Sunday, December 03, 2006

'Running with Scissors' strays too far from original story

This is a revised version of the 700-word I wrote for Reviewing the Arts, and the only movie review I did for the class (I might gone a word or two over in my revision, but hey, it's a blog. More importantly, it's better). I read Burroughs' memoir almost two years ago, and I was completely engrossed, transfixed enough to stay focused as I read it on a Greyhound bus to and from New York City. But that's another story. That experience, unfortunately, set me up for big-time disappointment with the movie.

Augusten Burroughs broke into the literary mainstream with his 2003 memoir "Running with Scissors." The book’s appeal was its sheer strangeness: bizarre parenting practices, under-age love affairs, scatology as science and religion. Burroughs’ acerbic commentary on these unsettling stories continually reinforced the truth in his accounts, no matter how unbelievable.

From the outset, director Ryan Murphy’s cinematic adapation of "Running with Scissors," released October 27, lacks that biting character. The choice of music for the movie’s closing credits – Crosby, Stills and Nash’s "Teach Your Children" – has more of a sarcastic edge than much of Murphy’s adapted screenplay. The hardened, jabbing voice of Burrough’s book is undercut from the very beginning, when Joseph Cross, the young actor who plays Burroughs as a teenager and narrates the story, says "Nobody’s gonna believe me anyway."

The emotional thrust of the movie – the damage that parents unwittingly do to their children – comes from the dynamics and dissolution of two marriages. Deirdre and Norman Burroughs (Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin) booze and bicker rather than tend to their fussy, obsessive-compulsive son Augusten, while Marion and Agnes Finch (Brian Cox and Jill Clayburgh) throw up their hands at the tumult and tantrums of their two daughters and brood of adopted children. Marion, a psychiatrist, follows an unorthodox philosophy that a child becomes an adult at 13 and should be beholden to no adult’s orders thereafter. After Deirdre enters treatment under Dr. Finch and stumbles into an antidepressant-induced haze, she signs over custody of Augusten to the mellow, messianic doctor.

In the book, the reader is jolted by a barrage of oddities, but Murphy shies away from the stories’ jaw-droppingly unbelievable moments. As Dr. Finch, Cox is just too normal. His laissez-faire parenting seems merely neglectful rather than criminally insane, and his belief in divine messages shown through his bathroom leavings comes so late in the movie as to seem misplaced.

Murphy doesn’t play up young Augusten’s quirks enough, either. His childhood neuroses don’t go much beyond fascination with shiny objects, manifested by boiling and polishing his allowance money and wrapping the dog in tin foil. In the book, he obsessively shampoos and gels his hair and demands to give his mom a perm. This gender-inappropriate behavior, along with his refusal to go to school, is supposed to drive a wedge between his parents, but the gulf is already there between Norman and Deirdre at the film’s start. Murphy’s adaptation doesn’t give them time to develop or to drift apart.

The Finch children also barely register: the nutty, devoutly religious Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), foul-mouthed misfit Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) and the angry, schizophrenic adoptee Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). Bookman generates the most interest as he angrily throws the Doctor’s bland paternalism back at him, but he becomes sedate and much less interesting after he and Augusten start a relationship.

Though Augusten's neuroses seem underdeveloped (and thus even more out of place in the Finch household), Cross’ performance brings out the young man's shock and disbelief. When Cross glances into Dr. Finch’s toilet bowl or outside to see that his mother has spread all the dishes and kitchen appliances on the lawn, the camera lingers on his wide eyes and slightly-agape mouth. He appears genuinely disturbed, while everyone around him seems merely dazed.

The final and most disappointing departure from the book is how serene the supposedly-nuts Finch household seems. The Finch house in the movie is cluttered, but there are no objects being hurled, no needles falling from the two-year-old, dilapidated Christmas tree. Actual moments of peace and reflection become possible: Augusten can sit and have a conversation with Natalie at the breakfast table, or watch TV in silence with Agnes. These elements of normal family life seem out of place in what is supposed to be a bizarre, utterly backward household.

Ultimately, the movie seems more informed by "Garden State," another film that chronicles the dissolution of the "American family," than by Burrough’s madcap memoir. Murphy even borrows a scene of "primal scream" therapy from Zach Braff’s film. Unfortunately, instead of merely screaming into the abyss like the disaffected twenty-somethings in that movie, "Running With Scissors" throws all the energy and honesty of Burroughs’ book into the hole.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Page turners and multiple platforms

When I heard about Dave Eggers' newest book, "What is the What," on NPR, I knew I wanted to read it and write of a review of it for my Reviewing the Arts class. I won't reprint my 600-word review on here, but I'll summarize: it's good, it's very different from "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," it's a product of remarkable investigative journalism, it marks a great step forward in Eggers' writing.

