Sunday, July 24, 2016

Watching Malik's Most Recent Films

When I reviewed The Tree of Life (2011), I had no idea that Terrence Malick's career was moving in a radical new direction.  After a rather traditional, though stylized, approach to Badlands (1973), Malick has demonstrated a preference for visual affect and sparse dialog rather than sticking to accustomed modes of narrative film-making. Days of Heaven (1978) featured extended shots of vast fields of grain in all kinds of wind and weather conditions.  Thin Red Line (1998) treats the viewer to lush, lingering shots of Pacific islands with palm trees rustling in the wind.  There is a clear narrative structure in each of Malick’s first four films but silence and nature are major aspects to them as well.  

The same can be said for The New World (2005), only the narrative is becoming more minimal in that work and, but for the historical underpinnings of the story, it might have vanished altogether, giving way the force of the many moments of artsy natural cinematography.  All these efforts, including, to a lesser extent, The Tree of Life, possess tangible, fairly pronounced narrative elements with traditional dialog exchanges, character development, and a plot that make the films accessible in varying degrees to the larger film going public.

I recently purchased Malick's follow-up efforts to The Tree of Life.  To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015) sort of form a stylistic trilogy with that previous work but the most current two films push Malick's exploration for storytelling to the extreme. There is no real "plot" to either movie.  Instead, they completely immerse the viewer in a visual experience, creating a mood without the aid of dialog scenes.  Voice-over narration from the points of view of various characters is used to accompany the often stunning imagery to create a feeling more than tell a story.  That sort of thing is a wonderful artistic experiment but it potentially alienates even the most ardent Malick aficionado, which is likely one reason these films never saw general release.  Like The Tree of Life, they were shown in "limited release" mostly in art houses.

It is a fair assessment of both films to say that they feature major male leading-role actors who say virtually nothing throughout the course of the film except for brief moments of whimsical narration. Ben Affleck in To the Wonder and Christian Bale in Knight of Cups essentially spend the entire film staring into open spaces or minimally interacting with various other characters in shots that are often arresting in their sheer beauty.  They are truly minimalized and marginalized, distilled down to the barest presentation, for the sake of Malick's larger vision of capturing a mood, a series of emotional scenes about modern human existence in nature.

Introspective, stream of consciousness narration fills the audio of these films with the actors merely moving around in front of the camera or the camera capturing some beautiful, simple naturalistic event.  In a further minimalist touch, Malick limits the narration of the male characters. In both films, the female characters, by far, carry the weight of the voice-overs.  Other than a constant on-screen presence, the utterances of Affleck and Bale are limited to a few dozen words of dialog and a handful of occasional voice-overs.  All the rest of the spoken words are women.

In Jungian terms, Malick heavily favors the anima more than the animus aspect of the feelings he creates in these films. These are largely feminine achievements, favoring emotion against reason, nature against synthetic, and authenticity against artificiality.  Malick attempt in both of these films to create a visual experience that affects the viewer emotionally without the aid of a solid story.  I compared Malick to Kubrick in an earlier post. 2001 (1968) constantly comes to mind through the stylistic trilogy of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups.  Visually intense but more so aesthetically arresting, as a manner of subduing all dialog in favor of the sheer beauty and unique sacredness of sight. 

The “plot” of To the Wonder and Knight of Cups is rather basic, by necessity.  But this means the viewer has to pay particular attention to what is being shown.  If you look away for a minute or two because, in any other film, you would be listening to characters talking, then you will become disoriented as to what is happening on the screen. You will miss the details of what is happening in the minimal narrative.

In To the Wonder, Ben Affleck is involved with a French woman living in America with her daughter.  The relationship is intimate and fulfilling but there are undercurrents of tension. Turns out the French woman and her daughter leave Affleck and return to Paris when her VISA expired.  Affleck, along, soon finds a young American blonde woman and they proceed to have an intense relationship.  She falls in love with him but, even though he is completely attracted to her, he can’t find a way to reciprocate her love. Ultimately, the second relationship doesn’t work out and the French woman decides to return to America, this time without her child, who she FaceTimes back in Paris. The couple return to a beautiful castle surrounded by a magnificent seaside nature space which they had first visited early in their magnetic relationship.  The End.

