Posted on June 08, 2016 at 07:41 AM | Permalink
Tags: amadeus, beneficient dervish, magic flute, mozart, peter shaffer
A few days ago, an op-ed columnist in the New York Times wrote that he didn't think his kid should transfer into a music school. Today, Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, responded in the Times. It's a strong, smart statement that takes the piece's headline literally, emphasizing "training" musicians "attuned to their communities" who should be "effective communicators, educators, entrepreneurs, audience development experts and citizen-artists." But there's more to be said on that issue.
I'm a former Peabody student, and I say that if you have the talent and determination, you should go to music school. It's one of the best things that I ever did with my life. It filled my soul and trained my brain to accomplish many other things, including serious writing projects. I'm a big believer in the humanities, and as a musician from a family of musicians, I wanted the immersion in music that they had enjoyed beyond the pre-college music conservatory. But I simultaneously attended Johns Hopkins' separate Arts & Sciences undergraduate program, and I graduated in 2000, a bad time to go to music school. Back then, the older classically oriented ones like mine (Peabody is the country's first conservatory), weren't designed yet to teach students what they really needed to know as the Internet was growing. They were experimenting. But schools that emphasized popular genres like the Berklee College of Music were leaps and bounds ahead, especially with respect to getting students fluent with digital and business.
The issue now isn't really whether or not you should go to music school. It's how strong is the school you want to attend? How well will it train you to be a musician-plus today? Sure, you can go to music school, study an instrument, composing, history, and theory--and you can learn the practical stuff on your own. But you really ought to ensure that you have your sights set on the realities of our time and that the music school you choose really does teach all of its students (maybe even as a "core") the following: business (especially entrepreneurship but also management, marketing, arts administration, contract negotiation, and financial skills); technology (app development, coding, UX, digital production for all genres [hip-hop, pop, songwriting, etc.], recording, video, engineering, music and sound editing for media/entertainment); music education; writing; arts advocacy; film/media composing; and IP/copyright law, as well as perhaps public health (!).
I have long appreciated Columbia University's "core curriculum." Music schools have always had a version of their own, consisting of theory, ear-training, lessons, etc. But now they need new ones full of required courses and skills assessments--it's not just about supplementing music classes with languages and the humanities or intros to the good things that Bronstein mentions (Peabody is lucky to have him). Courses in these subjects need to be authoritative and leave students with strong skills. They need to be practical and effective. I'm asking for a lot, but that's what the world asks of you as a musician, or as any kind of creative professional. So, schools: Please partner with media companies, music publishers, tech startups, small businesses, independent artists, more community schools. Add incentives. Stress the requirements beyond music skills. Stress that these are music skills.
I studied the violin at Peabody while attending Hopkins, but I live in Hollywood now, consult on music and work as a writer, journalist, and editorial content strategist. My first job out of college was at NPR; they hired me to be a cultural producer with a specialty in digital, but getting that gig was a bit of blind luck (although I knew how to code), based mostly on the fact that I'd published music criticism in the Washington Post. I would have benefitted so much from even a few of the aforementioned extra classes. Recording was available at my school, but it was a highly specialized degree program track. So, too, music education. These things were not stressed as necessary for everyone. But they were, and they are critically necessary now. A student at a great music school shouldn't have to learn Logic in an Apple Store.
What's great, though, is that Peabody is now poised to do this as an entity owned by Johns Hopkins University, and Bronstein says he's devoted to the cause. But it should be reiterated that I graduated from college 15 years ago, and Peabody was not moving on these things nearly quickly enough, even though it had been owned by Hopkins for a while. I have great hope for future music students, but also some words of advice: Double-degree program with a university. Or, even better, something new and singular that blends two types of schools like Hopkins and Peabody more seamlessly. That's what I tried to do with my program, and eventually I only took one degree (my Arts & Sciences B.A.). The Music School as a template for higher education needs to evolve more quickly and comprehensively for the sake of all musicians as well as those who will move into other fields while using their music skills. The great music that we love will be thankful.-- Adam Baer
Posted on June 16, 2015 at 07:51 AM | Permalink
Tags: johns hopkins, music business, music school, new york times, op-ed, peabody
The congenial Christopher Noxon knows what it means to be a Plus One (something about weed, the color orange, and a talented woman called Jenji). Anyway, we talked about this subject and Chris' new novel Plus One for The Believer. You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Plus-One-Christopher-Nox…/…/1938849426 But you can read our interview by clicking here.
Posted on February 13, 2015 at 12:40 PM | Permalink
Tags: jenji kohan, noxon, orange is the new black, plus one, tv writer, weeds
"The cliffdwellers cling precariously to the brush-covered slopes of the Hollywood hills, sharing the common perils of fire and flood. In the late fall, when the humidity drops and a warm wind whips through the canyons, the hills may suddenly explode with flame. In the rainy season, when the naked cliffs crack and slide, the mortgaged wickiups come tumbling down. But the true cliffdweller always returns to his wildlife refuge. He trades in his charred Porsche, patches his pool, rebuilds his house-with-a-view and again settles down to enjoy the comforts of his mountain lair." ...
"Laurel is Southern California’s semi-tropical version of Manhattan’s East Village. Mediterranean villas dating back to the first hoarse days of talking pictures are hemmed in by dilapidated shacks owned by absentee landlords. The canyon’s natural fire hazards have been intensified of late by shaggy young nomads who turn on in the blackened ruins of burned-out mansions where Theda Bara may once have dined. The daily life of the community swirls around a small shopping center, “The Square,” which boasts the old-fashioned Canyon Country Store and a pleasant cafe, the Galleria."--1970 article from Holiday magazine on what it's like to live in the Hollywood Hills.
Posted on November 01, 2014 at 03:40 PM | Permalink
Tags: architecture, hollywood hills, laurel canyon, laurel canyon music scene, los angeles, real estate
Posted on May 03, 2014 at 09:28 AM | Permalink
Very proud to have my John Lautner houses-in-film essay in the winter 2013 edition of VQR. If you'd like to read the text and see the great photos, most by Elizabeth Daniels, in full size, here's the PDF. You can also read the text more easily here. And be sure to catch other great pieces in the issue -- which, really, is a great print book to buy and hold -- by Mickey Rapkin, David Kipen, and many others. Here's how to subscribe.
Posted on January 15, 2013 at 08:19 AM | Permalink
Tags: adam baer, architecture, body double, chemosphere, de palma, film, lautner, lebowski, los angeles, modern, modernism
A few years ago, Rolling Stone kindly published a piece of mine about the funniest "studio notes" actors, writers, directors, and comedians have received from Hollywood producers and network execs. It was intended to be an oral history about receiving chortle-worthy criticism, a way to use these "notes" to tell some of comedy's best secret stories, and I hope we accomplished that goal, to some degree. (Note: the headline was not my first choice, but I am a team player, and I had a lot of fun working on the piece and eventual pride seeing it in RS.)
It was a dream assignment: I interviewed a score of hilarious celebs, producers and directors--from Mel Brooks and Garry Shandling to younger talents like David Wain ("Wet Hot American Summer"), Paul Scheer ("The League"), and Nick Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "The Five Year Engagement").
Everyone cracked me up, and the piece generated serious interest from one of the world's biggest book publishers. So I took some of the quotes from my many funny interviews that Rolling Stone had not picked for inclusion (page-space is limited at magazines), and my agent and I went out with a book proposal about how this could be a hilarious narrative project, especially given my access to so many people in the entertainment industry. Eventually, and ironically, the senior publishing exec didn't think the book would make money (I still disagree), and the project, which could now be a brilliant multimedia thing with video, great for iPads, was tabled.*
Alas, one of the many funny things Rolling Stone could not include--sadly rendering my collection of interview subjects 100% male--was my unforgettable, if short, interview with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who stars tonight in HBO's new series "Veep." I share this gem with you now. Word, for word, and I have this on tape, this is what one of the funniest actresses in comedy told me, on the record. Addendum: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a lovely, generous woman, with guts of steel, and I don't doubt she will continue to be a hit with audiences everywhere -- and to reiterate, I would not have posted this if she had not given me the quote on the record.
FUNNIEST STUDIO NOTE: JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS
"I have only one story that comes to mind, and I leave out names because that's a better idea.
But when I was very young and had just started on “SNL”--I believe I was 20--I did a sketch in which I played John DeLorean's wife...
In that sketch, my hair was blown out straight -- because her hair is straight.
So, we did the show, and the following day, I was called into one of our producers' offices (as a side note, I should say that I have naturally curly hair), and he said to me, “Julia, I got a call from a bunch of NBC executives after last night’s show, and they said that after seeing your hair straight, they all wanna fuck you.”
This was apparently his way of trying to entice me into straightening my hair for the rest of season.
Needless to say: I was young and naïve, but I was so shocked that anyone would say anything like that, I just burst out laughing in a hysterical way. I didn't know what else to do.
Years later, when "Seinfeld" was becoming somewhat of a hit, I ran into the same producer at NBC again.
And he said to me, “Hey, Julia, I see they're letting you do your hair the way you want now."
That's apparently all he took away from my “Seinfeld” contribution.
The irony of it was that not only did I make my hair curly on "Seinfeld," which may have been a huge mistake now that I think about it, but I enhanced the curl and made it HUGE!
I wonder if that hair wasn't some kind of reaction.
I was saying: 'Not only is this hair going to be curly, it's going to be crazy curly. Take that, motherfucker!!'"
*Tabled in this case means I stopped pursuing it. I'm open to pursuing it again, though, especially with a new class of today's funniest people.
Today I have a piece in The Atlantic in which I persuade the Academy Awards to create a "Best Soundtrack" category that would honor the artistic work of insightful music supervisors, who should be given the same awards as art directors and other creative film staffers. There wasn't much room to get into a large discussion of the best soundtracks ever created much less those of this year. But as I wrote, the "art is in the curating of the mix," and in that spirit, I offer you up the one-song but internally eclectic soundtrack to my life. OK, seriously: that song and this one.
UPDATE: A reader commented on the piece with an intelligent response. The comment and my reply are below.
I struggle, like all artists, and nowhere is this more evident than in the rough-and-tumble assignments I completed last fall for publication in a variety of December magazines: a short Details magazine profile of Zoë Saldana (above) and a Hemispheres feature on chef Jose Andres. Sometimes I must also dig ditches.