That last bit of my summary turned out to be the most important. To accompany our 600-word reviews, everyone in my class had to devise a "multi-platform" element as a supplement. After our initial bewilderment at that line in our syllabus, we found that we could record audio podcast commentaries, design slideshows or compile video montages. Some students did just one of these; others combined two of them. One person designed an intricate, interactive website for the art exhibit she reviewed -- kudoes, Susie!

Since I had identified this development in Eggers' work, I decided to do a podcast taking a look at the development of his writing with a slideshow of book covers, pictures, etc. I looked at how he's expanded his literary focus from being very self-oriented to being very global and other-centered. I also integrated his work with the band Thrice in designing the artwork for their album and the residual influence of their themes and lyrics on his writing of "What is the What."

I had to re-read parts of "A Heartbreaking Work" and "You Shall Know Our Velocity!" and read, for the first time, Eggers' 2005 short story collection "How We Are Hungry." As a whole, the stories echo "A Heartbreaking Work" a little bit -- wide shifts in emotion, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes both moods smooshed right up against each other. But the settings and landscapes are so distinct and so well-drawn that they sometimes overshadow the characters. And none of the characters hang their heads or bemoan their situations; they move forward. They persevere. This seems to be the best model for the writing that Eggers taps into in "What is the What" -- intimate, personal, aware of the tragedies of the past, but not weighed down or consumed by them.

I was really happy with how the multi-platform supplement turned out. If I can figure out how to post it on here, I will.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cinematic rundown

"The Departed" - Totally engrossing, much easier to follow than I thought it would be. Incredibly violent (apparently that's a Scorsese hallmark...what I don't know about his movies could probably fill a warehouse) and profane, but also filled with so many good one-liners I lost count. Outstanding performances by all the principals. Went to a 10 p.m. screening; so good I didn't care that it let out at almost 1 a.m.

"The Queen" - Good movie. Great sense of the frosty, stuffy air that surrounds the royal family in England. I didn't know that anti-royalist sentiments ran so high during the aftermath of Princess Di's death. Great performances by Helen Mirren as QEII and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair (talk about a dead ringer!). Also, the addition and editing of news broadcasts from the time (was it really nine years ago?) really add a lot, though I must say, the Brits could teach our newscasters a lot about enunciation and convincing delivery.

"Borat" - Funny and shocking at times, but slightly underwhelming. I get that Kazakhstan is supposed to be a third-world backwater and that Borat has no sense of the outside world, but the idea that he's not housebroken, that he would defecate in a bag and present it to his hosts? It's neither funny nor believable. And the political points that the movie makes - how Americans tacitly go along with anti-Semitism and homophobia - get drowned out by all the naked wrestling and Pamela Anderson-worshipping.

"Marie Antoinette" - Visually stunning and well-paced. I didn't mind the long periods without dialogue; Sofia Coppola is skilled enough to let the sets and camerawork tell the story. Kirsten Dunst has the right poise and expression for the regal part, but her delivery seems too willowy and too casual (almost Valley Girl-ish) at times. I expected to be jarred by the anachronistic music (Gang of Four, Bow Wow Wow), but the tunes were chosen artfully and to great effect. I loved "Lost in Translation" and some of the long, lingering shots in "Marie Antoinette" - especially Dunst's face at the end, as the queen makes her last trip to Paris - reminded me of the cinematography. I'm excited to see what Coppola does next.

To come - recent readings, latest listenings, some ponderings on my performances.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I would have written a shorter review, but I didn't have time

I feel like I've been neglecting this blog. I've been to a few concerts and other arts events but I've been busy studying for exams and writing short "journal" responses for various classes, so I haven't had the spare time (usually spent on the ground floor of Bird Library) to write anything up. Plus I had to revise the previous review of the TV on the Radio album -- it's much better now; I might put it up.

And so on the same day that the revised 400-word review was due, I also had a 300-word review due. I felt like the premiere piece, with all of its backstory and the program notes that Waggoner wrote, deserved an expanded story, but it's a unique challenge trying to capture a single concert (or a single art exhibit, or any of the other things my classmates wrote about) in 300 words.

Degas Quartet gives weight to Waggoner's world premiere

The Degas Quartet is gaining a reputation as one of the best young string quartets in the United States, and the group’s list of tutors – the Takacs, Emerson and Julliard Quartets – is a "who’s who" of the best international chamber players.

