Friday, July 31, 2015

Murder, Empathy and Some Songs

It is Friday, time for more music - but maybe more than music. One of these days I might manage more than one post a week! but until then it can't hurt to expand the one post a bit.

Another week with a lot going on, I admit. Might we relate some of these events?

1) In Cincinnati, another policeman shooting another black person - this time, though, the cop has been indicted. The cop shot the man for no reason, and did it on camera - so... stunning how much it takes to get a case to come to this level of justice; also stunning to think just how arrogant some cops can be. How little attention they pay to the evidence that could emerge against them.

2) Cecil the Lion: this has been dominating the internet lately - a famous lion on a wildlife reservation in Zimbabwe was lured off the preserve and shot by an American dentist called Walter Palmer who paid $50,000+ to kill a lion. International outrage follows. Palmer's dental practice is chased out of business in short order by internet abuse and real life protests. Well - he deserves it. It's hard to fathom the awfulness of this person - flying around the world to kill rare animals for fun, at least some of the time breaking the law to do it; and then look at the way he immediately blamed his guides when he got caught! A real class guy.

It really is an awful story - I just don't get it at all. I understand hunting - I don't have any interest in it myself, never did, but I grew up in semi-rural places, and most of my family still lives in rural and semi-rural places, I have always known lots of hunters. And they strike me as being as unlike this Palmer character as I am. Hunting deer and birds - they hunt things they plan to eat (and that seems like a baseline: if you aren't going to eat it, don't kill it - not a complete moral system there, but an irreducible core of one); they hunt things where they are part of the ecological system. Deer hunters help control the population, which can cause problems when it gets too big - they have replaced the wolves and puma humans killed off centuries ago... And most of the hunters I know are also part of the ecology in the sense that they hunt where they live, hunt in the same environment. They live with deer year round; they share the ecology; the deer eats their zucchini and they eat the deer.... All this is completely unlike Palmer: he isn't eating the lions and elephants and bears he's killing; he isn't hunting creatures who are plentiful and have no other predators - in fact some of them are quite rare; and he isn't part of the ecology of the place he's hunting in. He's flying halfway around the world and paying someone else thousands of dollars to let him take a shot at something. Oh yeah - the deer hunters I know do their own shooting; they don't hire a band of locals to take all the risks and do most of the work. There's simply no level of contempt deep enough for this fucker.

3) A meme - I have seen a couple instances of this, complaints about all the attention for a dumb beast and none for the poor suffering XXX. Marco Rubio might be the most prominent person to post it (if Marco Rubio can be considered prominent), and he put it in the most ignorant and dishonest form, bringing up that bogus planned parenthood story.... For people like Rubio the lies are deep - because in what universe is anyone ignoring that planned parenthood video? both sides are flogging the hell out of that thing - no one is ignoring it. And really, the whole point is absurd. Yes there is a lot of attention paid to Cecil and his killer, but there is plenty of attention paid to the rest of the world. Look back at #1 - another police killing, getting a fair amount of attention. That is a pattern of stories that has been receiving attention for a couple years, which continues. The three recent mass killings in the good old USA continue to get plenty of attention. I've seen stories popping up about George Zimmerman, poor fellow. (He's homeless apparently - a shame, since in a just world he would be housed at the state's expense for some decades.) It's hard to see evidence that people are not moved by human suffering. Maybe not every single horror show the world has to offer - but there are no lack of horror shows.

The meme (why are people so worked up about a dead lion when there is human suffering to worry about?) misses the important point: all of this - all compassion, for anyone and anything - is based on the human ability to empathize. I came across a TED Talk about the rise of human beings - how did we become the apex predator of apex predators? The answer? Imagination - or maybe empathy - the ability to create stories that other people share, that bind us together. Or you could say - the ability to see ourselves in others - other people, other animals. To imagine their inner lives. It;'s obvious how this works with people - maybe less so how it works with animals, though it's not too far off - isn't that how we came to domesticate animals? We imagine dogs and cats (and horses, and even cows and pigs and chickens) as beings with some kind of consciousness that we can relate to, and we relate to them. Even a lot of the creatures we eat - we form bonds with them. (And they benefit - at the evolutionary level anyway: cows and pigs and chickens won't be endangered any time soon.) So - how can it be bad that people form a bond with a wild animal living half a world away from us? And understanding how killing it is an abomination? I don't think it distracts from our ability to sympathize with people - I think it helps form the habits of sympathy, that extends to other people.

