Saturday, June 30, 2007

An Unwritten Future And a Past Not Forgotten
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Truth to tell, I only recently realized how a brief encounter with Joe Strummer over 25 years ago completely reshaped my approach to writing. It was 1981, and the Clash were lined up to be the cover story for the inaugural issue of my magazine, Pulse: Tomorrow’s Trends Today. Their concert at the now defunct, but still lamented Bronco Bowl was nothing short of phenomenal, my photographer had gotten some great shots, and all that was left to do was the backstage interview with Joe Strummer.I wasn’t a stranger to rock journalism, and I’d certainly done more than a few interviews at this point. But Strummer, for whatever reason, was utterly uncooperative. Maybe he was tired, perhaps he was taking his fresh Mohawk too seriously, or it could have been he knew punk was over and he wanted to ride it out on one last wave of bravado. It doesn’t matter.
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But the interview was going nowhere. No matter what I asked him, he’d just say, “You tell me.” Finally, after several minutes of that, he looked at me and snarled, “You yanks don’t know anything about rock and roll.” I was flabbergasted and enraged. “Excuse me,” I blurted, “We invented rock and roll. You Brits are just borrowing it.”There was a moment of tension as backstage jaws dropped, waiting for the next volley. Strummer just grinned, took a swig of beer, shook my hand and walked away. To make a long story short, I still got my story, the Clash were still my cover feature and l learned a valuable lesson about journalism, especially rock journalism. And that was never, ever be intimidated by your subject. Had it not been for Joe Strummer, I might have gone through life blissfully unaware of the importance of stripping away masks in the course of an interview.
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With Strummer, that was easier said than done. Joe Strummer wore a lot of masks, and it’s only now, nearly five years after his untimely death, that we’re beginning to understand the real man behind them. The Future is Unwritten, the soundtrack from Julian Temple’s Strummer biopic of the same name, offers a bit of insight into the man. From 1999-2002, he hosted his own radio program on the BBC World Service, where he had free reign over the music he played. This album takes that radio format, couples it with interview snippets and rare tracks, and ultimately offers a snapshot of the dying days of the 20th century.“Joe, we’re going to have your name on the screen,” a disembodied voice asks as the album opens. “Is there anything you’d like us to write under it—Mescalaro, Clash, anything. .?”
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“I’d like you to write ‘punk rock warlord,” he replies, “with ‘warlord’ being one word.” And from there, he launches into an a cappella rendition of “White Riot.” It’s a worthy nod to the meaning of punk, stripped of everything but rage. It’s only fitting that “White Riot” is followed by Rashid Taha’s Arabic update of “Rock the Casbah.” Not one of the Clash’s best songs, it nonetheless illustrates how keenly aware the band was of global politics. It was a work of satire, made all the more poignant when sung in Arabic and presented as a mixtape.
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The Future Is Unwritten isn’t about rehashing the Clash, though. It’s more of a musical memoir that details Strummer’s influences and loves, and the impact they had on the evolution of the Clash and his later projects. Some of those influences are obvious. MC5’s 1968 recording of “Kick out the Jams” is a seminal proto punk piece that laid the groundwork for the entire punk movement. But the Clash, particularly Strummer. were never content to merely ride the punk wave. Early on, they strayed from the constraints of punk, and redefined it as a genre. As their frontman, Strummer led the band into areas that, at the time, prompted some hardcore punks to accuse the band of selling out.
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Nothing, in fact, could have been further from the truth. By embracing unlikely idioms and incorporating them into the Clash sound, Strummer exemplified the punk dictum of “the first rule is there are no rules.” Strummer’s work with his pre-Clash band the 101ers had already shown his predisposition to roots rock, as illustrated here with their 1976 recording of “Keys to Your Heart.” Strummer acknowledges a debt to Elvis Presley as he introduces the Kings “Crawfish,” and exhibits a profound understanding of American message music as he spins Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy.”
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What makes The Future Is Unwritten a beautiful album is the way in which it segues from one genre to another, intertwining the Clash, Strummer’s later music ventures and the influences that permeated his music and shaped his path. Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, U-Roy and Bob Dylan all resided in Strummer’s thoughts. The 25 tracks on this album, punctuated by comments from Strummer, offer a glimpse into the way the man’s mind worked.
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Joe Strummer was a complex man, and he could often be infuriating. I think he rather enjoyed being perceived as an enigma. But upon listening to this album, it’s apparent that Strummer was a sum much greater than the parts he shared with us. This album shines a much needed sliver of light on his unforgettable legacy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