The entire film is carried by narration.  I bet there’s not 15 minutes of conversation in the movie all total.  Since the French woman is from Paris, her narration is in French.  The first 15-20 minutes of the film is in her voice, in French with English subtitles.  Finally, well in, Affleck mumbles something and narration briefly shifts to his perspective. Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams do a great job carrying most of the movement and voice-over around the backbone that Affleck provides.

Knight of Cups is a bit more complex than that, but it still features lush visuals ensconced in a simple narrative. Christian Bale is a successful Los Angeles businessman, apparently in the fashion or advertising industry (the story is not clear on this detail).  He is dealing with issues of his brother and his elderly father fighting all the time as a result tensions arising out of a third brother that died long ago.  In the meantime, Bale lives out his private life, which consists of moving through one sensual relationship with beautiful women after another.  

There are six such relationships in Knight of Cups, each actress handles her own narration with Bale occasionally chiming in from his perspective, again as supporting backbone and singular threat through the maze of women. Bale sleeps with only one woman at a time, he apparently prefers a kind of regimented monogamy.  Each of the six women get about 10-15 minutes of total screen time.  Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman are two of the women.  The Portman sequence is the most complex one.  She is married and having an affair with Bale who is completely single and committed to her, of course that doesn’t work out.  The final sequence features Bale walking aimlessly on bald reddish rocks in the desert with the sound of wind prominent.  Then a series of often striking shots of nature and highways through nature. The End.

“You’re so quiet.  You keep everything to yourself.” That is part of the narration on Bale from one woman’s perspective. Well, thanks for stating the obvious.  Both films feature leading male roles made almost inconsequential but for the thread they form in the narrative.  It is as if our main character is engulfed in all the supporting characters in each film.  This is rather fascinating in and of itself and is a pioneering, ballsy move on the part of Malik.  

Even so, I cannot rank either of these films very highly.  They get a 7 at most, maybe a 6.  They are often tedious, somewhat pretentious slogs through very little actually happening.  But they are also both feasts for the eyes and have a strangely emotive affect if can allow your mind to connect with their ethereal presentation.  The Tree of Life is the best of this trilogy, and perhaps the best Malik film, though I immensely enjoy Thin Red Line as well.  To the Wonder and Knight of Cups are ultimately experiments, perhaps leading to something more magnificent in the future, perhaps just the residue of Malik’s more successful efforts in The Tree of Life.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Back to Swan Cabin

A double rainbow at Swan Cabin.  It rained several times during our four day stay.  This was taken on Thursday evening when nature gave us a rare treat after the thunderstorm.
Clint, me, and Brian in the wildflower field near the cabin. Phlox and Black-Eyed Susans were prolific as always in the high summer. Brian's doberman. Carma, can be seen with us.
Mountain-laurel was also in full bloom everywhere in the woods near the waterfall and the creek banks.
This is a page from a journal left in the cabin for visitors to record their experiences and memories at the cabin.  This particular entry was from a member of the Swan family.
For many years the Cumberland Island Armadillos traveled annually to Swan Cabin near the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina.  We had already gone in 2008 before I began this blog. Our trips there in 2009 and 2010 can be read in past posts.  After 2010, however, we decided to do other things, mostly go to Dreamlake instead.  But, this year it seemed right to return to this rustic place in the high mountains for rest and relaxation.  
Clint rode up with Jennifer and I on Thursday, July 7, in our cramped SUV with a Sherpa pack on top borrowed from Mark.  We arrived in the early afternoon and enjoyed the space to ourselves, unloading promptly but setting up our tents casually.  We used tarps over our tents because we knew there was a good chance of rain most every day.  One thing you definitely want to be on a camping trip is as dry as possible.

