Thursday, June 30, 2011

Anthony Scaduto's Bob Dylan

As a result of The Witmark Demos, I've found myself interested in Bob Dylan's story and especially his roots. This led me to Anthony Scaduto's in depth study of the the man behind the shades, simply titled Bob Dylan.

Scaduto was a former crime reporter, so this book is the mother lode when it comes to early Dylan detail. It includes volumes of material on his relationship with Woodie Guthrie (far more than I realized), and all the machinations that brought him so quickly to the limelight in a city crowded with dreamers. It also is a very unflattering portrait, as Dylan's trail to the top was littered with injured or betrayed friends, peers and others who stood on the sidelines and disliked the kid. Yes, he was but a kid when he washed ashore in New York. And anyone who looking for more reasons to dislike Dylan can find additional ammo here.

Which does raise the question for me again as regards the relationship between the artist's life and his work. Take Van Gogh, for example. Characterized by insane extreme behavior -- he cut off his ear and sent it to the woman he loved -- yet extremely sensitive toward the suffering, the needy... and a pioneer in the world of art, a true original.

Well, Scaduto isn't just a bad-mouthin' here. The guy gives the most detailed, in depth look at all the characters who brushed across Dylan's life, and through this book adds understanding to many of the songs we've listened to over the years. "I learned this song from Ric Van Schmidt" is a line at the beginning of "Baby Let Me Follow You Down." Now I know more about Von Schmidt, and Dave Van Ronk, Rambling Jack Elliot and Odetta and the Dinkytown days, the places and faces that became mythical moments in music history. Did you know Dylan played harmonica on one of Harry Belafonte's albums? One song only. Belafonte was a professional and very "tight" with his sound. Young Dylan was ragged, and had no interest in being put in such a confined box. Their styles didn't mesh.

But Dylan's quest was a style of his own. Once he stopped singing Woody Guthrie's boxcar hobo songs of the thirties, his own contemporary interests and subject matter began to emerge. In those early New York years he matured quickly, writing his ideas on scraps of paper and throwing them into his guitar case, an endless stream of material to sift and sort.

This book, published in 1971, will take you back in time. You truly get the feel of that never-to-be-forgotten era.

Here's a tender lament from side one of The Witmark Demos.

Tomorrow Is A Long Time

If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again

I can’t see my reflection in the waters
I can’t speak the sounds that show no pain
I can’t hear the echo of my footsteps
Or can’t remember the sound of my own name
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again

There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river
There’s beauty in the sunrise in the sky
But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty
That I remember in my true love’s eyes
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again

Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos

OK, you know how it is. A new album or CD comes out by your favorite artist and you wonder, "Is it something I need to buy? Is this valuable and up to snuff? Necessary for my collection?"

The album I am specifically talking about is Volume 9 in The Bootleg Series, Bob Dylan's The Witmark Demos. The answer is, yes. If you are a Dylan fan it qualifies as a "must have" CD.

I picked it up last Friday with a Father's Day gift card from my son (thank you, son) and have been listening to it every day since. Like its predecessor it is rich with material that the Dylan aficionado will want to hear over and over again, till all nuances have been extracted and appreciated.

The Witmark Demos are a 2-CD collection of 47 songs recorded by a very young Dylan from 1962-64 during that time when he was fresh with the first flush of fame, yet still a vurtual unknown. There is no accompaniment beyond his guitar, harmonica, and occasional piano. The recordings were made for his first two publishers -- Leeds Music and M. Witmark and Sons -- before striking his deal with John Hammond (who brought Billy Holiday and many other greats to the big stage) of Columbia Records. Hammond's career was legendary, and in signing Dylan he saved the best for last.

When you listen to the level of sophistication in these songs, one has to be amazed that they were all written before he was 24. The 47 songs include early versions of classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind", “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Masters Of War” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But we also have so much other material rooted in the traditional folk ballad territory. And some of these songs have never been heard before, released for the first time nearly five decades later.

Another feature of the set is booklet with liner notes and rare photos from that time period. This kind of material is usually just for die-hards, but my recommendation is that you take time to read through to get the background on Witmark and the times.

I know that not everyone is appreciates Dylan's music to the same degree, but love him or hate him, he has been an influential force for the past half century since arriving on the scene. Did Buddy Holly's torch light Bob Dylan's at the Armory here in Duluth way back when? Did Woody Guthrie's torch light the tinderbox in Dylan's heart during those many visits during Guthrie's last days?

The material in The Witmark Demos shows variety, breadth, depth, and a sensitivity far beyond the routine. I'd be curious what the recording studio folk thought with each new offering. "Hey kid, you got something there. What else ya got in your bag?"

Time magazine called Dylan one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He's won Grammys, Oscars and Golden Globe awards for his music and (as if it matters what Rolling Stone thinks) is ranked No. 2 on it list of greatest artists of all time. (You'll have to guess here whether it's Elvis or Beatles who rank numero uno.)

