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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007


With the anemic Eragon hitting DVD the week of 20 March, perhaps it’s time to ponder the problem with dragons. Not as mythic beasts, mind you. No, few fictional entities are as intrinsically interesting as these winged lizards. From their symbolic battle with St. George to the numerous kid vid variations of same, the fire-breathing baddie should be a sensationally cinematic being. After all, it can fly, it has all the inherent horror of a dangerous dinosaur and – as long as you believe what fantasy fiction has to offer – can help guide the naïve and unappreciated toward the coming of age they’re so desperately in need of. But when 2002’s Reign of Fire is the best your beast can get, it’s time to give the whole folklore a much needed kick in the creativity.


Actually, that’s not wholly correct. Peter Jackson gave the terrifying creatures a decent cinematic shout out when he melded them seamlessly into his epic Lord of the Rings battles, and there are many who still have a warm place in their heart for Disney’s 1981 effort Dragonslayer. Heck, even Harry Potter did a bang up job of bringing the fiend to the forefront. But thanks to fabulous disasters such as Dragonheart, Willow, and the notorious role-playing rot of Dungeons and Dragons, the rampaging reptile from tales of yore has become a snooze-inducing varmint that can’t quite decide if it’s cute, cuddly, sensible or just stupid.


Thanks to Christopher Paolini’s pathetic Inheritance Trilogy, of which Eragon is the first installment, dragons have once again found themselves on the short end of the entertainment stick. In this case, our farmboy hero becomes one of his land’s legendary ‘riders’, with an oversized Jiminy Cricket – a blue beast named Saphira – guiding him through the ins and outs of such a status. Naturally, there is a despotic king that requires overthrowing, an Alex Guinness like sage ready to test our hero’s unmolded mantle, a wispy young elf girl that needs saving, and a rebellious horde desperate for a sign that there is some salvation from their present state of persecution. Along with a sinister sorcerer who resembles a granny gone gangrenous, Eragon stinks like a pile of oversized bat guano.


But it’s the depiction of dragons in this dreck that really seals the deal. Paolini develops his own arcane mythology here, tying beast to rider in a weird, almost symbiotic way. If you kill a dragon, the human partner can live on. Kill the man, and the beast dies as well. This means that dragons, at least in this world, are not independent entities, capable of their own mindless mayhem. Instead, they are anthropomorphic weaponry, their potential majesty reduced to nothing more than a tank with wings. In addition, the narrative requires that the creature speak. Using the lamest of creative conceits – telepathy – the dragon is given a calm, cooing voice (provided by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) and, as stated before, dishes out common sense platitudes in an attempt to direct her dimwitted charge.


Gone are the ferocious sequences of unbridled carnage. Missing are the moments when man succumbs to the beast’s destructive talons of hate. In their place is the machismo version of a unicorn, a touchy feely monster with a head full of Confucius-like proverbs. It’s the same thing that happened with the Dennis Quaid/Sean Connery cock-up Dragonheart. Again, another English speaking (or make that Scottish broguing) lizard is required to guide a disillusioned knight toward a final battle against – you guessed it – a demented and dictatorial king. Seems that whenever a ruler runs ramshackle over a meandering Middle Earth backdrop, geckos with the carriage of a DC-10 have to show up to set things right. Sadly, they also seem to require the less than helpful aid of a human sidekick to complete the deal.


As a one time wonder inducing work of fiction, dragons have never really gotten the cinematic celebration they deserve. Go back as far as Fritz Lang’s Das Nibelungen, when special effects were in their infancy and even then, our scaly scallywags don’t get the merit they warrant. In the sequence where the heroic Siegfried battles said legendary lizard, the mechanized monster looks more silly than sinister. Sure, it’s a marvel of turn of the century engineering, but as a symbol of a Medieval mayhem maker, it looks like a theme park attraction about to throw a rod. Something similar happens in Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword. There, our creature is merely a mediocre flame thrower stuffed inside a pile of moldy carpet. It’s sad but true – point to any example of the dragon in the last 100 years of motion picture history and you’ll find something that’s either stunted by stop motion, mocked by miniaturization, or inert thanks to a lack of ingenuity.