But Thursday afternoon was sunny and mild.  It felt refreshing to be in the cool mountain air after so many weeks of intense heat at our homes. Brian and Diane arrived later. We helped them unload and I assisted Brian in putting up this huge new tent he brought.  As he and Diane were water proofing the tent while I returned to the slow pace of the cabin's porch, Brian was stung on both ankles by yellow jackets.

He and I had noticed the varmints after initially setting up his tent.  It soon became obvious we had placed the tent on top of their entry hole in the ground.  So, we moved the tent to a safer location. I'm not sure how I managed to help him set it up without being stung myself.  And it was only after we moved it that they decided to attack Brian. Anyway, some benadryl cream soon fixed that and that was the last we saw of the jackets during the trip.

To speed his recovery, Brian made slushy vodka drinks with a portable blender he brought.  It clamped to the corner of the picnic table.  It was a wonderful luxury.

Soon after this, Diane realized that they did not have a working pump to blow up their air mattresses.  So, she hopped back in the car and returned to Robbinsville, NC in search of a working pump.  She ended up being gone 4 hours as she had difficulty returning to the cabin on the windy, often steep, mountain road.  A tree had fallen across the road and she was lucky to find some campers nearby who had a chainsaw with them to hack the tree out of the way.

That tree had fallen as a result of a thunderstorm that hit the cabin while she was away.  It rained hard with a lot of wind for about 20-30 minutes, sending those of us who remained at the cabin to the shelter of the porch and the interior of the cabin, which is inhabitable but full of spiders, mice, and even bats.  'Dillos usually use the cabin just for dry storage, preferring to pitch tents instead.

After the storm we spotted a gorgeous rainbow of which Jennifer, Clint, and Brian all busied themselves taking photos.  A second rainbow soon joined the first and we were all in awe of the splendid event.  I had lit my small Weber grill prior to the storm and it was still burning strong despite the brief heavy rain.  I cooked a couple of small pork tenderloins on the the grill, which everyone was served sizzling from the grill for dinner as it started to get dark.

My number one priority for the trip was sleep.  I wanted to sleep soundly and take naps as well, which I did for the most part.  I also read a lot, seemed to munch on something constantly, took walks to the waterfall and into the large wildflower meadow, and generally became fashionably worthless. 

We spent time in the meadow on Friday.  Once again the overcast burned off and gave us several hours of sunshine. In the late afternoon we experienced a hail storm, one of the strongest rains I have ever camped in.  I retreated into the cabin again and hoped our tent/tarp setup kept our sleeping bags, clothing, and everything dry - which it did for the most part despite the fiercely blowing rain.

That night we started what would end up being a large camp fire. Technically, the fire was brought forth from the simmering coals of whoever started it before us.  All that rain still didn't completely put out the fire. A few pieces of trash and a handful of small to mid-sized kindling brought a blaze that we fed with the ample fire wood all around.

Fire was another luxury of this year's trip.  Since our last visit to Swan Cabin the last of two large ancient oak trees, which shaded us in our early visits there, had recently fallen.  The forest service apparently came up and sawed up the large branches of the huge tree into several rather massive piles of ready-made firewood.  The firemeister for this trip turned out to be Brian, who did not shy away from burning stacks of wood. 

We cooked over the fire on Friday night. Our friends Stacy and Michelle joined us later in the evening with their daughter and her friend, bringing our total to eight for the camp site, one of our smaller gatherings at Swan.  They reported that all the mountain roads were clear for their trip up, despite the massive hail storm.

On Saturday, Clint, Michelle, and Stacy took off for Stratton Bald.  The rest of us were in more of do-nothing mode so we spent the day in camp.  No rain on Saturday so it was a beautiful day for short hikes and reading and sleep while resting in the mountainous beauty.  After everyone was back in camp we enjoyed another feeding frenzy.  That evenings entertainment consisted of great music by Clint featuring Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers as well as fine music by Cat Stevens, someone I haven't listened to in years.  