Small wonder that composer Andrew Waggoner chose the Degas to premiere his new "My Penelope" (String Quartet No. 4). Waggoner wrote the piece to touch upon the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and homesickness of his native New Orleans’ displaced people. The formal premiere will take place in November in New Orleans, but the Degas revealed the piece’s profound anguish and tremulous grief at an impressive preview performance October 10th in Syracuse, N.Y.

"My Penelope" immediately jabs for the heart as all four players play with double-stops, grinding out and repeating dense, dissonant chords. This stark opening statement brushed away the memory of the concert’s opening treat, a breezy rundown of Stefan Freund’s "Dance on Hot Coals."

The Degas brought intensity to all of Waggoner’s gestural demands: jarring jete ricochet articulations, high harmonics, flurries of sixteenth notes. A recurring pizzicato figure played by cello and viola recalled a Greek lyre in a strong evocation of the piece’s roots in the story of Homer’s Odyssey. The piece’s ending was a subtle dissolving, a sigh after three movements of storm and stress.

The quartet was clearly drained after Waggoner’s piece, and the first two movements of Schubert’s Quintet in C Major suffered as a result. The group, joined by cellist Caroline Stinson, lacked energy during the opening allegro, playing with too much light and not enough heat. The quintet rebounded, though, and dug into the Scherzo with fervor. The Allegretto finale, with its rich chords enhanced by the two cellists, ended the performance with a perfectly soothing compliment to Waggoner’s seething premiere.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

TV on the Radio makes waves

This is my second review for my Critical Writing class - a 400-word review. Two small things I didn't include: "Province" features guest vocals by David Bowie, which should get hardcore Bowie-philes to pick up the album; also, the album came with a poster designed by singer Tunde Adebimpe. It's currently on the wall in my room.

On any recording today, the term "funk" has come to mean the sound of thumb-slapped electric bass playing some syncopated rhythm. George Clinton, who invented the genre with the bands Parliament and Funkadelic, would be appalled. Without any instance of that "characteristic" sound, the newest album by New York-based group TV on the Radio takes the word back to the way Clinton defined it: strange, irregular and off-beat.

On "Return to Cookie Mountain," TVOTR reintroduces the spacey, uncategorizable elements that made Clinton into the pioneer of "intergalactic funk." Singers Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe show great flexibility in switching from shrill falsetto to throaty baritone. Their vocals are the most important ingredient in the album’s soundscape, floating over the haze of buzzing guitars and droning samples.

The group’s multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek (he is credited with guitar, bass, keys and sampler) also produced the album, and his production features a careful balance of static drones and bustling energy. The drone comes from guitars, synthesizers and sitar, and it creates a uniform sound world for the whole album, stretching out underneath every track from the opening "I Was a Lover" to the last, "Wash the Day."

The energy churning beneath the mellow surface comes from drummer Jaleel Bunton’s light-handed, complex playing. He drives the fast songs with nimble stickwork and adds emphatic bass drum thumps and cymbal crashes to the slowly unwinding numbers.

Bunton is the key to the album’s best track, "Wolf Like Me," driving the bass groove snare and tom-tom. During the bridge, the guitars drop out to reveal the sampled sound of a tinkling music box and a chorus singing "oohs" and "ahs," and Bunton dials back his playing. He then leads the charge back in, pounding away underneath the layers of voices and synthesizers.

Similarly chorus-like vocals also stand out on "Province" and "Let the Devil In." Sitek’s production presents this singing in a very sensitive fashion, preserving the lyrics as well as the grunts and groans. These utterances recall another dominant but lesser-known frontman: H.R., from the Washington, D.C. reggae-punk outfit Bad Brains.

The lyrics, penned by Malone, Adebimpe and Sitek, sometimes seem like more of an afterthought. The characters in the songs drink too much and mourn squandered opportunities. But even if their boredom and sadness is less than profound, the talent backing them up is off the charts.

Captivating and confusing - Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep"

After seeing "The Science of Sleep," I emerged from the theater feeling as though I might be in a dream, whether mine or someone else's. For all its twists, turns and seeming non-sequiturs, "The Science of Sleep" is an arresting, kaleidoscopic trip of a movie.

With its brilliant color palette and its overlapping layers of dreams and "reality," the action of the film is seen through a series of monochrome cels moving back in forth in space like a series of "Pong" paddles. Sometimes we see through just one color, just one perspectives; at other times, we see through several cels at once, with multiple levels of "dreams" superimposed over the action. We venture into the staging area of dreams, complete with cameras, monitors and incidental music by a backing band, all operated by one man - Stephane, a half-French/half-Mexican aspiring artist who presents his dreams as "télévision éducative." Stephane's eyes, opened and shut with venetian blinds controlled by the "ringmaster" Stephane in his mind - are our windows into his life in Paris and the levels of "dream-life" laid over it.

