Tuesday, June 11, 2013

After Ojai

YOUR humble blogger spent the weekend at the Ojai Music Festival. Here are a few quick impressions.

There are not many ideas we like better than a classical music festival, dedicated mostly to contemporary work, and held almost entirely outside in a verdant valley. This year, the existing Ojai template was sweetened further by a concentration on West Coast composers, especially Henry Cowell – along with the ornery Charles Ives, the original classical maverick -- and his student Lou Harrison.

I saw some sublime performances as well as a few that reinforced my mixed feelings about contemporary music. Mostly, though, the festival was a blast. (Mark Swed made better sense of the whole thing here than I think I can.)

Mark Morris, the Seattle-reared, now Brooklyn-based, choreographer, scheduled this year’s festival, and he proved a frequent presence around Libbey Park and the other festival venues.
Composer Lou Harrison
On Friday night, in white clothes, shorts, and scarf, he strolled across the park, attendants in tow, for a special performance, cradling a glass of red wine he sipped from but which never seemed to drain: Filled out from his original appearance as a young dancer, he came across as a vaguely Shakespearean figure, perhaps Prince Hal turned to Falstaff and enjoying the transformation. I hope the very sharp pianist Jeremy Denk, who heads the festival next year, can cut so dashing a figure.

One of the highlights was the first-ever Ojai performance of In C, the pioneering Terry Riley piece often credited with inaugurating the whole minimalist movement. There is no conventional development in this work, and at times my attention began to drift. But mostly, this was a triumph of shimmering harmonies and interlocking rhythms, with moments that reminded me not only of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and India raga but Krautrock and Television’s Marquee Moon as well.

Composer John Adams has called In C the moment that pleasure principle, after long exile by academic music and Schoenbergian dread, was invited back into the concert hall.

Lou Harrison’s posthumous presence at the festival was a real pleasure as well – in concert music at the Libbey Bowl, in various performances on the gamelan -- an instrument he helped popularize in the U.S. -- and in the illuminating documentary by Eva Soltes that was absolutely mobbed. Harrison’s music, some of it Asian influenced, much of it quite accessible and all of it with an exploratory quality, remains far too obscure, especially on major labels; it was nice for so much of it to see the light of day this weekend.

Another highlight was the piece by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, songbirdsongs, performed at a heavenly spot called Meditation Mount at an hour at which I prefer to be still sleeping. My morning-lark wife dragged me out, and the emulations of birdsong by percussion group red fish blue fish provoked some actual birds to join in.

Another Luther Adams piece, For Lou Harrison, had a more ambiguous reception. As I walked across the park, I heard an otherworldly sound coming from the bowl, and grabbed my young son and snuck into the rehearsal. For six or seven minutes we were transfixed by its hypnotic scale. Those who went to the concert later that night  were less captivated: As the piece approached the hour mark, with little change of key or melody, the audience grew restless. Upon its conclusion – I’m told by a fellow scribe – one wag yelled out, “Play it again!”

A final word: We briefly bumped into Morris at the festival’s green room, and when he spotted my son, we mentioned his tendency to play “air piano” to some of the pieces. He asked if the lad had been playing along to Friday-night’s performance of Erik Satie and John Cage on toy piano. (The young ‘un had rushed to the top of some play equipment and begun to move to the Satie especially.) We told him this was indeed the same kid. “Ah,” Morris replied. “I know your work.”

Friday, June 7, 2013

Peter Rainer's Movie Criticism

IT’S almost impossible to find a word that can be changed in Peter Rainer’s film criticism, or a way to express an idea better than he already has. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way, during the year I served as Peter’s editor. It makes his work a pleasure – sometimes a revelation – to read. I can’t recall many critics who you really feel thinking on the page quite as well as Peter does; the ideas and critical themes unfold in the same way great storytelling does.

