Newtown, Portland, Aurora: Same Old BS from the NRA and Flunky Pols

I told you so. Here's re-posting from August of this year. Once again we hear the wails, dry the tears, and wring the hands. Once again we hear the call for meaningful gun control, and once again the gun-totin' right assures us that "Guns don't kill; people kill." And once again, the only thing that changes is that more families are shattered. Click on this link of a Cheryl Wheeler song and send to every friggin' politician in America until they're shamed into doing something. Cheryl wrote this in 1997. Does anybody out there have a problem with that? I sure as hell do! Clackamas Mall and Newtown, CT in the same week. I have a problem with that too. 

Here's what I wrote about Aurora in July. Nothing happened. Who's next? 

What’s left to say? James Holmes walks into an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater armed for Armageddon and blows away a dozen people and wounds 59 others. Tragic? Of course it is, and my heart goes out to the victims and their families. Surprising? Not in the least. In fact, I predicted it–on this blog no less. Back in 2011, when Gabby Giffords and her aides were shot, I remarked that such incidents were inevitable because Americans think the Second Amendment is more sacred than the sanctity of human life. I said it when the Virginia Tech murders occurred in 2009, and I said it after the tragedy at Columbine in 1999. (It’s located just 20 miles from Aurora, by the way.) I said it again when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, a pipsqueak who thought a gun made him a man.

I’m sure the rightwing nut jobs will try to tell us that fewer would have died in Aurora if the patrons were all packing pistols. They’ll drag out all the nostrums, such as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “Guns cause crime like flies cause garbage,” and “An armed man is a citizen. An unarmed man is a subject.” These look good on t-shirts, but it’s gauche to wear them to funerals. How about this one for a new slogan: “The N.R.A. Murdered More Americans Than Osama bin-Laden.” Catchy, eh? And true as well. Because the NRA lines politicians’ pockets and because they propagandize a naïve citizenry into thinking guns make them safer, each year more than 11,000 Americans die from gun violence–that’s more than 3 ½ bin Ladens per year, folks. But we already know and ignore these statistics, and others such as the overwhelming evidence that murder rates are highest in states where guns are most easily obtained, and that individuals are more likely to be killed in an attempted crime if they brandish a firearm. But we don’t want to hear any of this, so maybe we should applaud James Holmes for helping us reach our national murder target faster (word play intentional).

Look–here’s a guy, Holmes, who in fewer than 60 days, purchased an AR-15 assault rifle, two Glock pistols, a 12-guage shotgun, six thousand rounds of ammo, and enough chemicals and explosives to restage Bhopal, and nobodywas suspicious. Why? Because it was all legal; Holmes had no criminal record, so to raise any questions would be, according to the NRA, a dangerous intrusion of civil rights on the part of the Evil Government. (For the record, Evil Government officials, AKA/the police, generally fatally wound around 400 people a year. What a bunch of amateurs!) The Aurora massacre raises the same damn questions asked (and ignored) before: Why does any American need an assault rifle? (Up yours, collectors!) How is it an intrusion of rights to limit the number of rounds a gun can fire without reloading? Why can’t we place strict limits on sales of ammunition? (The NRA even opposes technology that would allow ammunition to be traced to its purchaser.) Why is the Second Amendment more sacred than the 18th(Prohibition), which was repealed? Yada, yada, yada….   Same questions, same funerals, same tears, same bewildered shock, same inaction….

I’ve not been following Aurora carefully–it’s like a syndicated TV show whose episodes I’ve seen so often I can recite the plot and dialogue from memory. And it will air again, and again, and again. All because we allow a terrorist organization in our midst, the NRA, to pose as a public service organization and sandbag sane political policy (gun control). All because we really don’t give a damn about Aurora, Trayvon Martin, Gabby Giffords’ aides, Virginia Tech, or Columbine. Harsh? I don’t think so. If we really cared, wouldn’t we have done something more than dry our tears and move on? 

And here's what I said in August: 

R.I.P. Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

Ravi Shankar (4/7/20-12/11/21)

The passing of a legend. 

When I was a child, the term “world music” seldom got more global than the British Invasion or dreamy folk from Canadians such as Joni Mitchell. All that changed in 1965, when George Harrison slipped a 7-½ second sitar run into The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” What a sound! It was like steel striking glass and wrapped in a drone. As it turned out, that was about all Harrison could do on the sitar at the time, but he hustled himself off to India to study with the man who taught him that little lick: Ravi Shankar. Soon I and other kids were listening to Shankar’s music. Did we understand it? Well… a lot gets lost when East meets West, but let’s just say that our musical palettes gained a taste for masala. With Ravi Shankar’s passing on December 11, 2012, some of the flavor just left the planet.

