Going Abroad

I recently had to make a tough decision about a very dear item. My Twin Peaks VHS box-set had to go. There is no way I could just throw it out; this is the series that started my high school obsession. It blew my mind and made me realize I wanted to make movies. It also introduced me to worlds I never knew existed.

Fortunately I’ve found the box-set a good home, and I hope the recipient will get from it even a fraction of what I did. I have a lot of history with those tapes. They were my first introduction to the work of David Lynch, who quickly ousted Stanley Kubrick as my favorite director. I think Kubrick is probably the greatest that ever lived, but there’s something mysterious about Lynch that I can’t resist.

I think it was in the biography Lynch on Lynch where he mentioned that Federico Fellini was one of his major influences. The first Fellini movie I watched was . I find it hard to talk about  because it hit me on such a personal level, but suffice it to say that I think it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. So I lost myself in the Italian auteur’s catalog. This was a breakthrough for me because I don’t believe I had ever seen a foreign film before 8½, or if I had, it wasn’t memorable.

Now I had a taste for it. I was interested to see movies from other cultures, movies from filmmakers who had a different way of life. I quickly realized that the Hollywood system seemed content within a certain set of values, a homogenous morality and thin, nearly meaningless output. So I unconsciously decided to become a film snob. Fortunately, my brother Jay had a copy of Agurre: The Wrath of God.

That stunning, visceral, hallucinatory take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the same source material as Apocalypse Now) made me giddy, and Aguirre is still one of my favorites. German master Werner Herzog became my next guru. He is one of the most exciting and prolific filmmakers I know of, even to this day, and the book Herzog on Herzog made me laugh my ass off. His genius is unique.

From Germany my tastes headed north, to Denmark, when Lars von Trier hypnotized me with The Element of Crime. I really did not connect with all of von Trier’s movies, but he is a magician when he hits, and his recent return to form has me considering, maybe masochistically, of going to see his new film Nymphomaniac.

Near that time my brother showed me Alphaville by Jean Luc Godard. It was funny, it was noir, it was smart, and it was beautiful. Plus, it had Anna Karina. I balanced Godard’s panache with the solemnity of Ingmar Bergman in Sweden. While Masculin Feminin had me giggling, Scenes From A Marriage left me gutted.

But when I caught wind of Andrei Tarkovsky, I started a pilgrimage to Russia starting with the sci-fi classic Solaris. It could easily be argued that Tarkovsky films are boring. He even joked about it himself. But the word boring tends to lose all meaning for me when I get wrapped up in a journey of Tarkovsky’s. Even the bizarre, didactic Stalkera 2 hour, 40 minute sci-fi allegory about transcendence–ranks as one of my favorite films.

Just like that, I had made it from a small logging town in Washington state all the way across Europe. It’s rare that we can trace the cause of our decisions in such clear ways, but I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for that Twin Peaks VHS box-set, I wouldn’t have seen so much of Europe so fast. And now it’s time to move on. After all, the Twin Peaks Blu-ray box-set comes out this year.

Blog Critics

This blog began as a way to build content and grow a following as a writer. Though I’m still mostly clueless about how to do that, I figured writing reviews is a good way to link my byline to a product people will search for. By reviewing arts that appeal to me, I can identify myself within the context of my tastes. But sifting through previous posts, I realized the reviews seem out of place here.

After a very short search I found BlogCritics.org, a massive site where bloggers publish short articles on politics, food, culture, arts, and other topics of interest. The styles of writing vary, but with such a glut of content there is something for everyone. Already they have published four of my reviews, one as I was write this post. I will continue to publish reviews there as well as the regular weekly installments here. You can find my own page on BlogCritics.org HERE.

Since this week’s post is less of an informal essay and more of an informal update, I’m re-posting the four reviews below (BlogCritics doesn’t mind). In the future I will likely post links to my BlogCritics reviews, or re-post them on a separate page here. Please feel free to comment about these decisions or the reviews themselves, as I always love to hear feedback and constructive criticism.

