Archive for the ‘popular culture’ Category
A year or so ago I posted a blog about the prospects for liberal arts majors, specifically those in philosophy, Liberal Arts (and especially Philosophy) Majors: Do Not Despair,”
The liberal arts may have a new secret weapon, Sheldon the theoretical physicist from The Big Bang Theory. It seems that he is horrified by the liberal arts (even though he loves comic books, which were probably written and drawn by humanities and arts people). And whatever horrifies Sheldon (e.g., intimacy), most people like. So if he finds the liberal arts appalling, perhaps others will draw the opposite conclusion.
And you “hard” science people out there, know that we love you here at UP@NIGHT, but you also have to face reality. Those in the humanities have longer running times.
Peter Gabriel’s most recent album was called UP. It contained a song titled, “Growing Up.” I have sort of grown up with Peter Gabriel, and it has been rather shocking to watch Gabriel’s youthful self transformed into the Old Man of the Mountains. But you know, growing up has its virtues. (And age doesn’t seemed to have prevented him from having a son in 2008. Gabriel was born in 1950.)
Last night I discovered that there are videos of Gabriel singing the same song live, and solo, over a period of twenty five years. Gabriel’s interpretations of “Here Comes the Flood” support those who believe that we become ourselves as we express ourselves over time. Or perhaps we just become more capable of divining the depths of our earlier work. (“Here Comes the Flood,” in my view, is not Gabriel’s very best work. This doesn’t matter. It is a song that gets better over time.)
You don’t have to listen to all of the earlier performances. A minute or so will do. And then watch and listen to the most recent one. His voice doesn’t have the range it once did, but….
Some readers have wondered why I have not been writing and posting new pieces on politics. I have taken something of a “sabbatical” this summer as I finish a book on the topics of self-determination and cosmopolitanism. I expect blogging fever to return before August is out.
In the meantime I have been posting a few clips that might be of interest to readers of UP@NIGHT. Last week I wrote about the work of the singer-songwriter Kenny Rankin, and I mentioned Laura Nyro’s influence on him. Having done so, I realized that readers under 50 may never have heard of Nyro, even though her songs have been covered by many others. I found Kenny Rankin’s work to be uneven, and the same is true for Nyro, but when she hit it, she really hit it.
There aren’t very many videos of her around. The two below leave much to be desired in terms of audio quality, but given where the country is right now, her “Save the Country” seems an appropriate pick. Her “Poverty Train” can be found about a minute and fifteen seconds into the second clip. (She was only 19 years old when she sung “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Festival, one of her first major live performances.) If you haven’t heard this Bronx original, by all means take a few minutes and check out the clips. (Here is the link to her Wikipedia bio: Laura Nyro.)
“Save the Country”
I just learned this evening that Kenny Rankin, singer-songwriter, died early in June. He was a unique talent. I first heard him in my teens on his first album, Mind Dusters, singing the songs in the two videos below. If you have never listened to him, the videos are worth watching. Below the video is most of the current entry on Rankin from Wikipedia. (I never thought my musical tastes would have anything in common with Johnny Carson’s, but one never knows.) He was no Bob Dylan or Miles Davis, but he never tried to be. I liked him best when it was just him and his guitar…..his voice, as always, uncannily sweet and heartfelt.
Three facts about Kenny’s life that I just discovered: he played guitar on Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” album, often opened for George Carlin, and Laura Nyro was a tremendous influence on him (as she was on others, including Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan). According to the L.A. Times:
One of his major influences was Laura Nyro, the late songwriter who wrote “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” whom he met in Greenwich Village in 1960. [Unlikely it would have been 1960, as opposed to the 1960s, since Nyro was 12 and 13 in 1960-- M.A.]
“She profoundly changed my musical life and affected it to this day, more than anyone or anything else,” Rankin told the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto in 2007. “She was deep, dark and light, the spectrum of passion.”
Mind Dusters (jacket)
In the mornin fun when no one will be drinkin anymore wine,
I wake the Sun up by givin him a fresh share
full of the wind cup
And I won’t be found in the shadows hiding,
I can wait for fate to bring around to me,
Any part of my tomorrow….tomorrow
Cause it’s oh…oh so peaceful here
No one bendin over my shoulder
Nobody breathin in my ear.
Oh uh oh… it’s oh so peaceful here
In the evening shadows are callin me
And the dew settles in my mind
And I think of friends in the yesterday
When my plans were giggled in rhyme
I had a son while on the run
And his love brought a tear to my eye
And maybe some day he might say
That I’m a pretty nice guy…Oh Oh my
end: It’s (oh so peaceful ) (3 times) here
Rankin was raised in New York and was introduced to music by his mother, who sang at home and for friends. Early in his career he worked as a singer-songwriter, and developed a considerable following during the 70s with a steady flow of albums, three of which broke into the Top 100 of the Billboard Album Chart. His liking for jazz was evident from an early age, but the times were such that in order to survive his career had to take a more pop-oriented course. By the 90s, however, he was able to angle his repertoire to accommodate his own musical preferences and to please a new audience while still keeping faith with the faithful. Rankin’s warm singing style and his soft, nylon-stringed guitar sound might suggest an artist more attuned to the supper-club circuit than the jazz arena, but his work contains many touches that appeal to the jazz audience.
