Saturday, December 5, 2009

The aughts; an ongoing debate (with links)

To be fair, this was not a great decade for movies, period. Oh, sure, it was a pretty good decade for movies about slovenly males who could not get dates, or about adorable rodents, or about repressed individuals whose inner strengths could only be released through the power of dance. It was also a good decade for movies involving suspiciously eloquent British gangsters and Orcs. But it was not a great decade for romantic comedies, movies about the government or movies involving amazing scams.
- Joe Queenan, writing in last Thursday's Guardian about Hollywood's ham-fisted treatment of ancient classics and epics.

This paragraph popped out at me when I was reading Queenan's article on the train last week, because it seemed so out-of-place; such a disengenous, sweeping generalisation about an entire decade's worth of cinema. Leaving aside the bizarre sideswipe at Ratatouille (the film I presume he's referring to in that opening gambit), I just take massive issue with that last statement. Sure, the aughts were the decade in which torture-porn really took off as a viable mainstream genre, in which Eddie Murphy was allowed don inumerable fat-suits, in which we were repeatedly whacked over the head by inspid CGI animals voiced by celebs, etc., etc., etc,. There was a lot of dross, especially as seen from our close-up vantage point. But there's a flip-side to that viewpoint too; looking back over the past 10 years, we are still close enough to recognise that the years from 2000 onwards gave us a veritable banquet of cinematic fare, including hoards of stuff that maybe didn't top the highest-grossing list, or get lauded by any awards bodies, or end up on many top-ten lists. Obviously I'm biased; this decade was the one in which I hit puberty, graduated from secondary school, began college and really started paying attention to movies, and so I'm definitely under the 2000s spell. Of course, I've seen a far greater number of films made in this decade than I have any other decade, but that's a given. But how can you argue with a decade that offered you the following treats; Peter Jackson's Ring Trilogy, the irresistible rise-and-rise of Nicole Kidman, Pixar's string of heartbreaking films, the continued hilarious output of Christopher Guest's troupe, Tom McCarthy, "Four for you, Glen Coco", several savvy directors finally figuring out what to do with Patty Clarkson, the opportunity to glimpse Sofia Coppola characters through a car window, David Lynch scaring you inside out, Laura Linney's Oscar nomination, Moulin Rouge!, Tilsammans, and The Emperor's New Groove (what? Shut up!). And that's just a small selection of what I personally found to love during the decade.

It's exhilirating, reaching the end of a decade. I remember the millennium quite well (I even remember how hilarious I thought my ten-year-old self's witticism, "I think this is my favourite millennium so far" was) but I wasn't aware of pop culture enough to be aware of any of the lists I presume were sprouting up around that time. Flash forward ten years later, and I'm overwhelmed by the amount of end-of-decade lists I'm confronted with each time I log on. So far, my favourite of the lot has got to be the on-going series of Remembering at Nick's Flick Picks, a wonderful, mind-boggling, detailed account of a unique cinema-goer's decade in cinephilia. It's a fascinating read and I'm eagerly/greedily awaiting each installment.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

Lets forget about my eons-old promise to review all the theatre I saw in London; as penance, here's a new, full review!

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

As a character, Pippa Lee obviously fascinates her creator, Rebecca Miller, as she also claims screenwriting and directing credits on this adaptation of her 2007 novel, although its difficult to figure out exactly why this woman holds such interest for her. We begin with close-up shots of Pippa Lee applying make-up, the camerawork blurred and inconsistently focused, establishing her as an elusive, dichotic character, difficult to pin down. The primping is on behalf of a dinner party, which opens the film and clumsily introduces the main characters and their complex relationships to each other. Pippa and her husband, Herb, a big-shot publisher (Alan Arkin) significantly older than her. have recently moved to a Connecticut retirement community after he suffered three heart attacks. Also present at this housewarming are the couple’s children, Grace and Ben, Herb’s old writer friend Sam (Mike Binder) and his wife, a tremulous Winona Ryder. The script for Sam’s post prandial toast unsubtly signals to the audience the fact that this character has longstanding amorous longings for Pippa, praising her for her cooking and grandly bestowing her with the moniker of the Last Great Artist’s Wife. Blandly smiling, Pippa fires up a tray of crème brulee, her v.o. telling us that she’s sick of her current situation. One abrupt cut to the shocking-pink title card and I’m instantly hooked, eager for the rest of the film. Sadly, this sparkling moment of editing ended up being my favourite part of the film.