Except he's far from useless. That is, Jonathan Kiefer, Shallot compatriot and S.F. film critic, I speak of. To wit, the intro to Jonk's recent review of "Nick and Nora":
First, it must be understood that the Nick and Norah whose infinite playlist this is are of no discernible relation to Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man, which became a series of six boozily banter-intensive movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy in the ’30s and ’40s.
This has to be explained up front because movie critics like to feel important, and to act crotchety, which means making you wait for the information you came here for by spouting off about how pretty much nobody in Nick & Norah’s target demographic even will have heard of the Thin Man movies anyway, damn kids, with their broadband porn and tattoos and Twitter-frazzled attention spans. ...
Twitter be damned along with those infants. I, very maturely, subscribe to the Useless Jonk RSS feed.
Posted on October 07, 2008 at 07:42 AM | Permalink
Usher in this new Jewish year (and this is an offer open to atheist shunners of organized religion, believe me!) with this new Salon profile of former "Curb Your Enthusiasm" director Robert B. Weide. The former documentarian sees his feature directorial debut this week, but, for "Curb" fans, his Web site, duckprods.com, offers some facts about the show you want to know. (Incidentally, Weide won one of his Emmy awards for one of our favorite "Curb" episodes, "Crazee Eyes Killah" [related pic above]).
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 07:27 PM | Permalink
I don't know if you caught Anthony Lane's review of Chris Eigeman's taut new film "Turn the River," starring Famke Janssen with a searching original score by Clogs. But see the movie. It's that rare brand of realistic and seemingly effortless filmmaking that escapes even Oscar nominees, friendo. For those in need of more inspiration, I recently wrote a story about the writer/director, who really deserved a thorough profile of a few pages. Yes, I also got to speak with Famke; yes, she's smart as a whip; and yes, she looks great outside a green-screen studio, even playing a hardass pool hustler, a role that was meant for her.
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 09:55 PM | Permalink
Ever since I first saw Charles Eames answer questions on design, I knew I wanted to know more about the people who follow at least some version of his career path (how hard is it to make a chair, right?). Anyway, filmmaker and designer Hillman Curtis 's recent film about artist-designer Stefan Sagmeister explains a little bit of the mystery (well, not about chairs, but about design; well, not about design, but about that little issue called life). It also could be Curtis's most illuminating designer film if only because it shows the work of a man who, among rotting bananas and inflatable gorillas, presented the texts: "Don't work with assholes," "Everyone thinks they are right," and "Worrying solves nothing." As for "Money does not make me happy," I can't exactly get behind that one given the current states of mag journalism and American healthcare. But I like the first sentiment, and I definitely get his drift in re: the greenbacks.
Posted on April 16, 2008 at 09:22 AM | Permalink
Aside from people asking me if I once had a relative named Max (my last name is Baer; Max Baer was a famous Jewish boxer), I never really thought about the influence my people had on athletics. That is, I never really thought about their influence beyond what I as an agnostic but cultural Jewish self-identifier gleaned from "Great Jews in Sports," perhaps the funniest book in the world, which was given to me as, it was to many a doughy young student, as a tacky Bar Mitzvah gift so new men might read about Sandy Koufax and dream of being more than violinists, lawyers, studio heads, and writers. At last, however, "Orthodox Stance," Jason Hutt's documentary about Ukranian boxer and Orthodox Brooklyn Jew Dmitry Salita proves that I don't have to return to old stories about Rod Carew to get inspired about an athlete who knows his Torah. The film, which opens tomorrow at LA's Laemmle Music Hall Theater, follows the 21-year-old from the Starret City boxing club as he and his 80-year-old African-American trainer move from relative obscurity to a deal with boxing impresario Lou DiBella and an honorary mishpucha that includes Hasidic musician Matisyahu. What the film doesn't explore—why this mild-mannered kid with friends of all faiths and colors turned to a conversion-happy chabad and extreme boxing discipline in the wake of his mother's sudden death to cancer, and why his brother and father aren't really a) religious or b) a part of the story—seems to hang in the air like an uneaten matzoh ball. But the boxing footage is fantastic. Dmitry, a welterweight, may dress like any hood from Brighton Beach, but he lays into his opponents with the passion of a young Sylvester Stallone. It's also good fun to watch Dmitry scuffle with his extremely stoic brother: he shouldn't wear a wrinkled suit to a press conference ("But it's DKNY," his brother exclaims). And it's cool to know that a pro boxing outfit will delay your matches beyond Shabbat so you don't have to piss off God just to knock down another heathen. Of course, the flick's no "Rocky Balboa." It's much more real and hence mildly dry. But in an age when a Hasidic actor's shunned by his Williamsburg community for attempting to act in a film with Natalie Portman, it's cool to see a present-day Great Jew in Sports balance his jabs and High Holiday prayers.
"Orthodox Stance" opens April
11 at Laemmle's Music Hall. 9036 Wilshire
Beverly Hills, CA 90211. 310-274-6869. www.laemmle.com
Posted on April 10, 2008 at 08:00 AM | Permalink
I think he and his various hard-working components did a tremendous job. Don't you?
Posted on February 25, 2008 at 05:38 AM | Permalink
Posted on January 16, 2008 at 10:34 AM | Permalink
I admire Daniel Day Lewis as much as any dedicated film fan--the idea of seeing a film with him even scares me a little in the good way. But I was never big on P.T. Anderson-- even though I liked Magnolia and Boogie Nights some, I never felt the director made important narrative decisions that felt earned. His work seemed to crave hipness--to steal it--instead of achieving it with truly innovative and genuine narrative work.
Oddly, I thought this concern would dissolve upon seeing the massively hyped "There Will Be Blood." I thought the film would be, as it has been publicized, an epic interpretation of Upton Sinclair--replete with fantastic acting; an admirable score in the old sense; and big ideas about oil, humanity, industrialism, America, Manifest Destiny, evil. But most important, a script worth drooling over. I believed in DDL that much.
But I was wrong, and despite all the universal praise for the film--yes, the main performance is admirable--I have to wonder why so very few people have come out to say this movie is even smaller--and malignantly so--in some ways than Anderson's "small" indies. There is so much obsession over detail, so much amazing cinematography and early buildup. But it doesn't come together when the film jumps down into a hole and narrows in on a petty if entertaining climax that could have been performed on a cheap stage--never mind the expanded issues this climax could have symbolized (that the director probably thinks it does symbolize) with better developmental screenwriting.
I'll try not to spoil the journey for you should you care to take it on the half hour as many theaters have scheduled it. But not only does Anderson choose to focus on what should just be one small conflict in a potentially epic story--and then choose to skip through time and tell us about it as opposed to showing a lot of foundational material needed to care this much about said conflict as the movie's most obvious struggle. The rapscallion--oh, P.T., you're sly--mischievously doesn't follow through on the promise of the film about big ideas, and he sadly doesn't completely flesh out his "oil man." His history or his relationships--say, with his son. Such that when they fall on hard times, it's nearly impossible to care. That is, if you can detach yourself from DDL's performance--and it's hard, but try.
Sure, it's fun to see bowling pins used in new American ways (I'm not a spoiler). But the whole show shouldn't have been so comedic or surprisingly focused on such a lame tangent when it seemed like so much could have happened. There was a lot of laughter in the theater--and it wasn't the dark, twisted laughter for which the filmmaker may hope. But don't worry if you liked it: I'm sure the Academy's already sealed this film's destiny.
After all, it's an acting triumph for DDL. But is it really? Didn't we know he could do this stuff? Did we need to see it again? Some of it was very enjoyable but it seemed like wasted effort. Pair the genius actor up with someone who thinks bigger--and better. To make a movie this long that gives us this little is really a feat--but not one we should endorse.
Even more offensive to Shallot central is the musical side of the equation. The filmmakers hired a potentially strong composer--Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood--to write what sounded like an intriguing score made of pitch-bending dissonances and anxiety provoking rhythms.
But the movie tries too hard, shallowly, in this department too. Instead of letting Greenwood follow through on what could have been a start-to-finish symphonic score--something you'd want to listen to on its own, say--Anderson shares with us the novel third movement of Brahms's Violin Concerto to interrupt it and accompany one of the film's most triumphant and tragic plot points. Then, when matters turn mysterious, the music supervisor throws in a cello ensemble version of Arvo Pärt's Fratres. Too easy and disrespectful. To the film, the older music, and new film composer.
I love both of these pieces--and there's definitely something in the barren setting of the film and the character's wayward morality apropos of Pärt if not this one movement of Brahms. But both of these musical insertions undermine Greenwood's work. The film feels musically disjunct because of them, especially when the credits role to the victorious Brahms conclusion.The real Independent thing to do here--you're P.T. Anderson, right?--would have been to let Greenwood score the film in its entirety, not use pre-recorded hits known to conjure narrative power in the middle of the story.
This type of music-supervisory decision isn't always the supervisor's fault. And I'm usually a fan of using great music in a movie--but not so cheaply. It could just be--and seemingly is--the director's too-self-conscious "I'm not as good as I sell myself to be so I better throw in everything but the kitchen sink" mentality. It's hard to find this problem under the thick veil of all that tarry oil and DDL glory acting. But it's there. Believe me.
In fact, such a musical strategy--to say nothing of flaunting DDL and all the detail and epic cinematographic talent the movie employs--renders this truth shockingly obvious when you realize how petty the film's main narrative turns out to be.
And I'm not alone. So many people--including friends I disagree with very often--left my showing at the Arclight disappointed. This movie could have been so much more than it was. But by producers giving free reign to an "indie" filmmaker who shouldn't have been given so much freedom to begin with--then again: hell, I'd give money to anything involving DDL, too--that's what you get.
Frankly, I prefer it when Steve Martin gets small.
Posted on January 06, 2008 at 07:13 AM | Permalink
I had a funny discussion the other day with another New Yorker living in LA. He said he felt like an "expat" here: a "big fish living in a small pond," in his telling--at least when it comes to meeting people who think beyond headlines. I didn't exactly agree or make the statement, but it wasn't the first time I heard it. Luckily, I've met tons of brilliant people in my new fair city. But I've sought a lot of them out. You don't always converse with new ones in line at El Pollo Loco. But my tales of serendipitous philosophical chicken-joint communion will have to wait.
Funnily, another friend just pointed out that Variety, Hollywood's glory trade mag (Ari Gold once called it the "school paper" on Entourage), linked to my Sweeney Todd piece earlier in December. The blog's quote? "Adam Baer claims that 'Tim Burton "re-invents the movie musical" with 'Sweeney Todd.' Really?'"
