Sunday, April 14, 2013
I've just spent three hours in my hometown, sitting in the dark in the prairie breeze, talking about urgent things going on in people's lives right here, right now. But somewhere in the back of my mind, informing the whole thing, was the movie I saw last night, Terrence Malick's To the Wonder.
See, it was shot here--principally here in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Paris, France. The notion of a movie shot between these two places, drawing parallels between these two places--as it does, particularly in the closing sequences--is seemingly absurd to a Bartian (that's how we call us natives), and, yet, that's fundamental to the beauty of the damn thing. As rapper Rakim once said, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at," and Malick's movie is all over that notion.
If you're familiar with Malick, who I first met at our local Penn Theater, under a marquee that read "Bartlesville's own Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven" (or something to that effect), then you know he's about as much of a literary naturalist as any filmmaker ever. By that I mean he subordinates his plot and characters to the environment that surrounds them. I went to that movie as a kid, expecting some "local movie" like Where the Red Fern Grows, and found myself plunged into this wondrous world of prairie imagery--flora, fauna and a great big fire. Almost in the background, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams schemed against Sam Shepard. I wasn't sure what to make of the movie, but it made me think about people as a part of their environment, which included the class differences that made Gere and Adams resent Shepard, made him seem doomed and out of touch with his Victorian trappings out in the great wide open. I never forgot it, particularly the dominant memoir-like narration by the brilliant child actor Linda Manz.
Last night, I saw Malick's new movie, To the Wonder, and it works in much the same fundamental way. But it's a very different movie, and in some ways more difficult. It's a more extreme form of cinema. The scripted intrigue of Days of Heaven has given way to an almost unmoored series of dream images. Visual refrains (perhaps unfortunately but also purposefully) call to mind perfume ads, a beautiful woman running backward through a field in a simple, flowing gown. A man, an iconic stoic male, looking off somewhere in the distance--with her but not able to show the same abandon as he luxuriates in the moment. In some ways, Malick has built a whole movie around these kinds of images of moments that happen all too rarely if they ever happen at all.
But he uses these images of contrasting abandon and controlled desire as the basic theme for a whole lot of conflict. The world around the lovers is filled with others engaged in their own struggles. Ben Affleck, the male lead, tests soil samples, finding out just how disastrously the petrochemicals that have made this land rich have poisoned the environment. A priest tries to save these same folk, who are only slightly more lost than he is (and many of them are not only very far gone spiritually but near death physically). One of the most pointed scenes is when he hides in his living room from an addict parishioner who has finally taken him up on his offers of help.
In the end, To the Wonder treats the same issues as Days of Heaven--romantic love at the mercy of intersecting systems (human and environmental) that make it all but impossible. This time, however, instead of spinning everything headlong into tragedy, Malick has taken a greater risk. He means for this movie to play like a love song. You understand the story because you give it your own, and of course it ends in a broken heart, but at least it doesn't leave you all alone. If you forget the people on each side of you in the theater, even that relentless prairie wind in your ear serves as proof.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
My enthusiasm over Stephen King’s new book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, added one more file to the very tall stack of books I’ll most likely never write…but if I lived on an island….
It’s this wonderful tale within a tale within a tale, on one level about storytelling and why we need it. There are reasons within reasons here, but in all practical terms, the stories are used to keep spirits up while a terrible ice twister of a storm, called a starkblast, rages outside. The Wind Through the Keyhole is also this much welcome dip back into the warm colloquialisms of Mid-World, a post-apocalyptic universe parallel to that universe in which all of the rest of his fiction takes place, that one that looks almost just like our own. When I finished the Dark Tower series, the first time (if I’m lucky, I’ll visit again), more than anything, I knew I was going to miss that voice, that palaver of gunslingers, billy-bumblers, the Beams that tenuously hold everything together, and that ornery old myth of the Man Jesus.
That Mid-World slang always reminds me of a complaint King shared with Amy Tan in his book On Writing—they commiserated over the fact that interviewers never asked them about the love of language that drove them to write. Proof of that love of language is all over the Dark Tower books, just as unquestionable as it is in the work of one of the writers who inspired him, J.R.R. Tolkien.
But that’s just one of many things people don’t talk about when they cover Stephen King. Some people write concordances to Stephen King’s work and others write about how his childhood shaped his writing, but what I haven’t seen (with one notable exception in an essay by Sarah Langan) is someone tackle his significance in the context of the past 40 years of popular culture, much less the relatively brief life of modern literature. From my perspective, he’s a singular character, not only constantly redefining the boundaries of my favorite genre of storytelling but also keeping the very potential of literature alive for a great cross section of the public not reached by most literature. He does all of this while maintaining a balancing act I learned from my greatest writing mentor—he reaches for the widest possible audience without ever talking beneath the smartest reader.
