Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: A Yuppie Epic

Franzen's artfully structured novel traces the varying fortunes of the Berglund's, a Midwestern family adrift in 21st century America.  Be cautioned, his characters are unlikable.  Neither are they dull. Franzen's hard on them and lets the reader into deepest parts of their psyches.

Walter Berglund, the family's patriarch, works as a lawyer in Minneapolis.  He gave up his film making aspirations in favor of the law.  Walter wants to educate the masses on overpopulation and raise the perfect family.  His wife Patty, former basketball star at the University of Minnesota, settles uneasily into her role as wife and mother.  

I found Patty to be the most sympathetic character.  On the surface she is a typical suburban wife you see jogging on the sidewalk.  Through flashbacks, the reader learns about the unspoken pressures placed on her, usually by the men in her life. Her choices and actions drive much of the novel.

As liberal parents Walter and Patty are troubled by their son Joey, who loves capitalism with fervent passion.  Joey's qualities are like the boomer's worst nightmare of a millennial: a freakish confidence, tech savvy, in love with money, basically a smug asshole.  He makes a fortune though selling defective equipment to the army, but he made a profit and that's all that matters.  Right?  

Richard Katz, Walter's best friend from college, is a middling punk rocker who finally hits the big time in the 2000s.  Richard serves as Franzen's sardonic mouthpiece on American pop culture.  Of all the characters, I found Walter the most interesting, but hardly sympathetic.  Possibly Franzen's alter ego?  Don't miss the passage when Richard attends an Indie Rock concert- which he views as an orgy of young white conformity, united by their passionate (and sophisticated) consumerism and ironic detachment about it all.  

Ideas, specifically ideas about freedom, are the crucial theme.  How should one take advantage of their freedom?  Such dilemmas can wreak havoc, one at the heart of the American experience I suppose?  What happens when your own idea of freedom clashes with others ideas of freedom?  It never ends well.  Sections dealing with fracking, overpopulation, the war in Iraq, terrorism all tie into the FREEDOM theme.

Franzen paints wonderful portraits.  He's often criticized for writing only about rich white people (yuppies). I get it, his Midwest is foreign to my own experience.  But whether you're writing about Chinese peasants in the 17th century, Welsh coal miners in the 1930s, or Brazilian truck drivers in the 1950s - well drawn characters and a story can make all the difference - regardless of class and social setting.

To be honest, I probably skimmed the last 100 pages, I'd had enough of the Berglunds by that point.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

New History Wars in Colorado

Over the past two weeks High School students in Littleton, Colorado have protested the School Board's attempt to revise changes made to the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum. The new curriculum questions the traditional narrative common in textbooks with titles like, "The March of Freedom."  Conservatives see the new material as being too "negative" with units on slavery, oppression of women, the displacement of Native Americans, robber barons, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the disco era etc . . They favor content with a triumphant narrative emphasizing the genius of a free market system, glorious military victories, and "respect for authority."

Battles over history are nothing new. The culture wars of the 1990s came to a fever pitch in 1992 over the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. The once gallant explorer suddenly found himself reduced to an amoral opportunist who introduced genocide, disease, and racism to the New World. Battle lines were drawn. Nowadays, Columbus Day looms as a day of trendy moral outrage and social awkwardness.

Most historians now recognize grand narratives of the past exist only in the imagination of the historian who writes them. You get a version of the truth, but nothing close to "the truth."  Therefore, the teaching of history has evolved into a maze of contradictions and red herrings. Since the 19th century, historians of all stripes have used history to advance political agendas and therein lies the anxiety in this debate.

The fear of indoctrination drives conservative advocates crazy. They suspect a “Progressive” agenda to brainwash students into believing the government is the answer to every social ill. Sure, a curriculum exploring negative aspects of history could lead to a political awakening. But a new generation of bleeding heart lefties? It’s no more indoctrinating than fiercely pro-capitalist, Reagan worshiping material that glosses over the difficult questions.