I had to laugh when I saw that. Did the blogger even realize that the actual subhead of the article--written by someone other than me--made it very clear that "re-inventing the movie musical" is what the filmmakers claim, and that I simply reported what they had to say? Probably not, because short-order blogs and especially movie-trade blogs meant for D-people aren't exactly the most accurate places to get your news.
Read the story that I wrote carefully. There's hardly any criticism in the piece, save for a very careful statement that reads: " [Sweeney's] as entertaining, artistic and efficient as anyone could make a 'Sweeney Todd' film that might appeal to a broad swath of moviegoers." While I believe the movie is entertaining and a great shot at creating a Hollywood movie version of Sweeney, save for a lot of the singing, I don't go beyond that point. I'm not hired to be a critic here. And I'm actually pleased with that fact. So argue away with each other. I'm not jumping into the fray as a film or music critic on this one.
And that's the way it was supposed to be. I was paid to tell other peoples' stories in this case. Additionally, I write that: "The key, therefore, was not to produce a performance film like Ingmar Bergman's "The Magic Flute" but to create an original movie genre: a consciously present-day spoke-sung music-film with younger actors, no traditional singers and a cinema-grotesquerie style, full of viscous slashes of blood." But this isn't my opinion. It's implied that the "key" belongs to the filmmakers. This is the opinion of those interviewed--see forthcoming Steven Sondheim quote. It's factual reportage.
In Sondheim's words: "You can't just adapt stage musicals for the screen. You have to re-create them."
If I had been hired to critique the film, I might have printed all kinds of comments that discuss this recreation of genre and what Sweeney means to music and film. But I wasn't. And I'm not going to do it here and undermine my story. I stand by it. And if its sub-headline should read that the filmmakers' claim they've created a new genre--and if I should go on to give you those opinions--well, that doesn't mean I'm making the critical statement.
Frankly, after a childhood of conservatory composition, mainstream movie-loving, and a decade of criticism, I don't think Sweeney re-invents the movie musical; I think it adds new elements to it as filmic entertainment. As I wrote: " Sweeney's new Burtonesque world is a visceral, inflated experience only film can provide."
But please, Variety blog, read between the lines before misquoting
reporters on critical statements they, personally, haven't made. This
sort of reaction to a story about Sweeney Todd is exactly what worried
me when I learned such a meaningful and complex piece of music-theater
was going to be fed to the multiplex crowd--and those who
blog for those who feed them. Perhaps I should have asked the producers if they were worried about how the insider movie press would handle the movie and the primary press it might inspire--as opposed to how audiences across America would handle it. Happily, I left a midwestern theater the other day after seeing the movie in its completed version to find goth teenagers singing "Nothing's Gonna Harm You..." Sondheim doesn't need anyone's help connecting to any brand of audience.
Posted on January 02, 2008 at 07:37 AM | Permalink
Last night, for the thousandth time in Oprah knows how many years, the Kennedy Center Honors award show--in which a lame cultural center with Presidential branding puts living celebrities in royal wax to be lovingly caressed forever--aired on national television. I'd love to see the ratings, given how the strike's certainly hurting TV. This year CBS won the gig. And who can blame them for going after it? It's easier than picking off with a .22 Starbucks-deprived writers in organized lines to buy their family's one meal of the day outside a Studio City taco stand. Or something.
The Kennedy Center clearly seems like the Smithsonian of the performing arts to too many people. But in typical Shallotosian fashion, I'm here to dispel that myth. Not only does the Kennedy Center present merely decent--and some great--concerts and shows in an ever-inventive cultural world (i.e. the National Symphony is no LA Phil, and I'd sooner hit up any house in NYC for something truly worthy than jet down to Foggy Bottom for some stuffy Washington run of whatever). The KC presents this work with a semantic tie to the government. Whether it's because it receives so much national funding or simply because of its name and location, many Americans consider the Kennedy Center the definitive word on what's what in the performing arts (and they've probably never been there.). Hey, George Bush is in the audience! (And it's not a tractor-pull.)
This year, to be fair, the teary eyed tributes went to some well-deserved culture-makers. Scorcese--say what you will about how he can't end a movie: the guy pretty much exemplifies the American dream, and he can do just about anything with a scene. (Although, it's always much better when DeNiro, Keitel, and some of his other super-talented friends get to liven up his frame. Let's just say, for the record, that Matt Damon and Marky Mark don't really substitute into that equation too well despite all The Departed's "acclaim," such as it was at the moment of the film's release.) But at least Scorcese is a scholar of his trade and something of an original. And at least Bob DeNiro made every audience member swoon with his small gestures of man-love, sending deep appreciation through the air with wireless precision in every micromove of his hard-won Downtown NYC mouth-wrinkles.
The question with this segment of the show is why the cognitively delayed Cameron Diaz opened the Marty-love session and continued to narrate his life-montage. Cameron Diaz? For one role in Gangs of New York? If you're trying to make a statement about how the younger generation cares for Marty, get Leo. Get him! Go! I know he's probably holed up with some coked-out model halfway across the world shooting someone else's movie about organized crime in a green world--but Something About Mary's JT-loving Goofball doesn't deserve the gig just because she looks OK in a party dress. But again: The Kennedy Center knows very little about which it speaks, and they probably just thought: This is TV! Let's get us a Big Star! You know, A Blonde Charlie's Angel! That she really had nothing to do with Scorcese's career clearly wasn't an issue.
What? No Keitel? Pesci? Bob Dylan? No Spielberg, Jack, or Daniel Day Lewis? (Assuming they would even come if asked--and sure, they probably were.) Coppola was fine, but he recently told a major magazine something sorta not so nice about Marty. Awkward. Plus, he really didn't seem like he wanted to be there. A private island, winery, or plate of bucatini was calling. But then you remember: Francis finally has a new "independent" movie coming out. Better make nice with the Amirricans. There's no way in hell that he really thinks Goodfellas is better than the Godfather.
Then, in proper Kennedy Center fashion, a lot of time went to a comedian. Granted, the comedian--Steve Martin--deserved an entire two-hour show devoted to his oeuvre. But the KC always loves it some comedy and then short-ends the director or composer on the bill. In this case, the KC programmer-on-crack really disappointed with Steve Carell and his try-too-hard facetiae winning the chance to intro Martin. I'm sorry: He was funny in the 40 Yr Old Virgin, but this Office crap--to say nothing of his "I"m a comically awkward leading man in rom-coms who looks like the male version of Ellen Degeneres" thing--hardly qualifies him to speak about arguably the most original humorist of the past 35 years. But let's face it: Who wants to fly out from LA to DC for a night? Marty Short made a brief appearance in a terrible tribute to Martin's trash-SoCal vaudevillian history--but he should have been the one speaking. Or how about Carl Reiner--director of The Jerk? Where was Victoria Tennant? Goldie Hawn? Billy Crystal? Danny Ackroyd? Where was David Remnick from the New Yorker reading from Martin's new memoir? Instead, the KC just put on a "so bad it's highbrow" interpretative dance with long-legged Rockette-types to symbolize Martin's achievements. I dug the Scrugs banjo bit. But there should have been someone up there with some conceptual-humorist weight on that stage. Someone with some literary acumen. Again, KC, why can't you do this right? You're on network TV now!
But the evening didn't improve with its tribute to pianist Leon Fleisher. A classical kid raised by two New York concert pianists, I always felt like I knew Fleisher. Like he was the powerful alpha force in my family who had taught my Dad how to play Brahms, roar, and eat steak, and I had just yet to meet him. But then I did meet him. In Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, where my parents had fallen in love and I spent some time as a teenage violinist. It was a dark and stormy night. For reals: My friends and I were running home from a concert in a deluge, and Fleisher picked us up in his ratty Subaru for a ride back to the dorms. I felt like I was in a Werner Herzog movie.
Later, at Peabody, as a violinist, some of my best pianist friends studied with the Godfather of the ivories. He was omnipresent if usually invisible on the campus and a best friend of my violin teacher, the estimable if lecherous Berl Senofsky. I attended music theory classes hearing the pounding tenths of his students in the background and returned to my room across the plaza to listen to his recordings of the Brahms D minor. But he never felt to me like he was a part of the real Peabody--the majority of the students were mediocre for conservatory level musicians, and the orchestra never rivaled that of Juilliard or even the Manhattan School, to say nothing of the Curtis Institute, where Fleisher also taught--with, it must be said, performer-pedagogues at a level of achievement that matched his better. Mostly, Peabody was full of so-so brass players, violinists without the star-virtuosity to win major jobs or solo gigs, and lots of really undereducated opera singers along with the occasional star pianist and freak harpist.
That said, the KC decided to honor Fleisher--via a slick Yo-Yo Ma delivered speech--with a (quite condensed) short film about his early success, the loss of his right-hand dexterity (to focal dystonia), his comeback, his Peabody teaching career (one line), and then a performance of perhaps Beethoven's worst work--the Chorale Fantasy--as played by perhaps Fleisher's least emotional student Jonathan Biss (a guy who never attended Peabody). In front of the still-remedial Peabody Orchestra! C'mon. Let it be said here: Peabody is really close to D.C. in a lot of ways. This was political. And convenient. And Biss: Ok, he hits the notes, but when I think of Fleisher I think of masculine power. Brahmsian world-shaking power. There were other pianists for this job. I'm thinking they were just booked. But why mention Peabody and then show Biss as if he attended the school? Bizarre. Tangential but still had to be noted.
It was obvious: So much about this show had to do with availability and bad image-conceptualizing. I won't even get into why Diana Ross--honored much more appropriately by SNL's Maya Rudolph every now and then as we snore--was allowed to share the stage with the aforementioned monuments of the arts. And I'll leave alone Brian Wilson. Ok, I won't: Lyle Lovett singing God Only Knows? Hootie and the Blowfish? Could we find people with less of a right to re-image the Beach Boys? Even Paul McCartney and his little mandolin would have been better. (Though, who can afford him?)
The point of all this rambling is that the KC--and let's not forget that Caroline Kennedy, its gleaming honorary daughter, now introduces this comedy of errors --really needs to step it up if it wants to follow through qualitatively on the notion that it's America's premiere cultural presenter. Many of us know it's not. But fine, keep the charade alive.
Just try harder. Be smart. And for fuck's sake, if you're gonna celebrate someone like Steve Martin, get out of your highbrow box that tells you stiff, leggy dancers loosely interpreting Martin's past might seem like a good idea and put something up there with some substance and wit. Last night's show just phoned it in at a time when live TV programming from the nation's party-town capital really had a chance to beat its competitors during a WGA strike. Maybe it won the numbers--that's not my field. But it sure as hell didn't deserve them.
