Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Contumacious is not too strong a word to describe biographers who subtitle their tome, eight hundred and fifty plus pages though it may be, "The Life" as do authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith: Van Gogh: The Life.  "The Life" suggests that here the readers finally have the definitive version, the last word—everything we ever wanted to know about what was surely one of the most tortured of lives.  Clearly that is not the case.  For all its length and detail, it postulates a controversial theory of the artist's death which is sure to raise at least some hackles and generate some biographical blowback.  "Van Gogh: A Life" might have been a more appropriate title.

Viewers of 60 Minutes are most likely acquainted with the authors' theory about Van Gogh's death.  Long thought to have been a suicide,  Naifeh and Smith treat that idea as little more than a tall tale made legend by Irving Stone's novelization and the film that followed, Lust for Life, and a legend  filled  with holes.  While their arguments are presented with conviction, they are arguments, even though they have been around for some time, by no means accepted by all Van Gogh scholars.

Based primarily on a prior scholar's 1956 interviews with Rene Secretan, an octogenarian who came forward near the end of his life to explain his own role in the painter's 1890 death in what he claimed was an attempt to correct some of the romantic liberties taken in the film.  Although Secretan doesn't seem to have confessed to anything other than harassing the painter whom he and his young friends considered nothing short of a crazy man, he did have access to the kind of gun that people thought must have been the weapon Van Gogh used, a weapon that was never found.  Add to this a lot of circumstantial evidence including the facts that none of the painter's equipment was found at the site where he supposedly shot himself, the peculiarity of trying to commit suicide by shooting yourself in the stomach, Van Gogh's somewhat less than adequate statements about what he did, as well as a number of other tidbits, and you've got the makings of a case. 

A case at least for an accident—Secretan was hassling the painter and the gun went off.  He was frightened and ran off.  The authors never really accuse the young man of actually murdering the painter, but they are clearly of the opinion that however it happened, it was Secretan and his gun that were involved.  Their theory may convince some, it may not others; one thing for sure, it will sell books.

In general, the picture they paint of the artist is not very flattering.  For most of his life he is shown as demanding and self absorbed to the point that he was completely unable to get along with anyone, be it family, friends or fellow artists.  Even his brother Theo who supported him for most of his adult life was unable to deal effectively with his extravagant demands both financially as well as emotionally.  Certainly though many of his problems were the result of his mental state, the Van Gogh pictured in this book would have tested the patience of a saint, let alone a normal human being. 

Strange behavior is often tolerated in great artists.  It is the price you have to pay for genius.  Van Gogh's problem was that not until the last few months of his life that his greatness was even begun to be recognized.  For most of his life, he was considered little more than a mad man.  His work was ridiculed.  His impassioned ideas were derided.  His behavior was outlandish.  Naifeh and Smith are meticulous in documenting the disasters that followed him from his early career working in art sales, his flirtation with religion, and his eventual devotion to art, but through it all Van Gogh is presented as such a head case that one has to wonder how it was he ever managed to create any of the masterworks for which he has become so loved.  Not only does one have to tolerate genius; one has to tolerate all those crazies who may turn out to be not so crazy after all.  If anything, the reader comes away from this life, recognizing that often there may be very little difference between genius and madness.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: War Horse: The Making of the Motion Picture

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Michael Morpurgo's 1982 young adult novel War Horse, certainly moderately successful at the time, has sky rocketed in acclaim in recent years both in its own right and perhaps even more importantly as an inspiration for artistic adaptation.  First there was the theatrical tour de force adapted for Great Britain's National Theatre by Nick Stafford, which in its Broadway incarnation was the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play and is still running at Lincoln Center.  And now, opening on Christmas Day comes the much ballyhooed film adaptation by director Stephen Spielberg. 