Here at The Misread City, we’re quite excited by the release of Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era. The collection includes plenty of film reviews – from Night of the Hunter to L.A. Confidential to Blue Velvet, as well as longer essays on cultural/aesthetic issues, pieces on actors and directors (Bergman, Robert Altman), and sections on documentaries, literary or theatrical adaptations, and the movies of Steven Spielberg.

In the book’s introduction, Peter talks about falling for film as a kid watching the same picture over and over on the TV show Million Dollar Movie, and his youthful attraction for critics Pauline Kael and James Agee.

Peter loves film as deeply as anyone I know, but he doesn’t keep his disappointment to himself when he’s let down by a filmmaker he admires. “Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting is like an adolescent’s fantasy of being tougher and smarter and more misunderstood than anybody else,” he writes. “It’s also touchy-feely with a vengeance.”

Peter has served as film critic for the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. He wrote for me at New Times LA in the late ‘90s (that work made him a Pulitzer finalist); he currently writes for the Christian Science Monitor.

This is my Q+A with Peter, who appears at Book Soup on Monday June 10 and at Vroman’s on Wednesday June 19.

Did coming of age as a cinephile in the ‘70s – writing for your college paper and programming a campus film society, then writing your first professional review of Chinatown – spoil you for the decades that came after?

I feel spoiled to some extent by the way in which I came up as a critic. I was film critic for my college newspaper, the Brandeis “Justice,” which was a great laboratory for putting my ideas into print and then hashing out the blowback from my students and teachers. There was a great immediacy about the whole process. In some ways, it’s a microcosm of the ideal situation for a critic – having as an audience a smart, contentious, captive audience of true believers.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that the movies that were coming out then, the early mid-‘70s, represented a golden age. This isn’t nostalgia. Week after week I found myself reviewing “The Godfather,” “Cabaret,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Mean Streets,” “Straw Dogs,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Last Picture Show,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Sounder,” you name it. I used to joke that back then even the bad movies were good. (Now *that’s* nostalgia).

One of the main qualities that distinguishes your criticism, I think, is
your talent at “seeing through” a film, to spot its invisible claims and pretensions, to look squarely at what it is selling us -- whether a mainstream Hollywood movie or independent art film. Where does this impulse come from, and how the hell does it work? I’m not sure I know a critic in any genre who does this so insightfully and accessibly.

I love “looking through” a movie because there is often so much more going in a film, politically, psychologically, morally, aesthetically, than simply what is being presented to us. This is my natural disposition. I don’t like feeling conned when I go to a movie. I’m a natural skeptic who, of course, is also open to being gulled on a regular basis. I guess this makes me a magician’s ideal audience, and the best movie artists are indeed magicians.

Movies reflect the society in which they were made – this is a concept that runs throughout my criticism. I didn’t realize to what extent this was true of my writing until I began collecting my pieces. It’s kind of like packing up your library when you move. You begin to see patterns in the books you buy that you may not have been consciously aware of.

Pauline Kael said that the critic was the only thing that stood between the audience and the marketplace. These days we have a more sophisticated style of marketing, and perhaps a less sophisticated brand of taste: Blockbusters, sequels, an amplification of special effects that makes the corporate ‘80s look nuanced, and a Hollywood system increasingly geared to violence- and sensation-loving teenage boys. (In some ways it ‘s a parody of the kind of cinema Kael called for.) What’s the role of the critic in this 21st century funhouse?

The role of the critic in the 21st century funhouse, assuming there is a role anymore, is the same as it’s ever been – to write as well as you can on movies worth writing about. The increasingly overmuscled marketing juggernauts and the pile-on of pronouncements on movies from every quarter, digital or otherwise, makes life difficult for a critic who wants to be heard above the din and say something worthy of more than a tweet.

Is there a type of film – a genre, a certain budget -- that has become almost impossible to make, or at least to distribute with any hope of finding an audience? What are we missing?