Posted on December 27, 2007 at 05:15 AM | Permalink
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 02:36 AM | Permalink
On Tuesday, I’m told, the Los Angeles Times will publish my story on Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd.” I’ve reported it for months, after noticing in the summer that perhaps the only musical I like would be turned into a film. The story was initially assigned as a thorough narrative about the idea of the music-film that would include deep reporting on how the music-driven stage show became a cinematic production in many respects--good, bad, or ugly. In the course of the reporting, I had some intriguing discussions—basically with everyone involved in the film, including some self-congratulatory remarks but also some really unusual quotes. Most memorable? A lunch with producer Dick Zanuck at Warner’s and a few funny comments from Tim Burton, to say nothing of a conversation about the business of such filmmaking with Dreamworks’s Walter F. Parkes. But over the course of the last few months, the Times also published a separate story about Burton that included information my original story would have covered (nothing personal: this is how newspapers often work when they cover entertainment so thoroughly from so many angles). So my piece, for tomorrow or later this week, has had to be rejiggered. It will now focus more on the musical qualities of the film, but still include chats with Depp, Burton, and others. Still, there are lots of cutting-floor scraps. To precede the piece, then, I thought I’d share some extra quotes with you, and take you behind the scenes of the story.
1. From my Sondheim conversation:
“Of course, you can fill them, but it's not dynamic, and that's what Tim [Burton] and[screenwriter/producer John Logan] were so cognizant of. You can't just expect the audience to watch anything. I'm a movie fan, and if something isn't happening in a movie, get on with it... The director is hard put just to keep the camera interested [when a song occurs in a traditional movie musical].”
It had been nibbled at by two producers in
I started work in 1977, it was first done in ‘79, and that's it. I should say I was going to write the whole thing, including libretto, but by the time i got up to page seven of 35 in the printed version, I was already close to an hour, and I thought: Uh, oh, this is going to be longer than the Ring cycle. So I called Hugh Wheeler. He was british and knew the legend and had also written mysteries - under name of Patrick Quentin. Then, when his collaborator died, he wrote solo mystery novels under Q. Patrick, and they were popular in the 1930s and 40s when Ellery Queen was popular. I thought he would be perfect: he was a suspense writer and we had a good time writing it.
He saw to it that it wasn’t five hours long. He essentially took what Bond had done but re-plotted successions of incidents, introduced the young person's story a little. He changed the periodicity of it. He stuck very closely to what Bond did. And I did too. Bond wrote this as a potboiler for his traveling theater company. He not only introduced classic stuff in it but made the distinction in language between upper and lower class. The upper class spoke in a kind of blank verse, not written out in pentameter. Lower classes were much more vernacular. There was a whole sociological caste from the play. But the point was that he gave us free reign. It was easy to write.
I was big fan of Bernard Hermann. A big fan of Hangover Square. And the score got me. So this is an homage to Hermann and that kind of Victorian melodrama music that you hear if if you listen to Hangover Square. I wanted to write a musical that would keep an audience in suspense without letting them laugh at it, which is not easy to do. What you realize when you step outside the theater, though, is that the horrors are so much more than inside. You have to keep background music going: it keeps the audience’s suspension of belief. Once they step one foot back, it's close to way over the top. Sweeney is over the top but in a way that an audience gets involved as opposed to giggling at it.
On different productions of his many works, and this one work in particular:
An opera approach in an opera house is a different show than when [Sweeney’s performed] on Broadway. I've always felt when people say: what defines opera, what makes it different from theater. It's where the performance is done. When Menotti was done on Broadway, it was a Broadway show. It's audiences’ expectations and what an audience brings into an opera house as well as how performers perform. With opera singers, the concentration is on vocal production. In Broadway or theater, the concentrations is on story-telling and acting. And the best operas like Carmen combine both. That’s what Puccini was, too.
On Sweeney being a genre bender:
On Sweeney being called “musically complicated”:
”Well, Ravel would have thought it was pretty stodgy. That's not a Broadway audience, though. A Broadway audience hears a dissonance and…[he was implying they react strongly to this stuff.] A person at Yale even once came up and said was this the first atonal music ever written! [Insert shock on the part of Sondheim.] My father was shocked by West Side Story be cause he was brought up on Victor Herbert.
On how a broad American audience will react to it:
“What are they going to make of it? I have no idea. They’re going to wait for the power chords!
“John Logan [the screenwriter] tried very scrupulously to keep the shape of the score while recognizing it had to be kept down… Anybody can do MTV-style cutting to any song in world. That's happened in movies like La Boheme. The point of this is a really good story, and you got to keep it going. This isn’t Bergman’s Magic Flute [ prompted by question the journalist had offered] whose pleasure is lingering over the singing and audience. An opera audience. I'm a movie fan. If somewthing isn't happening, get on with it. When you go into a musical in the theater, you have an unwritten contract: people are going to face front, imagine a fourth wall, and what goes on for three and a half minutes holds your attention because you have a little lingering that opera audiences have love for.
On whether or not
Sondheim ever thought the work would have a life in
It never occurred to me. You can't just adapt stage musicals for screen, you have to recreate them. Where songs are respites in the middle of comedy, it’s OK. But when you attempt with musical theater to tell story through song, it becomes a whole other matter.
On letting go of the rights to the show:
Dreamworks took an option on the piece and it was developed. It's like writing
a novel. It started during the recording session of Bernadette Peters’ revival
of Gypsy. I went out with Sam Mendes for coffee, and he asked if I thought
about it as a movie, and I said no. And he said, wel, I have. He had a deal
with Dreamworks. He got together with [screenwriter John] Logan, and then Sam
decided not to direct it, but it was taken to Tim Burton. Tim came to me 20 years
ago and asked to do it, and I said no, and he went on to other projects. When Sam
brought it up again, I was startled. And
when this came back to Tim, he wanted to do it. It was a piece he liked. I
wasn’t worried about how it would be treated because it was Sam who suggested it
in the first place, and then I loved what
On how Oscar Hammerstein would react to the film:
2. From my conversation with Tim Burton:
“This is not my background at all, you
know. I certainly was never a big theatergoer. I just happened to be in
“What works on a stage, doesn’t work on film all the time. With film, you have the luxury of seeing character's faces and being up close and kind of getting the more interior nature--the inner piece, in a way. And, it changes things. My goal was always to be true to it, because I loved the original.
The first script I ran by [Sondheim] had less music in it, so we ended up going back and putting more back into it just because the show was more music-driven and less kind of traditional dialogue and structure.
On the potential difficulties in editing the film:
Well, you know, the writer John, now I don't know this for sure, but he'd done it where there was more music, less music, different music, you know. He'd been through a lot of different versions and when I got in the ballpark, I went back to more music, like I said. But there were certain things that surprised me that we ended up not doing or changing just because of the somewhat organic nature of it--and it being a film. There a lot of different weird elements. Sondheim's music isn’t the easiest thing to do. Except for a couple of effects, we had no real professional singers--you know, they weren't really classically trained. But that created an interesting dynamic and it was actually quite exciting to me that way. We did it fairly quickly, as we went along.
The interesting thing is that it's great having music on the set because it really informs you and the actors.
Any stage influences?
No. Probably the first one that I
The music is quite beautiful. That's what I love about the piece; it's very lyrical. And then you have that juxtaposed against the imagery. That's what I love about it.
Was Sondheim thinking movies when he wrote this?
Absolutely. The first time I met him he said that and it just made complete sense. And in fact what was amazing was when we first recorded the orchestra without hearing the lyrics, we really hear it. So that was fun in this case to do. Some of the pieces, we didn't keep the lyrics but we kept his score. So it's really kind of great to hear the score because you usually hear it mainly with the lyrics. To find that balance was interesting. And also we recorded it with full orchestra and then we isolated some instruments, and when you pare it down, it really is like an amazing film music score.
On this recording of the music—is it thick or thin?
No, it's thick. But there are, like I said, times when we didn't end up using the lyrics so that you could hear the music.
Is it too sophisticated for mainstream movies?
Well, it was a strange thing. It's an R rated musical, and while some musicals have met with a certain amount of success, you never know. It's something that, you know, doesn’t necessarily come to mind. I think the term “musical” still scares studios a bit. Throw in some blood and an R rating, and you know…
Is this an homage to horror movies?
Yeah, that's one of the things Johnny and I have always talked about over the years. You know, horror movie actors that we loved. This was an opportunity to try to do characters like that. And again the music really fit. There used to be a pianist in these music, or somebody on the side, and the actors just move differently. And what was exciting about this is that you see everybody acting in a different way and moving in a different way because of the music. I thought beforehand that it was going to be really restricting, but it turned out to be the opposite.
On delegating the filmmaking:
“Dante Ferreti [the production designer], I've never really, really worked with before but he's done Fellini movies. You just try to find people that you feel in sync with. We kind of had... not quite a luxurious schedule like you sometimes do on a movie. It was a bit tighter. But it was fun in a way to do that because it did feel like we were making an old horror movie. Just get in there and shoot it as quickly as possible. It kind of woke up the whole horror movie thing. I like to work where you don't have to be overly literal, and everybody gets the whole vibe of it. We never see just one thing as an inspiration, it's always a few. So it never feels like it's this precious box. If it gets to a point where you have to say: do it exactly like that. Or you have to show them a picture and say, make it look exactly like that, you know you're working with the wrong people.
“I was actually interested, a long, long time ago, maybe more than 10 years ago. I was sort of involved with it loosely. I was just with Warner Brothers at that time. I was interested in it for different producers, and I just got sidetracked with other things. I didn't even really know Johnny at that point very much, and I always felt everything happens for a reason, and he just felt more accurate with the character. And that was another issue. You know, on stage, everybody was a little bit older, and that was fine. But for the film it just felt right to make them slightly younger. To make a kid feel like a kid, you know? Not that you’re going to harm your son by a real kid. But it was great: it just gives them an extra layer of strangeness and emotion that it isn't sung by a 30-year-old. There’s something about a kid going in that makes it more strangely real.
On Sondheim and the play:
“I didn't really know Sondheim at
all. I had seen enough productions to see that he seemed to be open to
different interpretations. One was a bit more stylized, one was not. You
know, it's been around for a while, and someone told me that it's one of the
most performed school plays: kids love performing it. There's a large
arena of different types of productions. I talked to so many people here at
On the cast being mostly British:
It just seemed right. Obviously, Johnny's not British. But [the piece] lived there, and it just made more sense.