I can’t speak for its merits as a literary adaptation, as I gave up on the novel after 50 pages. I can discuss it as a film, though and in terms of narrative and structure, to use a colloquialism, it’s all over the gaff. From the opening dinner party, we move forward in time, watching Pippa’s attempted adjustment to life in a community where everyone around her is at least twenty years her senior. That is, until a neighbour‘s son (Keanu Reeves) moves back home after a messy divorce. Simultaneously, Pippa continues to v.o. the story of her entire life, beginning with her birth and moving forward chronologically. We learn that, in contrast to her bland, middle-aged middle-class appearance, Pippa’s history reveals a story of pill-popping mothers, runaways, lesbian aunts, a brief liaison as a softcore porn model and an eventual slide into the sleepless, drugged-up circles of the New York underground art world. Things certainly happen in each of these two threads - grown up Pippa begins to cultivate a habit of not only sleep-walking, but also sleep-driving, -smoking and -eating, young Pippa meets Herb and the two fall in love, leading to a disastrous lunch with Herb’s first wife, a convincingly destructive Monica Bellucci - but that’s about all I can say about them. Robin Wright Penn’s Pippa is a wan, watery-eyed half presence who occasionally lets slip a crude phrase, and in her younger incarnation, Blake Lively makes doe eyes and says very little. In the early stages of their flirtation, Herb says that the thing he likes best about Pippa is the ‘sweetness’ she has about her; very well, but what might be sweet in person translates as anodyne and dull on the screen. The dual narrative doesn’t really work; I don’t particularly care about Pippa in any incarnation and although there are links and through lines between the past and the present narratives, nothing is really illuminated by the interlocking storylines.

Drug abuse and suicides are not in themselves especially interesting or novel topics. What is interesting is how these tragedies affect people and have a knock-on effect on their relations and loved ones. Unfortunately, the film has little interest in developing characters relationships with each other in any but the most clichéd fashion, or in highlighting the longterm consequences which spring from tragedies. For example, in the early scenes of Pippa’s life, with Maria Bello bouncing off the walls as her speed-addicted mother, it might have been helpful or interesting to clarify what exactly Pippa’s father thought about his wife’s problem; whether he even acknowledged it, if he tried to help her, etc. Unfortunately the film is more interested in shoving a sequence of frenzied Mario Bellos at us, her husband relegated to a shadowy figure who occasionally appears at the edges of scenes. I suppose it is plausible that a husband might ignore his wife’s addiction to Dexedrine, especially if said husband is a clergyman who would risk attracting the derision of his congregation. Fair enough, I’ll buy it, with reservations. But as the film kept plonking wholly unbelievable and implausible characters, plotlines, acting choices and snippets of dialogue, I began to grow impatient and irritated with the whole shebang. Do sons - even fuddy duddy, soon-to-be lawyer sons - say things like “You’re too adaptable. The adaptable cipher,” to their mothers while clearing up dinner plates? Is it normal for prospective Jesuits to tattoo a large, tacky Jesus image over their entire chest and stomach? When we are asked to accept that a baby-faced girl who’s entire mannerisms and look seem culled from some Petulant Teenager central casting agency, is an accomplished and sensitive photo-journalist who can hold her own in war-ravaged countries…bitch, please. It might be a snide little comment on the Naomi Klein generation; at one point I spotted David sliding a copy of No Logo in his bag (which was extremely distracting firstly because it already looks terribly anachronistic, and secondly because this little dash of product placement is hilariously antithetical to the spirit of the book) but because the film attempts to squeeze far too much into its running time, this thread - the whole characters of Pippa’s children - are never allowed develop in any satisfying way, and we are left with unclear, half-formed impressions

Intentionality is a tricky subject in general, here. The audience I saw it with laughed profusely throughout the film, myself included. At one point I actually choked with giggles, but I could not for the life of me work out whether Rebecca Miller had intended this reaction. Some moments are clearly designed to be humorous - a woman, literally seconds from giving birth, flailing down a hospital corridor hysterical because she thinks she’s just given birth to a monkey, a certain cut to Winona Ryder huddled on a couch - but other images, lines, whole conversations translated onscreen as hilarious, apparently unintentionally. In a recent interview with The Times, Miller mentions she was surprised by the audience’s mirthful reaction:

“When I went to Berlin and saw the film for the first time with a large audience, I was actually shocked by how funny it was to them and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it too funny?’ I remember my husband saying, ‘That’s really not a very smart question – how can it be too funny?’”