Rankin appeared on The Tonight Show more than twenty times. Host Johnny Carson was so impressed by him that he wrote the liner notes to Rankin’s 1967 debut album Mind Dusters, which featured the single “Peaceful.” Helen Reddy would reach #2 Adult Contemporary and #12 Pop in 1973 with a cover of it, released as her follow-up single to “I Am Woman”. Georgie Fame also had a hit with this song in 1969, his only songwriting credit to hit the British charts reaching number sixteen and spending 9 weeks on the chart.
Rankin’s accompanists from time to time included Alan Broadbent, Mike Wofford and Bill Watrous, and on such occasions the mood slips easily into a jazz groove. His compositions have been performed by artists such as Mel Tormé and Carmen McRae, while Stan Getz said of him that he was “a horn with a heartbeat”. Rankin was deeply interested in Brazilian music and his Here In My Heart, on which he used jazz guests including Michael Brecker and Ernie Watts, was recorded mostly in Rio De Janeiro. More contemporary songs were given an airing following his move to Verve Records, including the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and Leon Russell‘s “A Song For You.”
Rankin’s own unique gift for reworking classic songs such as The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which he recorded for his Silver Morning album, so impressed Paul McCartney that he asked Rankin to perform his interpretation of the song when McCartney and John Lennon were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Rankin died in Los Angeles from lung cancer on June 7, 2009. He was 67 years old. Alternate source, The Los Angeles Times’ obituary, says Rankin was 69.
Spoiler Alert. This review talks about details of the plot of the new Star Trek movie.
Part I Hope Springs Infernal for Old Star Trek Junkies
One may wonder why someone of my age and interests would be writing about Star Trek. Well, I consider it a part of the collective consciousness of my generation (baby boomers) and the one that followed. The Star Trek phenomenon is worth reflecting on for what it tells us about where we have been and where we might be going. Popular culture can sometimes do that.
I won’t go through the litany here of all that this show may have meant for those who followed it. Let me just say that it embodied an Enlightenment sensibility about the future that had been very much a part of our culture. The future could be better, not only technologically, but ethically. For those of us shaken by the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Spock’s rationality certainly appeared preferable to Dr. Strangelove. And now, of course, there is the Spock/Obama connection, which has been much talked about. A president who might be rational (and feeling, but in a deep sort of way)? Very cool. So, a new Star Trek movie seemed like just the ticket in the spring of 2009. I really wanted it to work.
Part II The Reboot
The producers and writers of the new Star Trek knew what they were doing. They wanted a reboot. They got it. They wanted to reach a larger audience. They have. People, young people, appear to love it. They are going to make some big bucks. Hats off to the big Hollywood corporate establishment.
I am not one of those old fans of Star Trek that feels that any tampering with the “brand” is necessarily a bad thing. (As a matter of fact, I like what I have seen of the upgrade of the first two seasons of the original Star Trek. The improvement in special effects is welcome.) But I do resent the attempt by Abrams, the new movie’s director, to dismiss criticism by claiming that 10% of the old fans won’t be satisfied with anything that he does. The new Star Trek movie may be a success financially, and it may provide entertainment for some, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to the old series, and not because 10% of the old fans are cranky. Deflecting criticism in this fashion won’t cut it.
Part III The Trailers
I have a list of reasons for why the new movie is problematic. But first I recommend that you take a look at a trailer for the new Star Trek and compare it to the trailer for The Wrath of Khan, a movie that many have claimed is similar to the new one. And then as a treat, check out a third trailer. It was done by a fan, Dustin, several months ago. (According to his bio, he’s 24, so clearly not a boomer.) He didn’t like the trailer for the new movie, even before he saw it. One of the things that makes his edit interesting is that it invokes a sense of wonder, as well as an anticipation of the new, that was part of the old series, and which is totally absent from Abrams’s movie.
It’s too bad Abrams didn’t make Dustin’s movie.
Notice in Abram’s trailer that there is only a short image of the latest villain, Nero, while the older villain, Khan, fills the screen with his voice and personality. (How novel is this one? A Romulan named Nero. Give me a break. Both Nero and Khan are seeking revenge, but Nero looks like a tattooed motorcycle gang member, who’s fuming about someone stealing his bike. While Khan is, well, Khan.)