Small-scale, handcrafted dramas, especially featuring people over 40, are difficult to finance in Hollywood nowadays. Television has become much more of an arena for the sort of serious, extended domestic dramas that used to be standard in Hollywood, before the franchise mentality took hold and the budgets went blooey. The life of a TV critic is in some respects more challenging these days than the life of a movie critic. But then again, I am writing this here in the summer movie doldrums!

It’s easy to doubt, lament, and lose faith in the movies. Who are a few of the filmmakers, from past or present, who restore your love of the medium?

There are wonderful directors working now and doing good work against considerable odds: I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” a real risk-taker, and shot in wide screen; I think Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”) is quite talented, Jeff Nichols (”Mud”), Deborah Granik (“Winter’s Bone”). Richard Linklater is extraordinarily versatile, maybe the best of his generation.

There are way too many directors I admire from the past, so just a brief stab here – the humanists: Satyajit Ray, Vittorio De Sica, Charlie Chaplin, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir. It doesn’t get any better than their best.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

West Coast Minimalism at Ojai

ONE of the best things about spring in Southern California is the Ojai Music Festival, which turns the little valley town in Ventura county into the site of a risk-taking weekend of classical music with an emphasis on chamber music and contemporary work. Since its founding in the ‘40s, everyone from Stravinsky to Eric Dolphy (!!) has performed there. It kicks off Thursday.

This year’s music director – in recent years this chair has included Salonen, Kent Nagano, Dawn Upshaw and Leif Ove Andsnes – is choreographer Mark Morris. He’s selected a schedule heavy on work by West Coast mavericks, including Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Alaskan John Luther Adams and that Connecticut Yankee Charles Ives, whose radicalism and searching spirit make him for me an honorary West Coaster. (Disclosure: My ardor for Ojai predates the brief stint I did for the festival writing a newsletter essay for last year’s bash.)

A concert we’re especially excited about here at the Misread City is In C, the 1964 piece by Bay Area composer Terry Riley which is sometimes described as the first important work of minimalism. 

In the mid-‘70s, the late great music critic Robert Palmer called the piece “the single most influential post-1960 composition by an American,” describing its impact on not just Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but John Cale, Brian Eno, and jazz as well. I’ll let Palmer describe the piece here:

“’In C’ consists of 52 melodic/rhythmic motives, most of them as short and simple as a whole note or a group of six or eight sixteenths. It can be played by an ensemble of any composition and size. The musicians begin by playing the figures consecutively, but each one proceeds at his own speed, so that the melodic kernels soon begin to overlap in wild profusion, forming constantly shifting prismatic relationships with each other.”

The piece, then, as wildly new (and hippie-ish) as it would have seen in the ‘60s, also echoes the collective improvisation of early New Orleans, and opens up some possibilities that musicians are still pursuing in the 21st century.

Despite having seen performances of Riley’s work, and knowing a New Albion recording of In C about as well as one can know such an elusive piece, I’ve never seen this one live. So I spoke to Dustin Donahue, part of the San Diego percussion ensemble red fish blue fish, about the Ojai performance his group will be a part of on Saturday morning.

“This one is pretty special,” he said, “because these groups from all over the country will come together to play this piece,” including members of Morris’s group and the jazz trio The Bad Plus. “With string and brass players, it’ll take on a whole new identity – we can’t really predict what it’ll sound like.”

Since all the musicians need to play – whatever their instrument – in the key of C, red fish blue fish will have to pick instruments that make sense. “We have to focus ourselves in the pitched percussion world – vibraphones, xylophones, glockenspiels, celestes. And there this particular part, where people are repeating a tone in C: We find idiosyncratic objects tuned to C – gongs, pipes, found objects”

Donahue – who says his group tends to look for “composers who are trying to discover something new or exploring other sound worlds” – is also looking forward to performing pieces by John Luther Adams, for his gift of isolating instruments in unusual harmonies, and John Cage, whose piece for six percussionist varies times for starting and time elapsed while playing.