That husband, obviously, is Daniel Day Lewis, who really should know better than to make an idiotic statement like that. Of course a film can be ‘too funny‘, if the subject matter demands a more reserved or reflective tone. This weird lightness of touch, combined with the overwhelming accumulation of tragic, ridiculous or unbelievable events, adds up to a film which veers wildly between tedious banality and bizarreness; that’s before we even get to the end, which is so predictable and dull in terms of plot, so uncarthatic and so clichéd in terms of cinematic execution, that it instantly wipes out any fond memories of any of the small handful of interesting moments - an incident in the back of Keanu Reeves’ pickup almost Lynchian in its perverseness, Julianne Moore’s brief, lecherous presence, some nice art direction and editing in Pippa’s early years - that might have endeared the film to me a little more. Instead, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth and the thought that if Rebecca Miller was a little more invested in creating a single, full, public life for her title character and a little less interested in shoving a multitude of supposedly-shocking, empty ‘private lives’, we’d have a much better film.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Little (Night) Correction

When I said before that I'd only ever seen one musical live, I should have added a disclaimer: I've only ever seen one professional musical live. I've seen many amateur productions through the years (and been in a couple, too). Its just that the prospect of Night Music has just got me so het up that I'm blithely chucking out memories of countless operettas, Lloyd Webbers, Wizard of Oz's, etc. I think what I meant to say is that this will be my first live Sondheim.

This time last year, I had no great affection for the works of Stephen Sondheim. Actually, I had only the barest clue who he was. I knew Sweeney Todd and thought it was all right, but hated the Tim Burton version (the reediness/breathiness of the two leads irked me so much. I'm still reeling over the fact both HBC and Johnny Depp eschewed any vocal training. I like them both as straight actors, but implore them never to sing again!). I knew he'd written the lyrics to West Side Story, one of my favourite albums as a kid, but I always associated that musical more with Bernstein. And I had a vague notion that he was an Important Figure in musical theatre, but I couldn't have told you why.

Flash forward to the early part of 2009. For no particular reason, I began to listen to his music, read up on him. Felt the stirrings of fandom. No, not just fandom. Obsession. I fell totally, head-over-heels, rapturously in love with this man's music, lyrics and whole persona. It's only been a few months, but I can recognise this kind of devotion when it begins. Every so often I'll discover a band or an author or a film, and I'll begin to cultivate an obsession with them. Although, I don't think 'obsession' is the right word. It implies something unhealthy, like I can't eat or sleep without a daily Sondheim fix. I'm not fixated, or addicted. It's not an all consuming passion. Being 'obsessed' with Sondheim is not detrimental to other areas of my life, either practical areas (eating, sleeping, studying, working, socialising) or enjoying other forms of art. Exactly the opposite. I feel like listening to his music is making me a better person. Stretching my compassionate muscles, my intellect, making me laugh, supplying me with healing mantras. Teaching me about concentration. I definitely feel my life at the moment would be somehow less than it is, if I wasn't now a Sondheim fan.

I'm obviously still a baby, in terms of loving Sondheim. It's been half a year, that's all - compare that to the theatre buffs who've been following him since his Gypsy days. I've briefly browsed through message boards and fansites, and in truth they can be quite cliquey and insider-focused. It's understandable, I guess. There's nearly a quarter-century of backcatalogue and history, innumerable performances and productions, countless different cast recordings and benefits and cover versions to opine on. It's fine, though. I'm not necessarily in this for a sense of community. My relationship to Sondheim's music began as a personal, individualised one and that's how it will stay, I think. That's not to say I never want to discuss his work with other people at all, though. Otherwise why would I be writing this post?

Although if asked, I'd immediately reach for Sunday in the Park With George as my favourite piece, A Little Night Music holds a special place for me because it was my gateway drug. The first full Sondheim I heard (i.e. where he wrote the music as well as the lyrics, so WSS doesn't count) was Sweeney Todd. I admired it as a whole and enjoyed a handful of the songs immensely, but overall it didn't do it for me. Still doesn't, in fact - I think Victorian-era England just generally holds less appeal for me than 1970s New York, or Paris in the 1880s. But on a whim this February, I downloaded the Night Music OBC. It's probably the best choice as a First Sondheim for a novice, purely because the score is a lot less musically complex than some of his other work (it's all in 3/4 time, which makes it easy on the ear) but you still get the convoluted relationships, the wordplay, the dirty jokes, the pathos, which he's such a master at.

