Thursday, April 25, 2013

Josh Ritter: The Beast in Its Tracks

Josh Ritter's new album, The Beast in Its Tracks, opens with a minute-long fragment of a song addressed to a former lover: "Last night I saw/Someone with your eyes/Someone with your smile/Someone with your smile/We danced/And I regret that she asked me to/'Cause she didn't have your arms." This image of attempting to move on whilst preoccupied with a former love is the overarching theme of this album. The Beast in Its Tracks feels an awful lot like the songwriter without his mask on; an attempt at confessional - if not autobiographical - work. Musically, The Beast in Its Tracks is in keeping with Ritter's established sound; acoustic guitar, crystal-clear vocals, and strings that enhance the songs without being intrusive. "Bonfire" sounds remarkably like a classic Paul Simon song, and wouldn't sound out of place on any of Simon's early solo records. But this time out there are no third-person narratives about mummies doomed to live and love eternally, or tragic first-person reminiscences of Arctic explorers. What we have instead is a beautiful collection of songs about starting again in the wake of a love affair, and the singer's feelings of exhilaration and ambivalence. There is a tension to the lyrics about starting anew. It's as if Ritter is trying to convince himself that he's okay ("I'm happy for the first time in a long time"), but his misgivings are on display on every song ("I can't pretend that all is well, it's like I'm haunted by a ghost"). I think the key to this recurring theme lies in track nine, "The Apple Blossom Rag". Seemingly recorded live - the song begins with unintelligible whispering near the microphone, and what sounds like plates being cleared in the background - "The Apple Blossom Rag" is bitter, funny, and wistful, all at once, concluding with the heartbreaking self-realization: "Lord, I'm such a fool/For things that sing so sweet and sad/But are so [expletive] cruel." Whether this move toward more personal songwriting proves to be a permanent one for Ritter or a mere detour into "breakup album" territory, The Beast in Its Tracks is well worth your time.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Classic Cinema: Badlands

Badlands recently got the Criterion Collection treatment, and I cannot recommend this film enough. Terrence Malik's first major movie, made in 1973, is a masterpiece that still holds up.

Our introduction to main characters Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) are telling. Kit is collecting garbage and hovers over a dead dog without a hint of emotion, and Holly is in her front lawn twirling a baton-- how much more innocent can you get? This couple embarks on a killing spree road trip which is loosely based on the real-life late 1950s Starkweather-Fugate killing spree.

It's not a particularly gory-violent film, but it's impact lies in the bursts of violence set against a quiet background. It's actually a quiet movie in many respects. Viewers are lulled into the story by the use of beautiful scenery (more on that later), some subtle humor peppered throughout, and a main theme song, Carl Orff's Schulwerk-Grassenhauer, that is playful and childlike, which is perfectly deceiving and strangely perfect. Kit and Holly build this detached world around themselves and when someone threatens it, Kit attacks. They are not socially awkward loners, though. Kit is adept at cultivating a James Dean persona, thinking that his charm will keep him afloat, which it does to a degree. Eventually, Holly just becomes bored, as a fifteen-year-old girl would.

The performances by Sheen and Spacek may very well be the best of their respective careers and is not to be overlooked, but, what I truly love about the movie is the visuals. I could not write up Badlands without mentioning Art Director Jack Fisk. I believe that he's as much responsible for the greatness of this film as Malik. Fisk is a master as conveying the simple beauty and struggle of landscape. Check out There Will Be Blood for further confirmation of this man's genius. (Also, Fisk met his future wife, Sissy Spacek, on this film.)

If you're already a fan of the film, be sure to checkout the 40 minute making-of documentary on this disc, which includes present day interviews with Sheen, Spacek, and Fisk.
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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Films featuring Libraries and Librarians

 In honor of National Library Week, check out a movie about libraries!  Below are some famous movies featuring libraries and librarians:

The Time Traveler's Wife (2010):  Based off the Audrey Niffenegger weeper, this movie follows the tortured but passionate romance of artist Claire and librarian Henry.  Personally, I'd recommend reading the book over watching this movie, but Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana do look fantastic!
Find this film in the catalog!