As for In C: “So much of the measure of a good performance of In C is how much fun the performers are having… I can enter into a canon with the person next to me. You can be struck with a musical idea and see where it takes you. The more musical ideas you get from each other, the better. It can be an occasion for spontaneous joy. Whoever is in the room with you makes it its own special version of the piece.”

I was luck enough, about a decade ago, to interview Riley by phone before a performance in Orange County. I was struck that someone whose early explorations involved tape loops had become disillusioned with the use of technology. "It looked in the beginning much more promising than it's turned out," Riley told me from his ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

While growing up, he and his peers heard mostly acoustic instruments and few things more high-tech than the radio. "Just hearing a tape recorder played backwards was startling to me in the '40s and '50s. " These days, though, technology is hard to escape. Riley says it's "eating up the souls of the musicians. People think they have to have the newest instrument or it will stifle their creativity. That's what the ads tell them -- and it's just nonsense. "

Only with acoustic instruments, he says, can he really feel like he's really engaging with the music.

This all said, very much looking forward to the 2013 Ojai Festival. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Fathers and Sons

ONE of the liveliest voices on the pages of the New York Times Magazine has just released a beautifully observed and heartbreaking book. Stephen Rodrick's The Magical Stranger: A Son's Journey Into His Father's Life justifies the overused word "poignant."

Rodrick is known to sharp-eyed readers for a wide range of stories in the Times magazine as well as Men's Journal; a recent story, on Lindsay Lohan, Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Schrader and the movie The Canyons, may be the smartest piece involving a celebrity I've read in years.

The Magical Stranger is both a look back and a look inward: It's a kind of reported memoir in which Rodrick chronicles his Navy-pilot father's early years and death in 1979, when he crashed in the Indian Ocean when Rodrick was just 13.

Full disclosure: Part of my interest in the book comes from the fact that his father and mine were classmates at the Naval Academy; apparently they didn't know each other. And while I've admired Rodrick's work for years before we met, we've become acquainted he moved to Los Angeles. Finally, I am unfairly biased in his direction because of his excellent taste in music, and he shares The Misread City's ardor for Lloyd Cole, the Go-Betweens and other exemplars of unpopular pop, a term it turns out to have coined.

Here is my Q&A with Stephen Rodrick, who appears at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena tonight, June 3.

You’re a longtime magazine journalist – “I inhabit other people’s lives for a living,” you write – accustomed to looking outward at the world. Was it odd or difficult to look inward, and to report on and research your own life and family history?
It wasn't actually that difficult. I think waiting until I was in my 40s was a fortunate coincidence. The same powers of observation that you need to bring to profiling Judd Apatow or Serena Williams is a tool that serves you well when you look at your own life. As I do with my profiles, I tried to strip away the myth of my father as a fallen hero–which he was to some extent–and replace it with a portrait of him as a real man with foibles and tragic flaws.
I always say my greatest skill as a journalist is simply that I show up: Not just for a day or two, but for weeks in the hopes of getting a full understanding of the person that I'm writing about; the good days, the bad day, the days when nothing happens. And I tried to bring that to writing about my family and my father. There were trips I took cross-country and overseas that didn't make it into the book, but it helped give me an understanding of my dad and naval aviators that I think allowed me to write with a level of confidence about them. I tried to live with them, or my father's memory, as much as I could.

You’ve been living with the painful fact of your father’s death since you were 13. What triggered you to dig into that complicated story now?
Well, it was a bit of practicality that finally got me off my ass. I'd been talking about writing about my father and our family since I wrote a piece for Men's Journal on navy pilots back in 2002. But I kept putting it off, partially because it was a pretty painful experience to write about for six to eight weeks so the idea of spending two or three years on the project sounded pretty overwhelming. But I learned in 2009 that my dad's squadron, VAQ-135, was making their last deployment flying the EA-6B Prowler, my dad's old plane, in 2009-2010 before transitioning to a new jet. Half the book is memoir, half the book is reportage on following my dad's squadron so I knew it if I was going to make the experience as real as possible, it would have to be while they were still flying Prowlers. The guys actually got me up on a flight in a Prowler on a low-level training flight through the Cascades and despite booting a spectacular yellow fluid it was one of the great experiences of my life.