Well - I guess that was more than just some observations to attach to a lit of songs... So I guess we're in for something less random today - today And now I find that I have written too much to allow me to append a random list of songs... so less random:

1. The Germs - Lion's Share
2. Dire Straights - Lions
3. Neko Case - Lion's Jaws
4. Sleater Kinney - Lions and Tigers
5. Wire - Ex Lion Tamer

Video: start with Dire Straits:

And add a bit - maybe Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing the Lion Sleeps Tonight?

And maybe some topical humor. In case of accidents he always took his mom - also appropriate I think:

This also comes to mind:

Friday, July 24, 2015

On the Ground Like a Wild Potato

Good morning. A very lovely day outside - after a few days of real heat this week. More heat coming next week - nothing all that bad, really, for Boston, but it's been a cool summer, so it comes as a shock.

The world? The bloodshed and misery does not seem to want to stop - this one might be harder to politicize (from the preliminary reports) - just another crazy white guy. That's not a comfort exactly.

Comfort is hard to find. The local 9 have fallen on very hard times - I suppose that is a comfort to many fans, who have seemed a bit out of step with the Sox' successes. we are so used to suffering in Boston! having a team we can feel sorry for ourselves about is a bit of a comfort. Could be. I have taken some solace in the Tour de France - a fascinating event, way more addictive than I would ever have thought. Though it's been tough this week - the best American, Tejay Van Garderen, had been doing very well, top three for most of the race - but it all went wrong. A respiratory illness in the Alps - not an easy thing to ride a bike race with. So - it took some of the air out of the race, mainly because it looked like the most interesting battle was going to be for third place. 1 and 2 are Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, who finished 1-2 2 years ago, and don't look likely to be challenged this year. 3rd place looked like it could be a fight. Still does, kind of, though it's harder to muster a rooting interest in the likes of Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde.

Enough of that. There is comfort in the world - music! and so to the business of the day.

1. Richard Thompson - I Still Dream
2. Billie Holiday & Lester Yong - This Year's Kisses
3. The Raconteurs - The Switch and the Spur
4. PJ Harvey - Who the Fuck?
5. Melvins - Pearl Bomb
6. Melt-Banana - Stick Out
7. Radiohead - Kid A
8. The High Back Chairs - Summer
9. Scott Walker - Face on Breast
10. B-52s - Private Idaho

Well - that was a good crop... Video? We have some PJ Harvey still, can't miss that:

Melt Banana might also be in order:

And the B-52s of course:

Friday, July 17, 2015

I'm Immortal When I'm With You

For this month's Band of the Month, we are back in the 90s and 00s, this time for one of the acts that brought me back into contemporary music in the late 90s: PJ Harvey.

I don't remember exactly when this happened - late 90s, 96, 97 - after her career was established, anyway. I remember seeing her on MTV back in the early 90s, but I didn't care, I was listening to jazz then - I picked up on her later. I remember a couple things: listening to Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love somewhat obsessively for a while; then seeing her on TV, singing songs from To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire. A TV show - must have been Sessions at West 54th Street (having consulted the googles, I see it was; I saw a few episodes of that show - Cibo Matto say...) - that was 98 or 99. The records came first, but that really sealed it - seeing her sing made those songs all the better. (Big fish little fish swimmin' inna water, come back here man gimme my daughter...) Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea just deepened it - those big jangly guitars, right in my wheelhouse. But really, she's been there since I started listening to her - Bring You My Love fit in nicely with what I listened to in the 90s - Pere Ubu and Built to Spill, to Sleater Knney and Captain Beefheart - and she led me to other things. Listening to PJ Harvey probably got me to check out Sleater Kinney - I am quite sure that Nick Cave's association with Harvey was the reason I picked up his records. I think I bought Murder Ballads first because of the duet with her. In this series, I've put her at the end of a 90s and 00s artists - but the truth is, she was the source of my interest in a lot of them.