About East Texas and the Big Beat
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If you really want to understand the concept of spacetime, take a left at I20 or I30 out of Dallas. Within minutes, the Gotham City architecture of the vaguely ominous-sounding Metroplex fades into its ozone driven mist, given over to hillier farmland and actual trees. It’s a sparse landscape, dotted here and there with roadside fruit stands, southern cafes, old school gas stations and the occasional Dairy Queen. It’s a pocket of Texas that lies between Dallas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and it’s a world unto itself.
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I think of Dallas as where the west begins — at least the urban west of the 21st century. It’s just the way people born in East Texas think, and with good reason. East Texas is the last bastion of the old south, albeit an odd hybrid of southern charm and outlaw mentality. East Texas is a microcosmic society that’s pretty much set in its ways, and doesn’t welcome change with open arms. It may seem quaint and picturesque, but beneath that veneer, it’s repressive. Big city ways are looked at with a wary eye, at best. Dallas represents a two-edged sword — it’s an Oz of magic and release, or a cesspool of corruption.Environments like that unwittingly breed a rebellious creativity. Don Henley and Tommy Lee Jones both come from East Texas. In fact, it’s given birth to artists, filmmakers, musicians, and writers too numerous to mention here. And here’s why: restless minds in East Texas have to, by necessity, create their own versions of New York, London and Los Angeles. There aren’t a lot of venues in Grand Saline or Sulphur Springs, or even Tyler that cater to cosmopolitan tastes. It’s simply not a priority there. As a result, a lot of creative projects that have their roots in East Texas take on a voice that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
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Fair to Midland, billed as a Dallas band, but actually hailing from Sulphur Springs, succinctly illustrates that point. Even the band’s name is a take on what passes as a pun in East Texas. It goes something like this: First guy: “How ya doin?” Second guy: “Fair to middlin’, clear to Odessa.” Get it?—middlin’, Midland... you had to be there, I guess. Oddly enough, East Texas is not known as a comedy hotbed. Over the years, though, it’s been the unlikely breeding ground for a lot of equally unlikely music. With Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times is True, Fair to Midland poise themselves to carry that unlikely tradition to a new generation.
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In the past, East Texas has spawned peculiar strains of psychedelica (13th Floor Elevators), blues guitar (Bugs Henderson), punk (Mouse and the Traps) and jazz-based honky tonk (way too many to even try to name), all with an indelible signature that’s all but invisible to anybody who hasn’t lived there. With this release, Fair to Midland attempt to crossbreed the arty aspirations of prog rock with the baser instincts of thrash metal. It’s a valiant effort to be sure, but it often suffers from overcompensation.It’s understandable to an extent — Fables from a Mayfly is the band’s major label debut, one of the first from the newly formed Serjical Strike label, itself a wing of the recently coined Universal Republic imprint. Serjikal Strike is helmed by Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down, and as such, is a niche label of sorts. FTM fit into that niche, and apparently were hurriedly groomed to deliver some “product.” The band had already released work on their own that wasn’t too shabby, most of it on their independently released inter.funda.stifle. That provided enough material for half of Fables from a Mayfly. Major labels operating the way they do, those tracks had to be redone to lend the release an air of originality. David Botrill, who had worked with Peter Gabriel and Tool, was brought in to produce and generally polish the older tunes. They added five new tunes to flesh out the album, and succeeded in getting out their product.
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That’s where the problem with Fables from a Mayfly lies. There’s not that much unique or even original about FTM—they rarely stray far from the metal blueprints laid out in the late nineties. They’re taking their cues from the likes of Queensryche and System of a Down, particularly on the title track. Some of this can be attributed to Botrill’s slick, heavy-handed production, grounded more in the American Idol mindset of manufacturing a sensation than enhancing the artist’s raw material. Still, once the layers of slick production are stripped away, hints of the band’s potential peek through the veneer.
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Bands from East Texas have always melded a number of styles into their music, and FTM is no exception. I always attributed that to the rural roots, and the fact that you learned what you like pretty much on your own. In the case of FTM, their love of melody and art rock lyrics is juxtaposed with goth and hardcore metal. It’s jarring at times, and leaves you with the distinct feeling they’re still trying to figure out what it is exactly they’re trying to accomplish. They’ll figure it out, assuming they’re not swallowed by a hit-hungry machine. In the meantime, Fables from a Mayfly is one of those albums that we can hopefully look back on with fondness as to how it all began.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Reality Beyond the Pale

