Thursday, November 26, 2015

Book Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Sometimes reading a novel is not unlike getting a root canal. You know when the dentist comes in and provides the Novocaine and makes idle chit chat and you start to feel relaxed. The same with Purity, the first 80 pages are tolerable, I came to like Pip and her squatter mates. Then all the drilling starts, the pressure and loud noises start to irritate, and you would do anything to get the hell out of that chair. Once the scene shifts to East Germany and the dreadful Mr. Wolf shows up we are suddenly in a third rate Bergman film. And it goes downhill from there. It's like being trapped on an elevator with the most dreadful people on the planet. In Franzen's universe Mommies are the root cause of all evil. Franzen writes nice prose and does have his moments, but I don't get all the hype. Many modern writers are engaging with history, gender, economics, and class in more interesting ways than Franzen, Marlon James being one example. Let's be honest, he writes for the New Yorker crowd. Nuff Said.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Concert Review: Dead & Company at The Nationwide Arena 11-13-15

After their triumphant final concerts at Soldier Field over the summer, three original members of the Grateful Dead have teamed up with John Mayer for a late autumn tour. Last Saturday they performed for over three hours before a capacity crowd at the Nationwide Center in Columbus - putting out good vibes for everyone involved.

Saturday night was my first experience with The Dead.  While I've come to respect their music and especially enjoyed their two epochal albums from the early 70s, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, I never got the live experience.  

Grateful Dead concerts consist of extended jam sessions spanning a wide array of genres ranging from jazz, blues, country, and many more.

With Bob Weir and John Mayer on guitars and lead vocals, the night opened with Weir briefly acknowledging the tragic events that took place in Paris. 

The show began with a rollicking version of "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo."  The first set emphasized the blues, including a cover of the Willie Dixon classic, "Little Red Rooster."

Seated way at the top of the venue I got a panorama of the crowd jubilantly grooving to the music.  The spirit of the 60s made its presence known. I write that with no irony, the notion that music can bring community and transcendence was evident throughout.

After an intermission, the second set featured extended jams with "China Cut Sunflower" and "Eyes of the World." The most poignant moment for myself was a beautiful version of "Black Peter" from Workingman's Dead.

After an exuberant cover of "Good Lovin" by The Young Rascals, the band capped the evening with "Touch of Grey", a surprise hit for The Grateful Dead back in the 80s.

I found the concert exhilarating, relentless, uplifting. A truly unique experience. All the musicians were clearly having fun and playing in perfect harmony. Mayer's excellent guitar playing skills and Weir's passionate vocals made for a great combination.  

These shows are a must see for any devotee of rock and roll or for anyone looking for an introduction to discover what it's all about.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Concert Review: Wilco at IU Auditorium, 9-25-15

Coming off the heels of their summer release Star Wars, Wilco's taken to the road for a September tour.  I recently caught them at the IU Auditorium in Bloomington, Indiana.

In the past several years Wilco's continued to expand their audience and gain critical acclaim as the quintessential American rock band.  While Jeff Tweedy and his band always give their all for live shows, recently I felt they were getting predictable. But last Friday they sounded revitalized and even offered a few surprises.

The show consisted of three movements.  They entered the stage with a vintage 70s light show behind them and went on to play Star Wars straight through.  Jeff Tweedy and company whizzed through the ever changing styles of Star Wars ranging from Lennonesque pop to New Wave grandeur. 

During the second phase of the show they played straight up versions of their older material, showcasing the breadth of their catalog.  Lead guitarist Nels Cline really took over with virtuoso playing on many of the songs including "Impossible Germany" "Hummingbird" and "Either Way."  Two of their signature songs "Via Chicago" and "Handshake Drugs" were also highlights.

The last and most satisfying part of the concert consisted of an impromptu unplugged performance. With Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt on acoustic guitar, Nels Cline on steel guitar, Mikael Jorgensen on piano, Pat Sansone on banjo, and Glenn Kotche on percussion, Wilco performed "Misunderstood" "Bull Black Nova" "Jesus Ect.." "California Stars" and "A Shot in the Arm."  Thus ending the concert on a poignant note.

Tweedy now takes on a Neil Young stage persona: unassuming, determined, the occasional dry joke. Allowing his band to showcase themselves more prominently seems a step in the right direction.  

Over 20 years ago Wilco released their debut album A.M. and they show no signs of settling into an oldies act.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle imagines a culture moving towards "total transparency" where everyone can be held accountable when "The Circle" is complete."  A massive social network of the near future, the visionaries at The Circle believe democracy will only work when everyone knows what everyone else is doing.  Drawing upon Orwell's 1984, Eggers refashioned the allegory for the 21st century.

The novel's protagonist Mae Holland, an ambitious twenty-four year old who scores a job at the famous tech company because her best friend Annie is part of the "Gang of 40" who run the company.  They created "TruYou" a social networking site that overthrew Facebook and Google.  "TruYou" is a catch all network where anyone can conduct business, communicate by any means, document every moment of their lives.

