Thursday, December 24, 2009

Storyville : Bullet in the Brain

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff
from the night in question

It's only five pages long, and yet Wolff's story still feels somehow epic. That is partly because it jacknifes halfway through, turning from a seemingly simple and one dimensional narrative into a far more poetic, reflective character portrayal. And partly because that character portrayal is so precisely written and evocative that it suggests the complexity and turbulence of an actual human life. All in five pages.

Wolff is arguably the most celebrated living American Short Story writer. His main competition is probably Richard Ford, with whom he was once grouped alongside Raymond Carver as a "dirty realist", a term with no real connection to the work of any of the writers to whom it was most commonly applied. But Ford is now primarily known for his terrific novels, leaving writers from a younger generation, such as Lorrie Moore and George Saunders, as Wolff's major American peers in the genre. Woolf's command of the short story form is so great, and his focus upon it so complete (he has written two novels, one novella and two memoirs in forty years alongside his five story collections) that he is generally considered alongside Alice Munro and William Trevor as one of the world's best short story writers.

Bullet in the Brain (which I have previously written briefly about here) is the final story in the night in question, and it ends that fine collection on a grace note. It begins by following Anders, a "book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed" as he queues for a teller in a bank. This section appears to be told in Ander's style, to some extent, or at least under his influence, for Wolff observes almost everything with a critical perjorative attached. The woman in front of him - who seeks to include Anders in their disparaging of a certain teller - is a "presumptuous crybaby" and her conversation "loud, stupid". Even after two armed robbers enter the bank and hold it up, Anders cannot help himself. He mocks the criminal's patter, aloud, for its abundance of cliches - "'Bright boy'. Right out of 'The Killers'". Wolff appears to suggest that his position as a critic has given him a false sense of his own security, as if life is something he can tear apart with his casual, devastating critical barbs. Earlier, he has turned upon the women in the queue even though he shares their feelings about the teller. His sarcasm and contempt seem a pose, some sort of critical reflex which has infected his real life persona, something he himself is perhaps unaware of.

This persona is what gets him killed. He cannot help himself with the armed robbers - he regards and observes them with the same attention to detail he would a subject for review. That "weary, elegant savagery" is displayed in Wolff's descriptions of the men working the bank: "He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness, even torpor". He provokes them with his amused contempt, and then he gets a little giggly and hysterical, and it is only in the last seconds of his life, before they kill him, that the reality of the situation begins to impact upon him, and even then only briefly - "He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol". But he cannot hold in his laughter and one of the men, angered, shoots him in the head.

Until this point the story has been slight, even simplistic. Anders is one-dimensional, his hatred absolute and all-encompassing. He just about seems to get what he deserves, for his stupidity and lack of control over himself. But then Wolff lifts the story as he follows the bullet's trajectory into Anders' brain and documents the "synaptic lightning that flashed around it". Now he tells us of that most cliched of cliches, and acknowledges just how much Anders would loathe it: "Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, "passed before his eyes"."

There follows a lovely series of past events, people and experiences Anders does not remember, which, Wolff tells us, "is worth noting". And Wolff is right, for it is this nicely paced and modulated passage which makes Anders seem a rounded, complex, vulnerable human being. We learn he has had chldren, been married, had lovers, been a student protester, lost his passion for his work. We learn other things, details. Telling details. Wolff knows just what language to use to sketch a scene and yet make it indelible, to make its truth plain in a few simple sentences. The truth makes Anders universal and sympathetic, and perhaps even offers some explanation for his current persona, for its bilious negativity, in Anders' disappointment with the women he had known and loved "before she had exhausted him with her predictability", in the sad transformation of his daughter from a little girl lecturing her teddy bear on naughtiness to a "sullen" Professor ", and even in the grind of his own job: "He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry with writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else." Anders is brought to life in death, and Wolff finds an elegant final movement with which to end his story: "This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighbourhood gather for a pickup game". A much younger Anders, not the jaded urban sophisticate, but a more innocent version, perhaps in the suburbs or some small town, who is enraptured by a piece of everyday American poetry. Here Wolff manages to suggest why Anders chose the course in his life that he did - he loves the music of words, and is elated by them even at such a young age - and also give him an elegy of sorts, particularly in the beautiful and moving final sentence, which ends a brilliant story on a lovely note.

