Do it cuz he sez so: Ne-Yo’s “Libra Scale”

“I’m responsible for this/Sure as the moon shines,” Ne-Yo assures his girl/boy/whatever over the percolating electro beat of “What Have I Done,” an eerie recreation of a Rod Temperton track from 1982. A specialist in masochism, Ne-Yo confuses psychobabble with honesty because in his experience girls can’t tell the difference (my experience too, but what do I know). Besides presenting itself unabashedly as one of the most Michael Jackson-indebted neo-soul records in recent memory — which in this case of this guy is saying something — Libra Scale projects, like Kanye’s My Dark Beautiful Fantasy, a not-quite-superstar’s confusion about wealth and its discontents. Instead of Jackson’s patented gulps and growls,  which signified his paranoia, Ne-Yo offers a quavery high register in danger of constant interruption or disruption. The champagne life, in the words of one particularly opulent track, is something to toast while it’s happening, but, like Jackson, the arrangement — harmonies, insistent string section — reminds him of the other life the good one can’t quite anesthetize him into accepting. Speaking of anesthesia, the pathos Ne-Yo wrings from “Let me touch you without touching you” on “Telekinesis” will not still wicked tongues whispering about his sexuality, but its indiscriminate confusion makes it part of the lineage of eighties balladeering, from Luther Vandross’ “Give Me The Reason” to Bryan Ferry’s “Name of the Game.”

“Vulnerability” is a fine thing when well-deployed. Seduction is politics by another name. Although Libra Scale displays a rhythmic finesse lacking in In My Own Words and Because of You, Ne-Yo and his posse don’t come up with tunes as ingenious as their titles (how I mourn for what “Genuine Only” and “Making a Movie” could have been). I can see the seams in Ne-Yo’s jacket. If Jackson had sung a lyric like “She can reach right in your chest/Pull out your soul,” we would have felt his agony; “Cause I Said So” however remains cute wish fulfillment, like a gauche Elvis Costello fantasy about science fiction twins. It’s obvious that the champagne life has distracted Ne-Yo enough from writing the masterpiece of sustained erotic confusion that 2008’s Year of the Gentleman was; in this distracted bliss Ne-Yo can barely talk-sing the chain of platitudes of “One in a Million,” so he leaves it to bongos and the kind of understated block synth chord beloved by Art of Noise. His best vocal performance of the year isn’t even on Libra Scale. On Rick Ross’ “Super High,” Ne-Yo soars as Ross’ consigliere, the androgynous shadow who understands the tears of a clown when everyone’s around.

Irvin Kershner – RIP

I’d like to think the virtues of Loving convinced George Lucas to give Irwin Kershner a chance at directing the sequel to the highest grossing film in history to date. Tonally uneven, Loving (1970) wobbles between the shagginess and sexual honesty of New Hollywood and the stagebound conventions of the old, best epitomized by the casting of Eva Marie Saint and George Segal as the married couple falling out of love. Or maybe he liked Eyes of Laura Mars, a luxuriantly composed 1978 melodrama (“lurid” is a matter of course) in which fashion photographer Faye Dunaway, at the peak of her tremulous neurotic sensitivity, finds her “decadent” Helmut Newton-esque shots the inspiration for a killer on the loose. That Dunaway’s photos look like album sleeves for cut-rate disco albums is part of the joke; so is the way she handles her psychic (really) powers. As terrible as much of the movie is, it’s got a terrific sense of pace; Kershner has an instinct for stitching scenes together. To cite one of the most onerous contemporary cliches, the movie flows.

The Empire Strikes Back boasts this virtue. Unlike every other film in this unfortunate series, the characters’ relations with one another expand scene after scene. Subsequent restorations of the pristine widescreen images have shown Kershner’s appreciation of the indelible moment: Chewbacca’s face covered with snow after ducking from a Probe droid’s attack on the planet Hoth; the disappointment on Yoda and the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s faces (the former in the foreground) as they realize Luke won’t follow their advice; Darth Vader’s metallic features wreathed by carbon exhaust seconds after Han Solo’s entombment. I remembered these moments as a kid. If the Star Wars “saga” has any emotional resonance, it’s thanks to Kershner’s effort here.

