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Saturday, May 3, 2008


While driving across country a few years ago, filmmaker Todd Haynes decided to get reacquainted with an old friend. The man’s music had always meant something to him, but he never really made the link between the breadth of what he accomplished (and continued to do so) vs. the scope of how he changed the cultural landscape. The name Bob Dylan still demands the kind of respect worthy of a major historical icon, and he continues to make meaningful contributions to the craft of songwriting. But once Haynes began to dig into his four decade long catalog, he realized that there was more to this man than just his art. For his entire career, Dylan was a shapeshifting chameleon who used his place and position to explore many facets of the American experience. As a result, any biography would have to examine him from as many perspectives as possible.


Thus, I’m Not There was born, a sinfully rich reduction of everything Bob Dylan meant to music since his folk revisionism hit New York’s Village in the late ‘50s. Breaking down the man’s personality into his roots (African American adolescent Marcus Carl Franklin), his workingman blues (a fierce Christian Bale), his poetic side (Ben Whishaw), his superstar sizzle (the magnificent Ms. Blanchett), his personal life struggles (Heath Ledger), his conversion to Christianity (Bale again) and his old age iconography (Richard Gere), we get biography as ballyhoo, the truth tempered by the surrounding myths, folklore, rumors and innuendos that tend to make up this legend’s ample aura. Using nods to films and filmmakers of the specific era, Haynes wraps everything up in a visual grace that is astounding, and then populates it with performances that actually boggle the mind.


For Haynes, perhaps best known as the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, was not really a stretch. This was a man who had previously unraveled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a fairytale view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. Yet the decision to go with several different actors, including a young black boy and a woman raised a few eyebrows. Then again, few should have stirred. This is the man, after all, who used Barbie dolls to tell the tragic story of the anorexic AOR star. A little invention should have been anticipated. Yet many did question the multilayered motivation. Luckily, we now have a medium that allows for Haynes to provide some backstory.


If you’re looking for a definitive DVD, a combination of movie and making-of material that redefines and expands on the overall experience, The Weinstein Company’s new two disc version of I’m Not There is it. Over the course of a wonderful, informative, and in-depth commentary track, Haynes tells all. He explains the approach, the importance and symbolic stance of each idea and angle. Like learning the secrets of a complicated novel, or unraveling the truth inside a dense allegory, the co-writer/director adds heretofore unknown elements to his film, making the movie that much more intriguing. Wonder why Richard Gere lives in a circus sort of old world weirdness? Haynes explains. Why did he hire a minority to play a precocious, troubled Jewish boy from Minnesota? Again, there’s a reason. Nods to famous films (8&1/2, Masculin Feminin) are explored, as are lines quoted directly from Dylan interviews, lyrics, and other public presentations.

 


It all takes a bit of getting used to at first. While Haynes tosses in all these asides, in-jokes, and visual cues to keep us connected, seeing a small boy of color mimic Dylan’s earliest poses is still visually puzzling. As he makes his way from locale to locale, hoping trains and trading war stories with his fellow hobos, we can just see the dream being formed in a young child’s impressionable head. But that doesn’t explain the weird, almost off kilter design. Dylan’s youth wasn’t factually similar to the events that happen here. Instead, Haynes appears to be reaching across a more metaphysical interpretation of the man’s make-up. Thanks to the commentary, everything is made clear. In fact, I’m Not There becomes the Gravity’s Rainbow of rock star bio-pics thanks to this DVD overview.


Once we get to Bale, however, the cinematic stars literally align. Frankly, had Haynes decided to make a straightforward biopic with the superb UK young gun as his muse, no one would have complained. He’s got the Greenwich glower of the coffee house Dylan down pat, and when he lip syncs to versions of the bard’s best songs, he really does capture the subject’s stern determinism. Granted, Bale is a little too hunky to play the whisper thin folkie (all that Batman bulk just can’t be hidden), but from an inner angst standpoint, he’s amazing. So is the late, great Heath Ledger, as long as we’re talking about enigmatic men. His was and remains a hard chapter to deliver. He’s the private Dylan – married man, cheat, father, deadbeat – and it’s often not a pretty picture. In fact, the emotions are so raw that Haynes chokes up when revisiting the actor’s work.


