Wednesday, May 31, 2006


2046 is the 2004 sequel (if that is the right word) to Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000). Named for the number of the hotel room in which the main character in the first film has an affair with a married woman, 2046 apparently relates his life after the affair ends. The films benefit from being viewed together, though they can stand alone.

2046 is a beautiful, seductive, hypnotic experience. It is a mistake to expect it to make immediate sense, and definitely a mistake to expect it to work in the linear, straightforward way of most conventional western films. It took me quite a while to learn how to watch it. The same was true with In the Mood for Love. Both are highly stylized. Every scene is a pictorial creation—deliberately conceived and beautifully realized. The key color is red—signifying passion, love? The pervasive mood is loss, regret, nostalgia of a painful and unhappy kind. Music, image, characters, and action are beautifully choreographed. Human faces in particular are stunningly photographed.

Because the affair leaves him wounded for life, the main character, Chow Mo Wan, becomes a hardened “ladies man” (the film uses this term to describe him--he never again gives himself away in love—although he occasionally would like to).

2046 is set in the hotel where the affair of the first film took place. Chow Mo Wan tries to rent the room, but because it is not immediately available, he rents room 2047 instead. The film details his relationships with a number of women—a hardened beauty named Lulu, a prostitute, the older daughter of the hotel owner, a professional gambler known as the Black Widow. (The prostitute, Bai Ling, is played by Ziyi Zhang, who also appeared memorably in Yimou Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero and in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Her love for Chow Mo Wan is deeply tragic). In each of these relationships there is the potential for love that is never realized. In some way each relationship replicates or echoes the failed love affair of the first film. Chow Mo Wan is constantly trying to recover that first love affair and at the same time trying to make sure that he cannot and does not recover it.

Chow Mo Wan is a journalist turned pulp novelist—he writes junk, to make money. But he has higher aspirations as well. One of his stories, entitled “2046” is about a city where people go to recover lost memories. They never return. The premise of this story gives the second film its frame and context. Is Chow the main character of his own story? Is he trying to recover lost memories in the real or created scenes of this film? He confesses that the women from his relationships have found their way into his stories, but is he aware how fully he himself is what his stories are about?

You are never certain whether you are seeing in this film events and people that are real or that are the writer’s imagined experiences. Certainly scenes set on the train leaving the city of 2046 are imagined (apparently), but other scenes and characters may be imagined too. It is difficult to separate the real from the unreal, reality from fantasy. The film explores the intersections of life and art. But this is really an incidental concern. Time, memory, the hold of one’s past on one’s present—these are the central obsessions, realized as much in the style of the film as in its substance.

In the Mood for Love and 2046 reminded me more than once of David Lynch, in such films as Mulholland Drive and Fire Walk with Me. Yet Wong Kar Wai is not the self-indulgent and often incoherent director that Lynch is. Wong’s films have an underlying if indecipherable logic and depth that is lacking in Lynch, who can evoke mystery and menace but who seems incapable of resolving it or at least of dealing with it in a satisfactory way—obviously Blue Velvet and The Straight Story (so uncharacteristic a Lynch film that it hardly counts as one) are exceptions. Wong is a visual and aural poet, capable of remarkable nuance, subtlety, and delicacy. Parts of the film are hallucinatory. Other parts may seem entirely concrete and then suddenly dissolve into hallucination, or what seems like it. The science fiction scenes are stylized animé images of the future.

2046 seems to be set in the middle 1960s (there are occasional references to world events from that period), though the historical period of the film doesn’t seem particularly important to what happens. There is constant jumping back and forth between past and future events, some in Chow’s memory and some in the present time of the film.

Chow Mo Wan is constantly smoking a cigarette that droops languorously and jagged from his mouth, as it would from James Dean’s. His hair is greased and carefully combed. He gives the impression of a character from a 1930s or 40s film—a suave and debonair rake—the sort of Fernando Lamas character satirized on Saturday Night Live. There is too much of that shtick in the film, which itself is a bit long. From an American viewer’s point of view, Chow’s character seems almost a parody of a certain character-type, and I am sure this was not Wong’s intention. But these are initial impressions that the action and events in the film soon dispel. Chow’s character breaks through the stereotype, which may be the result of my own western inability to recognize the codes and methods of this eastern filmmaker.

