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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007


PICTURE OF ME PLAYING GUITAR (FANTASTICALLY) IN CONCERT WITH MY SON AND DAUGHTER
June 20, 2006

(Note: pulled under threat of lawsuit by some future production company teeming with shifty lawyer-like types.)



My boy is on the verge of feeling his rock oats. After years of my entreating him to bring his drum, piano and vocal skills over to my band, he up and formed his own! Which is what 16 year-olds do, I suppose.


“Later, Dad.”


Sigh.


His band just had their second session over at our house. Fresh off nearly cracking the windowpanes with their fuzzed out bass and guitars (and I’ll be damned if I’ll ever let that happen again!); but how can you say “no” when you see those hyper-stoked kids with grins that won’t quit on their faces, flush from those first few empowering moments of “we-can-do-anything-because-we’ve-done-nothing-and-it’s-all-in-front-of-us”.


God, how I miss those times!


Practically, what that means is that my stealing him back into the fold to work his chops with his sis and me and our band-on-hold, won’t be happening for the next few months, probably years—by which time I will be so doddering that the point will be moot: who‘d want to play with me anyway? I mean, Mick and Sir Paul and B.B. King are still tolerated cause they built up a following the previous 40 years. (And, besides, Mick and B.B. can still make magic tracks).


All of which goes to prove that rockers are allowed to live forever, if they can manage to get born first!


But I guess I’m just letting the scent of my sour grapes out.


 


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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007

Last month I bought a copy of Pliny’s Natural History at a library book sale. Now I know at least a dozen things that I hadn’t known before. For example, if I am having trouble with excess phlegm, I should kiss “only the little hairy muzzle of a mouse.” That will make the phlegm go away. If I am eating bread and a crumb gets lodged in my throat, I need to take two pieces from the same loaf and place them in my ears. That will dislodge the crumb. If I have the same trouble with fish, the cure is to take bones from the fish and put them on my head.


To give birth to a black-eyed child, eat a rat. To heal a cancerous sore of the gums, administer powdered sheep dags. The “black liquor” found in cuttlefish, if burned in a lamp, will “make all those in the room to look like blackamoors or Aethyopians.” Blackamoor isn’t Pliny’s word, of course. The Natural History I bought was a reprint of the 1601 translation by Philemon Holland, Doctor in Physic. A wonderful book. It cost 50 cents.


Our largest local library, a 20-minute walk away, has one of these book sales every month. The Friends of the Library lay out tables and boxes of books, they man the grey tin box in which money is kept, they offer help to people who are struggling with armloads. They can be frosty if crossed. All are named Joyce.


Normal prices range from 50 cents to a dollar. The larger books are set aside and individually priced: three dollars, five dollars, depending on the book. For two months running they had a special price, five paperbacks for a dollar. That’s Trainspotting, Women in Love, all four of Colette’s Claudine stories, A Spy in the House of Love, an autobiographical Michael Ondaatje, and so on, all for 20 cents each. They’re good for gloating, library book sales.


I hoover up stacks of books and retreat into a corner by the men’s toilets to sort them out into piles which I mentally label ‘Keep’ and ‘Put back.’  At least one person will come and hover wistfully over my pile. Occasionally they try to steal a book. “Sorry,” they say when I fix them with my glowering eye and frowning brow. (To darken the eyebrows rub them with ant eggs, writes Pliny.) “I didn’t realise that was yours.” I believe them; they didn’t. They’re so flustered. A middle-aged Chinese woman once trailed me around the room, lusting after my Bacon.


“He is a very good writer,” she said. “The book is a very good book. I wish I had found it.”


She was right, he is, but I wasn’t going to give him up. Is it strange to wonder why a Chinese woman with hesitant English should be so in love with to Bacon’s essays? Well, I once found a copy of Paradise Lost in a Japanese library with Japanese annotations hand-written in the margins from beginning to end—translations of words like “glozed” and “virtuosest”—so why shouldn’t she be? How many English-speaking readers finish Paradise Lost, never mind Japanese-speaking ones? Who wrote those annotations? And what were they doing in Mito, a middle-sized administrative town known for fermented beans and a dead aristocrat? Lord Misukuni Tokugawa was an author, though: he started a series of history books, the Dainishonshi. There is a copy of this series in the Mito City Museum, another wonderful place, dark inside, full of glass cases and stuffed animals and insects in dioramas. The museum in Melbourne used to be like that before they built a new one and rehoused the dusty animals (the tiger with its glazed and gleaming teeth; the native fauna staring glassily) in a series of well-lit, open spaces that stole away their mystery and made them seem tatty.


There’s territoriality at book sales. People shove. If confronted, they apologise in pale, blushing voices. They do not shout. The only person who raises his voice is a bearded man who comes along every month and declaims at the Joyces. In an ideal world he would be a Dickensian figure, a dotty Mr Dick, fixated but loved. In reality he is self-important and bossy and he irritates them. He never seems to notice. Pliny does not give a solution to the problem of deluded men with beards. But did you know that “malefactors or suspected persons” can be made to tell the truth if they consume the herb Achaemenis in wine? “For in the night following they shall be so haunted with spirits and tormented with sundry fancies that and horrible visions, that they shall be driven perforce to tell all”? Do the people at Guantanamo Bay know about this? It sounds a little quicker than the current system.


