Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Play It Again

Sometimes a song just grabs you and seems to become part of you. Well, that can happen with lots of stuff, not just music. A great book, a great movie, just a great something. But lets keep it simple and just focus on the music for now.

Probably every classic rock fan knows and loves "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I have only recently discoved this song, having always considered Southern Rock as glorified Gospel or Country music! And its just got a hold on me. What great lyrics, fantastic tempo that goes from the gospel-ish beginning to that mind-blowing guitar driven orgasmic crescendo. Great stuff. And a couple of posts ago I had mentioned the movie "Duets" which had one of the lead actors singing the words from this song. Its just so good it feels like touching some kind of brilliance which will never be recreated again.

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelling on, now,
There's too many places I haven't seen
And if I stayed here with you, now
Things just wouldn't be the same
Well I'm as free as a bird now,
And a bird you can not change.
And a bird you can not change.
And a bird you can not change.
Lord knows I can't change
Bye, bye, its been a sweet love.
And though this feeling I can't change.
Please don't take it badly,
The Lord knows I'm to blame.
And, if I stayed here with you now
Things just wouldn't be the same.
For I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you'll never change.
And the bird you can not change.
And the bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can't change.
Lord help me, I can't change.

Play it again Skynyrd.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Goodness Gracious, great stacks of comics!!

Alright, I have officially gone nuts for comics.

It all started with Alan Moore's "Watchmen" (see my review here). The fantastic art along with the mature, elaborately crafted plot opened my eyes to an art form which I had stopped indulging in since I stepped out of primary school.

There is a world of comics out there though, which do not cater to kids alone. And I have sampled a fair amount of these in the past couple of months. Hopefully will be able to sample a few more in the future. Of course, being in the US has the advantage of being able to use the fantastic public libraries here. But I know I'll end up buying a boat load of these deeply satisfying comics when I'm back home in India. And these comics dont come cheap.

Although many of these comics stay within the super hero genre (like Alan Moore's Watchmen, Swamp Thing series, Top Ten series, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series; Kurt Busiek's Astro City series), these are not the usual tales of crime fighting like Superman or Spiderman (not that these are any less worthy, they arent the all-time best-selling comics for nothing). For example, Kurt Busiek's series contains stories set in Astro City which is home to many crime-fighting super heroes, some with super-powers, others are athletic humans who fight crime through ingenuity and skill. But the stories do not revolve around these super heroes. Instead, the series focuses on telling the tales from an ever changing perspective. There are stories told from the innocent victims point of view, the regular people who were going about their own business when some super villain decides to stage some mayhem in their vicinity. There are stories told from the view point of observers of the mega-events. This series is about the lives of people living in a society which is protected by super heroes, and threatened by super villains.

But graphic novels are not limited to this genre. Take Art Spiegelman's wonderful two-volume retelling of his parents surviving the holocaust in "Maus". The uniqueness of this book is in that it chooses to depic the Jews as mice, while the Germans are cats. All other races and ethnicities depicted in the comic are represented by animals. This deliberate cartoon-ification of a hard-hitting story sometimes softens the blow, and sometimes makes it even harsher. The all black-and-white artwork is free of any fancy angles and is focussed on telling a tale Art believes requires no further inflection.

Art Spiegelman has possibly been the greatest inspiration to the modern serious comics writer and artist than most others. Alan Moore's inspiration lies in focussing on the story, making it the basis of everything rather than only focussing on the art or the drawing.

Spiegelman inspired graphic novels have been written by writers like Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, David Boring), Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) and Bryan Talbot (The tale of one bad rat). These stories deal with mature subjects like sexual abuse, dysfunctional families, mid-life crises etc.

Moore has inspired another set of writers to remain in the fantastic realms and still ground their work with some astonishing writing. The Fables series by Bill Willingham is one such example. This series has as its premise the concept that Fables (like Red Riding Hood, Snow White etc) truly exist in lands far far away. But something happened, an unknown adversary launched a great war on the fables lands and the characters of these fables were forced to escape and they now live among us. These characters (at least the humanoid ones) now live as humans, and they have their own governance which keeps their existence a secret from common humans (called the Mundy's or the Mundanes a la Muggles). The stories are interesting in that though the premise is based in children's stories, the treatment is more adult. It makes for a gripping read.