How was Sondheim involved?
“He had cast approval over the two leads
and we ran by everybody else with him. And he was great because he was
extremely knowledgeable about films. He was a fairly cool guy; he came to
the first couple days of the orchestra recording. He spoke to
“Well, it's not real. That's the thing, to me. It's more like it was on the stage where it was a bit over the top. It goes less for reality and more for emotional effect. It sort of undermines the emotional; it flourishes; it serves as exclamation points. Because it is a melodrama and old horror movie it sort of fit right into that.
“He's such a repressed, such a brooding character. Really, the whole movie is about him getting back at people. So, you know, since he's such an internal character, it really felt like it needed those releases. [The blood, again.]
Were drawings made beforehand?
“Eh, not too much. A little bit. I mean one of the things that struck me was as I was going back through old sketchbooks, I found a little sketch of Ms. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and I thought, Jesus, it looks like Johnny and Helena, you see. And I did it before I knew her. And I mean all my sketches kind of look the same. But it did strike me. I did a couple of drawings like that of the characters, and I did a couple of little sketches, little barber shop sketches. Dante [Ferretti] is such an amazing draftsman. I would do a couple of little doodles if I had the thought.
The Desaturated look.
We thought a lot about the color in terms of how much color to put on the set and the costumes. It's nice to kind of do and not to so much rely on so much post-production. It almost feels a bit too easy, so we tried to think about it as much as we could up front. The environment was the environment we wanted it to be.
Did Depp’s portrayal surprise?
You know when I asked him if he would be into it, I didn't know if he could sing or not. But I knew well enough that he wouldn't have said yes if he didn't think he could do it. That was good enough for me And I felt very confident that he would do it. Which made it really nice when I first heard him. I thought he could do it, but he also exceeded what I thought, and I just got really excited. It's always nice when people do that: go beyond what you think they're going to do. And it's quite an exposing thing, you know. I'm not a singer. It was quite difficult to not rehearse people, singing. That was a new feeling for me, seeing that.
“I hope it doesn't disappoint. It's hard to know how purists will respond to it. I know, for me, I love the show. So it was always my goal to keep it true to it but make it a movie at the same time. I think the spirit of it is right. And I don't always feel that way. It's just kind of weird experiment to do. We always felt a bit funny, kind of like almost laughing, making this R rated musical. There was this kind of exciting feeling on the set.
“When you see different kind of productions of this done, there all over the shop in a way, aren't they?”
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 07:34 AM | Permalink
There's probably nothing better for your spirit when you're foxholed up in a medical society--and this *is one contained medical community; everyone here has something to do with Mayo--than to escape it as thoroughly as you can. That proved physically impossible for us over the past few days. But thankfully we arrived with an academy screener of Sean Penn's "Into the Wild." I don't know that the movie was the best I've seen. But I do think Penn outdid himself in terms of visual and visceral scope. The film transports you (and in my case, reminds me why I've avoided a fulltime corporate job since the year following my undergraduate degree). I also don't believe like others that the flick necessarily glorified its protagonist: it showed him in frequent states of potheaded smuchkification for all his innate intelligence, ascetism, and Emory degree. Some people are just goofballs, and the film seemed to be honest about that. That Supertramp died so closely to supplies, a highway, and help seems only to enforce that notion. Maybe Penn could have made that more explicit about those facts. And maybe there could have been less original Vedder in the soundtrack. But locking up in a dark hotel room with a laptop DVD viewing session of this film after spending a day grappling with the unique blend of Mayo invasiveness and impersonality really brought Lina and I back home. L.A. may have the worst air in the country but it provides a lot more access to nature than Hell's Kitchen. After the flick, I put myself to bed re-reading Krakauer's Outside article, and thought yet again: This man is an extremely clear writer, but I don't know what his prose legacy will be. Which is not to say that every writer needs to be a great stylist. I love my plain sentences, my purist storytellers, my adventurers who return with tales that defy linguistic elan. But it seems to me that Krakauer's greatest feats have been finding (or living) content and packaging material with his pen. No pun intended. Still, "Into the Wild," the film, was about the best thing I could have watched last night, and Penn deserves some serious recognition for his work. Perhaps Krakauer or the new gen of Krak-type writers should look into the young pioneers who venture into the depths of the elite medical world as patients; these extended trips and transfixing diagnosis procedures should be viewed as intensely as wilderness. There are certainly more ways out of Denali--if you're smart.
Posted on December 13, 2007 at 07:00 AM | Permalink
I think it was John Stewart (did you know his real last name: Leibowitz?) speaking to a supermodel years ago on MTV when I first heard the joke. The model discussed her ethnic background: she had "a little Native American in her," some Indian, some Scottish, some Brazilian. Stewart then asked her if she had a little Jew in her. The model said no. Stewart countered: Would you like to?
It was a funny moment, and it was a joke that Stewart could make, being Jewish, or at least of Jewish heritage. I, too, am Jewish in that it's my cultural makeup. I'm agnostic but still identify as a Jew because it's a culture even if it's not one specific race. (Plus, I'm wholly Ashkenazi, and we have our own genetic diseases, which I consider a rule for determining whether or not you belong to a race or ethnicity. If you're at risk for something that can kill you because of inbreeding that led to you having one cultural makeup, well, welcome to the "having a race" club. Or something.)
But I digress. Recently, while writing a story about direct e-mail publicity and marketing, I took notice of an e-mail I frequently receive from a PR firm representing Nextbook.org, a great magazine concerning Jewish culture. I respect this publication but don't know how they found my address. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer or blogger, and they just have a good PR team that looks for coverage under many stones (including blogs where the writer might post schmaltz recipes). That's probably the case. But I also have Jewish friends who receive notices from synagogues when they move to new cities. How do congregations know when new Jews move to town? Odd.
As for Jew-on-Jew humor, I'm usually in favor of it, especially from purveyors who share a somewhat common sense of gravitas: Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, even Sacha Baron Cohen (who definitely isn't anti-Semitic by acting as an anti-Semite and showing scenes of people in America offering glimpses of their fucked-up social views). I have never felt that these jokes about Jewish life are anti-Semitic, though some of the more conservative Jews definitely get cranky about them. In fact, I make fun of what being Jewish in 2007 can be like, too--for instance, needing to eat salted cured meat on a regular basis because my body chemistry requires it to produce a specific kind of irony-fuel. Or the fact that I'm glad I didn't marry another Ashkenazi, so my children might actually have good musculature. You get my point.
One team of writers and directors who cross the line in my opinion, however, have a new biopic-spoof movie coming out soon about a Johnny Cash-like character. I'm not allowed to discuss the film before its release, so say the PR people. But I have to say something without mentioning it, and I'm sure you'll put the pieces together.
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 09:13 AM | Permalink
So, the main subject of this story, submitted to the Sun before this weekend, offered similar quotes to another paper that got the scoop over the smaller kids yesterday (the result? some fast omissions by a great editor -- this isn't a unique problem). Still, I think the story's worth reading if you're interested in films about borderline writers and their brethren--though I won't blame you if you're not!
Noah Baumbach On Family Island, New York Sun, 11/12/07
Posted on November 12, 2007 at 01:52 PM | Permalink
See today's short L.A. Times piece about young British actor, Jamie Campbell Bower -- currently riding the Young Hollywood publicity machine with uncommon verve. With a role in Tim Burton's forthcoming film version of the Sondheim musical, starring Johnny Depp, Bower sings and acts with the kind of talent most young Hollywood actors can't imagine. And in the course of reporting a larger story about the production of the film, I happened to catch a quick breakfast with the guy. The film, as I'm learning, was really a culmination of passions for many important people, even if it just looks like a Christmas-release horror-entertainment. And it certainly deals with material that more mainstream moviegoers would love if only they knew Sondheim. But I'll leave my commentary there. The big story runs in December. Click for more to read today's piece in text form below.
Posted on November 04, 2007 at 02:38 AM | Permalink
After spending some recent time with some very lovely Canadians, I recently took on an assignment from Toronto-based Sir magazine (available with your Globe and Mail). It was to discuss in brief Bob Dylan's impact on style and attitude in celebration of the forthcoming November biopic, "I'm Not There." I like writing for the back pages of magazines. While this is by far not anyone's last word on Dylan, it's mine, at least for November.
Positively Dylan, Sir, November 2007.
Why Glass Shallot?
Because if the times didn't change, we'd go rotten.
Posted on October 01, 2007 at 12:43 PM | Permalink
Last night, I attended a screening of the forthcoming and quite silly "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," the sequel to Shekhar Kapur's first Elizabeth film that shot Cate Blanchett to the top. It was intriguing for me because I had just spent some time writing a short essay on the occasion of November's new Dylan biopic, "I'm Not There," for which Blanchett, decked out in an afro and hipster garb, just won an award at Venice. (Yes, she plays the freewheelin' prophet of songwriting among six other actors in the only film about himself the musician ever sanctioned.) But to see her take on the role of Elizabeth I again was stimulating--but not for the right reasons. Surprise, but the "Elizabeth" sequel verges on cartoon it's so shoddily pasted together--including unexplained subplots, undeveloped characters, and so much chintzy soap drama, HBO's "The Tudors" looks like a PBS documentary.
Not even Blanchett's genuine attempt at finding this legendary woman's inner fear and isolation--at one point in the film, she says something to the effect of acting as if she sees her subjects through a pane of glass--could save the flick. Nor could the increasingly less captivating Clive Owen in a caricaturish impression of the man historians have fictionalized as explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, purveyor of New World potatoes (yum), tobacco, and Spanish gold. Blanchett still maintains her command of the screen in many ways, even showing a layered if modernly manic vulnerable side to the lady that would be prince (though it gets tiresome and repetitive even if she's divine in more ways than one). And there's plenty of opulence on set. I don't know about you but when I see people murdered, I want to see what they look like after having their arms bluntly amputated first.
But here's what really stands out 12 hours after seeing the spectacle: 1) Samantha Morton's unintentionally hilarious rendition of Mary Queen of Scots, pulsing her murderous fists while screaming in a Scrooge McDuckish brogue; 2) That Kapur hired Johnny Depp's dopey coke-dealer jail-friend from "Blow" to play a retarded-seeming version of Spain's King Philip; 3) That the short and disgusting Spanish ambassador had gigantically curvy lips, a totally racist account of Spanish men (let's just say it: all Brits didn't and still don't look like Clive Owen); 4) The silly Armada invasion sequence during which the Spanish scream "Fire ships!" in horror as the Brit boats obviously sail ablaze while the Queen, herself, watches from the rocky shores, alone and unprotected.
