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by PC Muñoz

17 Aug 2009

Nina Simone - “Mississippi Goddam”
Written by Nina Simone
From Nina Simone in Concert (Philips, 1964)
[Videos: Live / Live 2]

As her accompanists bustle along in a brisk show-time tempo, Nina Simone begins this song from her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert by saying “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam”. The drummer then drops a vaudeville thump accent on the kickdrum, and Simone pauses for audience reaction, which is laughter and a smattering of applause. Without changing the timbre of her voice, she quickly adds, “And I mean every word of it.” There is more laughter from the audience after that, but it’s more tentative than the first burst, and this time no one applauds. There’s no possible way the audience could have prepared themselves for what follows. “Mississippi Goddam” is a subversive tour-de-force, a highly sophisticated piece of musical signifying which mixes confrontational anger, point-blank accusation, and deeply felt frustration with a bouncy show-tune melody and a wonderfully expressive vocal by Ms. Simone.

I love “We Shall Overcome”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Change is Gonna Come”, and all the other songs associated with or about the Civil Rights struggle of the American 1960s, but for my money, as powerful and accessible as those songs are, none are as emotionally immediate, or possess more unrelenting spiritual force, than “Mississippi Goddam”. The lyrics are a marvel, unraveling at first in a deceptively lighthearted strut (“Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest”) before turning into the most solemn of lamentations around the middle ( “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We’re all gonna get it in due time”), and then a full-on, unapologetic demand by the end (“You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality!”

The most striking lyric arrives at around 1:44, just as Simone is starting to dig into the real intent of the song. Here, in a single line, Simone captures the dual existential uncertainty of living in a society which repeatedly pronounces you “other”, while also realizing you don’t really have anywhere else to go: “I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” Like the song’s title, these lines are a deeply symbolic statement from a bona fide church girl (Simone’s mother was a minister), both a declaration of painful truth, and a plea for that truth to be heard, understood, addressed. By the time Simone murmurs “Bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?” after the refrain following those lines, the Carnegie Hall audience is dead silent.

Given Nina Simone’s undeniable prowess with bluesy tempos and songforms, demonstrated in countless later recordings, one has to wonder why she chose to deliver her most confrontational message in the vehicle of an upbeat songform more suited to a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical. The lyrics of “Mississippi Goddam” lyrically give voice to the contemporary concerns of African Americans, but ironically, there is not a lot of obvious church, blues, jazz, or R&B to be heard in the music here. The result is a somewhat dislocated sonic context, a feeling that you’re hearing something that just might be different than what it appears to be on the surface. Whether the African Trickster in Simone intended this or not is always up for discussion, but clearly, “Mississippi Goddam” is not meant to be comforting, uplifting, or reassuring in any sort of way; on the contrary, it is meant to be confrontational, discomforting, prophetic: a call to wakefulness in a dangerous time, and perhaps an apocalyptic warning of sorts, as well.

We celebrate and cherish songs and songwriters often because their words and music bring us joy, comfort, and feelings of empathy and belonging. In this case, we remember and celebrate Nina Simone and “Mississippi Goddam” because in 1964, amidst great turmoil in the country and unbearable race-related murders and violence, Nina Simone had the courage to stand on the stage of one of America’s most hallowed venues and deliver a song that expresses the dismayed yet indefatigable heart of a prophet.

 

by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2009

It’s safe to say that Miley Cyrus has had her moment. Those elusive fifteen minutes are up and the time clock toward irrelevancy is carefully ticking down. Sure, the House of Mouse can find a few more ways to milk some additional dollars out of her ever-diminishing fad phenom fanbase, but the truth is, she’s like every other teen (or in this case) tween cause celeb - hot as Hades one day, working the drive-through another.

So it makes sense that after the stunning box office figures for her 3D concert experience, Disney would attempt to continue building on such bank. The result - Hannah Montana: The Movie. As much a set-up for the fourth and final season of the TV series as a way of exposing the fleeting star to the 14 and older crowd, this incredibly mediocre effort actually makes you feel sorry for the dissipating celebrity. Somehow, you sense, for all she’s done for the corporate bottom line, she deserves better than this.