The "visionaries" at The Circle aim for a world where privacy is considerd immoral: parents must implant chips in their children, place cameras in their homes to prevent domestic violence, all voting will be online (oddly politicians who oppose them often end up ruined by scandal). Meanwhile, Mae rises quickly with her plucky charm and "awesome" customer service skills.

Eggers is especially scathing on the "workplace culture" of social media companies: Utopian on the surface; cultish on closer scrutiny. Employees receive every perk imaginable; their masters are always watching.

It's a totalitarianism (is the term too 20th century?) with a smiley face. As the book unfolds the Gang of 40's ambitions grow increasingly ominous, suggesting their power will know no limits.  Big Brother may return as Ronald McDonald or some trendy meme.

Eggers also takes aim at the idea everything can be quantified. The Circle believes they can reduce everyone's self-worth to a number (real life recently imitated art with August NY Times story on the Social Darwinist culture at Amazon).  Every aspect of a person's life can be rated.  I imagine Patrick McGoohan screaming at No. 2 "I AM NOT A NUMBER, I"M A FREE MAN!"

Mae makes for a weak protagonist because she never questions anything. Perhaps that's the point. She's silent when her best friend Annie is victimized by the company. She rationalizes their passive-aggressive bullying tactics, just wanting to follow orders and please her bosses. We've seen that before.

What makes novel so creepy is the idea of dissent is repugnant at The Circle: They got the algorithms to prove you wrong.

The Circle is a wicked satire in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review:The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski

While many books are out there on the making of Star Wars, few deal with how the story itself evolved over time.  The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski fills the gap. Kaminski synthesized a wealth of secondary sources to unravel how Lucas developed the films.

Why did Lucas decide to go ahead and write Star Wars at the height of the New Hollywood era of the 70s?

From the inception of his career Lucas dreamed of crafting an epic space adventure in the spirit of the Flash Gordon serials.  Unlike his peers in the New Hollywood of the 70s, Lucas wanted to write a story for older children that would examine universal themes. But he was hardly alone, many filmmakers in the 70s had aspirations to make a Sci-Fi epic, the most famous case being Chilean director's Alejandro Jodorowsky's plans to adapt Dune to the screen.

What literary and film influences went into the original screenplay?

Quite a few influences went into the original film.  Lucas read comic books, fairy tales, and primers on world mythology.  A devotee of Akira Kurosawa's cinema, films like The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress were direct inspirations as well, he loved the idea of thrusting movie goers into an unfamiliar culture and forcing them to learn as they watched. Fantasy novels also shaped the story, especially J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert's Dune.  A blending of Western and Eastern spirituality are all over the original films as well.

Did Lucas write the initial script and then decide to slice it into six separate movies.

Not really, despite his statements in several interviews.  Lucas wrote four scripts from 1973-76 and Kaminski traces their evolution in meticulous detail.  While the ideas in those early drafts appeared in later films, there was hardly enough material for six movies. Each film to follow Star Wars: A New Hope were all written with no more than a rough outline. Typically Lucas would write a draft and then hand it over to another writer to polish, as in the case of the The Empire Strikes Back when he hired Leigh Bracket and later Lawrence Kasdan to work his outlines into a coherent script.

Did Lucas initially plan to make 9 films?

After Star Wars became a Box Office juggernaut, Lucas often spoke of plans to make nine films.  However, if you go back and watch Star Wars: A New Hope it pretty much works as a stand alone story.  The original opening crawl simply said Star Wars, the "Episode IV" appeared in later editions. Lucas briefly considered selling the sequel rights and going back to making low budget personal films, but got caught up in the mania surrounding Star Wars and decided to make the sequels.  By the time The Return of the Jedi came out in 1983 he was exhausted and went into temporary retirement, thus putting Star Wars on the shelf for over a decade. When Lucas returned to make the prequels (Episodes 1,2,3) in the 1990s he dismissed the idea of a sequel trilogy (Episodes 7,8,9), although Kaminski claims at one time Lucas probably did have nine films in mind.*

So there was no master plan, the entire saga was written on the fly?

For the most part. For example Darth Vader, who appears as a henchman for the Empire in A New Hope, gradually evolved into the central character of the saga.  When it came time to write The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas realized the film needed a stronger ending so he decided to make Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker, although this was never part of the original story.  The same goes for the controversial decision to make Luke and Leia brother and sister.

Why has Lucas made so many contradicting statements over the years?

Up until the 70s, the idea of telling a singular story through many films went against Hollywood convention.  Francis Ford Coppola's  The Godfather Part II changed the rules, proving audiences were open to the idea of one story being told through multiple movies. Kaminski gets very critical towards Lucas because of his contradicting statements over the years, but they should be taken in their proper context - in the 70s sequels were a relatively new innovation.  Unlike today when Marvel plans 10-15 years into the future to make their films, Lucas literally had to put everything on the line with each new Star Wars film since he was working in a completely different business model, basically financing the films on his own while over seeing all aspects of production.  

What can we expect in the the new trilogy?

All speculation at this point.  To paraphrase what Lucas once said: the first trilogy would deal with the rise and fall of empires, the next would focus on the journey from childhood to adulthood, and the last would focus on questions of good and evil. But with Disney taking over I suspect the new films will emphasize action and will have a "changing of the guard" type narrative.