Looking back across her career now, she is even more impressive. How much range she has! From punk (or post-punk - a musical offspring of Patti Smith and Nick Cave) to electronica/blues to jangly guitar pop to weird piano ballds (starting to sound like Kate Bush) to weird folk, sometimes all at once! She is a chameleon - changing styles; changing her voice, up and down in pitch, whispers, screams, shouts, croons, belting them out, thin and pretty sometimes, rich and powerful other times, capable of anything; changing her look. Looking through videos across her career - she covers pretty much every imaginable look, from punk to trashy to glamorous, to those weird white and black dresses she's featured in recent years. The look changes, her style changes - but she's there, a calm center - commanding every stage she's on. That volatility has always been her trademark, I think - the dynamic of her songs, the soft/hard dynamic on the early records; the mix of pretty melodies and seductive rhythms with edgy themes in the later ones - the shifts in tone, texture of songs, the sudden splashes of sound. She keeps you on your toes.

And finally, as a songwriter - she's among the elites. She's among my favorites - Cave; David Thomas; Mick and Keef; Richard Thompson, Lou Reed. Like Cave (and often Thomas, Thompson, Reed) she's more story teller than lyricist - she writes as a narrator - very striking on the early records, where the voice was often a man's, and on Let England Shake, where the stories were topical - and does it with great control, telling the story, and getting you into the narrator's emotional state. She creates characters that you come to know in 3 minutes - it's a gift. And she can turn a phrase with the best of them:
Seen and Done Things I Want to Forget
I don't want to make a fuss, I want to make my own fuckups
Until the light shines on me, I damn to hell every second you breath
I've lain with the devil, cursed god above, forsaken heaven, to bring you my love
Does it have to be a life full of dread, want to chase you round a table, want to touch your head...

Yes. So - on to the list, a top 10:

1. To Bring You My Love
2. Down By The Water
3. The Words That Maketh Murder
4. The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore
5. Rid of Me
6. Big Exit
7. Man-Size
8. Catherine
9. Dress
10. My Beautiful Leah

And video: Start here, a 1991 full concert. Right at the beginning - she had such a big voice, big sound, that she could go anywhere, and has gone most places. These early clips, she is so confident and powerful - there's nothing missing, she's a neo-punk act as good as anyone else at the time, and better in ways, her song writing voice - her perspective - and her voice, which is just shocking, even then:

Here she is in 1993, playing Rid of Me on Leno - Leno; electric; solo (which I didn't really notice til the long shots came - she and a guitar can fill the world):

Down by the Water, 95 - Jools Holland:

This is the TV show I saw back in the 90s - Sessions at West 54th Street - this is I Think I'm a Mother and Is This Desire, plus an interview with David Byrne:

To Bring You My Love - playing guitar, 2003:

Speak to me of your inner charm, how you'll keep me, safe from harm - I don't think so...

Words That Maketh Murder, live:

And end with another complete concert, from 2011:

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Happy Bastille Day!

The Tour de France is starting back up today, moving into the mountains - always fun. This year's race looks likely to come down to an Englishman (from Kenya) vs. a Columbian, with an American, Spaniard and Italian in serious contention - well - it's an international sport. So here, to celebrate it, is a group of Germans:

And to wish our French friends a happy Bastille Day, here are some nice Canadian boys:

And finally, a very French performance of the Marsiellaise:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Halftime Film Report

I know I have become an awfully lazy blogger - lucky to get a list of autogenerated songs up every week, and that one long essay a month... Maybe an anniversary will wake me up, but those have faded, what with the Civil War over... Sad sad.

I haven't had a movie post up in forever - without external stimulation, I don't know if I'd have gotten one out this year. Of course that might help suggest why I have been such a slug here - I took a class in the spring, which as it happened did involve a pretty substantial Eisenstein paper. The Russians did rather finish me off for a while - at least that's what I hope happened. There's a decent post version of that Eisenstein paper somewhere - it might surface eventually...