Wong Kar Wai is a visionary and extremely talented filmmaker. Right now, there is no better director making films.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Tobacco Road 2006

Driving through the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia, today, I crossed over a street named Tobacco Road. This was in the general area where portions of Erskine Caldwell’s novel Tobacco Road would have taken place. Several stores fronted the road at this intersection, including, as I recall, a car wash and a Kangaroo Gas Station and Convenience Mart.

I experienced one of those moments of certification Walker Percy talks about in The Moviegoer. Somehow I felt I was experiencing something authentic, something real. I had to do my best to pinch myself, to wake myself up. Nothing real or authentic here.

Whether there actually was a Tobacco Road near Augusta after which Caldwell named his novel I do not know. I doubt it, really. The road was probably built and named well after the novel was published, probably in recent years, a faint and insincere token of esteem for the novel.

Tobacco Road is an intensely comic novel. It is also a tragic novel, a serious effort to document the plight of poor white dirt farmers in middle Georgia at the time of the Depression. It is about, in part, the agricultural and economic wasteland that beset poor farmers, often too unskilled and, from Caldwell’s point of view, shiftless, to adopt farming practices that wouldn’t leach nutrients from the soil and leave them unable to grow crops that would earn a living.

So here we are in 2006, with Tobacco Road Resurrected in Augusta, a convenience store and a car wash and whatever else might have been built there by people who probably knew of the novel in a loose sort of way but who probably hadn’t read it and who probably would not have approved of it if they had— replacing one kind of wasteland with another.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

This film was entertaining but not good cinema. It did build suspense, in a haphazard way. If you see it without having read the novel, you will enjoy the surprises and turns of plot. If you see it having read the novel, you will enjoy watching events work themselves out.

Neither Tom Hanks nor Audrey Tatou has to do much acting. Both pretty much play their generic selves, and by doing so they make the film work as it does. There are a lot of close-ups and full-body shots. They run some and walk some, and there are a couple of car chases, but for the most part this is not an action film. Characters talk their ways through the action. The revelations that make up the deciphering of the code are mostly cerebral rather than physical. Characters do spend a lot of time driving or flying or walking to one location or another, but the travel is incidental, not crucial to the plot.

I can see the point of those who find the film anti-Catholic (it is really opposed only to certain splinter groups within the Church—at one point one of the characters explicitly states that the Vatican isn’t involved in the conspiracy the film is about). In general, however, the film treats the subject of religion with delicacy and respect. At moments it almost seems pious. It largely evades the issue of Christ’s divinity, suggesting instead that whatever he might have been he was at the least human. These are, I think, adjustments made in the adaptation of the novel, which was more aggressive in its attacks on the Church.

The film does play fast and loose with logic, Church history, and art history. It makes ingenious use of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, but from an art historian’s viewpoint, Sir Leigh Teabing’s analysis of the painting is fairly preposterous. It mentions numerous historical figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, and, of course, Da Vinci, but there is little evidence I am aware of that implicates them in the kind of plot the film describes. There was definitely a Nicean Council, as Teabing explains, and it was the point at which modern Christianity as we know it largely came into existence, but the film’s presentation of it is skewed. The film’s creation of the “historical” context of the Da Vinci conspiracy comes straight from the novel. The novel itself made canny use of history, freely altering, distorting, and re-interpreting it under the fairly safe protection of the fact that most readers and viewers would not know enough about the historical context to be able to dispute it.

Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing is an acting highpoint in the film. Every scene he’s in vibrates with energy that’s largely absent elsewhere.

