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by Bill Gibron

16 Sep 2008

A daredevil, by definition, defies death. He cheats the Grim Reaper at his own particular brand of bluffing. This also means, by reciprocal inference, he or she embraces life. Granted, it does appear to be a contradictory condition. By pushing the very limits of existence to the points where you could end it, one looks to be laughing in the face of mortality. It’s seem the very definition of a fool’s paradise. By his very giddiness alone, wire walker Phillipe Petit would be the perfect illustration of this ideal. He sees nothing wrong with finding a location, stringing up a line, and doing his risky, refined dance with destiny. And he worships the moment as he does it.

As the subject of James Marsh’s brilliant documentary Man on Wire, Petit proves that there can be joy in doing what others would consider to be insane. Less of a career overview and more a concentration on a single segment of the performer’s otherwise complicated madman modus, the main event here is the 1974 high wire walk between the then incomplete Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Reflecting a simpler time when almost anyone could infiltrate a major structure and display their Depression era hyperbole, Petit comes across as part shaman, part sham, all ego and even more enthusiasm.

Beginning in the streets of Paris as a clown, our hero first feels the flush of unusual fame when, using his circus skills, he walks across the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. Soon, he is down in Australia, doing something similar to a bridge in Sydney. By accident, he reads an article on the soon to be built World Trade Center, and immediately, the structure is all Petit can think about. He obsesses on it, drawing in a ragtag group of friends, conspirators, and well wishers in an attempt to realize his goal. During these sections March introduces our aging rogue’s gallery in a rather unique way. Each one gets their say, while a starkly lit portrait fills the frame. Soon, we see that there is a dual purpose to this posing. Some of his confidants are quite capable of helping. Others freeze in the face of potential dangers - like death, the law, etc. It’s like looking at a cast of players plucked from an asylum. 

In fact, Man on Wire is less about the climatic walk (which we know will happen, since there is a movie being made about the event and the individual who accomplished it) and more about the intricate preparations and personal dilemmas everyone faced. Sure, there is some cloak and dagger as the crew runs into security just hours before the event. Equally thrilling is a sequence where a simple wire pull maneuver goes wrong, and ends up taking hours, the weight of the material making inch by inch progress almost impossible. Marsh does manufacture the necessary suspense, all leading to the stunning images of Petit suspended above Manhattan, his lithe body literally dividing the skyline in half. Oddly enough, there is very little moving footage of the event. We get to see actual scenes of Petit crossing Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. For the Twin Towers, however, it’s mostly still photography.

This doesn’t lessen the act’s impact though. Man on Wire makes the wise decision to not follow Petit’s other stunts (including walks involving the Louisiana Superdome and The Eiffel Tower). Indeed, the use of the now destroyed World Trade Center resonates in a way that makes anything else he’s done seem minor in scale or import. You can tell that Petit feels the same way. His face practically glows as he recalls the moment he left the safety of the building’s rooftop. There is so much happiness in his cherubic look that you can’t help but get caught up in the emotion. Petit may now be viewed as kind of an incomplete saint, but when laying on his back high above the street, balanced perfectly on the line, an anxious audience of New Yorker’s marveling at his chutzpah, all flaws easily fall away.

If there is a single missing element here, a minor moment that cries out from its MIA status, it’s a mention of the fact that Petit’s dream no longer exists. One can’t imagine that Marsh didn’t broach the subject of the 9/11 attacks with the artist, hoping to gain some manner of insight as to how he reacted to the sight of his biggest triumph tragically crumbling before his eyes. Maybe such a reaction is implicit in everything he says up to this point, but hearing (or just seeing) Petit’s take would be wonderful. Of course, the entire movie is practically a love letter to what the World Trade Center represented. Turns out, Marsh felt the beauty of what Petit did was so substantial that discussing the fall of the Towers would, in his mind, undermine its mythos. He’s probably right. 