For now though, I just want to get a hand in. I used to do this more often - knock off a Best So Far list about halfway through the year. Been a while since I have done that - three years in fact. Sad. But as a way of getting a hand back in, it'l do. So without too much ado - here are the 10 best films I have seen, in something like a real release this year:

1. Winter Sleep
2. Adieu au Langage
3. About Elly
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
5. The Wolfpack
6. Juaja
7. What we Do in the Shadows
8. The King and the Mockingbird
9. Amy
10. Results

And a much smaller list - best films I have seen dated 2015 - it's too early to do much of this: most of the films that I see in theazters the first half of any year are older, catching up on all last year's international films. (Thgough this year has been a bit ridiculous in that - The King and the Mockingbird? even About Elly is 6 years old. And if I wanted to really cheat, I could include Rebels of the Neon God, which is getting what I think is its first American theatrical run. I've seen it already, though, some years back at the MFA, so that's a bit too much for me. But I might as well post something from this year - since I have only seen 12 films dated 2015 (I think) - well - might as well rank them all. Very heavy on the documentaries...

1. The Wolfpack
2. Amy
3. Results
4. Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
5. Iris
6. While We're Young
7. I'll see You in My Dreams
8. I am Big Bird
9. When Marnie Was There
10. Slow West
11. Mad Max Fury Road
12. Danny Collins

Actually - nothing bad - I enjoyed those all the way down (with occasional reservations). So not bad really.

I may even try to get some reviews up in the coming weeks - always a hope.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Musical Interlude

I am back. This is by rights my band of the month week, but that will have to wait. The holiday last week, and childhood film series entry this week, have me well behind. A weak excuse, but I have become so lazy.... It's all right. It's coming.

For now, then, just songs, randomized and all that.

1. Big Black - L Dopa
2. Ton Waits - Rainbirds
3. Dinosaur Jr. - Tarpit
4. Replacements - Within Your Reach
5. Tom Waits - Oily Night
6. Jay Farrar - Old LA
7. Scott Walker - Winter Night
8. Missy Elliot - Pump it Up
9. The Postal Service - Natural Anthem
10. Meat Puppets - The Touchdown King

Video - obviously Tom Waits this week. This is a neat piece of work, a student film set to Oily Night:

And - let's do - Big Black, live:

And maybe a preview for next week....

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Let the Right One In

Published as part of the Childhood Films countdown at Wonders in the Dark.

Adolescence can be a terrible time. It can be very painful. It is a time when you lose yourself, lose what you have been, and become a new person in spite of yourself. For most of us, this happens surrounded by others going through the same thing at the same time - is it any wonder how horribly 12 and 13 year olds can treat one another? Let the Right One In is a vampire movie, and a bit of a social satire (if that’s the word) - but mostly, it is about that time when you stop being a child and start to become something else (not quite an adult - but not a child). It is about loss - the loss of childhood, of identity, though also other losses (losing connections with other people, through death or changes in you and them) - but also about what you become. Change is loss, but also gain - you lose who you were, you become someone new. It is about the effects of these changes on groups of kids - about their cruelty, their pain, about how they cope, and perhaps escape.

The main story is about Oskar, a 12 year old living in a particularly horrifying suburb of Stockholm in 1981 (a period promising transition itself - Brezhnev was on his last legs; Reagan was rattling sabers across the sea - the Cold War itself was starting to change, but it wasn't sure what it was going to change into, and Sweden was right there between the two of them). Oskar lives with his mother, who is seldom home; his father lives in the country and is something of a refuge for the boy (except when he's drinking). He goes to school, where he is too clever for his own good, with an excessive interest in police matters; his classmates torment him mercilessly, and he goes home and imagines bloody vengeance on them. There don't seem to be any other kids in his apartment complex; then one moves in - Eli, a strange girl about his age who doesn't seem to dress appropriately for the cold, who seems about as lonely and suspicious as Oskar. It doesn't take them long to become friends - they bond over a Rubik's cube, and they are soon very close.