As Joyce's alter ego Stephen Dedalus observed, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." I partly agree. To explore the past takes fortitude and an open mind. But don’t fall into despair like Stephen. I applaud the students of Jefferson County taking a stand against a sanitized history curriculum. I would also tell them, don't rely too much on "the system" to set the record straight on the past. Go out and read a few history books on your own. Travel to a historical site. Ask a living person about a historical event.  Get diverse points of view.  And finally, realize history is part of the path to self-knowledge.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review: Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle

Ever since the demise of The Beatles in 1970 much of the blame unfairly fell on Paul McCartney.  Many critics championed John Lennon as the sole creative force behind the band. Tom Doyle's new book, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s is a sympathetic account of McCartney's struggle to win respect and regain his identity as a solo artist.

Doyle's portrait of McCartney is that of a level headed person in manic pursuit of new creative challenges.  After the Beatles broke up he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown and rarely left his farm in Scotland, "For the first time in his life, he felt utterly worthless . . . He was 27 and suddenly of no use to anyone anymore" (3).  Days and nights were spent drinking to relieve his depression.  Eventually he snapped out of it and returned to songwriting, starting his own band Wings.

Ian MacDonald's epic history of The Beatles Revolution in the Head concluded all the ex-Beatles failed as solo artists.  That's a harsh conclusion and one in need of reevaluation. McCartney released nine albums of varying quality in the 1970s, with many hit singles in between (far more than his old bandmates).  After a string of mediocre albums, which critics joyously ripped apart, Band on the Run (1973) proved a critical and commercial breakthrough.

Doyle's colorful account of the Band on the Run sessions, an album produced in Lagos, Niger, are a high point in the book.  Paul, Linda, their children spent seven weeks in a war torn region of Africa making the album.  One day Paul and Linda ventured out and were robbed at knife point. They also lost their demo tapes and had to rewrite the songs from memory.  One day in the studio, Paul had a panic attack and had to be rushed to a hospital (possibly brought on by excessive marijuana use). Also, local musicians resented Westerners making music in their country. Ever the diplomat, Paul diffused the situation by inviting them to the studio and convincing them he had no intention to rip them off.

Band on the Run produced the hit singles "Band on the Run,"  "Jet", "Helen Wheels", and "Bluebird" which all became staples of FM radio.  Now over forty years old, the album manages to recapture the spirit of a Beatles record.

Paul found stability in his marriage to photographer Linda Eastman and their five children. In 1976, Wings embarked on a triumphant arena tour of America, performing before 67,000 at the Seattle Kingdome.  The tour produced a massive live album, Wings Over America.  

As the decade came to a close, the momentum of Wings screeched to a halt.  Their 1978 LP London Town, a collection of soft rock tunes recorded on a yacht, made them sound completely out of touch. Punk and New Wave were reinventing popular music. Nevertheless, they scored yet another hit with the folkie, "Mull of Kintyre."

A major portion of the biography covers the parallel course of John Lennon.  That's the sad part of the story. Doyle believes the two of them never achieved a reconciliation following their bitter break up.  On Lennon's Imagine album he chided McCartney on "How do you Sleep" with digs like "a pretty face may last a year or two/pretty soon they'll see what you can do."  In interviews, Lennon was less than kind to his old partner.

In 1974, John and Paul hung out in L.A. and played together in a drunken jam session and did consider working together again.  In 1976, Saturday Night Live offered The Beatles $500 to perform live on the show. Coincidentally, Paul was visiting John and Yoko that night and they briefly considered taking up the offer (a night fictionalized in the TV movie Two of Us).  Alas, Lennon-McCartney, never wrote another song, much to Paul's regret.

The death of Lennon left him devastated.  A flood of death threats forced McCartney and his family to avoid public appearances for a time.  In 1981 Wings disbanded, and Paul released the inventive solo record McCartney II.  In 1982 he wrote his own tribute to Lennon, "Here Today."  

