Tuesday 29 January 2002

Older is better

Jorn Barger has updated his Bible translations comparison page. My favorite: John 9:24-25 from the King James Version:

24 Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner.
25 He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.

And from the New Revised Standard Version:

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”
25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

These verses form a postscript at the end of Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. Paul Schrader, the film’s scriptwriter, says about the quotation:

That’s purely Marty. I had no idea it was going to be there, and when I saw it I was absolutely baffled. I don’t think it’s true of La Motta either in real life or in the movie; I think he’s still the same dumb lug at the end as he is at the beginning, and I think Marty’s just imposing salvation on his subject by fiat. I’ve never really got from him a terribly credible reason for why he did it; he just seemed to feel that it was right.

The difference between a Calvinist and a Catholic upbringing, I guess. I loved seeing that quotation as the music from Cavalleria Rusticana swelled up in the background. But then I always was a sucker for redemption.

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Oh, baby

Be My Baby : How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised to learn from Stephanie Zacharek’s glorious Salon essay that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and I share the same “all-time favorite song.”

The RonettesBe My Baby.

Written by Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich with Phil Spector; recorded in July 1963 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles; produced by Phil Spector; engineered by Larry Levine; lead vocalist Ronnie Bennett (soon to be Ronnie Spector), backing vocals by Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley.

“He didn’t care,” says Sonny Bono of Phil Spector in a BBC documentary. “He broke all the rules when he recorded then because he was the star, his song was the star, and the sound was the star. The artist was a secondary item.” Until he met Ronnie Bennett. Until together they created Be My Baby.

2:40 of transcendental pop perfection.

You hear it in those orchestral interludes that feel like caresses; in the assertive clacking of those castanets, a symbol of every exotic danger this exquisite woman poses; in the stark drumbeat that opens the song, like a heartbeat isolated from all the other sounds (breathing, hiccups, grunts) that a human body makes in the course of a lifetime, and held up high as the greatest one. The sound Phil Spector gave Ronnie and the Ronettes is lush but not heavy; a queen’s mantle made with something that must have been like love, by one cat who sure knew how to sew.

Reviewed by one babe who sure knows how to write. This is criticism of the highest order: fearless in its enthusiasm, inspired by a deep love and respect for its subjects, underpinned by a profound understanding of the dynamics of male-female relationships. Psychology, symbology, musicology, anthropology, and pathology. In 2,256 words Stepanie Zacharek nails it down flat.

Back to Mono lapel badgeIf you’re a fan, like me, you’ll want to track down a copy of Ronnie Spector’s book: Be My Baby : How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette. It was out of print when I bought mine a few years ago but abebooks.com currently has 145 copies listed. Foreword by Cher. Introduction by Billy Joel.

Even if you’re not obsessed, you still need to buy Back to Mono (1958-1969) , a boxed set of Phil Spector’s greatest hits. 60 songs cut between 1958 and 1969 on three CDs. Plus a bonus CD—the Yuletide special, A Christmas Gift for You . A lavishly illustrated booklet that includes Tom Wolfe’s classic profile, The First Tycoon of Teen. And… a “Back to MONO” lapel badge. I wear mine nearly every day.

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Friday 01 February 2002

Back with a vengeance

Seems like the enforced hiatus did wonders for Burningbird:

The second reason was irony. I soundlessly pull a posting whose content was about Dave soundlessly pulling a posting. Try putting that on your scales and see if you don’t get jello. Call it weblogging’s first performance art and title it “Silence of the Postings”.

Not only do we get some handy metablogging on the art of Doing a Dave, there’s also the throwaway reference to performance art, which I thought no-one cared about anymore. One of my more dubious claims to fame is that in a previous incarnation I shot a performance art movie—Rules and Displacement Activities, Part II—for Australia’s most highly-regarded conceptual artist, Mike Parr.

Mike’s most recent performance work, after years of concentrating on self-portraits in a range of more conventional media, was Water From The Mouth. Last year, he lived “in a contained environment at Artspace for ten days, completely deprived of food and contact with the outside world,” a work described as “the pinnacle of his performance career” as well as “possessed of the gritty reality that is missing from the current crop of ratings driven Reality-TV survivor shows.” Something to shoot for, Shelley.