I consider it a stroke of incredible good fortune that I downloaded the 1973 Broadway Cast Recording, with Len Cariou (later famous as the original Mr.Todd) and Glynis Johns. In the initial bloom of obsession, I also downloaded the Original London Cast albums to compare the two recordings. The OLC has some nice once-off moments ("Where the hell is the stage manager?") but overall the quality of the singing is not up to scratch. No, that's probably unfair. The London singers are obviously excellent, trained professionals - and hell, Glynis Johns cannot sing for shit - but the sound doesn't appeal to me. I'm very nitpicky. Here's a brief rundown on why I prefer the OBC to the OLC:

  • Veronica Page, singing the part of Anne, uses far too much vibratto. She employs the technique on almost every line. It's irritating, functioning as a kind of barrier between the audience and the lyrics. I just want to shake her and tell her "Stop warbling! The music and the lyrics are perfect as is, don't worry! Just sing normally, it'll work, trust me!". Not only does it detract from the lyrics, but it automatically makes her less sympathetic and, in reminding me of that brand of high, quavery vocals peculiar to old women in the choir balconies of Catholic churches, creates an unintentional comedic effect. By far my least favourite aspect of this recording.
  • On the other hand, I wish Fredrik (Joss Ackland) was more assertive and injected a little bit more character into his voice. To be far, following in the footsteps of Len Cariou, two years after he first played Fredrik, is a daunting prospect. Cariou is one of the great male musical talents and his portrayal of Fredrik is one of the OBC's greatest strengths. He just sounds virile and masculine, but you also get a sense of him being slightly dim and vapid. Ackland, on the other hand, is far too weedy and limp sounding. To really get a sense of the difference between these two men, listen to "Now/Later/Soon". One line in particular stands out, near the end when the three vocal lines are intertwining, Fredrik sings "And I'm stroking your head / You'll come into my bed". The placement of this lyric, and the fact that it's sung in counterpoint with two other vocal lines, means this line could easily be passed over. Auckland sings it swiftly, almost swallowing the line as though he's uncomfortable with the thought and can't wait to get the lyric over with. Cariou, on the other hand, relishes it, sounding excited at the prospect. A much better choice, and a far better singer.
  • Another annoyance, which I fully recognise is totally subjective, is that I find the pacing too quick on a lot of the songs. The ending of "Now/Later/Soon" is a perfect example: I find the OLC rushes through it, as though they're sick of the melody already. A lot of the subtle flavour of the lyrics and characterisation gets tossed as a result. Maybe that's the way Sondheim originally wrote it - I haven't seen sheet music - but as a listener I much prefer the sprightly, clear, even feel of the Broadway version.
  • This is, again, a totally subjective observation, but a lot of the phrasing bothers me. Take the opening of "Every Day A Little Death", one of my favourite songs. OLC Charlotte (Maria Aitken) telegraphs the frustrated melancholy of the lyrics too overtly, by underplaying the melody and almost speak-singing the opening lines. She is clearly dejected, but it plays as too obvious. It's counter intuitive - I feel no real empathy for her. However, Patricia Elliot, the original Charlotte, actually goes with the pretty flow of melody, singing through the lines fully and not trailing off at the ends of lines like Aitken does. She understands that putting a brave face on things, attempting to do justice to those impossibly beautiful melodies, will allow the sadness of the lyrics to fully shine through. It's a far more affecting performance, in my opinion. It's the old truth about acting: seeing an actor trying to fight back tears is always more emotional than watching somebody sob openly, in a theatrical setting.
There are positive aspects to the OLC: their version of "The Miller's Son" is better than the Broadway (although I think Susan Terry's recent version trumps both. Watch here!) and I love the hollered "Where the hell is the stage manager?" in "The Glamorous Life". Overall, though, I have the feeling I wouldn't be half as enamoured with this musical if I hadn't heard the Original Broadway Cast version first. Interestingly, reading the reviews on Amazon and various forums, the general consensus is that, Fredrik excepted, the London Cast is the superior of the two. I still won't change my mind, but its good to know that there's room for many different viewpoints in Sondheim world.

I'm insanely curious to see how I'll feel about the Trevor Nunn directed version at the Haymarket. I know it'll be a very different experience, seeing a live performance rather than listening to cast albums from 30 years ago. I'll have the actor's physicality as well as their vocal range, the costumes, lighting, set, choreography, etc. It's going to be a far rounder experience than I'm used to. And in one sense, it doesn't really matter to me whether the vocals are more OLC than OBC, because it'll be a thrill to hear these songs live anyway. As I said earlier, Sunday is my absolute favourite, but I'll always be fond of ALNM for sentimental reasons. I can't imagine myself not being a Sondheim fan now, and I can't imagine getting into Sondheim in the first place without the help of Night Music.


Summer Time...

And my exams are over! I only had three exams in total (three of my modules this year were continuous assessment and essay-based) so it wasn't a mammoth undertaking, but they were still a pain to get through and took up valuable headspace in my brain. As usually happens to me around examtime, I begin to get the most bizarre cravings. "Why don't I buy that Cassavetes boxset that keeps tempting me and watch all his films chronologically?" "Maybe it's a good time to reread Lolita!" "Oh look, Open Yale Courses has a downloadable American novel class. Why don't I follow along?" Etc. You get the picture. Having wrapped up the last of my classes and submitted the last couple of essays and assignments, I was mentally through with my first year in college and it was annoying to have to knuckle down and work for exams. But, they're over now and I can get on with the myriad of other things I'm interested in at the moment! Aaaaah, summer.

