Monthly Archives: December 2011

You Should Watch Some Old Movies

You should watch some old movies.

You should.  We tend to stereotype the old black and whites as being too old-fashioned to relate to, with overdramatic acting, cheesy effects, melodramatic stories, and just boring and inferior to modern day cinema.  Sometimes, that stereotype seems true.

But Hollywood was then just as it is now–capable of churning out loads of failures, utter garbage, at the same time as making films that can be watched over and over again, and stick with you.

Ah, but you say, I’ve tried old movies, and didn’t like them.  Well, maybe you didn’t see the right ones.  So here’s a list of old films I think just about anyone can enjoy or appreciate.  You should go track them down.  Now.

COMEDY

The General (1927)–The General is a silent classic by Buster Keaton, one of the three greatest and most famous of the comedians of that era, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  Charlie Chaplin may be the more famous, but most critics now consider Keaton to be superior, and I agree.

Chaplin’s films are often filmed with a stationary camera, with Chaplin doing his routines, playing out his story, in front of it, as if we are just watching a recorded version of a stage show.  But Keaton tapped into all the tricks of the new film technologies, and his camera moves.  Chaplin is often overly sentimental; Keaton tends to avoid that, and the result is that some things are just funnier–witness the treatment of his dream girl in the second half of The General, as she is thrown around, squashed under piles of barrels, sat upon, etc.

Keaton was also more acrobatic, and there are several moments in The General that make me genuinely laugh.  But if you don’t believe me yet, consider this: I showed this film to a group of American teenagers who didn’t want to watch a silent film at all, and they laughed.  That’s saying something.  (Not sure what…but something.)

The General is based on a real incident from the Civil War, in which some Union troops went undercover to steal a Confederate train engine (The General).  In the film, Keaton is the train’s engineer, and when his train is stolen with his dream girl inside, he gives chase to rescue his train and his woman.  Eventually the chase heads the other direction, as he steals the engine back and the Union soldiers chase him.  Their adventures on the tracks lead to numerous sight gags and stunts, with much of the humour built around the accidental ways in which Keaton manages to get himself out of being killed.

Duck Soup (1933)–Just six years later we’re in full talking-film mode, and this is probably the Marx Brothers masterpiece.  It is lean and quick, unlike some of their other classics that feel overly bloated by songs and musical performances.  All four brothers are here–Groucho, as the President of the land of Freedonia, Harpo and Chico as spies, and Zeppo…doing whatever it is Zeppo did.

The main three brothers play to their strengths, with Groucho firing off one-liners left and right, Harpo playing the silent trickster to the fullness, and Chico ever the snide one with the Italian accent.  There are classic moments all over the place, the highlights including the lemonade stand sequence and the Harpo/Groucho mirror standoff, a bit that would be imitated and recreated for years to come, but not likely done better than here, where Groucho’s residence has been invaded by spies Chico and Harpo, both dressed like him in an effort to throw others off of what’s happening.  A mirror smashes, and the result is this:

A classic.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942): Now this is a gutsy movie.  A satire, a screwball comedy against Nazism made in part by Jewish actors, including star Jack Benny, right in the middle of World War II.  The plot concerns a group of actors in Poland who end up using their skills to help track a Germany spy, but what transpires is a sort of madcap, comical, 40s Mission Impossible, with characters going undercover, mistaken identities, and so on.  Mel Brooks later remade it, but it didn’t need it (and the remake adds nothing.)

This film is really different from the previous two on the list.  Whereas The General uses the plot to set up clever sight gags and dead-panning from Keaton, and Duck Soup uses a loose plot the just set the Marx Brothers loose in chaos, the humour in this film is entirely situational.  The laughs come from the tensions of the situation, and are plot driven, which was not how many of the earlier comedies worked.  This is screen comedy separating a bit from its vaudeville roots and instead embracing what the Broadway stage plays did well.

A really clever film, including one moment on an airplane right at the end that caused both me and Ira to lose it completely.  And remember, when you have nothing to say in an awkward moment: So, they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt?