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Tuesday 05 February 2002

Building on a solid foundation

I’ve just been back and re-read Jake’s post about the role of the bassist in “holding the whole band together, while at the same time creating the tension curve for the whole group—determining what’s most important at any given time. There’s still lots of freedom for everyone, but the foundation is clear at least some of the time, and if everyone is listening to each other, it’s clear most of the time.”

At the end, Jake adds “I’ve gone on for far too long, and you can make whatever metaphor you will…” I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a marvellous metaphor, directly applicable to any kind of collective creative endeavor, and I would have been happy to read a lot more. Jake explains something about music and creativity that I’d been unconsciously aware of but never truly understood. Thank you.

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Sunday 17 February 2002

Nanci at the Cafe Trieste

Just after four on a muggy February afternoon in Sydney, the kind of unpleasant humidity the Japanese describe as mushi-atsui. What could be better than an iced coffee? For some reason, the second sip brought back a memory of the Cafe Trieste in North Beach in January of 1988. I ate breakfast there a few mornings before heading off to the Macworld Expo. In 1988, it seemed to be the only place in San Francisco that served proper espresso.

It was on the same trip that I discovered Nanci Griffith. On the opening day of the Macworld show, the counter where I had to pick up my press pass either didn’t accept credit cards or couldn’t change a $100 bill or something. I wandered up to a record shop on Market Street to buy a Keith Jarrett CD and get some change. When I walked inside, I was captivated by the voice coming through the store speakers. I asked a woman behind the counter who it was. “I have no idea,” she said wearily and pointed to a young man at the back. “Ask him. He’s from West Texas. He plays her all the time.” I bought three Nanci Griffith CDs and walked back to Macworld. Ever since then, I play her music all the time myself.

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Wednesday 20 February 2002

The Immortal Van

Van Morrison: Astral WeeksTonight SBS ran the first episode of From a Whisper to a Scream: The Story of Irish Music. Bono put into words something I’ve been feeling ever since Lindy and I walked into Alessandro and Susie’s house in Palm Beach on New Year’s Eve in 1973:

Astral Weeks is a kind of legal drugs, isn’t it?

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Monday 26 August 2002

Gleaning

Agnes Varda, The Gleaners and IAgnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I is the best film I’ve seen for a long time—certainly the finest documentary essay since Chris Marker’s Sunless. When I walked out of the theater this afternoon, I was torn between buying a ticket for the next session and going for a long walk to savor the deep impressions left by this film.

Gleaners come after the harvest to scour the fields and orchards for unwanted vegetables and fruit (though one of Varda’s interviewees makes a careful distinction between gleaners and pickers, based on whether the scavenged items sprout from the ground or hang from trees or vines).

Varda—who made her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1954—starts with Millet’s painting of women gleaning wheat, then moves from the countryside to the city where people glean from market refuse or supermarket rubbish bins—from desperation, as an act of political principle, or for a variety of other reasons.

It’s tempting to think abstractly of filming (or any kind of art-making) as gleaning and Varda encourages this to a degree by interviewing a number of artists who use found objects as the basis of their artworks. But, in an interview with Andrea Meyer of indieWIRE, she cautions against taking the parallel too far:

It is true that filming, especially a documentary, is gleaning. Because you pick what you find; you bend; you go around; you are curious; you try to find out where are things. But, you cannot push the analogy further, because we don’t just film the leftovers. Even though there is some analogy about people that society pushes aside. But it’s too heavy an analogy.

The Gleaners and I is fashioned from many intertwined parts: trenchant social criticism, meditation on approaching death, analysis of agricultural practices, travel diary, homage to the irrepressible human spirit. It is, by turns, sad and comic, peopled with wonderful characters, such as a man who collects cast-off junk from outside people’s houses.

“Look,” he tells Varda, holding up a map of the town where he lives. “The city council supports us by publishing this map that even shows the days we can collect from each area.”

Varda gently suggests that the map has been provided for the opposite purpose: to advise the townspeople when they are allowed to throw away their unwanted items.

“Well,” he admits (speaking for all of us), “I suppose I’m seeing it from my own perspective.”

Agnès Varda is mentioned briefly twice in James Monaco’s The New Wave, which focuses on the big five: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette (hardly surprising, given the degree of respect accorded women filmmakers when the book was written in 1976). Richard Neupert’s A History of the French New Wave Cinema promises to treat Varda more seriously.

The Gleaners and I is a sublime example of the film as essay, a form most closely associated with Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, two of my favorite filmmakers—perhaps that’s why I loved it so much, why I just ordered the DVD, and why I’m eager to see more of her movies.