As for the rest of his work — enlighten me on the likes of Never Say Never Again and Robocop II.

Leslie Nielsen – RIP

Not so much a talented actor as a lucky one. Finding writers and directors like Zucker-Abraham-Zucker to exploit the remains of his stolid handsomeness and colorless baritone is one thing; investing non-sequiturs and gibberish as if they were written by Shaw, he seemed liberated. That’s who Lieutenant Frank Drebin of “Police Squad!” was: a man who didn’t understand embarrassment, prepared to recognize absurdity everywhere except in the guy in front of the mirror. As ridiculous as it is to claim The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear as one of my favorite movies, I’ll say it anyway.  Favorite lines from his career:

“You’re part of a dying breed, Hapsburg, like people who can recite all fifty states.”

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“I told Jane I’d meet her in the rear.”

“Where’s that, Frank?”

“In the back.”

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VINCENT LUDWIG (extending box of cigars): Cuban?
DREBIN: No, no, Dutch-Irish. My father was from Wales.

Rock and a soft place: 127 Hours

I counted two impressive moments of visual beauty in 127 Hours. The first is sensual: Aron Ralston (James Franco), trapped in the crevice, warms his chilled body by extending a bare foot into a shaft of sunlight; the second is haunting: Ralston’s fevered brain conjures an image of his parents and siblings, sitting impassively on a sofa watching him as if he were the subject of his own TV show. Director Danny Boyle’s mode, whose primary mode is hysteria, seems to realize he hasn’t got more than thirty minutes of movie here and a restless audience, so he hurls time-lapse photography, split screens, flashbacks, loud music — anything, anything to keep us from lingering on 127 Hours‘ shallow message, encapsulated by an unfortunate line that Ralston pronounces into his video camera: “This rock was waiting for me my whole life.” There you have it: the movie requires a “subtext,” “motivation,” and Boyle and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy imply that this accent results from a lifetime of selfishness. A girl he once dated asks Ralston, as an example of meaningful post-coital pillow talk, for his “combination,” presumably to his soul (the kind of line, in other words, that would make most men run for the hills). His worst sin? He didn’t even call his mom enough. As if anyone could believe the loose, ingratiating Franco — whose usual demeanor is post-coital anyway — as a narcissist.

127 Hours generates the kind of suspense you can track to a metronome: when will Ralston hack off his arm? What point-of-view shot will Boyle conceive for the big moment (hint: it involves a visual I saw once in Epcot’s “Body Wars” attraction). Other than Trainspotting and its hip cast, Boyle hasn’t made a single movie I’ve cared for, not a single one unmarred by exploitation of his subject matter. Sean Penn’s uneven, maddening adaptation of Into The Wild at least evoked a grace commensurate with its shaggy leading man. His post-Tony Scott restlessness refuses to allow the given material any time to unfurl and tell itself. While on first glance it’s offensive how Boyle peddles holistic drivel, it would make sense that after sixteen years in the biz he would decide his movies weren’t “deep” enough. 127 Hours‘ kind of depth usually gets rewarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He might get lucky again if the Academy forgets it rewarded Boyle already for his last film, the one about inspirational Third Worlders.

Dreams are not my own: Rosanne Cash’s “Composed”

The book jacket is Composed‘s most attractive quality. In skinny jeans and outdated spangled boots, nails colored a punky dark blue that she might have chosen from her youngest daughter’s collection, Rosanne Cash projects the hard won, ornery confidence of a woman over fifty for whom, to cite one of her darkest songs, the September of her years has lingered past January. I love her smile. I love her heavy, sleepy eyes.

Cash’s first extended showcase for her expository prose has the economy of expression and distrust of metaphor that I’m used to seeing in students who understand they’re attempting an incongruous exercise and want to get the essentials right. As singer and songwriter, she’s suspicious of irony (her first and biggest crossover hit “Seven Year Ache” is an anomaly).  The obvious thing would be to draw a parallel between these qualities and her songwriting, and unfortunately I must: with a few exceptions I’ve found Cash’s work after 1987’s long ago and faraway King’s Record Shop an earnest bore, which is apparently how she wants it.  “I had awakened from the morphine success into the life of an artist,” she avers after a couple of paragraphs in which she laboriously explains how she “matured” in the late eighties.