DRAMA

Citizen Kane (1941) Okay, so I’m not going to win any points for originality here, but there is a reason that this is largely considered the greatest American film ever made.  The film tells the story of a reporter interviewing people who crossed paths with recently deceased newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (a very thinly disguised version of real newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) in an attempt to discover what Kane meant by his last word: “Rosebud.”  But the film becomes even more fascinating when one learns the story of the two men most concerned with its making–the young genius Orson Welles, who would himself later go on a Kane-like path of self-destruction, and Hearst, who opposed the film strongly enough that he attempted to buy and destroy every copy.  Many editions of the DVD come with a really good documentary about these two men, and it is worth watching before viewing the film, in order to understand how scathing, how brazen Welles was being.

Thank God he didn’t.

Not only is it helpful to understand that, but you also have to understand that many of the cinematic tricks Kane pulls in this film–the angles, the transitions (like the one going in from the rain through the roof of  the club into the interview with Kane’s ex), the mirror shots, etc–are tricks he and his crew came up with.  They weren’t done in cinema before that, not to that degree.  And in that sense, Kane is groundbreaking.

It is also extraordinarily acted, not least by Welles himself in the titular role, a role requiring the then-24 year old to play a 19 year old Kane and a 60-something year old Kane.  Biting, emotional, clever, innovative, and insightful, Kane is a masterpiece, one to be studied over and over again.

(One extra note I like: I really appreciate the story structure.  You basically see the entire story in the first 10 minutes through the newsreel.  And the same time, you learn very little.  The rest of the movie, interview by interview, flashback by flashback, reveals that same story from different angles.)

Casablanca (1942): Another stereotype.  Whereas Citizen Kane is in some ways an art film, not one you pop in for entertainment but one you soak in and chew over, Casablanca is the ultimate Hollywood movie.  In my opinion, the film’s greatest strength is its script–tight plotting, extremely witty, and full of classic lines (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”  “Round up the usual suspects!”  “This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  What’s ironic is that the script was thrown together, pages being constantly re-written during filming,  plot turns and character arcs added and modified and taken away left and right.  That usually doesn’t work.  It shouldn’t  work.  But with Casablanca it works brilliantly.

The star of the show, of course, is Humphrey Bogart as bar owner Rick, playing his emotions close to the vest for most of the film, as cool as a cucumber.  (When a Nazi commander is trying to intimidate Rick by showing him the complete dossier the Nazis have on Rick’s life, Rick glances at it, unimpressed, and says, “Are my eyes really brown?”)  But the vast cast of supporting characters is also excellent, from the great Peter Lorre playing that creepy Peter Lorre stereotype, Claude Rains as charmingly corrupt Inspector Renault, down to subsidiary characters like Karl the barkeep.

Its story is pure melodrama–a love triangle set in Casablanca, Morocco during a time in the war when people went there to escape to America and often got stuck. And at times the melodrama plays a little cheesy to modern eyes.  But there is intricacy here–part of the fun is watching the side characters and what happens with them.  There is thriller-like tension, wartime dramatics, a spy story in the first 20 minutes, lots of jokes (if you pay attention) and a somewhat surprising ending.  My favourite scene is probably the battle of National Anthems that takes place in Rick’s bar between some German soldiers singing a Third Reich hymn and political leader Victor Laszlo leading the orchestra in French anthem Le Marseille.  A cracking good piece of old-time Hollywood at its best.

HOW ABOUT A MUSICAL?

Singing in the Rain (1952)–Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds star in this musical comedy.  Everyone knows the title song and can probably even picture Gene in his raincoat and galoshes strolling down the street singing that melody.  But if that’s as much as you know, you’re missing out.

The film is actually a comedic look at the awkward transition Hollywood went through in going from silent films to “talkies.”  Gene Kelly plays a silent film hero who hates the (admittedly obnoxious and villainous) woman who he is always in love with on the silver screen, Lina Lomont.  When talking pictures become popular (the film they watch at the party in which a professor demonstrates talking pictures is an exaggerated parody of a real film), the studio decides to make their most popular screen duo film a talking picture.  The only problem: Lina’s voice is awful.