All this to say The Witmark Demos has value on many levels and ranks as an important addition to your collection. It is not just some unpublished material someone scraped together to steal more change out of our pockets. And that is the real point. If you're a fan, you owe it to yourself...

Monday, June 27, 2011

41st Annual Park Point Art Fair


This weekend was the 41st Annual Park Point Art Fair here in Duluth. The beautiful setting alone makes this art fair worth visiting. To make it a real event, naturally, there were 120 artists' works on display. Add the ongoing live music by Michael Monroe, food, free parking and free admission, and you have a "can't miss" experience if the weather is right. And this weekend the weather was very right.

The artists and artisans present represented a range of mediums, from ceramics, glass and fiber arts to painters, photographers and woodworking, plus a fair number of jewelers so you can wear something home afterwards if you see something you like.

Times have certainly changed since we first came to this fair more than two decades ago. Most of the artists have professional displays, EZ-Ups and websites, so even if you don't buy today you can still keep in touch and make your purchase a mile down the road.

Many of the artists represented here have been attending for years, if not decades. Elliot Silberman or Duluth, has probably been drawing portraits here since the beginning. And you can always count on the Husbys to have their wonderful ceramic work here, though now I see they're branching off into glass again.

Though some of the artists are from the Twin Ports region, the majority are from all across Minnesota and Wisconsin, Park Point being one stop on a busy summer circuit.

Another new thing that seems to have become popular now is printing photographs on canvas. My first impression was "Wow!" when I saw some fabulous images by Rolf Hagberg of Two Harbors. But the technique has become so widely employed I think the bloom is off the rose.

The combination of photography and Photoshop is another relatively new phenomenon. I myself have been exploring the uses of technology in conjunction with art, and see that this is especially pervasive now. Perhaps it compares to what the electric guitar did to folk music.... maybe.

If you missed this one, be sure not to miss the art fair in your own region. It's a form of aesthetic stimulation that everyone can benefit from. And a nice way to spend an afternoon with someone you love.

Have a good one.

Photos: Stitchery art by Julie Crabtree, Bratach Sith Studio. The two images with women's faces were by a woman doing fascinating creative mixed media works. She is a member of the Oulu Glass Collaborative. You can also follow her on Facebook at Eclectica.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Gnat and the Bull

One day an old bull was following a trail through the mountains when he came to a narrow swinging bridge made of wooden slats. He paused, then tested the strength of the first boards with a bit of his massive weight. Timidly at first, then with greater confidence as he went along, he crossed the creaking old footbridge till he reached the other side, whereupon a gnat which had been sitting on tip of his horn exclaimed, "We sure made that one shake, didn't we?"

The above story alighted upon my consciousness when I woke this morning. Believing it to be one of Aesop's fables, I decided to look it up online so as to conclude the anecdote with a pithy moral. What I found instead were fifty websites with an alternate tale titled The Gnat and the Bull.

Here is one version:

A gnat that had been buzzing around the head of a Bull, at length settling himself down upon his horn, begged his pardon for inconveniencing him; " but if," says he, "my weight at all inconveniences you, pray say so, and I will be off in a moment.""Oh, never trouble your head about that," says the Bull, "for 'tis all one to me whether you go or stay; and, to say the truth, I did not know you were there."

Moral:
The smaller the mind, the greater the conceit.

Like the telling and re-telling of a story in the telephone game, here is a variant with additional embellishments:

A Gnat alighted on one of the horns of a Bull, and remained sitting there for a considerable time. When it had rested sufficiently and was about to fly away, it said to the Bull, "Do you mind if I go now?" The Bull merely raised his eyes and remarked, without interest, "It's all one to me; I didn't notice when you came, and I shan't know when you go away."

Moral: We may often be of more consequence in our own eyes than in the eyes of our neighbors.

The above stories make fun of the gnat for his conceit, but reading further I found this fable with a pointed poke at the bull, and a lesson for each of us:

When a gnat had challenged a bull to see who was the stronger of the two, all the people came to watch the show. Then the little gnat said to the bull, 'It's enough for me that you have accepted my challenge. This makes me your equal: you yourself have admitted as much!' The gnat then rose into the air on his light wings and sported for the crowd, ignoring the threats of the bull. If the bull had been mindful of his own mighty bulk, he would have dismissed this opponent as beneath contempt and the impertinent creature would not have had anything to boast about.

Moral: People who enter into contests with unworthy opponents lower their own reputation.


When I was a kid we had a book of Aesop's Fables that I loved to read. I had no idea at that time how many more there were that had not been included in that collection. If you're interested in a bit of diversion laced with wisdom, Google Aesop's Fables and enrich your day.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

This Day In History

If you are ever in need of good water cooler material, I recommend a regular visit to The History Channel's This Day In History page. Today, for example, was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand, an enormous fiasco due chiefly to the enormity of William Armstrong Custer's ego. Mrs. Custer wrote many a book over the next thirty years in an attempt to portray her husband a hero. But honest historians have seen through to the haze and seen the arrogance that led to his destruction for what it was, an attempt to become president via the route of military heroics.