But Eli has secrets of her own. The film doesn't waste a lot of time letting us in on them - she lives with a Hakan, an odd, quiet, older man, who murders and guts people in the woods to bring her blood. Or tries - when he is interrupted, she has to go out herself and find prey, for she is a vampire. She kills a middle aged drunk, touching off a sub plot involving a number of aging alcoholics, who may have seen her. Meanwhile, things escalate at the school - the kids bullying Oskar get worse, and when he fights back (at Eli's urging), he hurts one of them badly enough to cause further repercussions. The assorted plots build - rising trouble among the kids; the developing friendship and intimacy between Oskar and Eli; and the complications coming out of the killings. Hakan is caught in the act of trying to kill another kid, and leaves Eli alone; one of the friends of the man she killed finds her and tries to kill her while she sleeps, but Oskar warns her and she kills the man; then the boys at school try to get their ultimate vengeance on Oskar, but Eli saves him in a spectacularly gruesome fashion, and they leave together.

It delivers as a horror film, but it is much more concerned with the relationships. The film concentrates on Oskar and Eli - the novel it is based on develops a number of relationships in addition to theirs. It delves into the lives of the kids who torment Oskar; it details Eli and Hakan's relationship; it spends more time with the old drinkers; more time with Oskar and his family. But the broader scope of the book mainly expands and deepens the themes that are at the heart of Oskar and Eli's relationship - the sense of loss, loneliness, change, and their powerlessness against that change. In the book, we learn that the bullies are more like Oskar than not - they lose parents, families, they are going through the same changes he is - they take their troubles out on him, creating a chain of misery. The film retains hints of this - Oskar's main tormenter has an older brother, who is introduced in the film bullying the little brother (who will pass it on to Oskar); the film also retains the subplot with Ginia and Lacke, an older couple who are in the process of losing one another (and in the end, lose everything.) This is a world of pain; everyone is alone, everyone is isolated - and Eli is the epitome of all of their pain.

Most of the characters are kids, most of them on the edge of puberty, about to change forever - and Eli is trapped forever at that very moment. Eli was made a vampire at age 12 - taken from his family, castrated, tortured to death, though not to actual death, then trapped forever at that point of transition and pain. Eli is locked forever in pre-pubescence, trapped between childhood and adulthood, between boy and girl, life and death, ageless and 12 years old, always in the middle. The film is extraordinary at capturing her strange condition - it shows her childishness, her sense of discovery of the world, of things like the Rubik's cube, her loneliness, her desire for contact, a connection, her willingness to try things - while never losing the sense that she is hundreds of years old, has been through this before, has suffered everything and more. And that she is a vampire, and must live on blood, is subject to a host of rules and conditions - she will catch fire in the sun; she cannot enter a place without being invited, without consequences, and so on. She is immensely powerful, but she can't get along without the help of others. We see it in her relationship with Oskar - she genuinely likes him, she longs for friendship, for communication - but she also sees that she can use him, that he can replace Hakan. She uses him - his anger and fear, his loneliness - while at the same time responding to him directly, as one lonely child to another. The film handles this with great care, we can see both; it is a superb balancing act.

And it is a superb film throughout. I've written before about its look, the cold spare spaces of Blackeberg, all square buildings and empty courtyards, a fair version of hell, but that excellence is everywhere in the film. It's beautiful, and it uses its look and feel to advance the themes. It is a film about the end of childhood, about transition - and plays that out, all the shots of doorways and windows and gates we see. The themes come from the book - the importance of those liminal spaces, the central metaphor of the vampire's inability to go in uninvited, with Eli as the ultimate liminal character, forever caught <i>between</i> - and the film finds the imagery to give them weight and power.

So we come back to adolescence, to the traumatic transition from a childhood to maturity, to the loss of oneself, and the discovery of a new self - and the importance of that part of the change. Oskar, at the end of the film, has lost everything - abandoned his family, his life, left a trail of devastation in his wake - he is moving into a very uncertain future, very possibly headed for a life of slavery to a vampire who needs him to kill for her, and certainly obliged to drag her around with him wherever he goes.... But he is on his way somewhere - moving, alive, sane, not locked in a trunk until sunset. He has put off the childish things, and become someone else, something no one else, not even Eli, can do.