The film makes the important point that much of what modern Christians believe is based on legend, invented stories, conjecture, and “facts” received through two thousand years of obscuring time and history. As an institution based on verifiable fact, Christianity is on flimsy ground. This is where faith becomes necessary. And faith is, after all, what religion is all about, as the film makes clear.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Match Point

One of Woody Allen’s favorite worlds is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald—the world of the beautiful, wealthy, and highly educated. In one way or the other we have seen it in Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and elsewhere. Usually that world is in or somewhere near New York City, though in Match Point it is in London. All the characters in the film—or most of them—are handsome and beautiful, and their attractive physical appearance is a shell that cloaks an essential hollowness—the actress who can’t get a part, the tennis player who can’t survive on the pro tour, the woman who can’t conceive.

Most Woody Allen films have a Woody Allen persona—often portrayed by Allen himself, though in the last decade or so he has taken to have other, younger actors play the part. In Match Point there is no Allen persona, though there is clearly a central character, Chris Wilton, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. There are certainly characteristics that Allen and Meyer’s character have in common (or that one could speculate they share). Chris Wilton is Woody Allen’s version of Tom Ripley, from the Patricia Highsmith novels, though Chris is at heart a coward and lacks the flair and soulless style of Ripley.

It takes quite a while into the film before it becomes clear (at least to me) that Meyers plays a thoroughly compromised, unlikeable character. He is in a sense the epitome of a certain type in our own time, an ambitious individual willing to do whatever it takes, at whatever cost to others, to get what he wants, to avoid having to acknowledge his mistakes and his own depraved self.

In the film’s last scene, Chris’s father-in-law, raising a toast to his new grandson, comments that the child, with “parents like Chloe and Chris, will be great with anything he sets his mind to.” Chloe’s brother retorts, “I don’t care if he’s great, I just hope that he’s lucky.” This could be the key word of the film: luck. For only by a series of “lucky” incidents, or perhaps it is better to say “chance” incidents, Chris is able to get everything he wants—employment at a tennis resort, a life of wealth, an affair with a beautiful woman, escape from a murder change, a secure place in life. The film details the incidents that make these all possible. But skill is involved as well, as the film’s title reflects--“Match Point”—along with the game of tennis we see Chris playing at various moments in the film (he’s a tennis pro who leaves the pro circuit because it requires too much time and dedication, neither of which he’s willing to give). Chris carefully plots out his life, marrying Chloe because of her father’s wealth, conceiving the nearly perfect murder plot.

A third unifying device in the film is opera. A particular operatic theme, probably from La Bohème, plays often in the film, especially at crucial moments. It creates a tragic context for the events and characters—if the viewer needs that assistance—suggesting a continuity between the avarice and lust that drives Chris Wilton with the larger themes of literature and art.

In the next-to-last scene of the film, Wilton has fallen to sleep on the sofa, and when he wakes he hears sounds in the house. He goes into the kitchen for a drink of water and turns to discover the two women he has killed, and they talk about what he has done. She tells him he is going to suffer for his crimes, that he has made mistakes and his comments to her make clear that he is willing to live with the guilt he feels. This scene strikes me as contrived, but as a rhetorical device it helps us see that Chris is aware of the moral horror he has committed and that he accepts it as the necessary payment for the life and the affluence he has won—the attractive wife who worships him, the father-in-law who makes clear that he is willing to rescue Chris from whatever financial difficulties he might encounter, and whose bequest will secure his future. This scene casts the film in the mold of a morality play, with Chris as the protagonist whose actions damn him.

That Allen doesn’t make Chris pay for his crimes—either through guilt or through arrest and conviction in a court of law—is a commentary on the fact that the wealthy often get away with such crimes, and that the world we live in is not one in which those who commit damnable acts necessarily pay for them.

Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors has a similar plot and theme, though in that film the main characters are middle-aged, from New York, and the moral ambiguities of the film seem more consistent with their lives and demeanors.

In Match Point one of the most disturbing aspects of the film is how blithely ruthless and destructive a handsome and attractive character such as Chris Wilton can be. On the one hand he is the worst of criminals; on the other hand, he is no criminal (in the conventional sense) at all—he is a normal upper-class character, living his life, pursuing his dreams, who just happens to find murder a convenient device to push him towards his goals.