Naysayers–as is their wont–slammed George Harrison for commercializing Indian music, but he was true to his teacher’s intent; it was always Ravi Shankar’s dream that the West would come to embrace Indian music. Thanks to him, it did. Shankar was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city along the Ganges. His first taste of music–and his first trips to Europe–came as a dancer in his brother’s ensemble, but in 1934, Shankar apprenticed himself to Allauddin Khan, of the famed Hindustani musical family, and when he emerged from his rigorous training in 1944, he was already among the world’s finest sitar players. That’s more remarkable than it sounds–the sitar has 23 strings (including seven that are horizontal to the fret board), some of which are drones and some of which resonate sympathetically with melody strings. It is generally considered such a difficult instrument that most renowned masters emerge in their 40s and 50s, not at age 24. In like fashion, they are expected to spend decades conquering the intricacies of classical style, not evolving signature sounds. (Shankar is famed for his unique slow opening, alap, which serves to shape the ragas–melodies–that are part of the ancient Sanskrit traditions. He also melded sitar into rock, jazz, and avant-garde compositions.)  

Shankar made his first trip to Europe as a solo artist in 1956; he met George Harrison in London nine years later. Harrison was another step in Shankar’s personal crusade to make ragas known in the West. By the late 1960s he had done so with such success that there was merit to exploitation charges. There were so many musicians trying sitar that a veritable subgenre of raga rock emerged–much of it dreck. Harrison, though, proved a true devotee and he and Shankar became close friends. (For some other good stuff, check out John Renbourn’s work with Pentangle, or Dave Mason with Traffic.) Shankar persisted, though, and did stints of serious teaching in New York and California, the latter in which he had a second home. His recording career spanned the years 1937 to 2012, the year of his death. He also won three Grammy Awards, scored at least 15 films, and won uncounted honors across the globe.

I was lucky enough to see Shankar perform on several occasions, the most recent of which was two years when he was 90. He was, by then, as frail as one might expect for one of such advanced age. Shankar was led on stage by one of his band mates holding one hand and his other gripping a cane. But once on the stage–covered by an enormous rug and festooned with tapestries–he did as he had done for over 60 years: he squatted cross-legged on the floor, hoisted his sitar to his lap, and with a single glance and nod orchestrated the first number. His body was 90, but his hands and fingers were those of a precocious 24-year-old as they flew up and down the neck, each finger plucking with precision, and each note ringing with cosmic majesty. If memory serves, the 90-minute concert featured just four compositions, but it was hypnotic and transformative. Did I understand the spiritual explanations of his ragas? I’ll claim nothing beyond this statement: Better than when I was a kid. Was I enchanted? Oh, yes!

Shankar was, by 2010, such a revered figure that the other musicians on stage treated him with deference one might reserve for saints. Shankar was a deeply religious Hindu, but he was no saint. Like many mortals, in the struggle between mysticism and worldly desire, the latter often won. He fathered three children, of whom only the first was the product of marriage. He separated from his first wife–Khan’s daughter–shortly after the birth of their son and began a long-term relationship with a woman named Kanda Shashi, with whom he fathered his greatest legacy: his daughter Anoushka, herself among the world’s greatest sitar players. Shankar had numerous other paramours, including a fling with New York music producer Sue Jones that produced singer Norah Jones. Shankar eventually left Shashi and married for a second time in 1989.

Call Shankar a cultural saint and leave value judgments to others. To me it is telling that among the musicians with whom he collaborated in his long career were Yehudi Menuhin and John Coltrane. Like those two legends, Ravi Shankar was the sort of musician who comes along just once in a generation.--Rob Weir


Icy December a Good Choice for a Holiday Album

Icy December
* * *

I’m on record as saying that I’d prefer orchestral music arranged for jackhammer and dental drills to listening to holiday music. I’m not alone; one of my editors says he’d resign before he ran a review of a Christmas recording. Speaking for myself, I dislike the forced jollity of secular Christmas songs, the contrived sentimentality of the religious ones, the mythical family values wholesomeness, and the fact that I’ve been hearing these songs blast from Christmas Tree Shops since Jesus was a lad. But I do enjoy listening to Beth Leachman-Gadbaw’s vocals so if I must listen to holiday music, I’m glad she’s anchoring Icy December. And I’m doubly glad that Margot Krimmel is there to add crystalline harp.

Credit Leachman-Gadbaw and Krimmel for featuring some of the lesser-known seasonal songs, such as the title track, “Gloucestershire Wassail,” “The Donkey and the Doves,” and the old-timey influenced “When Jesus Lived in Galilee.” They also offer some unfamiliar but fine things from the Celtic realm such as “Prayer for St. Brigid” and the beautiful Turlough O’Carolan harp composition “Loftus Jones.” Kudos also for mixing in original pieces such as Krimmel’s “Before the Snow” and the co-written “Song of Peace.” Krimmel is equally at home with folk, jazz, and classical harp, but on this album she opts mostly for glassy notes, colder tones, and introspective moods–all appropriate for the season. For her part, Leachman-Gadbaw indulges her passion for Irish music and harmony singing. Like Krimmel she acknowledges the cold, short days, but she also seeks to warm us with spirited cadences and the joyous inflection of her voice, one with just the right blend of youth and maturity.

