Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Hopefully"

Take the still new adverb “hopefully.”  People who care for language, including myself, wince every time they hear it.  It floats around in the sentence, attached to nothing in particular.  “Hopefully the dollar will go up.”  There it certainly does not modify the verb, as a good adverb should unless there is an adjective somewhere to cling to.  If it modified the verb, it would be “the dollar will go hopefully up"…..What is melancholy about the suddenly universal “hopefully” is that it seems to point to a contrary state of mind, that is, to an absence of hope.  The speaker really fears the dollar will go down still further, and if you tell me “Hopefully we’ll meet in a better world,” I can pretty well understand that we won’t.
 - Mary McCarthy, “Language and Politics” (1973)

Monday, November 27, 2017

Unfinished Books

How long must I read a book before I can abandon it with a good conscience?  Ten pages?  Fifty pages?  Or should I go by percentages?  And what percent?  Ten?  Twenty-Five?  These questions confront every serious reader.  You can't finish every book you start. Or, at any rate, I can't.  Sometimes a reader just needs to cut bait.  But when?  I don't know.  Sometimes the reasons we give up on a book are more revealing than why we stick with it.  Below are reviews of two books which I couldn't finish, but were still memorable. 

Man of the Year: A Memoir by Lou Cove.  This dud is set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 1970s when Cove was twelve.  He meets a friend of his father's who turns out to be a Playgirl centerfold. So impressed is young Cove that he launches a campaign to become Playgirl's Man of the Year himself.  It may sound goofy and appealing in a cheesy-70s-shag-carpet kind of way, but it's so poorly written I couldn't get past page seventeen.

It opens with our hero waking one cold morning to deliver papers on his paper route.  We get a quick description of the town.  At the end of his route he bumps into Gretchen, another twelve-year whose speech is written out in dialect ("Didja finish yah route?").  She also offers to show young Lou her beaver.  He declines and goes home. There we meet his wacky yet lovable Jewish family.  They are, of course, very colorful.  They have a lodger named Peter.  He is gay.  Flaming.  He sweeps into the room and says sitcomy things like "Did someone say balls?"  There's a knock at the door.  It's Gretchen.  She comes in.  Papa Cove makes her eat a bagel.  She and Lou leave the table.  When they're alone, she begins to kiss him.  I stop reading.

Oy vey...so cliched, so phony, so hackneyed, so Spielbergesque (except for the beaver part).  It reads like the novelization of the tritest screenplay in the world.  Another problem is the subtitle: "A Memoir".  If this book was subtitled "A Novel" I wouldn't be so harsh on it.  I would've dismissed its flaws as the inevitable stumbling of a first time novelist and given it another thirty pages.  But call it "A Memoir" and the contrived unreality of it all becomes obvious and intolerable.  You can't argue with a man's memories but you don't have to read them.  

Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kolakowski.  At 1,214 pages this is a monster of a book.  I was about 50 pages in and started to just skip around in it.  Then I went to the final paragraph, which appears in a new epilogue written for the book in 2004. Here it is:
But we may safely predict that Marx himself will become more and more what he already is: a chapter from a textbook of the history of ideas, a figure that no longer evokes any emotions, simply the author of one of the 'great books' of the nineteenth century - one of those books that very few bother to read but whose titles are known to the educated public.  As for my three, newly combined volumes, in which I tried to sum up and assess this philosophy and its later ramifications,...they may perhaps be useful to the dwindling number of people still interested in the subject.
So, then, why should I read this book?  This is a strange final paragraph. Kolakowski's attitude toward his subject is sneering, belittling, and dismissive.  Normally an author, no matter how minor the topic (lint, salt, the history of the comma, etc.), tries to convince the reader that their book is of major importance.  But Kolakowski seems to delight in the prospect that fewer and fewer people will have an interest in Marxism and, hence, his book.

