Saturday, April 12, 2014

Metal Show, Columbus, Ohio: 4/10/14

Last Thursday I had the chance to attend my first metal concert at the Newport in Columbus, Ohio.  I must confess "heavy metal" has never been my music of choice.  Don't get me wrong like any mere mortal I like to get the "led" out every now and then.  My cultural reference point for metal ends somewhere between Alice Cooper and Guns and Roses.  Nevertheless metal endures as a vibrant genre of rock music with widespread popularity in Europe and Japan.  And for a live show experience, expect an onslaught a loud, brash, energizing assault on the senses.

The first band, ReVamp, hails from the Netherlands.  Lead singer, Floor Jansen, has multi-octave vocal range and a captivating stage presence evoking a Viking queen.    As a Progressive Metal band, their music splits the difference between hard driving metal and haunting melodies - think Abba meets Black Sabbath.  Although their set lasted only 30 minutes, I found their music the most adventurous.

Next came the Swedish band Sabaton, who are known for writing songs about history and war.  Frontman Joakim Broden and the rest of his band, all wore camouflage, flap jackets, and sunglasses making them look like post-Apocalyptic soldiers from the Mad Max universe.  Their 45 minute set had the feel of a victory feast after winning a great battle, right out of Beowulf or The Song of Roland.  At one point, Broden introduced one song as a tribute to Audie Murphy entitled "To Hell and Back." Murphy, the legendary American soldier from WWII, went on to Hollywood to star in war films and westerns, most notably John Huston's brilliant adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage.  I liked the song.

Iced Earth, the headliner, has a more traditional type of metal characterized by intense power chords played at a rapid machine gun fire rhythm.  Their set list combined the hard metal with erstwhile power ballads.  Lead singer Stu Block had a nice connection with the audience and made a special effort to acknowledge his band mates. With a nearly 20 year catalog of material, Iced Earth satisfied fans with songs from their new LP Plagues of Babylon and some favorite tracks from the past as well. Iced Earth answered the challenge of the previous two bands with a blistering, non-stop grouping of songs expressing a wide range of emotions.

Perhaps what separates metal concerts from others is the almost symbiotic relationship with the audience.  Both feed off each other's energy.  The phenomenon of moshing also occurred on a few occasions.  For those who don't know, a mosh pit usually happens in the front center of the audience and consists of crowd members jumping and "slam dancing" into each other.  You enter at your own risk (some bands highly discourage the practice). 

Metal thrives as visceral music, hence it's highly theatrical in nature.  It taps into deep seated emotions of anger, frustration, and hope.  Metal owes much to the Gothic tradition of exploring the dark side of human nature and the mystery of existence itself.  For fans, the music brings self-empowerment and a well adjusted way of viewing the world.  I found the audience respectful of others and polite - making for an evening of exciting entertainment.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock

Dale Pollock's informative biography of George Lucas provides a glimpse into the man who shaped the cultural imagination of late 20th century. Described as an aimless teenager with limited ambitions, he miraculously survived a car crash at age 17 and resolved to make something of himself.  He cultivated an interest in movies and entered film school at UCLA.

Lucas flourished there and immersed himself in the film making process, with an emphasis on the process. The technical side of movie making fascinated him as he spent hours in the editing room with his own films and even editing for fellow students.  His films were experimental and marked by their minimalism and disregard of narrative.  In 1969, his student film THX-1138 won accolades for its innovative use of sound in an abstract dystopian tale.  During those years he befriended Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and many others who set the course of American film in the 1970s.

Coppola, a key figure in the life of Lucas (he based Han Solo on him), served as a Socrates to the UCLA students.  He founded Zoetrope, an alternative studio for young independent directors.  Pollock portrays the Lucas-Coppola friendship as one of alter egos: George the quiet, workmanlike artist and Coppola the gifted, but sometimes self-destructive visionary.  Coppola produced THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973).  The success of the latter, gave Lucas the time and funding to write his space epic, originally titled The Star Wars.  

