Saturday, February 28, 2009

'Maus' by Art Spiegelman

The graphic novel (a fancy way of describing a rather lengthy and generally more complex comic book) has, not suprisingly, encountered some difficulty in being taken seriously. What is the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel? Some would say the price is about it. Or as Robin Williams once said, "Is that a comic book? No, it's a graphic novel. Is that porn? No, it's adult entertainment."

I first started to read graphic novels last year when I purchased several Batman graphic novels. I began where most people should, with Frank Miller's 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' (1986), generally considered one of the greatest graphic novels ever written, and I was hooked. 'B:TDKR' is a fantastic story of an aging and bitter Batman who reluctantly comes out of retirement. (After reading many Batman graphic novels, I would also recommend Frank Miller's 'Batman: Year One' and Alan Moore's 'The Killing Joke,' which is probably the best Joker story out there.)

But I'm not here to talk about Batman.

I just finished reading Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize winning 'Maus 1: My Father Bleeds History' and 'Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began.' It is the retelling of Spiegelman's father's experiences living through the Holocaust. Having read much about the World War II era, I can say that 'Maus' is one of the most gripping tales I've ever come across. The books jump back and forth between the Holocaust story and Spiegelman's complex modernday relationship with his father. The setting is that Spiegelman, as a cartoonist, over several years interviews his father, Vladek, who retells his survival story.

ABOVE: Vladek and Anja Spiegelman try and make their way through Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II

Vladek had been a wealthy jew in Poland, and ended up in Auschwitz. With a combination of resourcefulness, the kindness of key friends and dumb luck, Vladek and his wife, Anja, survive the war. The most obvious aspect of the graphic novel is that Spiegelman depicts the different nationalities and races as anthropomorphic animals. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, Poles are pigs, French are frogs, Brits are fish, and so forth. In every way they are human, living in houses, wearing human clothing, standing upright with human bodies, but the heads and faces are animal. This creates a wonderful sense of otherness and separation. (A funny scene is when Vladek meets a German and Jewish couple, and their child has a mouse head but with cat stripes). Before Vladek is shipped away to Auschwitz, there is a great part of 'Maus' where he and his nervous Jewish friends try and fit into Nazi-occupied Polish society by walking around with pig (Polish) masks on, but they still have their mouse tails sticking out on the backside.

Spiegelman obviously picked his animals carefully, and he tellingly begins 'Maus II' with a quote from a 1930's German newspaper: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed...dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal...Away with Jewish brutalization...Down with Mickey Mouse!"

This may be a comic book, but it is one of the most complex stories about human strengths and weaknesses I've ever read. Through his medium, Spiegelman is forced to be economical with his writing and pictures. The Holocaust story is compelling, of course. But equally engaging is the modern story of the author trying to connect with and understand his difficult father, especially after the suicide of Anja. It is striking how Vladek is compassionate and strong during his youth, but the modernday Vladek is a difficult and almost impossible old man. I would not pass up 'Maus.'

***** out of *****

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Van Transcends Again: Dez Reviews Van Morrison's Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, 2009

Van Morrison is the closest thing that rock or pop has to a true jazz musician. I'm not talking about instrumental chops or complicated changes. What I mean is that Van has the spirit to open his material up and explore it in thrilling and daring ways.

40 years ago Van Morrison released his seminal work Astral Weeks, which remains one of the most gorgeous and enigmatic albums in rock history. Revisiting this most intimate record decades later with an eleven piece band sounds like a gimmick bound to fail, but Van pulls it off beautifully. The key is that he does not try to replicate what he cannot replicate. His voice has deepened and the atmosphere of the Astral Weeks sessions cannot be reproduced. Nothing is sacred. Like a true jazz musician, Van tweaks and joyfully plays with his masterpiece. Astral Weeks is performed in its entirety, but he switches the song order around, opens the shorter songs up for gorgeous jams and alternatively shortens what were originally longer songs. For instance, Van reworks one of my all time favorite songs, "Slim Slow Slider," wonderfully stretching it out to about twice the length of the original song. While the original has an untouchable stark and sad beauty, here Van speeds the tempo and turns the last three minutes of the song into a spirited jam. And you know what? It sounds so great that I can forgive him for daring to alter perfection.