Meanwhile, Stacy and the two girls began to play with the Rocket Copters toy they brought for the trip.  It was a lot of fun and I soon joined in, shooting the lighted "copters" with a sling shot up into the night sky and watching them deploy and propeller downward slowly with their blue and orange and red glows.  Stacy also brought out some sparklers which were fun.

As with each morning at the cabin, Brian arose early enough on Sunday to fix a very satisfying breakfast for everyone. This is something of a camping specialty of his and we definitely got to reap the rewards of his cooking passion.  Clint had to be back in Atlanta by late afternoon, so Jennifer and I broke camp late morning and we were on our way back to the summer heat and civilization.

It was a very relaxing trip to find an old friendly space again. I can't say that I saw the cabin and surrounding space, as T.S. Eliot wrote, as if for "the first time" but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and it was a perfect change of venue for this hot summer. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Neil's Experimental Earth

I pre-ordered Neil Young’s latest CD, Earth, from amazon and it arrived in the mail the last Monday following its June 24 release.  I have now listened to it 5-6 times.  Neil often requires repeated listenings before the music begins to fully speak to you.  Sometimes the music is instantaneously accessible like with 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. Sometimes, the music really never grips you like 2009’s Fork in the Road.

The cover of Earth comes with a label on it warning of "modified content" on the CD.  This is partly a joke, playing off the GMO-theme of last year's The Monsanto Years.  But it also accurately signals that Earth is not a purely "live" album. This is an experimental artistic effort for Neil, so I had to come to grips with that initially.  It is filled with sounds of nature (bees, thunder, geese, water flowing, etc.) mixed between the two CD set’s 13 tracks.  That is nothing remarkable in and of itself. It has been done before. But, Neil also sneaks the critter sounds into the actual tracks of music as well.  So, out of the blue, you will hear a crow calling as Neil is hammering out a nice riff.  That takes some getting used to.

I thought Earth was going to be a “live” album in a traditional sense with some nature sound accompaniment. I had followed Neil’s tour through Europe last summer with Promise of the Real on youtube, watching them perform practically everything in his storied repertoire as they featured the best material from The Monsanto Years. Playing with the younger band consisting of Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah seemed to re-energize Neil and they often sounded amazing.  So, I was ready to listen to some great live versions of that material on Earth.  But the CD turns out to be more of an attempt at a concept album than depicting a live concert feel.  Mixed in with all the critter sounds and the live takes is a small overdubbed choir, I suppose to smooth out the sometimes rough hewn harmonies of Neil’s live vocals.

That is OK but it dampened my enthusiasm for  a live music set.  This is more about Neil trying to reflect upon his life-long pursuit of environmentalism and stewardship of the planet, not just in terms of his music but in terms of a feel, a vibe as an extended tribute to nature.  All but one of the tracks is a cover of previously recorded Neil, spanning his career since 1970.

"Mother Earth" features Neil on an old pump organ that he has used forever in concert.  I saw him perform on it live in 2010.  His harmonica accompaniment harkens back to the early days of his career, though his voice (never the strongest asset in his creative arsenal) is deeper and of a more limited range today than it was in 1990's excellent Ragged Glory, where this anthem to nature first appeared. It is mellow and perhaps a bit sentimental.

"Seed Justice" is a rocking tune and the only previously unreleased song on the 2 CD set.  Eh.  It strikes me as filler, an unnecessary song performed with passion but without much else to which to commend itself.  By contrast, "My Country Home", also from Ragged Glory, is a superb rendition, the first truly worthy song on the CD.  Neil and the band keep it very close to the original but with an energetic feel that can only come from a live performance.  This is how I wanted the whole album to be.

"The Monsanto Years" does not possess the same raw energy, however.  It is a competent performance, with vocals smoothed out by the overdubbed studio choir chiming in to harmonize. Too  smooth in my opinion. "Western Hero" is an OK performance but to be honest this song does not feel like it should even be on Earth. It just doesn't fit in with the other material.

