Posted in 1970s, Music

Happy 50th birthday, BOTW!

Image used solely to illustrate subject for purposes of an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

Released 26 January 1970, BOTW was Simon and Garfunkel’s fifth and final studio album, and was almost the next-last album I listened to in this lifetime. I played it the night before my August 2003 car accident, and when I was finally able to sit in a chair by my record player again, that was the first LP I put on the turntable.

Ever since then, hearing any of the songs can set something off in my psyche and give me a feeling akin to body memories, with my throat getting tighter. It’s not a PTSD trigger, but it brings back memories of those almost being among the final songs I ever heard.

S&G’s last album, Bookends, was released in April 1968, and recording for BOTW commenced in November. However, a long delay arose in January 1969—the filming of Catch-22, in which Art plays Nately. (This is a dreadful, dreadful movie, taking way too many liberties with the classic novel!)

When the duo got back to business in the studio, they had to decline a number of invitations, including Woodstock. Crafting their new album was top priority. In the end, they selected eleven songs. Several other songs, among them “Feuilles-O,” “Groundhog,” and “Cuba Si, Nixon No,” were left in the vault.

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks:

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (#1 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and New Zealand; #2 in Australia, Ireland, and Spain; #3 in Germany; #4 in Austria and South Africa; #5 in Switzerland and The Netherlands; #7 in Norway; #23 in Belgium)

“El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” (written by Peruvian commposer Daniel Alomía Robles in 1913) (#1 in Belgium, Australia, Austria, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland; #6, #11, and #18 on different U.S. charts; #14 in New Zealand)

“Cecilia” (my third journal’s namesake song) (#1 in The Netherlands; #2 in Spain, Canada, and Germany; #3 in Belgium and Switzerland; #4, #31, and #1 on different U.S. charts; #6 in Australia and Austria; #9 in Belgium; #19 in Rhodesia)

“Keep the Customer Satisfied” (later covered by Gary Puckett as a solo artist)
“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (not a fan of the overly long fadeout!)

“The Boxer” (#1 and #3 on different Canadian charts; #2 in Austria and The Netherlands; #3 in South Africa; #4 and #7 on different U.S. charts; #5 in Sweden; #6 in the U.K.; #7 in Ireland; #8 in Australia; #9 in New Zealand and Norway; #10 in Spain; #13 in Zimbabwe; #19 in West Germany)

“Baby Driver”
“The Only Living Boy in New York”
“Why Don’t You Write Me”
“Bye Bye Love” (cover of The Everly Brothers’ original)
“Song for the Asking”
“Feuilles-O” (demo)*
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (demo take six)*

The album reached #1 in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Spain, and Norway. In Italy, it was #4.

While I truly enjoy this album, I don’t rank it in the same territory as PSR&T and Bookends. It’s a little too hit and miss. A truly classic album shouldn’t have so much filler!

Besides the four singles, my favorite tracks are “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Song for the Asking.”

I originally rated it 4.5 on my old Angelfire site, but now I’d honestly give it 4 stars.

Posted in 1940s, Books, Books I dislike

Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

Posted in Books, Books I dislike

Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!

Posted in 1930s, holidays, Movies

Dracula disappointed me

Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, 1931.

I was really looking forward to watching the 1931 version of Dracula, always having had the impression it’s one of the all-time greats and classics of horror cinema. Instead, I found myself yet again disappointed by something surrounded by years of massive hype.

For all the issues I have with Nosferatu (to be discussed more in-depth next October), at least that film succeeds brilliantly at creating a creepy, spooky, foreboding mood, with tension in the air. It’s all thrown away with a whimper instead of a bang, but at least it’s there.

Béla Lugosi cuts an awesome figure as Count Dracula, though he seems to do about as much active vamping as Max Schreck, which is to say, not nearly enough. It does start out promisingly, but once it moves to London, the stiltedness begins.

1931-dracula-bela-lugosi-y-david-manners-01

Stripped of all the hype and classic status, this is just another creaky, stilted early talkie. So many early talkies feel like filmed stage plays, since the first sound cameras couldn’t move very far and still pick up noise well. Dracula was indeed based on a stage play, but I really don’t feel like that best-suits any kind of horror story.

The horror is more talked about after the fact, instead of shown as it’s actually happening. How is that supposed to create a frightening mood? Silent horror films work so well because they’re not bogged down in a bunch of dialogue. We see horrific events, and experience the building of a creepy mood. Even in a sound horror film, do you really need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s happening?

Forget horror; ANY film, of any genre, becomes boring and stilted when there’s more dialogue than action. Books also suffer when they’re little more than talking heads.

4.0.1

We never once see Dracula biting anyone, rising up out of his coffin, transmogrifying from bat to human, or even just showing his fangs. Beyond that, we don’t even see bite marks on anyone’s neck! Come on, those are basic elements of any Dracula story, no matter which version it’s based on!

Horror movies don’t necessarily have to be a nonstop parade of horrific images and frightening events. Sometimes the horror is more about a foreboding mood, a creepy mystery, or dark human emotions, not paranormal creatures, psychotic murderers, or blood and guts. However, I didn’t get a palpable sense of any type of horror here.