Even funnier, perhaps, was the real life stuff. Geoffrey Rush was (in his words, "unfortunately,") present in L.A. for the post-screening Q&A, where he discussed how he didn't really have to convince Cate to do the movie even if that's the story the press has latched onto. But then Kapur, the soft spoken Bombay-based director, added, as if he hadn't been listening, that if it wasn't for Rush's convincing of Cate to do a sequel that wouldn't feel like a sequel (oh, come on), the movie never would have been made. Rush didn't look pleased. But what immediately became evident was that Queen Cate probably only signed on to do this movie with the caveat that all cast and crew would have to speak constantly about her apprehension concerning a sequel as if this might protect her from critical attacks during her current reign. Not likely, but I wonder if this publicity note wasn't even written into her contract. It seemed like a point of contention, and something that had to be shared with the public whenever the film is mentioned.
What struck me most was that such seemingly mature men and women feel the need to engage in such childish entertainment at this point in their wealthy, seasoned lives. I guess the money doesn't hurt. But didn't this take a lot of time to produce? Time they could have been, well, living? I hope that if I ever sustain the sort of wealth that these actors and directors enjoy, I will be able to focus on more substantive diversions. But that's just me: a writer who has yet to be given $10 million to play swash-buckling dress-up in service of reinforcing stereotypes about people who made war in the name of God 500 years ago (like we don't have enough of them in our daily lives). Oh, Elizabeth: We've missed ya.
Why Glass Shallot?
Because it's tastier than a raw Virgina potato, even from the Midas-like hands of Clive Owen.
Posted on September 16, 2007 at 07:09 AM | Permalink
Before it got crazy-hot in Hollywood, I had a chance to enjoy some deli with "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" gracious Jeff Garlin, whose first writing-directing effort "I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With" arrives in theaters and on IFC very soon. Here's the story in today's NY Sun (please disregard a rude headline that tries to be cute, courtesy of someone other than the humble author), and have a look below the link for some transcript extras. "Curb" fans, your fix:
Jeff Garlin interview extras:
On watching his film in Hollywood's lame little screening rooms: “No, I actually prefer it to when someone’s seeing it on a DVD because you want everyone to see your movie on a big screen. My movie seems to play better on a bigger screen than it does on DVD, which concerns me given the [IFC] “on demand” aspect of it. But for this kind of movie, that on-demand aspect just gives more people the opportunity to see it. So I don’t dispute it and certainly with a small movie, I’d do it again.”
AB: You're funny. Are people usually nervous around you?
JG: For the most part, no. But, sometimes they are, which I find strange. Because I don’t think I’m shit.
AB: Is it hard to direct, write, and produce at once?
JG: None of it’s hard. I hate to say that. But the hard part of acting is learning lines. Hard part of directing is putting in the preparation. Hard part of being a comedian is... I don’t what’s hard about that. It’s hard for other people who don’t have the skills that I have.
AB: What are the skills that you have?
JG: I’m funny! Really, the hard part of show business is the business part. That’s what I get paid for. I don’t get paid to act or direct a movie. I get paid to deal with the [nice people!] when it comes to negotiating a contract, or dealing with people who don’t have a creative point of view. That’s what I get paid for. But HBO is a utopia. HBO is different than other places.
AB: What about getting this movie [“I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With”] made?
JG: I banged my head against the wall to get ahead, and I still can’t believe it’s actually coming out, or that it was even made.
AB: It’s funny, I like Sarah Silverman, but I never put you and her together in the same group of colleagues.
JG: I don’t hang out with her much anymore. I don’t think she hangs out with anybody, except for Jimmy Kimmel and whoever she’s working with. She works hard. I wrote the part for her. I’ve been friends with her since she was 19.
AB: What was she like then?
JG: She was this cute little girl. The Boston Comedy Club in New York, I remember meeting her there, and she was very sweet. We’ve been friends ever since.
AB: What do you think about her whole sex-symbol thing?
JG: Well, she’s a beautiful girl and she’s got a high-level of sexuality. Good for her.
AB: She reminds me of girls I went to high school with on Long Island, but those girls also made me laugh. Anyway, improv people are really kind of taking over now. It requires more interior thinking, no?
JG: Well, the thing about improvisation is that you can’t teach somebody how to be funny, but you can teach them how to improvise. I’m not saying everyone can do it, but you can be taught to do it. You can be taught how to act. Plenty of people have never acted before, and people find jobs. But you can’t teach someone how to be funny. You can look at it this way: there are great violinists. But you can teach lots of people to play the violin. I think improv falls under the same guise. I really do. But comedy, you’re born funny or you’re not. You’re born with greatness on the violin, or you’re not.
AB: How would you teach improv? Do you teach?
JG: There are basic rules, and if you follow the rules, you’re okay. Every once in a while, I’ll do a workshop for free. I wouldn’t charge anybody for my knowledge.
AB: What’s with the puddin’? My father's a professor of rice pudding, but you’re not quite his age.
JG: I love rice puddin’. But, you know what, when I was a little kid all the way through my early 20’s, I didn’t like it. You find it later on.
AB: Where do you find it?
JG: At your local grocer! You know who makes a good one? Kozy Shack. Kozy Shack pudding is tremendous.
Why Glass Shallot?
Because we are descended from connoisseurs of Kozy Shack.
Posted on August 31, 2007 at 09:09 PM | Permalink
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing one Chris Eigeman, the witty actor from films by directors of talky, NY movies (Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach) that I've admired for years. Today the story runs in the LA Times Calendar section: Read it here or see the text version and a large addendum of extra quotes that couldn't make it into the story after the jump. One thing you'll learn about the actor who's been thought of us as the image of urbanity is that he grew up pretty far from the NY prep-school/debutante scene. Another thing you'll learn is that you don't have to be fit for playing a neurotic as long as you can act. Again, here's the piece and below it, extra quotes for all you closet "Metropolitan" fans...
Posted on June 10, 2007 at 08:06 AM | Permalink
Heaving breasts, the color rosa, the pig-centric kitchen prowess of Mario Batali (if he were the world's *second* most gorgeous woman): The most striking aspect of Pedro Almodovar's Raimunda in “Volver”--other than her physical exquisiteness-- is that she is a person—not just a woman—who moves forward, no questions asked. Forget returning: Raimunda is progressing.
Much has been written about Almodovar and his love for women—I personally enjoy this proclivity of his as I do his fascination with the dead. And much has been made of his problem with men (see Anthony Lane; note: usually love his reviews, this one not so much). But gender arguments aside, Almodovar has written a character that can weather insanity-inducing winds, rape, incest, worse, loss, and then the ultimate shock: seeing it happen to her daughter. Raimunda may live in a land that only Almodovar could create, but she is very much of our time and place. It seems fitting that the people I gel with best now are the pro-active, the surviving, the people who get things done and take care of even the dirtiest business. The ones who forge on despite petty, negative obstacle-characters or terrifying news. Avoid confrontation? You’re not one of these people. Leave things unsaid, conflicts unresolved, people you love on hold? You, too, don’t apply. You don't treasure life, and you'll be remembered that way. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you--or that I'm someone who should even say such a thing--only that I know I loved Volver because I am psychologically attracted to those men and women who are more Raimunda-like than those who aren't. The reasons are personal, but my point here is to say that Almodovar has--yes, as many critics have written--created yet another fiction that only he could dream up, in a place that only could exist in his head, but that his is also the best fiction: the type that feels real, of this earth. Raimunda is, underneath it all, a brave life-lover who only wants her serving of it with all the trimmings, and that's what Volver's about. Our new reality. Ghosts, fucking, cancer, and insanity included. (If only Clive Owen's character in "Children of Men" could have met her when their fates crossed in filmland. Maybe at an awards show...)
Posted on January 29, 2007 at 08:48 AM | Permalink
In "Children of Men," the one recent futuristic flick I actually thought quite highly of, John Tavener's high-pitched vocal wails blend with Messianesque jazz riffs from Radiohead's Amnesiac. But it's the unusual cover of Ruby Tuesday that regularly streams throughout the film that caught my ears. Who did it? The answer is Franco Battiato, an Italian Renaissance man (musician, composer, filmmaker, painter) born in 1945. I love how a musician unknown to Americans--one who refuses to compose in one genre, or even pursue just one avenue of the arts, praising Stockhausen and composing prog rock at once--is the mystery singer of the beautifully chosen Stones's anthem. Hearing Mick's words--"She would never say where she came from, yesterday don't matter if it's gone, etc."--sounded all the more appropos of Alfonso Cuaron's rootless and frighteningly believable tale in which the world goes infertile, ethnic cleansing reigns as political borders dissolve, and out of the blue, one young woman becomes pregnant. So much for staying away from the apocalyptic cinema, huh? Do we have a convert over in Shallotville? At the very least, I've got a fever, and the prescription is more Battiato.
Posted on January 18, 2007 at 08:44 AM | Permalink
If enlightenment and, well, Bliss, overtook you as you read this weekend's New York Times story on David Lynch and his "shockingly peaceful" life as a proponent of Transcendental Meditation, I'm sorry to say that the puff piece completely missed the mark on this extraordinarily creepy marriage. Instead, it chose to gloss over the Absolutely Cultyclimate of Mr. Lynch's attempt to snatch the brains of young people--especially those with means--who just perpetually want to learn a little about their favorite movies. Want a trustworthy first-person account of Inland Empire's finest and the cool buddies he's mind-melded with over at the Maharishi's? If world peace is the only thing driving David Lynch, Tom Cruise is, in fact, my long lost alien Messiah.
You read it here first: Lynch Mob.
Posted on December 30, 2006 at 04:31 PM | Permalink
After seeing Blood Diamond recently--how happy I was to learn about this film's release during the year that I would once and for all purchase an engagement ring--I felt like a number of other film critics: I saw how Jennifer Connelly's poorly drawn, do-gooding journalist character only cementedthe media's commitment to Africa but went wrong--why not show a journalist with a little less self-righteousness and hence paint the true picture I'm shown from foreign correspondent friends? But more interesting to me was this recent and daring Walrus article about the Hollywood Africa connection. Charity comes in many forms. Often from Canada! (In that spirit, check out Eric Grossberg's conflict-free diamond business, Brilliant Earth.)
