Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) d. William Dieterle

Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster in the The Devil and Daniel Webster

Movie Review
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
 d. William Dieterle
Criterion Collection #214

  I guess this is what you would call a "lost classic."  Based on a now forgotten short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster is about a small New England farmer who hits a run of bad luck and sells his soul to the devil in exchange for seven years of fortune.  The Devil or "Mr. Scratch" is memorably depicted by Walter Huston in a "worth it just to see him" kind of way. His Mr. Scratch is more akin to a character our of a 90s independent film then one from an American film shot in the early 1940s.

  The Devil and Daniel Webster is really ABOUT Daniel Webster and America in a way that strikes a contemporary viewer as being, to say the least, overly sentimental.  That's more a flaw of the source material then the film itself, which uses expressionistic effects and surreal dream time sequences to elevate the film far above the short story which spawned it.

  Watching The Devil and Daniel Webster almost requires reading the two(!) accompanying essays at the Criterion Collection website.  The 2003 essay by Tom Piazza about the performance of Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch, and the 1990s essay about the troubled post release and restoration history of the film; both give the needed background to really get into the mode of the film.  Without context, a modern viewer is likely to want to take a pass after the first ten minutes.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton

Winona Ryder played the innocent spouse May Welland, opposite Daniel Day Lewis as Newland Archer and Michele Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska, Archer's obsession.

Book Review
The Age of Innocence (1920)
by Edith Wharton

  I completed by undergraduate studies in the mid to late 1990s.  At the time, the study of literature was heavily overlaid by "isms" with "post-modernism" being particularly prevalent at the graduate level, and women's studies/feminism being more popular at the undergraduate level (probably because most undergraduates weren't sophisticated enough to grasp the intricacies of post modernism while women's studies/feminism was both comprehensible and popular.  Post-Modernism and Feminism weren't the only isms that were important in the study of literature during the 1990s.  My own Professor, Charles Larson, was a specialized in the literature of post-Colonialism, with a particular interest in Chinua Achebe, who I had actually read in HIGH SCHOOL, in English class.

   The 1990s were a particularly rich time for the role of high level theoretical discourse in the study of literature, and my sense is that three decades of dwindling funds for the humanities at both private and public universities has dampened the enthusiasm for isms and literature.  That said, it's hard to see how anyone can separate the subject of "Women and Literature" from the subject of Literature itself, which is so thoroughly dominated by women as subjects, authors and audience members to make any non woman discussion of literature seem almost ridiculous- to me anyway.

  My sense is that feminist discussion of literature focuses on the most negative and easily critic-able aspect of the domination of women in literature: their role as subjects for male authors.  Particularly in the 19th century, the example of a male author writing about a young, marriage aged woman is so pervasive as to be cliche.  More interesting is the relationship of female authors to their female subjects, and this is where Edith Wharton, and the Age of Innocence comes into play.

  Edith Wharton was the last female Author who fit into the "classic" mode of literary novelist exemplified by The Bronte sisters and Jane Austen: She was not an experimental modernist, and wasn't a feminist in the conscious, modernist usage of the term. Even as Wharton was winning the Pulitzer Prize for this Novel, avowedly modernist authors like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf were laying the foundation for the kind of relationship between female subjects and their authors that would characterize modern literature.

   Does this render The Age of Innocence somehow irrelevant, or unworthy of the attention of a contemporary readery?  I would say not- in fact- The Age of Innocence is actually a pleasurable read, something that becomes increasingly rare as literary Modernism begins to fragment narrative structure and play with the conventions of the literary novel of the 18th and 19th century.

   The Age of Innocence is a bit of a summation of close to a century of marriage and property 19th century style English novels.  Written in a time and place that are as far from the rural English nobility of the mid 19th century as those nobility were from the Middle Ages (but in less then a fifth of the time as they were separated from the Middle Ages);  The Age of Innocence wittily guides the reader through the landed aristocracy of New York City in the late 19th century- but bracketed by an enclosing narrative that takes the reader to "the present"- complete with long distance phone calls and automobiles.  That bracketing effect firmly links the Victorian past to the Modernist present, without fully dwelling in either area.

  The story of The Age of Innocence is plotting 101:  Guy marries younger woman but yearns for older woman, but the style and detail of Wharton's writing do make it an enduring classic.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Easily the Best Local Music Story Ever: The rise and fall of Deadphones

Deadphones: RIP

The rise and fall of Deadphones
How hard work and dedication helped do in the promising San Diego band
By Peter Hoslin

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Shadows (1959) d. John Cassavetes

What's your take on Cassavetes?