Much of the detail in plot about that transition from silent to talking is quite close to how it really went for some studios, but the film knows how to draw comedy out of that.  There are also some brilliant musical numbers–“Make ‘Em Laugh” is a highlight alongside the title song–and as usual for Hollywood and Broadway musicals, most of the good numbers are stacked in the first half, while the second veers into some weird places, not quite plot-related, to pad the film out a bit.  But all in all, definitely worth a viewing.

AND MAYBE SOMETHING NOT IN ENGLISH?

Le Grande Illusion (1937) — Le Grande Illusion is one of two main masterpieces by French director Jean Renoir, son of the famous painter.  It tells the story of a group of French soldiers taken as prisoners of war during the WWI, their friendships, escape attempts, and coping mechanisms for surviving a bleak situation.  Though it comes from the 30s, it feels much more modern to me, both in performance and cinematography.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Spielberg had studied the movie, for some of the shots and close-ups on faces remind of me of Spielberg’s style.

It’s a film that mixes humour and tension in surprising ways, with a stronger sense of characterisation than most films of that era.  Some of the characters may be broad archetypes, but the performances make them real (including one from the great and tragic Erich von Stroheim)–from the stodgy but honourable commander to the comic relief soldier, the good-looking hero, and so on.  And one can’t talk about the film without questioning what the title refers to. What is the big illusion?  Is it the line between borders, as the last shot suggests?  Is it the class lines humanity draws between itself, a theme that runs through the film?  There are many options.

All in all, Le Grande Illusion  is not only one of my favourite films of the 30s and 40s, but is also one of my top foreign language pictures of all time.

HONOURABLE MENTION FOR AN AUTEUR

Billy Wilder: That almost wraps up this entry on old movies, begun a year and a half ago, but before I wrap I want to suggest a director to check out, and that is Billy Wilder.  (If you want to go foreign, try some Kurosawa.)  Billy Wilder had a long career in Hollywood, and though his films, even the comedies, tend to be a bit acerbic, he is definitely worth a try.  One of my favourite things about the films I’ve seen by him is that every one of them tend to build to a very simple climax and end with a killer closing line.  (“Well, nobody’s perfect.”  “Shut up and deal.”  “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”)

I’ve seen five Wilders (off the top of my head), and I can say this: skip Witness for the Prosecution, which left a bad taste in my mouth.  Head straight for the American Film Institute’s number one comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon must dress as women in an all-girl traveling jazz band in order to hide from the mafia, who want to kill them for witnessing a crime, only to be distracted by the presence of Marilyn Monroe as the band’s singer.

If you like that, and are also interested in Hollywood history, check out Sunset Boulevard, a dark tragi-comedy about a washed-up silent film star trying to keep her fame to the point of murder.  Look for a cameo by Buster Keaton and a supporting role by von Stroheim.  The Apartment is also pretty good, despite its dark subject matter.  One of the more influential directors of the last 75 years, you should definitely know some Billy Wilder.

Pick something on the list that sounds interesting!  Watch an old movie!  And comment below on anything I missed–what’s your favourite old film?

2011: A Year in Gigs

It’s been a year and half since I updated this blog.  Life happened.  A second child was born, we added a discipleship and church-planting training school to our already huge list of responsibilities, and time and/or energy to sit and talk about stuff I like disappeared.

But I have a little time now, and some motivation.  You see, 2011 was the Year of Gigs.

Live music is just about my favourite leisure activity.  I love nearly everything about it–the build up to the first song, guessing the setlist, the banter.  Live music, as long as its played by people who know how…well, there’s just nothing like it.  But it is expensive to see established bands, and not many come to Sheffield that fit my style, and so in 2010 I saw a grand total of ZERO concerts.  This was not acceptable to me, so in 2011 I vowed to get to a gig or two.

As it happened, I saw several.  And it was awesome.  So this here is my review of the gigs of the year–highlights, low points, rankings.  Why should you care?  I don’t know.  That’s up to you, really.