One weakness with regard to This Day In History is its tendency to feature U.S. achievements over global moments. Today, for example, is the 150th anniversary of Italian Reunification Day, also known as The Resurgence (il Resorgimento), a social movement that culminated in bringing the Italian peninsula back under the rule of a single state government.

On the other hand, any review of history will offer up varieties of focal points as to who, what, where and why certain people and events are significant. Mark Twain would add that most of history remains buried in our brains because a single day is filled with thoughts and impressions, musings and observations that may not be recorded but did indeed exist in history. Whose history ultimately matters anyways?

Well, here are the lead stories this site cites for the the week ahead. Something to talk about anyways.
Jun 25, 1876
Battle of Little Bighorn
June 26, 1948
U.S. begins Berlin Airlift
June 27, 1950
Truman orders U.S. forces to Korea
June 28, 1953
Workers assemble first Corvette in Flint, Michigan
June 29, 1995
U.S. space shuttle docks with Russian space station
June 30, 1936
Gone with the Wind published
July 01, 1997
Hong Kong returned to China
July 02, 1954
Birth of Dr. Ron Newman
(Happy birthday, bro'.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ten Minutes with Painter David Sandum

I probably discovered David Sandum through Twitter, which has the ability to connect people from across all spheres. What I find interesting is that while born in Sweden and living in Norway, where his studio is today, his influences include the American Southwest.

This quote by Matisse, which I drew from his website, sums up Sandum's approach to painting: "I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me."

Ennyman: What caused you to first take an interest in art?
David Sandum: I have loved art for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I used to visit the Gothenburg Art Museum with my mother, and loved to walk through the halls and look at paintings. The instinct to draw was nearly overwhelming. But it wasn’t until later in life that art became a serious path. Looking back, it started when I went to college (University of Utah), where I took several art classes. I particularly enjoyed one class in art history, where the professor with great enthusiasm, should us slides of artwork I hadn't paid noticed to before, explaining color, composition, and so forth. And all of a sudden, my focus went from naturalistic art, to more modern pieces (that often today aren't considered so modern), by Van Gogh, Matisse, Bonnard, and so forth. But my education was in organizational communication and history. Having graduated in 2000, we moved home to Scandinavia, and I started a job in IT-sales. After about a year, the tough changes and consequences of working my way through college, led to a total collapse, and I entered a serious depression. It was during this difficult time that I started to paint. Through art, I found a way to deal with my difficult emotions and transmit them. So expressing emotion is, and has always been key to my work, with color as the main vehicle. I have written a memoir about my experience with depression and art that will be published soon. You can read more about it here.

E: Did you have any formal training?
DS: I am completely self-taught. But have spent lots of time around other artists and asked many, many, questions.

E: How did you come to master your craft?
DS: If you want to be a good painter, there are no short cuts. Development can only take place through stubborn determination, and hard work. I have painted full-time since 2000, and I'm barely starting to get the hang of it.

E: Do you have a favorite medium?
DS: Oil painting and gouache.

E: How does oil painting compare to gouaches and acrylic?
DS: There are several differences: Oil painting is oil based and takes a long time to dry (depending on thickness, pigments, and what you mix the paints with). Acrylic and gouaches are water based paints that dry quickly. Thus, painting oil is most often more long-term (though painting in one session wet-on-wet, can sometimes be successful). In general, I feel oil paint is richer and has a different glow. But there are many kinds of pigments and versions of paints, both with oil and acrylic. Beginners often use acrylic, as it dries quicker and is easier to paint layer on layer, and you can paint on watercolor paper etc., which oil isn't so well suited for.

E: Who have been your favorite artists over the years?
DS: There are so many, and it varies from year to year. But there are of course some I'd like to mention, such as Van Gogh, Munch, Bonnard, Matisse, Gaugan, Kahlo, Chagall, O'Keeffe, Emil Nolde and the German expressionists, Seurat, and Norwegian painters like Victor Sparre, Håkon Bleken, Tore Heramb, and Ferdinand Finne.

E: You obviously enjoy landscapes. I find landscape painting exceedingly challenging. How do you approach this kind of subject matter?
DS: Nature has always been key for me, and I have switched from painting pure landscapes, to figures, and figures in landscapes. But my method is always clear: There needs to be focus on emotions, not copying reality. O'Keeffe taught me that. Her landscapes were from actual places, yet abstracted and raw emotion. Painting at Ghost Ranch NM last summer in her footsteps, was a strong spiritual experience. The desert truly has healing powers. But being Scandinavian, the ocean has always been important, and having lived in Norway so long, and Utah, the mountains. I draw inspiration from my own experiences and impressions. Munch's idea "to paint your life story" has always been my vision.