He wants fewer readers?  Done.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Cathedral vs. Bathroom

For myself, as an American, I have not the least doubt that I have derived a good deal more benefit of the civilizing as well as of the inspirational kind from the admirable American bathroom that I have from the cathedrals of Europe.  I do not, of course, deny the impressiveness or the many varied beauties of these monuments, nor their usefulness to the people in their time; I have enjoyed their delightful coolness and their shade from the glare of the sun on broiling days in France and Italy - though in cold weather they are likely to be unbearable.  But I have had a good many more uplifting thoughts, creative and expansive visions - while soaking in comfortable baths or drying myself after bracing showers - in well-equipped American bathrooms than I have ever had in any cathedral.
 - Edmund Wilson, A Piece of My Mind

Monday, November 20, 2017

Seattle Rep: The Humans

On Saturday night I went to see The Humans at the Seattle Rep.  It was not good.  Most of it was stale and predictable - though the ending was exceptional.  But let me start at the beginning.

Erik and Deidre Blake leave their Scranton home and visit Manhattan to spend Thanksgiving with their young daughter, Brigid, and her boyfriend, Richard.  With them is Momo, Brigid’s Alzheimers-ridden, wheelchair-bound grandmother, who does little more than mutter incoherently and shriek when things get bad.  Also joining them is Aimee, the Blake’s second daughter, a lesbian lawyer recently separated from her partner and suffering from colitis.

Over the course of the play we learn that each character’s life is coming apart.  Erik has been fired from his job teaching at a Scranton high school.  Deidre’s knees are giving out.  Brigid, an aspiring composer, has been black-balled by her former music professor.  Richard is coping with a history of mental illness and Aimee is being forced out at her law firm and needs to have her intestines surgically removed.  Thank God there isn’t a dog in this play or the poor thing would soon find itself at the pound.  

Written by Stephen Karam and directed by Joe Mantello, this play is actually a comedy and there are some genuinely funny moments in it, but I feel like I’ve been here before.  A group of people gather.  There is lots of small talk (Karam is very good at capturing the rhythms and feel of real speech).  The older folks say funny, out-of-touch things; the young ones says funny, narcissistic things; but no character breaks free from the gravity well of their respective clichés.  After many drinks, people begin to confess to things - an affair, a hospitalization, a close call on 9/11, etc. - which are meant, I suppose, to shock us or surprise us or move us or be big revelations to us.

It is all very formulaic.  Within the first ten minutes I had a good idea of everything that would unfold in this play and I was rarely let down.  When the father confesses to his daughters that he’s been fired from his job at a Catholic High School I immediately went through a drop-down menu of clichéd reasons: a) because he’s secretly gay, b) because he hit a kid, c) because he hit a kid who’s gay, d) because he stole from the school to pay for Momo’s medical bills, etc.  When I found out that it was merely because he had an extra-marital affair which violated the morality clause of his employment contract I was, frankly, a little disappointed.  I was hoping for a fresher cliché.

Nevertheless, Karam is capable of creating powerful theater (spoilers ahead).  The title of the play comes from Richard, who talks about a work of science fiction in which ugly, freakish aliens regard the humans as objects of fear and horror.  Later on, Erik, the father, mentions that he is plagued by a recurrent dream in which a young woman has her back to him.  When she turns her head to him, he sees that the skin has been pulled down over her eyes and mouth.  It’s a horrifying image and once uttered hovers (or, rather, lurks, á la H.P. Lovecraft) over the rest of the play.  At the end of the drama it is night and Erik is alone on stage.  The lights in the apartment, which have been flickering on and off all day, suddenly go out, leaving Erik in the dark with only a weak lantern to help him.  The sounds in the building - a washing machine, the people in the apartment upstairs - take on a new shape.  He is terrified and so are we.  Is the faceless girl around the corner?  Will the aliens appear and the play be flipped Twilight Zone style?  Is the reality we’ve seen real?  Erik is paralyzed with fear, and so are we.  It was great.  I loved it.  

So it’s a mixed bag with this play (ah, look who’s dishing out the clichés now?).  What is not a mixed bag, though, is the quality of the cast, which includes Richard Thomas (yes, that Richard Thomas), Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan, Lauren Klein, Theresa Plaehn, and Luis Vega.  All of them are superb.  David Zinn’s two-level set enriches the dramatic action.  Light and sound are effectively characters in this play so a special shout-out is in order for the excellent work of Justin Townsend and Fitz Patton, their respective designers.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Cinema Italian Style: Easy

SIFF’s annual Cinema Italian Style festival wrapped up last night with Easy, an outstanding and gentle black-comedy (yes, there is such a thing), written and directed by Andrea Magnani, about an obese and depressed man who hauls a coffin from Italy to a small village in Ukraine.  