 Man on the Run fills a much needed gap in the ever increasing catalog of Beatles literature.  After finishing, you may want to dust off those old Wings records and give them another chance.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Knight Returns

The mid 1980s saw the release of two classic graphic novels: Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  Both works complement each other and cover similar themes of political corruption, mass media culture, and the fascist subtext in superhero comics.  Although Christopher Nolan's film trilogy did not directly adapt the The Dark Knight Returns, Miller's influence reigns over those pictures.

The story follows a world weary Bruce Wayne who chose to stand by as Gotham City descended into a dystopia.  The crime rate skyrocketed.  Batman's one man crusade against criminals appears to have been in vain.  And he's not been seen in ten years. Many believe the Batman's a myth. A terrifying group of criminals known as the mutants are terrorizing the city.  Meanwhile, Batman's longtime nemesis the Joker is about to be released from the sanatorium for good behavior.  Even the Man of Steel appears as an unlikely villain.

In Miller's world, Superman still stands for the same values of truth, justice, and the American way - and that's the problem!  For Superman is the Reagan administration's enforcer of justice and moral values. He's on the side of big business and the military-industrial complex - he went establishment!  When Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement, the government decides to crack down on his one man crusade against the criminal underworld.

Miller's vision remains more relevant than ever.  A recurring theme is the the mind numbing effect of 24 hour news coverage.  The media plays on the people's fears for ratings. Doubts are also raised about Batman's psyche: Does he truly care about the people or does he do it because he enjoys inflicting punishment?  There's an unsettling vibe in the story of living under the incessant dread of catastrophe.  

As far as superhero stories go, you'll find nothing better.  Miller wrote a classic.  The artwork's iconic and groundbreaking.  The Dark Knight Returns has not dated one iota.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar

In Harvey Pekar's final graphic novel, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, he attempted to resolve his conflicting feelings towards the state of Israel.  Raised by Zionists in post-war Cleveland, Pekar grew up with a clear belief in Israel's mission to be a homeland for all Jews. With artist J.T. Waldman, Pekar accomplished two things: 1) an overview of Jewish history 2) chronicled his own evolving views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  While he's proud of the resilience and courage of the Jews to survive and uphold their traditions in the face of incredible adversity through the ages, he no longer considered himself a Zionist.

The turning point for Pekar came the after the Six Day War of 1967. After quickly throwing back a combined attack from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel began to expand it's borders and establish settlements.  Pekar wondered how an oppressed people could be okay with oppressing another group with an equal claim on the land?                                     
Aftermath of the Six Day War

Pekar and Waldman have no answers for these complex questions of history, politics, and religion.  However, both agree there must be some solution out there.  Waldman observed, "It's like everyone's view on the subject is so entrenched that no one bothers talking about it anymore."  True.  Today, consumers want news that conforms to their worldview.  Anything that goes against their view is written off as nonsense.  The wall to wall coverage of the recent troubles in Israel reports the day to day events as if they exist in a vacuum.  Any opinion on these matters requires a strong knowledge of the root causes.

A personal anecdote.  In college, I studied mostly American and European history. As an undergrad, I took a survey course on the Middle East.  Although the professor admitted a bias for the Palestinians, the course was informative and insightful.  A few years later, in grad school, I had a professor who wanted it known to anyone within earshot he gave financial support to the Arabs and on more than one occasion I heard him indulge in ugly rants against Israel ( he was a white male American who taught American labor history) One day he asked me point blank if I supported Palestine.  

To be honest, I never had a strong view on the matter.  The history fascinated me and I'd always sympathized and admired the Jews.  I recalled reading about President Harry Truman's decision in 1948 to support Israel, an act I viewed as an act of political courage. At it's best, isn't America about helping the underdog?  Anyway, the professor looked at me as if I had said something hateful.  After that he ignored me in class. Despite his rudeness, I thanked him on the last day of class and he coldly told me, "Too bad I got stuck with a student like you."  There's nothing like rude awakening on how "entrenched" people, even educated ones, refuse to hear the other side.

