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The University of Hartford

Music and Culture of the
New Depression
(Peach Salsa Redux)

by Kevin "MoonDog" O'Toole

  Hello, and welcome back for another school year. My name is Moondog, and I'll be your regular host for this (fairly) regular bi-monthly column. So here, a pledge regarding ratings: you will not see this column cluttered up with complaints about awful music. If it's worth me writing about it, I will write about it here. The ratings for this column will be between *** (three stars) meaning "Worth a shot" and ***** (five stars) meaning, "damn, don't you have this already? What's the matter with you?" Another thing: since I end up dividing my free time between music and films (as well as other occasional media), this column will no longer just be about music. It will probably just as often be about films, but no longer just music. As such, I will feel free occasionally to kibbitz (though perhaps only at year end) about some of the worst movies out there, as well as the best. Oh, and the title? Well, that just leads me to my first new column:

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  Back when Batman Begins (****, Warner Brothers, 2004) appeared in theaters, Sam Hatch and I (on our show Culture Dogs, Sunday nights at eight) both strongly felt that it was, by a good measure, the best of the Batman films. Repeated viewings merely reinforce that impression. There are many reasons why the film is so good: Christian Bale portrayed a schizophrenic, intense, but heroic Bruce Wayne/ Batman; Michael Caine was a fun and different choice for Alfred; Liam Neeson represented a darker version of the vigilante Batman always comes close to becoming; Katie Holmes (while a bit young) gets to play the best written of Wayne's love interests.
  The look of production designer Nathan Crowley's Gotham City in the film follows intelligently on the late Anton Furst's brilliant designs which simultaneously evoked the 1930's era of the original Batman and the "twenty minutes into the future" school of sci-fi, taking it even further to make it a city that is just livable; Upon later viewings, however, what really pops out of Batman Begins is the political environment it takes place in. Not satisfied with merely evoking the look of the 1930's, director Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer take it upon themselves to set the story in "the depression." Not the 1930's, but the new depression.
  Those who know well the Batman mythos know that the death of the child Bruce Wayne's parents, at the hands of a brutal hood, is the central and most important event in the creation of Batman. The "missing parents" syndrome is fairly common to a lot of heroic fiction, but very interestingly turns up in some of the most enduring pop characters of the depression. Superman was adopted by poor family farmers; Walt Disney films, like "Bambi" and "Dumbo" and even, to an extent, "Pinocchio," played with themes of dead or dying parents, or, in Gepetto's case, slyly acknowledged the growing idea of a non-traditional family structure.

 In Batman Begins, Nolan and Goyer took the Batman back to some of his comics roots with the reinstatement of the panicky robber Joe Chill as the killer of Wayne's parents. Previously, 1989's "Batman" portrayed a young pre-clownfaced Joker as the culprit in an effort to save screen time for Jack Nicholson or some such. Don't get me wrong: I loved that film a lot (despite misused Prince music on the soundtrack), but in retrospect the choice of culprits in that film seemed designed for the late Reagan-era.
  In Nolan's retelling, Bruce Wayne briefly wrestles with the idea of revenge when Chill is about to get out of prison for cooperating with an organized crime investigation, only to have that choice taken from him when the big crime boss (Falcone, complete with big city tough guy accent provided by Tom Wilkinson) orders a hit on Chill. What immediately follows is a discussion (between Holmes' Rachel Dawes and Bale's Wayne) of the political and social ills of Gotham City and how little has changed "since the depression."
  After this, Wayne briefly confronts Falcone, who, rather than being intimidated, outlines for Wayne exactly what the political situation is in Gotham, and how his feelings and ideals about justice matter very little against the reality of his extremely wealthy upbringing. Following this, Wayne quickly stages a disappearing act, shedding his wealth to go underground among the poor and criminal in an effort to better understand them. Eventually, this leads him to encounter Ducart (Neeson) who represents Ra's Al Ghul, the apparent head of a group of extremist vigilantes known as the League of Shadows.
  The Dawes/ Falcone discussions are brand new in the filmic Batman mythos. While there's been little doubt that Bruce Wayne has been a rich and powerful man in every version of Batman, we've not before had that wealth expressed as a liability to his understanding.
  So why now? Why would Nolan and Goyer add this dimension to our hero for their twenty-first century redux of this guy who dresses up as a big bat to fight the bad guys?
  Part of it is a return to certain thematic roots of the character. Batman was inspired by, among other things, Zorro: That is, a well to-do fop (of sorts), who secretly dons a mask to go out and fight for the little guy; that is, not just an abstract ethic of "fighting crime," but a wider concept of socioeconomic justice.
  More specifically, Nolan and Goyer, within their fantasy world framework of evil masterminds and grand plots, have updated the character for our world by acknowledging a feeling that many have had. The depression never really ended.
  Oh, there seemed to be a rising middle-class for a time or two (notably in the post-war 1950's, and possibly the dot com 90's), but along the way there have always been high-level manipulations of power, most notably of wealth and political power, designed to keep the important decision making in our society among a like-minded few. And, yeah, the character of Bruce Wayne remains among those like-minded, perhaps, but for his sense that justice should not be thwarted by those looking for fantastic wealth in the short-term, at the expense of the great masses in the long term.
  So, we're in a new depression (at least for the next three years), and welcome to it. Hopefully, we won't all have to sell apples on the street, unless, of course, they come with "I-Life."
  Yeah, Batman Begins is a bit thin for a political discourse, perhaps, but hey, that guy drives one hell of a cool tank.