The best bit: you can read the whole thing right here.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 43

Nils Gaup's 1987 Finnish-Norwegian adventure movie is one of the best of that decade; a taut, spare tale based on an old Sami legend, and the first film to be shot entirely in Sami, the native language of the people of Lapland. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and Writer-Director Gaup directed a few Hollywood films on the back of its success, but these days it seems almost forgotten. Not entirely, though - Marcus Nispel's lame 2007 Pathfinder borrows its title (though the Sami title is Ofelaš) and part of its plot to much inferior effect. Gaup's film feels authentic. Shot in temperatures as low as -47°C and employing an original, superb score, its better than this trailer suggests:


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Not - Guilty."

Guinness makes the best adverts.
Or, ok: Guinness commissions the best adverts. As big brands go, and I mean Worldwide brands, identifiable by most of the population of the planet by a trademark or logo, Guinness is untouchable in its genius for promotion. There are only a few dozen such brands in existence, and they all have the money and massive marketing departments which mean they can spend the time and resources required to create truly distinctive, memorable marketing campaigns. Some do, time and again - Adidas and Nike, Levis, Mercedes, Volkswagen, a handful of others. But Guinness always seems ahead of the game, hiring the best Directors and having the courage and vision to go for the craziest, most original concepts. Those concepts are then executed as well as you can imagine them being in the strict confines of the commercial format, because Guinness doesn't stint on Budgets. All their ads looks like mini-movies, which is their true glory. They have texture and atmosphere and beauty. They are sensual experiences, which is what you want from an advert promoting a sensual experience.

Does a short film featuring horses amidst crashing breakers make people want to drink stout? Probably not. But it does mean that if somebody is going to drink stout, yours is the one they will have heard of, the one they will regard, on some primitive, easily-manipulated level, as "the best". And thats advertising. Thats why other brands make Guinness-style adverts which feel and look like Guinness ads until the final moment when the brand is revealed.

The newest Guinness spot was directed by Johnny Green, whose exciting, distinctive work I've written about here before, and whose muscular visual sense and eye for a beautiful composition is as obvious here as it has been in all his work. Hes aided by an impressive team including cinematographer Wally Pfister, who shot Christoher Nolan's The Dark Knight, and Grant Major, who was a set designer on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
No surprise it looks so beautiful, then:

A few of Guinness' highlights from over the years, starting with Rutger Hauer's original outing in a 1992 spot for the Company, through some that you may find irritating, beautiful and/or mildly amusing, much of it full of stage Oirishness and assorted paddywhackery wherein the Old country is absurdly romanticised (but dammit, it works):

A young Joseph Mawle as a hurler:

Tom Crean, legendary Irish explorer and probable Guinness-retailer:

"Anticipation", a small cultural phenomenon with Perez Prado's "Guaglione" as its theme:

This one was banned, and you can sort of see why, funny though it is:

Two by Jonathan Glazer, the first possibly the greatest advert ever made:

African Football:

Lee Scratch Perry:

And finally:

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Pointless List : Morricone-Influenced Rock

Ennio Morricone was perhaps the first significant Soundtrack Composer to take a lasting influence from rock music. His seminal scores for the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci utilised rock instrumentation and even borrowed rock textures - the guitars sounded like those of a Surf guitar group, and some of the jerking rhythms almost resembled reggae. This meant that he - and artists covering him - had a few chart hits in the 60s and also that his work began to influence some of the more interesting artists of that era.

Since then, he has been utterly absorbed by popular culture and people perhaps take his brilliance for granted. He pops up in rock music in unlikely places - he has been endlessly sampled, most famously perhaps when the Orb used "The Man with the Harmonica" from Once Upon a Time in the West on "Little Fluffy Clouds", but also by the likes of Jay-z and the Prodigy. Morrissey somehow persuaded him to score the strings for "Dear God, Please Help Me" from his 2006 "Ringleader of the Tormentors" album. Maybe hes a fan of the Smiths? Metallica begin their live set with "The Ecstasy of Gold" and their Metallica album contained a couple of Spaghetti Western influences.
Probably the most reliable Morricone-booster in modern rock music is Mike Patton. His bands Fantomas and Mr Bungle have both covered Morricone, and he curated the fantastic Morricone compilation "Crime and Dissonance" a few years ago.
But Morricone's direct influence on rock music is harder to trace, I think, since his sound has become so diffuse and eclectic. There are a few obvious references to make, however:

Babe Ruth - The Mexican
Babe Ruth were a strange mix of Prog and blues-rock who enjoyed far more success in North America than they ever did in their native England (they came from Hatfield). The song for which they will be remembered is The Mexican, which incorporates Morricone's theme from For A Few Dollars More as a guitar riff. Maybe "incorporates" is too mild a word, for the song is fairly built around that theme, one of Morricone's most nagging and distinctive melodies. Based on a fantastically pulsing bassline and some nimble guitarwork, the body of the song allows singer Janita Haan's raw vocal - with Western-referencing lyrics ( "Dreams of Santa Ana, fighting in the Sun" etc) - to dominate. But the breakdown is all Morricone, a guitar and keyboard working over his theme as part of an extended solo. The song's storming rhythm section was used in an early 70s B-Boy break and since then it has been covered and remixed a couple of times, but the rocking original remains the best, and the closest to Morricone.

Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of Understatement
Here is a band paying tribute to Morricone via Baroque rock. In an attempt to create a record that could have been recorded in the 1960s, full of Big galloping orchestras and melodramatic soundscapes but also unashamed, exciting pop hooks, Alex Turner and Miles Kane end up sounding like they've listened to an awful lot of Scott Walker. Specifically "Scott 4", the beginning of his commercial decline but arguably his best record of the 60s. Its also an album that betrays a major Morricone influence, most obviously on tracks like "The Seventh Seal" and "The Old Man's Back Again". So theres a secondhand Morricone influence, if such a thing is possible in a world where Morricone's music has become such a cliche, and this song features those strident, charging strings, building toward an inevitable climax that never quite arrives.

Tindersticks - Her
Tindersticks have composed and performed music for soundtracks over the last few years - Clare Denis has a particular fondness for their work, meaning that they've contributed to some of the best films of the decade - and this isn't remotely surprising given the influence of various soundtracks on their music right from their first record. Her comes from their brilliant eponymous debut, and in its storm of chopped acoustic chords, which sound not unlike thundering hooves, it recalls the action theme from A Fistful of Dollars. Then theres the buzzing electric guitar line which runs throughout and the use of horns, which are very redolent of Morricone, too. As ever, Stuart Staples writes dark, personal lyrics, full of recrimination and self-loathing, but thechorus is as plain and ardent as it could conceivably be; "Its Her, Her, Her, Her, Her". In their later work they go more late-night and the dominant film composer influence seems to be John Barry, but here the dominant cinematic influence is Italian and beautifully absorbed. Who knew a song could wear the influence of both Morricone and Thin Lizzy and yet work so well?

Modern Eon - Euthenics
You might imagine that post-punk as a movement and aesthetic is about as far from Morricone as you could get. And generally you would be right. But Modern Eon, a Liverpudlian post-punk band, peers of the likes of The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen, managed to be firmly post-punk and absorb a heavy Morricone influence. With most rock bands that influence comes from his Spaghetti Western soundtrack work, and that is also the case here. Usually the influence is most discernable in either the guitar sound - a sharp, reverb-wrung surf guitar line, in most cases - or in the work of the rhythm section, who will charge the song along with big bass drums beating out odd, primal tattoos. Here the guitar sound is very definitely the most obvious Morricone element in play, but the rhythm section isn't too far off, even if the vocals and keyboards are both intrinsically 1980s and Post-Punk in their effect:

Portishead - Machine Gun
Early Portishead wears more of a John Barry/Burt Bacharach influence (as well as a touch of Esquivel) even if there is some Morricone in the occasional searing guitar break and the general atmospherics. Their third album is an entirely different beast, junking all of their stylistic crutches, and this song stands apart from their entire catalogue due to its harsh, industrial drum sound, which hammers along throughout. But the coda features a despairing synth theme which sounds like it has been beamed in from 1979, from an Italian Morricone soundtrack where Il Maestro is wearing the influence of John Carpenter's scores from his own films so lightly, it seems as if he's organically come up with it himself. It finishes off a great song - Gibbon's beautiful voice pushed to the limit as it rarely is by the band's more habitual sound - on a beautifully accomplished note.

Gruff Rhys - Lonesome Words
The Super Furry Animals obviously love Morricone. There are Morricone moments scattered throughout their many albums - a harmonica here, a guitar part there, some strings, some drums. On his excellent solo album singer Rhys goes for the fullbown Morricone homage with this lovely little folksy stroll. It has that galloping rhythm so many of these songs have, played on acoustic guitars, Rhys cooing over the top. But the backing vocal is the really obvious Morricone element - a keening female wail singing a ghostly countermelody which runs under each verse. Then the song shifts gear for its final stretch, and a jolly, hyperactive fiddle kicks in, a sound familiar from much of Morricone's work from the 60s and 70s. The fact that it plays quite a glum little melody just makes it sound more lovely.

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