Is the book worth reading?

For Star Wars fans it's a must read, especially on the making of the original trilogy. It's by far the most comprehensive source.  Kaminski's tone can get annoying at times, at one point attributing Lucas's success to sheer luck.  He should remember Obi-Wan's dictum "in my experience, there's no such thing as luck."  So if you can get past the nit picking, The Secret History of Star Wars provides a wealth of knowledge on the creative process itself.

*One of the crucial clues to the mystery of the "sequel" trilogy occurs in The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke, after abandoning his Jedi training with Yoda in order to rescue Han and Leia from Darth Vader, has Obi Wan sadly uttering to Yoda "That boy is our last hope," to which Yoda replies, "No, there is another."  While the next film Return of the Jedi reveals this "Other" as Princess Leia,  Kaminski suggests this "other" Yoda spoke of may have been a totally new character to be introduced in later films.

Kaminski, Michael.  The Secret History of Star Wars: The Art of Storytelling and the Making of a Modern Epic.  Toronto: Legacy Books, 2008.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, published in 1985, delivered a harsh critique of television and its negative effects on culture. Postman's thesis comes down to a basic premise: a civilization based on print communication will foster critical and analytical thinking, while TV trivializes everything.

Postman frequently notes George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's opposing visions of a dystopian society.  In 1984 Orwell imagined oppressive governments banning books and keeping citizens under constant surveillance.  Huxley's Brave New World envisioned a future with a population kept at bay through drugs and endless entertainments.  Why ban books when no one cares to read them?  Although Orwell's often invoked these days, Brave New World seems more prescient. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death goes to great lengths to establish differences between TV and print, whether it be news, political, or religious programming. TV will always favor entertainment above all else.  An example being the presidential debates: they are rarely critiqued in terms of how the candidate argues their points, but rather on who scores the most zingers or flubs the most lines. Entertaining content always trumps thought provoking content.

In the past 30 years since Amusing Ourselves to Death was written TV has changed and yet stayed the same. Critics often speak of a new "Golden Age" of television when writing about cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  But dramas have always occupied a high place in television and while they are getting more sophisticated - television remains mostly junk! From reality TV to Cable News, there's enough mindless babble to keep anyone hypnotized for hours.

Postman offered a few solutions to offsetting television, but the book is mostly a lamentation. There's a quiet eloquence to it. One can see the influence of Postman's thesis in writings to come later, David Foster Wallace especially comes to mind.  The literature of the future will no doubt confront and attempt to make sense of the post-print world Postman predicted.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in books. I teach freshman composition and I can say students do place some value on literature, but it's not a major part of their lives.  Walk around any college campus and you will rarely see undergrads immersed in On the Road or The Bell Jar. More likely they are in the middle of a Netflix binge

The generation born after 1995 (anyone under 21) are totally at ease with digital technology and they are building their own reality around it. Whatever happens, it will be a brave new world.  

People have mused upon the effects of technology since the beginning of civilization, a clip from The Magnificent Ambersons reveals how silly and profound these discussions can get: something is always gained and lost.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Comic Book Review: Millennium by Joe Harris & Colin Morimer

With The X-Files slated to return to TV, another cult classic from the 90s has returned in comic book form, Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-99). Unlike the UFO/conspiracy theory obsessed  X-Files, Millennium took a more philosophical approach to the supernatural.

Millennium examined popular anxieties as the year 2000 approached, especially the idea of an apocalyptic event that will change the course of history.  The protagonist Frank Black, brilliantly played by Lance Henriksen, can use his psychic gifts to aid criminal investigations. The series began with Frank settling in Seattle with his wife and daughter while working as a consultant for the ultra secretive Millennium Group.

Much of the show's mystery comes from the group who trace their origins to the ancients and have apparently influenced much of human history. While their agenda seemed ambiguous, Frank comes to believe they have sinister intentions.

Unfortunately many story lines were left unresolved, leading to the 'Back to Frank Black" campaign to revive Millennium in some form, especially since many of the themes explored on the show have come to pass: the spread of newer and deadlier viruses, a medicated society, acts of mass terrorism, and a growing convergence between humanity and technology.

Earlier this year IDW comics released a five issue set updating the story of Frank Black. Written by Joe Harris with art by Colin Morimer, the first issue begins with a haunting prologue set on December 24, 1999 and then moves to the present.  Now in his 70s, Frank's still haunted by his time with the group. He's been off the grid for the past decade trying to reconnect with his daughter Jordan who shared his gift. Mulder from X-Files appears and we even get a cameo from the Lone Gunmen.

Harris includes many references to the show fans will recognize. Meanwhile, the Millennium group remains at large.

Millennium worked because it reached beyond the headlines and suggested more mystical forces were driving the world. Each episode posed fundamental questions: Why does evil exist? What does it mean to be good?  Where can one find hope? A post-modern Pilgrim's Progress.

The comic book revival of Millennium stays loyal to the tone and look of the series and hopefully there will be more to come.

Remember: This is who we are.