Van uses his voice like an improvising instrument, slurring words and dancing in and out of verses and choruses. Which is fine, since the original Astral Weeks 's vocals were hard to understand too. To be honest, this really works because of the absolutely stellar support he has at this show. Cellos, violins, guitars, vibraphones and pianos all add wonderful colors, and Van is generous in allowing these superb musicians the space to really stretch out. This may be heresy, but this new reimagining of Astral Weeks is even more interesting musically than the original. Not better, because that would be impossible; but in some respects it is more interesting, and definitely has more groove to it.

Van also gives us a couple of bonus tunes after he has finished with Astral Weeks. We are treated to a pretty "Listen to the Lion"; and do you want to hear great musicians having a lot of fun with a tune? Check out the joyous closer "Common One."

What Van Morrison has done with his 40 year old masterwork is nothing less than miraculous. He does not simply reproduce Astral Weeks in its entirety, he circumvents direct comparison entirely by creating what amounts to a worthy companion piece to the original (versus a mere rehash.) I had begun to take Van Morrison's genius for granted of late, but this record reminds me once again what a singular talent he has been for four decades now.

***** out of *****

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Thoughts

First of all, I didn't do too bad on my predictions that I made back in January. I got 5 out of 6 on the major categories. (I missed Best Picture, picking 'Milk' as opposed to 'Slumdog Millionaire'. In my defense, I made my picks back in January before it became clear that 'Slumdog' would be the winner.)

What did you think of the revamped ceremony? Hugh Jackman did an admirable job hosting, he neither blew me away nor made me cringe. He sold his two musical numbers.

I'm not sure that I like the new format for the four acting awards. If you missed it, they got five former winners to come out, and each person gives a short summary of each nominee's performance and career. This brings the self-congratulations of Hollywood to new heights. It took too long and was somewhat awkward as, for instance, Ben Kingsley told Mickey Rourke how brilliant he was. It became almost like little lectures and somewhat condescending, even as it was essentially one actor kissing another actor's ass. I say bring back the film clips. I'd much rather just see those.

On the other hand, I dug the more thematic approach to presenting the awards. They were presented and explained, more or less, in the natural flow of creating a film.

I was happy for Sean Penn, but I really wanted to see what Mickey Rourke would say at the podium. That could have been some great TV.

ABOVE: What hilarity would have ensued had Mickey Rourke won Best Actor? We will never know. By the way, he deserved to win.

The funniest bits: Steve Martin and Tina Fey were perfectly paired. And Ben Stiller doing his Joaquin Phoenix routine was spot on. Oh, and how about the Short Animation winner, the Japanese dude who ended his acceptance speech with "Domo morigato, Mr. Roboto." That was both funny and very strange.

Other noteworthy moments/questions:

* Why didn't Peter Gabriel perform his nominated song "Down To Earth"? He was at the ceremony. John Legend didn't do the tune justice.

* My favorite part is usually the In Memorium. I was irritated that they did not keep the camera on the screens showing the dearly departed, instead panning over to Queen Latifa singing her song. I couldn't even read some of the names. My man Roy Scheider got some nice applause. I was surprised that Charlton Heston got a muted response. He was a real giant. I bet it was because of his political views. They should have done a bit more to remember Paul Newman.

* Kate Winslet looked beautiful

Friday, February 20, 2009

Shoot the Messenger

Last night I was flipping channels on TV and I came across Larry King Live. Larry was on vacation, and his guest host was Joy Behar. Not that Larry King Live should be taken seriously (remember his interview with Brando? "Larry, Larry. Rub my feet, please. Larry, sing a song with me."), but still. Behar? Her guest was Ann Coulter. I could not turn away from this train wreck of an interview.

Rarely is it the case where there is such an even exchange between Left and Right. It was a wonderful exhibition of stupid liberals and stupid conservatives together on the screen. Joy is the most surface and shrill type of liberal, while Ann is a vile woman who makes conservatives everywhere easy targets.

I don't think I've ever previously watched a political exchange where I hated everything that came out of both mouths. Not an intelligent thing was said by either person the entire interview. It was so awesome to watch. The lowlight had to be when Joy, who evidently takes everything she reads absolutely literally, wanted to delve into a passage in Ann's latest book where Ann said that the mainstream media wanted to have sex with Obama during the campaign. "What does that mean? They are all sexually attracted to Obama?" shrieks Joy. What would seem a lay-up for a response, Ann then engages her head on and explains that she actually did mean it literally. Discussion ensues. Not about the media's fawning over everything Obama, but actually about the sexual feelings people in the media have for Obama. Then ever classy, Joy finishes the segment with the fact that in her opinion, every male conservative journalist wanted "screw Sarah Palin" (her exact words).