Movie Review
Shadows (1959)
d. John Cassavetes
Criterion Collection #251
Part of John Cassavetes: Five Films
Criterion Collection #250

  Ever since I discovered John Cassavetes via a Le Tigre song reference, he's been presented as a take it or leave it proposition.  The lyric in the Le Tigre song is, "What's your take on, Cassavetes? Genius?  Alcoholic!"  This trope is mirrored in much of the critical literature discussing his films within the Criterion Collection.  The Criterion Collection John Cassavetes: Five Films includes Shadows- which is his first feature, Faces (1968),  A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) & Opening Night (1977) are all amazing films, each and every one.  Additionally, he was the first figure in the American Independent Film Movement.  Saying you dislike Cassavetes is tantamount to saying you hate independent film.  I mean even if you have some kind of problem with Cassavetes as a human being, I just don't see how that in any way compromises the importance of his art AND his status as an independent producer of art and artist simultaneously.

 Shadows, shot over a period of 2-3 years and compiled largely from two separate versions of the same story shot more than a year part- cost 40,000.  Released in 1959, the same year as Godard's Breathless, its impossible to watch Shadows and not consider/compare it to Breathless and other films of the French New Wave.  However even a cursory consideration of the two films leads the viewer to the inevitable conclusion that Shadows was just raw as fuck.  Precisely how raw is brought into focus by the accompanying feature-ette about the restoration process that preceded the re-release of the restored version of the film that is available for viewing on the Criterion Collection Hulu plus channel.

 Shadows is transparently a revolutionary film by virtue of its subject matter, technique, style, sensibility and mode of production.  It is loosely "about" an interracial brother/brother/sister combo and their circle of musical/literary friends.  Hugh, the older brother, is a dark skinned African American.  Lelia, the younger sister, is (thought played by a white lady) light skinned African American who effortlessly "passes" for white in the desegregated world of books and music in late 1950s New York City.  The depiction of the intellectual milieu of late 1950s New York- filled with be bop jazz, party talk about existentialism, and self conscious Beats who are anxious to avoid any discussion of Beats, will ring a bell both with those familiar with the era in question or hipsters in any generation.

  The technique: using non-actors, shooting in a variety of lighting conditions and scenery gives Shadows (and all of Cassavetes films) a pulsing energy which has come to define the style of Independent film, as well as becoming highly influential within Hollywood itself.   I could go on.  I guess I just don't see the argument AGAINST Cassavetes AT ALL and I think if you don''t like Cassavetes you are ignorant or haven't watched his hits.  Go watch his hits.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Stagecoach 2014: Of beer, trucks & cut-offs and the sublime

Luke Bryan is totally straight you guys.

Stagecoach 2014:
Of beer, trucks & cut-offs and the sublime

  The concept of aesthetics is essentially "philosophical" in nature.  The modern discussion of philosophy began in the mid 18th century, and one of the key texts is Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757.   Philosophical Enquiry defined the "sublime" as follows:
"terror is in all cases whatsoever . . . the ruling principle of the sublime" and, in keeping with his conception of a violently emotional sublime, his idea of astonishment, the effect which almost all theorists mentioned, was more violent than that of his predecessors: "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." [Burke, On the Sublime, ed. J. T. Bolton. 58]
    Stagecoach, with its nuanced celebration of the aesthetics of contemporary Country Music & Culture:   Beer, Trucks, Cut-offs, bikini tops & hard alcohol is our modern version of the mass religious ceremonies of the pre Christian Near East and the pre-Buddhist Vedic rituals of the Indian subcontinent. 

   What are the aesthetic principles of these pre-modern, pre-christian, non-western religious rituals?  They were MASS with thousands of participants obeying the whims of a priestly caste. These rituals involved endless repetition and by necessity required neither literacy nor education of the participants.  In both the Near East and India, these rituals fell out of favor with the coming of Buddha and the combined influence of Judaism/Christianity/Islam.  These ancient religious rituals are evoked by any of the constituent elements of mass culture: sporting events, political rallies.

     Witnessing these mass events, be they religious or secular, can not but help evoke a feeling of the sublime.  Burke, in 1757, was mostly talking about the feeling people got from contemplating religious ideas or ideas surrounding natural beauty (mountain vista in Switzerland were considered sublime in the mid 18th century.)