Perhaps because of the National Theatre production's innovative solution to the problem of putting horses on the stage through the use of giant puppets, it generated a fascinating documentary called Making War Horse.  The film, available on DVD, besides dealing with the story itself, stresses the creation of the puppets in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and the training of the puppeteers necessary to create the illusion of lifelike horses.  Not to be outdone, the film too has generated not a documentary as of yet but an elegant "pictorial moviebook," War Horse: The Making of the Motion Picture. No puppets it's true, but more than 140 brilliant photos from the film in their place. 

Divided into three sections the book takes you on a visual journey first through the film's story, then its production and finally gives a short nod to the history of horses in warfare.  "Joey's Journey" outlines the basic plot of the movie with stills from the film, comments from the filmmakers and even an excerpt or two from the script.  There are individual photos of the large cast and brilliant shots of the British countryside.  But the really exciting visuals are those capturing the interaction of men and the horses first on the farm and then at war. 

The second section takes you behind the scenes.  While it does provide some interesting insights like the ten different horses playing the role of Joey and the shot of the makeup artist working on one of the equine actors, the whole section runs little more than a dozen pages, much of it taken up with commentary.  "The History of War Horses" uses illustrations from history to highlight the role of horses from ancient Egypt through World War 1, with the emphasis on the latter.  As history it is little more than a sketch, and at best will whet the interested reader's appetite for something more substantial.  Still this is after all a book about the making of a movie, and one can't expect a historical dissertation.

There are forewords by Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, who seems to have been the originator of the project, screenwriter Richard Curtis, and author Morpurgo.  Curtis has an interesting tidbit about how his film Four Weddings and a Funeral beat out Spielberg's Schindler's List for a French foreign film award, the kind of anecdote you can dine out on.  Morpurgo talks about the writing of the novel and somewhat fetchingly confesses his preference for cows over horses at the time he was writing.  One imagines recent developments may well have changed his mind.

If the film manages to garner the same kind of critical acclaim as the play, this is a book that may well share that popularity.  Although it is quite well done in its own right, it seems to me that its success is clearly tied directly to the success of the film.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Music Review: Jimmy Owens - "The Monk Project"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Thelonious Monk is a good example of one of those musical geniuses who early on in their careers created a sound that was considered experimental and cutting edge but with the passage of time has become standard fare on the jazz menu. The innovative young pianist composer became the revered grand master, and after his death in 1982 nothing short of a legend. And nothing says legend like fellow musicians paying tribute to your music by making it their own. It's one thing when people copy what you've done; it's quite another to use what you've done as an inspiration to build upon and create.

Trumpeter Jimmy Owens' The Monk Project is just such a tribute. "Thelonious Monk," he says, "is one of the world's premier jazz artists and composers.  Many of his compositions provide (even the best) jazz artists with musical challenges, such as the opportunity to maneuver through difficult chord changes and execute unusual melodies.  I chose compositions that people may have heard before, however, when I arranged the pieces I wanted to give them a different feeling than how they have been performed in the past."  Owens has taken the music and transformed it into something new, yet something still quite recognizable.  But more importantly, something that might well have brought a smile to the face of the legend.  The Monk Project is jazz as it ought to be.

The trumpeter leads a septet consisting of Wycliffe Gordon on Trombone, Marcus Strickland on tenor sax and Howard Johnson on the tuba and baritone sax.  Kenny Barron is on the piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Winard Harper plays drums.  It is a group that combines veteran talent with new young voices—age and youth, a winning combination.  They feed off each other as though they have been playing together for years, and in some cases they have.

There are ten tracks on the album beginning with a swinging arrangement of "Bright Mississippi." "Well You Needn't" follows featuring Owens on the flugelhorn and the septet's rhythm section.  Owens and Barron have in fact played together for years and it shows.  A funky "Blue Monk" is a real show stopper with some down and dirty trombone from Gordon.   This is one of the highlights of an album filled with highlights. The group's take on "Stuffy Turkey" is treated more playfully, in contrast to the low down "Blue Monk."  Kenny Davis gets an opportunity to get out front on the bass. 