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With the lines between fiction and reality becoming increasingly blurred — what with the preponderance of “reality shows” and newspeak accounts of everything from the war in Iraq to Midwestern flash floods — it’s almost easy to accept the premise of a documentary about a burglar presented in real time. Street Thief (premiering tonight on A&E, 10PM EST) takes brief pains to bill itself as a “filmed record” rather than a documentary, chronicling the crimes of an actual burglar. But the intent remains the same.
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Once we accept the premise that Kaspar Carr, perhaps Chicago’s greatest and most elusive burglar, is allowing a couple of documentary filmmakers to accompany and film him as he commits his audacious heists, Street Thief becomes a compelling, if disturbing work of cinema verite told with a noir slant. Whether we believe director Malik Bader’s claims that he’s intimately familiar with the tricks of the trade the film depicts is largely inconsequential. It unfolds in such a matter of fact way that we’re drawn into the world of Kaspar Carr and his meticulous planning of each job he does. He’s utterly amoral, viewing each hit with a businessman’s eye.
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We watch, fascinated, as he details the planning that goes into each heist. It’s by no means glamorous work—he digs through dumpsters for receipts; taps phone lines; surveys his target for months; and generally takes whatever measures necessary in the planning stages before he goes through with the burglary. They’re not glamorous heists, either—usually mom and pop grocery counters, strip clubs, and even a Cinemark movieplex. Carr finds his mark anywhere he knows there will be a great deal of cash when he strikes.
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Kasper Carr, as portrayed by director Bader, is as complex as any person we know in our everyday lives. When he’s working, he’s completely focused on the job at hand. But during his “off” hours, he’s just a regular guy. He is even seen barbequeing steaks for his documentarian followers, politely asking them if they’re hungry before he pulls through a fast food drive-thru.
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Throughout, he exudes a public persona that offers no hints as to how he makes his living. Much like the starry-eyed filmmakers who fall deeper into his world, we find ourselves wanting to hang out with Kaspar Carr, while every fiber of our being tells us he represents all that we loathe.Street Thief is a confounding film at best, and therein lays its power. How much of it is based on reality is debatable, which was Bader’s intent. When it opened to much acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, reactions ranged from praise for its gritty realism, to outrage for its toying with the viewer. The fact that it can elicit that kind of reaction is in itself a testament to its power.
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Ultimately, it makes us look at our voyeuristic fascination with the outlaw in a way that’s rarely explored in film. In so doing, it forces us to take a look at where we’re going as a society. That alone makes it worth a view.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Webcast
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Revolutions ferment for a while before they reach fruition. They’re seldom taken seriously at first, seen as they are by the powers that be as the rantings of malcontents and crackpots. It’s only when they build a groundswell of support that they’re taken seriously.

What I’m going to call the Media Revolution has been quietly brewing for years now, quietly infiltrating the once hallowed domains of the print, music and film industries. It’s only recently that the Old Guard of media have taken notice and have seriously begun to draw up their countermeasures. At one extreme of the spectrum is the music industry, particularly the RIAA, who insist on fighting tooth and nail against digital delivery of music. It’s a battle they will inevitably lose, bent as they are on anything less than a stranglehold on artists and consumers alike. At the other end is the print media, who have all but conceded the death of paper, and are increasingly making their product available online only. Economically (and environmentally, it makes sense, given that publications live or die by advertising dollars.

Somewhere between the contempt of the dying music industry and the outright concession of the print media lies a quiet alliance between the traditional and the digital. It’s a revolution within the revolution, and it may well herald the future of entertainment. The film industry, and the television industry in particular, recognize the simple fact that the Media Revolution has begun in earnest. And rather than wage futile warfare against an irresistible force, TV networks and studios have embraced the revolution with open arms—to an extent.