But with the knowledge, imparted by Stephane's mother, that he has always confused dreams for reality, we see the feints and distortions of his dream-life in a different light. These diversions - the large hands, the assemblage of co-workers all speaking in Stephane's own voice, the landscapes constructed from toilet paper tubes and cardboard - are all the products of the mind of a troubled young man. Even at the film's baseline "reality," elements of fantasy, like the "one-second time travel machine" or the mechanical animation of Stephanie's pony, are present.

But even with these elements of - for lack of a less-loaded term, "magical realism" - the characters at the heart of the film's "reality" are utterly believable. Stephane is a young man, unhappy with his job and struggling to adapt to living in a new city and to speaking a new language. Stephanie is a lovely, slightly insecure artist, easily wounded by dishonesty. Stephane's mother is well-intentioned but slightly domineering. Strangely absent are reflections on Stephane's dead father, but better that his character be absent than thrusted into Freudian-Oedipal interpretations of Stephane's dream-life.

The film doesn't present sleep or dreams in an exactly scientific fashion; it doesn't break down their elements, doesn't discuss the influence of brain chemistry or delve into psychoanalytic interpretation. The opening scene, in the "Stephane TV" studio inside the protagonist's head, seems a more apt description of the formulation of dreams: many different ingredients, thrown together haphazardly, stirred or otherwise agitated. What results seems the product of chance, the bubbling of different elements to the surface. Through all the convolution, the film retains an important level of consistency: everything is filtered through the lens of Stephane, who with his believable, trying past and his yearnings for the future, is an Everyman, both due to and inspite of his delusions.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Soloists star in Skaneateles finale

To continue the trend in this blog of vacillating between pop and classical music, here's a review I wrote for my AJP 600 (Critical Writing) class. It's not especially timely (concert happened Sept. 2), but many elements of the performance, especially the soloist/ensemble dynamic, stuck with me. I think I have some readers who aren't in my class - Dad? Rebecca? Krystal? - and thus weren't handed a copy of this on Monday. So here it is.

Two world-class soloists turned an average chamber concert into a grand finale for the 2006 Skaneateles Festival.

On another Saturday night concert moved indoors from Brook Farm due to inclement weather, flutist Marina Piccinini and violinist Ilya Kaler rescued a slightly soggy performance by the Festival Chamber Orchestra. Despite the change in venue, the auditorium at Skaneateles High School was nearly full with audience members eagerly awaiting works by three of the most famous names in classical music.

The concert began with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048. In both movements, the violinist and violists failed to match articulations clearly, playing more as disjointed soloists than as uniform sections.

The too-fast tempo of the second Allegro movement exaggerated the problem of mismatching rhythms and attacks. The orchestra sounded sloppy in playing triple-meter at such a rapid pace, leading to a disappointing performance of a familiar classic.

The chamber group added oboes, horns and additional string players for Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D major, K. 314. Piccinini’s energetic presence added an immediate boost to the group’s playing. She moved and swayed as she played, and punctuated several sixteenth-note runs with an upward flourish of the barrel end of her flute.

Though the writing for the concerto’s orchestral accompaniment is less colorful than the accompanying music for many of his operas, concertmaster Steven Copes ably led the string players and provided several graceful solo interjections.

Piccinini’s cadenzas highlighted all three movements; she showed great control with regard to tempo, neatly speeding up and slowing down amid the rapid scalar passages. She made octave leaps with ease and played with a crystalline tone in all registers.

The concert closed with another well-known piece: Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons." The orchestra turned to another outstanding soloist; it’s easy to forget that in addition to the piece’s place among the "greatest hits" of chamber music, it’s also a violin concerto. Ilya Kaler, professor of violin at DePaul University and formerly of the Eastman School of Music, bowed nimbly through some very flashy solo writing, and the orchestra frequently faded into the background as Kaler asserted his control over the music.

His playing was nearly flawless throughout all four sections, but some of the concerto’s less frequently-played movements could have used more care from the orchestra. The ensemble played too heavily throughout the last movement, "Winter." Heavy, clunking pizzicato from the string players failed to capture the lightly falling rain and snow described in the lines of verse that accompany the score.

Kaler was truly the star of the evening. He dominated the stage as he drew broad strokes over open strings to play chords and worked his fingers from top to bottom of the fingerboard. His physical presence – tall and imposing, with long arms and fingers often moved rapidly – transfixed the audience throughout the 45 minute-long concerto.