"Vampire Blues" definitely fits.  This is a gritty rendition, not as good as the On the Beach version, but with some fantastic guitar work by Lukas and Neil.  Worth a listen.  "Hippie Dream" is from 1986's mediocre Landing on Water.  The band does this one justice with a powerful performance of a song that is basically a reaction to the sentiment expressed in 1969's "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  My guess is Neil included this tune to indicate that action rather than theory is what is needed in the environmental mess the planet finds itself in today.

The first CD ends with "After the Gold Rush" and "Human Highway."  The former is a decent effort though nowhere near the caliber of the original title song from Neil's brilliant 1970 album.  The later is a fine performance from 1978's splendid Comes a Time, the first album of Neil's that I ever purchased.  I miss the banjo from the album track, however.  

The second CD opens with a version of "Big Box" that frankly disappoints me.  This tune is the strongest offering on last year's album.  I think it is the best song Neil has performed in almost a decade.  Here he and the band experiment with the tune a bit and manage to miss all of what made the original song so great.  It still rocks just not in a manner I find as invigorating as the studio version.

"People Want to Hear About Love" is better though still not as good as last year's release.  This is a very clever song with a typically deceptive chorus.  The lyrics all speak of the various natural and political issues facing the planet but the chorus is all about how music listeners would rather hear tunes of love than think about any of that.  Very appropriate for this album and the performance is accessible if not overly inspired. "Wolf Moon" is practically the same as last year's studio release and this is on track where the overdubbed chorus actually adds to this song.  I actually prefer this live version, it is one of the highlights of the CD.

But there is little doubt about what the highlight is on Earth. The album closes with a blistering 29-minute (more like 25-minutes after you take out the crowd noise at the beginning and the end) version of "Love and Only Love," again originally from Ragged Glory.  This song has the length and space for several masterful, driving guitar solos by Neil and Lukas.  The entire band is massive on this sprawling, monstrous rendition.  Definitely the one song that makes this CD worthwhile to any true Neil fan, and those less familiar with his artistry will find it an accessible classic rocker.  This shows the potential that lies at the heart of Neil's collaboration with the band.  Just a great performance.

You can compare "Love and Only Love", "My Country Home", and "Mother Earth" not only with their original studio recording but also with how they were featured on 1991's live Weld album with Crazy Horse.  The Weld versions feature the raw intensity I was expecting from Earth but, of course, Neil is a lot older now and, despite being obviously energized by the Promise of the Real's strong backing work, this is not the intense, grungy Neil that was so prominent on that previous live album. Still, these are the among the strongest tracks on Earth, delivered in solid, if not as raw and intense, performances.

For me, the problem with this release is that it is so inconsistent.  Out of the 13 songs presented 4 or so are truly worthy of the treatment Neil gives them on Earth.  The rest range from just OK to surprisingly uninspired.  So, overall, Earth is dissatisfying to me.  The overdubs and the nature sound are both overdone, but that might be Neil's point as he experiments with the concept of communicating not only his music about nature but the actual muse he feels for nature. To that extent, even though this effort might not have worked the way Weld did in a completely different context and time but, as lifelong Rustie, I admire the fact he is still trying new things while staying very relevant to our times into his 70's.
Whatever else Neil may or may not be, irrelevant is not part of the equation.  Earth is not his strongest effort but it is unusual, creative, and it manages to deliver some meaningful performances that really count despite the overall effort being somewhat uneven.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Star Spangled Banner

My library contains three books by military historian Robert Leckie.  One deals with all of the wars involving America (there were several) before the American Revolution. Another deals with the revolution itself and is really an outstanding read. The third is my only book covering the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, areas of America history I have otherwise neglected.  Leckie is highly accessible and is considered a mainstream (as opposed to academic) historian.  He enjoys telling and good tale and makes history interesting and entertaining in the process.

One fascinating story which Leckie tells in From Sea to Shining Sea begins with Dr. William Beanes, a elderly, wealthy and respected member of American society.  People all around Maryland knew him or of him and admired the man.  During the War of 1812, his house was confiscated by the British for use as a headquarters.  That particular campaign ended successfully for the British but nevertheless resulted in numerous stragglers from the red coat army littering the countryside. They took what they pleased from the local population and were under no military control.