E: What are you working on currently?
DS: Lately, I have been working a lot with faceless figures, and more urban themes, such as cafe's. (See recent oil paintings at his website.) But I always work on some nature scenes as well, mostly in gouache as you can see on my website.

Thank you for this opportunity to talk about my art.

Be sure to visit www.davidsandum.com to see more.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hyperbole

I'm currently on disc 15 of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, and having a great time with it. To call him a master storyteller is understatement. Since Volume 1 is only 25 hours in length, I am curious how many more hours await when we get to Volume 2. Special thanks to narrator Grover Gardner for making this such a delightful diversion.

A literary device that Twain uses to great effect is hyperbole. Hyperbole is a fancy way of saying exaggeration. We do it all the time like when we say, "That suitcase weighs a ton. What do you have in there?"

During yesterday's commute he mentions getting hit with a rock thrown by his brother, adding that he got a knot on his head "the size of the Matterhorn." In an earlier section he went on and on at great length about being on a ship lost at sea in the Pacific in which they ran out of food for many days and survived by eating shoe leather and the knuckles of ham bones. When they finally reached land, he said the one man had eaten so much leather that strips of it were coming out of his ears. I'm pretty sure this was an exaggeration.

I looked up a few examples of hyperbole and we're all familiar with this literary device. For example, "the shot heard round the world" that started the Revolutionary War was probably not heard all the way around the world, though likely it was heard in England.

"I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." Even if I could eat a horse, I'm not sure I'd want to.

"He's as old as the hills." Hmmm... Maybe if you believe in the "young earth" theory of creation. In all likelihood, the hills are older than most of us.

"I'll just die if he asks me to dance." I personally do not recall seeing any girls die from being asked to dance when I was in school. I did see a girl almost die when she ate a chocolate covered bee when I was in high school. That's a serious allergic reaction there.

"I'm so tired I could sleep for a year." Go ahead and try it.

Twain once famously quipped, "I've seen this river so wide it had only one bank." That is a wide river, Mr. Twain. It probably took forever to get across it.

In the meantime, have a wonderful day. It's summertime.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Reshaping Reality: Ten MInutes with Visual Artist Conal Flaherty

I "met" Conal Flaherty through social media, like so many writers and artists today. Though from England, his path and work, while different from my own, has some similar qualities. In his youth he was an art student, a painter, but went on to make a living outside the arts, returning only later in life to his art roots. In the return he began to incorporate contemporary technologies into his creative expression like many other artists have done. Ultimately, Flaherty's explorations have led to visually compelling images such as those you see on this page. Here is his story.

Ennyman: How did you get interested in Art?
Conal Flaherty: Whilst I don’t recall too much from my early years schooling I do remember my very first day at school at the tender age of five. The year was 1958. I wasn’t too sure where I was going when my Mother walked away and left me with some stranger who took me into a large room with other similarly aged children. To say I wasn’t happy was an understatement, tears flowed I guess I thought I was there for good, I was given a pencil and some crayons that kept me quiet for a few years!
I can trace all of my creativity back to that day and a few teachers along the way who told me that my work was ‘good’. The same was never said for Mathematics or the Science subjects, neither did I shine at anything too technical, just let me be creative and I was happy.

E: Early Influences?
CF: Mondrian stands out. I remember seeing a picture of his in a book at school when I was in my teens. I loved the line and the colour, still do for that matter. Academically I was always okay without excelling in any chosen subject. As for Art I was usually in the top five kids in my year.

When I was fourteen my Father died. From there on in my upbringing was the sole domain of my Mother and my Aunt both of whom were supportive of my art work. At the age of seventeen it seemed that the best opportunity for me would be to attend the local Art College, get some qualifications behind me, extend my skills and go on to do a Degree in Art.

The local School of Art in Warrington was where I learned the most, it was here that I started to follow Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp. I particularly liked Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass.’ The glass had cracked whilst being transported home following its first exhibition. Duchamp kept the cracks in the glass, accepting the chance element as part of the piece, for some reason the ‘chance element’ resonated with me and continues to do so. The opportunity presented itself for me to go and study further at Goldsmiths College in London. I had sent my work to them and they wanted to interview me. For whatever reason I didn’t get through that interview. I don’t really know why, too young, immature perhaps, who knows? For then at least it was a chance and a chance that was lost.

E: One door closes...
CF: What followed was life, marriage, divorce, occasionally picking up a sketching book but always bringing an element of creativity to whatever job I was in. Work was predominantly Training & Development, Motivational Training, and those kinds of things. In 2002 I re-married. I had no children in my first marriage and now through work I met Christine who similarly had no children. And so it was in 2004 that my wife who on finding it difficult to find a picture to give to a friend for a Birthday present turned to me and asked whether I could paint something?
The excuses came free flowing. I didn’t have the paint, or the paper or the easel or the studio or this or that. She’s a bit persistent my wife. I say that with a wry smile. She’s good for me. She pushes me and she didn’t let up.