INTO THE ABYSS

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Into The Abyss on Blogcritics.

Into The AbyssWhen looking for documentaries with depth and sophistication, Werner Herzog is in a class of his own. Recently released on Blu-ray, Into The Abyss is a gripping look at the death penalty, a triple homicide, and the lives of those involved. Straightforward by Herzog standards, it clearly and directly investigates the relationships people have with their societal context, but also, as the title implies, with their own souls.

He believes states should not execute people. But far from the partisan crusades we’re used to from documentary diva Michael Moore and kind, Herzog penetrates different layers of his topic without coloring the opinions of his subjects or putting himself into the limelight. Instead he asks questions quietly from off-screen, letting his subjects paint the portrait.

Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of murdering a fifty-year old woman, her son, and his friend over a car. DNA evidence puts them at the scene but they both deny guilt. The interview takes place eight days before Michael Perry’s execution by lethal injection. His childlike smile is likely to stick in anyone’s head for a long time. Burkett, meanwhile, received the lesser sentence of life in prison. This lenience was allegedly the result of testimony from Burkett’s father, himself a life-long criminal and by his own admission, no father at all.

Fans of Herzog will recognize his method. Subjects always finish their thoughts. The camera often rolls after they finish speaking revealing facial ticks, insecurities, and emotional composure – the spontaneous truth of the human face. Though occasionally uncomfortable, these moments are windows to internal realities. Simply sitting still and paying attention, Herzog brings us closer to the whole truth than most filmmakers.

Interviews with friends and family on both sides enrich the economical, moral, religious, and personal context, showing the environments that produced these crimes. Interviews with a minister to execution victims and a former law officer who carried out executions expand the emotional territory even further. Because they don’t know the victims, their accounts are not flavored with the anguish of personal loss and show the natural empathy of human beings in the face of government approved life-taking.

The cinematography is familiar; the camera is generally at head level, often handheld except during interviews, and like many Herzog’s films, give us the most human perspective on the subject as possible. He romanticizes nothing, but shoots respectfully and skillfully. The musical score by Mark De Gli Antoni is gorgeous, and sweeps through the film like an elegy for those passed, and those about to pass.

Unfortunately for the enthusiast, this Blu-ray release has nothing in the way of special features. Because there are no sweeping crane shots or computer effects one might be tempted to skip the Blu-ray edition altogether. But the clarity of HD (1080p with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio) reveals nuances in the faces and eyes that won’t come across as clearly in standard definition. The soundtrack is solid, though this is only distincly noticeable during the rich score. I was pleased with the technical aspects of this release, even if the only other thing on the disc is a trailer. Fortunately, those looking for more can find Herzog’s On Death Row, a series of videos with death row inmates available on YouTube.

Into The Abyss is a rock solid documentary that doesn’t shy away from it’s heavy subject matter, nor does it obsess. Master filmmaker Werner Herzog once again goes beyond the mundane facts to the internal truths of his topic. Special features or not, fans of honest filmmaking should be pleased with this release.

 

CAN: THE LOST TAPES

Article first published as Music Review: Can – The Lost Tapes on Blogcritics.

Can: The Lost TapesAsk the average person who the band Can is and you will likely get a confused face in return. But this essential krautrock group has influenced so many of our favorite contemporary artists, it’s hard to avoid their influence. From Radiohead to Q-Tip, Can continues to inspire innovators in music.

Completists and aficionados buzzed at the announcement of The Lost Tapes. But there is always trepidation when material is released so far after a band’s dissolution. Would that spark of sonic exploration be fresh, or are they releasing the dregs of their material as an afterthought or cash grab?

Filed down from about 50 hours of material, this three-CD box set is solid from start to finish. From the outset, Can explores the space of their studio with disciplined liberation. Layered tape hiss, amp hum, and found percussion break into rocking jazz fusion in the opening track “Millionenspiel“, and the pace is set. Over three hours of genre-defying experimentation captures the essence of the band beautifully.

