Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Notes from a new era Duranie

It’s not "Rio." Nothing ever will be. I think the sooner the Duran Duran fan—avid or casual—gets over this simple truth of life, the better. And the closer one can get to judging Red Carpet Massacre, the band’s 13th studio album, for its own merits. From my casual perusal of reviews online, much was expected. Rumors abounded that guitarist Andy Taylor left the project because of the band’s decision to go with Nate “Danja” Hills and prominent hip-hop figure Timbaland as key co-producers.

To some extent, I can’t say I blame Andy. The tracks produced by Timbaland—-the tepid “Nite Runner,” which never takes off the ground, and the initially catchy but subsequently annoying “Skin Divers” (all fine until Timbaland opens his mouth)--are the weakest songs on the album. Unlike much of the population in my age group, I don’t understand what is so great about Timbaland. His productions are manufactured and their sound doesn’t last. Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater” grates on my nerves after repeated listens and “Sexy Back” is the worst track on an otherwise brilliant Futuresex/Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake.

Oh, but the reviews of Red Carpet Massacre were scathing. I don’t want to get into addressing them in detail, but they ranged from calling the music boring and ineffective to criticizing the band of being sleazy and side-men in their own show. Most brutally, more than one reviewer implied that it wasn’t a Duran Duran record. I could take it no longer. I had to defend the boys. Or at least find out for myself if the music was worth defending.

It is. Overall, it’s a superior production to 2005’s Astronaut. The title track “Red Carpet Massacre” rocks respectably, with more drums than I’ve heard in a Duran Duran song. The Timberlake/Duran Duran collaboration proves to be more successful. By far the strongest track on the album is the melodic “Falling Down.” I made the mistake of listening to this song first by watching the ridiculously decadent video, reminiscent of “Girls on Film” and little more than an excuse to be with pretty model girls (yes, I think it was inappropriate for Simon Le Bon, a 49-year old father of 3 teenage girls, to be doing this video). Duran Duran is forever guilty of exoticizing and sexualizing all women. It took several listens for me to realize “Falling Down” is on league with “Ordinary World” and quite possibly the best song Le Bon has written since then.

Simon--with a voice like liquid sex—sounds as amazing as ever, exactly as he did 25 years ago. I used to attribute a lot of Duran Duran’s creative success to Le Bon and creepy keyboardist Nick Rhodes (Nick is sleazy—that much I’ll admit). I still do. However, I think Le Bon is kind of the in-house poet. He writes all the lyrics and sings all the songs. I think Rhodes has always been the brains behind the band. And I don’t think he would have let anything go that he didn’t approve of, despite handing over the production of many of the songs to outsiders. Everything on the record retains the sound of Duran Duran. Some of it is quite reminiscent of The Wedding Album, Notorious, and hinting at the cold landscapes of “So Red the Rose”(produced under the name Arcadia due to legal issues around the Duran Duran name at the time), and even “Rio.”

Let’s face it. “Rio” was a unique convergence of youth, sexual frustration, and a specific period in musical history. Duran Duran was a quintet of cerebral, artsy, geeky guys, who essentially brought disco into the 1980s. “Rio” unfolds in gorgeous narrative fashion, chronicling desperate encounters with cold, distant, and dismissive women—chase, capture, and ultimate rejection. Duran Duran made this record while still in their early 20s. “Rio” sky-rocketed them into fame. What do you do after that? There is nothing they have to prove to the world. The frustration that drove those early songs was gone. Le Bon successfully courted supermodel Yasmin Parvaneh (one of my favorite women aesthetically speaking), marrying her when she was barely 21 and he barely 27—and they are nearing a quarter-century of marital bliss.

Red Carpet Massacre is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the way in which celebrities of today self-destruct, with the bottom line message being that they really have no excuse. Duran Duran has been singing about fame since Seven and the Ragged Tiger, a sexy record about drive and ambition, climbing to the top and wanting more. Duran Duran survived their fame with considerable grace relative to their massive success, and for that, I think they have every right for making this social commentary of decadence and moral decline.

I think the essential problem for me is this—when Duran Duran came out onto the scene, they were fresh and innovative, taking music that was on their heels and propelling it into future—giving us a sound unlike anything we’d ever heard before. I want to hear something entirely new again. But that’s really too much to expect from a band that’s already left an indelible mark on the world of music.