I'd highly endorse this book for anyone looking for some historical perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The illustrations are vivid and capture the sweep of history and how it directly compares to the present.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beck At Lifestyles Community Pavillion In Columbus, OH: 6/20/14

On June 20th, 2014 Beck performed before a packed crowd at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion in Columbus.  Beck, who came to prominence with "Loser" in the 1990s, has continually produced albums of high quality and varying styles for the past two decades.  

Sean Lennon's touring band "The Ghost of Saber Tooth Tiger" opened up for Beck.  Songs from his new album have a heavy Beatle influence in the style of "Dear Prudence" and "Cry Baby Cry" from the White Album. During his set,  Lennon spoke of his admiration for Beck and even joined him onstage later in the evening with cowbell in hand.

Around 9, Beck took the stage and opened with a rollicking "Devil's Haircut." Five songs were played from his new album of sonic wonders, Morning Phase.  With over a growing song catalog, he split the difference between the old and new.  Five songs from his breakout LP Odelay brought some serious 90s nostalgia to the proceedings.  Heartfelt acoustic performances of "Lost Cause" and "The Golden Age" from the somber 2002 album Sea Change comprised the middle section of the show.  

About midway through things picked up in a hurry as the opening strums to "Loser" hit the spectators.  For Gen X, the chorus "I'm a loser baby/so why don't you kill me" helped express their pre-millennial malaise.  At one point, Beck tipped his hat to his fans and exclaimed,"I'm canceling tomorrow's show, we're just gonna play here again!"

The groove kept going with "The New Pollution" and a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."  For the encore, he ended with the bluesy "Debra" and the essential "Where It's At." Everyone left with the beats still going in their head and I overheard people saying, "best show ever"; Beck easily won over Columbus.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Critical Perspectives on Movie Geeks United

Movie Geeks United is a podcast featuring in depth movie reviews, interviews with guests from the film industry, and lively discussions about the past, present, and future of film. Recently, Movie Geeks contributor Jamey DuVall and critic Tony Macklin, have recorded a series of conversations entitled "Critical Perspectives." The depth and wit both exude in their talks are like a film school in themselves.

DuVall's easy going style serves as a nice counterpoint to Macklin's acerbic take on contemporary movies. From 1965-1977, Macklin edited the scholarly journal Film Heritage. During those years he conducted several interviews with many important figures from Hollywood history such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, and Howard Hawks. The Film Heritage interviews are available online.  They are well worth your time.

In a recent episode devoted to film comedy Macklin and DuVall covered Chaplin, Apatow, and everyone in between.  DuVall tends to favor only high and low humor, while Macklin prefers comedy with melancholy undertones.  Other shows have covered American movies of the 1970s, the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films, and the evolution of film criticism.  

A generation ago movie critics played a crucial role in fostering a vibrant film culture. Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for his film writing in 1975 and inspired many on his television show Siskel & Ebert.  Pauline Kael's reviews in the New Yorker serve as a sort of history of the era and at their best read like literature. And many other critics wrote with passion and eloquence on the art of film.  Nowadays anyone can be a critic, but often the best voices are muted in the cacophony of noise on the web.  Movie Geeks helps keep the spirit of informed criticism alive.

The "Critical Perspectives" series can be accessed at the Movie Geeks United home page and Mr. Macklin's website.  You should check them out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Concert Review: Jeff Tweedy Performs New Material on Summer Solo Tour

Jeff Tweedy, chief songwriter of Wilco, has embarked on a solo tour this summer in support of his yet to be titled solo album.  Last Wednesday evening he performed at the Brown Theater in Louisville.  The two hour set consisted of all new material with his own touring band (including his son Spenser on drums) for the first part and then an all acoustic collection of mostly Wilco tunes (and other tracks from various side projects).

