Monday, March 28, 2005

Let's Just Say She's Awfully Buoyant

"Well, I'm standin' in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck/Yeah, but you know it's not the one that I had in mind/He's got a new one out now, I don't even know what it's about/But I'll see him in anything so I'll stand in line..."
-Bob Dylan

Maybe it's just because I'm a History major but I think it's vital to my understanding of life to go out of my way and expose myself to movies, music, and literature from other eras. I can't imagine having as great an appreciation of contemporary popular culture without having seen movies from people like John Huston, Billy Wilder, or Preston Sturges or listening to music from Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra.

At the same time I think it's equally as important to continue to learn about new artists because it is essential to do so in order to try to understand our current world situation.

This juxtaposition of differing generations really struck me Friday as I went to the latest Sandra Bullock movie, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, and then came home and watched Buster Keaton's great silent film, The General. I'm not sure there's any connection between the two movies other than the art form itself, but I couldn't help but think about how the world has changed so much between the making of both movies.

I went to see Miss Congeniality 2 out of my continued devotion (no, it's not really an obsession so no restraining order is necessary) to Ms. Bullock. In other words I really wasn't looking forward to the movie all that much. Maybe it's because my expectations were so low but Miss Congeniality 2 wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. It's about twenty times better than the first movie although that can be said about just about any other movie ever made. (The original Miss Congeniality remains the one Sandra Bullock movie that as far as I'm concerned has absolutely nothing to recommend in it.)

In the sequel Bullock's character Gracie Hart's career as an F.B.I. agent has changed because after the events of the first movie she is too famous to do her work as a field agent. Gracie is unceremoniously dumped by her fellow agent boyfriend (played in the first movie by Benjamin Bratt who doesn't appear at all in the sequel) and thus uses an opportunity for a career change ("the face of the F.B.I.") as an excuse to console herself.

Bullock does her darndest to pull the slapstick material of the movie together even though the world in both Miss Congeniality movies bears little resemblance to any actual world other than that of 90,000 other Hollywood movies and TV shows. To enjoy this movie you have to believe that the different meanings of the word "booty" can solve a crime caper and that a federal agent would actually hit the streets of Las Vegas wearing pink feathered headgear along with a showgirl outfit.

But reality isn't what the comedy of this movie is about. Bullock's films all tend to be similar in themes. Many of her movies are about whimsical characters placed in silly situations because they eventually will learn that the lesson in life is that we all must be true to ourselves. People like people who like themselves and almost all of Bullock's characters are women who come to become more comfortable with themselves.

It may be a stretch to say Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous ultimately turns out to be an anti-war movie but that's actually what the epilogue of the movie tries to teach us. By this time you've either enjoyed the movie because Sandra is such a likable actress, or you have rolled your eyes so far into your noggin that it will take a cheese grater to separate your eyeballs from your brain matter.

As I came home and watched The General I couldn't help but wonder what Buster Keaton would think about how far (or how little) movies have come since his era. What makes Keaton's film so doggone impressive is his deadpan reactions to a world gone wrong (again there's a war theme to The General). As the woman he loves continues to challenge him and sometimes break his heart he wears his heart on his sleeve. He somehow does this with very little facial expression. In other words he doesn't try too hard the one trait that also seems to come natural to Ms. Sandra B.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Opie's All Grown Up

It's been very rare that I have fallen in love with TV shows over the years. The first was Hill Street Blues with its philosophy that work is messy, life is chaos, and there is very little we can do to change either. The second was Buffy the Vampire Slayer with its beyond belief soulfulness and unmatched depth and introspection, which among other things was a great reminder that angst and humor walk hand in hand.

I'm not saying I'm in love with Fox's Arrested Development, yet, but I have certainly developed a great admiration for the show. It is in a word, witty, and how it has been able to sustain its ever so subtle momentum over two seasons makes it the one show on TV that I make sure I don't miss. There wasn't a bad episode in the first season and though the second has been a bit more inconsistent, its best moments are easily among the funniest I've ever seen on TV.

Of course as in the case of most TV shows with any shred of originality, Arrested Development has been slow to find a mass audience. Even after winning the Emmy last year for "Best Comedy" the show hasn't exactly been burning up the Nielsen charts.

The show would probably be worth watching if you just assembled its ridiculously talented cast (especially Jeffrey Tambor from The Larry Sanders Show and Hill Street, and David Cross whose self deprecating sarcasm made him the best panelist on Politically Incorrect ) and let them improvise.

But it is the show's writing that is its greatest strength. At its base Arrested Development is about a highly dysfunctional family like 90 percent of all sitcoms. But unlike most American comedies, the show's writers understand that comedy is funniest when it is derived from well developed characters reacting to situations and not from a situation being bizarre in itself.