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  Now to expound on a film which, by all rights, should be heading to home video even as this is published, although, it very probably will turn up on the schedule at Trinity Cinestudio at Trinity College in Hartford (Call 860.297.2463 or visit cinestudio.org for more on their current schedule) That film is Brick (****1/2, Focus Features, 2005), the first feature directed by 33 year-old Rian Johnson. It's a film which takes its' setting of a modern-day high school and brilliantly transforms it into a dreamy, seedy underworld, complete with its' own syntax, a deliberate mixture of modern and classic noir hipster parlance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (TV's Third Rock from the Sun) plays Brendan, a young man who becomes obsessed with the mysterious disappearance and death of a former girlfriend (Emilie deRavin of TV's Lost). He pokes around for answers like the adolescent version of Mike Hammer, pressing the jocks, the drama queens and the small time dealers for answers, getting beat up and returning for more and more until he has his answers. Gordon-Levitt came to this role fresh off another challenging role as a damaged young gay hustler in Gregg Araki's intense, disturbing and sometimes funny Mysterious Skin. He proved then to have the chops to be the center of this strange and quirky film. Another fine addition to the cast comes in the person of former child star, Lukas Haas (who played the little Amish title character in Witness). Haas plays the local "crime boss" known as "the Pin" (as in "the Kingpin"). The first we hear of the character is when Brendan's main informant (a junior intelligencer known as "The Brain," played by Matt O'Leary) refers to the Pin in legendary terms ("The Pin is kinda a local spook story… he's supposed to be old, like 26…"). In reality, the Pin, while the local big shot, dresses like a stylish goth, runs things from the wood-paneled basement of his mom's suburban ranch house, and employs a driver for his tricked out minivan. Haas's Pin also proves to be at least a high-school level deep thinker, as he wistfully muses to Brendan in a philosophical moment about the deep and wonderful writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Johnson and Gordon-Levitt never let this sense of humor subtract from the gravity of the mystery, though. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who worked on the cult films May and Dead Birds) trains a dark adapted eye on this suburban California world, with its' locations in the alleyways, parking lots and drainage ditches surrounding the high school where this criminal underworld seems to thrive. In the end, Brick, while seeming a little see-through, is a personal mystery story, which, like Robert Towne's Chinatown, contains resonances beyond a simple world of whodunits where the bad guys get theirs and the hero comes out unscathed. Again, if it doesn't come to Trinity Cinestudio, make room for it on your home video viewing schedule. It's one of this year's best.