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Saturday, Jun 2, 2007


Post-millennial audiences have basically forgotten how to go to the movies. The home theater experience and its myriad of personal perks (readily available bathroom breaks, unlimited snacking, selfish screening time management) have turned the average film fan into an impatient instant gratification addict. A big screen release has to deliver, and deliver quickly, or attention spans shift and butts begin to stiffen. This may explain the near 50/50 split on the viability of Gore Verbinski’s amazing old school blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Half the critical community found the film an honorable companion piece to the previous buccaneer blasts. But an equal number are not that happy at all, arguing that whatever entertainment value Parts 1 and 2 contained, this one is adrift on a sea of stunted amusements. 


Let’s start with the chief complaints against this final facet of the ‘current’ franchise (don’t worry, more movies are inevitable – Tinsel Town never kills outright this kind of cash cow). First off, there’s the grievance that, at two hours and forty-nine minutes, the narrative goes on for far too long. Well, when you’re working through an entire mythology that reaches back across two complete films, as well as a great deal of suggested storylines, you’re wrap-up is going to be gargantuan. Besides, like Roger Ebert once said, no ‘good’ motion picture is ever too long, and Pirates 3 is an amazing entertainment. The second objection rides on the so-called ‘ridiculous’ amount of characters connected to the resolution. Yes, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up here, but who would you eradicate in the process? Would you pull an Aliens3 on some of the supporting cast and kill them off during the opening credits? Perhaps put a few familiar faces in the gallows line-up that opens the film?


No, epic scope and far too many important personalities are what this incredibly accomplished send-off thrives on. For those who hated, or couldn’t handle the introduction of Davy Jones and his craven crustacean crew during Part 2, or longed for the sudden surprise of finding a Disney attraction offering that didn’t instantly suck on ice (ala Part 1), this will not be the movie for you. Instead, this journey to the ends of the Earth in search of closure – and a certain suave scallywag – is anxious to amplify the overall importance of events we’ve seen previously, while adding even more outlandish elements to the already overreaching yarn. Indeed, like the first films founded in the pure popcorn paradigm, director Verbinski is out to change the overall flavor of motion picture eye candy. No matter your issues with the overlong narrative or wealth of unnecessary characters, no one can deny the spectacle of the final pirate stand-off deep inside a whirlpooling maelstrom. It remains one of the series most sensational defining moments.


Equally impressive is the first act descent into Davy Jones’ notorious ‘locker’. Turns out the place is more like purgatory – a lonely, desolate locale where Sisyphean tasks await the unlikely visitor.  For those in the audience who’ve sat back impatiently wondering just where the Heck Johnny Depp has been hiding for the last 45 minutes, his clone-addled insanity (Capt. Jack is confronted by multiple version/visions of himself) is like a Super-Sized helping of the popular knave. Our unlikely superstar still finds ways of making this character likeable and unique, but it’s important to note that Jack will not be the sole focus here – and Depp knows it. He makes the most of his moments without overstaying his welcome. Instead, he provides the usual cinematic spice this entire series loves to thrive on.


Once we’ve move beyond Chow Yun Fat and his Hook-like seaport of Shanghai (the most unrealistic element in this entire fantasy film) we get locked into the storytelling mechanisms moving briskly by. Again, there’s no denying that the movie is plot driven, but to call it overdone or confusing is hogwash. In fact, the plot often feels like the Lucas crafted designs for Star Wars. The original 1977 blockbuster was a clever combination of recognizable genres types (the Western, the serial) with self-started and generated mythology interspersed throughout. Here, Verbinksi takes the typical high seas adventure yarn, mixes in a few post-modern references of his own, and then inserts lots of lore about ocean goddesses, afterlife debts to pay, and personal crises that must be confronted and conquered. As long as you’re attentive and open to the overall experience, you’ll easily comprehend the movie’s motivational machinery. If you’re too busy text messaging your “bff”, you’ll likely get lost.


The reference to a certain motion picture set in a ‘galaxy far, far away’ is also apropos for what Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End strives for, from an entertainment standpoint. Like the popcorn movies of old, this is an experience as much as it is a film, a chance for audiences to get lost in elements they rarely experience in life. Oddly enough, the year before Wars arrived at theaters, Universal tried to jumpstart the pirate movie with Swashbuckler. Featuring Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones and Peter Boyle, it didn’t do well at the box office, but did set the contemporary schematics for future attempts at the sea-faring saga to follow. By utilizing the ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ archetypes within a new kind of updated narrative, director James Goldstone overhauled the entire formula. Seventies audiences just weren’t ready for the retrofitting.