This is a film worth watching, though it is often slow and deliberate, and once you catch on precisely to what sort of character Wilton is, you can’t care much about him, though you want to know what he is going to do, how he is going to respond to the problems that confront him. You do care for the people whose lives he exploits and puts at risk.

Match Point is the best film Allen has made in a decade. It justifies his continuing reputation as a serious and accomplished filmmaker.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee has always made setting a primary focus in his films. Whether it is the Kansas prairie in Ride with the Devil, the frozen suburban night-time wasteland of The Ice Storm, the romantic, mythic world of martial arts legendry in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the austere, distant vistas of Wyoming's mountains in Brokeback Mountain. Landscape is always in the background. The characters are in the foreground. But landscape to some extent defines what they do, who they are. In Brokeback Mountain the two main characters both associate their love for one another with the mountain where they first herded sheep together.

Many reviewers have praised Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting as Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain. He was very good, but I thought Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar was remarkable. Inarticulate in every way, his frozen face as he struggled to make the simplest statements had an absolute elegance and expressiveness. I saw him as the film’s main character, more so than Gyllenhaal. In fact, Gyllenhaal’s story is told through Heath’s eyes and memory.

I can see the point of the The New Yorker reviewer’s observation that you do not spend much time thinking about Ennis and Jack as gay lovers. The problems they face are not limited to sexual preference. Both of them marry conventionally and become parents. Both marriages go bad in different ways, not only because the men love one another, not merely because of infidelity. Ennis’ never makes much money, and his family for many years lives in bare surroundings. His wife is unhappy and dissatisfied from an early point, not only because she sees Ennis and Jack embracing one another (though she never tells Ennis this until long after their divorce), but because she and Ennis can never get ahead, they both work jobs they don’t particularly enjoy, and they become mired in a particular kind of domestic despair that is hardly limited to the situations we see in this film.

Jack marries the daughter of a wealthy farm equipment dealer. She comes on to him, attracted by his rodeo riding. He marries her because marriage in Wyoming is what a young man (or woman) does. There is no alternative. Though he succeeds as a farm equipment salesman, his marriage never seems happy, while Ennis’ for a time does. Long before he met Jack, Ennis planned to marry the woman who become his wife. He never expected the kinds of complications which he encountered. Jack is irritated by his father-in-law’s insistence on being the authority figure, the head of the household, and Jack never seems to break out of the role of the wealthy owner’s son-in-law. Everything he achieves, more or less, owes to that role. His wife becomes increasingly cold and brittle, caught up in the family business, in the social affairs of their lives. For her there is no alternative to that of mother and wife. By the end of the film, she has become a frightening character, but like everyone in the film she is a product of environment. Forces of respectability, propriety, social status control her, and this is nowhere more evident in the scene where she lies to Ennis about how her husband dies. She is portrayed by Anne Hathaway, a young actress best known before this film for her roles in such made-for-the-young Disney or Disneyesque films as The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. This role proves she can play mainstream roles, and it was not until late in the film that I realized who she was.

Yet sexual preference, prevailing social and moral codes, the forces of environment against the needs and desires of those who do not fit preformed niches of behavior and inclination, are at the heart of this film. The film does not allow you to overlook them, nor does it leave you unaware of what might happen to Jack or Ennis if the truth comes out about them. In one way or the other they suffer for their relationship throughout the film—through the necessity of stealth and deception, through their lies to their family, through the sheep owner who refuses to hire Jack again after he has spied on him with Ennis, through their unhappy and cold marriages, through the impossibility of their being together on a permanent basis, through the way Jack meets his death, through Ennis’ loneliness at the end. The setting, the cold remote mountains of Wyoming, which are the backdrop for much of the story, are like the cold remote environment in which the characters live. I was reminded at times of Thomas Hardy, in novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, where the world weighs in and weighs down and smothers the lives of the characters until there is no life left.

