Sunday, February 24, 2008

There are no other records like this

Skip James is one of those artists that both typify and transcend their chosen medium, so that even familiarity with the latter does not quite prepare you for them. As the blurb on the front of this CD puts it, he is “the strangest, most complex and bizarre of all Mississippi blues artists.”
He is also a world in miniature, a microcosm of his place and age, so that his work seems not merely a matter of recorded sound – somehow the sights and smells and tastes of his world have found their way into those 78rpm grooves as well.
James is one of the ultimate examples of the artist who recorded and performed because he had no option. Certainly he is not an entertainer. He himself is clearly not having a good time and he cares little if you are either. He is giving vent to something, but in a manner so plaintive, so honest and with so measured a conbination of artistry and simplicity that he becomes the supreme case in popular music of universality of meaning being conjured from the purely personal through sheer skill and the unfeigned communication of emotion.
It is not background listening, and nobody would go to this CD for simple pleasure, as such. But at a time when recorded music was generally seen as an accompaniment to good times, and when black artists in particular were obliged to ingratiate for their dollar, James’s uncompromising style and inability to disguise the fact of his performing first and foremost for himself seems as brave as it is compelling.
Nothing you read about James violates this sense of him generated by the music. The liner notes on this CD include the following revelations:
He was a solitary, secretive person who never had his own family, regarded women with suspicious contempt, and was seemingly wary of the entire human race, several members of which he had coolly eliminated in shoot-outs. He was mistrustful of merriment: once he passed a caravan of cars departing from a wedding. When he heard the honking, he said, with no attempt at humour: “Bet you won’t hear that when they get divorced.”
He has no concept of blues as entertainment, or crowd-pleasing music. It was his goal to startle with his musicianship, and to manipulate the emotions, or, as he put it, to “deaden the mind” of his listeners.
The songs collected here have truly lost none of their power to startle and confuse. They will still utterly transfix some, utterly repel others. James’s voice – an oddly delicate, at times almost feminine wail – flutters like a breeze over guitar playing that somehow conveys with equal clarity the sadness and loneliness and world-weariness of its owner.
The first track, Devil Got My Woman, is of course the song that Thora Birch plays repeatedly as her character undergoes her first epiphany in Ghost World: “Do you have any other records like that?” she asks Seymour, the 78-collector from whom she bought it. “There are no other records like that,” he replies.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