Easy (short for Isidore) is a total loser.  A former go-cart champion, he’s now a fat, sad, and heavily-medicated man living with his mother (played by Barbara Bouchet) who nags him to diet and makes him wear a sweater with the number two on it.  The other son, Filo, gets the sweater with the number one on it.  When a Ukrainian worker dies on one of Filo’s construction sites he ropes in his reluctant and quasi-somnambulant brother to drive the body back to Ukraine on his own. 

Naturally, everything goes wrong.  The hearse is stolen, no one speaks Italian, Easy runs out of pills, he gets arrested, loses all him money, the GPS won’t work (at one point it switches into Chinese), border guards make him shave off his beard, and he suffers endless gastric distress due to the fact that he pretty much eats everything in site.  But he prevails.  And by the end of the film his depression is disappearing and he’s emerging from his fourteen-year rut.  In the final shot of the movie he stands among the mourners at a Ukrainian funeral and ask himself “Where do I go now?”  It’s a beautiful and ambiguous moment - both sad (because he’s still lost) and optimistic (because he’s now a new man, liberated from his past).

Nicola Nocella is excellent in the lead role.  With his babyish pursed lips and wide-eyed gaze of confusion he’s a perfect naif, a modern Candide who knows perfectly well that this is not the best of all possible worlds.  We talk about someone being non-plussed, Nocella’s Easy is always-plussed.  He has no composure to break; he goes into every situation expecting the worst.  Yet he seems as static, centered, and immovable as the Buddha, making Chance the Gardner (a.k.a. Peter Sellers in Being There) look like a scenery-chewing hambone.  Like the comics of the silent era, he is a sane man in an insane world.  

Easy is Andrea Magnani’s debut as a feature-film director and he's done a masterful job.  The movie has a visual self-assurance and narrative control that you don’t often see in first-time outings.  There’s never a false note or forced moment.  In the Q & A after the film Magnani cited Wes Anderson as one of his influences, adding that he wasn’t even aware of that fact until he started shooting.  The symmetrical shots so beloved by Anderson (and Kubrick, for that matter) abound in the early part of the film, as though the obese Easy is the center of a gravitational field which also imprisons him.  Over time, though, the shots seem to become less symmetrical; Easy will be on the side of the frame or diagonal within it, as if he is visually breaking free too.  Magnani also referenced the influence of westerns with their concept of a man being hired to make a journey which tests, confronts, and ultimately changes him.  (A funeral, which is where Easy ends, is usually obligatory in westerns as well.)

This is an exceptionally good movie which you should not miss if you have the chance.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tinsel

I admire tinsel as much as gold: indeed, the poetry of tinsel is even greater, because it is sadder.
 - Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, August 6, 1846 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Cinema Italian Style: Love and Bullets

A mob movie, a comedy, and a musical?  Is such a thing even possible?  Yes, it is.  It’s called Love and Bullets and I saw it last night at SIFF’s Cinema Italian Style festival.  But is it good?  No.

After being shot in the ass by a rival gang, Neapolitan mob boss Don Vincenzo (Carlo Buccirosso), at the prompting of his scheming wife, Donna Maria (Claudia Gerini), decides to fake his own death so that he and his spouse can leave Naples and spend the rest of their lives in peace.  In the meantime, his faux death will allow him to be revenged upon his enemies.  He’ll be just like 007 from You Only Live Twice, his movie-addled wife tells him.  Mayhem ensues - underlings break ranks, long-lost lovers are reunited, many bullet-ridden bodies fall, etc.

And, of course, people burst into song.  The word “burst”, though, implies a certain level of energy and that is exactly what the musical numbers in Love and Bullets lack.  They are flat, lifeless, the production values of any randomly chosen 1984 music video put them to shame.  In short, they've got no oomph.  Even in such low-budget musicals as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or A Hard Day’s Night the musical routines are full of punch and vitality.  And if a musical doesn’t have that, it has nothing.  Some of the songs are originals (by Aldo De Scalzi and Pivio), others are re-workings of existing ones with new lyrics, such as “What a Feeling” from Flashdance.  The added lyrics are often clumsy and awkward, although I image they may sound better in Italian (what doesn’t?).  