Longtime fans of Can will feel right at home with this collection. Compiled over several years for a multitude of purposes, every track is classic Can. Moving from raucous psychedelia (“Graublau”), to gorgeous melody (“Obscura Primavera“), to freeform soundscapes (“Blind Mirror Surf”), to live renditions of favorites Spoon and “One More Saturday Night” , this box set offers all the essential elements that define Can as a band.

New listeners should set their expectations aside. There are no musical formulas or clichés at work here, and few precedents. Can’s modus operandi is to push creative freedom without regard to specific forms or styles. Some of the songs are careful orchestrations, some are insane live jams, and some tracks are multi-faceted meditations on a particular space. But one thing that is consistent throughout The Lost Tapes, and all of Can’s oeuvre, is the spirit of exploration.

Fans of Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground or Portishead will recognize the beauty of Can’s strangeness. Themselves influenced by classical, free-jazz and anything avant-garde, Can blended styles into a new aesthetic while ushering in the age of electronic music. The Talking Heads, The Cars, The Orb, Brian Eno, Stereolab, and Tortoise all cite Can as influences. But far from feeling like a pastiche, The Lost Tapes has a continuity that can only be described by the simple, liberty-affirming declaration “Can”.

Forty years after the material was recorded, Can’s historical footprint continues to grow. “Drunk and Hot Girls” by Kanye West featuring Mos Def is a surprising (some might say inappropriate) sample of “Sing Swan Song” from Can’s Ege Bamyasi. Q-Tip’s “Manwomanboogie” is a funky sample of “Aspectacle” from a 1979 Can recording found on the compilation Cannibalism 2.

The quality and fidelity of The Lost Tapes is top notch. Meticulously preserved and beautifully digitized, these tapes are as clean and defect-free as Can’s album material. This is quite a feat considering the raw magnetic stock was forgotten about for decades. I only wish this box set was released on LP where the dynamic range and true inner space of the recordings could have been coaxed out of the vinyl medium.

Well priced, nicely packaged, and featuring liner notes from band leader Irmin Schmidt, The Lost Tapes three CD box set is a beautiful look into the creative process of a band whose primary focus was the creative process.

 

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Article first published as Blu-Ray: Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Blogcritics.

The Movie

Francis Ford Coppola’s iteration of the Hollywood classic Dracula is arguably the last old-school studio effects pictures ever made. Released in 2007, this Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray is a much-needed upgrade from the previous, bare-bones DVD release.

The story of Dracula appeared right alongside the birth of cinema, and Coppola took this coincidence as an opportunity to elegize old Hollywood. Shot on studio soundstages, Bram Stoker’s Dracula drenches the audience in an otherworldly nightmare where rats scurry across ceilings and Dracula’s malevolent presence is never far away. The epistolary nature of the novel is kept incredibly intact by the use of journal entries and letters, but also through the use of old cameras, telegraphy, and other post-Industrial Revolution technology.

This movie is not perfect. Coppola, already considered past his prime, seems to have romanticized the production itself instead of working with the actors to create a realistic Old London. Excluding Gary Oldman, the acting is the worst element of this film; Keanu Reeves gives a nearly unwatchable performance, Winona Ryder is stiff, and Sir Anthony Hopkins is at times downright ridiculous. Fortunately, Gary Oldman brings his signature chameleon-like mastery to every aspect of the iconic title role, from a furry bat-monster to the elegant, young Prince Vlad.

Though everyone knows the story of Dracula, this rendition goes far beyond previous versions of the movie. As the tagline “Love Never Dies” hints, we are not simply watching a horror movie, but a dark love story that ends in tragedy. James V. Hart’s script teases out Dracula’s damnation, bringing us to the realization that Dracula can never unite with his soulmate because society sees him as a monster. His suffering goes on lifetime after lifetime. When Dracula is finally defeated, our hearts are broken for him because his generations of agony go unfulfilled and history will remember him as a monster.