Hopefully I'll update this blog more regularly with the culture I'm ingesting. Next week I'm flying off to London for a long weekend, and taking in three productions:

  • As You Like It
  • Waiting for Godot
  • A Little Night Music
Shakespeare, Beckett and Sondheim. Now there's a triumvirate. I keep flitting back and forth about which play I'm most excited to see. A Little Night Music has the benefit of being a novelty for me, as its a musical. I've only seen one other musical live on stage (that'd be Evita last year, a fantastic production that really turned my opinion of that musical around. I had hated the Madonna version and basically wrote ALW off as a total hack. I still don't think he's that great a talent, but I'm a fan of Evita now just after that one great performance) wheras I've seen Shakespeare numerous times on stage before, and Beckett once (Fiona Shaw in Happy Days in the Abbey last year). I'm psyched to see AYLI because it'll be my first visit to the Globe and I hear great things about the play in general, but I'm not that familiar with the source text (yet!). Godot is, of course, one of the Canonical Plays, but the real draw for me here is the actors. When I heard that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were beginning rehearsal as the two Beckettian tramps, it provided me with the impetus to actually plan this London trip in the first place. When McKellen did Lear two years ago, I was dying to see it but wasn't able to make it over. Stupidly, I thought that'd be my only chance to see him - one of my absolute favourite actors - onstage, so I was delighted when I heard about Godot.

I may do singular posts on each of the original source texts in the next week, or I may just save it all for one big review post after the trip. Either way, I'll make sure to write more about these plays.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Natasha Richardson (1963-2009)

Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. Image from

As the drama played out, in the news websites and the blogs, splashed across the cover of the tabloids with lurid red banner headlines as I passed by, as rumours and conjecture swirled, and as people began jumping the gun to call ‘death’ before time, I felt like I was living in a dream world, or a nightmare. I had only been discussing Natasha Richardson that Sunday, cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, we discussed how we often got confused between her and Miranda Richardson, how we could never remember which was a Redgrave, and which was married to Liam Neeson, and which was in The Parent Trap. We went online and confirmed it - Natasha was all three, and a lot more besides. Having finally solidified that in my head, I promptly forgot about her, until the next morning, when I checked the Huffington Post. “Actress Natasha Richardson in ski accident, situation critical”. I blinked at the screen. I hadn’t showered yet, or eaten anything, I was coming down with a bad head cold and the steaming mug of coffee beside me hadn’t been touched. Was I hallucinating this?

I’ve probably made it clear that I could never have called myself a particular fan of Richardson. It wasn’t that I disliked her - quite the opposite. I was just hazy on who exactly she was, and I can probably count the number of times I’ve seen her onscreen on one hand. But reading the obituaries, and not only the ‘important’ official ones in the main English and American newspapers but also the blog posts, which are often more detailed and profound (Nick Davis’s succinct and generous elegy is at ), I began to regret never digging into her filmography during her lifetime, never paying attention to her stage work (living where I do, it’d be nigh-on-impossible for me to actually see her perform, but that doesn’t stop me following other stage actors, through their reviews). Acting was, clearly, her dream job - with a family like hers, how could it not be? But what is making the biggest impression on me today is not her acting talent, but her talents as a person.

‘Talents as a person’. What a silly, glib way of expressing what I mean to say, which is that she seemed like a person who was as devoted to her husband and her family as she was to her craft, that she comes across as a loving, open, friendly person. A mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend, an actress, a singer, a TONY-winner, a committed AIDS campaigner. Coming from such a well known familial lineage must have been difficult at first, being the daughter of someone as fierce and talented and political as Vanessa Redgrave, and when Natasha first went to drama school, she kept schtum on the topic of her parents. But she realised, or she knew all along, that she was blessed to be born into the family she was, and she regularly acted alongside her mother. Their most recent collaboration was as a mother/daughter duo in a once-off reading of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. ALNM is one of my favourite musicals, and the OBC has been climbing up the Most Frequently Played list on my mp3 player for the past three months, partly because of the witty, sarcastic lyrics and the easy accessibility it affords to those listening to Sondheim as a relative novice (almost every song from the show is in ¾, or waltz time, making it a somewhat easier listen than some of his other, more esoteric works), but also because of its depiction of human relationships: between husband/wife, mother/daughter, friends, neighbours, rivals.