The cast does a good job.  Claudia Gerini is very funny as a mob-wife who has seen way too many movies; she steals just about every scene she’s in.  And Serena Rossi, as one of the long-lost lovers, shines - and she can sing, too.  There is no doubt that directors Antonio and Marco Manetti deeply love movies and pop culture; unfortunately, in this film they don’t seem to have learned from them.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Cinema Italian Style: Wife & Husband/Let Yourself Go

I saw two wonderful Italian comedies at SIFF’s Cinema Italian Style festival last night.

The first, Wife & Husband, directed by Simone Godano, is in the classic body-switch genre.  Andrea is a neurosurgeon; his wife, Sofia, a rising talk-show host at a local TV station.  Their marriage is on the rocks.  They just can’t communicate.  But when a cognitive experiment involving both of them goes wrong, suddenly he’s in her body and she’s in his.

This is a hilarious comedy.  The concept may be long in the tooth but thanks to the performances of Kasnia Smutniak as Sofia and Pierfrancesco Favino as Andrea this film is as fresh and lively as one could wish.  Unlike Steve Martin in that other great body-switch comedy All of Me, these two tend to underplay their switched gender roles.  This restraint pays off, scarcely a joke falls flat.  Favino was especially good.  With his furrowed face and three-day old beard he conveys Sofia’s emotions with the slightest of gestures.  One of the funniest scenes is of him (now Sofia) talking warmly and confidingly to the couple’s attractive, young babysitter, who we can see is falling madly in love with this tall, dark, sensitive man.  And Smutniak brought down the house several times with her stone-faced attempts to sit naturally (while a man) in a short skirt and pantyhose on her TV show.  Some actresses would have gone broad with those scenes, shifting and fidgeting, milking it; instead Smutniak merely plants herself in the seat in some awkward and inappropriate position (legs wide open while the TV camera is aimed up her crotch) and then doesn’t budge for the rest of the scene.

In Let Yourself Go Toni Servillo plays Elia, a middle-aged Jewish psychotherapist who is warned by his doctor to get some exercise or suffer the consequences of diabetes.  The irascible, stodgy shrink (who is separated from his wife) winds up hiring a personal trainer - the young, energetic, and beautiful Claudia, played by Veronica Echegui, who turns his world upside down, kills that bug up his ass, and makes him re-embrace life.  At the end, Elia and his wife are back together.

This is the best Woody Allen movie I’ve seen in years.  This is largely due to the fact that Woody Allen had nothing to with it.  Clearly, director Francesco Amato and co-screenwriter Francesco Bruni have been saturated in the comedies of Allen, Nora Ephron, James Brooks, and Nancy Meyers.  Let Yourself Go is in many ways an homage to this genre of American romantic-comedy but it is far better than any of the works we’ve lately seen from its originators.  (OK, Ephron’s been dead since 2012 but my point still stands.)  Amato and Bruni have purged away the dreck, the embarrassing and cringe-inducing moments which plague the films of their American predecessors (think of the pie in the face at the end of Heartbreak, or the horrifying “list of things that make life worth living” from Manhattan) and what’s left is pure comedy: urbane, witty, clever, warm, with just a hint of screwball to it.

As with Wife & Husband the two leads are outstanding.  Echegui, decked out in loud, flashy tights for much of the film, is radiant, bringing to Claudia a child-like optimism and energy.  One day, hopefully, there will be a film just about her gorgeous eyes.  The word “taciturn” kept popping into my mind as I watched Toni Servillo.  Despite everything Elia is subjected to (a punch, a kidnapping, arson, erectile disfunction) Servillo never deprives him of his intelligence and world-weary dignity.  It’s a rich performance.  His Elia is a child too: narcissistic, petulant, his life one big, if quiet, tantrum.  Servillo’s laconic delivery of asides, throw away lines and outright gags is priceless.  Here’s a sample.  When Elia’s wife tells him that she’s going out that night with a male friend to a jazz club, the jealous husband coolly observes that in the past they’ve both agreed that the only good thing about the Fascists was their banning of jazz.  Nice. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Cinema Italian Style: Naples '44

Norman Lewis was a British journalist and soldier stationed in Naples during World War II.  While there he kept a diary which, thirty years later, he worked up into the highly acclaimed book Naples ’44.  A documentary based on it and sharing its title showed at SIFF yesterday under the auspices of their Cinema Italian Style showcase.  It was not good.  