The opulent sets and costumes through every frame of this movie are highlighted nicely by the new 1080p HD transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio). The video isn’t as crisp as other films coming out around 1993, but I suspect the entire finished film was softened slightly in order to smooth out transitions between normal footage, double and triple exposures, and a plethora of special effects shots (all of which are spectacular in-camera effects with the exception of a few optical effects). Overall, the film looks great.

In addition to winning Oscars for make-up and costume, Bram Stoker’s Dracula won for Best Sound Effects Editing, and rightfully so. The audio mix is nicely balanced and used to punctuate the story by providing feeling. You won’t be blown away by the unexpected swells of bass that have come to pass for great sound mixes. But the sound will effectively enchant you into this dark, weird world.

Special Features

This Blu-ray release has been given beautiful artwork that shows off the nuanced vision of the film. The picture on the cover might be one of the best movie posters in history. And while I am disappointed there is no full-colour booklet of images inside, the menus and interactive design are gorgeous.

It comes with over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, some in a degraded, unfinished quality. Many of these scenes were unquestionably nixed for the better, or condensed into other scenes, so don’t expect to find anything mind-blowing here.

Coppola’s audio commentary is enthusiastic and enjoyable, even if he does repeat himself and talk too much.

A making-of documentary and segment on the costumes are interesting, but are not as exciting as the documentary on the visual effects which gives a glimpse into how much unseen magic went into the production. Studios simply do not shoot films like this any more, and this extra gives insight on how the technologies of illusion have evolved over the years.

In Sum

Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Blu-ray is the closest thing to a definitive edition on the market. Previously unseen special features, well-considered packaging, and a nice transfer will leave fans of the film happy and help those not so inclined to appreciate a more contemporary, experimental approach to a classic horror story.

I give the movie and the Blu-ray release 8.5/10. While I’m usually a stickler for marks as high as these, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favorite love stories, and the most satisfying guilty pleasure in my media library, and this Blu-ray edition is the best one yet.

 


THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW

Article first published as TV Review: The Ricky Gervais Show on HBO on Blogcritics.

HBO has just aired the final episode of The Ricky Gervais Show season 3. Sadly, if we’re to believe Gervais’s Twitter feed, one of the funniest shows on television is at its end.

Based on the immensely popular podcast, first impressions of The Ricky Gervais Show were tempered by Gervais’s seemingly mean-spirited humor as host of the Golden Globes. And he pulls no punches on his obsession with co-star Karl Pilkington. During the show, Gervais and Stephen Merchant pry into Karl’s mind to explore his worldview, often calling him an idiot and pointing bad logic.

But Karl is more than just a punching bag for them; he is a close friend of Gervais and Merchant. They appreciate Karl’s simpler point of view (even if it is confused most times). The dynamic between Ricky’s cynicism, Stephen’s quiet mediation, and Karl’s wide-eyed wonder reflects a beautiful, triangulated expression of each of us. We all have these facets to our personality; our hearts agree with some of Karl’s musings, even when our brains reject them.

The cartoon treatment of the podcast brings out the innocence Gervais finds so fascinating in Karl. The characters are lovably-designed, and the animated flights into Karl’s imagination are a laugh-induced ab workout every episode. Despite the name-calling, we get a definite sense from the show that Ricky Gervais has a profound respect for his friend Karl that goes deeper than off-the-cuff insults. We get the sense that Gervais really does believe that life in Karl’s mind must be more fun.

The fun these friends share is never sentimentalized or drawn out. Ricky, Karl, and Stephen are who they are, and they don’t script anything. Though they set the stage with discussion topics, the humor is allowed to come out naturally and spontaneously, often with unexpected digressions and asides. It never seems forced, but like a living-room discussion you might have with your friends.

The conversational hilarity and storybook imagery fit into a nostalgic socket in our brains. The Ricky Gervais Show feels like an old friend we can talk to again and again without getting bored. Now that the show has run it’s course, let’s hope a complete box set is released with a ton of special features. Until then, we’ll have to be content with An Idiot Abroad, Derek, Life’s Too Short and Ricky Gervais…Obviously.