This time he's serious

Whether it’s any kind of a film or not – and early reports conflict sharply – the new Rambo movie has to be some kind of milestone, and some kind of vindication for its (incredibly) sixty-one year old star-writer-director. The standing ovation he received at the Baftas (of all gigs!) is an encouraging sign that Sylvester Stallone may be on the verge of a forgive-and-forget critical renaissance such as was granted Clint Eastwood around the time of Unforgiven, with the twin benefits of a more sympathetic reappraisal of the back catalogue and the chance to do some really significant work in the future.
I hope so. Many people think I’m joking when I say I’m a huge Stallone fan. But I am, and not in a ‘guilty pleasure’ sense either: I think his is one of the most interesting (if often frustrating) film careers of the medium’s last three decades.
Everyone knows he is a more serious, intelligent and articulate fellow than many of his films would like you to believe. And everyone knows he is not just a star but a writer and director too - you may not think him especially good in any of those capacities, but like the proverbial dog on its hinter legs, that he does it at all is admirable, and surely suggestive of more than financial ambition.
And as a star, as an icon, it really does seem to me that he completes and concludes that trail that leads back from Eastwood through Heston, to Mitchum and Bogart and back to Gable and Cooper. He is the last film star, the last perfection of a single image, the last actor to have both benefited and suffered from being his age's pre-eminent symbol of masculinity.
What these greats have in common, and what I think Stallone shares with them, is the simultaneous ability (and desire) to both project this archetype and at the same time subtly interrogate it, and where necessary move it forward. The imitators and rivals that spring up in every era invariably lack this ambiguity and sense of process: with neither the will nor the prowess for reinvention, they go through the motions. But Coop and Gable and Bogey and Chuck and Clint and Sly are more fluid and alert to change, even when they stand against it.
Though one of the faces they present to the world (both as stars and characters) is monolithic and implacable, they have others. Stallone, in fact, may be the most schizophrenic of the bunch: never has a star been so visibly torn by the internal struggle between simplicity and the epic statement, by the contradictory need to embody losers and heroes both.
At his best he plays both in the same film; that after all is what Rocky and Rambo both were, in their original incarnations. Both were superb performances in superb films. And the problem with the sequels is not the fact of them per se, but their capitulation to escapism in the face of success. However great the queues around the box-office made him feel, Stallone was wrong to let his characters share some of that triumph, for in essence they spoke not to successes but to underdogs and outsiders. Even Chaplin at his most arrogant would have seen the error of having the Little Tramp elected President, yet this is essentially what Stallone did. The Rocky and Rambo sequels both conform to this same odd pattern.
Rocky was a hero for what he attempted, but reason as well as drama demanded that he lose the actual title bout that forms the film’s climax. But for Stallone himself it was a fight he won. The story of him turning down a desperately needed $250000 for his script, holding out instead for $75000 and the chance to star, is well-known but true, and it says a lot about the man and the nature of his aspirations at the time.
His next films had the same kind of integrity. His first as writer-director, Paradise Alley (1978), was a fascinating and very credible evocation of New York life in the forties, with wrestling replacing boxing as the route out and knowing use of the old Universal aeroplane logo at the beginning. FIST (1978) was a mammoth road to ruin saga set in the world of American labour relations; not my cup of tea but all very serious and well made.
Rocky II appeared in semi-desperation after these failed at the box-office, and reversed the meaning of the original entirely: now, in a rematch, Rocky actually wins and becomes world champion; it is a victory for wishful thinking. Rocky III and Rocky IV ploughed the same field to ever increasing degrees of cartoonish folly, so that when Stallone tried to bring the saga back to earth in Rocky V, by having the character made bankrupt and return to his old neighbourhood, it just seemed absurd. When Rocky IV had ended with Rocky as personification of the USA winning an impossible world championship bout against a semi-robotic Russian, it was too late to expect us to be excited by his winning a fist fight in the street.
Again, it was telling that Stallone’s original script for V ended with Rocky dying at his moment of (minor) triumph, perhaps reflecting the author’s realisation that stardom had made him lose sight of the stories he wanted to tell. (Lucky he didn’t: even his detractors had to recognise that Rocky Balboa, the sixth film that emerged a couple of years back, had real merit.)
But it’s a mistake he made again. John Rambo, the anti-hero of First Blood, is an accident waiting to happen; when he snaps and the film becomes a cracking survivalist thriller in the manner of Deliverance or Southern Comfort, we sympathise with him as a character but are happy to see him carted off to a secure institution at the end. The idea of him completing any kind of coherent mission is crazy.
But yet again, the success of the film led to a sequel in which the mentally unstable, aimless drifter magically becomes a pumped-up ultimate soldier, sent back to Vietnam to free American soldiers still captive there. Mission accomplished, and very nicely thank you at the box-office, and before you know it he's off to a live war zone and defeating the Russians more or less single-handed.
Ronnie and Rambo: the double-act that brought down the Berlin Wall.
Rambo, even more than Rocky, came to define Stallone as a screen presence: Reagan’s pet, a grunting Republican automaton; it earned him actual enemies as well as fans and couldn't-cares. But we are wrong if we accept their caricature of him as essentially a muscleman, an Arnie or a Dolph or a Van Damme. The muscles came late in his career and are generally to be regretted (they compromise his less mythic-heroic performances, and look repulsive, with popping veins that constantly distract you from the story in hand.) He was not a body builder who graduated to movies on an action hero ticket, but a dedicated and serious actor, painfully earnest, who studied drama at the University of Miami, worked off-Broadway and wrote screenplays about Edgar Allan Poe.
His work after Rocky and Rambo was always haunted by their success, but a lot of it is interesting, all the same. Nighthawks (1981) was an excellent cop thriller, still in realist mode, and with a shabby, bearded Stallone, Cobra (1986), despite an 85 minute running time that betrayed much post-production tampering, was a fine, Dirty Harry-style job of scum-clearance ("You're a disease - and I'm the cure") that almost gave the star his third big character, but somehow just fell at the final fence. Oscar (1991) was a brave stab at comedy for John Landis, Cliffhanger (1993) and Daylight (1996) exciting action/disaster movies, Get Carter (2000) an underrated remake of a slightly overrated original full of interesting things, and D-Tox (2002) a mix of cop thriller and slasher horror with an original premise and some good scenes.
But Cop Land (1997), in which he is supported by De Niro, Keitel and an especially good Ray Liotta, is a true masterpiece, one of the standouts of modern cinema; on the surface a tense and complex police thriller and in essence a brave and complete return to the structure and morality of the traditional western. It was quietly recommended, and Stallone's performance as an overweight sherrif who learns to stand up to the enemies in his back yard was generally praised. But the film passed most people by.
Rambo, the confusingly titled new film (it’s a sequel to Rambo III, which was a sequel to a different film called Rambo, which was a sequel to First Blood) may or may not prove the way ahead for Stallone. But if it keeps its head above water, the next film he makes could well be something. Certainly the time would be right for Cop Land now. Something else a bit like that would be fine.