Ang Lee is intensely interested in the social and environmental forces that encircle and circumscribe human character and action. This was in a sense the essential subject of The Ice Storm, so much so that the film had a kind of clinical indifference to the human beings entrapped in the story. It was obvious in the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. We see it in Brokeback Mountain in numerous ways, but the film does not leave you distant and uncaring about the main characters, even when you can guess what is likely to happen to them.

It seemed to me in the film that while Jack needed the company of other men, and sought it out on occasion by trips to Mexico where he could buy the services of male prostitutes, Ennis was in love with Jack specifically. This explains at least one of the arguments between Ennis and Jack late in the film, and of course explains the nature of Jack’s death. Ennis feels betrayed when Jack tells him that he has been with other men. I’m not sure that being with men other than Jack has ever occurred to Ennis. He planned to marry the girl he married, and to have a conventional life.

This is a well made film with fine acting, a beautiful setting, and deeply disturbing and depressing concerns. It may not be a classic for the ages, but it is important for the serious way it grapples with its subject, its avoidance of platitudes and stereotypes, its way of viewing Jack and Ennis and the others around them not as symbols of a social issue but as suffering human beings.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Aeon Flux

The trailer for this film caught me: stark primary colors, surreal futurist imagery, Charlize Theron in black leather. The film has a faint déjà vu quality--echoes of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury as rendered by Truffaut back in 1966. The blimp seems straight out of Blade Runner (1982).

Apparently this film is based on a comic book. Its portentous premise is that in 2011 a virus wiped out 99% of the human population. A group of scientists kept the human race alive by developing a vaccine which rendered sterile everyone vaccinated. The scientists who invented the vaccine develop a technique for cloning people when they die so that the human race can perpetuate itself. Seven or so generations have passed since the viral near-annihilation of humanity. Women are beginning to disappear for unknown reasons. The government has become more interested in preserving power than in sustaining humankind. It’s a totalitarian state that surreptitiously surveys every detail of the lives of its citizens and marks for liquidation those who pose a danger. But one scientist is having doubts. There is a group of rebels . . .

So it goes. The story is tangled, twisty, and devoid of imagination. It’s something we’ve seen a hundred times before. (Most recently, in The Island, but a few years before in The Matrix). The philosophy is the sort you encounter in one of the lesser episodes of Star Trek. The images and actors are new, or almost new, and from the first scene you can write the plot without actually sitting through the film.

Even the visuals, which attracted me in the first place, disappoint.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Two elements in Capote draw my attention: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s extraordinary portrayal and the film's interpretation of the man who wrote In Cold Blood. Even more interesting is the examination of the ethics of artistic creation—what obligation does the writer have to his subject matter—to the creation of art, to himself?

Hoffman’s acting (I am sorry to repeat what so many others have said) is extraordinary. I remember Capote on television from the 60s until his death in 1984. He frequently appeared on talk shows (Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett) and was a sharp-tongued wag and pundit. It wasn’t so much what he had to say as how he said it—the very distinctive manner of his speech, the public fascination with a man who was obviously homosexual at a time when that category was barely acknowledged. By the time I started paying attention to Capote (around the time of In Cold Blood) he had already become an established public figure who was incidentally a writer. Hoffman fully inhabits the Capote persona. His portrayal is so convincing and transparent that you hardly stop to consider that you’re not watching the real thing. Hoffman’s success in this role contributes directly to how the film interprets Capote’s involvement with the writing of his most famous book.

The film is based on Gerald Clarke’s biography Capote, which advances the notion (widely held) that Capote took advantage of the two murderers, promising them help and a new lawyer and rescue from the threat of execution, insinuating himself into the affections of one of the murderers in particular, repeatedly lying about the state of the book, its title, and so on. At the end, the movie argues, Capote became more interested in finishing the book, which he could do only if the story he was telling had come to an end, and it could end only when the murderers had been executed. Capote witnessed the executions. Harper Lee accused Capote of wanting the murderers to die.