Television is the youngest of the old media, so it should come as no surprise that it’s allying itself more readily with upstarts carving niches for themselves via the internet, and through small independent films. Archer House, a short by writer/director Dina Gachman, is a prime example of the latter. It sounds like the perfect setup for the latest teen horror film: eighteen year old Sam Archer, an aspiring investigative journalist, goes undercover to unearth the secrets of an upscale college sorority. She soon finds herself embroiled in a strangely alluring world of teacups and sisterhood from which there is no escape. Fortunately, Gachman’s short film veers away from such clich├ęs, opting instead to tell a story about weighing the need to rebel against the desire to conform. It’s a wonderfully nuanced story, tightly told in just over fifteen minutes, that’s never preachy or maudlin. After airing at the AFI Film Festival in Dallas earlier this year, Archer House caught the attention of Slamdance Media Group, and as a result, is being pitched to NBC as a possible series.

This would have been unheard of in the old Hollywood system of catch 22’s (To sell a script, you need an agent. To acquire an agent, you need to sell a script.), but those were the days before the emergence of cable, and certainly the days before the Internet made it economically feasible for anybody with talent to circumvent the established rules. A case in point is the web-only comedy series Something to Be Desired, now wrapping its fourth season totally unencumbered by any traditional studio trappings. Sort of a cross between Friends and WKRP in Cincinnati (but updated for the 21st century), STBD follows a group of deejays and their various friends at the fictitious WANT FM in Pittsburgh, PA, chronicling the vignettes of their personal lives. Shot in mini-DV with a local cast and crew, STBD is guerilla broadcasting at its best. What the people involved in this ongoing series have done is step outside the recognized norms, and created a comedy series that is often on a par with network offerings in terms of character development and storytelling. And even though the typical episode is only ten minutes long, producer Justin Kownacki manages to integrate local indie sounds into the episodes, if only as incidental music.

While Archer House and STBD might appear to run parallel to the conventional mindset of Hollywood, they actually represent a shift in the thinking of mainstream TV. It’s not so much a matter of innovation among the studios—it’s more about a survival instinct. Cable programming from HBO and Showtime, among others, had already shorn ratings from the Big Three, and upstart networks like FOX proved that the old ways of doing business were no longer viable. Once broadband Internet became commonplace, and sites like YouTube sprang up, coupled with the explosion of HiDef TV’s popularity, it was obvious that change was in the air.

Unlike their counterparts in the record industry, the TV networks have embraced that change, if only superficially. They’re by no means surrendering to copyright piracy, nor should they. They are, however, utilizing the Internet to their advantage, rather than blindly approaching it as a barbarian horde at the gates. NBC, for instance, is aggressively pursuing the Internet as a means to springboard new programming possibilities with their DotComedy.com, as well as a means of effectively hyping existing programs like Heroes, with its online comic book serial. CBS offers exclusive online programming with Innertube, featuring impromptu mini-concerts, along with behind-the scenes looks at series. ABC does this also, as well updating series constantly for viewing anytime. Traveler has taken on a cult status online as a result, despite lackluster ratings in its conventional timeslot. FOX, for whatever reasons, is the only network not to offer anytime viewing for any of its series, opting instead to present promo clips of selected shows.

Intentionally or not, the networks are altering the way we view television as a medium. In the larger scope, they’re taking baby steps, but they are at least exhibiting a willingness to explore the evolving face of our cultural landscape. Other forms of traditional media would be well advised to follow television’s lead. The age of convergence is here, and it’s not about to retreat. The revolution is being webcast, and we’re only now getting a glimpse of the future of media.

Viva la revolucion!