In an era of fragmentation Tweedy has emerged as a leading voice in American rock music. For the past 20 years, Wilco has garnered a large following by constant touring and an ever evolving sound.  Their music draws upon a multitude of influences ranging from British Invasion, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, The Replacements, and Pavement to mention a few.

Before a nearly packed house, Tweedy opened with a somber collection of songs dwelling on mortality and love.  Performing new material before a live audience always presents a challenge, but a fierce melancholy and passionate delivery carried them along nicely.  His self deprecating humor and banter with the crowd added some levity.  The new songs sounded amazing and carry the promise of a stellar LP. 

The acoustic set opened with "Via Chicago," the central track on Wilco's 1999 venture into pop, Summerteeth.  Then came "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" with the iconic opening lyrics, "i am an american aquarium drinker/i assassin down the avenue" from Wilco's breakthrough 2001 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Included in the set were some deep tracks such as the whimsical "Pecan Pie" from the Golden Smog project and the irreverent "The Ruling Class" Tweedy recorded with Loose Fur. Two songs from the Uncle Tupelo days also appeared: "New Madrid" and "Give Back the Key to My Heart."  For an encore, Tweedy gave a literally unplugged version of "Misunderstood" and invited the crowd to sing along as a show of respect and appreciation - thus ending the evening on an especially high note.


Friday, May 16, 2014

WTF with Marc Maron: The Art of the Interview

Nothing beats the energy of two people engaged in thought provoking and unpredictable conversation.  WTF with Marc Maron is a podcast that airs twice a week on his website. Undoubtedly, Maron has reinvigorated the art of the interview - a format sadly lacking on television.  Quite simply, the interviews are the best you'll ever hear anywhere.  They are brutally honest, funny, inspiring, and much, much more.

Maron streams two full length interviews a week from his garage in Los Angeles. A veteran stand up comedian since the 1980s known for never quite hitting the big time or getting the same accolades as his peers (a recurring source of humor and angst on the show).  He's been very open about his early days in the mad world of Sam Kinison , struggles with addictions, and the ups and downs of a life in show business. In 2009, after hitting a career brick wall, Maron started conducting interviews with fellow comics in his garage. Now nearing episode 500, WTF is the hippest thing happening on the web or any other medium for that matter.

Each episode begins with Marc delivering a stream of consciousness rant of whatever's on his mind. Then he introduces the interview which usually lasts an hour or two. Maron's interview style swiftly shifts from laid back politeness to relentlessly probing. Since the majority of guests are comedians the episodes themselves are like a comedy school. 

There are countless highlights from the interviews and many stand out. Listening to back to back interviews Marc conducted with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner are invaluable as history, but also very entertaining.  Judd Apatow spoke movingly of finding an escape in comedy as a child to deal with bullying and the pain of his parents divorce.  In a two-part interview with Louis CK, both comics share stories about being friends back in the day and the professional jealousy that poisoned their friendship.  During the interview they worked out their differences.  Conan O'Brien opened up about losing the Tonight Show and making the transition from writing to performing. Another favorite moment came during a long chat with Bob Zmuda, Andy Kaufman's writing partner, who enthusiastically retold the story of Kaufman's strange, almost mythic life. At one point Maron exclaimed, "I feel like you're a blind Homer telling the story of Odysseus!"

WTF is much more than a school of comedy.  Lately Marc has spent more time with musicians, writers, and artists.  Recently, Lena Dunham stopped by and they devoted most of their conversation on nothing less than the nature of great art.  Michael Keaton discussed his beginnings in stand up comedy and then becoming an unlikely choice to play Batman. In another episode, Marc interviewed legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton and achieved something of a transcendence.  