  Anything that possesses a great and terrifying beauty is properly considered sublime, and Stagecoach 2014 certainly deserves to be called sublime in the 18th century philosophical definition of the term.  Although Stagecoach 2014 was filled with so many sublime moments that a full description of said moments could run tens of thousands of words, I think the Sunday headlining sets of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line provided the most sublime moments.  One of the defining characteristics of the first song of the headlining sets of all the Stagecoach 2014 "Mane" Stage Headliners:  Eric Church, Jason Aldean, FGL & Luke Bryan began with one or more of the following events:  Playing AWOLnation's "Sail" in its entirety prior to the first song, fireworks, complex light shows, bursts of fire, elaborate introductory video segments involving the headliner engaging in Alpha Male behavior.
Florida Georgia Line

  For FGL it was a lights intro with the "band" launching into an up-tempo rendition of It'z(sic) Just What We Do from their 2012 debut record Here's to the Good Times.  If you are unfamiliar with this tune, it evokes vintage Kid Rock as interpreted by a modern take on the Dukes of Hazard. Anchored by the triple kick drum led kit of Sean Fuller, Florida Georgia Line catapulted the Audience in paroxysms of delight. By the third song, they had thousands of General Audience members lifting their "lighters or cell phones, whatever makes light" in unison,  creating an "infield/outfield" effect that was immediately featured on the twin jumbo video screens on either side of the Mane Stage.

  Like all of the other Mane Stage headlining artists, Florida Georgia Line literally told the Audience after they had played a number one song, "Thank You Stagecoach for help making Cruise our first number one!" For all these Artists, "Number One" referred to the Billboard Music Country Singles chart.   On the pop chart, the highest that Florida Georgia Line has reached is #4, for Luke Bryan it is #14, Jason Aldean: 18, Eric Church: 19.  So while the lower reaches of the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 firmly places all the headliners in "Top Forty" territory- it's not a number one on the pop chart, and you'd have to place Stagecoach Festival in the category of a long-term plan by the "Nashville" music industry to get these Artists from 15-20 to number on on the Hot 100.

  I would say they are working towards achieving that goal.  For those familiar with Coachella Arts & Music Festival, Stagecoach Presented by Toyota is like a funhouse mirror version, with Goldenvoice as interpreted by AEG, Top 40 country in the place of indie rock, Roots/Americana in the place of EDM and Fiddle music replacing everything else.  A main difference between Coachella and Stagecoach is that the General Audience section at Coachella is segmented off into areas where people put their lawn chairs and blankets and then sit around in the same place.  At Coachella, of course there are scattered blankets and zero lawn chairs. 

   Like Coachella itself, Stagecoach 2014 was a straight-up sell-out, but with a total attendance of something like 45-50,000.   The Mane Stage headliners seemed either ignorant or consciously ignoring the actual attendance in favor of wildly inflated estimates like 75,000 or even 100,000.  The 45,000 was impressive enough.  The big looks among the audience was, on women: cut-off jean shorts and tops that often involved a bikini top and then something on top of the bikini top, lace in particular seemed to be a favorite.  The percentage of female audience members sporting some variation of the: jean cut-offs, cowboy boots, cowboy/baseball hat, bikini top/t-shirt/cover-up look who were between the ages of 18-30 was maybe 30%.   For men, the most distinctive look was the: Cowboy boots, jeans, no shirt/waxed torso, cowboy hat combination.   Other prevalent visual themes included, in order of popularity: American flag, Beer brands, Hard Alcohol brands, tattoos, American Patriotism and the Confederate flag.   In the VIP area, body types/ages/genders mirrored what you would see in fancy parts of California:  Well heeled older folks who had stayed in shape and then A LOT of hot young chicks/hot young guys with the rest being non-country specific Yuppie types.  Out in the General Audience there was more heft to the attendees, and a more distinct military/working class vibe.  Some families, which were typically younger looking parents with a single teenage girl in tow.

A boyish Thomas Rhett
    After checking in at the new-ish Sparrows Hotel in Palm Springs mid Friday afternoon, I got to the festival in time for Thomas Rhett.  Rhett has his own number one (It Goes Like That) and a number four, that may still be on the way to number one, Get Me Some of That.  Rhett also wrote Parking Lot Party, which was a Top 10 for Lee Brice.  Rhett projects a raffish, aw shucks demeanor complete with "I'm sooo nervous to be up here in front of y'all" which personally reminded me of the faux modesty sometime displayed by budding porn stars in their first scenes. Sure you're nervous Thomas Rhett, sure you are.  Playing at 6 PM on the Mane Stage, he had the full attention of the already packed General Audience area.   The percentage of the crowd that just stayed planted in front of the Mane Stage all day was probably in excess of 50% of the total crowd.