It’s a longer story but I started looking at what software came with the PC and basically just started playing around with it, finally producing something that looked good in a presentation frame. The gift sparked an immediate response with the recipient who wanted to know where she might buy more of the prints, and so it began.

By 2005 I was much more engaged in the process. Of course the images were abstract and fitted so perfectly into the ‘chance element’ under the influence of my old friend Marcel Duchamp.

E: Digital what?
CF: I take a digital photograph; it could be of anything, a holiday snap even. I then edit it, cutting and stretching the image, sometimes the colours change automatically, other times I change them.

I don’t set out with an end view. There’s nothing pre-determined. In fact, I’m no expert with the various editions of software that I use. It’s more that I allow them to reveal something entirely new. Many of the images I discard completely though some of them have such complexities of line and colour that I prefer to keep them for a time when I may use them again.

The final decision sits with me. I decide when something is finished, when it’s complete, and of course I enquire of my wife for her thoughts. Interestingly enough I completed a commission for a customer recently and I ended up showing him images that I was about to dispose of. He chose one and it now sits proudly on his wall. As they say there’s no accounting for taste!

E: Presentation...
CF: During the early years I printed the images myself before learning that certain inks just don’t last so now images go off to the printers. They can be printed either onto canvas and hung or printed onto archival paper and framed. The choice is with the customer. All the inks used are Archival also which means that the image remains light resistant for up to 75 years. Not that I’ll be around if it’s one or two years out. I’m keen to explore printing onto Perspex and perhaps using a Light Box.

E: Back to the future... What's next?
CF: I’ve done a remarkable thing. I’ve taken the chance and resigned from my job to take up a full time career as an artist. That was six months ago now. So here I am in my studio/office typing away for an article on a fellow artist blog in Minnesota. You read my bio on my own website www.conalart.com where I say that I’m going to start painting again, painting what?
You know when I was eighteen I just produced work after work in mixed media, paintings, drawings, pottery, carvings, prints and so on and now I realise I’ve been limiting myself. I’ve got ten canvas’s just waiting for me to start painting. Bizarrely I’ve had a dream about what to paint. There’s going to be an influence of Mondrian this time, that is if I remembered the dream. Some other goofy stuff, but I think we’ll keep that away from the canvas for now and leave it firmly fixed in my head.

You can follow me on Twitter @Conalart and become a fan of my Facebook Fan page here at http://www.facebook.com/ArtyCon As soon as the first painting is complete I’ll post to my website, keep in touch.

Thank you Conal. We'll be watching to see what happens next.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Celebrating National Bill Murray Day

Sunday our local newspaper made a pronouncement that it would be seventy degrees that afternoon. The mercury in our thermometer barely kissed fifty. So, being the longest day of the year (if you live above the equator), it seems like we need something to celebrate besides the first day of summer since as late as yesterday I was still wearing gloves in my drive to the office. That something at the moment is National Bill Murray Day.

I first saw a reference to it on Facebook. It may be a friend invited me to join the event. Or else I stumbled into it and decided to crash the party. Where? Anywhere and everywhere.

So across the country people will be watching Bill Murray films today. Some of us may just simply give a nod to remembrances of Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters or What About Bob?

Groundhog Day is on my top ten list of favorite films. And if you haven't seen it, I'd press you to do so. It's classic Hollywood magic. Here's an overview.

If you don't know the story, you can Google it, of course. The essence is this: in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the official home of Phil the groundhog, there is a celebration every year regarding this purportedly Celtic tradition of determining the arrival of spring based on a groundhog's shadow. Punxsutawneyians have been conducting the ritual since 1887. You might say it's a great excuse for a party. And I am guessing one of the major events there for filling hotel rooms. (Here in Duluth we have Grandma's marathon, for example, which happened to be this past weekend.)

Murray is a narcissistic newscaster who hates this day and this event, having to cover it for the local TV station. Through some quirk of fate, Murray gets stuck in a time warp and this hated day gets repeated, over and over and over. How this experience affects him is the essence of the story.

There are few films with such comic effect and cosmic insight so perfectly blended. Evidently, our summer solstice is a day in which Murray's fans want to give tribute to the guy who "made" the film.

So....

Here's what's up... according to National Bill Murray Day headquarters.

To celebrate the man, the myth, the American hero. Like any national holiday, celebrate however you like. Watch one of his movies, act out your favorite scenes, or organize a huge rally in your town, complete with fireworks and cake, for you and your fellow Bill Murray fans (highly recommended). It's not important how you celebrate, just make sure that you do. With a strong show of support the US government will have no choice but to put this holiday right up there with America's favorite holidays like Fourth of July, 4/20, or Cinco de Mayo! Invite as many people to this as you can so no one is left out of America's new favorite holiday! Also if you or someone you know knows Bill Murray please invite him to your celebration, it's the polite thing to do.
http://lunchwithbillmurray.com/

@lunchbillmurray on the twitter-box

Virtual Celebration taking place at http://stickam.com/samproof !!!
The Online Party starts at 7pm PST!