Another series which blows the mind by its wonderful writing, and often historically based stories, is Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. This series is simply incomparable for its unique storylines and its rootedness in classical literature, myths and mythologies of everything from Greece to Persia to Africa, and also on true human history. The series is also unique in that its not concentrated on its main character, the Sandman or Morpheus, the Dream Lord, as much as you would expect. Sometimes he is peripheral to the story. But he is also the focus of the story in strange, haunting ways. Its hard to say much about the Sandman series without going into a lot of details, and I will keep that for another day, another post.

Sometimes a great movie

Its been a terrible time in some ways. Mainly because work has kept me away from things I would much rather be doing. I havent seen any movies for like a couple of months probably, havent spent as much time with the family as I would have liked to, have been carrying around a bunch of great rock songs in my USB drive, but barely get the chance to listen to them, I have been reading some interesting stuff but have not been able to give it enough time. All that whining is basically pointing towards the fact that corporate imprisonment is taking its toll. I'm sick of it.

So last night, when I caught sight of Paul Giamatti while flicking channels, I thought what the heck, take some time and lets look into this. Giamatti is a good actor, and I thought maybe the movie has some potential. And it seemed funny in a quirky way, which always gets me.

So I watched, even waited through the long commercial breaks filled with those irritating weight-loss gimmicks which all claim to be the next best thing since iPod shuffles. The movie captivated me, primarily through the sincere performances, the mix of wistful humour and an underlying sensitivity towards the issues it was trying to tackle and of course, the great music.

Its called "Duets" and is basically a road movie, with a bunch of people travelling across the US to Omaha, Nebraska to participate in a Karaoke contest. Along the way, there is a lot of singing, a lot of black humour and lots of stuff going on.

Paul Giamatti (most recently in "The Lady in the Lake" unfortunately, better known for "American Splendour" and "Sideways") is as salesman who has become frustrated with his life. He tells his wife he is going out for a pack of ciggarettes and ends up taking a road trip with no destination in mind. He happens to stop at a karaoke bar, where a rather flaky girl inspires him with a lot of encouragement and a couple of lil blue pills to get on the stage and sing. When he wins the contest that day, he finds a new interest in life and wants to pursue it by contesting the big Karaoke contest in Omaha.

Besides Paul, the movie stars Huey Lewis (yes, the singer of the "Power of Love") as a Karaoke con-artist. He is suddenly confronted by his estranged daughter played by Gwyneth Paltrow who herself does some wonderful singing. The daughter wants to spend some time with her dad, and thats another sub-plot running through the movie.

The most interesting bit of the interlocking stories is that of an escaped black convict named Reggie (played very well by Andre Braugher). In one scene, as he hitch-hikes through america, he sticks-up the trucker who has just given him a ride. The trucker says "Learn a trade son, dont do this" and Reggie's anguished expression when he says "I did. This is it!" is remarkable.

Reggie has lived most of his life in prison. He never even learnt to drive a car before he was put in prison. The movie does not delve into the past, but shows Reggie's anguish at a lost life very well. Andre Braugher has been seen in quite a few character roles and is a recognizable face, but maybe not as much as he should be. When he meets up with Paul Giamatti, and though originally his intention is to rob him too, they become friends. There is a poignancy in their friendship as they both come to a deep understanding of what each is going through. They also join up and produce some of the best karaoke numbers ever.

And the music in the movie is just plain lovely. From Gwyneth Paltrow's surprisingly soulful rendition of "Betty Davis Eyes" to Andre Braugher and Paul's duet of "Try a little tenderness" and culminating in a fantastic rendition by Andre of "Free Bird", the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic. Just loved it.

Duets is not a classic, not a movie which will perhaps be remembered through time. But I will remember it for a while, for its music and Paul and Andre's performances.