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by Lana Cooper

4 Mar 2009

Watchmen Soundtrack Album Cover

My Chemical Romance condenses Bob Dylan’s legendary 11-minute opus into a tidy three minutes of chugging neo-pop/punk with their cover of “Desolation Row”. 

It’s only fitting that MCR’s cover of the Dylan classic should be featured on the soundtrack for the heavily-hyped Watchmen film.  Laying the foundation for much of the now-iconic graphic novel’s action, Alan Moore referenced and quoted from “Desolation Row” in Watchmen‘s original prose.  As Watchmen becomes the latest in a string of comic-based properties to hit the big screen, My Chemical Romance’s cover is a logical link to the intertwining worlds of comics and music slapped onto the film’s soundtrack as lead singer Gerard Way has penned his own critically acclaimed comic, Umbrella Academy—heavily influenced by Moore’s work—since 2007.

by Bill Gibron

4 Mar 2009

This time next year, if there is any justice left in this baffling business called show, Jackie Earle Haley will be reaping the same kind of universal accolades that followed the late Heath Ledger when he starred as the ultimate sociopath, The Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight - and here’s hoping that the middle aged former child star does so without all the tabloid hysteria of a publicity fueled (or God forbid, posthumous) Oscar campaign. In 2008, Ledger’s unhinged criminal, compelled by nothing other than his innate need for chaos, transformed the Batman franchise into a true psychological thriller. There was never a moment’s doubting the character’s motives - he was insane. But Haley’s latest turn as Alan Moore’s anarchic anti-hero Rorschach in the big screen adaptation of Watchmen is every bit as bugfuck - and beautiful.

As our main protagonist, our personal private investigator and overall window into the Watchmen world, Walter Kovacs (otherwise known as the aforementioned masked vigilante) is a truly disturbed and uniquely fashioned personality. While part of him plays like an FBI profile gone exploitative, there are several, more solid dimensions to the character’s complicated arc. For his part, Rorschach is the last outlaw, the rebel who refuses to drop his caped persona, no matter the law or the legal ramifications of violating same. He is brutal and unapologetic, staring justice square in the face while using whatever means necessary to get his advantage or point across. He refuses to back down, taking the death of The Comedian as a sign that his own lifeline is growing short. By decipher the clues as to who killed the aging icon, Rorschach hopes to find meaning in his own isolated ideal - and the purpose of the once prevalent superhero situation.

In this regard, the man in the ever-shifting mask is the prohibitive polar opposite of the nameless villain with a penchant for perverting everything around him. The Joker is perhaps the most symbolic of Batman’s many villains, since he wirewalks on both the notion of humor and horror quite effectively. It’s the same kind of mixture that makes up the Caped Crusader’s demeanor - especially in Nolan’s version of the comic. Batman wants Gotham City to return to some semblance of normalcy, to get the communal courage to take back the streets and stomp out the various crime lords who appear to rule reality. The Joker wants something similar - he exists for no one but himself - but in his version of the metropolis, Id has replaced Ego as the main means of expression. Random acts of incoherent menace will be his chief way of achieving said aims.

In this regard - the sadistic desire to harm - Rorschach and The Joker are very much alike. Both even have baffling back stories that try and suggest the reason for their simmering psychosis. Of the two, our Watchman’s is the better, since we get to witness how the life of a prostitute’s son turns into a man on a murderous mission. This is especially true when Kovacs speaks to a prison doctor about his past. Indeed, Rorschach’s investigation and “resolution” of a missing child case is more than memorable. It bristles with a kind of cruelty that a certain clown (and scared) faced trickster would totally appreciate. Similarly, The Joker’s take on certain mobsters, self-absorbed and bloated on their own sense of supremacy, would definitely make his ink blotted buddy smile - if only for a second.