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  One might imagine that after five albums plus of material that came out of the collaboration between ledgendary producer Rick Rubin (previously known for his work with LL Cool J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, the Cult, Glenn Danzig, Slayer… the list goes on…) and ledgendary singer/ songwriter/ storyteller Johnny Cash (that list of accomplishments really goes on) that their partnership would have run out of steam. Perish that thought. Rubin's label just released the first of two final new studio albums that Cash recorded in his last days, and while it doesn't feature any songwriters of the particular hip cache featured on previous Cash/ Rubin projects (like the Depeche Mode or Nine Inch Nails covers on American IV: The Man Comes Around), American V: A Hundred Highways (****, American Recordings, July, 2006)) presents a typically strong set of performances. If you didn't know it by now, Johnny Cash has well earned his ledgendary status in American popular music because of his ear for good songwriting and his ability to draw things out of that writing that he can make great and make his own. Case in point: the album opens with a cover of a Larry Gatlin tune (as in Gatlin Brothers), "Help Me." Can there be any doubt of the feeling with which he delivers this prayer, a humble heartfelt plea for help to live and to understand the meaning of his life. The arrangement is a spare one of just guitar, cello and fiddle. The next tune is a traditional gospel cover that only sounds like a Moby cover. For his tune "Run On," from his album "Play," Moby sampled an old gospel recording by Bill Landford and the Landfordaires titled "Run On for a Long Time." Johnny Cash's version is titled "God's Gonna Cut You Down" (it was also reecorded under that title by Odetta back in the day). This version shares something in common with Moby's in it's spare statement relying on a minimal rhythmic figure: in this case footstomps and handclaps (that also recall Odetta arrangements), with guitars, cello and mouth harp (the twangy kind) and a single repeated keyboard note from Benmont Tench thrown in for good measure. Mortality and faith end up in the orbit of any Cash project: that the Cash original "Like the 309," in which he muses about his final wish to be put "in (his) box" on the train, is no surprise. He also likens the slow descent into illness to the reliability (or inevitability) of a train ("Talk about luck/ well I got mine/ asthma comin' down/ like the 309" (he follows this line with a rattling sigh)). There is only one other Cash original on this collection, "I Came to Believe," a gospel tune of sorts, with tinges of twelve-stepping ("And I came to believe/ in a power much larger than I"). An accordian drone stands in for what would have been pretentious organ pipes, with piano and guitar. He also delivers a version of the Gordon Lightfoot chestnut, "If You Could Read My Mind." Spare guitars and keyboards (piano and organ) replace the original's orchestral excesses. Likewise, he delivers a fragile and spare version of a Rod McKuen tune ("Love's Been Good to Me") and lends still more honest gravitas to an Ian Tyson piece ("Four Strong Winds") (Ian Tyson, of course, formerly of Ian and Sylvia, the pop-folk duo that inspired the creation of Mitch and Mickey in Christopher Guest's film A Mighty Wind). Bruce Springsteen's "Further on Up the Road" also gets the modern Cash treatment. Who better than Johnny Cash to deliver a tale of a Tom Joad-esque Springsteen troubadour. Guitars and piano are aided by gentle organ and mellotron textures. The collection is filled out with covers by the likes of Hank Williams, Don Gibson and Hugh Moffatt, by a talent the match of any of them, and who will be missed.

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  Hello. I'm a critic. Oh, I'm not a paid critic, or at least never on these pages or on the air. Nonetheless, I've been scribbling and expounding on my thoughts on certain of the recording and occassional other arts for some years now, so I now imagine I've earned the title. There is a syndrome familiar to many a critic that it doesn't take a critic to recognize: that is, the having-your-critical-head-up-your-critical-ass syndrome. It happens to all of us… that is, I mean, I'm sure it does… okay, maybe not me, but most critics. Really. Never me. It's a dangerous syndrome to find oneself in (so I hear) as walking around with one's head up one's ass could permanently deform one's critical posture. I'm afraid that this syndrome has spread through the critical community like wildfire this summer.

  Want some evidence? Here: go see M. Night Shyamalan's beautiful film Lady in the Water (****, Warner Brothers, 2006). Please. Go. Enjoy the beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle (2046, Hero, Rabbit Proof Fence). Delight in the strange interaction of a modern day Philadelphia apartmentment complex with creatures from a mysterious myth and a puzzle that defies logic. Good. You've seen it. Now hop on the internet and go to, for instance, imdb.com or rottentomatoes.com. Now take the time to puzzle over whether these other folk were watching the same film. The only possible answer is: they can't have been. It's amazing to me the number of critics who drank the kool aid on this one.

  A sampling of some pulled quotes gathered at Rotten Tomatoes: "its utter lack of narrative discipline is just plain amateurish, not subversive." -- Bob Strauss, LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

  "Not everyone agrees on Shyamalan's talent as a filmmaker, but few, up till now, have questioned his sanity." -- Dana Stevens, SLATE

  "...a disjointed and mind-numbing story." -- Diana Saenger, REVIEWEXPRESS.COM

  "Lady in the Water challenges us to believe in the power of myth. But the big challenge here is surviving the tedium of Shyamalan's meandering inventiveness." -- Stephanie Zacharek, SALON.COM

  "It's hard to think of a deadlier shotgun marriage than Jacques Tourneur's poetry of absence and Spielbergian uplift, but Shyamalan has patented the combo, adding pretentious camera movements that are peculiarly his own -- even the jokes are pretty solemn." -- Jonathan Rosenbaum, CHICAGO READER

  "Hollywood cannot pollute the ozone with anything more idiotic, contrived, amateurish or sub-mental than Lady in the Water." -- Rex Reed, NEW YORK OBSERVER