And if none of this hoopla interests you, you can just go out and enjoy this first day of summer.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Buffaloed

I would be curious how the word buffalo evolved to mean bamboozled. Maybe the sight of the buffalo in early American history was a bewildering site, the massiveness of the beast and the sheer quantity. Maybe it's because the "b" word has siblings like "bluff" and "beguile." The rest of the synonyms for buffalo include the rest of the alphabet, from fake out, delude, con and hoodwink to snooker, spoof and trick.

All in all, I have been snookered a few times. Seems we're especially vulnerable when we have the least to lose. Hence I once wrote an article in the 1980's called "Look Before You Leap" which dealt with business opportunity scams. A 21st century version of these scams would include the email from Nigeria in which someone needs to get 25 million dollars out of the country and you will get half if you help. Why people fall for such guff is beyond me, but we do.

Two stories from my college days came to mind this morning. The first from my sophomore year at Ohio U in Athens. I'd gone upstairs to the girl's section of the coed dorm to see a friend and there was this young man there in Audrey's room, holding court. He was very engaging, affable, and spoke with a British accent. Turns out he was with the group Fleetwood Mac, or so he claimed, and had a week to travel about the country. Audrey was most swept away on his magic carpet tales of travels with the band. I guess for at least one night he was a rock star.

Turns out he was a kid just blowing smoke. Fake Brit accent, the kid was just funnin' us uncritical dupes.

A couple years later I was living in a coffee house and befriended a hitchhiker passing through Athens. Seemed like a nice guy who needed a place to stay. As we talked I learned he was Billy Graham's nephew, though he had been something of the black sheep of the family before he came around. I asked the guys if he could stay with use for a couple days, which they all assented to. The following day he was gone. And so was all the money we'd been setting aside in the cookie jar atop the fridge for some worthy cause. Once again we'd been buffaloed.

Lying is a strange thing. The victims of lies become victims by trusting. In fact, our whole culture exists on the foundations of trust. I go to work this morning believing I will be paid for my labors in two weeks. I but a book on Amazon.com believing it will show up in ten days. The lie causes us to be wary, to be suspicious. It's bad for relationships, and it's bad when governments do it, too.

As we grow older, we dislike being so gullible that we are played for a fool. But we also can't become so jaded that no one's word can be taken straight up.

Just a word to the wise.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Influential People

A few years ago on the occasion of their 50th anniversary American Heritage did a piece on the fifty most influential people of the past fifty years.

James Dean
Andy Warhol
Raymond Chandler
Pauline Kael (film critic)
Buddy Holly
Miles Davis
Frank Sinatra
Ernie Kovacs
Norman Mailer
Franic Ford Coppola
Malcolm X

In response to the American Heritage list I assembled my own list, though frankly I am not sure what I think about a few of these today. I no doubt have Quincy Jones and Walter Cronkite on the list because I had just read their biographies. Brando, Nicholson and Newman were actor rebuttals to James Dean being on the list. I do find it interesting to that the American Heritage list included two people whose lives were cut short in their twenties. The influence of their shadow or symbolic aspect as pop icons is what really lived on, much like Che in the political underground.

Anyways, here was my rebuttal list, though now I would discard the first line. The last two probably fall outside the criteria American Heritage used to making their selections. Oh well. And I think I put Lewis and Huxley on the same line because they both died on the same day, the day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

Brando Nicholson Newman
Spielberg
C S Lewis ~ Aldus Huxley
Bob Dylan
Dr. Martin Luther King
Quincy Jones
Billy Graham
Walter Cronkite
John F Kennedy
Steve Jobs

Who would you say were the ten most influential people from post-WW2? What men and women would make your list?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

True Grit and Other Mysteries

Last weekend the Sound Unseen Duluth International Film Festival finished off its second season here in the Northland. On Sunday the weather was too nice for being inside a theater, yet I made the theater my home for one more afternoon and evening, catching half of a Greek film called Attenberg, most of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, and Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere. Then, to top off, when I got home I balanced our checkbook and did paperwork while watching the Coen Brothers' True Grit.

Here's a quick summary of impressions.

Attenberg
The critics raved and I was told this was a must see. Supposedly Greece is counting on this one to bring home an Oscar next year for Best Foreign Film. It's an off-beat coming of age film and I guess I wasn't getting into it and slipped back over to Midnight In Paris where I'd watched the first ten minutes which strengthened my desire to see more.

Midnight In Paris
Woody Allen, despite whatever personal issues one has against him, is still a master story teller and screen writer. The dialogue here is wonderful and the story magical. In fact, that's exactly what it is.

Owen Wilson (Gil) and Machel McAdams (Inez) are engaged to be married. They go to Paris with her rich parents and Gil, a writer, falls in love with the aura of Parisian history, impressed by all the great people and places memorialized there. Through some quirk Gil experiences more than the charm of present-day Paris. He ends up being transported back in time to the Twenties of Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Hemingway, Dali and the surrealists. It's heady stuff for Gil, especially when he begins to fall in love with someone there.