A good portion of the book covers the years 1974-77. Lucas would spend hours in his office trapped in writer's block. He read comic books, fantasy, and science fiction for inspiration.  The story went through an endless series of rewrites and character shuffling. Lucas wanted to create modern mythology set in space while using traditional motifs found in the epic tales of world literature. 

The actual filming proved a harrowing experience as unrelenting pressure from the studio pushed Lucas to the verge of nervous breakdown. The challenges did not end with post-production either.  He created his own special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, to create the effects using miniature sets and motion control cameras. Once the effects were perfected and John Williams had completed the score all the elements of Star Wars started to gel together.  

Released in May, 1977 Star Wars instantly captured the public's imagination. The movie offered a new hope to a generation raised in the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam.  The New Age philosophy of "the Force" captured the zeitgeist as well.  Box office records were shattered and the age of the summer blockbuster began.   

After the success of Star Wars Lucas opted to let other directors and writers to make the sequels, although he retained creative control.  With cohort Spielberg he produced the Indiana Jones trilogy and made some forays into television.  A painful and expensive divorce from his wife Marcia Lucas (a highly respected film editor of Taxi Driver and Star Wars) led to to his absence from directing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Originally published in 1984, Pollock added a chapter covering Lucas's return to Star Wars in the 1990s.  At times, he takes a critical tone towards Lucas for the simplistic morality in his stories, his reliance on action sequences, and an inability to achieve success outside of Star Wars.

Interestingly Apocalypse Now began as a George Lucas project.  He made plans to start shooting in Vietnam on 8mm film as a cinema verite blurring the lines between fact and fiction.  While Coppola's version produced a remarkable film, it is tempting to consider what Lucas had in mind. For years Lucas has spoke of plans to make "art" films no one will care about, but they have failed to surface.  Is he pulling a Prince and leaving a vault of material unreleased?  When looking back at his three films from 1970s THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars one sees an amazing potential to evolve into something more interesting than sequels, blockbusters, and special effects extravaganzas.  

Of the New Hollywood directors, only Spielberg and Scorsese stayed on course. They were always the purest filmmakers and they continue making relevant films in the latter stage of their careers. At the moment, Lucas has settled into elder statesman status.  He spent most of the 90s raising his children and returned to public view with the making of the prequel trilogy of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Last year he sold the rights of Star Wars over to Disney (a sad irony reflecting the times) who will release the much anticipated, Episode VII next year.  

Nevertheless his legacy as a myth maker has shaped modern culture, but also his innovative marketing strategies through toys and comic books have left their mark as well. I only wish we had seen more of the 1970s spirit in his other work.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: Wired by Bob Woodward

Wired by Bob Woodward, besides being an exhaustive account of John Belushi's life, is in itself an interesting cultural artifact.  Woodward, who broke the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, took on another subject with a connection to Richard Nixon.  Both had a penchant for self-destruction.  As a biographer, Woodward seemed the wrong fit, but in some odd way delivered something inspired.  I'll try to explain.

Without a doubt, John Belushi was the heart and soul of the original cast of SNL.  His off screen antics were just as legendary as his onscreen ones.   He brought a brash, working class attitude to American comedy.  Whenever he appeared onscreen there was a wild sense of unpredictability.  He was everyone's cool older brother.  By all accounts, Belushi was a loose cannon with a volatile personality.  During the first season he resented Chevy Chase's popularity.  He loved tormenting and intimidating the guest hosts. In Belushi's view, women had no place in comedy and often tried to get their sketches cut.  On more than a few occasions, Michaels banned Belushi from the set for constantly being difficult.  Belushi's characters have an enduring quality from the Samurai Man to the Albanian proprietor of the "pepsi and cheeseburger" diner. Another favorite is an 18 minute Star Trek parody Belushi carried doing a parody/tribute to Star Trek (I'd argue sketch confirmed Star Trek as a cultural phenomenon).  In Dan Aykroyd, he found a comedic soul mate.  Despite all of his shenanigans most attest he was loyal to his friends and was a decent human being when not under the influence.