King seems to me a uniquely important torchbearer for the pop culture explosion in the 1960s. Whatever political naivete some may see in him, both his lack of privilege growing up and the ongoing perspective of a horror writer keeps him focused on the contradiction to any ideal. He entertains few of the self-serving Great White Man/Lone Ranger illusions that plague the vision of his contemporary, Steven Spielberg, or constantly hang like an albatross over another contemporary, Bruce Springsteen.
Since the relationship between vampire hunters Ben and Mark in Salem's Lot first echoed and affirmed my own double-vision living with my newly single father, I’ve been aware of the centrality of relationships in King’s work. In a society filled with individualistic delusion, King’s characters triumph (when they triumph) through their need for one another. Though the Dark Tower’s Roland Deschain, the gunslinger, is doomed to be alone, his greatest successes only come with the help of his band of travelers, his ka-tet. I have always thought The Stand was not so much his greatest book as his greatest over-reach, but I loved the sense of community he cobbles together. It’s a community that probably comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (i.e., it’s of the genre, which shows how genre writing has been an asset to his approach), but in King’s world, it’s a community foreshadowed by the family that comes together with Dick Holloran in The Shining and is echoed time and again, among the kids in It, the bands of fighters in those A and B-side books, Desperation and The Regulators, and all of those other rag-tag bands in Derry and Castle Rock who inevitably face off their greatest fears together. Not coincidentally, those groups tend to include a writer and a cast of characters not unlike the great cross-section of America he knows reads the books. I don’t see that as contrivance or solipsism. I see that as evidence of a supremely self-aware artist (an author who wrote one of the best books of non-fiction about his genre at the height of his early career) who writes as an act of faith— if not in the supernatural, in his need for others (give or take Misery's Annie Wilkes).
All of my former students can testify that I talk about Stephen King more often than any other writer. The most obvious reason for that is that he’s just about the only author I can mention whom they’ll know at least a little something about. But a secondary reason goes hand in hand with that one—I know that most of them will not perceive him as a “legitimate” writer, and most who like him will only acknowledge him as a guilty pleasure. If there’s one lesson Stephen King taught me (hand in hand with rock and roll and hip hop and every form of music that feeds them and every form of music fed by them), it’s that the legitimacy of my passions should never be in question. What matters is how I use those passions to weather the starkblast--both for me and my community, both (whether we own it or not) all the richer for this man’s work.
Monday, December 31, 2012
In more ways than are probably worth counting, the devil’s admirably present in the details 11 songs deep on the disc that begins with “Diablo Diablo.” Dollar Foxes’ petal-to-the-metal country rocker, “The Letter,” deals with the devil of unwanted communication, while Cadillac Flambe’s “The Devil’s Heavy 12,” offers a revenge tale straight out of a particularly gothic Spaghetti western—made transcendent by an operatic bridge worthy of Ennio Morricone. The nemeses in The Atlantic’s “Dixie is Dead” sport devils on the back of one’s hand and in the palm of the other. Unlike “The Letter,” which suggests confrontation can be put off inevitably, both the Cadillac Flambe and Atlantic songs insist on the inevitable fight to the death. Taken together, these three songs work like a suite, moving from both the sound and resignation of ever weightier country in the first two songs to thrashing metal anguish on “Dixie is Dead.”
That progression nicely sets up the arrival of Hammerlord , followed by Expo ’70 and Umberto. Hammerlord hits hard, the band’s dual guitar (grounded-by-bass) attack both massive and perhaps lightning fast enough to offset the Devil-God of a femme fatale “Kali Bundy.” [BTW, contender for year’s best song title?] And though Expo ’70 would probably give its free ranging drone music any title but metal, this cut, “Closet Full of Candles,” centers on a classically heavy rock march through a nightmare landscape fraught with electronic improvisation that calls to mind all varieties of goth-metal horror. As the song suggests, though the landscape sounds huge—like a swamp gas lit battlefield—it may be even scarier to think it no larger than the confines of Carrie’s prayer room. Umberto’s “JonBenet” calls to mind devils unmentionable with keyboard progressions weaving tapestries followed by pointillist electronic starlight and wordless choral counterpoints. It's the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey carrying you somewhere a good deal scarier than the edge of the universe.
By contrast, it’s a relief to hear Akkilles’ “She’s Alright.” Guitar and banjo strings gently accompany this meditation on acceptance. If there’s a devil being come to terms with here, it’s the self—“it’s too late to be the good guy.” But then, despite the very real systemic evil that surrounds us, that devil we know best is often the most vexing. La Guerre’s beautifully sung “23” tackles a similar fight for dignity in a similarly isolated electronic meditation. Completing this suite of self exploration, Gemini Revolution’s acid trip of a composition, “Through the Woods,” starts off like some transcendental walk through a neighborhood park, but it truly gets otherworldly when the backing vocals emerge, offering a bigger vision tied to some sense of community.
