My younger son has just started making and sharing music, so I sent him this short encouragement.
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.
Vi Hart (a full-time mathemusician at Khan Academy) makes mostly short YouTube videos on a variety of mostly math and science subjects. She draws in a notebook while talking really fast, making insightful, surprising connections. She’s smart, funny, knowledgeable, and entertaining.
This brilliant video is, I think, a bit of a departure: a 30-minute piece explaining how 12-tone music works. Because of copyright law, she can’t play Stravinsky and Schoenberg, so she composes her own 12-tone versions of well-known tunes, with side-journeys into pattern recognition and the nature of art. By the end, she’s composed a four-part, 12-tone vocal version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that she sings herself. It’s a tour de force of music, science, art, and explanation.
Yesterday I was in the truck for an hour, so I listened to This American Life, the show called “Tribes”. Act 2 was remarkable enough that I played it for Susan last night — it’s 14 minutes. TAL’s description is “How could whispering change your life? Andrea Seigel tells this story about finding out that she is undeniably not alone,” which stems both from the show’s theme that day, and the desire not to give too much away.
ASMR is a tricky feeling to describe… a tingle in your brain, a kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine… most [people] depend on external “triggers” to set them off. Triggers can include getting a massage or a haircut or a manicure, or hearing someone talk in a soothing tone of voice (Bob Ross, the “let’s put a happy tree right here” painter from PBS, is a common trigger), or even just watching someone pay extremely close attention to a task, like assembling a model.
This isn’t a thing I have at all, and yet I get it. Though obviously different, this seems related to the flow state described by psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, though this is not about creativity or even concentrated action. Still, the idea that our brain creates natural, meditative effects due to internal or external stimuli doesn’t sound particularly controversial. People can fall into states of acute concentration and calming focus in many settings and activities — performing music, exercising or playing sports, playing games, even “chores” such as gardening, dishes, or ironing. Again, maybe with less of the physical sensation the ASMR folks describe, but it’s all a continuum of feeling, and I envy their ability to find triggers for it. If an hour of Bob Ross is your meditation practice, who could deny you that simple joy?
This phenomenon — where people get intense pleasure from small, tinny noises like rustling paper or clicking marbles — also has its opposite, hyperacusis, a condition where people are upset by those same sounds. Which, in turn, reminded me of word aversion, in which people have a string physical reaction to specific words, like moist or squab. (Sorry if that upset you.) Slate recently covered this phenomenon, “Why Do We Hate Certain Words?“
Sometime ago, I came across a passage from Roger Ebert’s Life Itself: A Memoir, set it in type and printed it to hang on the wall:
I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Roger Ebert died today. I am rarely saddened by the death of public figures, but in the last few years Ebert had come to mean something to me, as he moved his focus beyond movies and into his life, his times, and his feelings. He started his career as a journalist before becoming a well-known movie critic, first in print and later, most famously, on television. He loved writing about movies, but he also wrote long profiles, screenplays, and even a cookbook.
Due to the cancer in his jaw and its unsuccessful treatments, he had lost his speaking voice, and his ability to eat and drink. But he turned this deficit into the best writing of his career, through the medium of his blog. He wrote terrific, long-form entries on the death of his great friend and colleague, Gene Siskel; on eating and not eating; on his childhood and early reporter days (note three different links!); on his alcoholism; on his post-surgery condition; and on a huge variety of wonderful experiences he’d had in his life. He had no more time for anger; even his posts on things he disliked about the world had a tone of disappointment rather than rancor. His last blog post was full of his many plans for the future, even as he was telling us his plans to slow down and thanking us for spending 46 years reading his work.
I recommend the long Esquire profile from a few years ago, Roger Ebert: The Essential Man. In addition, Salon just reposted an essay Ebert adapted from his book, I Do Not Fear Death, which is where I found the quote I placed at the top. See you at the movies.