Woodward's writing style is dry as dust at times.  He also bloated the book with transcripts of well known skits from the show.  At times, the book reads like a courtroom deposition - especially when chronicling Belushi's final weeks.  If you want to be a fly on the wall to Belushi's wild times the book has an addictive voyeuristic quality.  But there's little there on what drove him to such extremes.  

Belushi's attempt to launch a movie career never got off the ground.  While his supporting performance in Animal House as Bluto inspired all future frat parties, he never made it as a leading man.  Starring roles in Continental Divide and Neighbors failed to win over critics.  In fact the whole process of making Neighbors proved a debacle from the get go.

Belushi's work on SNL will live on.  If he had got himself together, I think he would've had a fascinating movie career as a character actor  transcending his early persona. But it was not to be and all that's really left is his work for the box on the Saturday night show - ironically for a medium he personally despised.  

Woodward's foray into celebrity biography stands as a must read for aficionados of Belushi and the early days of SNL. It's about the content.  The style not so much.  For more ingratiating accounts of Mr. Belushi I'd recommend oral histories and firsthand accounts - that's where the folk heroes are truly born.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


There's a spectre haunting academia known as adjunct nation.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education adjuncts account for roughly 70% of teachers in higher education (including me).  Many outside the confines of academia are ignorant of what being an adjunct instructor actually entails. In a word, adjuncts are part-time instructors at a university or community college (also including those cesspools of exploitation known as "for profit colleges"). Usually a Masters degree is a minimum requirement to teach, but many PhD's must resort to part-time work due to the lack of tenure track positions available to them.  

Part-timers receive virtually no benefits. Teaching loads vary by semester and long-term contracts are rare.  Low enrollments for a section can lead to its cancellation which translates to less income than expected. Therefore, one must work at more than one institution and contend with crazy schedules while navigating grueling commutes. No summer vacations either (in fact no vacations period) because you need summer classes to pay the bills. Tenure is beyond the realm of possibility. 

The "publish or perish" rule proves pivotal in hiring full time instructors, but most adjuncts simply don't have the time to pursue research.  As a rule, universities don't fund travel expenses for adjuncts so they can attend conferences.

In recent years, there's been a growing outcry against the absurd burdens placed on adjuncts.  This past fall the death of 83 year old adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko at Duquesne University became a cause celebre when her story went viralVojtko, a longtime adjunct at Duquesne, lacked health insurance to pay for her cancer treatment while the university cut her course load considering her "ineffective."  While her story is more complex than meets the eye as reported in Slate; it is a more than likely fate for career adjuncts who will never get retirement benefits.  Generally, college administrators and tenured professors respond with no more than a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to the plight of the teaching underclass

Most students are clueless about higher education's growing reliance on adjuncts. They seem to think all college instructors are full professors with all the benefits.  At community colleges, adjuncts are not provided office space to meet with students. With tuition on the rise everywhere, students deserve teachers who can see them outside of class- especially at a community college where they often need extra help.

To add further insult to injury, at the end of every semester, adjuncts are subjected to student evaluations.  Those can determine future pay and employment. I recall one administrator condescendingly going over an evaluation with me and said the students always know best as he treated me more like a product than a human being. I can understand the need to evaluate full time instructors, but many adjuncts live and die by them.  I've known some who must grade inflate to keep their jobs.  Students should have the right to critique their teachers, but it's unfair to force low paid educators to deal with the administration and the students with no support.  Teachers are not a consumer item. Students are not clients.

At 34, I see no future whatsoever in continuing on as cheap labor for the corporate ethos taking over universities.  I do not have a PhD nor do I have a desire to get one, although I once had the ambition.  A PhD will only slightly improve the chances of getting a full time job after at least five years of intense study. Sometimes I feel trapped.  The only option remaining is to get out.

I enjoy working with students who are willing to learn, but the outright scorn many of them have for the humanities and books can be maddening and discouraging (certainly not all students display this attitude, but it's there nonetheless).

Over the past few years I've come across many eloquent obituaries lamenting the end of the humanities.  And there's enough blame to go around.  Most literature professors only teach theory and consider literary criticism a relic of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the left blames the crude anti-intellectualism of the right (I have no argument on that account).