And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her turn here magnificent is too undeserving an understatement. She is regal, almost unrecognizable. She masterfully morphs into the pot-scented genius who ruled his world with a typewriter and a six string. She is I’m Not There’s trump card, its piecemeal paradigm of fame, disillusion, influence, and flaws. During a fictional recreation of Dylan’s disastrous Newport Jazz Festival plug-in, Blanchett is so callous and cool we can feel the vibe resonating off the screen. In the second disc’s deleted/extended/alternative scenes, we can see how her performance grew. The auditions and interview material also provide some insight into how a glamorous beauty turned into an androgynous ‘60s stalwart.


This just leaves Whishaw and Gere. Of the two, the Perfume: Story of a Murderer star comes off best. He’s not given much to do. He simply stares at the camera and reads off a list of inspired Dylan via Arthur Rambeau witticisms. He definitely looks the part – naïve wordsmith playing with his philosophies – but without the commentary, his purpose would be much harder to define. Things are even worse for Gere - until now. In theaters, he was the weakest link in this material, his Dylan as resident of the aforementioned surreal turn of the century backwater burg. The carnival Wild West inferences seem especially odd, particularly when the midsection of his career is so intriguing (we do see Bale, momentarily reprising his role, during Dylan’s conversion to Christianity). Luckily, Haynes is there to uncover the many mysteries. 


One needs to remember that I’m Not There is definitely not a realistic, fact-based overview of the seminal pop culture figure’s life. This is not Walk the Line, or even Ray. It’s more like Lisztomania, and other outrageous biographical freak shows created by that cinematic savant Ken Russell. In fact, with a few more bloody crucifixes and a rasher of naked girls, this could be a hidden gem from the now 80 year old English oddball. Haynes treats his creative canvas like a slightly less sloppy Pollack, infusing his images with a contrasting color/black and white visual friction that breeds both contemplation and contempt. Even more confusing, we get actual Dylan recordings juxtaposed against obvious imitators. It’s as if Haynes decided to throw out the motion picture playbook this time and simply go on instinct. Luckily, most of his impulses are dead on.


If you want a realistic recreation of Dylan’s cultural impact, of how he turned a love of Woody Guthrie and traditional music into a significant social stance, grab a copy of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent documentary No Direction Home and enjoy. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a wonderful, if slightly uneven, look at how one man becomes many, figuratively redefining his art along the way, stick with I’m Not There. Thanks to its treatment on DVD, what was a daring, difficult masterwork becomes a certified masterpiece.
 
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Saturday, May 3, 2008
Improbable as it may sound, Black Sabbath is quite possibly the most misconstrued super group of all time.

Question: Is it possible that a band could sell over one hundred million albums, be referenced constantly by groups spanning multiple genres, and whose very name is considered synonymous with an entire type of music be underrated?


Improbable as it may sound, Black Sabbath is quite possibly the most misconstrued super group of all time. This certainly is not to imply anyone should feel sorry for these very loved—and very wealthy—avatars of heavy metal. Shed no tears for Tony Iommi. He is widely—and appropriately—acknowledged as one of rock music’s seminal guitar gods, the architect of a sound that, while distinctly his own, is anything but stagnant or formulaic; indeed, his body of work, considering only the music he made in the ‘70s, is varied, nuanced and deep. No, really. Of course, he’ll always remain in the shadow of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—just to name two of the undisputed heavyweights (not unlike Ray Davies will forever play bridesmaid to Lennon/McCartney and the Glimmer Twins). And that is as it should be. Still, there are two crucial elements working against a more sober and salient appraisal of his genius: the name of his band, and Ozzy Osbourne.


The all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn (albeit not a crying ) shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music.


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Friday, May 2, 2008

It’s just two weeks until Jeanette Winterson officially opens the Sydney Writers’ Festival.


The event brings together writers from Australia and the world, to discuss reading, writing, publishing, and everything else books. Just a sample of the 2008 program: Hermione Lee will rediscover Edith Wharton, Loretta Napoleoni will discuss terrorism and economics, Nicki Greenberg will show off the art of the graphic novel, Imran Ahmad, Judith Lucy, and Ryan Knighton will talk about “misery memoirs”, Frank Brennan, Anita Heiss, and Gail Jones will find links between writing and the search for justice. Mo Hayder will be there, and Virginia Duigan, Antoni Jach, Peter Ho Davies, and a further wonderfully diverse list of others.


The highlight of the pre-event festivities, however, is the official commercial by Saatchi Design. The ad currently runs on the Ovation Network, and will be a prominent feature of the festival. Check it out, it’s absolutely stunning.


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Friday, May 2, 2008

Responsible-eating advocate Michael Pollan asks a pertinient question in the recent NYT Magazine issue devoted to reducing readers carbon footprint: Why bother?


Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?


His answer:


If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. (Just look at the market for hybrid cars.) Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience. Not having things might become cooler than having them. And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others — from other people, other corporations, even other countries.


I give Pollan a lot of credit for trying hard not to come across as a scold in this essay, and he is certainly one of the most persuasive writers about environmental topics for those not already convinced. But it’s hard not to notice how inconvenient and, in the case of getting a hybrid, pricey it is to “bother big-time” and maintain the standard of living Americans have come to take for granted and people around the world, judging by their consumer behavior, want to emulate. Pollan’s not particularly novel answer to the question doesn’t seem to take that into account, and that’s one of the reasons it seems so inadequate. It costs time, money and energy to avoid what our economy has made superlatively easy—a wasteful approach to life made exceedingly comfortable. Pollan blames cheap energy and specialization for fomenting this lifestyle, but what sort of energy would foment the shift to where people suddenly are trying to set a virtuous example? A sudden surge in righteous arrogance? Not having things is never going to be cool—it’s poor people who don’t have things. The rich have elaborately expensive ways of not seeing to have things, and the striving middle just needs to consume in every direction, burning carbon all the way, trying to cover all the bases. The “cheap-energy mind” that Pollan sees as the problem is equivalent to bourgeois consciousness, and it won’t be surrendered. It would be akin to surrendering the class status one has worked hard to achieve. Could planting a garden compensate for that loss, as Pollan urges us to believe at the end of his essay? It seems more likely to do so if adopted as a hobby and urged as a kind of spectacular leisure, not as an ascetic sacrifice for the good of humanity. People probably don’t want the fate of humanity hanging over their heads while they try to learn to garden.


Following Wendell Berry, Pollan notes “the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even,” But I don’t think it’s exactly a character issue in the sense that people are too lazy to choose to live better—it’s not reasonable to expect every person in a culture to anchor their character in rejecting the way of life that is embedded in every aspect of society, that is rooted in the assumptions that make it virtually every institution and every code of conduct we’ve absorbed since childhood. Consumerism is the crucible in which our character is formed, and it hinges on the pursuit of convenience and the amassing a swell collection of identity-building goods. It’s not easy to choose to reject the only life that seems feasible, even when it’s made clear how destructive and unsustainable that way of life is. It is easy to understand the logic of the environmentalists’ case and be convinced, it’s easy to feel convinced to try to bother, but then confronted with the monolith of culture not designed for such good intentions, it’s much easier to fall back into the mind-set that is in harmony with the material culture we must in the end make our lives out of. Rejecting that, all we know, seems like to much of a sacrifice in the small quotidian moments where the important decisions about how one really lives day-to-day are made.


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Friday, May 2, 2008

Countless style section profiles and GLBT weeklies have recently noted the slow and steady demise of the gay bar as a cultural institution of the queer community.  Of course, news “trends” can frequently amount to one person with a deadline and ten with Google skills but still, in my own experience, I’ve seen a welcome transformation in the culture of the gay bar, especially musically.  A few years ago, my boyfriend and I started booking bands at this affectionate leather dive bar, known mostly for its assless chaps and a back patio that had something a bit beyond mood lighting.  And frankly, there was a palpable level of hostility to women that I quickly dispensed with by sheer force of numbers and a few shaming asides.  Any gay man who is not a feminist is miraculously moronic. 


The nights became something of a hit, precisely because it wasn’t exclusively queer space and it definitely wasn’t gay bar music (I know plenty of gay people who never want to hear “Rhythm Is A Dancer” ever again for as long as they live).  Although gay bars and gay music have an importance in gay culture that’s difficult to underestimate, I like the evolution of identity that doesn’t mean that a particular category of oppression compels anyone to adopt a specific set of tastes. Sure enough, all over Austin there are now bars that are considered “mixed”, or at least places you could hang with your significant other and not have to miss a kiss.  At least in my experience, there’s a soft, meaningful transformation that happens when queers and straights share the same space, drink a few cheap beers in a bar with a whipping crucifix on the wall, and listen to a great local band like White Denim.  As always, I’m open to the arguments of the importance of “gay music”, but I honestly don’t know what that even would considered anymore, unless it’s those horrible circuit party CDs where “California Dreaming” is given a hi-Nrg workover by an anonymous diva.  I guess this should come as no surprise since hip hop has become owned by no one in particular even while it clearly began in one community.  Does identity music even have a place anywhere anymore?  Or are these treasures(old school gay bars) that weren’t a particularly important part of life, something to be territorially protected.


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