Part IV The Dozen Reasons (although there could be many more)
Okay, I promised a dozen reasons for why the new movie doesn’t cut it as a satisfying member of the Star Trek universe. Not in any particular order:
1. Suspension of disbelief. There are limits. This movie requires one to believe that a frustrated Spock, instead of sending Kirk to the brig, throws him off the ship to land on an ice covered planet, where in all likelihood he would die. Low and behold, Spock prime, the real Mr. Spock, is on this very planet. After being chased by a monster, Kirk just happens to run into a cave in which Spock has been hanging out, having been marooned by Nero, the tattooed villain. Spock then takes Kirk to a Federation outpost, where, low and behold, he meets Scotty. And how did Kirk get into the Star Fleet? No exams for this young man. Just a dad who was a hero and a note about his being a genius. I won’t go on. This is not only poor science fiction; it’s poor fiction. And it doesn’t work as fantasy, because even in the latter genre there are some rules.
2. Cavalier attitude toward violence and genocide. Okay, there are times that planets have to be destroyed in science fiction, but in this movie, two of them are gone in a New York minute, each with billions of people. In one case the apparent need for this plot device is to create a madman, Nero, in another, to make Spock emotional. You don’t go killing off billions of people, even if they are Vulcans and Romulans, in order to account for the psychology of two characters.
3. Pacing. The T.V. series was paced in a way that was often hypnotic. (This is less true of the movies, but there are some exceptions.) Time slowed down. One had time to look around and see what this new world looked like. The new movie assumes that everyone in the audience suffers from ADD. Look another star ship just blew up. Look people are falling off ledges. Look at all the lights….
4. Humorlessness. The humor in the writing is contrived and characters at times appear to parodying lines from the series. I simply don’t understand those who have talked about the humor in this movie. It is weak. It is saccharine. And a Star Trek without humor is like space without time.
5. This movie could have been made with virtually no reference to the Star Trek universe. It’s bang and shot em up vision of space would have worked just about as well with another cast of characters.
6. If the villain is not a tattooed member of a motor cycle gang, then he is an escaped patient from a mental ward who is off his medication. He certainly has nothing of the Romulan in him. (He doesn’t even look like one.) Special effects can not compensate for weak villains. And weak villains undermine the character of the heroes. (The worst Star Trek films all had weak villains.)
7. The music is claustrophobic. Check out how different Dustin’s edit is of the new trailer, in part because he is using music from older movies.
8. The young Kirk is caricature of the original Kirk. Again, lack of humor is part of the problem. The character is one-dimensional. He might as well be a bad boy who turns star football captain. (And the bits with the little convertible and then the motorcycle…..This guy is not James Dean, and neither was Shatner.)
9. There wasn’t one original science fiction idea in the entire movie. Every single “idea” can be found in countless movies. (Did we really have to see the ship saved by dumping the warp core? Oh, no, not the warp core again. And then there was “the ledge.” Just how many times did the young Kirk find himself hanging off a ledge of some sort?)
10. The movie had nothing to say. This is fine if your aim is simply to entertain. But you would think that the reboot of a series that did have some ideas would have tried just one or two.
11. I prefer Apples to P.C.’s, but really, did the Bridge have to look like it was designed by the Apple folks. (There were times that I thought I might have seen an Apple logo or two.) This is a small quibble, but I believe that it reflects a lack of imagination on the part of the film’s creators.
12. This movie was not about boldly going where no one has gone before. It was about staying close to a formula that has succeeded in recent action films. It is bread and circus of a particular vintage, post 9/11 escapism.
Good or great movies (or series) leave us with scenes to remember. What will you remember about this film 10 months from now? (Young Kirk hanging on to some nondescript ledge?) Oh, I know. At least I know for boomers: Leonard Nimoy’s face as the aged Spock saying to Kirk, you have always been my friend and always will be my friend. And the only really funny line in the movie, when the older Spock tells the younger Spock that he was messing with Kirk’s head when he claimed that a terrible paradox when ensue if the two Spocks met. A terrible paradox did not ensue, unfortunately. That might have been fun. Just a weak movie.
I rest my case.
Since this Blog began a few months ago it has been called, “Mitchell Aboulafia,” which happens to be the name of the author of the postings. But as the Blog grew in circulation, it needed something a bit snappier (than me) for a title. Hence, “UP@NIGHT.” (The author is a bit of a night owl, but he also wants you to know that he is working away at all hours of the day and night to produce UP@NIGHT.)
I have had some very nice feedback on the site and I hope that readers continue to enjoy it. I know that I have enjoyed participating in “the collective experiment” of internet writing and communication. (And it certainly allows me to be more playful than my academic work.)
UPDATE: August 21, 2008: On August 20th I added a little feature to the site, a cluster map. If you click on the map, you can see the locations of the visitors to this Blog. I have noticed that on the first day of its use it is not registering all of the visits, but I have been informed that there is often a delay (and there can be more than one visit from one location, since a location is an IP address).