Who is worse?

Ann Coulter...


Joy Bejar...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Let's Get Stimulated

What do you all think about the stimulus package? You know, the piece of legislation that just passed that represents one of the biggest spending sprees in our history. The one that is way over 1000 pages in length and that nobody read all the way through before it was signed into law. That one.

Obviously something should be done. I found it funny that when the math was broken down, the tax cuts that most people will recieve amount to about $13/week back to them in their paychecks. I guess that will stimulate the fast food industry, since everyone can afford an extra meal at McDonald's each week.

As for San Antonio where I currently reside, there are some major bucks coming our way:

* the Riverwalk will be extended all the way to the south end of the city
* Highway 281 will be expanded up north
* the school districts will get pretty big batches of cash (not that throwing more money at schools correlates with educational improvement)

Those projects will put people to work in town, which is the point of it all. One person's pork project is another person's new employment opportunity. That is one reason I have not gotten so up in arms over the "pork" in the package. Again, isn't that the point? Come up with massive projects all over the country that will require hiring lots of people to work on them and also allow the business to trickle through other industries? Who cares if one of them is a big light rail project. You've got to pay companies for supplies and hire workers to build the thing.

I know that some of my readers are greater economic minds than I am, so I am curious as to your thoughts.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Guitars and Couches

I'm sure most of my readers have played a variation of Guitar Hero or Rock Band by now. For those of you who have not, they are one of the newer big things in video gaming. Essentially, you have a guitar-shaped console and try and play along with your favorite rock stars on the TV set. A series of color-coded notes go by on the screen, and you have to hit the right buttons on your guitar as they go by. Rock Band is a ton of fun, because in addition to the guitars, you've got the option of competing as a vocalist or a drummer. Four people can play together simultaneously as an entire band. As singer, the video game can match your pitch and judge you on how well you are matching the vocals; as drummer you have an entire drum set with electronic sensors in the drum pads to determine how accurately you are following the drums of the song.

ABOVE: 'Rock Band 2' equipment

As I said, it is a ton of fun. I've spent many a night with friends jamming on our virtual world tour. You can even have a battle of the bands over the internet with other bands. (An image of my good friend Big Jim screaming along to The Pixies' "Debaser" will be one of my all time favorite memories in life.)

When I first heard about these games, I scoffed. I am a real musician, I know how to play a real guitar reasonably well. Why would I want to play a glorified version of Simon? Plus, I had philosophical issues with the game. Is the popularity of these games just another example of our instant gratification culture? People no longer have to learn chords and practice for hours in order to jam on some Guns 'n Roses. All they need to do now is master a video game. Is this just another step towards digitalizing the pursuit of music, which was once a somewhat mystical and uniquely human endeavor? Would this discourage people from actually picking up a real guitar?

I think that I have decided I am OK with the Guitar Hero / Rock Band Age in which we live. Judging from the amount of real guitars I still see slung over the shoulders of students at the school where I teach, the guitar culture is still going strong.

There is a Guitar Hero tournament scheduled at the school that I may enter and compete against some of my own students. I am unbeatable on The Who's "The Seeker."

Plus, without Rock Band, I would have never been witness to Big Jim dancing around the living room to "Debaser." Or hear my real musical collaborator Dave strain on the high notes of "Juke Box Hero" (something for which I still make fun of him). Or shout myself hoarse on Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge." That can't be bad.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In the Year One of GNABB

Blogging is a funny thing. Self indulgent, sure, but you hope that you can keep things interesting enough for people to come back day after day. Looking back over the 160 posts that I've written over the last year, you can see that I tend to gravitate towards music and movies. No surprise there. Although I've made an effort to mix things up as much as possible with some politics, cultural observations, sports and random news stories worth noting.

I joke about it, but it really was easier to keep the new material coming when I was unemployed or semi-employed. Doing the blogging/working/family thing is tough. But I will do my best to serve my dozens, nay, thousands of readers in the coming year.

What have you liked the most? Judging from how many comments the posts get, it seems that politics brings out the most discussion. Even though the election is over, things are interesting enough to where I think politics will continue to be a topic of discussion here at GNABB. And people will continue to die, so I can indulge my hobby of obituary writing.