Beanes and some others wanted to deter what they saw as the threat of rampant theft and anarchy against their fellow citizens.  So they organized the capture and imprisonment of several stragglers to set an example.  The British military took exception to this even if there were undisciplined stragglers involved.  They promptly had Barnes arrested in 1814 and placed on the British naval vessel Tonnant in Chesapeake Bay for transport elsewhere to stand trial on some vague charge against the capturing of British stragglers.

This distressed the many friends and admirers of Beanes. They arranged for a Georgetown attorney to represent him and attempt to negotiate his release.  The attorney quickly accepted the case and asked to see his client aboard the British vessel in the middle of the Bay.  The attorney had been an ardent pacifist, speaking out against the war from its beginning.  But his thoughts changed after the British burned Washington DC.

The attorney contacted American President James Madison directly and received official emissary status on behalf of the American government.  But British General George Cockburn flew into a rage at the attorney’s request for clemency.  The attorney appealed particularly on the grounds of cruelty, Beanes being an elderly man.  When the attorney asked permission to give Beanes the soap and underwear he had brought aboard with him Cockburn yelled that he would not even allow the attorney to see Beanes.  

But the attorney anticipated such a reaction and brought him a letter signed by one of the captured British stragglers, a captain in fact, who offered a testimonial of receiving good care while detained by the Americans.  He handed this to the British commander of highest rank, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commanding the ship in the Bay.  Much to Cockburn’s disgust, Cochrane acknowledged this act of kindness on the part of the Americans by agreeing to Beanes’ release.

But Barnes and the attorney were not permitted to leave the ship at that moment on that evening. This was because as the attorney undertook negotiations aboard the ship, the large array of British warships began the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the key to setting up the capture of Baltimore.  The war was continuing with grave intensity and safe transport back to the shore could not be ensured.  So Cochrane invited Barnes and the attorney to remain on the deck of the ship and watch the astounding artillery display in otherwise darkness.   
What I haven’t shared with you up to now is that the attorney was Francis Scott Key.  Leckie continues: “If McHenry fell, then Ross’s army would move on to the conquest of Baltimore. Throughout the night the two men watched in dread as British shells and rockets burst over and upon the fort.  Key, who had a local celebrity as a poet, began to jot down his impressions: ‘rocket’s red glare…’ ‘bombs bursting mid-air…’  Key was also thrilled by the sight of McHenry’s huge flag illuminated by the explosions flashing around it. As dawn began to break, Dr. Beanes leaned forward to peer to McHenry’s rampart but his failing eyes caught no glimpse of Old Glory.  Again and again he asked anxiously: ‘Is the flag still there?’

“The question triggered in Key’s poetic brain a theme for a poem, beginning, ‘O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,’ and he began to convert his notes into verses.  After he and Dr. Beanes were allowed to go to ashore, he revised and expanded them and then took the completed poem to his brother-in-law, Judge J.H. Nicholson.  The judge had been in Fort McHenry during those dreadful twenty-five hours.  He had seen ‘the rocket’s red glare’ and had had his stomach squeezed by the shock of ‘bombs bursting in air.’  He had lived Key’s poem, and saw at once that it could be sung to the melody of a popular drinking song called ‘To Anacreon in Heaven.’  Nicholson suggested immediate publication, and a young printer’s devil named Samuel Sands set it in type and it came forth anonymously  in a handbill entitled ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry,’  It was published on September 20 in the Baltimore Patriot;  soon soldiers began singing it, and it spread gradually – though not suddenly – across the country. But not until March 3, 1931, did the United States Congress adopt ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the American national anthem.” (page 344)

So, if not for the capture of a bunch of British stragglers partly instigated by Dr. William Beanes, the song we call our National Anthem might not have ever come to be.  There is no better day than today to recognize that fact.