I’ve given up on expecting a “Rio” for my generation from anyone. It’s very possible that rock/pop/hip-hop is nearing the fringe end of an era—what lies next is the question . . .

Because I really don’t want you to watch the video for “Falling Down,” satisfy yourself with this:

It’s just as ridiculous, but I can forgive it for being the 80s . . .

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rejection Served Up Three Different Ways

Jane Austen’s use of free indirect speech in her novels often allows the reader a certain amount of flexibility in imagining dialogue, tone, and delivery. This effect differs from a play because our imaginations of what is being said and how will vary considerably.

There is a scene in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth Bennett rejects Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal of marriage. It’s simultaneously serious and hilarious.

Filmmakers have portrayed this scene in a number of ways. Three analyzed here are the adaptations starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson (Robert Leonard, 1940), the BBC version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (Simon Langton, 1995), and the most recent one with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (Joe Wright, 2005).

In the oldest of the three versions, Laurence Olivier’s acting is stiff and wooden. His movements are the epitome of awkwardness. His delivery in the particular scene is flowery and his tone is pleading, but he displays the attitude of a man who’s quite sure he’s going to get what he wants eventually. Garson’s delivery comes off as being forced, and her demeanour is altogether too distant and aloof. The chemistry between the two is also quite lacking. The scene is romantic in its own way (no doubt due only to Olivier’s dashing good looks), but completely outdated for modern audiences and I daresay, outdated even for the Regency era. What lacks here is the humor and wit in Austen’s own writing. It’s definitely funny, but for the wrong reasons.

The costumes are also all wrong. Greer Garson looks like a Southern belle. What happened to the empire-waist gowns?

Secondly, there is the BBC version, considered by many fans to be the definitive one and the truest to Austen’s novel. As a television miniseries, the pace is slower, which works well for the dialogue. It allows a more concerted and episodic movement of events. The downfall is that it looks very much like a miniseries. The costumes are also extremely light-colored. I am not sure if this is historically accurate for country wear of the era, but it is definitely difficult on the eyes and at times, looks like a commercial for Tide with Bleach.

The scene is masterful. Both Ehle and Firth do such a marvelous job. Out of our three Darcy’s, Firth really does appear to understand his character the best. The (sexual) frustration and angst on his side is right on point. The nuances of his emotional restraint are quite remarkable. Firth is an underrated actor. Most importantly, the scene is really funny. If you’re not in tears of laughter by the end of it, then you’re not watching it properly. Firth has an exceedingly good grasp of the language and Ehle’s eye movements are perfect.

The most recent version, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen takes the most liberty with this scene. The director takes the scene out of a stuffy parlor room into the verdant outdoors. The power of it relies on the periphery of what’s going on & the body language rather than the actual words. Neither Knightley nor Macfadyen do the words justice, delivering them in a very rushed manner, almost as if they can’t wait to finish and just get out of the rain. It’s the most cinematic of the three and the most serious. Darcy’s anger is quite palpable. The use of rain is surprisingly not clich├ęd.

This scene is very tense—Darcy and Elizabeth are all out fighting with each other. It’s a real conversation, not a pre-meditated delivery of speeches. It’s the only version of the scene among these three where it’s about her as much as it is about him. They’re about to kiss at the end, and he decides against it. Or rather, propriety would have forbidden it.

The costumes look like clothes one can live and move in.

However Lizzy Bennett may have rejected Darcy the first time around, I guess the important thing is, she accepts him the second time around . . . but that’s much less interesting.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A few laps, lay-ups, and complete passes and I'm Done

Adam Duerson contemplates the current status of the sports movie in the December 17, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.

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Asking whether or not "the perceived need to appeal to women--and overseas markets [has] doomed the sports flick," Duerson begins his piece, "Endangered Species," by remarking that "Will Ferrell! On Figure skates! For better or how sports movies in the year 2007 will be remembered" (26).

After providing some box office numbers, he wonders, "where are the Hoosiers and the Raging Bulls?" and then adds, "the reality is that it's not nearly as easy to make a sports movie as it used to be. With movie attendance in the U.S. dropping, the new Hollywood business model relies more heavily on foreign receipts."
The problem with this method is that according to Mark Ciardi, "there's no foreign [earning] on sports movies" overseas.