Frankly, such closure isn’t necessary. What we see in Petit, unlike the current crop of Mindfreaks, and Blaine-worthy conmen is someone who can actually capture magic in a moment. Without optical illusion, camera trickery, or media-aided bait and switch, this was a man who figured out how to string a cable between the two largest buildings in the world (at the time) and then step into said void. There was no publicity, no pay per view showboating. No netting or safety harnesses. Sure, Petit expected some response, but this act was not done to derive some manner of commercial or financial benefit. Instead, the wire walk remains the ultimate answer to the question “why”, the quandary anyone who teases death must deal with and defend. 

And we are lucky enough to experience the explanation in all its vertigo inducing glory. Make no mistake about it - Petit’s accomplishment was so stunning at the time that even the police officers sent in to arrest him respond in awe-struck wonder over what they’re witnessing. It’s a reaction shared by the audience. No matter his impish charms, his naïve belief in the pureness of his motives, Petit maintains his bi-furcated façade. You’ll either love him or dislike him, but you can’t deny his moxie.

At one point, New York had a pair of concrete and steel monoliths that few outside the city thought much of. In fact, even the local citizenry thought they were an ugly eyesore. With a single act of death defiance, Petit put the World Trade Center on the map. He also endeared its image to a country who, as usual, wouldn’t recognize what they had until it was gone. While the Towers have fallen, Petit’s achievement lingers. Thankfully.

by Chris Catania

16 Sep 2008

Landing in Chicago for his debut U.S. performance, Japanese singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru started the Saturday night show at the Empty Bottle before a sold out crowd deploying an acoustic version of “Parachute,” a song busting at the seams with blissful sunshine and a perfect lead single from Exithis third album and the first to be released stateside.

He bows humbly, sits down and wastes no time going right into a furious mix of arpeggio pop and classic jazz fingerings with beaming with Beatle flavors. But it’s all Tokumaru in the interpretation as he stops and starts the chord progressions on his own terms, swiftly with playful agility and pure ease, sending the crowd into a hush of awe.

Tokumaru albums are one man bedroom symphonies created and produced on computer in his bedroom as he plays fifty plus instruments on Exit’s ten tracks, blending electronic, folk, blues and Japanese pop into a dreamy transcendence that melts the language barrier to almost nothing, leaving only the sweet melodies of Tokumaru’s gentle emotive croon to tie the finally knot firmly around your heart. 

Sometimes he plays with band but tonight it’s just him and his guitar, a different listening experience that what you hear on Exit but just as engaging if not more as his fingers fly across the frets, as he sings of abstract thoughts mined from his dream diary.   

Though his 11pm set ended way too soon, I did have a chance to sit down with him afterwards, as Saturday night ticked away and Sunday morning rolled in.

In the Empty Bottle’s musty basement green room and its graffiti spattered walls as our backdrop—and with a bit of translation help from his manager Koki Yahata—Tokumaru revealed the details behind dream diary inspired songwriting, his jazz influenced trip to the US a few years ago, and why, though he’s happy to play live, he still doesn’t want to have his parents come to his shows.

This being your first time playing in the US, what are your thoughts so far?
It was raining a lot in Japan when I left I was expecting some change in weather but it hasn’t really changed at all. [chuckles] so I guess it’s kind of disappointing [chuckles].

Normally it pretty nice this time of year but with Hurricane Ike we got tons of rain the last few days. How did you feel during the show?
The reaction from the crowd was better than I expected. I was very happy with the response.

So after your first US show how would you compare playing before a Japanese audience versus a US audience?
In Japan people usually come to the show to hear the music and concentrate on the performance, so comparing with the bar being so close to the stage, it was loud in the back and it was difficult to play by myself on stage.

You did do a great job of overcoming the crowd chatter, though. When I see that happen I often wonder what people could be possibly talking about while the show’s going on and they apparently paid money for the show.
But I was very happy with the large part of the crowd who was enjoying the performance.

You play a lot of different instruments on the album. How do you decide what and how the songs get played live?
When I started making music or even playing the songs from Exit, I had no intention of playing them live on stage in front of an audience.