I’m reminded of the most famous passage E.M. Forster ever wrote, from a book that also has a neat tie-in with Natasha herself, as her mother starred in the film version of Howard's End:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Natasha Richardson did connect. She never seemed to sacrifice one aspect in her life for another, equally important aspect. The equilibrium between art and family, between private and public life, between stage and screen, seemed perfect and wholly natural.

I said that the last few days have seemed like a kind of dream world. Since reading the initial sketchy reports of the accident, she has been in my thoughts and my prayers constantly. It was hovering in the back of my mind as I went about my ordinary day’s business; writing essays, going out with my sister, making lunch. Like everyone else, I hoped for a miraculous recovery, for the doomsday vultures of the media to be totally off-the-ball, but this morning I woke up to the bad news.

If one good thing can come out of this whole tragedy (and I hope it is not too insensitive to suggest that we can take something positive out of it), it is the prescient reminder is that life can be brutal and abrupt and shocking, and that we should attempt to live our lives, pursue our dreams and love those around us as generously as Natasha Richardson seemed to.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Abnormally Repelled By Editors

The tracklisting for Tori Amos's new album has been released. The bad news staring me right in the face is the fact that there's 17 songs on it. Count 'em. 17. No great album has more than 12, 13 songs, tops. I'm entirely serious. Name me a great album, a truly flawless album that has more than 12 songs and I'll be super impressed (with one exception, which I'll get to in a minute). For my money, the best album of this decade so far is Joanna Newsom's Ys which has a grand total of 5 songs. And each of them is perfect, a little jewel that has been laboured over and meticulously crafted, and it is a beautiful, mysterious, wonderful album. A real masterpiece. I can't think anything is going to surpass it, for me, this decade. And it does not need to be one second longer! Artists and bands would do better to always leave the audience wanting more, rather than overstaying their welcome. Brevity, brevity, brevity! The Smiths were masters at this. Almost all their studio albums have 10 tracks (maybe every single one, I'm not positive. But the majority do). 10 tracks, the base number for humans. Long enough to make you fall in love, short enough to leave you craving more. When I finish listening to an album, I want to be eager to press play again, not feel drained and wanting to switch artists. And maybe Tori has this insane work ethic and she's going to release a 17-song album where every single track is a pure gem, but I highly doubt it, if her last couple of albums are any indication.

Let's do a quick run down. Easily my favourite Tori Amos albums are her first three: Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink, Boys For Pele. Her first two albums each have 12 tracks. Perfect-o! Boys for Pele is that exception I mentioned earlier. It has 18 songs, some of them only a minute long, and I would argue that it is a near flawless album. It's a real aural experience. Weirdly spiritual and lyrical and psycho and amazing. I wouldn't listen to it as often as I'd stick on, say, Little Earthquakes, which is just a basic singer/songwriter album (albeit an amazing example of the genre, far more incisive and dangerous than other similar 'girl & piano' efforts) but I think it's probably her best work, her pinnacle as an artist. It sounds consistent - both aurally and lyrically, thematically. You can listen to it the full way through without skipping tracks, because it sounds like a singular entity, coming from a focused, creative mind. Not that all the songs sound the same, far from it. But in later albums you can kind of see her jumping around haphazardly. Songs follow songs that have nothing in common with each other and it sounds like a big jumbled mess. And then she began to impose really batshit 'themes' onto her albums, like the American Doll Posse thing where she had the five different characters, and they all had their special symbols and whatever, and it's all really in-your-face and unsubtle. Back in the days of Pele, the themes and connections were all buried back deep in her mind, and the themes came out in the composition of the songs and it was up to the listener to work out all the symbolism and allusions. She didn't bash us over the head with booklets and videos and 'visualettes' like she does nowadays. Pele is completely mysterious. She doesn't overburden us with accompanying explanations. There's just those 18 wonderful songs. I think the brilliance of that album was a magical combination of her coming out of a messy break-up around the same time she got rid of her old producer (who I think was actually a great assest to her in general, but probably wouldn't have worked on this particular album) travelling around and learning about different myths and customs, and, yes, the taking of hallucinogenic drugs. All those elements just came together at the right time, she became super productive and wacky and creative, and she worked her ass off on the album, and it shows.