But there are real differences between Rorschach and The Joker, differences that go beyond personality and dig deep within the concept of each character’s humanity. Both are philosophical to a fault, but only the former finds a principle behind the prostylitizing. He may often sound like Travis Bickle with a huge hard-on for righting wrongs, but Rorschach is all about returning balance to a world gone wonky. The latter, on the other hand, just wants to tip things over the edge once and for all. He will burn money for no other reason than he can, going so far as to destroy a hospital as a test of personal will. One has filled a prison with his purpose. The other sees nothing wrong with pressing an inmate’s moral mantle against those in the supposedly civilized outside world.

As far as being a complete bad-ass, though, the comic book movie may have a new champion. While Ledger truly turned The Joker into the kind of man who clearly “doesn’t have a plan”, Haley’s Rorschach is so multi-dimensional it hurts. He’s part hero, part villain, part victim, part abuser. He’s torn and broken inside, preferring his mask to a life outside his identity. When he is framed for the murder of dying nemesis Moloch the Mystic, his only concern is his “face”, the expressionistic cloth that covers his frightened, fragile façade. During his interrogation scenes, Haley’s efforts are heartbreaking. He gives Rorschach the kind of dignity we just don’t expect from a psychologically unbalanced individual. Through the actor’s expressionistic eyes, we witness a lifetime of struggle and striving. In his broken, beleaguered words, we understand everything The Joker misses. Crime may pay for a while, but the ultimate price comes for those trying to stop it once and for all. But don’t take this as a sign of weakness. When push comes to slaughter, Haley’s Rorschach rips people apart with the best of them.

Again, if there is any justice, Watchmen‘s arrival as a media event will start the Jackie Earle Haley nomination ball rolling. His work is just as strong - and sometimes stronger - than Ledger’s, and his character is not just some loose canon bit of grandstanding. The Academy did indeed do the right thing by giving the late actor his due. Turns in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There mandated as much. But Haley has the same strong performance past to draw on - and he also has a previous nom for his sensational comeback as “reformed” pedophile Ronald James McGorvey in Todd Field’s Little Children. It can’t be stressed enough - Haley dominates a film filled with amazing, accurate portrayals. He’s the reason Watchmen holds together over its long, elaborate running time. When he’s onscreen, we’re safe. When he’s gone, things threaten to spin out of control.

In a perfect world, Watchmen will walk away with much of the pop culture debate for the next few months, giving way to Summer’s popcorn purpose before re-rearing its raison d’etra again for the eventual DVD/Blu-ray run. Within all that commercial sturm and drang, outside the natural tendency to cast assertions as facts and opinions as truths, there will hopefully be a discussion about Jackie Earle Haley, his turn on the oddly appealing psychopath, and how it compares to ones that have come before. And inside this conversation, between the exaggeration and the evisceration, someone will see the similarities to last year’s equally enticing event movie and draw the only logical conclusion possible. If Heath Ledger deserves awards recognition, so does Haley. Rorschach and The Joker are cut from the same cloth - and it’s some might messy material indeed.

by Sean Murphy

4 Mar 2009

It’s cold here in DC. There is dirty slush in the streets. We are facing uncertain economic times. Quick! Give me some jazz.

This song may not salvage your 401-k account, but it will salvage an important portion of your soul. In the end, what is more important?

It’s cold outside. But there is nothing wrong with being cool. Jazz music with French titles? Bring it.

by Christian John Wikane

4 Mar 2009

The Pointer Sisters gave New Yorkers a Valentine’s Day treat with a powerhouse performance at The Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. All of the hits of the group’s four-decade career were revisited in the 80-minute set. Ruth Pointer’s gospel-inflected pipes opened the show offstage with “Happiness”. With sister Anita and daughter Issa in tow, Ruth sauntered out onto the stage as the band transitioned to the strutting funk of the song’s second half. Ruth’s voice has only gotten more nuanced and rich over the years, as her take on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” amply illustrated.

Anita Pointer, who co-authored many Pointer Sisters classics, brought a little country into the mix with “Fairytale”, a song that earned the group their first Grammy Award in 1975 for – get ready – Best Country Performance by a Duo of Group. “Slow Hand”, a number-two pop hit from 1981, was also given a slight country makeover with an arresting lead by Anita. A highlight of the show was Anita’s rap introducing a medley of “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side)” and “Yes We Can Can”. The segment was prefaced by some exotic vocalese reminiscent of “Chainey Do” from The Pointer Sisters’ Steppin’ (1975) album.