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Saturday 31 August 2002

Van the Man

Today is Van Morrison’s 57th birthday.

The Van Morrison Website

Wavelength

Van Morrison Praise Page

The Official Van Morrison Website

Van-Morrison.com

Into the Music: The Best of Van Morrison in Concert

What do people who like Van Morrison listen to?

Van Morrison Song Lyrics

Amazon.com Van Morrison Essentials

It’s Too Late To Stop Now: The Van Morrison Interview…

Update. Ray Sweatman suggested some more links in his comment and I’m adding them to the list:

KVAN Internet Radio—Live Van all the time

The Vantrades List

Van-L Discussion List

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Friday 20 September 2002

Beauty and sadness

Despite the impression I may have given, I’m not entirely immune to sentimental things. Twenty years ago, when I was married, my wife and I went to see An Officer and a Gentleman. Midway through the utterly improbable ending—when Zac Mayo graduates from officer training and strides into the paper mill to rescue Paula Pokrifki from a life of drudgery, with Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes belting out Up Where We Belong—I turned to my wife with tears streaming down my face and said: “I don’t care if it’s sentimental bullshit, sometimes that’s just what we need.”

So I was fine with Loren Webster’s disagreeing with my post in support of Mike Golby that the role of art is to “show how things really are,” to strip away sentimentality. Loren wrote:

revealing the “truth” in this sense is only one aspect of art. An equally important role is to show what life “can be,” to hold up models of what we want our lives to become…

I would argue that both are real, and both are the domain of the true artist. The artist does not have to choose one or the other to be an “artist,” though contemporary art critics certainly seem to have come down on the side of angst and despair. Emphasizing one at the expense of the other, though, seems to be a distortion of reality, a distortion of truth, whatever that might be.

He’s right. Yet though I have no difficulty laughing or kidding around, I do have a deep-seated preference for art suffused with sadness. Loren’s positive view of sentimentality springs partly from his experience of receiving some precious gifts as a child, despite his family’s being “poor.” My distaste for sentimentality was formed in childhood too, from observing the gap between the words I was told and the reality I experienced. I think that’s why I associate bleakness with “how things really are.”

It’s why I adore the photographs of Walker Evans and Robert Frank and (some would say, unfairly) dismiss Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson as sentimental hacks. And why I never missed an episode of Seinfeld, whereas other sitcoms hardly interested me at all. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were simultaneously real and funny, because the humor was based upon an essentially pessimistic view of human nature.

So it’s sentimental perfection that I object to (see Adams and Cartier-Bresson), as Loren picked up on in his following post:

Unfortunately, Jonathon is also right that the “perfect” family is probably over represented on the web, while there is far too little exposure to those who are struggling to transcend their background. As an ex-teacher and ex-caseworker, I know that far too many people are caught up merely trying to survive and have neither the desire nor the ability to express the pain that they are feeling publicly. As a result, they are often stereotyped and shoved aside while less-deserving, but more vocal, “chosen” people try to design the world to fit their needs and punish those who don’t fit in.

Because Mike Golby has the desire, the ability, and the courage to express publicly the pain he is feeling, his writing must inevitably be unsentimental. So although I can see some stylistic similarities, I was surprised that Loren identified Mike as the “Kerouac” of blogging, since Kerouac has always seemed a deeply sentimental writer to me. (I need to spend some time re-reading Loren’s Kerouac essays.)

Ultimately, though, I prefer unsentimental art because I find it more engaging. I agree with the sculptor Louise Bourgeois when she said: “Happy people have no stories.”

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Thursday 24 October 2002

Mechanic of the ineffable

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52
Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52

“Obeying the dictates of the mechanical picturesque, Cornell transformed his workshop into an enchanted assembly line. Turning out box after box, each a slight variation on one of a few basic models, Cornell shows something in common with Henry Ford. Yet he is too restless to fit that comparison for more than a moment. His endless tinkering, the sudden sparks of invention that illuminate his mechanical drudgery, remind me more of Thomas Edison. Like Edison’s, Cornell’s work seems to have been ninety-nine per cent perspiration, one per cent inspiration. Each came up with devices for shedding light, transmitting messages, and rendering memory permanent. They made light, messages, and memory more powerful, and gave us greater control over all three. Both were mechanics. One employed that most elusive mechanical force, electricity. The other channeled the currents of meaning that have pulsed for two centuries through the image-circuits of the mechanical picturesque. Edison’s devices—especially the movie camera—gave some of those circuits physical form. Cornell isn’t quite so down-to-earth. He is the Edison of the ineffable.”