Ah! The sound of carriages lumbering slowly through cheerful green woods

  • Ian Bostridge (tenor) & Julius Drake (piano) - Schumann: Liederkreiss Op.24, Dichterliebe Op.48 & 7 Lieder (EMI Classics)

  • I bought my first Schumann CD as a mistake. I got him mixed up with Schubert.
    When I realised how good it was I went deliberately to buy some more and mistakenly bought the fourth and ninth symphonies of the American composer William Schuman. This was pretty good too – I do really like American music – but of the two, the first was the more fortuitous error.
    But even when I'd got all the names sorted out and knew exactly who I was getting, I still wasn't quite expecting this.
    A 1998 recording of Schumann lieder by the tenor Ian Bostridge, it is as complete a descent into sustained mood as anything I have heard. It's like a meal of black forest gateau and dark red wine; it is sticky and rich and the attraction, at least in part, is that it doesn’t feel altogether healthy.
    It sounds amazing. The songs are like beautiful howls in the darkness, with Julius Drake’s piano accompaniment providing the candlelight. It's all love lost and love unattained, and contemplations of mortality, in stifling, insanely self-absorbed Romantic fashion; thank God they’re all in German.
    Some of the imagery is incredibly weird and evocative, as in Mein Wagen rollet langsam:
    My carriage lumbers slowly
    Through cheerful green woods,
    Through flowery valleys that bloom
    Magically in the sunshine.

    I sit and ponder and dream
    And think of my true love:
    Three shadowy figures greet me,
    Nodding their heads at the carriage.

    They caper and grimace,
    So mocking yet so timid,
    Whirl together like mist
    And whisk by, gibbering.

    By the time the album itself has whisked by gibbering you’ll have only empathy for the composer, who signs off requesting a huge and heavy coffin big enough to sink his love and sorrow in, but the bleak Romanticism of the lyrics is to some degree offset by the delicacy of the settings and the precision of Bostridge’s performance.
    Bostridge has an incredible, crystal-pure voice and such an air of wounded aestheticism that you wonder if he can even stand unaided. (He recorded an album of Noël Coward songs which, according to one reviewer, brought “affectation to unlistenably bizarre levels”.) The cover of this CD shows him sepia-toned and anguished; he looks something like the young Peter O’Toole, intense and pretty; it is the face of a young man who has already seen too much. But like O’Toole's you suspect that when it does age it will do so dramatically, and you can already see the contours of that older version encoded within the young, latent and biding its time. The sleeve notes tell us that he studied history and philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge but gave it up to sing, and the implication is that he had no choice in the matter. Listening to this album, you can readily believe it.
    According to the Los Angeles Times he “sings as if from inside the music”. And sometimes he sings as if from inside the Bastille. But I've been scouting around for a new voice, ever since I realised that Morrissey basically does pop music like everyone else. Bostridge could be my man.