Something similar could be said for modern crowds. When the first Pirates hit, it’s clear that Producer Jerrry Bruckheimer felt it was the superb supernatural angle that wowed viewers. That’s why the sequel is inundated with as many CGI and make-up monster men as possible. In Part 3, all that’s been abandoned. Now we get more of the sensational swordplay and keel-hauling adventure that recalls the grand spectacles of old. In some ways, these movies are like templates, picking and choosing the homages and references they need to succeed before moving on to another character’s individual dilemma. Without the numerous personalities to contend with, the plot would become needlessly repetitive. With a merry band of important entities, every turn of the storyline screw is important.


Still, it’s not hard to see fans giving up on this entire enterprise. They’ve been fed a failed bill of goods by a critical contingency that can’t make up its mind on what is acceptable and what is awful. For everyone comparing this film to the Matrix or Terminator titles, the point has some validity. Both initial movies were made as stand alone statements, lacking the open ended leanings that something similar to Spider-Man offers. To flesh them out, one had to use the original idea as ballast, while battling the demands of studio interference and fan anticipation. That something remotely entertaining comes out of such a schism is high praise indeed. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the successes far outweigh the incredibly minor quibbles - not that the present demographic is patient enough to see it for themselves. 


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Saturday, Jun 2, 2007

It wasn’t just the BBC but also ABC World News Tonight and hundreds of other news outlets that reminded the masses that the Beatles released a little album four decades ago.  After a 1988 full-on cover of the whole thing by the likes of the Fall, Sonic Youth and XTC, there’s now news that some of the top UK acts are going to record their own version of it.  How many albums are going to get toasted years after the fact like that?  Very few, no doubt.  It’s obvious that Sgt Pepper’s has its place in music history but how vaunted should it really be?


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Friday, Jun 1, 2007


Has any film arrived with more nonsensical – and non-cinematic – baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson’s egregious gaff last August clouded its theatrical release in a totally unnecessary manner, but it was the media that made tenable the connection between his personal philosophy about his fellow man and a film focusing on South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies. Like any major superstar – and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel – the building of a celebrity is only half the press’s process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame’s cyclical nature.


Perhaps DVD can help his flagging interpersonal fortunes. Gauged solely by what’s up on the screen, Gibson shouldn’t have any issues at all. From a pure filmmaking point of view, Apocalypto is brilliant. It’s a tenacious throwback to the days when human beings handled action, not CGI and special effects. It uses it’s wonderfully simplistic storyline to pour on much welcomed buckets of atmosphere and design, and it purposely leaves the audience directly in the dark. As a result, we instantly identify with his lead character’s dilemma (protecting and/or returning to his family) and discover the wild and wooly ways this foreign world works, right along with everyone else.


Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating an excellent antidote to the plodding post-modern blockbuster. In a script that is elegant in its ease, Gibson identifies the good guys (Jaguar Paw’s jungle dwelling tribe) and names the unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson’s gift behind the lens. Using digital cameras and advanced filmmaking technology, there is a rawness to this imagery present that’s just astounding.


There are indeed shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely computer generated spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there’s a moment during Jaguar Paw’s last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer. In addition, the entire Mayan Temple scene is radiant in its crassly colorful depiction of debauchery. As part of Touchstone’s Special Edition disc, Gibson is on hand to explain how he captured every cleverly created moment. We even witness the attention to detail in the Behind the Scenes featurettes. 


As for the performances, it really is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Still, he never comes across as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’. Naturally, there’s a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. He even shows a softer side, doting on his son in a way that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw a palpable public enemy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. Thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.


While it may be bereft of real emotion – as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don’t really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate – there is no doubting Gibson’s ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we’ve never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. Some have criticized the authenticity of Apocalypto’s artistic assertions, but the added context of the DVD should help to resolve some of those lingering logistical doubts. Indeed, we learn that things were much worse – read: bloodier and gorier – than depicted onscreen.


Yet it’s the nonstop action of the entire last act, a foot race that seems to cover the entire length of Central America in its lightning paced logistics and epic scope that truly amplifies our appreciation. Obviously inspired by his stint as a certain Mad Max, Gibson emulates the best of Australian auteur George Miller and strips everything down to body parts and wooded paths. Instead of just spectacle (and there’s plenty of that) we get strategizing and opportunism. While some may question the seemingly boundless energy Jaguar Paw and his pursuers maintain, we recognize the urgency in both the escape and the hunt. Our hero has to get home to his family. The villains have a horrifying superstition to follow and feed (and a little eye for an eye payback to administer). By avoiding complicated motives and obvious stunt set ups, the action in Apocalypto’s finale is a solid cinematic adrenaline rush. It argues not only for the effectiveness of the film, but for the skill stowed away in Gibson’s bag of cinematic tricks.


For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the all time classics of the genre, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with the exceptional efforts of 2006 – at least from an inventive perspective. Besides, what’s the better legacy to have hanging around your neck – an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling celluloid statements? While it may be possible to judge a man strictly by his actions, art is not so easily categorized. It requires a different set of perceptive standards. Here’s DVD’s chance to change some minds


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