Carter Ratcliff: Joseph Cornell, Mechanic of the Ineffable

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Saturday 23 November 2002

The magic of language

I saw The Fellowship of the Ring this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised. Firstly I should say I watched the movie under almost ideal conditions:

  • the print, which was in pristine condition, was projected in sharp focus from the opening scene to the closing titles;
  • not one member of the audience uttered a single word throughout the screening;
  • within the first minute or so, the guy sitting in front of me got up from his seat—at first I thought he was going to the washroom—walked to the entrance and closed the door so that, apart from the projected image, the cinema was in total darkness.

Like everyone else, I imagine, I was amazed by the excellence of the computer generated images. Yet I was more impressed by how the director, Peter Jackson, moved his camera to confer a sense of epic grandeur, to create a variety of believable worlds, and to propel the story forward.

Unfortunately, I rarely lose myself at the movies. Because I’ve worked on feature films, I hardly ever watch one without subjecting both the technical processes and the storytelling techniques to an ongoing analysis. Yet, from the middle of the film on, I would find myself suddenly awaking—as if from a dream—for I’d become so engrossed in the action unfolding on screen that my analytic faculty was temporarily stilled.

My inner critic is desperate to suggest that it’s not a great movie, since the characters are little more than simple archetypes, the plot is entirely predictable, and the performances are frequently lazy and uneven (Cate Blanchett has less charisma than a stale turnip—she seems to be sleepwalking through most of her performance). And I wish Peter Jackson had focused more on the disintegration of the fellowship.

But to quibble like this is to fall into the same trap that ensnared Germaine Greer and others. In the second part of his Salon essay on The Lord of the Rings, Andrew O’Hehir comments on the horrified response to the news that Tolkien’s epic “had been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a readers’ poll conducted by Britain’s Channel 4 and the Waterstone’s bookstore chain.”

In a lengthy and inadvertently hilarious screed published in the wake of the Channel 4/Waterstone’s poll (whose result she called a “bad dream”), Germaine Greer defines the central characteristic of Tolkienian literature as “flight from reality.” This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.” Although educated in terms that modernist critics and authors had to respect, Tolkien attracted a readership of millions with a disreputable genre and the message that almost everything valued by the modernists was empty and evil…

Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used “mythical method” not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. He showed his characters wandering in the wilderness and entirely mistaken in their guesses not because he wanted to shatter the “realist illusion” of fiction, but because he thought all our views of reality were illusions … He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment. One might almost say that he took the ideals of modernism seriously instead of playing around with them.

“Thoroughgoing rejection of the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.”
“All our views of reality [are] illusions.”
“All forms of human language are already an experiment.”

My value system in a nutshell.

And what a surprise for a lapsed Catholic, to find myself so deeply engaged by and sympathetic to what is, at its heart, a Christian morality tale. I can’t recall a story which speaks so directly to the ongoing problem of evil in the world and that, of course, is why Tolkien is so unpopular with Greer et al. In the words of Joseph Pearce:

Basically, Tolkien’s moral traditionalism, i.e. his belief that good and evil are objectively real, goes against the grain of our philosophically relativist and morally bankrupt age…

The central point is that the moral dimension in The Lord of the Rings is powerfully applicable to our lives. Concepts such as self-sacrifice; the exaltation of the humble; the power of humility versus the destructive and self-negating futility of pride (theologically understood) are at the center of everybody’s lives—even if they don’t realize it!

It’s been a long, strange journey but I’ve come to accept that evil is objectively real. The best way of opposing evil is not so clear—other than to commit oneself to a quest and, in doing so, to act with sincerity and good faith. Perhaps an answer is revealed in the subsequent films of the trilogy. Or, something I would never have imagined, I might benefit from reading The Lord of the Rings.

For now, I carry the memory of one beautiful transcendent moment from The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s when Arwen appears and utters the first words of Elvish. So deep is my belief in the magical power of language that my eyes welled with tears.