But it was also the beginning of the end, I think. It was the first time she produced an album herself, and she kept up the self-production thing for the rest of her career. I'm not a sound-engineer obviously, and I really don't understand the ins-and-outs of sound production and mastering and blah-de-blah, but I can tell that I love the sound of Pele - it echoes and hums, and there are all these weird background effects like the church bells and the noise of the bull, all recorded in Co. Wicklow. But lately, all her albums have sounded horrible. Way too dense (not a very technical term, but it's how they sound to me!) and all the electric guitars are too loud, and I just want to shake her and say "You need an outside opinion! Your own judgement sucks! Get an outside producer or sound-engineer or whatever, and no, your husband doesn't count". And maybe an outside opinion would help her cut down the length of her albums. Because as she went along, her albums became longer, and listening to them became an interminable experience. Scarlet's Walk - 18. The Beekeeper - 19. American Doll Posse - 23. I mean, really. None of them are even double albums. All of them are on one disc. 23?!? I think she keeps trying to recreate the Pele effect and it just isn't happening for her, for whatever reason. Age, not taking drugs anymore, motherhood, whatever - I don't want to speculate. But I don't think it's the right tack, to release yet another lengthy album. Get an editor, lady.

Here's the tracklist:

1. ‘Give’
2. ‘Welcome to England’
3. ‘Strong Black Vine’
4. ‘Flavor’
5. ‘Not Dying Today’
6. ‘Maybe California’
7. ‘Curtain Call’
8. ‘Fire to Your Plain’
9. ‘Police Me’
10. ‘That Guy’
11. ‘Abnormally Attracted to Sin’
12. ‘500 Miles’
13. ‘Mary Jane’
14. ‘Starling’
15. ‘Fast Horse’
16. ‘Ophelia’
17. ‘Lady in Blue’

Nothing much to say, other than I cannot stand the album title, and I hate that it's the name of a track, too. It just reeks of teenage rebellion, and I'm thinking "'re in your forties. You've milked the whole religious thing countless times before. Move on!".

Having said all that, I'll be first in line on Grafton Street when it's released in May. Don't judge!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

On beginnings and New York and Frank O'Hara

"I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It's more important to confirm the least sincere. The clouds get enough attention as it is..." -Frank O'Hara

I hear ya, Frank. I feel most peaceful, most happy, most myself when I'm in a big city. Even with all the noise, the grime, the shouts, the crowds - I don't particularly like those things, but they are necessary components to a city and so I embrace them. Because cities also radiate life, and music, and chance meetings. Random acts of kindness, bizarre street performers. Kinetic energy bouncing off the sides of buildings. Food and films. History, culture, whatever you're looking for and then some. I love the countryside too, don't get me wrong. But I could never live there. The countryside, the fields, the beach, the woodland - all perfect for breaks, for holidays, for recuperation. But I could never live in any of those places. With an apology to the memory of Patrick Henry - "Give me a city, or give me death!".

The overwhelming presence of New York is one of the reasons O'Hara's poetry clicked with me so instantaneously when I first read him, last year. Now, I've never been to New York. I've never been out of Europe, actually. (One day...) But it's one of those dream places. Ever since I can remember, I've been obsessed with New York, both the mythical aspect of the city and the actual reality of it. A great bulk of the writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians I love are from, or grew up, or fled to, New York. I can pinpoint exactly the time I switched from reading kid's books to reading grown-up fiction - it was when I picked up my parents' copy of Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy because it had a cool cover. I was about 13. And it blew me away. I still remember the electric jolt I felt upon reading the first line. Even though my general opinion of the book has maybe slipped a little, I still think it contains one of the best opening lines for a novel ever. This sentence is emblazoned on my brain for ever, I can recite it verbatim: "It was a wrong number that started it, the phone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice asking for someone he was not." After that teaser, how could I not devour the entire book? When I was finished, I couldn't even comprehend how a book like that could be written. It was complex, it was post-modern (the fact that there's a character called Paul Auster, who is a writer, in this book, shocked me. I thought, "Can he do that?!" It was a completely revolutionary idea for me). It was around then when I read Orwell, Atwood, Salinger et al for the first time. Of course, I also sought out and demolished every other book Paul Auster wrote. The Trilogy was a real turning point for me, in terms of fiction. I think this must have been the start of my New York dream, but other pieces of art began to accumulate too.

- The Velvet Underground, and the whole scuzzy Lou Reed thing
- Laura Nyro's New York Tendaberry album. "You look like a city / But you feel like a religion to me"
- Woody Allen films. Manhattan, obviously, but more dear to my heart is Hannah and her Sisters.
- Gershwin
- Blondie and the CBGBs crowd
- Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
- the Nighthawks painting by Edward Hopper
- Taxi Driver
oh, Sesame Street! Hah, how could I forget that? Obviously, that show came waaaay before Paul Auster, in my cultural development. I think they eventually took it off the air on Irish television, because some of the spellings and stuff weren't correct for us, and some of the road safety rules and stuff didn't apply. And while I can kind of see their point, it was still a big loss. I looooved Sesame Street as a kid. I still do. That whole early hip-hop, bright day-glo grafitti, huge white sneakers, dungarees thing just appeals to me.
- J.D. Salinger
- Joan Didion's "Goodbye To All That"