Your performance tonight was very different from what first time listeners would hear on the album or vice versa. Seeing your play your guitar is just as fun as it is to listen to the album. Is that intentional? Because it seems that fans would be in for a surpris whether they first hear you at a concert or on record.
Yes. And when I play other shows I sometimes play with other band members but tonight it was just me and my guitar. But it is almost impossible to recreate what I do on album, so I won’t usually recreate the whole album on stage and just sound simpler and I try to find a way to present the songs.

You had a stay in Los Angeles from 1999-2001 learning jazz and it was obvious that you’ve melded that with other guitar styles to create your own style.
I didn’t have any intention of going to Japanese college so I tried something else before I had to start working at a regular job in Japan. I really had nothing else to do so I started studying jazz [chuckles].

Tell me about your dream diary.  Your lyrics are all sung in Japanese but the way your melodies are sung the language barrier is almost eliminated.
I don’t think that much about how to write lyrics form the dream diary, but I have been writing my dream dairy since my childhood and it was a very natural thing for me. Then when I was a teenager I started making music, and I looked back at what I wrote and took some hints from the pages to begin making the music. 

So first came the dream dairy, then the music and then at some point you came across the Beatles…
[playfully chuckles] Yes.

They have a significant influence on your music. Was there a specific song or album that had the biggest impact on you?
There’s not a certain song, necessarily, but because I have been listening to them since I was kid, there are certain melodies and chord progressions that unconsciously influence me and it certainly shows up in my music.

I can see the influence but you’ve certainly made it your own.  What is it like for you when you recording the albums in your bedroom?  Are you surrounded by the instruments?
I am always surrounded by a lot of different instruments. So I can start recording them at any moment. My writing process is more like making a song up in my mind, like an image of the song, and once it is completed in my mind, then I begin recording it.

So you see the song first in your mind? Do you see the song and notes in colors like Jimi Hendrix allegedly saw music?
Yes, very similar.

What is inspiring you to make your music?
I don’t really like the lyrics to have a certain meaning. I don’t want a song to mean something specific. I try to stay away from that and that’s why I go to my dream dairy for inspiration. I always want to create something that I haven’t heard before or would like to hear by myself.

Is the dream diary something literal as if you write down songs the morning after they come to you in a dream or are the songs pulled from journal entries you’ve written years ago?
It depends. Each song is created differently from the dream dairy and it doesn’t happen the same way each time. Usually I don’t rend to turn a dream into music right away. Because when an idea of a song is half created in my head and I take an instrument right away it will be very different from what I want to make in the end, so I almost intently stay away from an idea until it is fully developed in my mind.

Do you play your music for friends before you record it?
I know exactly how I want to make it the way I want. I like to hear responses, but I generally know what I want when I hear it.

If you had a choice would you rather play live or only record in your bedroom?
Well,…basically…I like to stay at home [chuckles] and I wish I could play at home without having to travel.

Maybe you could just hook up a live feed into your bedroom…
[laughs]

So how did they get you out of your bedroom and out on the road? Did they have to drag you out kicking and screaming?
[chuckles] I don’t really know it happened…

I hope nobody drugged you or hit your over the head…so did you then all of a sudden find yourself on the Empty Bottle stage, asking yourself ‘how did I get here?’
[laughs]

Well, I’m really glad you did come out of your room, however it happened.
I am too, and the experience of playing live show in the states is not that far from what I expected. I’ve toured Europe before, and so far, it’s very similar.

Playing live is very different than you playing in your bedroom. So who was the first person to hear your music when you first began to create it as a teenager?

Various people who were beside me, friend and original members of my first band Gellers. I was in that band with a childhood friend and it was my friend who also did the cover art for Exit and he was a friend since Kindergarten.

How did he create the artwork?
He had a good idea of what he wanted to do since he was someone who first heard my music and he had also done some of my demo CD artwork.

Do your parents play music or support your music?
[emphatically shakes head and waves arms] No.

So you’re going against some family grain and taking some big risks. Do they come to your shows?
No. it’s not their fault because I asked them not to come.

Why?
It’s very embarrassing to have them in the audience and see me live on stage.