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Thursday 28 November 2002

The art and politics of exclusion

Jeff Ward is scared. He read a book by Judith Butler, winner of the 1998 Philosophy and Literature Fourth Bad Writing Contest, and found it “to be clearly written, understandable, and to the point.” Jeff explained:

I’m really scared that I find Butler’s sentences quite comprehensible. What the hell is happening to me? Have I acquired the virulently pernicious academic gene? Maybe I’m even more terrified by the conversation I had today with the director of the graduate program here. We had a nice talk about my project, in post-structuralist terms that we were both quite comfortable with and she stopped to point out that our conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just talking. Now I’m struck by images of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly where I become reduced to some genetic mutant who drools on his food to digest it. Or worse still, I shrink to an imperceptible size like the Vincent Price version squeaking a nearly inaudible “help me… help me…”

I detest post-structuralist theory because it gutted art practice, subordinating artists to the whims of curators who hate art but love politics and power. Consequently, contemporary art, which used to attract a substantial audience, is now almost totally marginalized, as a tiny coterie of artists, curators, and collectors conduct an abstruse theoretical conversation amongst themselves, while the alienated general audience flocks to exhibitions of antiquities and European masterpieces.

The process that occurred in the art school where I taught for seven years simply mirrored what was happening in literature departments and in academia at large:

‘A typical first-year graduate student in English, now, has a cannier sense of the profession than I had at the age of 40’, [Frederick Crews] complains. ‘What that means is, they’re aiming for one of these little niches - a gender niche, an ethnic niche, or what have you. So their perspectives have already been narrowed. They are completely oriented to the profession, they master the jargon of the profession, and for the rest of their lives they essentially speak to each other.’

But I don’t think Jeff need worry. He bears no resemblance to the graduating BAs mentioned by Crews, who submitted brilliant essays with their graduate school applications and, five or six years later were writing “incomprehensible crap.” Jeff writes with clarity, elegance, and precision. More importantly, his love and enthusiasm for the subjects of his essays—particularly literature and photography (I share these interests)—is evident in every sentence.

I rather see Jeff as someone who, thanks to a happy confluence of factors, is incorruptible. Why? He came to formal education later than most naive and impressionable undergraduates. He’d photographed for many years and therefore understands—in a way no academic possibly could—the relationship between theory and practice. And, as I’ve mentioned, he’s primarily motivated by love: for art, for literature, and for learning itself.

Jeff can enjoy reading Judith Butler and talking post-structuralism with the director of the graduate program because he’s multilingual: he also writes in a way that the rest of of us can understand and appreciate.

It’s his colleague who has me worried, the one who noted that their “conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department.” What petty desire for superiority and control lies beneath that smug remark?

But, hey, what would I know about post-structuralist theory? I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that art and literature are communicative acts, the tangible products of the human need to share our deepest thoughts and feelings, not to exclude as many people as possible.

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Wednesday 08 January 2003

Beckett Bonanza

How magical is this?

Waiting for Godot
Director: Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Cast: Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Stephen Brennan, Alan Stafford

Endgame
Director: Conor McPherson
Cast: Michael Gambon, David Thewlis, Charles Simon, Jean Anderson

Not I
Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Julianne Moore

Krapp’s Last Tape
Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: John Hurt

Play
Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Alan Rickman, Kristen Scott Thomas, Juliet Stevenson

Catastrophe
Director: David Mamet
Cast: John Gielgud, Harold Pinter, Rebecca Pidgeon

Ohio Impromptu
Director: Charles Sturridge
Cast: Jeremy Irons

Rockaby
Director: Richard Eyre
Cast: Penelope Wilton

And that’s less than half. From the 19th of January to the 8th of February SBS will be screening filmed versions of all 19 of Samuel Beckett’s plays: “19 texts, 19 directors, 10 hours, 23 minutes and seven seconds of film.” The project—conceived by Michael Colgan, Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin—took over a year to photograph.

Each of the 19 films’ directors chose the play they wished to direct, and hand selected the cast they wished to work with. They were not allowed to change any of the text and they had to adhere to Beckett’s specific directions for each work.

Is it OK to love Beckett but hate going to the theater? Though Waiting for Godot and Endgame are currently playing here as part of the Sydney Festival, I wouldn’t dream of going. Two things irritate me about live theatrical performances:

  • the actors try too hard (“Look at me! Aren’t I clever? I’m acting!”)
  • the audience is so unpleasantly self-congratulatory (“Look at us! Aren’t we sensitive? We’re at the theater!)

For a misanthrope such as myself, Beckett On Film is perfect. Great actors—forced to tone down their performances for the camera—and an audience of one.

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