    Monday, February 11, 2008

    “A pretty civilised human being”

    "He was a wonderful guy. He was what I call 'a knockaround actor'.
    A knockaround actor to me is a compliment that means a professional that lives the life of a professional actor and doesn't yell and scream at the fates, and does his job, and does it as well as he can."
    That's Richard Dreyfuss, speaking yesterday about Roy Scheider, who has died at the age of 75.
    Whatever you were thinking of doing tonight, scrap it, and watch Jaws instead. (And don't pretend you don't have a copy: everyone does, even if it's only an old VHS you taped off ITV in the early eighties.) When you do, you'll notice two things about it you may not have been expecting.
    First, it hasn't dated in the least. Even with its real, non-computerised special effects, it remains utterly gripping from fade-in to fade-out.
    And second, the reason for this is that - despite it being the first of the modern popcorn movies that have done so much to turn cinema from an artform back into a sideshow - it has two things that would today be deemed utterly unnecessary: a beautifully-written script and exceptionally fine performances.
    None of the actors in Jaws is poor, and several are superb, but Scheider's Chief Brody is foremost among them.
    It's a difficult role to play well, in that it is an easy one to play blandly: there's not a lot to Brody on paper other than decency, stoicism and, ultimately, courage, but Scheider plays him not as a fifties-style hero but as a totally believable everyman for whose welfare the audience is genuinely concerned.
    Scared of boats and water, he nonetheless joins the expedition to find the monster shark that has been eating bathers of the coast of the island of which he is Chief of Police because it is his job to do so. The famous line "You're gonna need a bigger boat", added to the script by Scheider himself, became a classic because it is both banal and honest: it is exactly what we in the audience are thinking, and movie characters hardly ever speak for us so convincingly. It is the authentic voice of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.
    When you've watched Jaws again, watch Jaws 2. It's pretty good as well, and there's a moment when Brody is interviewing the old lady about the boat explosion where Scheider uses facial expression alone to convey the character's first realisation that his greatest nightmare may be about to start all over again. It is a wonderful bit of acting that sends shivers up the spine.
    Scheider himself seems to have shared most of Brodie's admirable qualities. Dreyfuss summed him up by saying that he "was a pretty civilized human being. You can't ask for much more than that."
    Roy Scheider, 1932 - 2008

    Thursday, February 7, 2008

    Notes From the Underground

    I do like the London Underground when it's being decorated. Not once it's been decorated: then it's back to looking horrible again. But in those few weeks when the work is ongoing, it's a treat.
    Long corridors with not a single poster, advert-free platforms... It just shows you what the place can be like with a little imagination.
    Best of all is when years of accumulated advertising is stripped away to reveal decades-old posters underneath. The best example of this was when I was at university and a bit of rebuilding brought back to life the posters for Operation Crossbow and Dr Who and the Daleks, hidden since 1965 and briefly revealed again, only to be presumably lost forever.
    I was reminded of this recently when I saw some old posters excavated on the Northern Line. Even as I was enjoying them, a bit of mental calculation revealed with a chill to my spine that they dated from around 1992, and were therefore exactly contemporary with the ones I was so glad to see stripped away in my university days.
    That's when I knew I'd been in London too long.
    Here are my five favourite Underground movies:
    1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
    A late-running commuter is chased through the tunnels of Tottenham Court Road by the lycanthropic tourist of the title. The blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of the monster padding towards the bottom of the escalator is perhaps the scariest effects shot in this uniformly magnificent film.
    2. Bulldog Jack (1934)
    Fay Wray on the Underground in the rousing action climax to this odd semi-spoof of Bulldog Drummond. Great fun, with lots of old London footage; probably the most interesting product of her British sabbatical.
    3. I Thank You (1941)
    First rate vehicle for Arthur Askey and Stinker Murdoch begins with Arthur waking on an Underground platform during the Blitz, and launching into a rendition of Hello To The Sun. One of the sleepers is a dead ringer for Hitler but it's okay - he's clutching a copy of the Jewish Chronicle. Never such innocence again.
    4. Rich & Strange (1931)
    One of Hitchcock's strangest and most untypical films begins with a nicely edited montage of the London working life, including some splendid tunnel-eye views of the Underground which appear, unusually for the director, to be genuine.
    5. Death Line (1972)
    Nostalgic reminder of the days when the most you needed to worry about on the Underground at night was a tribe of inbred cannibals who abduct commuters from Russell Square station and eat them. The descendants of a construction crew trapped and abandoned a century before, they are riddled with disease and capable of speaking only three words: "Mind the doors". I'm pretty sure I've seen some of these myself. Some good laughs and a few scares in this horror for the Man About the House generation.