The film (directed by Francesco Patierno) consists of Benedict Cumberbatch reading selections from Naples ’44 as we watch archival footage - some of which is newly released - of Naples during the war.  Interspersed with this are prolonged and distracting clips from later films also set in that time and place, such as Mike Nichols’s Catch-22 or Il Re di Poggioreale with Ernest Borgnine and Keenan Wynn.  There is also original footage featuring a middle-aged white man in casual dress wandering in slow motion through the woods, then over smoking piles of debris, and finally in contemporary Naples.  Who is he?  Norman Lewis?  A modern everyman retracing Lewis’s step?  We’re never told.  

In short, this film feels like an audiobook masquerading as a documentary, and I can’t escape the conclusion that spending an hour and a half with Lewis’s book itself would probably have been a more rewarding experience.  

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Cinema Italian Style: The War of the Yokels

Saw The War of the Yokels at SIFF last night.  It’s part of their Cinema Italian Style festival which runs to November 16th.

In a desolate Italian coastal region, two groups of kids engage in a seemingly endless war.  One side, the yokels, are poor, wear tattered clothes, and live in a shack.  The other side are known as the masters.  They are well-off, their colorful clothes are spic and span, and they live in nice homes.  During the course of this war territories are invaded, opposing side’s flags captured, and booty taken in the form of a moped and a pinball machine.

Directed by Davide Barletti and Lorenzo Conte the film has been publicized as The Lord of the Flies meets The Goonies.  That is not a harmonious combination.  One is goofy entertainment and the other is a disturbing allegory/parable about power and evil.  They don’t quite mesh.  But that captures perfectly what’s wrong with this movie.  The War of the Yokels is a mess.  It’s not clear what it wants to be. Sometimes it's an allegory, at others a satire, then a heart-warming love story, then a naturalistic coming-of-age tale.  It even descends into religious fantasy.  Every time I got my hopes up that the movie had found its footing it went off in a different direction.  It doesn't just fall between the stools, it tumbles through every seat at the table.  It is deeply unsatisfying.


One example should make it clear (there will be spoilers).  Each side has a flag, the masters’ is black with a coat of arms on it.  After having theirs stolen and burnt, the yokels loot it.  Their leader, Scaleno, tells the yokels that they will burn the flag of their exploiter.  But when left alone with it, he drapes the flag over himself, emperor-style, and starts to pose before a broken mirror.  Ah, the viewer thinks, the flag is a symbol or emblem of the masters’ power.  The film then goes through many shifts of tone.  Towards the end, the leader of the masters, Francisco, is murdered (so now it’s a murder drama).  When his body washes up on the beach a solemn Scaleno, to show that he no longer wants to fight the war, gives the flag back to the masters.  So is this an act of defiance (leaving the war) or submission (accepting the power of the masters to avoid violence)?  It’s not clear.  This is not creative ambiguity, this is a muddle.

The saving grace to this film, though, is its superb young cast.  And I suspect that like the actors in those other movies set in the world of kids - The Outsiders and Stand by Me - we will see more of them in the future.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Nationalists and History

Every reactionary, nationalist movement has its roots in the past of its own country, from which it draws its pride, its self-justification and its aggressiveness.  It also derives from the irrational notion that one must link the present with a specific moment in the past, calculated almost to the second by the ideologists of the movement, as if between that chosen moment and the present there did not also lie a past.  The nationalist reactionary - the term is, in itself, a pleonasm - picks out of the past the years or centuries, the personalities or ideas which happen to suit him.  He differs from the conservative, who is not necessarily a nationalist, in that the conservative seeks to build upon the past as upon a solid foundation, whereas the reactionary plucks only certain bricks out of the past, thereby bringing about the collapse not only of the present but in many cases of the whole fabric of the past.
 - Hans Habe, The Wounded Land: Journey Through a Divided America, 1964

Monday, November 06, 2017

Coriolanus: Fight Like a Bitch

This weekend I went to see Coriolanus: Fight Like a Bitch at the 12th Ave. Arts theater.  The subtitle is obviously not Shakespeare's.  It was no doubt added to make the play sound cool and hip and relevant to the modern day - days in which many of us, apparently, need to fight like bitches.  (Who knew?)  But no matter.  Anything that gets people to see this extraordinary play is fine with me.  Director Emily Penick, under the auspices of Rebel Kat Productions, has delivered a magnificent staging - timely, classic, and entertaining.  And those are not three adjectives that normally go together with as granite-like a play as Coriolanus. This is a forbidding work but I could not conceive of a more appealing, accessible, or satisfying production.

