banana peel. By casting Adam Sandler, a comic who turns self-admiration into a form of hubris, as a man trying to plumb the depths of his soul, Judd Apatow has started with the wrong comedian. Sandler’s form of comedy, like Jerry Lewis’s, is not based on the pain of the nerd – but the rage of the nerd. Cruelty and sadism are the motivating instincts, the worm turning on a world that’s scorned him. This form of comedy (also displayed by The Three Stooges) has its roots in Jewish comedy where Jewish pride and defiance is firmly perched at the edge of the abyss. (It’s not surprising then that Sandler’s best line in Funny People comes when he tells a Jewish woman who finds guys on J-Dates that, being Jewish, he’s suspicious about being on any list.) But the film only raises the underpinnings of that style of Jewish comedy without ever really exploring it.

Adam Sandler also lacks the depth of, say, a Richard Pryor, who could make you understand his rage and profound disbelief as a black American while making you laugh at how confounding he finds white folks. In Funny People, George Simmons is nothing more than Happy Madison on downers. As for Seth Rogan, I fear he’s suffering from overexposure (like Jack Black). His genial stoner sensibility is starting to become tiresome and dull. The casting of Jason Schwartzman, one of the most narcissistic of bad actors, as a narcissist, is only another kind of hubris. Leslie Mann, who was truly sparkling while teamed with the appealing Paul Rudd in Knocked Up, is given the thankless part of the ex-wife who has to see what she missed by giving up on Simmons. As if to punish her further, Apatow hands her Eric Bana as the husband. While it’s unique to hear Bana in his native Australian tongue, the tongue is as heavy and dull doing comedy as it is speaking in a drama.

All of Judd Apatow’s films are slickly constructed comedies designed to draw subversive laughs while ultimately making us accept status quo values. Which is why we likely remember more fondly Steve Carell’s desperate fumbling into sexual fulfillment in The 40-Year-Old Virgin rather than his earnest confession of his virginity to Catherine Keener, the woman he loves. We probably got more pleasure watching – and believing – the strains of comic tension in the marriage between Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in Knocked Up, rather than the dubious notion that the only satisfying relationship Katherine Heigl could get is Seth Rogan. Since Funny People tries more for pathos than laughs, it sags. (And at 2 ½ hours, the picture is an albatross.)

Naturally, given that we are in the world of male comics, the bulk of the humour here is penis jokes (of which there are more than in any Hollywood comedy in memory). But I don’t think I’ve heard so many jokes about erected cocks in a picture that turns out to be so flaccid.