Monthly Archives: September 2011

Performance by numbers: Bryan Ferry

Exhaustion, boredom, a Campari and soda guzzled backstage – Bryan Ferry can no longer sing. At last night’s Fillmore Miami Beach performance in support of an album he supposedly cut last year called Olympia, Ferry confronted the problem with admirable forthrightness: when a Roxy Music number demanded high notes he could no longer hit or a complex harmonic shift for which he couldn’t squeeze sufficient air from his lungs, he would nod or point towards one of the pairs of backup singers positioned stage left and right and they’d take over. After all, Ferry is in his mid sixties, and, besides, even during his Roxy days he projected an air of baffled amusement onstage; he has never been one of those introspective artists who discover a talent for the outsized gesture before an audience. Ferry saved his passion for his records. If someone can link to a classic Roxy or solo live clip in which he inhabits the song as fully as he does in the studio, by all means. As I’ve pointed out a couple times over the years, there probably has never been a more boring major rock and roller than Bryan Ferry: not one memorable exchange with the press, no quips, no reading suggestions that send you running to the library. No wonder Ferry reveres T.S. Eliot: as turbulent a private life as Ferry no doubt endures you will look towards the work in vain for a single autobiographical crumb.

Still, the rather well-paced show confirmed Ferry’s oddball grace. He may condescend to the yeoman work of album promotion, but the audience still felt affection for him, going so far as to regard the slinky writhing dancers and black and white clips of anodyne lovers that looked like Armani ads as evidence that this man incarnates romance. Capital-r-Romance is more accurate. Ferry’s most lasting contribution to rock is illuminating the lengths to which we’ll soar for the sake of a fantasy, the depths to which we’ll sink to believe in a myth; belief in a god is redundant when, as the man himself wrote in his greatest song, “the search for perfection/your own predilection/goes on and on and on and on.” He may have found a dram of it in his backing band. Chris Spedding brought his expert twang and slide talents, the man known in Roxy circles as The Great Paul Thompson drummed with unexpected vibrancy and force, and a snake-figured young man with long center-parted hair named Oliver Thompson proved as apt an effects man as Phil Manzanera or Neil Hubbard were. Ferry himself played more keyboard than expected, including an elegant variation on his solo in the otherwise vacuous “My Only Love” (for which Ferry has had an undue regard in the last ten years). As for the ostensible purpose for this tour, it got a couple of airings: the galumphing “Alphaville” and a solid “Reason or Rhyme,” the best song on Olympia.

But if you’re over, say, forty-five you pay sixty dollars so that you and your sweetie can sway to “Avalon” and “Don’t Stop the Dance,” jab your fist to “Let’s Stick Together” and “Kiss and Tell,” or chant “Love is the Drug,” all of which were performed after intermission in what amounted to a victory lap. The artist’s freshly moussed hair accounted for the sudden vibrancy of these performance after a rather sleepy first half in which the pair of Dylan covers and appearance of 1972’s “If There is Something” were the highlights, especially when Ferry, with admirable poise, ceded the most impassioned, ludicrous verses of his career (“I’d put roses ’round your door, sleep in the garden/growing potatoes by the sco-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-e!”) to one of the backup vixens. Don’t call it humility though – the Love God merely demonstrated how thoroughly his fans had absorbed his prayers.

“A dick record” — R.E.M.’s Monster

J. Edward Keyes’ review of Monster comes closest to explaining that blighted record’s continuing fascination for me:

Arriving on the heels of the dignified Automatic for the People, Monster was a hand job in a seedy theater, and the album that got R.E.M. out of the cabin and back into the arenas, and asserted their place among the legions of grunge bands they’d inspired. It is, as Stipe put it at the time, “a dick record,” leering and lascivious, unsafe to take on an unchaperoned date. If Big Black hadn’t already nicked the title, they could have called it Songs About Fucking. Before this (and, one could argue, immediately after), the group provided the po-faced template for Conscious Rockers, so self-serious that they were on speed-dial for things like Greenpeace benefits and the Clinton inauguration. Monster proved that if they couldn’t be bipartisan, they could at least be bi-curious.

Givin’ the world some bonhomie: Kid Creole

Late to the lifeboat party, I bought my first Kid Creole and the Coconuts album in 2008. A compilation of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, leader August Darnell’s more profitable disco-era project, didn’t impress me as much as the numbers on 1982’s Wise Guys. And numbers they were — productions in the Old Hollywood sense, reminding me of Buster Poindexter and solo David Byrne but with a ironical deployment of call-and-response female vocalists and horn section. A decaying world peeked beneath the giddy textures, which Darnell’s tunes didn’t mitigate (Machine’s “There But For The Grace of God Go I” is closer to life during wartime than the contemporaneous Talking Heads song). Their new album I Wake Up Screaming, produced by Hercules and Love Affair’s Andy Butler, sounds grateful instead of angry, but formally it’s close to unimpeachable. Andy Beta’s interview with the Kid depicts the travails of being almost famous — an insoluble dilemma but a reflexive one too, if you consider how often Darnell’s own songs almost veered off script from rave-up to editorial (check out 1987’s “Part of My Design”).