Friday, June 15, 2007

The World According to Tom Hayden
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No matter how pundits on either side of the political fence debate or deny it, the fact remains that our planet has seen better days. The politicos frame it according to their own agendas, but even the most delusional among them—left, right or centrist—know in their heart of hearts that we’ve been cheating on nature for too many years. After turning a blind eye to our dalliances with our own egos all this time, nature is ready to kick us to the curb.
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We’ve reached a point globally wherein it’s screamingly obvious that humankind has to take some responsibility for the climatic upheavals that are occurring all over the globe. We can no longer shrug it all off as natural weather cycles that happen once or twice a millennium. In fact, it’s impossible at this juncture to even say what’s “natural.” The imprint we’ve left on this planet has indelibly altered our environment.
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In his book The Lost Gospel of the Earth, Tom Hayden makes a compelling case for linking spiritual tenets to environmental activism. In his view, much of our environmental crisis can be traced back to our lack of regard for the most fundamentally spiritual aspects of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Native American traditions and our disconnect with our ancestral roots. According to Hayden, we can break down our relationship to the Earth into three distinct philosophies. We can see ourselves as “Lords of the Universe,” and conclude we have a divine right to dominate and subdue our surroundings, since humans were placed here to hold dominion over all else on the planet. In the second scenario, humans are the “Stewards of Nature,” a gentler, but no less utilitarian approach to the environment, in which nature is molded to the ingenuity of man for multiple benefits, taking care not to destroy the environs in the process. Finally, the third way of thinking espouses a “Kinship with Nature.” In that line of thought, we recognize that we coexist with all life on the planet, and that we share a common bond with the creative process of Earth, and thus are codependent with all life here.
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While he sometimes sees contemporary religious doctrines and their adherence to mankind as holding dominion over the planet, Hayden doesn’t indict any sect as responsible for our environmental woes. Rather, he looks at how ancient texts have been corrupted through by political expedience. He makes an eloquent argument for a return to ancient spiritual philosophies as one tool on which to build a cohesive, logical plan for preserving Life As We Know It.
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It would be a simple matter to dismiss Hayden’s views as leftwing rhetoric, were it not for the exhaustive research he’s done on the subject. True, the neoconservatives here are pilloried as puppets for corporate interests, but the interests in China and India are held equally culpable. Hayden’s main interest here is a worldwide awakening of our spiritual bonds with Earth as an evolving organism. While some of his arguments may be flawed, his passion for the environment cannot be denied.
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Given the state of our planet in 2007, Hayden’s book is a worthwhile read. In fact, it may—maybe, just maybe—give us pause to consider what we’ve wrought in our 250 some odd years as a nation obsessed with more is better. As Hayden closes his manifesto: ”No state is greater than the state of nature. The nature of the state must reflect the state of nature, not the other way around.”

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bluegrass By Way of the Bronx
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Even though he’s been a major force in American music for well over thirty years, very few people are familiar with Hungarian-born producer Tomas Erdelyi. He’s produced albums for the Replacements and Talking Heads, among others, but he’s probably best known for his work with punk icons the Ramones. It was here that his alter ego, Tommy Ramone, emerged as the original drummer of the original punk band, and it’s a legacy that stands on its own. He was not only their drummer, but their manager, producer and the main composer of “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
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We haven’t heard a lot from Tommy Ramone over the past few years. As the last surviving member of the original Ramones lineup, he could have easily pimped the name and done the roadshow circuit. Thankfully, he’s put the Ramones to rest as a band, if not in spirit. His latest effort, in collaboration with former Simplistics guitarist Claudia Tienan is Uncle Monk. Whatever you might have been expecting from a Ramones alumnus, this album will surprise you. The duo that is Uncle Monk are neither punk nor bluegrass nor a pseudo-hip hybrid of the two.
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The core aesthetic of punk, once it’s stripped of sociopolitical pretense, is its devotion to the foundation of the three chord progression upon which rock was built, and which the Ramones epitomized. Punk sneered at the bloated beast rock had become and rightly returned it to its garage band roots. On their eponymously titled debut, Uncle Monk have rooted out those roots, and delved more deeply into the music that is the foundation of rock. What emerges is an album that pays homage to the bluegrass and folk origins of rock, yet manages to sound unique in its own right.
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This is music devoid of any pretension—no electrics, no guest musicians, not even any drums. The duo of Ramone (vocals, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, guitar) and Tienan (vocals, guitar, bass) provide all the textures here, and deliver a surprisingly full sound (thanks in no small part to Ramone’s—err, Erdelyi’s—production). It’s by no means a rock album, but it can’t really be called a bluegrass album, either. What they’ve managed to do here is take the basics of bluegrass and folk, and update them in a way that’s relevant to our current social state. Psychologically, we’re not that not far removed from the Depression woes of Woodie Guthrie—it’s only the face of the stress that’s changed.
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But Uncle Monk aren’t overtly concerned with making a sociopolitical statement any more than the Ramones were. They’re dealing more with the rigors of day to life, and if they make a statement in the process, it’s more a matter of happenstance. A hapless office worker plotting his fantasy revenge on his tyrannical boss, in “Mr. Endicott” speaks volumes to the Everyman, and “Need A Life” strikes a common chord with anyone caught in the maelstrom of urban life. By and large, though, Uncle Monk offer slices of modern life seen through the lens of simple dreams.

