Here’s a pretty easy site to make custom maps, Mapcharts. Below is a quick map I made.
My USA is a map of my travel history in the US. Many of course are just a single city I flew to for a workshop or something.
This is a still from Trail of Blood, the first movie in the Mikogami Trilogy. Jokichi is a feared samurai, who is off-camera. These are two bad guys, and the one in the rear has just said, “Don’t you know who this is? It’s Jokichi of Mikogami!” to which the bad guy in front says, “Jokichi-schmokichi.”
Someone in the subtitle department had a small laugh.
I had a short trip to Kansas City (KCMO, not KCK! There’s a difference!), and spent a short time visiting two museums. I went to the inside of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which was showing an exhibit of Hung Liu, a Chinese-born American artist whose powerful paintings mix Red China propaganda and children’s literature, political statement, expressionist elements, and physical elements that accompany the image.
I also visited the outside of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, because the inside was closed. I hope to go back, because it is enormous and looks to be quite extensive. It was a beautiful clear day, so I walked the perimeter or the grounds. I saw several of its many Henry Moores, as well as Claes Oldenburg’s excellent Shuttlecocks, a set of four giant birdies caught just as they landed on either side of the main building, as if it were a badminton net. An exhibition on the Plains Indians included some modern large tipis on the lawn. But my favorite piece to experience was Robert Morris’s Glass Labyrinth, a triangular path of glass walls.
I made a movie of my walk through Glass Labyrinth, and a few pictures follow.
It’s a labyrinth rather than a maze: you follow a single path into the center, then turn around to follow the same path out. The glass walls are quite clean, so there are few visible clues to show you where to turn; it was common to see people bang into a wall, which is why you are warned to walk slowly. (I don’t bump into anything, but you can see the expectant looks on the faces of the people I meet inside.)
The buzzing is from a drone someone was operating nearby.
This 11-minute video on the neon craftsmen of Hong Kong has a lot to recommend it; for instance, how to bend Chinese ideograms so as not to burn your hands. I visited Hong Kong a couple years ago, and the neons signs are over the top.
I was reminded of this recently when I was in Philadelphia. We had dinner in Chinatown, which had several excellent multicolor signs. But also, I was inside the Center for Architecture, whose walls are adorned with some fine animated signs, like this excellent sign for Greyhound:
Sound City takes its place among the best music documentaries I’ve ever seen. A big part of it is Dave Grohl, who seems like a nice guy who just happens to be a great musician who was lucky enough to have been a part of rock history. Whether he’s in the studio or talking to the camera from the driver’s seat of his Tradesman van, he seems utterly unpretentious.
The movie is about Sound City, a rather junky studio in Van Nuys, California, that had two lives: in the ’70s and ’80s, it was where everybody recorded: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Pat Benatar, etc. The hallways are lined with platinum records. And then, just as a new generation had started to go elsewhere, Nirvana recorded “Nevermind” there, which ushered in a new era of popularity, hosting Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Slipknot, and many more. Studios are finicky places and the big room at Sound City was famous for its drum sound.
At the center of the studio is a Neve console, a tank of a 24-track mixing board that the engineers and producers love. It represented the pinnacle of analog audio electronics — just as the highly produced synthesizer and electronic drum sounds of modern rock began to not only become the de facto radio style, but it began to change how recordings were made. And that’s when the movie takes a turn: it becomes less about Sound City and more about the analog versus digital divide — which then segues into something very interesting: how the digital revolution has led to more people making perfectible recordings on laptops and how we’re losing the idea of a group of musicians with the talent and collaborative skills to play well when the tape rolls, working on arrangements and creating music live and in the moment.
The last and best part of the doc was the end section. Grohl buys the Neve from Sound City, installs it in his own 606 Studio West, and invites a number of Sound City musicians to lay some tracks down. Even if none of the songs is a hit, it’s maybe the best record I’ve seen of what it’s like to work out songs in real time. We see Grohl lay down tracks with Springfield, Jim Keltner, Lee Ving, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, and others, and these aren’t the pointless jams in It Might Get Loud, these are real, original songs and everyone is adding ideas, including the producer Butch Vig working in the booth. (Good line in the booth: “Go ahead, Butch, tell Paul McCartney what to play.”) The Paul McCartney section is particularly inspired, as his backing band is Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear: Nirvana without Cobain.
Highly recommended. Here’s the trailer.
Longform.org put up a remarkable Rolling Stone article from 2000 by Rian Malan, “In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.”
This is the story of the 1939 song “Mbube” by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, a Zulu group who recorded in Johannesburg. The sang in a workingman’s style called isicathamiya that derives from a warning: “Tread carefully, boys”: that is, don’t ruin the stage with your traditional stomp-dancing. (Malan points out that Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s light-footed stage movements descend from this style.)
A 78 RPM record of “Mbube” landed in the hands of Alan Lomax, who gave it to his friend Pete Seeger, who misunderstood the underlying chant of “Uyimbube” and called his version “Wimoweh,” which became a 1952 hit for the Weavers just when they wer forced to disband due to Red Scare allegations.