The show's lead character Michael (played by Jason Bateman- my second favorite Bateman after his sister Justine), is the Bluth family's oldest son and it thus falls upon him to hold them together when their father is put in prison for embezzling funds from the family business. Bateman is terrific in the part and many of the show's better moments come from his deadpan reaction to learning the latest absurdity that a family member has found themselves in.

My favorite character (and one of my all-time favorite TV characters) is the oldest brother Gob (played by Will Arnett) who manages to have a massive ego at the same time as having a terminal case of fragile, folding self confidence. Gob is a failed magician even if he doesn't know it and he's always scheming to get Michael only to have his schemes usually end up helping Michael while still diminishing himself.

The other brother, Buster (played by Tony Hale), is dim and timid and a complete mama's boy. The show's latest storyline has Buster losing his hand, having had it bit off by a seal who got a taste for blood because Gob had used it in a failed magic act and had fed it rabbit. In an effort to retrieve the seal (and Buster's hand) the rescue crew accidentally cuts off the seal's flapper thus leaving it to swim forever in circles.

The show has had a lot of great guest performances from Henry Winkler's incompetent family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn (kind of the anti-Fonzie) to Liza Minelli, Martin Short, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Winkler's reoccurring character along with the show's producer, Ron Howard (who also serves as the narrator) makes Arrested Development seem like Happy Days revisited only this time the two men get to let their wicked sides flourish.

Even in Howard's better movies like Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind there has always been a hint of the all-American Opie that gives his work a sunny quality. Arrested Development uses Howard's narration to give it a dark edge and makes it clear that there isn't anything sympathetic about this pathetic family. At the same time they aren't evil or unredeemable and thus they are as realistic a family as you might ever see on TV.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Bare Ye

I quit trying to be cool right at the time when quitting trying to be cool was quite the cool thing to do.

Still one thing this page of the newsletter will never claim to be is actual musical criticism. I'm happy enough to admit that I don't know enough about music or music theory to profess to write critically about music. I learned at an early age, when my pal Robert Bisson and I debated whether KISS or Barry Manilow made better music, that if someone enjoyed a record, a song, an artist enough to let it be a life altering and inspiring experience that it was good enough for me even if I didn't share the same enthusiasm for the same piece of music. In other words, who was I to say that some morsel of music wasn't worthwhile even if what passed for something artistically musical irritated me as much as it delighted another?

Still I gotta admit I was riled up a bit more than usual when Star Tribune musical critic Chris Riemenschneider devoted a column to bashing the iPod. In his column Mr. Riemenschneider said that he didn't want the newest music fad for Christmas because it was responsible for furthering decay in whatever exists in the ability to enjoy music in this age of whatever age we are in. One of the points of Mr. Riemenschneider's column was that his own personal musical collection was larger than most and an iPod just wouldn't suffice in replacing his CD collection. But who ever claimed that was the purpose?

Indeed owning an iPod, this publication's Woman of the Year, has inspired me to look back to whatever that inspired my love of music in the first place. As I fill my iPod with music I have had to make some decisions about what I download and upload and take with me wherever I go. As part of this conundrum I decided that I needed to include the music that hit me hard when I needed to be hit hardest: my adolescent years when music really began to for the first time matter, and even if this meant loading songs onto the pocket sized device that I hadn't paid attention to for years, I had to do it just to complete the color of the musical palette that makes me who I now forever am.

So in the process I'm rediscovering why I fell in love with music in the first place and that means that I'm rediscovering the music of Barry Manilow. The first LP I bought with my hard earned allowance money was Barry's recently released LP, This One's For You. My parents used to do their family grocery shopping at Har Mar where they let my brother and I roam the mall that contained a Musicland store. Having recently become a devoted listener of Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown on KDWB one of the first 45's I bought was Manilow's "I Write the Songs." It was a record I bought just to own the top ten records of the week, not so distinctive, though I'm not sure I appreciated Barry's rather large claim to fame. He wrote the music that made the young girl's cry and made me drop my last dime.

And I was taking piano lessons at the time when my Mum gave me the first performance compliment I'd ever received. I put aside my practice lesson aside to bang out my version of Barry's "Weekend in New England" in a good enough fashion to make my Mom say that she thought what I was playing sounded good. It was a moment that I could never turn back from. Here was music I enjoyed playing unlike that other classical stuff that I thought I had to play to justify the checks Mom was writing in order for me to learn my music.

And that's why I first fell in love with Barry Manilow's music- I could play his songs on the piano because that was clearly the instrument they were composed on. Thus when I fell in love head over heals and all other body parts for the first time with Parkview Junior High first chair clarinetist Sue Weiss part of that surely was that Sue revealed to me that she loved Barry's music as much as I. When we took swimming class together (where I just about drowned both in reality and symbolically) it was the day after Barry's new LP Even Now was released and my parents were kind enough to buy me without me having to expend my less than hard earned allowance dollars.