I had planned on writing a great one year retrospective post, with lots of links. But I'd rather look forward and concentrate on the new stuff. You can look back and read the best of GNABB at your leisure if you are interested.

A few random notes:

* Barack Obama is a socialist
* The Kinks finally released a six disc, career spanning retrospective that you should buy (entitled Picture Box)
* The 3rd seasons of both "Friday Night Lights" and "Big Love" are making already amazing shows even more rich and rewarding. This last week's "Friday Night Lights" had me in tears. What stunningly good television. And is there a creepier villain on TV than Harry Dean Stanton's Roman Grant on "Big Love"?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

One Year of GNABB

I will post a longer look back later this week, but I briefly wanted to note that yesterday was the one year anniversary of GNABB. I just got back from Dallas tonight. I'm tired. Played lots of Guitar Hero this weekend, though. That was fun. More thoughts to come on video game music playing as well.

Friday, February 6, 2009

When We Were Young

Sometimes your memory of a great event in your life grows to become greater and greater as the years go by. While in high school, some of my dearest friends and I were in a band. Typical high school level rock band...we actually rehearsed in hot Houston garages over the summer and learned a bunch of cover songs. This particular band went through many name changes, but we performed at the legendary Houston venue Fitzgerald's in 1989 under the name Texas River Band.

Alright, I'm already exaggerating. Fitzgerald's has two separate rooms. Fitzgerald's proper is where Stevie Ray Vaughan played in his early days, and where I saw a killer Tragically Hip show back in the day. Downstairs is a smaller room called Zelda's where more amateur acts can play. We played there. On a summer Monday night in '89. On Amateur Night.

But we were incredible. We blew the roof off the place. It is one of those great "what if's..." in rock history. What if a record producer had seen the show that night? One of rock's great lost opportunities, on par with if Hendrix had lived beyond the age of 27. At least that's how I remembered it until "Walter Evans" recently posted the show in its entirety on his Facebook page. Our lead singer's little brother had a video camera that night and documented the entire event for posterity. Faced with video evidence to the contrary, I guess we weren't one of those "what if's..." that I built up in my mind over the decades. I found it amazing how enthusiastic the crowd was considering how we sounded that night. But then I remembered we packed the place with our family and friends. So it was a very generous and friendly crowd.

Our setlist for the night is amusing. Here is what we thought was cool to play in the summer of '89...

"Tuff Enuff" (The Fabulous Thunderbirds)
"Pinball Wizard" (The Who)
"Green River" / "Proud Mary" (in medley form) (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
"Sweet Home Alabama" (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
"Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2" (Pink Floyd)
"Keep Your Hands To Yourself" (Georgia Satellites)
"Sharp Dressed Man" (ZZ Top)
"All Day and All of the Night" (The Kinks)
"Born To Be Wild" (Steppenwolf)
"Oye Como Va" (Santana)
"Wrap It Up" (as performed by Fabulous Thunderbirds, originally Sam & Dave)
"Louie, Louie" (The Kingsmen)
"Gloria" (as performed by The Doors, originally Van Morrison & Them)

Encore: "Hit the Road Jack" (Ray Charles)

Looks like your typical classic rock radio playlist.

Below is a taste, just a taste, of The Texas River Band. Before that we were Texas Radio, which was a supercool name, until the rest of us discovered that our lead singer had stolen it off a poster advertising for another band. A band that was going to play at Fitzgerald's. In hindsight, I kinda dig Mark Coldbeer & the Six Pack. Mark Coldbeer was our lead singer. Mark really liked it, but the rest of us outvoted him at the time. Here's some "Green River" (check out Mark's pants)...

ABOVE: The Texas River Band working hard on a typical Monday night in Houston back in the late 80's. On the far Left on guitar is Dezmond. On keyboards is frequent GNABB commentator "Walter Evans". And on guitar on the Right side of the stage is another frequent GNABB visitor, Johannes. If you can figure out Walter Evans' real name, and he makes you a friend on Facebook, you can view the show in its entirety there.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"I Ain't the One Walkin'": Christian Bale Goes Batsh*t

I wish I could do this at work sometime and still have my job the next day. Evidently, the Director of Photography was adjusting some lights while Christian Bale was trying to do a scene while filming the upcoming "Terminator: Salvation."