Faith and devotion: Of Gods and Men

An entry on Trappists in Wikipedia:

“Strict Observance” refers to the Trappists’ goal to follow closely St. Benedict’s Rule, and take the three vows described in his Rule (c. 58): stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. As Benedict also insisted on silence, it has some importance in their way of life. However, contrary to popular belief, they do not take a vow of silence.[4] Trappist monks will generally only speak when necessary, and idle talk is strongly discouraged. As described by St. Benedict, speech disturbs a disciple’s duty for quietude and receptivity, and may tempt one to exercise one’s own will instead of the will of God. Speech which leads to unkind amusement or laughter is seen as evil and is banned.[5] In years past, a Trappist Sign Language, distinct from other forms of monastic sign language, was developed to dissuade speaking. Meals are usually taken in contemplative silence, as members of the order are supposed to listen to a reading.

Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, takes its cues from these beliefs. Hushed, replete with widescreen shots of monks tending gardens, interacting kindly with Algerian villagers, or singing hymns during Mass, it recognizes faith as the ultimate in what Wallace Stevens would call an idea of order. A crude description of this film would reduce it to a clash of civilizations worthy of Samuel Huntington: Islamist fundamentalism makes martyrs of a half dozen monks in mid nineties Algeria who will not heed the counsel of government functionaries, themselves impatient with the monks’ rigor. But self-righteousness, fascinatingly, is absent, or perhaps the monks’ devotion to duty is itself an example of self-righteousness.

But fissures course through their devotion. The head of the order Father Christian (Lambert Wilson, with a passing resemblance to ascetic, lantern-jawed Woodrow Wilson) allows brothers to vote their conscience. Beauvois fills the screen with close-ups of old bald men stone-faced with confusion; like men on a sinking ship, no one wants to be the first to claim they deserve a spot on the lifeboat. The most responsible — the ones with the deepest tie to the Muslim villagers — elect to stay, among them Lucien (Michael Londsdale,  vast as a cathedral), an asthmatic doctor inarticulate about everything except healing. His empathy requires provocation: he replaces the shoes a woman has outgrown without putting her through embarrassing paces.

Of Gods and Men‘s politics are liberal in the ways that count as well as the ways that don’t. Fr. Christian can defuse the Islamist threat by quoting a relevant bit from the Koran (that the fundamentalists implicitly acknowledge the good the Trappists have done for the village helps too), but only for a while. I wish the film had more tension than the obvious one of waiting for the fundamentalists to make their final move against the monastery. As I implied above, the movie so wants to avoid the clash-of-civilizations theme that it gets too ecumenical. It’s an honest conundrum. Does the Jean Renoir line of thinking — that everyone has their reasons — work with material this charged? I’m left appreciating Beauvois’ affection for ritual, like Lucien treating his brothers to an excellent wine during what amounts to a last supper.

Two strikes: Moneyball

Defying years worth of expectations, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland A’s, assembles a team whose ailments, deformities, and acumen matter less than their ability to accumulate runs, thanks in large part to the prodding of Yale graduate and Jonah Hill-double Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill.

I will trust the sports fans among my readers to provide the nuance — I haven’t even read the book on which Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin base their movie — but what I see onscreen is rather flat. Tonally, Moneyball confused me: it wants to be a “smarter” sports movie by eschewing locker room banter (Beane won’t even fraternize with the players in case he has to trade them) in favor of the grim statistical machinations between Beane and Brand Miller yet the script builds towards the Big Game anyway before sputtering towards a couple of false endings. Moneyball should have taken its cue from Pitt’s quiet self-mocking performance. I’ve waited a quarter of my life for the performances Pitt has given in the last three years. Finally he’s not treating acting like a foot stool he trips over. We can see the damage wrought by playing Brian Beane, another I-coulda-been-a-contendah, all the time; there’s a tension between Beane’s coolness (not once in the film does he enjoy a light moment with a colleague) and his bursts of violence, and Pitt, long legs crossed on desks, eyes bagged and tired, handles this with unexpected finesse. As misshapen as a manhandled pillow, often dull, Moneyball is still worth a look.

“It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball,” Beane says near the end of the movie when he himself is near the end. It’s equally hard for directors not to get romantic about baseball movies. My favorites concentrate on peripherals which are nevertheless imbued with the game’s romance: both, coincidentally, released in 1988: Bull Durham and The Naked Gun. Everyone remembers “Hey! It’s Enrico Pallazzo!”, the use of “I Love L.A.,”  the fat woman tumbling in slo-mo; what I return to is the shot of Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) as pitcher, face glowing with euphoria as he realizes that position’s power to manipulate audience reaction. More importantly, he’s swept up in the game. That’s romance.

Ros-Lehtinen: It’s personal

If this is true about my representative, it explains a great deal. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the only Republican supporter of the “Respect for Marriage Act,” designed to repeal the odious Defense of Marriage Act. Why?

For Ros-Lehtinen, the move has been gradual, thoughtful, and painfully personal. Her daughter Amanda publicly came out as a transgender man named Rodrigo; he’s field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Bravo.