Because of the things you’re signing about?
[chuckles] …it just very personal for me…

Do you have brothers or sisters…?
Yes.

Do they come to your shows?
Yes, once or twice.

So do you invite them or tell them to stay away and they come anyway?
[laughs] no, they come to shows when they can. Either way, I’m really happy that I’m been able to do what I love to do which is make music, and I would love to go to other places to make music.

by tjmHolden

16 Sep 2008

For the earliest peripatetics who toured America—say, a visitor such as Alexis de Tocqueville—politics was one of the greatest fascinations about the nascent nation. Not only because it was ubiquitous—with its fingerprints smudged over nearly every aspect of public life—but because politics served as both magnet and outlet for the robust, often uncontainable energies of the American people. In the French analyst’s words:

No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult . . .  A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements . . . All around you everything is on the move . . . (with associations of every stripe) commercial . . . industrial . . . religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.

Nearly two centuries later, and despite a complex social history of ever and greater privatization of the public sphere, the cacophony and tumult of the political in American life is no less true. A contemporary visitor can not help but notice, with a current presidential race now heading into its home stretch. What de Tocqueville marveled was a quadrennial “revolution ... in the name of the law” will, come November 4, be upon Americans once more.

And, in the run-up to November 4, Americans have witnessed nothing short of that which de Tocqueville did, back in 1832:

Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds . . . As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread. The citizens divide up into several camps . . . The whole nation gets into a feverish state . . .

In short, they go gaga over the spontaneous, the conflagratory, the manufactured invention and intrigue that has been . . . the unveiling of Sarah Palin.

Or, by other lights: life stranger than fiction.

by L.B. Jeffries

15 Sep 2008

A variety of science fiction authors offered theories about internet culture in the nineties, observing the potential and predicting various modes of expression possible in such a medium. William Gibson accurately guessed the artistic phenomenon of Youtube celebrities and their cult status, although he significantly over-estimated the appeal of anything beyond sneezing pandas. Ray Kurzweil, more of a futurist than a Sci-Fi author, calculated that downloadable content would replace DVD’s (as opposed to Blu-Ray) in a move that would eventually subsume all forms of media into the hands of one or two distributors. We aren’t there yet…but it is hardly as fantastic a notion now as it was ten years ago. In regards to the intellectual development of writing and communication, Neal Stephenson seemed to hit the nail on the head. In Snow Crash, he describes a type of writer called a gargoyle. Although he was certainly wrong about these people being computer-obsessed virtual junkies (I guess), their writing style he described is fairly apt. It’s a person who collects random information, researches topics online, and combines the data in unexpected and new ways.

 

For the past year or so, a growing movement of intellectual gamers has begun to take the spotlight. It is a social development that’s right on schedule (if not a bit early) in game culture, since all artistic mediums start hitting their stride once their initial fans are old enough to feel nostalgic about it. There was an interesting piece on GameSetWatch about the continuing evolution of video game journalism by Mike Walbridge. It’s a very good collection of different prominent gamerati and their takes on running a game blog. Some maintain well-developed communities, others view them more as soapboxes to stand on. He notes their curious habit of linking back & forth, discussing points raised by others, and in general functioning as an aggregate cabal of ideas. I’m reminded of Stephenson’s gargoyle term because of the way ideas flow and function amongst their blogs. They are not united by a magazine or website (though plenty write for one), they are united by an agenda: creating an intelligent and respectable discussion about video games. The way their attempts have become far more empowered than a single lonely critic or blogger is through the exact method that Stephenson predicted: aggregate ideas in new combinations are more powerful than individual ones. One blogger posts their experience designing an RTS. Another reads it, then cites it in reference to a think-tank on new RTS games. The next adds a little bit, the next adds a bit more, until a snowball effect has occurred and something wholly new is born.