For some reason, dinos had the same dilemma. All throughout their theatrical track record, they remained lumbering and ludicrous. Either actual chameleons were cast in their roles, large plastic fins crazy-glued onto their backs for that perfect prehistoric look, or Ray Harryhausen and artists of his ilk painstakingly recreated the Mesozoic era with clay, metal armature, and months working on a scaled down set. But all that changed with Jurassic Park. Suddenly, what seemed old fashioned and flat was given a new computerized luster. Though revisionist history can and will carp about the film’s flaws all it wants, no one can deny the wonder inspired by the T-Rex attack, or the superb suspense of the Raptor/kitchen rampage. Whatever its final merits, Steven Spielberg and his buddies over at ILM reconfigured the archaic creature into a new, 20th century star.


What the dragon needs is some of Mr. ET‘s filmic refashioning – and making them noble creatures with the tempting voices of a sexy superstar doesn’t count. No, the ideal story needs to be melded to the perfect director, all of it filtered through a desire for invention and creative possibilities. As noted before, the closest anyone has come is Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire. Beginning with a brilliant premise – the mistaken discovery of ancient dragon eggs in London leads, very quickly, to a worldwide epidemic of the flying killing machines – it was an effort ultimately undermined by budgetary and demographic concerns. Still, the narrative follow through was intriguing, with the wasteland elements of the post-apocalyptic world nicely contrasted with the survivors’ desire for an end to the mayhem. But again, the beast takes a backseat to Hollywood heavyweights (Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey) running around in expertly decimated art designed backdrops.


Certainly there are examples when, featured in a minor or meaningless role, the dragon has persevered. But the cruel fact remains that, as potential stars of their own fantasy or fright film franchise, the scourge of every knight and squire from Camelot to the land of Ilya Muromets, our wannabe fear factor is a dud. And thanks to pathetic examples of moviemaking mediocrity like Eragon, it’s a fair bet that it will remain a wallflower in the world of creature features. How this can happen, with all that a fire-breathing terror with the ability to soar high above the populace has to offer, is a mystery that a wizard may not be able to solve. It is obvious that, by and large, writers and directors haven’t.


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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Patti Smith
Gimme Shelter [MP3]
     


“While her groundbreaking vision of “three chord rock merged with the power of the word” has ensured her place in rock & roll history, Patti Smith has, throughout her career, developed a reputation as one of pop music’s foremost interpreters, visiting the songs of other musical artists and transforming them through the lens of her own understanding, appreciation and imagination. Beginning with her first single, “Hey Joe,” in 1974 and her extrapolations of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” on her seminal Horses album in 1975 through her live performances of songs ranging from “You Light Up My Life” to “My Generation” to her new album, Twelve, Patti Smith continues to reshape popular music’s classic source materials and make them her own.”—Columbia


Uncut
Out of Sight [MP3]
     


Breaking Glass [MP3]
     


Kiss Me [MP3]
     


All tracks from Modern Currencies on Paper Bag Records.
“This Toronto-based fourpiece build a wall of sound with cascading guitar squalls and pounding rhythms capable of moving the hairs on the back of your neck.”—Paper Bag Records


The Twilight Sad
Cold Days from the Birdhouse [MP3] from Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters on Fat Cat.
     


“This Glasgow band layers melodies to build a big and volatile anthem rock album.”—Fat Cat


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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007

Still catching up on reading since the madness of SXSW but I was particularly interested in this article, trying to tackle the age-old issue on “should rock critics be musicians?”: AV Club article


Some good arguments there but I wonder about a few points too:


- Greil Marcus, Simon Reynolds and Gary Giddins aren’t musicians but they’re great writers
- What about the reverse?  Was Jimi Hendrix a great essayist and does that detract from his playing?
- Great musicians/writers like Lenny Kaye, Greg Tate and David Toop don’t write articles in a technical/musical way- they approach music on an emotional level


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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007



My time in Oslo is coming to a close. Although I’ve exited and entered this hotel room a combined 23 times over the course of seven days, and visited here and there, to and fro, it seems as if I haven’t even been in this country for more than a couple of blinks.


True peripatetic lifestyle.


I have a few more things to tell you about before I officially shut the door, but before all is said and done I will be boarding a plane to elsewhere. My narrative voice always a few steps behind my processing mind, which is yet again a few steps in arrears of the experiencing body.


That too, part of the peripatetic way.


The body (preceding mind – both proceeding experience) will board a succession of planes (in fact) that will transport me from Oslo through Copenhagen, to Tokyo, then onto the U.S. Man, that isn’t a trip I would even wish upon my worst enemy . . . well, actually . . .  wait up on that one. Come to think of it, that might be just sweet . . .