In order that I saw them, here’s the list of headliners: The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Foy Vance, Coldplay, Greenbelt Festival (including Rend Collective, Gungor, Gordon Gano and the Ryans, and LZ7)  Iona, Rend Collective Experiment

The Decemberists–I saw them at the O2 in Leeds.  It came about when, basically, I completely failed to get tickets to see Mumford & Sons in Dublin.  Seriously, I was online when the tickets went on sale, followed a bad link to the wrong website, and by the time I found the right one, it was sold out.  Like 90 seconds in.  I was heartbroken.  And The Decemberists were touring the UK in support of their January album release The King Is Dead.  (Could they not have released in, you know, December?)  So as a consolation prize, I bought two tickets to that.

I had heard a couple of Decemberists album before, having bought Hazards of Love on a whim after a stressful trip to IKEA one Monday.  I liked, but didn’t love.  But The King Is Dead…well, that could be my album of the year for 2011.  Whereas the previous record was a proper concept album, telling a complete story, The King Is Dead is a highly song-focused record.  It’s a collection of songs, and whereas previous records had emphasized the prog rock and other nods to British music, this album stylistically is born entirely out of Americana.  It is 10 beautiful tracks, and so I was excited to see them play some live.

The opening act was a band called Blind Pilot.  They were good.  A bit melancholy, but you have to like any band that has their own vibraphone player.  I enjoyed them enough to download at least one song.

Then it was time for The Decemberists.  Their show opened with a humorously relaxing pre-recorded message from the mayor of Portland, inviting us to picture the band as figures approaching us on a forest road, preparing to tell us a good yarn or two.  They opened with “Shiny”, from their debut album years earlier.  I’d never heard it before.  That led straight into the glorious “Down By the Water” from The King Is Dead.  And that was the structure for the evening.  Frontman Colin Meloy bantered humorously between songs, and they alternated between chunks from the new album and older cuts, going from folk to progressive rock and back with ease.

It was weird (Sample song lyric: “This is the story of your gypsy uncle…”) and brilliant, and it was good to be back at a live venue again.

Set Highlights: The Bagman’s Gambit, a weird tale about falling in love with a Soviet-era spy, and a song I’d never heard before.  This Is Why We Fight, from the new record.  And the gorgeous June Hymn, also from the new record.

Set Low Point: Leeds was the only venue during their entire UK tour that did NOT get the live staple Mariner’s Revenge Song during the encore.  I had been so looking forward to it.  Instead we got the so-so Sons and Daughters.  Oh well.  Someday…

Sufjan Stevens–Okay, so I was a little bit excited for this one.  Seeing Sufjan live was on my dreams list.  Seriously.  While I likely would have preferred to see him tour Illinois, I knew that seeing him on The Age of Adz tour would be something special.  It’s a bizarre album and really complicated to pull of live.

We waited outside the O2 in Manchester for approximately six days.  Finally, they started letting people in.  We were pretty far back, and by the time we shuffled in, the opening act, label-mate DM Stith, had already started playing his songs, acoustic numbers with live loop recording used to build songs layer by layer.

And he only played like 3 songs!  And before we knew it, Sufjan was on.  He opened with a stunning live rendition of “Seven Swans.”  I can’t even describe it, so…

Glowing costumes.  A screen behind the band and one in front, making 3D animations, in this case of constellations forming and collapsing.  A huge set.  A huge band–2 full drum kits, 2 back-up singer/dancer/aerobic exercise performers, Sufjan, DM Stith as his ghost vocalist and organist, 2 guitarists, bass, a horn section.  Choreographed hand motions.  ANGEL WINGS!

And that was just the first song.  Sufjan followed a pattern relatively similar to the Decemberists.  He’d play a weird, disturbing, cacophonous full-band song from the new album, and then come to the front of the stage and play something acoustic by himself.  The great thing was that I’d been following the setlists since he started the tour, and Manchester got by far the best show (and one of the longest) on the tour to that date.  Not only did we get, for the first time on that tour, his cover of REM’s “The One I Love,” but we also got for the first time live in 3 years his song “Sister”, which happens to be one of my favourites.  It was a stripped down version, sure, but still magical.  Though I connected on a personal level more with some gigs later in the year, this was by far the most intense and spectacular performance.