When we first meet Miley/Hannah, she is late for her most recent concert appearance. Later, she has a depressing diva tantrum over a pair of shoes. But when she ruins her best friend Lilly’s birthday party, daddy Robby puts his foot down. He thwarts a planned trip to New York, and instead, puts Hannah (for those who don’t know, the commercial cover for his real life daughter Miley) on a private plane back to their hometown in Tennessee. There, they meet up with grandma, hunky teen farm hand Travis, and equally fetching female foreman Lorelai. When Miley learns that an unscrupulous land developer is trying to buy up her past, she promises to get “Hannah” to put on a concert. In the meantime, a persistent tabloid reporter is trying to uncover the secret shared by both Miley and her far more famous “friend.”

Again, it needs to be said - Miley Cyrus has made the Walt Disney Company so much moolah that she really mandated a better starring vehicle than this. Hannah Montana: The Movie is a lifeless amalgamation of plot contrivances, narrative non-sequitors, and pointless pandering. It’s a wannabe musical that doesn’t have the chutzpah to stop the action and let its actress actually sing! Instead, like a Billboard chart backdrop, Hannah is given a few onstage screeds, while Miley makes nice with a single solo moment (with some help from her pappy). For an audience that wouldn’t know a show-stopper from a slog, it really doesn’t matter. Their favorite TV talent is up on the big screen delivering the sonic dross they can’t get enough of. However, the uninitiated, or uninterested, will find it all very, very dull.

The biggest problem with Hannah Montana: The Movie, is length. There is no need for a film version of this character’s adventures to last longer than four of her TV episodes - especially when we are dealing with a basic “fame is soulless and fleeting” formula. Director Peter Chelsom, still paying penance for the cinematic atrocity that was Town and Country (the Hear My Song filmmaker’s path to redemption is littered with the likeable Serendipity and Shall We Dance? ), has a real flare for physical comedy and the sequences of slapstick tend to work. But since Uncle Walt’s current meal ticket needs moments of reflection and romance, the energy built up is all but depleted. Instead, we find the narrative dragging just to get to the so-called “good” parts.

Movies are also not the best avenue for Cyrus’ limited scope. She is “TV cute”, meaning that film brings out the worst in her chiseled chipmunk look. Certainly she can sing - or at least, the studio technicians who put her voice through various electronic permutations can recreate a certain sense of vocal prowess - but Ms. Cyrus is an incomplete performer. She doesn’t know how to sell cinematic emotion. When Miley wants new boy toy Travis to “jump”, we know what the line is supposed to mean. In her less than capable hands, however, it comes across as blank and unconvincing. Billy Ray has the same basic problem - he’s turned the art of passive geniality into an example of onscreen stasis. We never see the turmoil celebrity is causing either ‘character’. Instead, both serve the story and simply move on.

As for the rest of Hannah Montana: The Movie, its light and empty, cotton candy made out of sugar substitute, not the real sweet deal. There is never a question about saving the small town, and the creative cameos tossed about (Tyra Banks as herself, Barry Bostwick as the button-down land developer) do little to elevate the mood. Fans of the TV series will also be a bit disappointed that go-to guys Oliver and Rico are pushed far off into the background, while Emily Osmet’s Lilly is reduced to a plot device. This is Miley Cyrus’ moment to shine and nothing - not even the hardworking child stars that’ve supported her for the last three years - is going to get in her way. Even Daddy’s potential love story is scuttled for more Hannah histrionics.

The recent Blu-ray release also underscores the Miley-ccentric approach to the production. Chelsom is on hand to explain himself, and while friendly, he seems forced to tow the cunning corporate line (“she’s such a major talent…”). We are also treated to a mass of music videos, a bunch of bloopers, deleted scenes (yep - they actually filmed MORE stuff for this movie) and some additional cast and crew interviews. Oddly enough, the movie itself doesn’t ‘pop’ on the new digital format. Unlike other examples of high definition totally redefining a film, Hannah Montana: The Movie, looks as made-for-TV on the fledgling format as the regular DVD version does.