I don't want to spoil it for you, so just know that this film is witty and fun.

Road To Nowhere
The movie is about the making of a movie about a murder and a missing fortune. The director, for the sake of accuracy, is filming this film in the same places the actual crime took place. It is sometimes difficult to decipher what is real and what is not, and because I missed one clue in the early part of the film I kept asking myself how a certain key part of the movie came to be.

There were echoes of Chinatown in it for me, but this film was nowhere near the masterpiece Roman Polanski assembled starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. But it held together for me and had some nice moments.

True Grit
The title is good. Who's the character with true grit? This remake of the John Wayne classic has Jeff Bridges in the feature role of Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon replaces Glen "he-never-shoulda-been-cast" Campbell as LaBoeuf (The Beef) and Hailee Steinfeld as the gritty Mattie Ross.

I've been waiting six months to see this film so I for one was glad when it was finally released into Blockbuster. Bridges got an Oscar nom for this role, the Duke's last hurrah, I believe. Since I was never a real John Wayne fan to begin with, I would have bet money that this re-make for once would be better than the original. That being said, I do have one complaint about it.

First, the good stuff. It wasn't till I started writing this up that I realized that Matt Damon was in the film. I mean, LaBoeuf was a great character in this version of the story, and a guy who did show true grit. I was half wondering who the actor was but not enough to go check, I guess. Damon is certainly good. And so was Jeff Bridges as that grizzled veteran gunfighter with a lot of tough bark on him.

I guess all the big chatter was about how great a young actress Hailee Steinfeld was. She was fine and I'm sure that being coached by the Coen brothers and working with stars like Damon and Bridges will have a beneficial impact on her future, if she manages to keep it all in perspective.

Now, my own beef. Personally, I disliked the stilted manner in which the characters talked. The diction frequently struck me as unnatural. I am sure the director had his reasons for going that route, maybe imagining that people 120 years ago were more formal in their speech, but I don't reckon I quite agree with that notion.

It's a small complaint, and it didn't ruin the film for me. I just needed to make the point.

Meantime, better get outside and enjoy the weekend.

Friday, June 17, 2011

It Was Only Rock 'n Roll

Woodstock. It happened. And everything that happened there became bigger than life because... because, they made a movie about it and they made an album about it and they made a memory shrine of it. Not only do we remember the groups, we remember the little things that were said between songs because they got repeated again, and again.

One thing I remember about Woodstock (no, I was not there) is thinking to myself what a potpourri of acts this was. You had legends like The Who and Hendrix, and then you had someone like Richie Havens and a group like Sha Na Na. Where did those guys come from?

Sha Na Na was a Fifties style retro group that was so relatively new that by the time they appeared at Woodstock they still didn't even have an record label yet. You no doubt recall their shimmery gold outfits and lively whirl through "At the Hop." It was all about putting on a show. It's the entertainment business, and promoters will throw anything together if it can turn a buck. Hendrix followed Sha Na Na, making famous his unique rendition of the Star Bangled Banner to a dawn desolation littered with the debris left behind by the Woodstock Nation. No matter. The album captured it for posterity.

A few years later, while in college in Ohio, I got to see another Rock 'n Roll revue that was on tour, again with Sha Na Na in the lineup. This road show was a far more cohesive team in terms of the music and acts that performed. They were bringing the Fifties to the Seventies. Headliners included Chuck Berry, The Coasters, The Shirelles, and Sha Na Na among others. Unlike the Folk Festival the year before, which included Mary Travers and the Youngbloods, there were no Viet Nam War protest overtones. This was that "canned innocence" that rock 'n roll was supposed to be with sock hops and bobby soxers.

I was in a funky blue mood that evening though. My seat for much of the concert was in the front row, behind the stage. It gave me an almost jaded viewpoint as I watched some of the setups and saw the way the groups worked the crowd. The gold outfits of Sha Na Na had loose threads like they were getting worn out but didn't have the money to replace them. And Chuck Berry looked like he was getting a little tired of doing that ever popular bent-knee leg kick strut across the stage. It's a little like three year olds when you give them a big toss up into the air, and they laugh and say, "Again!" Sometimes crowds are so easy to please.

In short, I had a cynic's take on the night. Rock 'n roll shows like this one were a strange bubble that people could escape into. And yet, the music these people gave us... it's been woven into the fabric of our lives in so many ways. The old classics always give us a lift.

All these memories come to mind because I read a small news story yesterday that Carl Gardner, lead singer and co-founder of The Coasters, just passed. You probably know a few of his songs. "Poison Ivy" was big way back when. "Charlie Brown" is hilarious fun. "Why's everybody always pickin' on me." And the classic, "Yakety Yak." "Don't talk back!" Yakety-yak, yakety yak.