Sentimentality and the singer/songwriter

The singer/singwriter has a certain archetype in today's pop music - one person with a guitar, singing personal, confessional-sounding songs, sometimes with a back-up band, sometimes not. Between songs, the singer often tells a story that explains where he (or she) was when he wrote the song, or what inspired its writing. Often before kicking off each new song, he says "This next one's called..." And he counts to 4, starts to strum, or fumbles with a harmonica in its frame.

At a show in the SU Underground on Monday night, two artists presented variations on this form. Matt Pond, lead singer and songwriter for the band Matt Pond PA, told no stories and only provided the name to one or two of his songs. He appeared ill at ease between songs, berating an audience member not to call him "Matty" (apparently his mother calls him that) and turning down requests to play certain songs. A lyric from Pond's song "kc" perfectly encapsulate his stage presence: "There’s no way to the heart better than awkwardly." He repeatedly said "Hold please," as he and his bandmates tuned up or switched instruments, and even prefaced several tunes by saying "This is a song."

I expected a set of acoustic guitar-based tunes (based on a cover of the Pixies song "Winterlong" I heard on my undergrad college radio station), but was suprised to hear a group with two electric guitars, bass, drums, cello (!) and occasional electric keyboard. The music surged forward with a bright, pop energy akin to the Police, "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me"-era Cure or Elvis Costello.

Only after someone requested "Since U Been Gone" and lead guitarist Brian Pearl cranked out the power-pop ballad's guitar part did Pond loosen up to take a more free-wheeling approach. He even agreed to play a few extra songs after his band members took a bathroom break. Though he seemed daunted at first by the crowd's lack of movement during songs and utter silence between, he warmed to the students as they nodded heads, shuffled feet and slowly crept closer to the stage throughout his set.

Opening act Ian Love delivered the archetypal singer/songwriter performance to a tee. "I wrote this song when I was driving across Iceland." "This is a song about my daughter." "While I'm being sentimental, this song is for my wife." Love, accompanied by another guitarist, opened the songwriter's book of his soul. Where Pond pulled away from his audience, Love was conversational. Where Pond tried to mask his imperfections ("This is a new song, so we don't really know it yet"), Love reveled in them. He frequently lifted his voice into a lilting falsetto, not afraid of cracks between registers or of landing on a slightly out-of-tune note. With his voice, swimming in reverb, over top above slowly-arcing songs based in acoustic and pedal-steel guitars, Love's recalled two artists in mainstream "alt-country" - Wilco and My Morning Jacket.

These two bands each feature a prominent frontman (Jeff Tweedy in Wilco, Jim James in MMJ) in the singer/songwriter tradition. Each band draws from country music, both the sad ballad a la "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and the knee-slapping hoedown, and inject it with more modern approaches. Tweedy adds bugs-beneath-the-skin paranoia and anomie, and James blasts the forms into orbit with unearthly falsetto, bizarre lyrics and electric guitar hystrionics. In his opening set, Love took a step toward bringing these forms back to earth.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

In praise of music that breaks a sweat

I suffered a bout of musical whiplash yesterday evening. From 5 to 6:45, I attended the first class meeting of a music history seminar. In this course, I will be studying the works of Gyorgy Ligeti, a contemporary composer who just passed away this summer. Then, at 8, I went to the New York State Fair and caught a performance by punk-rocker Joan Jett, who played for free on the Chevrolet Court stage.

Some of Ligeti's music was featured (albeit without his permission) in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Many of his other compositions have this same ethereal, formless feeling, filled with clustered chords and lacking the normal musical guideposts of rhythm, meter and conventional harmony. In the first class yesterday, though, we listened to a few examples of Ligeti's piano music and heard its complex rhythms and jumpy syncopations. The professor led us through discussion of Eastern European music and the rhythm of the Hungarian language itself, and the few piano pieces we heard are loaded with forward-surging, heavily-accented rhythms.

The professor described some of Ligeti's music as incredibly, sometimes willfully, difficult, especially in terms of the independence of individual parts and the layering of complex rhythms over one another. But part of the value, I'm beginning to see, in new music is the *effort* it requires of both the performer and the listener. Much of the enjoyment comes from the challenge - both the discipline of one's hands to play the right notes at the right time, and discipline of the ears to find something to grab onto in the music. The sung folk music we heard in class contained, in addition to unconventional tonalities and unfamiliar language, shouts, grunts and other uncategorizable sounds. Those elements show that the performers are working hard and exerting themselves, conveying intensity that comes through entirely apart from the language in which the song is sung.