Issa Pointer took center stage for “Dare Me”, a song that June Pointer originally fronted. (Issa replaced June when she passed away in 2006.) Issa made the song her own, injecting sass and spunk into every note. Her aunt would be proud.

The Pointer Sisters closed with a four-song explosion of hits: “Fire”, “I’m So Excited”, “Neutron Dance”, and “Jump (For My Love)”. Their ability to shake, stir, and summon an audience to their feet is nearly unparalleled by performers half Anita and Ruth Pointer’s age. After more than 35 years of entertaining audience, The Pointer Sisters prove how flavors-of-the-moment come and go but legends remain.

(Note: to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Pointer Sisters’ debut album, PopMatters sat down with Ruth Pointer at her home in Massachusetts to discuss the group’s legacy. Look for the complete interview soon!)

by Sean Murphy

4 Mar 2009

This Sunday’s New York Times magazine features a lengthy, but worthwhile appraisal of John Cheever by Charles McGrath. The piece reassesses Cheever’s current status (McGrath correctly concedes that Cheever, who died in 1982, has had his star fade in the last decade or two), and perhaps in light of John Updike’s recent passing (he made it to 76), it is difficult to believe the “Chekhov of the suburbs”, as he was sometimes called (in a way that only a regular contributor to The New Yorker, that literary bible of upper-middle class, over-educated and angst-ridden WASPs could be) did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his collected short stories. Those stories, taken along with his novels (some highly regarded, others not so much) seemed to constitute a significant pillar in the modern American pantheon (modern meaning three to four decades ago).

When Cheever died, McGrath recalls: his literary reputation seemed as secure as literary reputations get. You would have bought shares in it if you speculated in such things. He was a widely acknowledged master of the short story, in a league with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Updike, who said that Cheever wrote “as if with the quill from the wing of an angel.” Now, not so much. The aforementioned collection of short stories, still largely regarded (for better or worse) as one of the seminal works of 20th century American fiction, sells approximately 5,000 copies a year. Not shabby, McGrath acknowledges, but pretty depressing when you consider that James Patterson, for instance, probably sold more books in the last ten minutes than the Cheever catalog will sell in the next ten years.

Nevertheless, (and this seems to be one of McGrath’s implications) it stands to reason that with the understandable hubbub stirred up by Updike’s death and the celluloid reincarnation of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s half as depressing as the novel, it will be very depressing indeed), the time may be ripe for a reassessment of Cheever, that bard of suburban despair. We’ll see. As we slouch toward a not-so-great Depression, I suspect that nostalgia for the black-and-white TV era in America might not entice too many young readers. Having to brown bag lunch it once in a while (do they even make brown bags anymore?) is about as retro as most middle-aged clock punchers want to get. I can’t say I blame them. Also, remember how quaint some of the characters seemed, when we read about them in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Think about how ancient, and boring, those loquacious and well-mannered (not to mention mostly lillywhite) characters will seem to X-box educated pupils today.

Let’s put it this way: to get a handle on Cheever, you need to have at least a passing appreciation of a time when people poured their spirits out of glass decanters (you need to know what a decanter is). An era when women drank, and smoked, all through their pregnancies just so they could keep pace with their husbands. McGrath speaks to Mary, Cheever’s 90-year-old widow, and she reminisces about how certain folks rolled back in the day: “I just couldn’t keep him from drinking,” and went on: “But everyone drank a lot back then. People don’t always understand that now. Sometimes someone would even have to be put to bed before dinner, but that’s just the way it was.”

That remark, remarkable in its stoic, unsentimental honesty,  reminded me of Cheever’s much-anthologized short story “The Swimmer”. The story is not autobiographical so much as a stark document from the same era Cheever lived, wrote and drank in. Old school: Most of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his briefs, then up and out the door before sunrise—-like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—-who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out.

It was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives. It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

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