Uncle Monk the album requires at least a couple of listens to appreciate. It’s jarring by virtue of its simplicity. But when all is said and done, it’s nice to know that a mandolin and a guitar are all you really need to make a contemporary album.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Continuing Journey of Traveler
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Admittedly, summer is not the optimal season for television viewing. It’s the time of year when our attention turns to outdoor sports, barbecues, swimming pools, tanning and, in general, playing chicken with skin cancer. It’s always been sort of an unspoken rule that TV sleeps through the May sweeps, not to be awakened ‘til the ballyhoo of the fall season.
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Those rules are changing. Partly because cable has altered the landscape of programming, and partly (and perhaps more importantly) because the Internet has made traditional scheduling much more fluid, the networks are venturing into summer programming that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Granted, most summer fare consists of mindless game shows and third-tier reality series, but now and again a series like Traveler comes along that makes you realize summer isn’t all fun and games.
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For Jay Burchell (Matthew Bomer) and Tyler Fogg (Logan Marshall-Green), it’s a summer they certainly weren’t expecting. I wrote about it here when the series had its sneak peek premiere 10 May. Three grad-school buddies embark on what is supposed to be a cross-country last-hurrah road trip before entering into their workaday futures. But when one of the trio, Will Traveler, convinces Jay Burchell and Tyler Fog to rollerblade through an iconic art museum in New York City, the first leg of the road trip takes a very twisted turn. An explosion rocks the museum, and Jay and Tyler suddenly find themselves prime suspects in an act of domestic terrorism. Worse, they gradually realize that their friend Will Traveler set them up to cover up his own involvement in the bombing.
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I’m not going to recap every scene in the two hour premiere that debuted 30 May — you can see all two hours of it at ABC.com. But I will tell you this: Traveler is the most frenetic series you’ll see on prime time this summer. The more the plot unwinds, the more twisted it becomes. What begins as a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time morphs into something much more insidious, in which nothing is as it seems on the surface. All we know for certain is Burchell and Fog are the only innocents in what is a shadowy conspiracy involving the top levels of government. We only get pieces of information in tiny fragments, and even those are not to be trusted. In fact, we can’t even be certain that Fog or Burchell are the innocents they appear to be.
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The last moments of the premiere tell us that Homeland Security is involved in some way in that plot, but we still have no idea what exactly the plot is, or why Burchell and Fog were set up to take the fall for it. As convoluted as it is,Traveler moves at such a frenzied pace that it’s impossible to be bored with it. It taps into our collective paranoia in a wildly entertaining way, and only gives us time to think about plot holes days after viewing the episode. Even when we do consider such inconsistencies, we’re inclined to think they’re just another trick of the conspiracy.
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Traveler is the most provocative series of the network summer fare. Period. Originally scheduled to have a 13 episode run, ABC pared it back to an eight-episode run. True, it doesn’t have the best time slot (10 PM EST, Wednesdays), but it’s a series that deserves a chance. Watch it, or be a part of the Conspiracy.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Creature Comforts Looks At Our Neuroses
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On the surface, Creature Comforts (premiering tonight on CBS, 8PM EST) comes across as just another summer replacement series. The premise is simple: reduce some man on the street interviews to sound bites, and reproduce them with animal cartoon faces. Fortunately, the premise must have been pitched to CBS a little better than that.
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Creature Comforts is, in fact, one of the brightest spots in a summer season dominated by wannabe “reality” pirates, wannabe filmmaker competitions and, yes, even bingo as a televised sport. Based on the British TV series of the same name, Creature Comforts is a welcome departure from the tried and true formulaic series to which we’ve grown accustomed. There is no plot here — there aren’t even vignettes, although there are some recurring characters. Instead, we get little snippets of conversations, the kind you hear every day, and barely notice. For instance, we hear a woman telling a man how he’ll never get close to her romantically, not particularly amusing until you realize these are pandas conversing. There are bees suffering from allergies, sharks talking about the power of a winning smile, various hypochondriacs and neurotics all in animal and insect guise, all forcing us to look at ourselves in a pointed, if somewhat skewed style.