Compare that with an hour-long set of roaring, brawny rock-and-roll, with guitars in place of pianos, English in place of Hungarian, and an up-tempo 4/4 grind in place of complicated isorhythms. The common ingredient in both musical experiences, though, was intensity. Jett and her lead guitarist hurled themselves around the stage, manhandling their guitars as they churned out steady, three-chord progressions (If the formula for country music is "three chords and the truth," the one for punk-rock from the '70s and '80s might be "three chords and a snarl"). When the guitarist and bassist came to the mike to deliver backing vocals, they seemed locked in place - eyes forward, mouths in position to sing, even on the relatively docile refrain of "Crimson and Clover." Jett encouraged the audience to do likewise, calling for more volume from the shouting chorus at the foot of the stage. She and her bandmates doubtlessly exerted themselves just playing simple, propulsive American rock music, stomping around the stage and brandishing electric guitars. I didn't know all the songs in the set, particularly the ones from the band's new album "Sinner," but they were delivered with the same weight and aggressive posture as the more familiar ones.

So here's to music that takes effort to play and to enjoy. Though you may never see a roadie drape a concert pianist in a cape after a performance a la James Brown, exertion and effort are a vital part of performance, whether it's "post-modern" or punk-rock.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Silly jokes, serious skills

Peter De Sotto, violinist/vocalist for the Quartetto Gelato, cracked quite a few jokes between numbers in his group's performance last night at the Skaneateles Festival. Some fell flat; others generated a lot of laughs. But De Sotto's silly on-stage demeanor took nothing away from an outstanding, wide-ranging set of songs.

Due to illness, the group had to perform without its oboe/English horn player and had to alter its printed program. Clarinetist Shalom Berg added a great deal of flourish to the group's unique combination of violin, cello and accordian. This exotic blend was showcased on many numbers not listed on the program, including "Meditango," "Rondo alla Zigeuner," "Sous Le Ciel De Paris" and "Besamo Mucho" (reclaiming the song forever from Leslie Nielsen's rendition in "The Naked Gun"). The group ably shifted from propulsive dance rhythms to smooth legato playing, moving and swaying and interacting with one another.

I don't know when clarinetist Bard joined the group -- his bio, inserted into the program, showed that he is an established musician in Toronto like the other three -- but his chemistry with the other players was even more impressive than his obvious technical skill.

Accordianist Alexander Sevastian was, without question, the finest accordian player I have ever seen or heard. Before performing the Finale from von Weber's "Konzertstuck Opus 79," Sevastian took the microphone and said, "Since English is not my first language, I don't usually like to talk. But I do like to play fast notes." He then launched into the piece, which he adpated from a piano solo with orchestral accompaniment. Sevastian also provided the highlight of the first half of the concert, playing Bach's famous "Tocatta and Fugue" while De Sotto, Berg and cellist Elinor Frey took five. After he played the familiar opening passage, I said to myself, "I don't know how he's going to pull this off." But he did, tackling the piece's technical demands with furious fingerwork over the instrument's manuals.

The four musicians formed dynamic pairs throughout the evening - cello and accordian as a kind of basso continuo, violin and cello as smooth, evocative string section, violin and clarinet as nimble duettists egging each another one.
Their great skill and strong chemistry provided a greater connection to the audience than De Sotto's jokes and foot-stamping. His last comment, though, regarding the group's traditional closer "Danny Boy," hit home. He said that though the traditiona Irish song is widely performed in many different settings, "the piece always wins." But last night, it was just one in an entire set of winners.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

When Leno and Letterman just won't cut it...

I saw Roger Rosenblatt on Charlie Rose last night. I knew I recognized the name and the voice - he's an essayist who used to deliver thought-pieces at the end of the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, a program I was raised on. He was promoting his recently-released novel, and I was struck by how funny, how dead-pan and how self-deprecating he was. He was also especially insightful regarding the difference in composing an essay (a one-off, self-encapsulated, sometimes factually-based expression of opinion) from writing a novel (a work of fiction that follows a plot and develops characters, but which often bears no resemblance to real-life events and is not expected to).

But beyond that, I was surprised by his capacity for genre-hopping as a writer simply on a whim. He said he had written several plays, even written and starred in his own one-man show. "Lapham Rising" is his first novel, and he said he started it because he'd accomplished everything he could within the genre of the essay. He mentioned off-hand that a person could name 20 great novelists or 20 great playwrights or 20 great poets, but a list of great essayists would likely number about four.

I asked my mom, a far more attentive watcher of the Newshour than I was during my upbringing, what Rosenblatt's essays were about. She said pretty much anything, anything that caught his eye or his attention. And I thought, how wonderful, to be paid to do something like that. I don't know if I'll read Rosenblatt's novel, but I might check out a collection of his essays.