I do not know enough about Capote and his writing of In Cold Blood to judge this thesis. I have to grant it some credence, but I wonder whether there is another side to the story, another dimension. It’s clear that Capote became enamored of the media and his own celebrity. But is it necessarily true that the writing of In Cold Blood corrupted him, or that he allowed himself to be corrupted, that he was so in love with writing, with the possibility of fame (especially after his friend Harper Lee’s success with To Kill A Mockingbird, both novel and film), with the project itself, that the killers simply became pawns that he manipulated as he struggled towards his goal? The film effectively argues its thesis by showing how Capote was obsessed with his book and what it might mean for him, that he perhaps was even unaware (or chose to be unaware) of how he was manipulating the killers. At the end he realizes the extent of his errors, and he grieves over what he has done, he feels guilt, though consistently in the film when he feels emotion it is directed towards himself, his own suffering, rather than that of anyone else. The shock of witnessing the executions thus becomes his excuse for failure as a writer in later life.

Even before the issue of corruption raises its head, it is clear that Capote sees in the murdered farm family a story to be told. He pursues it with passion. He tells the town sheriff that he wants to tell the story, that he doesn’t care whether the killers are ever caught--he just wants to tell the story. Thus from the start the issue of justice and the issue of art become tangled. Is it more important that art is created and the novel gets written, or that justice is served and the murderers are executed? As his work on the book progresses and he begins to gain the trust of the murderers, especially Perry, the question becomes more vexing. Capote is on the verge of producing a great book, a new kind of writing, something that may change the face of American literature. This will mean fame and fortune for Capote. But at what cost? Indifference to the deaths of four family members in Kansas? Betrayal and exploitation of two condemned killers?

The film explores these issues in a fascinating way. It is one of the best films I’ve seen in months, whether or not it does justice to Truman Capote. Therein lies the conundrum: does Capote embody its own themes?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

In many ways my reactions to the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were similar to my reactions to the first book in the series by C. S. Lewis. The first volume is the best volume, and it has a certain novelty that glosses over the allegory and the stilted characters. There is a fundamental illogicality to the land of Narnia--centaurs, fauns, Christ-like lions, a white witch, and so on--the same sort of illogicality you find in the world of the wizards in the Harry Potter series. This world in the first Narnia book is so new, and the surprise of the discovery of the world through the wardrobe so compelling, that the first book is a fun and pleasant read. In the later books the allegory and the Sunday School elements become overbearing, the lack of character development more irritating, and the tendency to cast characters out of Narnia once they go through puberty and become fallen adults just a little too much.

The film as a whole is slow and has something of the quality of a mystery play—characters going through the motions, carrying out their roles, fulfilling their destinies, not because they have the choice to do so but because they are compelled by the design of the plot. There is the cute little sister whose pure faith makes her the appropriate child to be the first to discover Narnia. There is the older brother, the reluctant prince who rises to the challenge of saving Narnia and becoming its king. There is the errant and jealous little brother—seduced by the white witch’s offer of chocolate—who is later redeemed back into the loyal fold. There are the talking beavers and fauns and horses and so on. Everything you expect and want to find, all lumped in there together.

A number of scenes are staged on easily recognizable sets, and they have something of the quality of the scenes in the original Star Trek series--a certain cheesiness, though executed with more technical aplomb than was possible forty years ago. The digital effects are often easy to recognize, but they are also well done, and the talking beavers and Aslan himself—that divine lion—are impressive, as are the digital natural settings—sunsets, fields, forests.

Overall, Narnia in this film is claustrophobic and artificial. The obvious comparison is with the Lord of the Rings series, directed by Peter Jackson. The comparison is obvious because the the films are all of a type, the Rings films came out shortly before the Narnia film, and because Lewis and Tolkien themselves were friends. While Lewis’s world is to me a false and artificial one, there is something potentially real about Tolkien’s world, something that Jackson succeeds in conveying in his films. Tolkien knew how to develop characters, how to cloak allegorical meaning and themes in the action and setting of his story, how to make you care about the characters and to be uncertain of their fates and intentions, how to make you feel that something of dire importance is at stake, not only to the future of Middle Earth but to human history. You feel in the Lord of the Ring trilogy—both the books and the films—that the world of Middle Earth extends outside the geographical and temporal limitations of the story, and indeed if you’ve read the Silmarillion and other works by Tolkien you know that in his own mind it did.