 

So at what stage of intellectual development is the medium of video games right now? In an article about preserving classic video games by Michael Zenke, a particularly insightful comment summarizes it well. Danc, of Lost Garden fame explains: “As games increase in scope, play style and number, it simply isn’t possible to know all games all the time. So a curious thing occurs. You run into people who game and you have nothing in common with them…If the literary world is any indication, there will emerge an elite group that builds lists of canonical titles that everyone must play if they are to be considered ‘educated’…The existing gamer culture will fragment and adapt to this new reality of choice and variety. Entirely new cultures will emerge so that there is no longer a single ‘gamer culture’.” There’s a bit of cynicism about intellectual elitism that I cherry-picked out, but you get his point. And it’s already happening, a person playing Guitar Hero is not the same kind of person who plays FPS games, though they’re both technically playing video games. Working on the book club model, gamers are now picking a game of the month then discussing it through the internet. The aggregate cabal in motion, canonizing the revered classics and exploring different perspectives on them. Michael Abbott, a college professor and prominent blogger at Brainy Gamer, has already made plans for a course on RPG’s and created a loose list for his syllabus. Video games, in terms of development, have started to declare their touchstones, their games that all others are compared to.

 

Let’s take a moment to shake the magic 8-ball, blow the dust off history, and remind ourselves that this has already all been done before in other mediums. Going back to Danc’s comment about game culture fracturing, you can already begin to see the symptoms of factions in the intellectual community. It’s gettin crowded in there ya’ll. You can’t swing a digital cat without hitting another gamer with the surname intellectual, smart, sophisticated, etc. I’m not trivializing or belittling this, my own blog is called ‘Literati Game Reviews’, I’m just trying to have a chat with the kettle while we both sit on the stove. Although the internet is a wonderful place for six or seven intelligent people to chat and flesh out an idea, it is still constrained by the fundamental problem that reality has with conversations. There’s only room for so many people per conversation. A book club with forty members isn’t going to develop nearly as coherent a theme or message as one with twelve. We’ve all played enough video games made by 150+ developers to know that. Whether it’s because your favorite game isn’t on the list, they disagree with your ideas, or they just don’t have enough room for them, eventually writers are going to strike out on their own. And whether it’s from the bitterness of being ignored in one group or finding the necessary fire to get a second one started, these factions are going to start bickering.

 

Which is not such a bad thing, it’s right on course for the development of an artistic medium. Within those fights and dueling ideas is the magic that makes an artistic medium be alive instead of some dissected corpse. Within those conversations and arguments is what makes video games a living medium instead of a parade of dead people’s words or films. First you fight about the games you hate. Then you fight about the ones you love. Then you fight about what makes them great, then you fight about what made them even more. You fight about why they’ve changed.  You fight about why they stayed the same. Finally, you fight about how the medium is dying, and then you fight about how it’s gone. Then you do something new.

by Bill Gibron

15 Sep 2008

It is safe to say that there are several kinds of soundtracks, each type geared towards exactly what the filmmaker wants or the narrative needs. Some act as nothing more than metaphysical mix tapes, complications collecting the various pop music tracks secured for a marketing tie-in release. To call it commercial would be stating the bloody obvious. Others act like subtle supplements, doing little more than emphasizing the storyline or subject matter inherent in a film. For these ethereal attempts, the slightest sonic breeze might simply blow it all away. But some scores are wholly reflective, capable of offering the listener an inner mirror. They provide a resource for mimicking the moviemaker, turning their vision into the sonic serenade heard over the Cineplex speakers.

In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at three examples of this rarified reality in action. In each case, the person with pen in hand and orchestra at bay is attempting to play inferred filmmaker, realizing the same style and vision of the person paying their wage. From the latest supporting stance from a longtime creative companion to the luxuriant efforts of one of the few women in the business, each presentation perfectly matches the material on hand - for good and for grating.

Burn After Reading - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

If there is one constant in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, aside from the arcane cleverness and attention to old fashioned cinematic detail, it’s the music of Carter Burwell. Part folklorist, part sage sampler, this amazing musician has guided every one of the boys bravado movie moves, from Blood Simple to their most recent masterpiece No Country for Old Men. While never nominated for an Oscar (his work on both Miller’s Crossing and Fargo deserved at least some minor Academy Award acknowledgement), his themes have become the sonic signatures for the Coens’ complex aesthetic. His most recent collaboration with the filmmakers - the fantastic Burn After Reading - easily reflects the same anarchic attitude the brothers attempted when bringing the surreal screwball comedy to the big screen.