Since high school, I've really enjoyed Charlie Rose - the range of guests he has, his insightful questions, the way he can rein in even a large panel of very opinionated people (the discussions and predictions of the Oscars and Grammys particularly come to mind). Prior to Rosenblatt's appearance last night, he interviewed Congressman Rahm Emanuel live and former President Clinton by phone. They talked about politics, naturally, but Emanuel had a book ("The Plan" - something like "A Five-Point Vision for a Better Tomorrow") to promote, and Clinton had insights to offer about Democratic strategy and world efforts to combat AIDS. Then Charlie Rose switched gears and tackled cultural issues, materialism, humor and literary criticism with Rosenblatt.

Just recently, ESPN hired someone to review the network's interview strategies. I heard the guy interviewed, and he criticized, among others, Larry King and Barbara Walters for their poor strategies. I can't recall that he singled out any current newspeople for their work, but I think Charlie Rose offers a strong example of solid, insightful and well-articulated interview tactics.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Enough is enough! I have had it with these...oh, you know the rest

I went to see "Snakes on a Plane." I'm not ashamed to say it.

I'm not a fan of horror movies in general. I'm also not a fan of the allegedly scary movies, such as the "Scream" and "Final Destination" series, that people go to just to laugh at the bad dialogue, hugely improbable plot-twists and outlandish, contrived death scenes.

I was never a part of the huge groundswell of Internet-based activity that variously promoted, hyped and ridiculed "SoaP." To be honest, I almost feel shallow for even using that acronym. I had friends tell me about its existence, oh, last fall, maybe? I thought, "Oh, that's ridiculous. I doubt I'll see it." But then I saw the preview for it before "X3" and was somewhat titilated, especially because one of my best friends hadn't heard a thing about it.

So I was going to Baltimore and saw that there was a 10 o'clock show and I knew one of my friends would be interested, so we went. We arrived a little late, missing the initial appearance of the serpentine logo and the first flash of Bad-ass Extraordinaire Samuel L. Jackson's name on the screen. What a shame.

I won't run down the plot or anything like that. I'll admit I read some reviews beforehand and knew much of what was to come. In short, it's a dreadful movie. Many patches of awful dialogue, many gruesome, contrived deaths, many plot twists that require a herculean suspense of disbelief. It's an utterly laughable movie -- David Koechner of "Anchorman" recycling his womanizing sportscaster from that film, a group of passengers that rivals "Airplane!" (itself a parody of an earlier film, "Airport") in its kitschy, cliched "diversity" -- and laugh I did. Uproariously, and more often than not at a shot of someone being bit in the face or butt or genitals. I'd like to think I have more highbrow taste than that, but the facts guffaw for themselves.

Chuck Klosterman has an article in the August issue of Esquire that looks at the phenomenolgy behind the mere existence of this film. It's a well-written piece, with plently of Klosterman's usual snarkiness, and it laments that the large, irony-driven fanbase that pushed "SoaP" to unforeseen levels of fame indicates a sad, disturbing trend in Hollywood filmmaking.

Maybe the Internet following the movie acquired is unprecedented, but a movie that is aware of and celebrates its own low quality is hardly a first. If moviegoers were supposed to hold writers, directors, actors and the rest of the filmmaking world to a higher standard, they should have done it during the 1980's during the glut of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" movies before the advent of "Scream" and the rest of those genre-skewering movies.

"SoaP" isn't any less mindless or purposeless than any other "horror" movie out there. As long as the average audience finds diversion or delight in bad dialogue and poorly drawn characters meeting gruesome deaths, moviemakers will continue to give them what they want. I was marginally thrilled, marginally disgusted and I laughed a hell of a lot.

To try to counter the influence of this unbelievable (in this case, used pejoratively) piece of cinema, I tuned into a classical radio station broadcast playing a Suite for Two Pianos by Rachmaninoff on my drive home. But after it was over, I found a country station playing Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" and listened with delight. Before this entry branches into my musically-schizophrenic tastes, I'll sign off.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

on rocking and recording like it's 1999

I didn't take very many of my CDs with me when I moved to Syracuse. I figured that all the ones I listened to regularly were on my computer and iPod. But upon coming back home and finding my collection in a new bookshelf, I took the opportunity to pull a few of the more obscure, less listened-to ones off the shelf for revisiting.

The one that has taken me most by surprise, both for how much I remember the lyrics and for how long it's been since I'd listened to it, is "Hey! Album" by Marvelous 3. It came out in '99, with the big single "Freak of the Week." (chorus: "Can you make me a promise?/To stop it before we begin/Will you hold onto my hand/If I ever lose it again?") I *loved* this album back in the day, and as soon as I put in my car stereo, I found I still knew all the words, was still singing harmony in the same places.