Ultimately, the filmmakers wanted the first Chronicles of Narnia to be a feel-good film. Making his audience feel good was not Jackson’s main intention. Nor was it, for that matter, Tolkien’s intention, or even Lewis’s. Unfortunately, Lewis’s inventiveness ran out in the later novels, his characters remained flat, his intentions became obvious. Tolkien’s inventiveness was alive to the last sentence of his last novel, his characters recognizable, their intentions complex, mysterious, and real.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Jerry Lee Lewis

Sometimes legends live better through memory, if they live at all. Jerry Lee Lewis performed several days ago on Letterman. He was introduced as a true rock and roll legend. He performed "Great Balls of Fire." If you ever saw Lewis at his height, in his prime, performing this song, then his appearance on Letterman was sad and pathetic. The energy was gone, the loose folds of skin on his arms jiggled as he played, he seemed truly to be going through the motions and even then having difficulty doing so. I don't blame this man for being old. But no one who watched his performance on Letterman would ever understand why he was there.

But Jerry Lee understands why he was there. He's a phantom these days. People remember Buddy Holly and Elvis and Johnny Cash but the Killer has faded. He always made himself difficult as an icon--the rumors about how some of his wives died, the stories about Jerry Lee waving a pistol at the gates of Graceland, trying to get in, one evening in the months before Elvis died. As those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s get older and the importance of those memories grow less relevant, as we die off, the icons fade. When my students mention the country singer Hank Williams, they mean Hank Williams III, or at best Hank Williams Jr. When we're gone, Jerry Lee will be a bizarre footnote.

Walk the Line reintroduced Jerry Lee Lewis to a generation that has largely never known about him. The Killer doesn't want to be forgotten. He doesn't want to be a footnote. A last feeble ember of the old rage rekindles. So he performs on Letterman, jiggling arm and errant voice, flailing feebly at the keyboard, raging against the dying light.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Democracy and Duke

Click here to read my commentary in Flagpole. The unabridged title is "Democracy, an Enlightened Citizenry, and the Duke University Lacrosse Scandal."

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Neil Young, Living with War

Neil Young's new album Living with War will release Tuesday, May 9, but for now it is being streamed for free at, where you can and should go to listen to it. Neil Young's music has always been interesting. Two of his recent albums, Greendale and Prairie Wind, are classics--music written by an intelligent, thinking man with years of experience and living behind him. Prairie Wind seems to come from Young's close brush with death as the result of a brain aneurysm, treated successfully by surgery two years ago. Greendale is a concept album about a family in rural California that runs afoul of the law, the media, and bad luck. The brilliance of Greendale lies in its willingness to consider the murder of a policeman and the bad luck of a family from every angle. Young knows that life is unfair in a way for which there is no solution, but he is angry with it anyway, and in Greendale he examines the difficulty of living unfettered in the modern age. Young is especially bothered by the media's ever-present curiosity about private affairs, about the impossibility of privacy.

Living with War is a protest album--protest music in its essential and most topical form. As many reviewers have pointed out, it is an album with rough edges, raw and painful music, and a series of songs that make brilliant, biting commentary on what is happening to our nation under the current president--the war in Iraq, the religious right, the media, excessive consumerism, the crass hollow core of what the American dream has become--all of these come under the scrutiny of his eye and voice. Whether you agree with Young's point of view or not, this is a powerful album. I especially like the opening song, "After the Garden Is Gone," which has to do with what Young regards as the loss of America and its promise. "Let's Impeach the President" is far more subtle and nuanced that its title would suggest, yet the song is powerful and compelling and angry. "The Flags of Freedom" is a tribute to Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom," updated and recast to encompass the concerns of our present situation.

Living with War is a great work of musical protest.