Not only does it have an all female cast but the play has been reimagined as all female characters.  Hes are now shes; sons are now daughters.  It is a woman’s world.  The production is also highly stylized, using choreography and mime (the good kind - don’t worry) to make its points.  The main-stage at the 12th Ave. Arts theater is a runway and viewers are seated on either side of it.  While a scene is playing out on one end another action may be discreetly playing out on the other.  This is a production with centers and margins.  There were more than a few times when I thought I should see it again just to focus on the peripheral action.

But that won’t happen for the simple fact that Nike Imoru’s performance in the lead role is so powerful and compelling that when she’s onstage I'm not going to notice much else.  She dominates the play.  Her Coriolanus is by turns proud, violent, sarcastic, etc. but Imoru also brings out the vulnerability and humor in the character.  This is a dancer’s performance, even the way she holds her body when silent conveys meaning.  And being British she has an ease with Shakespearean language that her American counterparts lack (I know that’s a critical cliche, but it’s true).  Her delivery not only brings out the musicality of the language but makes some of the play’s more dense passages crystal clear.

The rest of the cast are also outstanding.  A few deserve special note.  Wendy Robie plays Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother.  Beginning as a calm and unassuming presence, over time she reveals her viciousness and cruelty.  Many actresses can't resist chewing the scenery in a role like Volumnia, but Robie knows better.  Kate Witt was a delight as the dissolute Senator Menenius - though they cut out the great line of hers in which she describes herself as being more conversant “with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning.”  And so convincing were Katherine Jett and Yadira Duarte as the corrupt and scheming tribunes that I’m ready to write in their names on Tuesday’s ballot.  

Shifting the gender opened up some dramatic possibilities but closed others.  I thought the end of play was weakened by it.  In the final scene Aufidius, leader of the Volscan army, is determined to kill Coriolanus.  So he starts to goad him.  Nothing works until he calls Coriolanus “boy”.  At the sound of that name Coriolanus explodes into rage (as a boy would).  He starts yelling at Aufidius (I paraphrase) “‘Boy’?  This ‘boy’ killed all your Volscan families and you know it!”  At which point the surrounding Volscan troops, being reminded of their grief, stab him to death.  Switching “boy” to “girl” dilutes the effect.  

In many cultures (Republican Rome, Elizabethan England, etc.) the transition from “boy” to “man” is an elaborate cultural process, often accompanied by ritual humiliation, sadism, and the killing of defenseless animals.  Once you're a "man", you are (in theory) no longer a "boy".  So when one alpha male calls another alpha male “boy” it is a direct assault upon the male identity.  I don’t know that calling a “woman” a “girl” has the same power or operates in the same way.  In addition, I believe that one of Shakespeare's intentions in Coriolanus was to question and even mock the psychopathic, homicidal masculinity of his hero (and of all tragic heroes).

However, the gender switch also creates new avenues of expression.  In the scene in which Coriolanus leaves Rome under sentence of banishment, her family and a few friends gather at the city gate.  They quietly form a circle and hold hands.  It’s a moment of genuine tenderness, reminding us that Coriolanus's banishment is also the destruction of a community of family and friends.  Such beautiful moments, and there are many others, would not be possible (or plausible) without the gender switch.  
So, all told, an unforgettable production which you should not miss.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Hi-Fi Living

I very much enjoyed Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America by Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder.  It's a fun book.  This is a collection of album covers from the 1950s and 60s in that unusual genre of, for lack of a better phrase, background music.  I think that the titles will make it clear:  Music for a Back Yard Barbecue, Music for a Chinese Dinner at Home, Christmas in New York, A Visit to Finland, Kasongo: Modern Music of the Belgian Congo, etc.