Roger Ebert in one of his final columns pointed to the careerist mindset of 21st century undergrads as a cause for the end of vibrant literary culture on campuses.  He had a point there. Recently a student snidely remarked to me "I thought only bored housewives majored in English these days." Reading Roth or Updike or Borges or Sontag in a coffee shop has lost its sexy aura.  Anyway, an I-phone looks way cooler than a beat up copy of Rabbit, Run.

Ebert recalled the excitement of not just studying, but living and breathing literature as a way of life during his undergraduate days at the University of Illinois in the 1960s.  He remembered carrying a briefcase full of New Yorkers, Playboys (for the articles of course), the short stories of Katherine Ann Porter and John Cheever, and maybe even a few Marvel comics. Writers were not famous for just being famous; they actually had something to say.  They challenged their readers.

In school, I was always told a college education guaranteed a good career.  Unfortunately, in my experience, and for many others, the claim amounts to a big lie.  The 21st century economy hums on like a dangerous machine devouring everything in its way. 

I believe in the idea of America and consider myself patriotic, but am deeply troubled at the unforgiving rancor coming from everywhere of the political spectrum these days.  Our culture places a premium on making money and end results. If you fail to meet those standards society considers you a failure.  Nothing new there of course. Just getting worse.   

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 novel, Mother Night, dealt with the questions he tackled later in his more widely read novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Questions of war, morality, and the 20th century stand front and center in both works.  Vonnegut's like the mad professor enticing you into his office and then proceeds to rip apart the fabrics of your belief system.  

Mother Night's protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, is an American native who has spent most of his adult life in Germany.  He's well known in the German theater as a crowd pleasing, apolitical playwright. While Campbell feels some antipathy towards the Nazis, he also acknowledges they are just "people after all."  Before the war, he is approached by an American spy who recruits him to provide information to the Allies. In time, Campbell rises to the top in Goebbels' propaganda ministry by way of his radio broadcasts endorsing the Nazi philosophies of racism and paranoia.

Throughout the book, Vonnegut often vears into meta-fictional asides.  In one instance he summarizes Campbell's play, A Nation of Two, which imagined a couple in wartime Germany who put all their politics aside and pledge loyalty to nobody (or idea) but their love towards each other.  If only things were that simple.  For the world Vonnegut paints, there's no middle ground between embracing a cause and standing completely outside of it.  During the Second World War any thinking person faced the temptation to stand back and scoff at fascism, communism, and democracy with equal amounts of cynical resignation.  But only if one had the luxury of distance.  No matter what we do or don't do; history's footsteps have a way of catching up.  

When intellectuals try to rationalize war you know some bad stuff is about to go down. Ezra Pound invented modernism and championed the careers of many great writers, but also evangelized for Mussolini.  Ivy League educated WASPS masterminded the Vietnam War.  Or think of all the tracts written to justify the "War on Terror" with titles likes "The End of Evil."  Even Albert Einstein, one of the greatest spokesman for peace, had a part in creating the A-bomb. Modern history thrives on moral relativity and that's an issue, possibly the most worthwhile, for 21st century literature to take up.  

Mother Night begs many questions: What is the use of art?  Does being "cultured" make you a moral person?  A better person?  Not really, I believe Vonnegut would say.  There's something Fascistic about making grand all embracing statements about anything whether one be critic, historian, or philosopher. 

Campbell's belief in art fails him at every turn as the Nazis use him to espouse an aesthetic of purity and hatred.  Art did not prevent the holocaust nor did love prove enough to save Campbell's loved ones.  As Vonnegut wrote, "The hare of history once more overtakes the tortoise of art" (261).  Nazi propaganda helped Germans rationalize their crimes against humanity. As part of the "spin" machine, Campbell can never distance himself from the moral ambiguities of his world.  In the end, Who are we anyway? The identity by which the world knows us? Or what we believe to be the truth in our minds?  Haunting, Haunting, questions. . 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Farewell Breaking Bad

Remember the chorus to the Malcolm in the Middle theme, "You're not the boss of me now!" Prophetic.   As a postmodern family sitcom, Malcolm brought the irreverence and goofiness of The Simpsons to the live action format.  Bryan Cranston played the father Hal as an overgrown child. When the show ended after six seasons, it seemed Cranston's take on the sitcom father would pass into the TV ether as a Trivial Pursuit question. Far from it.