The main approach taken by this unusual film is that all romance is like high espionage. As a result, the Coens create a comedic backdrop in which everything - from extramarital affairs to breaches of national security - is treated within the same ersatz-thriller ideal. Burwell applies the same schematic energy here, such bracing selections as “Night Running”, “Breaking and Entering” and “How is this Possible?” playing like outtakes from a bawdy Bourne provocation. Elsewhere, the composer creates certain themes for specific characters, including a three part piece illustrating the look for love by health club employee Linda and tripwire Treasury agent Harry. Together without other standout tracks like “A Higher Patriotism” and “Carrots/Shot”, Burwell defends his position as full fledged member of the Coens’ creative consensus. It just wouldn’t be one of their films without his amazing musical muse.



Towelhead - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

Looking over his resume, composer Thomas Newman has provided some sensational aural backdrops for some equally impressive films. From Pixar’s Wall*E to Todd Field’s Little Children, from Revenge of the Nerds in the mid ‘80s to the upcoming Revolutionary Road, he has a unique ability to capture the sly subtext of the films he is complementing. After working with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball on the Oscar winning American Beauty (he also received a nomination), it’s not surprising to see his name associated with the follow-ups from both men. Road won’t be released until December, but already making the festival and limited release rounds is Towelhead. Alan Ball’s directorial debut, centering on the sexual coming of age of a 13 year old Lebanese girl in Texas, is tough subject matter for a movie. Sadly, Newman’s score illustrates just how off base this entire production really is.

Made up mostly of ethnocentric beats and faux Middle Eastern influences, this lackadaisical soundtrack does little to amplify the sinister and shocking elements contained in Towelhead. Sequences like “Snow Queen”, “Vuoso”, and “Rain & Good Weather” feel barely fleshed out, locked in a slow simmering sonic strategy that barely delivers any intrigue. Even worse, when Newman starts with the polyrhythmic drumming and cultural swatches, he seems to be trying far too hard. How obvious is it that a film centering on an Arab teenager in America would be backed by what sounds like the Disney version of a Syrian sword dance. Besides, this score is miniscule in comparison to other efforts. With only eight tracks and a very limited running time, this feels like something Newman tossed off from the top of his head. Even a movie as miserable as Towelhead deserves better.



The Duchess - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

It is unusual to find women working in the mostly man’s world of film scoring. It’s not for lack of talent. Instead, the studio system and their approach to soundtracks apparently still have a very high, and very unnecessary glass ceiling. Rachel Portman has clearly broken through, although not with the kind of commercial and critical respect given to her more masculine counterparts. Working in film since 1982, she’s provided the sonic setup for such interesting efforts as Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, the Johnny Depp vehicle Benny and Joon, and most recently, the ‘other’ Truman Capote/In Cold Blood film Infamous. She even has an Academy Award for her work in Emma. Yet it’s clear that as a facet of a film, Portman perfectly matches the moviemakers she’s paired with. Never overstepping her bounds or breaking the tone established, she ends up offering the kind of support that few composers can claim - unobtrusive but totally necessary.

It’s the same with her creative classic revisionism for The Duchess. Featuring Keira Knightley and centering on the scandal plagued life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana Spencer, Portman’s pieces here sound like found chamber music from a noted master’s overflowing filing cabinet. From perfect little tone poems like “I Think of You All the Time” to more majestic works like “Some Things Too Late, Others Too Early”, Portman’s methods segue perfectly into the noted legends on hand. Indeed, she doesn’t sound out of place among Beethoven or Hayden, both of whom are represented here. Certainly, there is a more contemporary bent to some of the selections, including the suggestively named tracks as “Gee and Grey Make Love” and “Rape”, but for the most part, The Duchess lilts along on the kind of antiquated atmosphere that seems perfect for this kind of period piece. Such a situation brings out all the British in this smart English artist.

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