Did I mention he played for 2 1/2 hours?

Set Highlights: Too many to mention, but probably the opener (Seven Swans), Sister, the 25-minute album-highlight opus Impossible Soul, which starts and ends acoustic but whose middle involves auto-tune and Sufjan dressed as a disco-ball, and the encores of Casmir Pulaski Day and Chicago.  The word epic doesn’t cover it.

Set Low Points: Um…the few hecklers?  (Less talk, more rock?  Really?)  The unplanned big bang that scared the band during the last bit of Impossible Soul?  The probably-connected 12 minute wait for the encore?

Foy Vance: Okay, so this gig was somewhat spontaneous.  Foy was playing at a small but very cool club in Leeds, and about eight of us drove up to see him.

There were a couple of opening bands; the first one did nothing for me, and the second one was pretty good but slightly arrogant.  Finally Foy came out.  That voice.  Wow…I mean, that voice.  That man is talented.  What he does, building loops on that acoustic guitar and using his voice, is just incredible.  It was a musically solid night.

But it was also a confusing night.  For a couple of reasons.  First, the setlist.  Basically, he played for 90 minutes and only managed to sing I think 3 songs from any of his recordings, one being the encore.   So no one knew most of the songs.

But more than that, it was Foy’s state.  Talking to Dustin afterwards, we decided it was a little like watching a man proclaim and then lose his faith in God, live on stage, while becoming slightly more drunk.  Losing it, then regaining it, then wrestling with it angrily, then proclaiming it again, and so on…Foy spoke about the death of his father, and it was obvious that this weighed heavily on him.  It was obvious that he was, in many ways, broken.  It was just unsettling to watch all of that unfold live on stage, and though the night was musically excellent, I left with mixed feelings.  But in the end, I mostly loved it.

Set Highlight: Well, I knew almost none of the songs.  But there was one about the days of the week that was epically cool.  (Guy gets drunk on Saturday, on Sunday ends up in church, etc.)  And Indiscriminate Act of Kindness is beautiful.

Set Low Point: Again, I didn’t know the songs, but I could do without the swearing, though somehow its less offensive coming from an Irish mouth.  How does that work?

Coldplay: We won tickets to Coldplay’s night at the annual iTunes festival, held for a month at a small(ish) venue in London each summer.  I was very excited to see one of the world’s biggest bands in a small, comparatively intimate setting, and for free, but in some ways the gig was a disappointment.

Part of that was my fault.  Since I love concerts, I like to know what to expect, so I usually follow a band’s setlists as they tour.  Setlist.fm is a great website for this.  The Decemberists and Sufjan were both mixing up the list each night, so I went in with a general idea of what kinds of things were being played, but I was still going to be surprised at the specifics.  Coldplay, however, was touring on basically the same setlist each and every night, so there wasn’t really room for surprise.

The other negative thing, sadly, was the setting itself.  Seeing them in a small place was pretty awesome, and for awhile it looked like we weren’t going to even get in, so there was a large group of us absolutely thrilled to be in there.  But they were also professionally recording it to broadcast highlights on the web, and so there was a ring of crane cams and other recording equipment that broke the room in two.  And unfortunately, we were on the outside of that ring.  And with us on the outside of the ring were a bunch of people who didn’t care, talking their way through the gig, barely aware that a Coldplay concert was happening.  With the equipment obscuring our view and connection, and all the chatter around us, it was hard to engage.

That’s not Coldplay’s fault.  They definitely played a strong set and were excellent live.  Chris Martin’s energy is unmatched, and the guys play well together.  So while it is the most disappointing gig of the year, it was still also a lot of fun.

Set Highlights: Viva La Vida, which I consider one of the best songs ever written, and, surprisingly, Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.  Hearing that tune live made me realise its slight Irish flavour–it comes across as sort of a jig!