Few saw Walter White coming.*  Over the course of five seasons, Bryan Cranston played a mild mannered chemistry teacher who transformed into a ruthless drug lord of the American Southwest (or from Mr. Chips to Scarface in the words of the show's creator, Vince Gilligan).  A grim cancer diagnosis drove Mr. White to cook crystal meth to provide for his family before he succumbed to the Big C. Along the way, he partnered with a former student Jesse Pinkman to produce the wonder drug.  Walt also contended with Hank, his macho brother-in-law who also happened to be a DEA agent.  At the beginning, his wife Skyler remained clueless about her husband resorting to criminal activity, but eventually found out and faced some tough decisions of her own.  With each season, Walt matched wits with new antagonists who threatened his burgeoning meth empire.

Protagonists of TV shows rarely evolve like characters in a novel.**  J.R. Ewing remained a greedy oil man throughout the entire run of Dallas and Archie Bunker stayed frozen in time as the lovable bigot.  The gang from Cheers rarely ventured outside the friendly confines of their bar. The characters on Seinfeld never transcended their stone cold narcissism.  Even a more complex character like Tony Soprano pretty much remained the same man throughout the Sopranos (an amoral gangster modern psychiatry failed).  As a viewer, it can be comforting to usually know how characters will react in situations.  But in the past decade TV has embraced embraced complex story lines with some real character development.  While Breaking Bad will be grouped among these shows, I think it's importance will persist for other reasons.

Breaking Bad premiered on January 2008, as the Bush era came to a grim conclusion.  By the end of 2008 America faced economic collapse.  In a coincidence, the government shut down the day after the finale aired.  During those years, rhetoric crisscrossed social networks about the 99 percent getting screwed by the one percent. Class proved pivotal during the 2012 election between the venture capitalist and the community organizer.  In such an unforgiving political climate: What happens when one takes business into their own hands and refuses to play by the rules?  

Walt's new occupation brought him a pride and prestige he never attained as a teacher.  Like Michael Corleone, Walt wanted to save his family and build his power, but lost both in the process. Nevertheless, he did gain a self-reliance; a sense of controlling his own fate.  Although we celebrate Walt's triumphs over some repugnant people including psychopathic cartel leaders and viscous modern day Nazis, he made his own moral compromises along the way. Audiences can emphasize with Walt's dilemma in the political maelstrom of 21st century America.

Mr. White now stands as television's great anti-hero.  Anti-heroes were celebrated in 1970s cinema used eccentricity, rage, and intelligence against a system up to its neck in hypocrisy.  Jack Nicholson set the tone with his performances in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Nicholson's anti-heroes were loners who dropped out of the American mainstream.  Now we've entered new territory where the everyman feels the whole world aligned against him.  Breaking Bad spoke to that anxiety.

All the credit goes to the entire cast of Breaking Bad for creating a modern day fable steeped in the tradition of the West. Every character had depth.  The third to last episode, "Ozymandias" stands one of the most intense hours ever aired on television.  The final two episodes had a biblical sense of justice as Walt searched for redemption in the existential void he created for himself and the others in his life.  Rock on, Heisenberg.  

*Cranston starred in the X-Files episode "Drive" written by Vince Gilligan where he played a man pushed to the edge due to secret government experiments conducted on his family.  The part win him the role of Walter White.

** A generalization with many exceptions.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Blurb for Leonard Maltin: The Book

Every year, usually around September, my family made one of our most important book purchases of the year: the Leonard Maltin film guide.  As a kid, and even to this day, the book has the aura of final judgement.  It's like the bible.  The book lists every film ever made (not really), rates them from one to four stars, and includes a pithy capsule review with all the harsh finality of a decree from some divine source.  I'd like to imagine that every year Leonard Maltin treks to some mystical mountain and the book materializes from some mysterious source. That's why the book never leaves my sort of coffee table.