The Cash of Composed emerges as a woman whose devotion to Serious Songwriting assumes a monastic importance; she worked hard, very hard, at turning wondrous compressions of ebullient hooks and suppressed hysteria like “Hold On,” “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” and “Runaway Train” into effortlessness. No wonder she has no use for Rhythm and Romance, the 1985 record on which her carnation-pink punk hairdo denoted her attempt to marry country music’s intimacy with “Stand Back”-era Stevie Nicks. Fraught with tension, colored by the memories of a cocaine addiction to which she barely alludes, the album boasts no competition; Eric Weisbard hinted with some regret in The SPIN Alternative Record Guide that not many country artists have emulated its sound and vision. Despite a couple attempts at power chord riffage, it’s fantastic, and depending on my mood is close to being my favorite Cash album. Just don’t remind the artist, who uses the album title in the memoir like a mantra to ward off bad karma.  “I still cannot stand to listen to Rhythm and Romance,” she admits (notice how this sentence avoids a contraction). A universal sentiment apparently. Browsing in a Paris record store in 1994, an eager clerk points to the album. “No, no, no. This one is not good.” C’est la vie.

The real surprise: the empathy between Cash and her father, who remains in this memoir a ghostly figure whose devotion to the children of his first marriage is inadequate to the task of mitigating his guilt at abandoning them for the second wife he loved with all his heart. As Cash pads the last third of the memoir with the series of well-pitched eulogies she had to deliver in shattering sequence in the last eight years, a letter written by Johnny in 1995 to console Rosanne after a miscarriage captures the intermingling of spirituality, consolation, and filial affection to which Composed aspires. Cash’s father feels the presence of his mother:

In my mind’s eye I saw several angels come down to each side of her, bear her spirit up and away and out of sight. It was a scene of total silence yet great joy. As I had seen at her death, again there was an “attitude in the air,” saying, “we are simply going about our unearthly business.”

I’m not trying to get dramatic or otherworldly, Rosanne. This is what I saw and felt.

“So baby,” he writes, “this afternoon I sent my mother’s friends to you.”

“Going about our unearthly business” — a phrase she might have come up with herself.

Big daddy: Mark Twain

The surprise publishing event of the season? Not George W. Bush’s Decision Points, not the latest Grisham or Harry Potter novel — it’s Mark Twain’s Autobiography:

Steve Kettmann, an American writer living in Berlin, said that he tried to buy a copy during a visit to a Borders in Orlando, Fla., but was told that they were sold out and would not receive more copies for four to six weeks. (He went to another Borders nearby, found two copies, and bought them both.)

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Alex Dahne, a spokeswoman for the University of California Press, said the book was the biggest success the publisher has had in 60 years.

The first print run of “Autobiography” was for 50,000 copies. Thomson-Shore, a small printer in Michigan that is producing the books, has been working overtime and is now producing 30,000 copies a week. To speed up delivery, the printer found bigger-than-usual trucks to carry books to warehouses in Richmond, Calif., and Ewing, N.J. — the trucks carry 10,000 copies instead of the usual 7,000.

The reason? A combination of seasonal interest in the unfortunately named, chauvinistic “dad books” (e.g. thick historical tomes) and Twain’s own undimmed popularity:

“I just think that there’s a feeling out there by a lot of people that Mark Twain is one of our greatest writers, and there’s something particularly American about his combination of wit and insight,” Mr. Kettmann said. “He was a wonderful showman. And he was cool, let’s face it. That’s part of it.” 

True. Despite the occasional howls from school board bluestockings, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn survives every attempt to civilize it; it will not yield easily to the stultifying “classic” label. I wish more people read The Mysterious Stranger though. If memory serves, Twain is the least smug of misanthropes.