My subsequent frustrated banged out version of that LP's catchiest song "Can't Smile Without You" was playing throughout the nine laps I had to swim doing the backstroke (the only stoke I'd ever be effective at doing) in order to pass junior high Phy Ed.

So as I now listen to my still favorite Barry song's on my iPod I gotta say that the familiar notes still cut through like few others. I'm not proud to admit that I remain the biggest Barry Manilow fan this side of Sri Lanka. Yes I know his music can't quite co-exist in some semblance of reasonable sense with some of the other critically acclaimed artists loaded on my iPod like the Replacements or Alex Chilton, or the Clash or Enimem or Mr. Bob Dylan himself. Yet when I listen to a song like "When I Wanted You" I get as weepy as I used to get as an adolescent and I guess that is one way to say that music matters to me as much as ever.

Monday, March 7, 2005

Listening to Old Voices

A couple weeks back Thompson, the three-legged cat, was suffering from some type of respiratory ailment that among other symptoms robbed him of his often-frightened yet never timid voice.

I felt sad that he was feeling so bad- but what I truly missed was hearing his voice. He's always been quite the vocal fellow, letting me know whenever he enters a room with an assertive meow, and most of the time grunting when he hops along with the jarring force of all his weight landing on his lone front paw. During his breathing illness he was still opening his mouth trying to speak but no sound came out. It hurt to hear this unwelcome silence and it changed the whole atmosphere of my home.

There was a time, not that long ago, when I thought I lost my voice for good and the very thought made it seem pointless to plunder my way forward. My ailment, however, had nothing to do with being able to make a sound. It had to do with that voice inside that guides and questions and expresses and makes sense where sense doesn't exist. To lose that voice was not only jarring, it was paralyzing. I had lost God.

After a lot of work I got it back- sort of. It never returned to where it had been but that may just be part of what life is about. There have been times throughout my life that I have noticed a analogous change in my actual voice while suffering through a variety of ailments both physical and emotional. I have noticed more and more over the years that when I'm tired and depressed (an increasing reoccurring occurrence) my voice becomes coarse, hoarse, meek and muter. During the week before my Mother died my voice for some reason took on a deeper resonance, like Barry White, so deep and unusual that I changed my home voice mail message to capture this never heard before, or since, sound. After my Mom's funeral a friend called up and she left a message but clearly she wasn't sure she was leaving the message in the right place.

Last fall I was interviewed by a local television station. My niece had the newscast on in the other room and she said that when she heard my voice she immediately knew it was me. I had never realized my voice was that unique. Listening to my fifteen minutes of fame I couldn't accept that I sound so much like Kermit the Frog (not the late Jim Henson version but the one created by whoever followed- nasally and with a plastered on perpetual smile on my face).

That I don't seem to have one voice must mean something but I'm not sure what. Growing up I had a speech impediment that bordered on being so severe that I was tested to see if I should get some type of speech therapy. I remember taking a test where I had to pronounce a lot of words with rolling "R's" and "L's." Listen. Read. Reality. Thoroughly. Rural. I wasn't bad enough to need special instruction yet much to my frustration, my brother often had to serve as my interpreter because no one else could understand a word I was saying.

I think it was then when I discovered my love and need of being a writer. Putting down words on paper meant I didn't have to speak a word. No one had to hear what my voice sounded like and at the same time my voice could be clearly heard. With the freedom of this expression came a split between what my spoken voice sounded like opposed to what my writing voice developed into. People listening to what I had to say (which was as little as possible) had no idea that the same person who wrote what he wrote had an original thought or two or at the very least had some ability to express himself in a different way.

The split between my oral voice and my typed out voice has zig-zagged between a path of convergence and a deep chasm, like trying to hold two strong magnets together or likewise in an opposite direction, trying to pull them apart. I seldom find a situation, a heartfelt moment where I can accurately convey what is going on in the moment not out of a lack of effort. Most of the time that comes from not so much knowing what is percolating inside as being an eyewitness to some life altering moment. But upon further reflection (a self- guided instant replay of sorts) I can sometimes get the words down on paper.

I've come to realize my voice, whatever it is, may not sound like it should and it certainly seldom sounds like what is later transcribed but maybe that is the one thing that makes it unique. It wavers at the times it should be strong, and it can be too forceful in a quiet moment of reflection, and my words' predictability often can be seen coming down Grand and Hennepin Avenues. But with one voice the words are hard and harsh and hard to let go. The other voice sometimes calls out in desperation, other times in joy but at all times is there to help sort through those moments and everything in between. With either voice the thoughts are consistent, it's only the interpretation that sometimes gets lost in the mix.