“Wimoweh” was covered many times by many singers, eventually including a Brooklyn group called the Tokens, who had heard that the lyrics were about hunting lions. The Tokens’ producers didn’t want to record “Wimoweh” as is, so they asked for help from an orchestrator named George Weiss, who deconstructed the song. He wrote some new words and put the melody front and center. The recording included a tympanist mimicking “jungle drums” and an opera singer named Anita Darien doing that soaring countermelody. It became one of the biggest hits of all time, and still shows up in movies, cover versions, children’s records, TV shows, and more, all around the world.
And that’s just the first half of this article. Malan’s real goal is to follow the money from this megahit and figure out how much of it ever made it back to Linda’s impoverished family, which brings us to ideas about folk songs and copyright, public domain songs credited to fictitious songwriters (“Wimoweh” is credited to “Paul Campbell,” who also “wrote” “Rock Island Line” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”), and the wheeling-dealings of some real music-industry sharks. Eventually everyone gets into court on two continents, but all in all it’s an eye-opening account of the story behind a song that refuses to go to sleep.
Recently finished The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel. Though the book is primarily about the 1956 Western The Searchers, the book is extremely wide-ranging, touching on the Texan-Indian wars; the history of Indian abduction of whites and “captive narratives” as popular story; the tragedy of Cynthia Ann Parker, abducted by Comanches as a girl and “rescued” by whites as a married woman with children; her son, Quanah Parker, who became the one of the most famous and influential Indians in the US; the novelist Alan LeMay, who used Cynthia Ann’s story in his novel The Searchers; the making of one of the finest Westerns ever (even though it is terribly racist); the career of John Ford, the complex, brilliant, bullying film director who was kind to Indians while depicting them as savage cliches; the career of John Wayne, Ford’s long-bullied friend, who gave perhaps his best performance in the movie; and, finally, the legacy of Quanah in the white and Comanche branches of the Parker family today. Whew.
Underneath it all is a thread about the racist ideas whites held of Indians, and the fictions created to justify their treatment. Notable is an idea that is so clear now, though as a kid it went over my head: the Fate Worse than Death (being raped by Indians), often shown as a white saving a last bullet for suicide or mercy killing before the savages arrive.
Best piece of trivia I knew half of: Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison saw the movie and wrote a hit song based on a line Wayne says four times in the movie: “That’ll Be the Day.” The coincidence is that their hometown of Lubbock, Texas is in the heart of Comancheria, the tribal lands where the story took place (though Ford shot the movie in Navajo lands because of his love of Monument Valley).
This Slate review of a 2005 book on screenwriting is revealing and cleverly constructed. Peter Suderman uses the review to illuminate the way this book has infected movie plots in the last few years:
If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).
Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat goes beyond Robert McKee’s Story and other guides to creating screenplays. Instead of discussing general structural principles of good movies, he provides a beat-by-beat list of all the basic plot elements that must be hit, giving them names like Catalyst, Debate, Bad Guys Close In, and Dark Night of the Soul.
Even better, Suderman uses Snyder’s formula to write his article, even providing a nicely annotated version showing where the seams are. I know the next time I watch a formulaic movie (maybe I’ll catch Iron Man 3 again), I’ll be playing Spot the Formula Moment.
Yet once you know the formula, the seams begin to show. Movies all start to seem the same, and many scenes start to feel forced and arbitrary, like screenplay Mad Libs. Why does Kirk get dressed down for irresponsibility by Admiral Pike early in Star Trek Into Darkness? Because someone had to deliver the theme to the main character. Why does Gina Carano’s sidekick character defect to the villain’s team for no reason whatsoever almost exactly three-quarters of the way through Fast & Furious 6? Because it’s the all-is-lost moment, so everything needs to be in shambles for the heroes. Why does Gerard Butler’s character in Olympus Has Fallen suddenly call his wife after a climactic failed White House assault three-quarters of the way through? Because the second act always ends with a quiet moment of reflection—the dark night of the soul.
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is a beautifully shot and edited documentary about a photographer who creates elaborately composed and lit compositions that seem to tell a story. Each photograph looks to be a moment taken from a film, maybe by David Lynch: often shot in deep twilight, giving us glow from the sky as well as exterior signs and traffic lights or interior rooms. Often the photos contain exterior and interior details, whether we look through an open door into a room or out to a yard, or even just the interior of a car. There are people, too, perhaps in some interior crisis of their own, though from Crewdson’s comments any narrative we create is our own — he doesn’t supply, or even care about, the before and after. There is just this painterly, pregnant moment.
Each shot is essentially created with the same care, equipment, and crew as a movie. Cranes, lights, assistants, makeup, and, in the shots that are created in purpose-built sets, construction crews and interior designers. Crewdson frets over every detail, and yet I really enjoyed him as a person. It was remarkable how even-tempered he is, even in the face of setbacks like a crying baby or a house-wrecking crew. He seemed to have none of the “I’m in charge here” bluster you’d expect to see in the midst of such elaborate direction, nor did he seem to need to convey what was in his mind’s eye (except, perhaps, to his director of photography). And yet he was still incredibly thoughtful about the process.
I enjoyed every minute, and really liked director Ben Shapiro’s choices, from the titleless opening (I went back: the title is at exactly 5:00 in) to the end, with Crewdson’s voiceover reflections on each artist’s central story while we look at the site of his new work (which I also went back to hear again). shapiro himself has a fine eye, and he manages to convey the complexity of Crewdson’s work without losing sight of his larger goals. The close of the movie is shot at Cinecittà, the famous studio backlot in Rome, where Crewdson is setting up for his next effort.