  "It's a busy made-up universe - with… a deity-tree that could give the Hindu hierarchy a run for its rupee. And it's extremely silly." -- Steven Rea, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

  Okay… where to begin? Perhaps with a guy named "Willie Waffle"? Shall I try to dissect the brilliant pull-quote seeking that went into a phrase like "quasi-Jungian horse flop"? Shall I attempt to force my brain to make sense out of a negatively intoned descriptive phrase like "meandering inventiveness"? First of all, you need to do as I did when I went to see the film. Go in with an open mind and be prepared to take in what the film has to offer. DO NOT enter expecting another Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. Wonderful films though they are, they set up the audience with a false expectation from any future films by Shyamalan: the "surprise twist." Yes, surprise twists do happen. The thing one realizes over time is that seeing something coming doesn't matter so much as wanting what one gets when it happens. Shyamalan's films should be judged on their "surprise twists" like Spielberg's carreer should be judged on the number of mechanical sharks. Are there twists you won't see coming in Lady? Perhaps. Does it matter how clever you are at seeing these twists walking in? Only if you're in a very grumpy mood. Lady in the Water tells the tale of Cleveland Heep (the wonderful Paul Giamatti, who turns in an imaginative and hgeartfelt performance here). Cleveland is the superintendant at a Philadelphia apartment complex called "The Cove" which sports a peculiarly shaped pool (I just mention this, because it's probably among the things people will waste their time pondering over. Yeah, I'm sure it means something. But only if you want it to.). One night, Cleveland encounters a creature that looks like a beautiful young girl (Bryce Dallas Howard). Soon, Cleveland finds out that she is likely a "Narf," a being who must escape this realm and return to her world, but only with the aid of other mysterious beings. Cleveland must get her home before she is destroyed by the deadly wolf-like/grass creature called a Skrunt. Shyamalan wrote this originally as a bedtime story for his children, and the film carries that same sense of a gentle and beautiful fairytale. Feel like you've seen it before? Really? Well, then here's a question: do you demand the same unpredictable originality out of your Harry Potter films and books? Gee, I wonder will Valdemort have something to do with the evil machinations in the next film? What are the odds? Face it, like I have. As an adult, I don't look to bedtime stories, or any stories really, just for surprises. I go looking to be involved in a story, any story, and for that I need to feel the character's journey. I was absorbed in the relationship between Giamatti's Heep and Howard's Story (that's the Narf's name) for the duration of the film, and found much to be scared by in the horrible Skrunt (I defy you, after watching the movie, to take a walk across the lawn in the darkness without looking nervously over your shoulder). There are many touches of gentle humor (with the exception of one pointed joke, which I'll get to) and the rest of the able cast (notably including Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Mary Beth Hurt, Jared Harris and M. Night Shyamalan) fill out the cast of strange characters (including a pool guy who works out only one side of his body who has to be seen to be believed). It's a fun, funny and imaginative ride that only requires that suspension of disbelief and a little heart. It gives as much as you can bring to it, and how nice is it that a filmmaker has chosen to involve the audience's active imaginations in his storytelling?

  So… back to the critics. What to make of this mass lynching of Shyamalan? I have a theory, but in order to understand it, you need to have seen the film, or you need to not mind a spoiler.

  So, for those of you have seen the film or don't mind, I will tell my theory. Otherwise… PLEASE WATCH OUT!!!!! SPOILER COMING!!!!! IF YOU DON'T WANT A MINOR POINT RUINED, SKIP THE SENTENCE BELOW!!!!!

  Here's my theory: they were a mite miffed that the critic gets killed. LOOK OUT! SPOILER ABOVE! DO NOT READ!!!!!! DON'T GO NEAR THE ABOVE SPOILER!!!!! OKAY! YOU MAY BEGIN READING AGAIN! I hope my bold-faced bookman old style did not hurt your eyes. I thank you. Critics: eyes up. Remove heads from butts. On to the next movie/ TV show/ CD, etc. Remember: but for the grace of God, you could end up as Michael Medved. Then you're really screwed.

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Listen for three hours of new and rare sounds every Friday on the Friday Gothic Blimp Works- "Call It Thing" At Midnight after Friday Accent on Jazz, and tune into Culture Dogs every Sunday night at 8 PM for an hour about films on the local scene and at your local video peddler, with myself and Sam Hatch.

  Listen live at 91.3 FM WWUH, 89.9 WAPJ Torrington and wwuh.org. Culture Dogs also podcasts thru culturedogs.org. Peace, Kevin

WWUH: Program Guide 2006 ©

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