"Pannonica," one of Monk's most elegant melodies, is slowed down some in Owens' hands and achieves an almost more impressive eloquence.  They follow with an up tempo version of "Let's Cool One" with Strickland's sax featured in the opening solo.  "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" will have you bopping and nodding again with some low down improvisation.  Owens and the combo play around with rhythms on the complexities of "Brilliant Corners," and the album follows with a contemplative (what else would you expect) take on "Reflections."  A ten minute ride through "Epistrophy" which gives each of the seven a moment to shine ends the album with style. Scheduled for release in January of 2012, The Monk Project is an album to keep your ears open for.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Music Review: Rob Morsberger- Ghosts Before Breakfastt

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Along with the announcement of next week's digital release of Rob Morsberger's latest album Ghosts Before Breakfast, comes the shocking news that that the singer is suffering from brain cancer.  "As I was finishing off my record," he says,"I unexpectedly received a diagnosis of grade 4 Glioblatoma. . .the worst manifestation of the most malignant kind of brain cancer.  This is not a survivable illness."  Given this kind of tragic news, a critical review of the album might seem like a gratuitous exercise.  That is not the case, not for the artist.  For the artist life goes on as long as the art goes on.  And If Morsberger is anything, he is an artist.  If his last album, the intellectually challenging Chronicle of a Literal Man, didn't prove that, this latest can't help but do the job.

Ghosts Before Breakfast welds the patented density of Morsberger's allusive lyrics and subject matter to a variety of musical styles both within and between songs.  These are songs that will keep listeners humming along as they puzzle over meanings.  These are songs that will keep listeners humming along as they puzzle over meanings.  This is true art, and the real thing is never easy.  There are eleven songs on the album, and the more you listen, the more you recognize there isn't a loser in the bunch.

The title song, which opens the album, was written as a score for a 1927 silent film of the same name by Hans Richter, a Dada artist and abstract filmmaker.  The chorus is made up from titles of some of Richter's other films and most of the rest of the song reels off lists of images associated with abstract art.  "The song," Morsberger says, "is really about making art, and being an artist."  This is followed by "The Great Whatever" a song that rants against a god that allows a world of suffering with a Latin beat.  Images like the wizard behind the curtain, the terrorist who looks to god for instruction, the watchmaker whose watch has gone wrong fill the song, but despite it all the negativity some sort of spiritual practice is necessary.  "The Distinguished Thing" is a celebration of the novelist Henry James who died lamenting that there were still so many stories left untold, a lament that must cut close to home.

"The Wild Wind" is a musical tour de force that traces the history of the singer's hometown from the time of the Indians up through the 20th century in a variety of musical styles from rock to ragtime. "A Man of Much Merit" is based on a letter from Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the Lewis and Clark expedition and "Rocket Science" is a tongue in cheek nod to some of the older rocket songs.  "Celebrity Artist" is a satiric turn where Morsberger reminds me of the They Might Be Giants sound (another name to go with Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Randy Newman and all the others he is normally compared with).  Speaking of Dylan, "For Heaven's Sake" is a ballad that comes close to his growl, except that Morsberger sounds a hell of a lot better.  "Cobblestones," on the other hand, is a more personal ballad and vocally is much simpler, almost sweet in its sadness.

 "Christina In Your Salon," a song about  Christina Alexandra, 17th century Queen of Sweden, ends the album in the typical Morseberger manner: you want a song about a cross dressing intellectual who studied with Descartes?  I can write it for you.  The next to last song on the album "Feather in a Stream" is a personal statement that almost seems to have been written with his health problems in mind, although his publicity seems to suggest that these were all written before he knew about the cancer.  The metaphor of the feather carried willy nilly down life's stream is compelling under the circumstances, and the lush orchestration which ends the song is spiritually elegant.  Were it me, I would have ended the album here.