Unsatisfying Mysteries

When I was young I used to enjoy the show Unsolved Mysteries, which I just realized is a redundant title. There was something alluring about watching adults like Robert Stack investigate strange situations and come up with no answer. Robert Stack spoke with authority, so if he couldn’t figure it out, there must be something magical at work.

The other night I came across a similar show. I can’t remember the name of it. I’m glad my brain knew to forget. In this show an authoritative narrator told us about mysterious science experiments, and the worst actors ever helped to dramatize these unsolved mysteries.

The show reenacted a man attempting to measure the weight of a soul by measuring patients as they died. He placed the unfortunate “consumptive” patients on a scale and had to wait out their final moments, which, judging from the look on the actor’s face, took a really long time. But behold, the body did lose some of its mass. Whether this account is accurate or not is probably not worth worrying about.

This became the “21 grams” legend that inspired a movie I haven’t seen. That this landmark of scientific inquiry faded into obscurity isn’t surprising; it’s built on a slush pile of ambiguous principles. The operational assumption that every “thing” in the universe has mass is wrong; light exists but has no measurable mass. This blog exists but has no mass. Not yet…

But my favorite piece of illogic is the assumption that if a dying body loses weight, the soul must have escaped. It’s interesting that this “scientist” thinks the soul is something you can hold in your hand, like an overripe eggplant. At no point does he attempt to define the soul. When you break it down, the implication made by his experiment is this: “The soul is something that has weight and leaves upon death.” Defined mathematically: Weight Loss = Soul Leaving. It’s nonsense.

These types of shows, while disguised as a rational investigation, never give rational answers. Every case covered in this episode ended with a question, i.e. “Did Dr. Whatsisname prove the existence of the soul?”

No. No he obviously didn’t.

After sleeping on it, I realized something very obvious. These shows aren’t aimed at the rational crowd. They are aimed for people looking for a mystery. And here is where I’m torn, because I have a hunch there is psychological worth in cultivating mystery and awe in the unknown. Big questions are important, like what am I? Where did we come from? Where did they find these actors? Why did nobody watch the edited footage? Why did nobody edit the actors out?

Fortunately there are people in the world who take the mysteries of the human condition seriously. Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss is a recent documentary exploring murder and the death penalty. As usual, Herzog asks questions that matter because they lead us into the deep realities of his subjects. The mystery in question is how and why a person or a state commits murder.

I definitely didn’t laugh as much watching Into The Abyss as I did watching that other show. So they both have their pros and cons, I suppose. Maybe watching Unsolved Mysteries back then actually did foster my reverence for mystery. In meditation I explore mysteries of my own that are far deeper and more personal than could ever be caught on tape, so perhaps I took what I needed and outgrew Unsolved Mysteries. Thanks Mr. Stack.

These days I’m more enriched by people like Herzog who ask questions out of a deep respect for life and to leave us thinking about mysteries. Unsolved Mysteries and similar shows all end with the conclusion that “We may never know the answer,” and that seems to me like it actually discourages thinking rather than inciting it.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

It’s an old social adage that you shouldn’t make conversation about religion, art or politics. This keeps the dialogue safe and everyone at an even temper. Because it’s bland. There are more important things to talk about than the weather. Plus, dialogue can be a time for learning.

We all have our own opinions, and we like to search out messages among friends and various media that support our beliefs. If you belong to the Christian Right, you’re probably not reading the newsletter for your local Church of Satan. On the other hand if you watch The Daily Show, you’re probably only watching Fox News so you’ll get the jokes.

It’s good to contemplate ideas that oppose our beliefs. I think it’s good to play the Devil’s Advocate because it encourages holistic thinking. Most of the time when I hear an opinion my brain automatically tries to find a balanced opposite. This helps me avoid getting bent out of shape about anything. And at the best of times it works like the Hegelian Dialectic, where you combine an idea and its antithesis to get a new whole that contains them both. Pro-lifers say abortion is wrong. Pro-choice advocates argue that it can be right. The whole truth is this: it’s a nuanced issue which is more complicated than either side wants to let on.