All of which leaves one with the following question - where does Miley Cyrus go from here? After this final season of Hannah Montana wraps, when another wannabe pop chanteuse takes her place as part of the Disney dynasty, what does this seemingly single-faceted ‘talent’ wind up doing? Does she try for country or pop legitimacy, hoping to find a Kelly Clarkson/Carrie Underwood/American Idol like transformation from product to performer? Or will making millions for her family be enough? Will she simply slip away, coming back every once in a while to introduce a House of Mouse repackaging of her productions. If Daddy Ray is any indication, there will need to be a break, and some biology, before the Cyrus name equals stardom again. One imagines that some saw Hannah Montana: The Movie as Miley Cyrus’ introduction into the big leagues. As it turns out, this may instead be her swansong.

by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2009

When Walt Disney died of cancer in 1966, he left his company in a complicated, confusing position. On the one hand, they were smack dab in the middle of his life long dream of a “living community”. They then had to complete the theme park and self-contained township that would later be labeled Walt Disney World. In addition, they had a wealth of projects under consideration, films and TV titles that, without their leader’s guiding hand and artistic spirit, would be difficult if not next to impossible to finish. It was a dilemma reflected in everything the company would do - from animation to attractions.

One of those complex efforts was a follow-up to the studios sensational Oscar winner Mary Poppins. A flawless blend of live action fantasy and fully realized pen and ink participants, Walt had wanted to continue combining the two disciplines in future film projects. The company did find some success with the 1971 WWII fantasy Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but that film only used limited interactions between the actors and animation. Indeed, it’s known more today for its climatic ‘animatronic’ battle scene than for the trip to the island of Naboombu. Sadly, until 1977, the company had to compete with Song of the South and The Three Caballeros as the only other examples of such a continued combined creativity.

Today, Pete’s Dragon walks a bifurcated critical path. Some find it delightful, a throwback to the days when the House of Mouse made family entertainment that everyone - from grandpa to grandkids - could love. Others, however, see through the pre-programmed patina, arguing against everything from the music used to the actors hired. One thing that truly stands out is the F/X process more or less invented by studio science ace (and one time animating giant) Ub Iwerks. Utilizing harsh yellow sodium lights the predated the current greenscreen conceit, Disney could avoid location shooting while recreating a turn of the century Maine fishing village on its California backlot.

The technology also allowed for one of the most flawless integrations of humans and cartoon since Mary and her charges took a “jolly holiday” inside one of Burt the Street Performer’s sidewalk paintings. Indeed, until Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988, Pete’s Dragon was the approach’s bellwether - and its albatross. For Disney, it remains its last connection to its creative past, a film that fulfills much of the promise that Walt saw in his studio while also signaling its eventual rapid decline. For modern audiences, it’s a slightly less clever curiosity.

The story centers on Pete, a young orphan sold into slavery. He currently lives with the conniving abusive Gogan family. Escaping with the help of his (supposedly) imaginary dragon Elliot, our little hero soon finds himself in the sleepy seaside town of Passamaquoddy. There, he is befriended by lighthouse keeper Nora and her drunk of a father, Lampie. While Elliot constantly causes trouble, Pete gets all the blame. When snake oil salesman Dr. Terminus arrives back in the burg, lame brained lackey Hoagie in tow, he hopes to make a quick buck or two before being uncovered as a fraud. When he finds out there’s a real mythical creature around, he immediately plots its capture. With the Gogan’s on hand to reclaim their ‘property’, Nora will have her hands full protecting Pete.

As an example of Disney design, Pete’s Dragon has all the proper pieces. It offers memorable (if rather lightweight) songs, a couple of pleasant performances, a well-practiced patchwork of matte paintings, studio sets, live action locations, and various filmmaking tricks, and a breezy, easy to follow storyline. It also contains some less than memorable direction from UK guide Don Chaffey, a bevy of vaudevillian vamps from old school stars Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and Shelley Winters, and one of the worst debut star turns ever in lifeless lead Helen Reddy. It’s really not the “I Am Woman” chanteuse’s fault. She’s being asked to fill some mighty big shoes, considering who Disney usually employed - Julie Andrews, Angela Landsbury - to essay such roles.