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Produced by Aardman Animations, the same team that produced the theatrical films Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, Creature Comforts masterfully utilizes stop motion animation to create a world that may appear fanciful, but strikes close to the urban heart. I don’t want to run through all the skits here — words wouldn’t do them justice. Take my word for it. If you want a welcome diversion from from the tripe that is standard summer TV fare, you’d be hard pressed to find something as charming and insightful as Creature Comforts.
Rockers in the Kitchen
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You can relate to this.
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The night went by in a blur. The music was loud, the dancing pumped you, and the drinks just kept you moving. But after that last call for alcohol, and you were informed you didn’t have to go home, but you couldn’t stay there, it dawned on you that you were hungry. Any respectable restaurant had closed hours ago, but Denny’s or IHOP served breakfast 24 hours, and coffee sounded like a good idea at this point.
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For bar bands, rock journalists, and serious clubbers in general, those forays into the food stops that never close were an essential component of survival. Every once in a great while, though, you’d run into somebody who wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet, and an impromptu dinner party of sorts would happen at someone’s apartment. The snacks would be, well, interesting, but they beat the hell out of the obligatory 4AM pancake breakfast. Of course, they were on the fly recipes, lost forever once the sun was high in the sky.
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All of this brings me to I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands, perhaps one of the most essential cookbooks ever written. Okay, that may be stretching a point just a bit, but it’s far and away the most entertaining cookbook ever written. You’re not going to find nutritional information or calorie counts here — you’re usually not going to find precise measurements for ingredients (as if anybody follows them anyway). What it may lack in precision, I Like Food more than makes up for in verve, though.
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What author (and music/food/travel journalist) Kara Zuaro has accomplished here is really quite amazing, given that her contributors are all indie-rock musicians — over 100, in fact — bound together by their common fondness for food. We’re talking base instinct fondness for food here — these guys are on the road much of the time, and there’s only so much fast food the palate can tolerate before the brain gets creative. And as this book demonstrates, hungry musicians can be dangerous when they get creative in the kitchen.
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Actually, there are some good recipes here, ranging from the purely survivalist to the surprisingly epicurean. The breakfast section, for example, admonishes the reader to first ask, ”How drunk am I?” before taking on some of the more involved menus. Matt Cherry’s southern cheese grits are a safe bet. Silkworm’s cheesy sleazy also is a good bit to forestall an impending hangover, and it doesn’t require precision, calling as it does, for “an onion, some red or green peppers ... and sausage and some other stuff to throw in there, if you’ve got it.”At the other end of the spectrum, Violent Femmes offer up a wild boar ragu, and Rahim’s drummer Phil Sutton shares a recipe for sauerbraten that he inherited from his dad. For more pedestrian tastes, Aloha shares a quick and simple fried chicken with biscuits and gravy. There’s also a section devoted to vegans, with such offerings as Vicki Pilato’s baked barbecue tofu and a very good eggplant parmesan, courtesy Houston McCoy.
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There are sections devoted to sandwiches, soups, desserts, and, of course, drinks. And while the majority of these are no-brainers, there are a few jewels. I never knew that sake and root beer complement each other, or that Tang serves as a perfect mixer for either Absolut or Jack Daniels. I seriously doubt I’ll try Death Cab for Cutie’s veggie sausage and peanut butter sandwich, though — at least not without having consumed one or two of those Tang highballs.
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In all seriousness, I Like Food, Food Tastes Good is an interesting compendium of recipes not likely to be recommended by the Food Channel or Martha Stewart. That’s not really the point of this book. It does give you an idea what humans can come up with in desperate road conditions, when money’s tight and Burger King just isn’t going to cut it. All the recipes are written by the band contributors themselves, and appear unedited. Some of them are actually quite tasty, while others I’ll leave to braver souls than myself.
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If nothing else, I Like Food, Food Tastes Good finally explains why rock and roll will never die. It may get a hangover, it may get indigestion, it may even pack on a few pounds here and there. But as long as it maintains its unruliness in the kitchen the same way it does on stage, it will outlast anything that dares challenge it. In the kitchen, as on the stage, the first rule is there are no rules.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Circuitous Journey of Circle of Iron