These albums were all over the place in the 50s and 60s.  The post-war boom was underway and people had money to spend.  They bought homes and needed to fill them.  The Hi-Fi was a vast improvement in sound quality compared to earlier record players, some of which needed to be wound up by hand.  Your home was just not complete without a new Hi-Fi.  So you bought one, but you needed albums for it.  You had the obvious choices - Sinatra, Mathis, Cole, a Broadway show or two, a little jazz - but somehow it wasn’t enough.  You wanted more from this fabulous new machine.  Well, the record companies heard these millions of unuttered prayers.  These albums offered whole new ways to listen to and experience music.  They would show you how to use it to enrich your life.  They showed you, in short, how to have a Hi-Fi lifestyle.  

The covers functioned as advertisements, even as fashion plates.  Take a look at Time for Listening (above).  It’s got everything: Hi-Fi, cigarettes, stylish furniture, beautiful wife (who also functions partly as a sofa).  Even the ashtray makes a statement.  You didn’t buy this album for the music, you bought it to be that guy in the picture.  Album covers like this were of piece with magazines of the time, like Esquire or Playboy or Gentry.  They told you how to be a modern man.  And for women there was Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, or Vogue

Some of these covers look comical today.  Music for a buffet?  Surely these people knew how to put out a buffet.  Did they?  (Do you?)  In 1962 what music would you play for your buffet?  Elvis?  String quartets?  John Philip Sousa?  Should you even have music?  Don’t worry.  Columbia Records has you covered with Buffet (right), part of their “Music for Gracious Living” series (and featuring the biggest damn fruit tray I’ve ever seen).  There was no event for which you could not find music.  The “Gracious Living” series also included such titles as After the Dance, Do-It-Yourself (music for the workshop), Barbecue, and Foursome (as in card games - this was the 50s).  Which brings me to my one complaint about this book.  It doesn’t show the back covers of these albums.  And that’s a shame.  The liner notes would have been as interesting, entertaining, and informative of the era as the covers.

The authors have arranged the collection by theme.  Travel is a big one.  New York City, Hawaii and pre-Castro Cuba have whole sections devoted to them.  There are albums featuring the music of Japan and Argentina and Russia and India and the Zulus.  If you couldn’t go to Cairo, Capitol Records would bring Cairo’s music to you with their international "Capitol of the World" series (interesting title, that).  There’s a section devoted to albums covers with airplanes.  And, of course, the  honeymoon genre: Honeymoon in Paris, Honeymoon in Dublin, Honeymoon in Rome (left), etc.  Even though the two guys at the table in the background of the Honeymoon in Rome cover do look a little ominous.  In a way, all of these albums performed the same function in their day as Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain do in ours.

These albums could even take you to outer space.  Or, rather, pretend to.  Adventures in Sound and Space with Col. Frank Erhardt and cast is a drama which takes the listener on a fictional voyage to the Moon, Mars, and back.  Along the way we encounter, according to the cover, “Space Station,” “Moon Crash,” even a “Space Storm” before encountering “Mars and the Secret of the Canals”.  There’s also Ron Goodwin’s Music in Orbit (below) with its sci-fi cover depicting a purple earth (!) with an abnormally large United States.

This book could also have been called Album Covers of the Empire.  It captures the United States and its citizens at the height of their power and prosperity.  No doubt its breezy use of national, gender, and racial stereotypes will irk the sensibilities of those poor bastards born into the waning years of American awesomeness.  As for me, I love the confidence and self-assurance that underlies these covers.  I knew these people.  They were my parents and their friends.

My Dad had a small collection of albums like these.  I found them fascinating.  I would flip through them and wonder who is this man who bought these records but never listens to them.  His biggest affinity was for music from Spain, especially the music of bullfighting.  He was not, let me add, a former Spanish bullfighter awash in nostalgia; he was, in fact, an Italian-American professional photographer from Garfield, New Jersey.  Once I put on one of these bullfighting albums.  It was a live recording of the trumpets that play at the beginning of the event as the matador and picadors come out.  It was, frankly, a little boring.  But so what.  My Dad liked bullfighting and by purchasing those albums he affirmed that fact.  It was his way of saying “Yes, that's right, I’m a guy who likes bullfights.”  That record companies would actually produce albums to feed such an obviously small market is a testament to the abundance of post-war American capitalism.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Injustice

It is not what a man outwardly has or wants that constitutes the happiness or misery of him.  Nakedness, hunger, distress of all kinds, death itself have been cheerfully suffered, when the heart was right.  It is the feeling of injustice that is insupportable to all men.  
 - Thomas Carlyle, Chartism