Assuming it was a full-up flight and my own worst enemy’s seatmate decided to get violently sick all over his (or her) lap. Oh, and both bathrooms closest to him (or her) got backed up and there was a long, long, looooooooonnnggg line to the others.


Oh, and one more thing: s/he didn’t have a change of clothing in her/his carry-on and there was still 7 hours of flight time to go.


Yeah, then maybe I would wish this trip on my own worst enemy.


Of course . . . me being such a nice guy, I really don’t have any of those. Me possessing a nature that is so kind, generous and sweet. A character you all can immediately apprehend and appreciate reading this blog. (Can’t you?)


Anyway, what I was going to tell you before I got diverted with all these fantasy musings was some of the things that surprised me about life over here. Things I would not really have predicted (in my cultural myopia), but that I have noted in my 11 or 12 trips out of my room.


There are about 6—or maybe even 16—but I will try to keep it around ten. And count them down from lesser to greater gee-wizness, like this . . .


 


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Tuesday, Mar 20, 2007


Hero worship is an understandable human trait. After all, life provides us with so many burdens that to revere another who seems to have all the answers, or at least provides hope that there are indeed resolutions out there, gives us the necessary will to continue on with the fight. This is especially true in children. Lacking the experiences that mold and manage maturity, they are almost always lost in a fog of their own naiveté. Like the simpleton satellites they are at first, they tend to gravitate towards those who they feel can protect and guide them. Usually, said individual is a person with a demeanor of authority and reserve. They appear calm and prepared, ready to address any situation that the child feels could literally swallow them whole. As reliance turns into reverence, the preparation begins for the inevitable fall. Sometimes, the tumble is gradual, learned internally over time and interaction. In other circumstances, the plummet is predicated on a single incident or idea—a misunderstanding, a glimpsed lack of control, or some unexplainable deed that defies godliness. It’s in these moments where life delivers its most devastating lessons. It demands one apply some personal perspective, and it suggests that the carefree days of youth are about to end.


Though there is a lovers’ triangle at the center of the storyline, the relationship most important in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol appears initially to be between overworked butler Baines and dotty diplomat’s son Phile. It is hero worship meshed with just a small amount of parental guidance and guardianship. Baines, represented by British legend Ralph Richardson, and Phile, as found in newcomer Bobby Henrey, create a partnership important to understanding the entire unsettled dynamic of this superb suspense-laden thriller. Told almost exclusively from the vantage point of the child and given to moments of haunting beauty, the movie’s narrow focus and streamlined story make Idol an indelible entertainment. We enjoy learning the ins and outs of the French Embassy—the snotty cleaning crew, the haughty assistants to the Ambassador. The set designs are equally remarkable turning a typical multi-story mansion in the swankiest part of London into a labyrinthine maze of mysteries. From the moment we meet Phile, his head thrust between the slats of one of the home’s many elaborate stairwells, we understand immediately that this will be a film about perspective. What we see, what we know, and, more importantly, what we don’t witness and can’t understand will be the cornerstones of everything Reed the director is striving for. And it all is premised on the relationship between servant and master’s son.


Reed goes for a realistic approach in dealing with Phile. Many films cast their narrative around children, but then go on to make the mistake of having the kids be too intelligent or too in tune with the emotions surrounding a situation. Because his parents are so distant, because he has lived in a world surrounded by keepers and intermediaries, Phile has become lost and on his own. In his world, Phile finds solace in freedom, the connection to animals (including a pet snake MacGregor), and the closeness and comfort he senses in Baines. He doesn’t understand that this older man is suffering inside. He only realizes that his best pal’s wife, an insufferable shrew walking close along the borders of madness, hates almost everything he, Phile, stands for. To her, he’s a rotten spoiled brat who has been raised to be disrespectful, demanding, and devil-may-care. Some may argue that the most important adversarial relationship is the predicament between Mr. and Mrs. Baines, or better yet, Mrs. Baines and her husband’s lover Julie. In reality, it’s how the horrible harpy interacts with Phile that marks Idol‘s most important narrative pairing. He is the catalyst for all the confusion in the household, and she is the specter who constantly reminds Phile that adult things are happening throughout his innocent juvenile realm.