A slow pace also doesn’t work with most horror films.

van-helsing

The film was directed by the legendary Tod Browning, though he was a last-minute choice. This wasn’t his project from the jump, which seems to suggest, sadly, that it’s just an urban legend that Lon Chaney, Sr., would’ve played Dracula had he still been alive. Still, I can’t help but imagine how awesome Lon would’ve been as Dracula, even with the same script and stilted feeling.

There’s also an old rumor that Carl Laemmle, Sr., of Universal Studios, wanted the awesome Conrad Veidt to play Dracula. Though he had to go back to Germany with the advent of sound, due to his thick accent and poor English, Lugosi also had a heavy accent, and his troubles with learning English are well-known. It could’ve worked with Veidt.

dracula1107st

Just because I most love old films doesn’t mean I automatically love all of them. It’s such a myth that lovers of classic cinema think it’s immune from criticism, only watch it because it’s old, refuse to watch anything modern, or heap praises on films just because they’re old. There were just as many bad apples then as now, even if I’d much rather watch a bad or mediocre old film than something current.

I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, but there was nothing special or innovative about it. Even Lugosi’s character didn’t do much to elevate the overall experience.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

When a much-lauded classic disappoints you

the-public-enemy-1931

Since finally reaching my long-anticipated goal of 1,000 silents on New Year’s Eve (and now at 1,113), I decided to focus more on early sound films. A lot of the classic era sound films I’d seen were comedies, not so many dramas and normal films. I knew that was a gap in most dire need of filling. I also had the idea to spend the year getting acquainted with James Cagney’s films. (He’s the one in the middle, with the kind of feline features, if you don’t know.) As it turned out, this is his 30th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so it was really hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) at work yet again.

The Public Enemy, released 23 April 1931, was Cagney’s breakthrough role, and first starring role. Originally, he was cast as secondary lead Matt Doyle instead of anti-hero Tom Powers, but director William Wellman thought Cagney would be better in the lead, and thus switched the two actors. However, the scenes of the characters’ childhoods weren’t reshot, so the child actors still resemble the opposite characters.

Poster - Public Enemy, The_02

The film is based upon the unpublished novel Beer and Blood, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, and based upon Al Capone’s real-life gang rivalries in Chicago. The film too is set in Chicago, and spans the years 1909 to the Prohibition era.

The legendary Louise Brooks was offered the role of Gwen Allen, but turned it down. This was a period when she was turning down a lot of choice projects, for reasons no one could understand. Her film career was pretty much over after this. The role instead went to Jean Harlow, who wasn’t yet 20 years old when the film was being shot.

Annex - Cagney, James (Public Enemy, The)_02

This is an episodic story, without much of a real plot I could discern. Tom Powers and his best friend Matt Doyle are scalawags and petty thieves from childhood, while Tom’s older brother Mike is a bit of a goody-two-shoes who wants no part of their delinquent lifestyle. All the while, Tom manages to keep his overindulgent mother in the dark about their seedy goings-on.

During WWI, Mike enlists in the Marines, and Tom and Matt become even deeper enmeshed in a life of crime. When Prohibition hits, they become very successful bootleggers. Mike is really upset to discover their wealth doesn’t come from politics after all, but utterly fails in his attempts to force them to give up their bootlegging.

While all this is going on, Tom and Matt run afoul of a rival gang, and also acquire girlfriends. Matt’s girlfriend is Mamie, whom he eventually marries. One of Tom’s girlfriends is the abovementioned Gwen Allen. He also dates Kitty, the victim of the famous grapefruit in the face scene.

I’d rate this film a 3 out of 5. It’s not great or awful, but I just didn’t see anything special about it. It was paced very slowly, and didn’t have a very structured plot. As much as I love episodic stories, I have to know when the real meat of the story has begun, instead of seeing a lot of stops and starts. There also needs to be some kind of arc and structure for the storyline to be hung on, and it must be paced well. To boot, the characters never really came alive for me.

It’s also not a particularly memorable film. Other than the famous grapefruit scene and the shocking finale (which I won’t spoil), nothing really stands out. I far prefer Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar as an early gangster film. That film has a more compelling storyline, better-developed characters, and better pacing. In The Public Enemy, a lot of scenes seemed to just end in media res, and didn’t add anything to either the overall storyline or character development.

mcagsmartmoney

I’d recommend this film only for its reputation value, and an example of one of Warner Brothers’ classic gangster films. It’s one of those films which you’re kind of expected to see if you care about film history, but not necessarily one you’re going to love. And even in a mediocre, overrated film like this, Cagney still has incredible charisma. The viewer is compelled to pay attention to him no matter what. (He was also a fellow shorty!)

I get the feeling a lot of folks gush all over films, books, and albums which have historically received a lot of praise because they feel like they’re expected to love it too. Anyone who doesn’t give an automatic 5 stars and recite the same mindless laudatory phrases is shouted down as a hater, and accused of having immature and pedestrian tastes. Sometimes the crowd is wrong.