But Reddy is really a drag here, limited in what she can do and what she sings. “Candle in the Water” is a classic ballad, belted out with utter authority. The ineffectual “There’s Room for Everyone” sounds like an outtake from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David fiasco Lost Horizon. Elsewhere, “It’s Not Easy” and “Brazzle Dazzle Day” suffer from the same sonic struggles. Indeed, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s treatment is likeable, it lifeless. One can easily see the Sherman Brothers bathing this story in their typical cinematic Broadway bravado (they had left the studio in the early ‘70s). Still, troopers like Rooney and Winters try to breath some energy into the banal lyrics, and for the most part they succeed. Along with Marshall’s memorable turn as Pete and some solid slapstick, Pete’s Dragon endures.

And when compared to the commercialized pap produced today, it definitely regains some of its royalty. One can forgive Reddy and instead experience some goofy joy during her daffy “beer keg dance” for “I Saw a Dragon”, and while dated, the combination of Pete and Elliot really does work visually. Bon Bluth, who would later go on to his own career as an animation guide, does a brilliant job bringing the character to life. At this point, one also needs to mention the contribution of surreal comic Charlie Callas as the “voice” of this particular cartoon creature. Offering nothing more than a series of mumbles and mouth farts, the famed ‘70s stand-up turns the big green lug into something both loveable and loony, memorable without being too odd or unusual for kids to appreciate. Indeed, when viewed through the lens of the standard family film, Pete’s Dragon is delightful. It never talks down to its audience, and appreciates elements that are both wistful and worrisome.

Though already available on DVD for quite some time, the new presentation finds Marshall (in voice over mode only, sadly) discussing Iwerks and the rigors of working under those bright yellow lights. He lets the viewer in on several key sequences in the film, while never once mentioning the lighthouse specially built for the production. Elsewhere, the disc includes a deleted storyboard sequence, an original song concept, demo versions of other tracks, and an interesting array of additional supplements. Unlike typical digital complements, The House of Mouse is in constant ‘sell’ mode. They never want the extras to overwhelm the film itself. Individuals who want more ‘how to’ and moviemaking mechanics will definitely feel left out of the added content conversation.

Still, Pete’s Dragon does deliver, surpassing the current trends in kiddie-oriented fare in both imagination and technical realization. Sure, the F/X look dated, done in a style that shows more than a post-modern viewer tends to tolerate, and there are sequences where the ‘corn factor’ far outweighs the artistic prowess at play. As a testament to its founder’s legacy, this is still somewhat lesser Disney. But when viewed in combination for what passes as House of Mouse merriment today - Beverly Hills Chihuahua, G-Force - it’s utterly brilliant. 

by shathley Q

16 Aug 2009

Is Superman, in many ways the paragon of American virtue, a product of being socialized in American values, or is there something innate in his character which seeks out these uplifting and humanizing values?

In this Wednesday’s Iconographies, PopMatters Comics writer C. E. McAuley explores the global role of the United States as sole remaining superpower with a close reading of Superman: Red Son.

Using the nature-vs-nurture debate as its starting point, Red Son explores the possible ramifications of expansionist policies by a global superpower.

What lengths would superpower go to, if it knew it was doing the right thing? And what lengths could be justified.

Red Son is not only a careful unpacking of the core characters of the Superman mythology, but a dissertation in the persuasiveness of ideology.

by Bill Gibron

15 Aug 2009

When David Fincher released his post-modern masterpiece Zodiac in 2007, audiences were expecting another Se7en like slide into dark, depraved inhumanity. The story of the fabled Northern California serial killer did seem like perfect subject matter for the auteur Instead, what viewers got was a wickedly insightful illustration of the differences between police procedure circa the late ‘60s, and how we view such investigations within our current CSI driven mentality. It was a stunning twist on the topic, a chance to feel the frustration of the characters while seeing how, sometimes, luck was as necessary as knowledge in solving a crime.

Another masterful example of this old school detecting vs. new world law enforcement ideal comes in the form of the BBC’s brash, bold, and thoroughly brilliant Life on Mars. Centering on the surreal adventures of millennial cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) suddenly transported back to 1973, it’s time travel taken to sly, sophisticated heights. Arriving around the time of David Bowie’s hit song (thus the title), the Detective Chief Inspector takes up with the Criminal Investigation Department of Manchester under the auspices of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). There, he works with the rest of the force to solve crimes while dealing with the differences between his time, and the past.