Okay, so there isn’t much that’s going to make me warm to “The First Noel” or “What Child Is This?” but I immensely enjoyed the things that didn’t make visions of Bing Crosby dance in my head. So maybe I’m only a Grinch-in-training. --Rob Weir


Life of Pi a Flop from Top to Stop

Directed by Ang Lee
20th Century Fox, 127 mins. PG-13 (gratuitous 3D special effects)

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was a surprise winner of Britain’s 2002 Man Booker Prize. It’s an unusual novel that blends magical realism, fable, and fictional autobiography (and there’s little way to tell if the latter is intended to be literal or imagined). At least three other directors contemplated a treatment of Martel’s novel, gave up, and declared it unfilmable. Would that Ang Lee had heeded their warning; his attempt at the book is a flop from top to stop–a crashing bore punctuated by cheap thrills, contrived structure, and lowest common denominator storytelling.

The protagonist Pi (Irrfan Khan) goes by a diminutive that is short for Piscine Militor Patel. He’s a lad who comes of age in India and is absurdly saddled with the name of a Parisian swimming pool courtesy his world traveler father, Santosh (Adil Hussain). Santosh is a volatile mix of dreaminess and rationalism, which also happens to be one of the book’s major organizing themes. He is simultaneously a man of science, but a naïf who builds an impractical zoo in Pondicherry, an area of India once colonized by France. It’s no wonder that Pi is also a walking contradiction, smart and resourceful, but also a devotee of all of the world’s major religious traditions. Various journeys–physical, psychological, and possibly imaginative–begin when Santosh’s zoo is no longer viable and he decides to pack up his family and all of the animals for a new start in Canada. Disaster at sea strands Pi on a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a snarling hyena, and–as we suddenly discover–a carnivorous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. (The odd name is a joke involving an invoice error.) First the hyena dispatches the zebra and then, to Pi’s great sadness, the female orangutan; Richard Parker makes quick work of all three of them. For the next 227 days Pi must try to avoid becoming Richard Parker’s lunch. Will they bond, or will the law of the jungle prevail?

In the novel–and pretty much just a tack-on in the movie–it’s not at all clear if the scenario as Pi relates it occurred, or if it’s a projection of his imagination. Or, it maybe something far more sinister happened in the lifeboat. Maybe he is the tiger, the hyena the ship’s cook, the zebra a sailor, and the orangutan his mother. Did Pi drift to Mexico fortified by cannibalism? This is tricky stuff, so how does one film it? Answer: One doesn’t. (Or shouldn’t.)

Fairness demands that I frame my critique with the admission that I have never been an Ang Lee fan. Much like Santosh, Lee has a fascination with Western culture–classics such as Sense and Sensibility (1995), exposés of bourgeois life (Ice Storm, 1997), tributes to pop culture (Hulk, 2003), and interpretations of history (the Civil war era Ride with the Devil, 1999). Lee is frequently mawkish, as he was in the vastly overrated Brokeback Mountain (2005), or completely off the mark, as he was in Taking Woodstock (2009), which is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. He is also prone to trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood, a big problem in Life of Pi.

Because the story is unorthodox and “truth” exists (or doesn’t) on several levels, Lee has to find a way to structure the narrative. He resorts to one of movie-making’s biggest clichés: having an older protagonist relate his tale to another through flashbacks. This works in fiction because we are privy to inner thoughts; on the screen, however, such a technique is ham-handed and dull. Second, Lee needed to truncate the tale; hence he emphasizes only the tiger-on-the-boat dilemma because it is the most visually interesting part. (And, one suspects, literally the more “palatable” of the competing story arcs.)

But is that narrative believable? As a literal tale, it stretches credulity and strays toward magical realism. Movies are good with total fantasy worlds, but the liminal space that is magical realism is notoriously hard to do well; only a handful have been successful (Pan’s Labyrinth, Beasts of the Southern Wild) and this isn’t one of them. What Lee opts to do is less forgivable than mucking up a hard-to-film book–he plays Life of Pi for its cheap theatrics and milks it commercially. Instead of the complex and conflicted emotions of the novel, Lee bathes Pi is the thrill-a-moment manipulation of slasher films that make viewers gasp when danger suddenly leaps forth from the shadows. And here’s the worst part: Life of Pi has been aggressively marketed for its 3D version for which moviegoers pay an inflated price. Forget the story, the inner machinations of Pi’s mind, or any potentially profound metaphors; Lee uses the story for the mercenary purpose of setting up the next gasp-inducing special effect. (Need I tell you that sudden tiger appearances factor heavily into this equation? Hear me roar!) This is cheap filmmaking at its most expensive–all manner of technical wizardry that is, ultimately, as broad as the Pacific and as thin as a tiger’s whisker.

2D or 3D? How about ND, as on “no dice?” Life of Pi is a dish best left untouched on the plate, which is what I intend to do with future projects from this poseur director.
--Rob Weir