Posted on December 28, 2006 at 08:57 AM | Permalink
I try not to review too many films on this blog, but I find myself needing to discuss certain aspects of Todd Field's "Little Children." I found his first hit film "In the Bedroom" quite overrated--it seemed absolutely appropriate for ABC Sunday Night Movie programming but not for Oscar consideration (and neither Tom Wilkinson's stoicism or Sissy Spacek's melodrama helped that cause). I felt differently about "Little Children," though. Kate Winslet's portrayal of a woman learning how to become the woman she'd like to be--to say nothing of Jackie Earle Haley's return to cinema as a sex offender one can actually feel for--absolutely keep the narrative churning at high octanes. I wasn't so much a fan of how the movie began with a third-person voice-over--though the opening sentences weren't terribly disturbing, the film's closing commentary, which tells one how to think about the story that has just been told, isn't necessary--but it did lead me to explore a section of the novel by Tom Perrotta on which the film is based. And guess what? I found the book absolutely unremarkable. In the first few pages, Perrotta quickly goes dime-store-meta and references both the Farelly Brothers and the film American Beauty. Which shouldn't be necessary in a book that roasts suburban disillusionment. And let's be honest: How many readers are going to understand those references in fifty to a hundred years. I liked a comment Ian Parker recently made about Christopher Hitchens in a recent New Yorker article. He reminded us that everything Hitchens writes, regardless of its pro-war buffoonery, is written to be read after the writer has passed. I appreciate a writer who thinks about his words this way (let's forget I'm speaking about Hitchens specifically). I say if you're going to make literature, why not take that approach? Usually I find that movies made from books fail the narratives they adapt. In this case (and yes, Tom Perrotta played a hand in "Little Children's" script), I think the movie is far more eloquent. Without the voice-overs.
Posted on October 30, 2006 at 08:33 PM | Permalink
In today's edition of Kottke.org there's a bit about how Roger Ebert calls Syriana a "hyperlink movie" (a concept allegedly founded on Mark Bernstein's blog in 2003). I wholeheartedly agree, but don't believe Ebert is the only critic now making these connections in print. In David Denby's review of the film, the New Yorker critic writes: "[Gaghan is] a Web-era filmmaker—distance is just a form of connection." I took this idea as a jumping off point in December to discuss how the film's form is emblematic of its message, but that I didn't feel like it worked. Certainly not as well as Traffic. In fact, I simply found it a way to manipulate people bred on this system of information-linking. This is, after all, the easiest way to incite anxiety in a viewer like me who had the Internet at age 17 and often has to flood my mind with linear methods of storytelling just to remain a clear writer. To understand hyperlink films, however, it might be best to take a trip to the source: hypertext. In this article for the NY Times about e-mail fiction, I scratched the surface, though did manage to bring in some thoughts by hypertext scholar Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Get into this world, I tell you, and you might not find a way out. But hey, maybe it will help you feel more comfortable viewing Syriana. Such that you may actually enjoy the thing.
Posted on February 10, 2006 at 04:38 AM | Permalink
Meeting film composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, who won the Oscar for "Finding Neverland" and is building Poland's equivalent of Sundance, it became evident to me just how much personality has to do with success in a creative endeavor. You can be the most inventive, pioneering artist, but if you don't like to breathe, look at the world, play, improvise, jump into situations and see how you can fit into them, you're definitely missing something. Jan's interview was also unique for me, because there was no hurry. I've conducted interviews with other people in which both parties enjoy the conversation and it doesn't feel rushed. But this conversation was perhaps one of the most natural and limitless. If, in fact, I hadn't had to run home and write the piece, we might have spoken longer. Jan's directors echo this sentiment. They told me they like to work with him because he's always happy to open another door and see where it takes him. Read the LA Times profile from this Sunday's Calendar section--it's copied as text after the jump if the LAT link doesn't work--and see how a talented film composer can weather Hollywood politicking and actually stay true to the vision that brought him here.
Posted on January 14, 2006 at 08:21 AM | Permalink
Ken Levine agrees with me on Match Point, and I really appreciate his blog's accessible tone, to say nothing of all the helpful info he offers on crafting good film/tv. Of course, no one respects Woody Allen more than me, but I'll almost go so far as to say that I didn't believe he had lost his gift UNTIL Match Point. I could endure all the surface-y screwball comedies of the last few years (ok, not Anything Else, or Melinda Melinda). But when he deigned to plagiarize his own movie--and my second favorite of his ouvre (Crimes and Misdemeanors: see it)--he really proved to me that he is out of things to say and, at least with this film, only interested in repurposing his most stirring moral drama so he can finally make some money with it via that little cash vessel known as Scarlett. Celebrate Woody Allen, I say. He's worth celebrating, just like a great writer from the '70s and '80s who has retired. But let's not say this shallow film with pretty actors and a very predictable plot is phenomenal when all it is is a return--and a forgettable, merely average one--to the plots of Woody Past.
Posted on January 11, 2006 at 06:00 PM | Permalink
So I made the mistake of landing on the Critics' Choice Awards last night, after more than a week of non-blogging (and hence not giving much attention to the side of my brain that critiques stuff). Yet after landing on the frighteningly intimate show--like the Globes, it had some of the biggest stars sitting close together at cocktail tables--I couldn't quite change the channel. It was sort of fascinating to watch the stars take everything so nonchalantly. To be sure, it's exciting to be given an award from the people who critique your work all year. But let we forget, Anthony Lane, J. Hoberman, and Andrew Sarris aren't exactly the reviewers doling out the prizes. The Critics' Choice Awards, as one might have surmised by morning show lightweight Joel Siegel enjoying the honor of presenting the Best Picture award, is governed by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Which means, essentially, that Joel Siegel was likely the most adept critical mind on the panel, as anyone who has ever watched a review of a movie on their local TV news will agree. It was pretty funny to watch, in fact: One could sense Mr. Siegel's awareness that everyone really knows he's a mental lightweight--with Spielberg, Clooney, Ang Lee, Paul Haggis, and Jim Mangold in the room, it was finally the star's chance to feel intellectually superior. And as each accepted his or her award, it was as if he or she was acting excited--if not terribly casual. Clooney's speech--he received some sort of Freedom Award for the important work he's contributed over the last year--was strikingly articulate, humble, and off-the-cuff (and he's the son of a newsman). Of course, as Mssr. Siegel reminded his audience, five of the past six winners of the Critics' Choice award for best picture have won the Best Picture Oscar. (Does that mean the Academy watches their local news reports too much?) Still, it was hard to escape sensations that the stars knew the broadcast critics only matter insofar as they promote ticket sales. "I love critics!" exclaimed Reese Witherspoon, who then went on to qualify her statement saying that that's at least how she felt this year--well, one half of this year. I just wish the camerapeople would have cut-away from the stage more. It would have been interesting to see Clooney and Spielberg chatting about an NYT Op-Ed one of them was reading on his smartphone. Next year, how about the real critics get together to dole out awards? Then we might get to see how Hollywood creatives feel about the critical voices that matter.
Posted on January 10, 2006 at 08:47 AM | Permalink
So, surprise, Bar Mitzvah Disco queens: Jews are "hip," as well as "creative, neurotic and brainy." And oh yeah, they play heavy metal, and Rrrap. Or so the latest VH1 list show would have it. Remember that one week, many years ago, when "I Love the '80s" was actually comedic? Remember when it was so, so shameful to be a Jew that everyone thought all the studio heads and top writers and comics were "goyim"? Get the lowdown on VH1's most tired attempt at pop cultural classification yet from THR's Andrew Wallenstein. And Happy Hanukkah, all you boring and conservative CPAs.
Posted on December 20, 2005 at 03:31 PM | Permalink
So I'm currently attempting to listen to every decent movie score of '05 for both a large print piece and extensive online supplment, and therefore offer a call to the film-music peeps: Feel free to suggest to me something I may not have heard, and get in touch if you're interested in being considered, even if you wrote the music to, say, King Kong. And if you've never written, sold, produced, marketed, or edited any movie music but still want to get in touch, please do that too. The holiday season makes shallots lonely.
Posted on December 07, 2005 at 10:54 AM | Permalink
For me, taking in "Syriana," wasn't a pleasant experience. That's not because I don't support George Clooney and his film's message (I do). That's not because I found the film weak (I didn't: I agree wholeheartedly with David Denby's assertion that it's "outrageously complicated" and feel as if the scenes are nastily curt and the product of an Internet-age screenwriter but that in the end, things come together, the camerawork and acting impresses, and I buy the simultaneity.) Nor was the movie unpleasant simply for broaching subject matter I don't like to think about (I think about this subject matter often, which, I hope, explains my need for comedy). "Syriana" was unpleasant, though not in the redemptive way, because I felt as if its form, while impressively emblematic of the blogosphere and current media landscape, was too manipulative for a viewer raised on multi-tasking, Web site links, and too many cable channels. In "Traffic," Stephen Gaghan's multiple drug-trade stories seemed better connected and fleshed out. The threads were strong, they didn't reek of anomie or seek to cause chest pains in its viewers. In "Syriana," the stories and scenes felt more than nastily curt; they felt random and explosive like dirty bombs that explode in distant locations killing innocent people. To be sure, I'm a fan of using form to communicate messages in a narrative. And this technique, of jumping from one semi-related story to another in a film over the expanse of oceans and cultures, gets right to the perimeter, if not to the heart, of many problems plaguing our world. But "Syriana" left me with free-floating anxiety lacking specific cause when it should have left me with concern for its subject matter. It might have worked differently, of course, for someone who isn't already concerned with its subject matter, and it should, certainly, be seen by people who don't delve into pop culture for reasons of fun and escape. Still, I felt like the script needed better connections, more shape and depth to its individual stories, and less of a suicide bomber's technique. Hence, the most gripping portion of the movie for me: 10 seconds of Clooney driving across the desert, while Alexandre Desplat's minimalist score sang; the music of the moment--playing urgently repetitive cells beneath long, searching melodic cries--speaking to the historic, conflicted pain pulsing in the ground. Music that tied together much more than a script that, for all its ambition, drama, and responsible urgency, could.
P.S. Desplat also wrote the music for "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" -- my favorite crazy pianist film of the year.
P.P.S. The line I stood in at L.A.'s Grove mall to get into the movie was impressively long. This as Range Rover after Range Rover dumped more happy buyers into the outdoor consumer paradise than I had ever seen at the site.
P.P.P.S. In response to numerous queries, I am not related to Robert Baer or Max Baer, for that matter.