Especially annoying to us are pretentious people. Pretension is when a person assumes what they’re saying is important, or more worth while than what others have to say. We don’t want to be told we’re wrong by someone who “knows better” than us. Of course, some people actually do know better than us. Even still, I doubt I’ve ever met the world’s foremost authority on anything.

So what if someone isn’t assuming an air of dignity, but actually does have more important things to say? Sometimes a lone gunman will shoot that person. Then everything can go back to normal. I wonder if, once the horror of the assassination of John Lennon passed, people weren’t secretly relieved on a subconscious level that one less genius exists to point out their mediocrity by virtue of contrast.

I remember when Barack Obama ran for president and the right called him “an elitist”. This was apparently meant as an insult, as a defect of his character. Can you believe he thinks he’s better than us? What an asshole. Please give me a president who watches Family Guy and can barely read, someone I can get drunk with.

If you’ve ever read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, you know what I’m talking about. The idea that “mediocre is good enough” has become so pervasive that the USA doesn’t want a president who thinks he’s better than anyone else. The USA wants someone who’s just a regular Joe Blow. Now let’s go find the best man for the job. Fortunately for the gene pool, the USA actually did want Obama when the time came.

Idiots are made into heroes all the time in movies. There’s nothing like a good old idiot bumbling into success (Forrest Gump, Best Picture, 1994). Now the media has made celebrities out of people who literally have no redeeming qualities. I can see it now – The Situation from Jersey Shore is elected president and renames every room in the White House “The Situation Room”. And they laughed and laughed, and then got drunk and got into a fight and bombed “anyone who steps to Italy”. I’m reminded of a girl I went to high school with who raised her hand with the stupidest answers I’ve ever heard. Her friends told me she really was smart though…being dumb was all an act. I dig that mystery still.

The fact is that some people do have more to say than others. Some people are more intelligent than others. This is like saying that some people can bench press more than others. It’s just a fact. I’d like to believe that in some mystical sense we’re all completely equal, but I wouldn’t declare this out loud because it would sound pretentious. How could I know that without claiming some kind of assumed insight?

In reality, meditation has given me a tiny bit of insight into myself. I know I can be pretentious (as if having a blog isn’t automatically pretentious). But the fact is that I care about what I think about. And I think what I think about is important, otherwise I would think of something else, I think. Plus, daily Scrabble for years and reading a lot has given me a bit of a vocabulary. And a vocabulary…is pretentious.

But there are right and wrong words for things. Sometimes using the right word sounds pretentious, so people use more casual phrasing. Sometimes, particularly in the news, people create jargon so they sound smarter than they really are. The sad thing is, it is just easier on the ears to hear the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” than it is to hear the word “torture”. Like the man Patanjali said, “vast is the domain for the use of words”.

We do crave authority. We don’t read the paper to feel moderately confident about some hearsay. We want authoritative language delivered by experts in their field so when we repeat their findings to our friends we sound like we know what we’re talking about.

In that spirit I’m going to recommend the wisdom of idiots and the stupidity of experts equally. Whether people sound pompous and arrogant, or like buffoons, they might have the answers. It’s best to take it all in, forget how it sounded at the time, and hold ideas up to our own internal judgements, then act on that.

When you’ve actually thought about both sides of something, and turned an idea around in your head like a Rubik’s Cube, you feel more confident and authoritative when talking about it, and that’s satisfying. You might even find people quote you as an authority. But be careful not to sound pretentious.

It’s a fine balance, so here are my top three ways to avoid sounding pretentious:

1. avoid using a British accent (yes you Alex Trebek);

2. don’t mention that you like classical music; and

3. don’t be Werner Herzog.

 

P.S. For the record, just because Herzog sounds pretentious doesn’t mean he isn’t right about everything he says. This is because he is a genius. Listen for his mention of “overwhelming fornication”.