It’s the notion of innocent lost, of growing up and understanding the pressures of age that’s the central theme of The Fallen Idol. Even the title suggests the shrugging off of heroes, and the eventual loss of imaginary playmates. Certainly there is an undercurrent involving lies, truth, and cheating, but it too sets inside a grander statement about the end of childhood. There are many moments throughout Idol where Reed lets Phile fall, over and over again. He does so when he sees Julie and Baines in the teashop. It happens again when MacGregor goes “missing.” Another moment has Mrs. Baines sweet-talking the lad into divulging information, while still another has her swaying over his bed, wild-eyed with jealous rage, hoping to get answers to her suspicious questions. As a result, it’s the backwards connection between Phile and Mrs. Baines that makes up the mantle of this masterful movie. What happens between them, from a dinner-table battle of wills to a telling moment of physical abuse that impacts the remaining narrative and sets the eventual tragic gears in motion. It’s not any threat to him that causes Baines to act; it’s the long simmering showdown between his sinister spouse and the household’s only child that forces his more or less emasculated hand.


Ralph Richardson is outstanding here, especially when you consider the complicated role he is required to essay. Baines must be simultaneously alert, genial, alive, dead, disheartened, sad, angry, ineffectual, smitten, lost, and mildly menacing. He has to juggle the authority of the entire household, the constant nagging of his worthless wife, an unrequited love with a gal he cannot possess, and a boy who believes literally everything that comes from his mouth. There’s a wonderful moment when Richardson and Henrey are discussing a murder that Baines supposedly committed while in Africa. As the boy presses for details, living vicariously through his adult friend’s adventure tale, Richardson is resigned and preoccupied, unable to keep the fictional facts straight. Every misstep is met with a question, and Baines manages to repair any damage to his unreal reputation in Phile’s eyes. It illustrates their relationship perfectly—needy, circumstantially abandoned child and faux father figure who can’t quite live up to the status he’s created for himself. It’s a perfect tragic teaming—a boy constantly climbing and a man laying the flimsy foundation from which he will eventually descend. It’s how those events play out that becomes Idol‘s interesting dynamic, and Reed and Greene don’t disappoint.


Reed was definitely a director with an eye for spaces. He allowed his lens to languish over his elaborate sets and locations in order to give the viewer a proper sense of the area before letting his actors exist within it. When Mr. and Mrs. Baines have their stairway confrontation, we’ve been given so many views of the area that we sense how massive—and how dangerous—it really could be. Similarly, when Phile makes his late-night escape to avoid the confrontation between the adults, we’ve already traveled down the fearsome fire escape before. During the day, it looked like an exit to excitement. But in the darkness of a dead English night, it takes on a solid, sinister import. It’s a technique that Reed will employ throughout the rest of Phile’s journey. Shown only as a small shadow against the backdrop of deserted London streets, child actor Henrey is turned into an icon of youth afraid and unsure. When he ends up in a local police station, his tiny stature becomes a perfect point of reference. He gets lost in an oversized coat (and later, a doctor’s blanket) and seeks refuge in the bosom of a blousy prostitute. All the while, we see Phile vanishing into the reality of the world outside the estate, being absorbed by the truth that he never had to deal with—until now.


In the end, what we get is a startling suspense thriller with moments of great joy and harrowing sorrow. We get to witness a world completely foreign and obscure, yet still filled with the kind of kitchen sink intrigue we expect from much lower-class considerations. Reed complicates matters by making all his characters flawed, from Baines’s interpersonal ineptitude and loose temper to Julie’s desire to defend her man at any and all costs. Even Mrs. Baines is a battleaxe with a soul, though it seems vanquished by an internal pain that forces her to brutalize and blame. All of this gets processed through Phile’s unprepared eyes, and the results are disturbing and direct. Locked in his landscape of ascending/descending stairwells, magnificent balcony vistas of London’s old-world wisdom, dark foreboding hallways, and streets loaded with shadows too deep for any child to navigate, he looks up to Baines as his ballast. With a world full of individuals dismissive of such a pesky, precocious brat, Baines represents everything missing in his life—father, strength, honesty, and goodness. All of that is shattered one night when deception drives people unprepared for its consequences to acts both disturbing and defendable. Through the hero-worshiping eyes of a boy, it’s all an unwelcome wake-up call he is ill prepared to participate in. But he must. Now that his Idol has fallen, he has nothing left but himself.


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