Over the course of sixteen sensational episodes (eight for each season), the series shows Sam’s difficulty in coping, his by-the-book approach clashing significantly with the ‘70s ‘anything for a confession’ conceit. It also explores the situation itself, suggesting that our hero may be medically incapacitated in the future (he is hit by a car at the beginning of the storyline, hinting that he is now in a coma), or truly insane. There are elements of the supernatural and suspense, as well as halting humor and the kind of fish out of water formulas that never seem to fail. When meshed with amazing acting, smart scripting, and a truly moving finale (you have to wait until Series 2 for that - sorry), we wind up with something very special indeed.

There’s just something about the British when it comes to television drama. They can take a standard storyline - say a police psychologist who uses his cunning and insight to ‘crack’ cases - and turn it into the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy (right, Robbie “Eddie Fitzgerald” Coltraine?). It’s the same with Life on Mars. Each episode uses Sam’s dilemma as a backdrop for what is, otherwise, a sometimes straightforward exploration of crime and punishment. There are individual cases to be solved, the backdrop of messages from the future, and a strange little spectral girl adding elements of intrigue to the whodunit.

It’s easy to see why this material failed when translated over to America (the ABC version ran for one season in 2008). The storylines contained in the eight episodes offered as part of the first series require concentration and a continued investment. You can’t just tune in, pick up a red herring or random clue, and feel vindicated when the bad guy is caught. No, Life on Mars is meant to be culture shock as social commentary, an attempt by creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah to expand on the typical police plotlines with elements both human and out of this world. 

The UK has always had a fondness for science fiction, with shows like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Primeval garnering huge ratings within a contemporary reality TV dynamic. Life on Mars is different - a hybrid of sorts between grim reality (England in 1973 was no picnic) and fanciful wish fulfillment. One of the main themes that runs throughout the series is Tyler’s desire to return back to the 21st Century. Of course, there’s a complication, and her name is Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Thrust into the middle of the ‘70s concept of gender inequality, the character instantly earns Sam’s attention. Over the course of the series, she also gains something far more personal.

It’s this kind of investment - emotionally, intellectually - that makes Life on Mars so resonant. The show never excuses the era, illustrating obvious flaws like sexism and racism while celebrating the police’s ability to solve crimes under seemingly backward conditions. We see the usual suspects - armed robbers, gangsters, drug dealers - interwoven with darker, more diabolical crimes. As Sam struggles to make sense of his life, the rest of the Manchester force must confront the kind of calm, controlled detecting he brings to their male machismo methodology. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Simm and Glenister simply great as the differing DCIs.

Of course, the biggest problem with any series like this is how immersive and involving it is. Just as we get to Episode 8, and some questions appear to be answered, we are thrown back into the mix and left wanting more. That’s where DVD can really ease the pain. Acorn Media offers the first part of this amazing production on four discs loaded with added content. There are commentaries, interviews, and production featurettes, each one offering more Life on Mars goodness. Even better, there is clarity in many of these conversations, bits and pieces of plot and characterization that amplify our understanding of the show’s main narrative purpose.

Still, the wait for Series 2 will be interminable, especially for anyone without access to cable stations like BBC America (which frequently reruns these shows are part of their schedule). Unlike American dramas, which can drag out a character arc in a mad attempt to milk all the possible profit out of a project, Life on Mars works within its ever-present end game. Here, the creators determined that Sam would have two eight episode plotlines, and that’s all. So the experience of watching Life on Mars at home is a lot like seeing the first part of a movie in the theaters. There’s the satisfaction of seeing something so wonderful that you can’t wait for it to continue. There’s also the horrifying reality that you’ll have to sit tight for as long as necessary as the sequel is being prepared.

As consolation, Life on Mars Series 2 will definitely be worth the wait. While some may see the core concept as a bit “out there” and the desire to tie time and place together a little too obvious for our far more sophisticated mindset, there is no denying the whole “the more things change, the more they stay the same” subtext of the series. In Fincher’s film, we got the distinct impression that if forensic science and inter-department communication had been ever so slightly more advanced, the Zodiac killer would right now be rotting in a jail cell somewhere. Instead, the limits of the past flummoxed even the most loyal law enforcement official. Life on Mars is another example of police procedural as filtered through a far less sophisticated time. Everything else about the show, however, is thoroughly modern - and marvelous. 

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