Greenbelt Festival, including: Rend Collective Experiment, LZ7, Gordon Gano and the Ryans, Gungor: Greenbelt is…not like anything I’ve ever experienced.  Held annually at Cheltenham Racecourse, attended by roughly 20,000 people. Greenbelt is just plain weird.  There’s no other way around it.  If a Christian arts festival and a hippie activism conference had a baby, it would begin to look like Greenbelt.  Or, if a group of Christians put on a non-Christian festival one the same grounds that a group of non-Christians were trying to put on a Christian festival, you’d get Greenbelt.  Where else can you hear Palestinian protest music alongside screening of thought-provoking films alongside a passionate, Spirit-led worship time alongside belly-dancing lessons?

Anyway, I saw several live bands during this: Rend Collective Experiment twice and Gungor (sort of) once were the key ones, and I caught snippets of other gigs, including LZ7 and Gordon Gano & the Ryans.

I went to a worship set led by Rend Collective as well as a more gig-like set on the main stage.  The worship set was possibly the live music highlight of the year for me.  Not only was the presence of God just amazing in the room, and I spent the hour just enjoying Him, but I fell in love with these guys.  Seriously, I can’t think of a more humble, approachable, authentic group of musicians working today.  And they’re good–far more musical than the stereotypical worship band.

The other band I was there to see was Gungor, and in reality it turned out to only be Michael and Lisa Gungor without their full band.  Instead, they were playing with hired musicians, a talented bunch that they met for the first time on stage that day.  Given that they only had 10 minutes of rehearsal, it was a great set.  But during the band’s first song, a guy from the festival marched on stage and set down a clock that began ticking down from 39 minutes.  39 minutes!  At Greenbelt, speakers get more time than bands.  But despite all that, they were somehow musically tight and some songs came to life in ways they didn’t on CD.

In addition, I caught LZ7 on the main stage, who were fun if you like that sort of teenage dance-hop, and Gordon Gano & The Ryans.  If you don’t know the name Gordon Gano, it’s likely you know the voice, and this is his new band.  They did play some tunes by his old band, so that this, this actually happened:

Festival Highlights: Hearing Rend Collective’s “Build Your Kingdom Here” for the 1st and 2nd time; meeting with God at their worship set; Gungor’s renditions of “Dry Bones” and “Call Me Out”.

Festival Low Point: The Rend’s main stage set was only 25 minutes long.  Lame!

Iona–My parents came to visit in October, and I was browsing online one day before that and happened to see that a. Iona had a new album and b. they were doing a small tour that brought them within 90 minutes of our house on the day my parents arrived.  My dad loves Iona, and rightly so, so we treated them to a concert.

The venue was a church auditorium specifically built for things like this.  There was no opening act.  I had only just gotten the new album after reading a couple of reviews that really sold me on it, despite the fact that I haven’t liked their last couple of records.  And the reviews were right: their new double-CD is their best album in over a decade, and the veteran Celtic prog-rockers gave a tight, breathtaking nearly 3 hour show.

It’s sad there were only 200 people or so there.  Iona is a band that deserves a much bigger audience.  They are musically innovative and complex–one of my favourite songs has a breathtaking instrumental interlude in 11/8 time–they are fine musicians, each playing multiple instruments, and their songs are epic, gorgeous, and inspiring.

Set Highlights: The lead singer dedicated a song to my dad.  My wife won a CD in a dance-off.  They played Irish jigs!  And the aforementioned song in 11/8 (Bi-Se I Mo Shuil)!  And the opening song, which also opens the new album.  So, so epic, all of it.

Set Low Point: I don’t love the White Horse song.  Or the violin instrumental.

Rend Collective Experiment–saw them twice more, once at Cliff College, once at Worship Central.  Yeah, they continued to grow on me, and at Cliff College announced a new album January 9!  We seriously considered flying or driving to one of the album release parties.  Would have been worth it, but we couldn’t work it out.

So, here’s to a year in gigs.  Hopefully soon I’ll post my “Old Movies” entry that I started 18 months ago.  Merry Christmas.  What’s the best concert you saw this last year?