In addition to how unenthusiastic other countries are for American sports movies, Duerson argues that "there's the prevailing notion in Hollywood that women choose which movies couples see together but that only men are drawn to sports films." Duerson gets veteran sports film marketing man Jeff Freedman to comment on the situation, which is basically that a sports film can only be made if the sport is secondary to thematic and other narrative elements. In other words, "the first thing a studio to say it's a love story, or a father-son story."

He includes an unnamed Hollywood marketing professional's observation that "if somebody wanted to make Raging Bull today, I don't know that it could happen" because "it's too dark." Duerson's article then implicitly criticizes Hollywood's multiplex complex as a limitation to the production and wider distribution of sports films that possess artistic qualities on par with dramas and action films. To get funding or a distribution deal, filmmakers are "plugging away with the same old sports comedy-drama-romance hybrids." He then cites the Will Ferrell basketball comedy Semi-Pro and George Clooney's period comedy Leatherheads as 2008's sports film offerings.

Duerson closes his thoughts by pointing out that independent sports cinema may inspire the critics and are received well at film festivals, but distributors aren't convinced the general public will buy it.

As a one-page article, Duerson understandably doesn't have the space to delve deeper into the issues and examples he brings up as indicating the steady decline of the sports film. I'm going to attempt to contextualize or offer some more points to ponder. Duerson's three concerns are profits, audience, and distribution. Ultimately, though, it's one issue: money. Whether or not a movie is to be made depends on how much money it could make. Hollywood is a business and has always operated along the paradigm of telling stories the audience will purchase (with or without encouragement from the studios). Artistic innovations and creating the impression or building the mythology that making movies (and any art form for that matter) privileges the art above else is realistically speaking wishful thinking.

The example of Raging Bull as a sports film of quality and not just a guilty pleasure (entertainment) needs a bit more background explanation. Kevin J. Hayes articulates in the introduction of Cambridge Film Handbooks' edition on the film that "superlatives abound whenever people talk about Raging Bull. Not only is it an exemplary cinematic work, it is also a cultural icon representing a rich cross section of themes, issues, and characters that reflect American culture in ways that typical Hollywood films do not" (1). Wouldn't you say that the bulk of commercial, mainstream American films today don't come close in this respect? Hayes later adds, "Raging Bull owes an important debt to the heritage of the boxing film genre" and boxing itself (10).

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Culturally, Scorsese's film was conceived in an atmosphere that allowed it to be brought into the world. Its examination of masculinity, violence, and the notion of loss isn't what would keep a studio head or a distribution company today from a greenlight. Instead, it's about the way the entertainment industry has changed post-highspeed internet and DVD. The idea of diversification of markets isn't new to advertisers. Merchandising of characters in films and books aren't limited to the movies and the publishing industry. Dialogue and images from a film can be found in all consumer markets (ahem, George Lucas). Cross-stitching the music with the movie industry isn't new either. Elvis. Frank Sinatra. Louis Armstrong. Barbara Streisand.

The difference now is that the internet is a new medium through which music, moving images, and literature can circulate. The behaviors and the tendencies (and preferences) of the buying public (which is primarily teenagers) is devastatingly significant in determining how to make the most amount of money (over a short or long period of time). If the sports film (as a drama) today can't narratively or thematically be similar to those of earlier generations for reasons of economy rather than artistry, it's happening across the board. Outside independent cinema, studios have little motivation to make movies--they want to make franchises (that include video game tie-ins).

And, if you want originality in content and form, you might not find it in a movie theatre. You might have to turn to Youtube or an art gallery.

I don't think it's that unfortunate that studio heads have to view sports films as not being sports films. Thematically, they're about more than whatever sport is involved. These films are about relationships between people, self-discovery, and hope, or, in other cases, defeat. Instead of employing the motif or metaphor of a soldier or an artist, these movies elect the athlete.

Adam Duerson, if you're reading this entry, when I make my football movie, it should be a sign of better things to come. Mine won't be a sports romantic comedy.