Give us a sense of what kind of research you did to try to understand the whole thing.
It was a little bit of everything: Filing a Freedom of Information request and combing through my Dad's accident report, talking to aviators who flew with him, going to his 50th high school reunion, discovering a diary he kept when he was twelve and thirteen; the same age as I was when he died.
For the modern part of the story; following VAQ-135 and, specifically, Commander James Hunter Ware the skipper of VAQ-135, I spent hundreds of days up around NAS Whidbey where they're stationed and then hit the road to meet them in the Pacific, Key West, Jacksonville, Pearl Harbor, and then traveling to Bahrain and Dubai to spend more time with Ware for his next job on the USS Lincoln where he was the air boss, supervising landing and taking off jets on the carrier. I probably logged about 50,000 travel miles and 250 to 300 days on the road. With some notable exceptions–confined to quarters in Dubai with bronchitis, the entire country of Bahrain–I pretty much loved every minute of it.

Did you have any kind of model for The Magical Stranger or for your writing in general?
I'm not sure I had a specific model but Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life for the memoir stuff, a semi-obscure American novelist Thomas Rogers' to remind me to shoot some comedy into the pathos and your dad, Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song for his look at what the Naval Academy was like in the 1950s and 1960s. All were well-thumbed along with some Evelyn Waugh book like A Handful of Dust which is my favorite novel. It really bore no specific relation to the book but reminded me how to write about people and tragedy in a tart, honest and sometimes funny way without either being mean or mawkish.

Your journalism is unpredictably wide-ranging from eccentric purveyor of “unpopular pop” Jon Brion to the making of the strange Paul Schrader/ Lindsay Lohan film The Canyons. Sometimes, of course, you jump because an editor calls, but when it’s up to you, what makes a Stephen Rodrick story?
I think like most writers, I look for people or subjects I can identify with. When I was writing the book, I spent a lot of time trying to parse what makes a book or any creative project work. Not conincidentally, it's a theme in my writing. favorite stories.  My favorite stories are watching artists try and make a project actually happen-whether it's Brion with Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, Judd Apatow with Knocked Up; Schrader with The Canyons or Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian trying to write a movie.
In a way, Hunter Ware' attempt to build a cohesive squadron that took care of his men and women while also maintaining a high sortie completion rate for missions over Afghanistan is just a military version of that. But watching people try to solve their own riddles has taught me so much about leading and creating that I feel a little guilty that I get paid to basically attend a seminar on 'Here's How You Make Your Dream Come True or Here's How Your Dream Gets Crushed By The Forces of Evil.'

You’ve lived in L.A. for a year or two now – after all your years in New York, what’s that been like?
I love it. I work at home so I don't have to fight the traffic and I get to swim laps outdoors all year round at Occidental College. It is true; it's a more isolated experience; both good and bad compared to Brooklyn. My wife and I have taken to referring to our house as the compound because a) it's great and comforting and b) you have to jump in your car to go do anything so it's also a compound in a house arrest kind of way.
I loved the ten years I spent in Brooklyn, but it starts to lose a little of its allure when all your friends get married and settled down and you're not going out five nights a week. Then all the question arise: Why am I paying $2500 for a 1000 square feet and I have no outdoor space? But there are some similarities; just like there were Brooklyn snobs who would need Jesus to be playing at the Bowery to cross the bridge and go to the Bowery on the weekend; here I live in Eagle Rock and it would take Jesus AND Mary doing an acoustic set at Largo to get me west of La Brea on a Saturday night.
But the tacos here are so much better.