The joy I felt in rediscovering a former musical love, though, is kind of outweighed by the musical ear I've developed in the years since I bought it. It's not a great album. A lot of the lyrics are really schlocky with really cheesy, obvious rhymes. A lot of the instrumentation (keyboards and synthesizers) and the guitar tones bites off of '80's bands like the Cars. Singer/guitarist Butch Walker overemotes and draws out vowels in an annoying fashion. There are bizarre spoken word samples at the beginning and stuck after the seventh or eighth tracks, and even stranger story read by Walker (I think) after the end of the last song. It's a late '90s pop record that sounds more like a late '80s or early '90s pop record, and it's far from a masterpiece.

At the same time, it's only been seven years since this album came out and I felt like I was dusting off something from much, much longer ago. A friend of mine mused about dredging up '90s pop albums in 30 or 40 years. Apart from the limitations of compact disc recordings (they'll end up decomposing sooner or later), I think that's the "classics" from this area that will end up being preserved for posterity, not minor hitmakers like Butch Walker or the Marvelous 3. We might have the same audio whiplash at hearing something from so far back, but music junkies, even as we age, will end up missing the ones that haven't survived -- the remnants of the music underground, of "unpopular culture," if you will.

Walker has gone on to have a solo recording career, and I think he's produced some albums as well, and the persona he has crafted as a songwriter seems completely at odds with the success of his musical endeavors. Don't you have to go platinum or attain a similar level of fame before acting like a debauched rockstar, writing about trashing hotel rooms and having this snotty, entitled attitude (see the M3 song "Sugarbuzz")? I dunno. I haven't bought any of his other albums and probably never will. But all the same, I've loaded "Hey! Album" onto my iPod and I will continue to sing along with gusto to those non-hits that spoke to me in '99 and still do, all shlock aside, albeit in different tongues.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Czech it out

I saw Glimmerglass Opera's production of Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" on Friday. I had previously seen only one full-length opera before, performed by undergrad college's opera company. In watching a DVD recording of a performance of "Jenufa" at Glyndebourne in England, I dimly recalled having heard a selection from the opera in one of the Company's revue performances. The DVD performances left something to be desired (mismatches between cast and their characters, lack of emotion, the general problems of a fixed-camera recording of live theater), but nevertheless I was excited to see the performance at Glimmerglass.

In short, it was truly outstanding. The principal female characters (Jenufa, her step-mother Kostelnicka and her grandmother Burjya) carried the performance, with capable performances from the prinicipal males. As Jenufa, Maria Kanyova had just the right body type and mannerisms to play the frail, put-upon lead. As the Kostelnicka, a stern, devoutly religious woman, Elizabeth Byrne showed excellent emotional range, initially assertive and domineering, then devious and self-doubting, and finally crippled and haunted by the nearly unspeakable crime she commits. Both had excellent soprano voices, equally skilled in both smooth, lyrical passages and more rhythmic, quasi-recitative sections.

From the third row of the 900-or-so seat auditorium, the orchestra occasionally proved too powerful in accompanying the singers as they played a dense, rhythmically-complex score. All of the singers had a moment or two or being drowned out by the orchestra, most notably tenor Roger Honeywell, who played the lowly, lovelorn mill worker Laca, who was covered up even during his some of his most intense moments during the first act. Honeywell came on strong during the more emotionally-understated second act, overshadowing the other male lead, Scott Piper. Piper was flat and largely uninteresting as the puffed-up mill owner Steva, keeping his hands in his pockets for much of the production, even during the tumultuous accusations of the third act. Both had fine voices, but Honeywell brought much more character and expression to his role.

The setting of the opera by director Jonathan Miller in the American Midwest of the early 20th century brought just the right atmosphere of desperation to the proceedings. Simple, sometimes dingy costumes; a spare, rickety-looking front porch; stained and faded wallpaper on the house's interior -- all of these staging elements underscored the drama's hard-bitten emotional core. All of the principal characters are looking for something *more*, whether in love, escape, the hope of a new child, or spiritual transcendence. And it just isn't there. Solace can't be found in the landscape; in one of her supplicant prayer, Jenufa calls her home "the valley of tears." The characters cling to whatever they can, and ultimately end up smothering their hopes. Though Jenufa and Laca are in love and together at the opera's end (here I'll omit the familiar but, in this production, newly unsettling entanglements of the plot), they are in tears and clutching one another hands desperately. Neither has what they sought the way they hoped to have it, and that idea is at the heart of the work's tragedy.

A few minor quibbles with expression and with balance between singers and the orchestra, but overall Glimmerglass' "Jenufa" was a delight, though difficult, and a triumph, though tragic.