You get the picture. There's more, but those are the things that popped into my head first. Now, don't misunderstand me, I'm under no illusion that New York is some paradise place where I'll find true happiness, or any bullshit like that. It's a city, that's all. I don't want to come across like Libby Mae Brown! "My aunt brought out her atlas that I look at a lot. This big blue book and opened up to New York and it's an island, is really what it is. It's this island full of people of different colors and different ideas and I can't- It sounds like a lot of fun to me." Or, maybe I do. I kind of like her life philosophy. But what I mean is, I don't want to sound overly idealistic about the place and for some native to come along and tell me, "Oh, it ain't that great".

To be honest, I'm even fascinated by the idea of being "over" New York, to be honest. Case in point, the song on LCD Soundsystem's last album, "New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down".

But I digress. I wanted to talk about Frank O'Hara! Although I suppose for me, New York was the key to liking him. I gravitate towards art that has some connection to the city and although a lot can turn out to be crap, this time I struck gold.

Like Sheila O'Malley, I would have liked to have known Frank O'Hara. He totally does not fit the traditional mold of a solitary loner poet, someone who mopes around, scribbling down lines of verse. Not that I'm denigrating those types of artist, obviously! But O'Hara was a totally different beast. He was gregarious, sociable, lively. He surrounded himself with artistic types; other poets and writers of course, but mainly painters. You get the feeling life and art were all jumbled up in a joyous mess, for him. There was no strict division like you read about in other poet's lives. He didn't divide up his day job, his poetry and his personal life and friends. Art was his life. His life was in his poetry. O'Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, hung around with people like de Kooning and Pollock, and wrote his poems during his lunch break, while wandering around the city or in the middle of parties, whipping out a notebook and scribbling down whatever had just occured to him. It's probably a good thing that not all poets are as haphazard and as sociable as O'Hara. We need loners and perfectionists, those who devote weeks to a single line, to finding the correct word. But it's good that there lived someone like Frank O'Hara, and the body of work he left behind is astonishing in both its size (he wrote multitudes!) and the energy they radiate. The lines of his poetry are littered with mentions of whatever culture he was inhaling at the time, they're full of paintings and moviestars and his friends and lovers and the clamour of the New York streets. They are vibrant, funny, melancholy, and they are a pertinent reminder of the way we could be living our lives, open and observant and thankful to all the art and people we encounter.

Last year, during the October midterm, I paid a visit to the library, on a mission for books for assignments I had due back the following week. I was stressed, and feeling blocked in my writing of an essay, and generally bleurgh. I collected the books I was looking for and left the library, wishing I could go home but knowing I had to get on the tram and continue on into the city centre to run a few more errands. The essay was weighing on my mind, I had a few other assignments that I had yet to begin, a headache was starting to form around my eyes. I was just in a bad mood, plain and simple. I got on the Luas, settled in for the trip into town and chose one of the books out of my bag to distract me. It was The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, thank God. That particular tome was for one of the other assignments. My main essay was on Sylvia Plath and the Intentional Fallacy, and so I was also carrying a copy of Ariel, and I don't know if that would have done anything for my mood. But instead, I dove into O'Hara, and as I sat back and read, a change began to come over me. Everything around me, the people sitting across from me, the clothes I was wearing, became more vivid, more defined. My ears seemed more attuned to the music I was playing on my Creative Zen: Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth (an absolutely wonderful jazz album, by the way). And then, magically, it began to rain, heavy torrential rain. The drops slapping against the tram windows. No weather makes me as happy as rain does. So, I slowly began to relax, to forget about the pressure of the essay and the assignments, to just enjoy travelling in a city, listening to the rain on the roof and to Oliver Nelson's saxophone, and savouring the poems. My headache dissipated. Once we reached my stop, I shoved the book in my bag and literally ran to wherever it was I was going. I remember legging it across the Ha'Penny bridge, getting soaked through and sliding on the slippery cobblestones in Temple Bar, totally unfazed by the fact I had no umbrella or hood. I was just happy to be where I was, and to be alive. And I attribute that change in mood totally to Frank O'Hara.

So! I'm going to try my hand at blogging again, for a little while. We'll see how it works out. For now, I'll let Frank have the last word. He did supply the title for my blog, after all.

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Personal Poem

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I'm happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty's where I wait for
LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that's that, and LeRoi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don't give her one we
don't like terrible diseases, then
we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poets' walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so


How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much