Interviews with musicians range from educational to the sublime.  Highlights from 2014 include Wayne Kramer of the Detroit proto-Punk band MC5 speaking about overcoming drugs, surviving prison, and finding solace in music.  Some of the hidden gems include people who aren't as widely known such as Patrick Stickles, leader of the indie-rock band Titus Andnronicus, who gave a gritty account of his struggle with depression.  John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revivial spoke openly about his influences and his songwriting process. Iggy Pop came in he gave a raw account of the music scene in Detroit and L.A. 1960s and 1970s. Iggy remembered everything.

The art of the interview is alive and well on WTF.  Maron's keeping alive a tradition, while building a priceless record of history, biography, cultural criticism - a document of modern America itself.  More interviews are sure to come and they are all well worth your time.

(The previous 50 shows are available to stream, but for $5 you can gain access to the entire archive at http://www.wtfpod.com/)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Fight For Your Long Day by Alex Kudera

"Adjunct" Cyrus Duffman, humble protagonist of Fight For Your Long Day, is a nearly 40 year old instructor of English at four fictional colleges in Philadelphia.  We follow him through a day of superficial encounters, painful longings, and existential pain. Through Cyrus, Kudera unveils the maddening absurdities of American higher education and the depressing rhetoric of the "war on terror." Kudera's debut novel successfully pulls no punches on some harsh truths on the economic realities of 21st century America.

"Duffy" is a well meaning teacher trapped in a state of terminal malaise. Part-time instructors are the on the bottom rung of the academic pecking order: low pay, labyrinth commutes, no benefits, nor any chance of promotion.  Early on in the novel, Cyrus teaches a "Business Writing" class at an urban community college with a classroom of diverse students. They range from a well read Afro-Centrist, young white males donning baseball caps who carry thinly veiled contempt for minority students, studious female pupils preoccupied with getting the "A", and a few iconoclasts spewing sophomoric political slogans bastardized from another decade. Readings in Freshman Comp classes tend towards provocative arguments on race, gender, politics, and sexuality. Designed to encourage discussion, they usually have the opposite effect of either indifferent reactions or incitements to Jerry Springer theatrics.  The class devolves into a farce when a discussion on Maslov's pyramid of needs takes a political turn.  A student walks in late and sets a picture of the president on fire and chaos ensues.  Hence his dilemma: students see him as a flunky of the establishment while to those above him he's a non-entity.

Kudera's hard on his protagonist. Much is made of his weight problem, bathroom habits, and recurring moments of lust for his female students.  Plagued by financial problems, Duffy stays complacent about his situation. But that's the newer, braver "corporate" university of cost cutting and outsourcing. Tenured professors get the perks and usually have lighter teaching loads and higher salaries. They teach courses centered around their personal tastes, while the adjuncts face a future of teaching basic composition year after year, decade by decade. In the novel, the CEO presidents of the colleges decide to cut all humanities courses because they are no longer profitable.  Duffy feels, but is unable to express, his outrage at the oligarchical system that makes pawns of the best and the brightest.

Sharp political satire perfectly captures the polarized politics of Bush v. Gore America. The political situation has devolved into a "Which Side Are You On?" atmosphere of liberal and conservative. Those on the right are reduced to simplistic war mongers ready to send out the drones and drop fire on the evildoers at the drop of a hat, while liberals read the NY Times consumed with white guilt and sympathize with terrorists while gulping espresso shots in their coffee shop as Belle & Sebastian play in the background.  The murky politics of the Bush era are captured dead on.  Duffy, a sort of liberal, impotently makes his points, proving no match for the ideologues and hyper-capitalists.

A dubious scholar of Kafka, Duffy witnesses his own life take Kafkaesque turns as he experiences humiliations of several varieties throughout his "long" day. As a character, he's a great lens from which to view modern America, as the adjunct's dilemma is indicative of the new economy and the passivity it fosters among the populace.  Duffy lets people walk over him and he shows no initiative to change his situation.  Like any effective novel about the injustice of a system such as The Jungle, Fight For Your Long Day succeeds as a call to action- for all those suffering in the lower echelons of higher ed.

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.