  Rhett's rendition of Get Me Some of That was exactly as good as you would expect, but his set lacked the pyrotechnic flourishes that were the hallmark of the later performers. All in good time, I suppose.  After Rhett, I ambled or moseyed to the Sahara tent/Palomino stage and tried to watch Lynrd Skynrd. Unfortunately, there was no VIP viewing area for Skynyrd and the crowd was  bonkers, so I ended up standing by the side of the stage like an asshole, literally watching Ashton Kutcher try (and fail) to talk his way onto the stage.

   Headliner Eric Church took the stage promptly at 10:15 PM- the earlier starting time of the Mane Stage headliner was a welcome difference between Stagecoach and Coachella.  Church had the first of several killer openers, with his baseball cat silhouette being projected onto the screen behind the stage and fireworks during the first song.  Of the four Mane Stage headline level acts, Church is by far the most "rock" of them. But for the telltale presence of banjo and slide guitar, Eric Church could be a rock (vs. Country) star.
Eric Church
   My sense of Eric Church is that he is not quite "Country" enough for the Top 40 Country Audience, and at the same time he hasn't made the impression on the mainstream Rock audience that he probably deserves.  Church is firmly in the 'Baseball Hat' Country demographic, which is a variant of the Nashville sound that eschews the more Western and Southern stylistic elements of Top 40 Country.  At the same time, Churches' thematic concerns were very much in the main line of Top 40 Country: Beer, Jesus, Family, Hometowns, etc. 
Jason Isbell

 Saturday I got there at 4 to watch Jason Isbell.  Isbell, ex of the Drive By Truckers, was firmly in the "alt country" vein, with no hat and songs that eschewed the sing alongs, shouted choruses and hip hop emulation of the Mane Stage performers. Not having listened to him in the past, I was impressed with his songwriting prowess and dark themes.
Tyler Farr

  Next was Tyler Farr on the Mane Stage at 6:10 PM.  Farr was the Saturday version of Thomas Rhett:  A less mannered proven songwriter with a great voice and a track record of hits for himself and others.  For Farr, 2013 was a breakout with two top 20 singles: Whiskey in My Water (15) and Redneck Crazy (2).  Like Rhett, he projected a low key baseball hat country demeanor but more meaty than raffish.

Jason Aldean
    Saturday's headliner was Jason Aldean, who had the most traditional appearance of the big four headliners, performing in a Cowboy hat, t-shirt and jeans (with a TRIPLE wallet chain.)  I think his opener of Crazy Town was the best of the weekend but Aldeans' over-all stage presence is weaker then that of Church, FGL & Luke Bryan.

  Sunday started with Wanda Jackson- probably the only performer who I was legitimately excited to see in a normal universe.  Jackson was absolutely adorable, providing a kind of narrative chronology to her catalog, interspersing songs with stories. 

  The big close for Sunday was Luke Bryan, who combines supple Country Pop vocals with moves that seem lifted from a Male Stripper.  His fans are overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, young females.  It is...quite a show, but not really my jam.  I'm more of an FGL bro.

Hadrian the Seventh (1904) by Frederick Rolfe

That Pope is Smoking: Hadrian the Seventh

Book Review
Hadrian the Seventh (1904)
by Frederick Rolfe

  Hadrian the Seventh was a tough get, actually had to buy a paper copy, and the version that showed up was an English market Penguin's Classics edition from 1969.  This book is a good example of the Englishness of the 1001 Books Project (it was assembled and initially published in England, and most of the contributors are British.)  Hadrian the Seventh is about an eccentric Englishman, who finally become a Catholic priest after 20 years of trying, only to be immediately elevated to the Papacy in the clearest example of wish-fulfillment by literature that one could hope to see.

  You see, Frederick Rolfe has the same back story as George Rose (Hadrian the Seventh.)  By all accounts he was also a huge dick, so go figure. That is just about all I have to say about Hadrian the Seventh.  Can't imagine a soul in the world who would care to read this book in 2014, and it would a prime candidate for excision from revised versions of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

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