The lonesome ballad, “Something to Eat,” by Hidden Pictures starts with simple acoustic guitar, but soon finds the day-glow texturing of the music that came before. In a song about simple keys to happiness, the unnamed key is the one the listener recognizes in Richard Gintowt's and Michelle Sanders' beautiful vocals. As the song itself discovers, the main thing—the act of loving and being loved--is always a work in progress—like friendship, like community, like a life worth living, like a song sung well.
And somewhere in that truth lay a bunch more dust devils behind the curtain. Abigail Henderson takes a broom to those devils with Tiny Horse’s “Ride,” asking a series of questions about what to do at the end of a struggle, at a point of arrival—“Dishes in the sink, and our love on the brink, and the mistakes we make are finally our own.” Though it’s a song about learning to live with limits, it’s also a song that refuses to surrender to the worst demon of all—spiritual defeat.
Fortunately for us, the characters in this song can’t simply muster up some unearned faith. This ain’t no “Don’t Stop Believing.” What Henderson’s voice and Chris Meck’s guitar agree on are a few simple principles. It starts with our need for one another and a call to “ride with me tonight,” and lyrically it can’t reach much further—it can only yearn to “remember what it means to chase a little something.” And the sound they make together does just that—Henderson’s world-weary vocal, turning over each syllable intent on discovery and Meck’s delicately probing guitar sweeping light through this darkness like only he can. This is visionary music, and, by that, I mean the vision’s actually in the music's interaction with the lyric.
Of course, any of the 1,100+ Facebook friends of the Midwest Music Foundation know that the organization grew out of Henderson and Meck’s vision, informed by and maintained despite a long fought war against cancer and the vagaries of the health care system. I say this because for all my talk about personal demons here, this is a song that knows the real world is even more dangerous than we think, so the struggle between the personal and political here is inextricably linked. There’s no answering one without addressing the other, and that’s why, even when we’re left facing nothing but ourselves...our pitiful, bedeviled selves, working together, may be just what we need. They're certainly all we have.
It was “Ride” that told me I had to write about this compilation. And it was “Ride” that said I needed to chase it not in some general way but song for song. The first time I’d played both CDs, somewhere south of Chicago on a rainy November night, I hit repeat on that last cut over and over—Matt Richey’s opening martial drums, Zach Phillips’ pulsing bass, Cody Wyoming’s ethereal mists of keys and Chris Meck’s searching guitar ushered in Henderson's hard fought questions and urgent plea. And it was this song’s quiet beauty that called to me when I lost steam after a couple of blogs and scrambled to find a new hand hold with Part 3. Just as Meck’s guitar alternately caresses and provokes Henderson’s calls to “chase a little something,” the record kept pulling me forward.
Thank you to everyone involved. Happy New Year!
Go here, name your price for the music and read about all the great ways your money will be spent—
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Summer Skin, Amy Cook (Thirty Tigers) Robert Plant and Patty Griffin lend guest vocals while Me’Shell N’Degeocello plays bass, all of which hints at the way Amy Cook manages to balance rock and roll intensity, brilliant melodies and back porch ease. Always ebullient and infectious, “Summer Skin” is never far from a dark turn. A menacing bass and obscure shapes painted by shimmering guitar color the surreal imagery of the perpetually taxiing “Airplane Driver.” The classic rock build of the gorgeous “Sun Setting Backwards” explicitly fights the distance in satellite radio transmissions and cellphone calls to fight its way to an uncommon intimacy.
Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Lupe Fiasco (Atlantic) “Ayesha Says” makes the perfect opening for this record, a young woman spitting rhymes on the street—connecting hoodie and hijab, “prayer rugs, church pews, Mexican coin stands,” the West Bank and the West Side of Chicago, “Emmet Till, Malice Green, Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin,” finding hope in the midst of almost universal despair. As high tech and hook laden as last year’s Lasers, this album preaches hard from beginning to end, never more powerfully than on the massive “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” and the reflective “Unforgivable Youth,” both of which sum up American history in five minutes or less and make a new vision for the future that much easier to grasp.
When I’m President, Ian Hunter (Slimstyle) “Comfortable” starts the record rocking as hard and raunchy as Mott the Hoople, before the explosive “Fatally Flawed” confronts the most implacable human frailty. “When I’m President” sums up the electoral con as well as anyone has, while “Ta Shunka Witco” takes America on with the vision of Crazy Horse. “Life” closes things out reminiscent of Mott the Hoople’s self-mythologizing, but the message—here and throughout the album— has never been more tender and generous.
“Master of My Make Believe,” Santigold (Atlantic) The mix of Anglican and African choral styles over tribal drums and marching band rhythms on “God from the Machine” shows the breadth of this album’s reach; the depth may be best indicated by the way it seems to reach back to the Clash’s “Sandinista” and fold the next thirty years of music into a unified dance mix. The urgency is palpable in the lyrics to the revolutionary rallying cries “Disparate Youth” and “The Keepers." Perhaps the boldest musical surprise comes with the wall pounding response to the call of “This Isn’t Our Parade.”