Posted on December 05, 2005 at 09:45 AM | Permalink
The only two films playing all day at the Sunset Five other than Sarah Silverman's are about transsexuals. Is this some sort of hint-statement that America's most desired young Jewish female -- the dark-locked anti-shiksa causing good Jewish boys everywhere to reconsider their ban on kosher mates -- is something other (or more) than a (mere) woman? Idea for a short film: A sequel to Woody Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" in which a hot young female potty mouth comic from Sheepshead Bay grows to King Kong-like proportions, whines sardonically about baby-killing and rape in Times Square for all who will listen, and dominates the inner lives of every Semitic young man within 15 blocks of a New York City subway until their very souls, to say nothing of their wallets, are hers for the taking.
Posted on December 02, 2005 at 05:40 PM | Permalink
A Radar Magazine Q&A with Zach Galifianakis, a true Comedian of Comedy. I wish I could have posted the whole transcript (maybe later). Until then, I quote Nicholas Cage on the oh-so-Bergmanesque Hollywood action director John Woo: "He makes me feel free." Text follows after the jump.
Posted on November 29, 2005 at 06:32 PM | Permalink
So I just had the distinct pleasure of interviewing comedian Zach Galifianakis, who you may know from VH1's expectedly cancelled "Late World with Zach" (expectedly because it was, you know, funny) or from many Conan appearances. Or from the Dogma-annihilating high-art show/film "The Comedians of Comedy." Stay tuned for the officially published text. In the meantime, though, let me tell you something most people don't know about Zach. He doesn't just tickle the ivories, he sings (visit this page and click on the image to the left of the "Week 1" text) .
Posted on November 17, 2005 at 11:47 PM | Permalink
David Lynch has frightened the living hell out of me again. This time, though, his tool isn’t a crazed movie monster-man living behind a Hollywood dumpster. No, David Lynch is terrifying in real life. Possibly simple and a lot less interesting than any of us ever thought, or possibly maniacal and as up to no good as those on the good ship Sea Org. Or so his appearance at USC last night made clear.
David Lynch has started his own foundation dedicated to raising $7 billion so he can make transcendental meditation (TM) available for students, and help build in Washington, D.C. a university for world peace. Sounds pretty evil, right? Well, that’s the point. On the surface it sounds completely beautiful, if the work of a wackadoo -- something only a right-wing conservative would have the guts to criticize (God forbid there exist some sensible, conformity hating democrats who feel raped by any organization that tries to control their minds).
Surprise: There is nothing wrong with meditation, yoga, expanding
one’s consciousness, and promoting peace. There is nothing wrong with
emphasizing our global connections to each other (except for the fact that all that lack of hate will result in movies that bore us to death). And Lynch is clearly as right as ever, as he said to a hall full of cultish filmschool
followers: George Bush could stand to do a little meditation. For all of the
institutions we have erected to explicitly produce soldiers, we should devote some to creating peacemakers. Um, ok.
But David Lynch, and his colleagues, including this man and this man (and please visit the Web site for their Maharishi University of Management to listen to their unusually creepy podcasts), aren’t exactly going about their agenda the way qualitative yogis or emotionally mature and centered cultural leaders with smart political ideas should. No, the team--which is traveling around the country’s richest universities and hoodwinking students with bad neurological science to promote the TM practiced by the same Maharishi who both taught and swindled the Beatles (according to the Beatles!)--is using Lynch's already cultish following to build what seems like plans for a cult. A band of calm young meditators with money who will do (and fund) anything he wants. Like, for instance, sending Mssr. Hagelin (linked to above) to the White House as a devoted instrument of the Maharishi. I know that would never happen (and that it would still probably be an improvement), but still.
Last night’s event went like this: David Lynch, in all his black-suited glory, appeared with the caveat that he doesn’t like to speak in public (a fact that proved completely untrue as the night wore on), and then proceeded to solicit questions from the audience for a presentation that on paper should have been meticulously planned out. Well, guess what? It was meticulously planned out. People seemed to be stationed in the audience to ask the man specific questions (the first one, on his feeling about the “light in Los Angeles”).
He then went on to construct numerous circular sentences that didn’t answer specific questions about how to meditate, or why money is required to do so. Terms and phrases he threw out over and over without further clarification included: “diving in,” “pure consciousness,” “bliss consciousness,” “being,” etc. It was like speaking to my yoga teacher in Topanga Canyon. Which is fine. Bring on the creativity-enhancing Bodi Tree bliss. The problem, though, is that all this nonsense didn’t elucidate Lynch's intentions: it didn’t explain his exact plans for the $7 billion (why is meditation so expensive to provide?), or why he was organizing a presentation that felt like a first date at the Scientology Celebrity Center, or how he met these “scientists” (including Hagelin, the super-string theorist) he works with, or anything about ayurvedic medicine, or how he came to partner with all these other “doctors,” or, or. OR!
Lest we forget, the event was also obviously being filmed and photographed by people who could have been Lynch’s staff, smiling stage-bound onlookers who looked like they had focused on numerous audience members for large amounts of time as the man spoke (images of Ingmar Bergman's Magic Flute, in which audience shots cut from one to another, were impossible to ignore).
Was this all a stunt? Part of a forthcoming film? A giant performance art project Lynch will continue to perform until the purple box known as his life is closed for good?
The next segment of the evening nearly (just nearly) convinced me of that conjecture. I default to Aaron Swartz’s blog for a more detailed explanation of the “scientific” portion of the presentation, in which Hagelin described modern physics and jumped abruptly into how meditation can be used to keep stress and crime levels down (again, surprise). This before Dr. Fred Travis did an EEG on a “student’s” brain on stage – where this student came from wasn’t discussed, but the one doctor did note how he had been doing TM since the age of five (highly probable, no?). The point of the EEG was to show how brain waves calm down and align themselves during TM, but there was no way to prove 100% that an actual EEG was happening on stage, and there was obviously no true science to prove that the kid was doing TM.
More disappointing, Lynch wouldn’t really answer any questions about his films or filmmaking except for offering superficial comments--he did admit to being excited about creating a virtual-world video game, and he did flaunt bliss about new giant flatscreens with perfect resolution. But whenever someone asked a scientific question, he either deferred to his doctor friends or spoke in Vedic code. When asked what the monster-man behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive symbolizes, he said very little. He explained how opening up his consciousness brings him ideas, which baits other ideas and strings them together. His belief about why film matters? It allows us to tell stories. His answer for why he includes so much disturbing matter in his films despite being a peace-loving TM devotee? If there's struggle, let it be in your films, not your life.
Is Lynch just an
ex-hippie who’s tired, as he said (and I paraphrase), of $7 billion going to the production of
three-and-a-half B1 bombers that can’t even protect us on a day like 9/11?
Is he just a yoga-toting Hollywood creative who got hooked on TM, and let the Maharishi's men
convince him it is his duty to change the world? Is he a live-action Abstract Illusionist who's laughing at us right now (doubtful)? Is he Ringo Starr?
Watch the show he’s
touring with from an appearance at Emerson College and decide for yourself. All I know
is that no one in last night’s audience (including me) had the guts to get up and
ask this man anything sensible, and the whole thing felt so violating I
couldn’t sleep last night. If Lynch is really just trying to spread relaxation
and peace among students who he worries are bound for lives devoid of
creativity and rife with tension and war-making and right-wing politics, then
fine. But why the cultish presentation? Why the secrets? Why the pseudoscience
to prove something everyone already knows about the benefits of meditating? Why
the pyramid-scheme-style manipulation? Why the desire for the princely sum of $7 billion if not for a plan to try to amass national power and build a society of followers?
And why ask for it from impressionable young people who attend ritzy colleges? What in God’s
name is going on here?! And why hasn't Katie Couric [editors note in December 06: This was written awhile ago], the Serious Journalist Du Jour interested in getting some Real Hard Facts about the country's kookiest religions, lined up an interview with Mr. Elephant Man? David Lynch Bliss Resources created after this initial post: Beliefnet interview: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/184/story_18457_1.html SF Chron: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/11/06/LVG9MFIG9L1.DTL&hw=David+Lynch&sn=001&sc=1000
Watch the show he’s touring with from an appearance at Emerson College and decide for yourself. All I know is that no one in last night’s audience (including me) had the guts to get up and ask this man anything sensible, and the whole thing felt so violating I couldn’t sleep last night. If Lynch is really just trying to spread relaxation and peace among students who he worries are bound for lives devoid of creativity and rife with tension and war-making and right-wing politics, then fine.
But why the cultish presentation? Why the secrets? Why the pseudoscience to prove something everyone already knows about the benefits of meditating? Why the pyramid-scheme-style manipulation? Why the desire for the princely sum of $7 billion if not for a plan to try to amass national power and build a society of followers? And why ask for it from impressionable young people who attend ritzy colleges? What in God’s name is going on here?! And why hasn't Katie Couric [editors note in December 06: This was written awhile ago], the Serious Journalist Du Jour interested in getting some Real Hard Facts about the country's kookiest religions, lined up an interview with Mr. Elephant Man?
David Lynch Bliss Resources created after this initial post:
Beliefnet interview: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/184/story_18457_1.html
SF Chron: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/11/06/LVG9MFIG9L1.DTL&hw=David+Lynch&sn=001&sc=1000
Posted on November 04, 2005 at 08:15 AM | Permalink
In Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," the younger sibling, Frank, played with deft expressionism by the rising star Owen Kline (the son of Kevin and Phoebe Cates), there are numerous sexually uncomfortable scenes underscored by a minimalist piece of music, presumably written by the film's composers, Luna's Britta Philips and Dean Wareham. To me, the music sounded like an inescapable homage to a few minimalist anthems, the stuff of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. I'm still unsure of the actual piece of music I'm speaking about, but details aren't terribly important here, for the issue at hand is not who wrote these pop-hypnotic musical cells but how well they help one feel uncomfortable when faced with a child's distress. I came to listen to this form of music -- in both its original and popified variety -- when I was in college, and for me it was always soothing -- not in the way that a boomer might find Hadyn soothing on the drive home -- but in the philosophical sense. After seeing Baumbach's film, which I respect but can't seem to write about for various reasons, I listened to Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, and realized just how jarring some of this music can be. I worry that I might now associate something with a form of music that never carried with it any clear associations before. This too shall pass, I imagine. But for now, Terry Riley makes me want to squirm.
Posted on October 18, 2005 at 09:32 AM | Permalink