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Let’s begin with what the newly remastered, two-disc “kick ass” edition of 1978’s Circle of Iron is not. Despite the promo blurb, there is very little “kick ass” about this film. It has its moments, but if you’re expecting nonstop martial arts action, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If, on the other hand, you think this film might give you some insight into Taoism, you’ll end up with a few kernels of SoCal pop Zen that might leave you amused, but hardly enlightened.
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Once those two minor issues are dismissed, Circle of Iron (aka The Silent Flute) is an enjoyable, if simplistic parable, best regarded as a guilty pleasure. The protagonist of the film, Cord the Seeker (Jeff Cooper), is a headstrong, undisciplined fighter on an unsanctioned quest to find the Book of All Knowledge, guarded by the wizard Zetan (Christopher Lee). As is usually the case with quests, Cord’s journey to enlightenment is fraught with challenges and perils, all borne, in one form or another, of the trappings of his own ego. It’s sort of Siddhartha meets TV’s Kung Fu.
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Despite its shortcomings, Circle of Iron offers some interesting performances, most notably those by David Carradine, who shines in four separate roles. As Blind Man, he’s an extension of his Caine role, older, perhaps more jaded, but even more predisposed to fortune-cookie bits of wisdom. His portrayal of Changsha, chieftain of a nomadic tribe (who apparently got their clothes from whatever happened to be available in the costuming department), is equal parts greasy biker and crown jester. He’s unrecognizable as Monkey Man, leader of a half-simian, half-human race who are the first line of defense against those who would take the Book of All Knowledge. Here, as in his brief appearance as Death the Panther, his performance relies more on his background in dance than in martial arts.
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Jeff Cooper, who would go on to a stellar, if short-lived career as a Dallas bit player, doesn’t fare so well as Cord. Looking like a cross between a surfer dude and Beastmaster, he romps through his quest with a “whatever, dude” emotional range. Even when he finds his lover from the night before (Erica Creer) crucified the next morning, he can only muster a grim expression before sallying forth on his search for the damn Book.
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Shot in some gorgeous, remote locations in Israel, Circle of Iron manages to evoke an otherwordly atmosphere befitting the nature of the story. Cameo performances by Eli Wallach, Roddy McDowell, and Christopher Lee also save the movie from complete mediocrity.What’s most fascinating about Circle of Iron, though, is the circuitous journey it made from concept to “product.” It was originally penned by the then relatively unknown Bruce Lee, along with James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant, back in the late sixties. Lee at the time was known to American audiences as the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, and he desperately wanted to break into mainstream films. He had an idea for a film, which he called “The Silent Flute,” that he thought might not only propel him to stardom, but would also promote his own vision of Zen and Martial Arts. James Coburn and Sterling Silliphant, both Hollywood names and both students of Lee, helped him flesh out his idea into a script — well, actually, more a treatment, since it was only seventy pages long.
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To make a very long story short, the project stalled for years. Lee was passed over for the lead role (which went to David Carradine) in the Kung Fu TV series because he was too Asian, and departed to Hong Kong, where he became the ultimate action star. Perhaps embittered when he returned to the States, he was no longer interested in the project. He died under still mysterious circumstances in 1973, and in death, he achieved superstar status. Suddenly, his forgotten project was a hot commodity. Five years later, The Silent Flute, now titled the focus group-approved Circle of Iron was released.
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All of this is detailed in this two-disc edition via interviews and commentary with and by the principals. Most informative of these is the interview with Carradine, who considers it his best work, but sidesteps the irony of how he took a role intended for Lee not once, but twice. Besides the interviews, obligatory theatrical trailers and assorted miscellany, this edition also includes the original treatment by Lee and cohorts, reproduced in DVD-ROM, down to the typewritten page. The audio and video reproduction on this widescreen edition are nothing short of superb.
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Circle of Iron, for all its flaws, remains a cult classic. This is a set that is worthy addition to any student of film history. It’s a so-so action film, but the extras provide a glimpse into the machinations of moviemaking, and how compromise rules in Hollywood.