The Hollywood Librarian (2009):  This documentary looks that different images of librarians and libraries in American movies.
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The Station Agent (2004):  The so-hot-right-now Peter Dinklage made his big break in this indie sleeper.  Michelle Williams plays his love interest, a local librarian who is unhappily pregnant by her good-for-nothing boyfriend.
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Miranda (2003):   John Simms (from the British miniseries State of Play) plays a librarian who falls for a mysterious but comely library patron (Christina Ricci). 
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The Mummy (1999):  In this action thriller,  Rachel Weisz plays a beautiful but clumsy librarian at the library of Alexandra.
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Wings of Desire (1987):  This Wim Wenders masterpiece features one of the most famous library scenes ever in  the Berlin State Libary (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin). For the angels in the film, who can hear humans' thoughts, the library is one of the loudest places in the city.  This is a spectacularly beautiful film, highly recommended!
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Breakfast Club (1985):  What's a fate worth than death for a high school student?  Having to spend Saturday in the school library!  Check out this John Hughes classic and have Simple Minds stuck in your head all day.
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Ghostbusters (1984):  This classic 80s sci-fi comedy has lots of great scenes in the New York Public Library, including a librarian ghost who mysteriously stacks books!
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The Music Man (1962):  Featuring Marian the Librarian, queen of all librarian stereotypes.  She shushes, wears her hair up in a bun, and has spiffy glasses.  But when she takes down her hair, she's a total babe!
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Desk Set (1957):  Watch the sparks fly between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in this romance set in television reference library!
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It's a Wonderful Life (1956):  Without George Bailey around, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) is forced to live her life as a librarian.  The horror!  The horror!
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For further celebration, check out some fiction and non-fiction books featuring libraries and librarians!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

Everyone has a favorite memory of beloved film critic Roger Ebert; whether it's a clever remark he made on his long-running television show, a favored sentence from one of his thousands of movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, a passage from one of his many books, or a cherished personal encounter with a man who was, by all accounts, friendly and approachable and happy to discuss the movies with anyone who was interested.

My own favorite memory of Roger Ebert comes from an old episode of Siskel and Ebert and The Movies that aired sometime in the late '80s. The format of the show was simplicity itself; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel would alternately introduce a film that was currently playing in theaters, some clips would be shown, the two critics would share their impressions of the film, maybe some banter, and then a verdict would be rendered: thumbs up or thumbs down. That was it. And you always kind of hoped that they'd disagree on the film in question. When the two disagreed, you got a fuller sense of what they really thought of the film, good or bad. There was something charming about the way they wanted each other to appreciate what was unique about a given film, or what made it uniquely awful.

I would've been about ten years old when this particular episode aired. In addition to reviewing whatever Hollywood films were current that week, none of which I remember, there was a review of Alejandro Jodorowsky's film Santa Sangre. And these were, unquestionably, the strangest, most unsettling images I had seen in my life to that point. I remember Ebert, in voice-over, explicating a scene where an armless woman was playing the piano with the aid of her son, who had slipped his arms through the sleeves of his mother's dress. There was something off-kilter in the acting, and the candle-lit set appeared baroque, almost operatic. The succeeding images were dreamlike and menacing, evocative of dark mysteries that I couldn't possibly understand. Needless to say, Ebert gave it a thumbs up.

That peculiar memory resurfaced at the news of Roger's passing, those four or five minutes of a decades-old episode. I've been thinking about that, how appropriate it is that Roger Ebert used his popular weekly TV show to highlight a little-known art-film about magic, vengeance, and religious fanaticism, directed by a Chilean-French filmmaker whose name almost certainly meant nothing to the vast majority of viewers. Roger Ebert loved the movies. Big movies and small ones, great movies and otherwise. Roger Ebert loved the movies. It was an enduring, lifelong love-affair, and we were fortunate to share it with him.