I'm cognitively wiped out right now. I'll revisit this post again.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

I Have No Desire to Be Kissed By You or Anyone Else

Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) spoke those words to Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) seconds after he kissed her in the bookstore where she worked in Stanley Donen's 1957 musical Funny Face. He replied with, "Don't be silly. Everybody wants to be kissed--even philosophers."

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Shortly after he leaves the store, she sings "How Long Has This Been Going On?"

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Jo muses, "I was taught that I ought not expose my inner senses. Had no plan for a man, I was full of self-defenses. Now I feel that I really must face the consequences. My philosophic search, has left me in a lurch. I must find why my mind is behaving like a dancer. What's the clue to pursue for I have to have the answer? I could cry salty tears, where have I been all these years? How long has this been going on?"

In other words, Jo's intellectual pursuits have somehow side-tracked her interest in or perception of physical intimacy. For the normative audience, for people who subscribe to the dominant fiction (house, wife, two kids, half a dog), which is the majority of society, wanting to be kissed, held, caressed, and deflowered is about as natural as breathing and as expected as the aspirations to change the world. True, not everyone believes in marriage or has any conscious aim to find a spouse (even own a house, have the kids, or half a dog), but most of these people still crave that kiss, touch, and passion--love as expressed through physical intimacy (or in some cases physical intimacy without any emotional investment).

Nonetheless, there are individuals living amongst the normative-loving citizens who desire one but not the other or neither. They still want emotional closeness but have no interest in the joining of two bodies such that reproduction might occur if precautions are not taken. Or, they crave neither emotional nor physical bonding. Solitary creatures to the core.

Preferring to be alone isn't a problem. It's not that uncommon (observations across various discussion boards across the internet), but it goes against the dominant fiction. Loners tend to be romanticized in narratives that involve mysterious, tall, dark, and handsome strangers or the gunfighter heroes of the Old West.

Sociologically speaking, it makes sense that society's members agree upon what is right and what is wrong. A concept of courtesy, consideration, and that stealing and killing is wrong (and illegal) is designed to provide structure and monitor human behavior. Believing that certain kinds of killing is more acceptable than others (due to context or parties involved) is fine. We have to support this view, otherwise killing in self-defense would mean absolutely nothing in a court of law (not to mention what occurs during war times and sting operations).

Anyone who strays too far from the acceptable philosophical and intellectual areas surrounding the act and consequence of causing or contributing another person's death, in other words they might actually kill for sport, is deemed "abnormal." Something surely is wrong with an individual who would want and choose to kill someone else for fun. These people need to be stopped.

Not wanting to feel someone from the inside should be the last item on society's "To Do" list. Unfortunately, the human species (and thus society) survives solely because of sex, dating, and intellectually speaking, marriage. Society is able to replicate its norms and mores not simply because they're passed down orally or graphically (or unconsciously), but also because of the recreation of certain stories. Boy doesn't exclusively meet girl (or in the non-heteronormative version, boy/girl doesn't exclusively meet boy/girl) in the romantic comedy. They meet in action films, dark comedies, film noir, action, mystery-suspense, and horror/thriller. Love subplots don't always have to end in or be about sex, but they frequently are--because more characters in films already have friends. Or, if they don't, they have some kind of friend surrogate (co-worker, law enforcement partner, boss, teacher, religious leader). They either search for or stumble upon what they don't have. Conventional society determines this lack must be someone to have kids with--even if nobody wants kids.

Aside from any ideological, neurological, or psychologically motivated differences that would lead to committing crimes, people who think and behave differently have always had to deal with the same kind of questions and criticisms (Galileo). There's a pretty big range of what is considered normal and abnormal and for some reason, little to no desire to copulate or express affection through physical intimacy is the weirdest of them all.

Funny Face is my favorite musical. Despite its indication that emotional and physical connection trumps an intellectual one, the message is still that a real connection trumps a fake one. That Jo Stockton suddenly becomes aware of physical sensations is ostensibly incidental and operates primarily to complement the plot.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

World AIDS Day

On World AIDS Day, today, please take a moment to remember the people living and those that have been lost to the most devastating plague of our time.

In case you were wondering, here are the latest stats.

As we near an election season, please consider candidates who are promising to respond to the global and domestic HIV/AIDS crisis in their first term. You can read more about individual candidates proposals and policy positions here.

And you can read what a coalition of AIDS groups thinks is the necessary US response here.