Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Serious Man by The Coen Brothers

As I’ve mentioned previously, I run hot and cold when it comes to the Brothers Coen. I think I surprised even myself by really loving last year’s Burn After Reading. The Coen’s are back with A Serious Man. Given that it’s set in a late 60s, Jewish suburban milieu, I was really psyched to see it. Finally, a movie about my people. And let me say this about that. It turns out, A Serious Man may be the most Jewish movie to hit the mainstream since Fiddler on The Roof. And for that, I loved it. So many great jokes that non-Jews may not even recognize as jokes abound. Conversations in Hebrew and Yiddish go by without the benefit of translation. Cultural and religious references fill the scenes and The Coens make no attempt to explain those moments to a broader audience. Again, I loved that. I loved that my culture just existed in a movie without having to pander or explain itself to the dominant culture. That said, I’m not surprised the film seems to be dying a slow box office death. I can’t see non-Jews digging this movie. And for that matter, I can’t see most Jews digging it either. It’s a pretty unsympathetic portrayal of the Jewish experience. The women are bitches, the men are nebbishes, the rabbis are fools, and the kids are narcissistic or drug-addled. In other words, the suburban Jews of the world will probably hate this movie. I’m sure much of the Jewish community is thinking, ‘Finally a movie about our people, by our people, and we still come across like a bunch of shmendricks.’ I’ll give The Coens a pass on that one. Coen Brothers’ movies are always filled with flawed, pathetic characters. A Serious Man is no different in that regard, but this time they turn their sites on their own upbringing. And that’s ok in my world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bowl Of Cherries by Millard Kaufman

I’ve been curious about Millard Kaufman’s Bowl of Cherries since it was released. Kaufman penned the brilliant Bad Day At Black Rock, a movie whose language still sizzles. Catch it on TCM one of these nights and you’ll hang on every word. I had the good fortune of meeting Kaufman 10 years back. I booked him for a speaking gig at The Film Arts Foundation when I worked there. He was sharp, affable, and a delightful old guy. Bowl of Cherries is a beautifully packaged book courtesy of the McSweenys people. I grabbed it out of the library a couple weeks back and dug in.

The language is beautiful. It’s funny, clever, and playful. Kaufman has a wonderful way with words. His love of the English language and the written word is evident. Stylistically it was an interesting throwback to the kind of work I devoured during the college years. It’s steeped in the type of satire and world-view exhibited by the likes of Barthes, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Robbins, and Heller. Bowl of Cherries is inhabited by a world of thinkers, philosophers, and academics embracing life, puzzled by life, and trying to find answers in life. Like the works of those listed above, wackiness and whimsy are on full display. Strange circumstances get us from the Deep South to Yale to rural Colorado and then to prison in Iraq.

Unfortunately though, I can’t say I loved the book. Sadly, I was disinterested. The story itself was ultimately not that compelling. Broad and satirical, yet the satire never fully landed. Hundreds of pages in I wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going, or what the book was even about. All told, Bowl of Cherries was an odd read that was pleasurable from word-to-word, from sentence-to-sentence, but unfulfilling from pillar-to-post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ray Davies--Well Respected Man

I tend to avoid re-union shows and seeing shows by rockers past their prime. But every now and then, I get an itch to see a rock icon who’s moving up in years. Growing up, people always used to ask questions like, “Who do you like better—The Stones or The Beatles?” Maybe I was just being difficult, but I always said, “The Kinks.” And truth be told, The Kinks have always meant more to me than The Stones or The Beatles. I never saw The Kinks play and I’ve never seen Ray Davies on a solo tour. Strangely, I did see Dave Davies on a solo tour, which was like seeing a Kinks cover band that happened to feature Dave Davies. In any event, last night, Ray Davies was playing in SF, backed by a 28-person choir, in support of his new record The Kinks Choral Collection. After some waffling over the ticket price and being egged on by a gaggle of Facebook friends, I decided I’d be a fool to miss one of my favorite rockers, musicians and songwriters, so off I went.

Interestingly the show perfectly exemplified why you both should and shouldn’t see a rock star past their prime. Davies was clearly energized, happy to be there and cheerfully playing hit after hit after hit. The number of amazing Kinks songs is staggering. And seeing 2 hours worth of gems played back to back puts one in total awe of Davies' accomplishments. The show's arrangement was a bonus as well. Davies played the first half hour or so on acoustic guitar, while being accompanied by another guitarist playing a hollow-bodied electric. Stripped down versions of I Need You, I’m Not Like Everybody Else, Autumn Almanac all were sounding good. He was then accompanied by a full band for about another half hour and the rock quotient went up. After a short break the band was back with a full 28-person choir adding the vocal chops. This section was the highlight of the set, as Davies and company dug deep into Arthur and The Village Green era songbook. Picture Book, Do You Remember Walter?, Village Green, Shangri-la, and Victoria all got the choral arrangement. At times the chorus got a bit drowned out by the rock band and at times Davies got a bit drowned out by the chorus, but as the set progressed, I was sucked in. The two stand out songs may have been a haunting acapella version of See My Friends, and the biting Celluloid Heroes. Set closers Waterloo Sunset and Days were nothing to scoff at either.

On the down side, and I hate to say it, Davies voice isn’t what it once was. It’s not bad, but he doesn’t have the range he once did. So many Kinks songs are packed with emotion or bite courtesy of great turns of phrase and the great command Davies had over his unique voice. He was definitely singing the songs, but he just didn’t seem to own them. The vocal delivery lacked the nuance so critical to the Kinks’ success. So yes, there was hit after hit, and yes the band sounded good, and yes the arrangements were cool, but there was that slight nagging sense that it could have been better and it was once better, but that ship has sailed. And maybe it’s an aging rocker thing, but the crowd sing-alongs were pretty out of control. Very 80s arena rock. Turning the mic on the crowd, encouraging audience participation, calls for hand clapping. Every now and again, why not? But almost every song?? Does Autumn Almanac really call for audience participation? Not in my book. All Day & All of The Night is a barnburner at two and a half minutes. Do we need a 1-minute break in the middle for some crowd call and response? That’s a buzz kill in my book. It’s been ages since I listened to the One For the Road live record, but I’m thinking a lot was stolen from that playbook, which I’m not feeling in 2009.

At the end of the day though, I’m glad I went, because today, Kinks songs are buzzing through my head. And that’s a good thing.