Gardner loved being a performer, his career in entertainment running fifty years. Thank you, Mr. Gardner, for the fun you brought to so many lives through your music.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Case for Celebrating Dylan's Home Town

A few weeks ago I mentioned a gentleman from Manchester with whom I had visited during my Dylan-themed show at the Ochre Ghost Gallery, the week of Dylan Fest. Since that time we've begun a correspondence and it turns out he is no ordinary Dylan fan. He's a professional who has written extensively about the topic of music-based tourism.

Last week I received a 17 page document co-authored by David Leaver and Ruth A. Schmidt of Manchester Metropolitan University titled, "Before they were famous: music-based tourism and a musician's hometown roots." The paper opens, "Music-based tourism is well developed and growing, especially in countries featuring both mature tourism and music industries, such as the USA and the UK." One sources estimates that destination travel related to music involves as many as 55 million annual visits worldwide. The destination points rely on evidence of cultural activities, incidents and tangible artifacts that can be photographed.

The paper cites Liverpool as one community that increased its incoming tourism dollars by 40% when they deliberately embraced this concept, that people want to visit and see the places the Beatles actually once were. Graceland in Memphis attracts 600,000 visitors a year now. Buddy Holly's birthplace, Lubbock, Texas, is another lodestone for the rock 'n roll faithful.

As the Beatles once sang,
"There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed..."

Hibbing, MN, in recent years began to capitalize on this notion of place with regard to Dylan, creating a week long celebration called Dylan Days. And it's about time, because a lot of people want a time and place for seeing the school auditorium where Dylan first played, and the surrounding neighborhood he grew up in.

Last week I talked with someone who said the first day that he got his motorcycle license, the very first thing he did was ride to Hibbing to see where Dylan grew up. At the time, there was nothing to see. Today we have Zimmy's and more. There are things one can photograph and save for a scrapbook of memories, and touch and feel.

Some people think all this nostalgia quest is just a bunch of aging Baby Boomers trying to keep the flame alive. "Come gather round people wherever you roam...." But the Leaver/Schmidt study notes that 34 per cent of the people who visited Graceland in 2008 were under 30. Not only is the music being passed down to new generations, but the significance of the places and people is being noted.

In David Leaver's recent email to me on this topic he wrote, "I learnt a long time ago that it’s not the message sent out but the message received that’s important so we will all have different takes on it."

Included in this email was the link to a 22 minute film he created based on the 1966 Dylan concert in Manchester's Free Trade Hall. The film is essentially three men reminiscing about that critical juncture in Dylan's career when he careened into a new path, going electric, which many fans thought was a betrayal of his own ethos.

"My interest in the Free Trade Hall 1966 stemmed from my interest in the notion of place and its link to music and emotion (my first degree was in Geography.) The film is dedicated to my friend Ruth Schmidt with whom I wrote three Dylan related papers on that topic. Ruth loved Dylan and her adopted city of Manchester. She passed away on May 17 2011 – the 45th anniversary of the concert and every time I go past the FTH I think of her."

When you have time, check out this film about Dylan at Manchester's Free Trade Hall 1966.

Message to Duluth: Remember, these visitors are emotion-driven customers who spend without thinking. Duluth and Hibbing deserve the same recognition as Memphis and Nashville, don'tcha think?

Have a great day!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Enger Tower Awaits Coming of the King


It's 6:00 a.m. and if I were a true Enger Park Restoration enthusiast I would not be here typing this, but would instead be at Enger Tower for this morning's celebration of the 72nd anniversary of the Tower. I did set my alarm a wee bit early, just in case I woke with a desire to go for it.

For those who don't know our city, Duluth has one of the most beautiful skylines in the world. The city itself snakes along Lake Superior and stretches south along the St. Louis River bay for a spell. From one end to the other the city fathers set aside lands for parks and we have 29 of them. One of these is on a knob above the Lincoln Park area just a few hundred yards from Twin Ponds, encircled by Skyline Parkway.

Years ago our family took a vacation to the Black Hills region of South Dakota. I had my AAA maps in tow and studied them to make sure our days would be seasoned with highlights. In one section I found a list of the most scenic drives in the U.S. citing Duluth's Skyline Drive with the highest rank that could be given. The views from the our skyline are everything you'll ever want from a great view. Whether by day or by night, morning or evening, the ever shifting angles of light and even temperature changes make the view something new every day.

Of all the views on the skyline, Enger Tower offers the most enriching of all. Here's an amateur video of the 36o degree view from the tower which includes the harbor and the bay, the lake and the unique Aerial Lift Bridge in one vista. On the back side you overlook the rolling hills of Enger Park Golf Course which for me includes memories of golfing in the rain with my dad.

This past year our local Rotary Clubs raised $100,000 to restore Enger Tower, including the addition of special lighting to make it alive again. The occasion for which this effort was undertaken is the return visit of the King and Queen of Norway. I say return because the original tower was dedicated in 1939 by the Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha of Norway at that time. They enjoyed our city so much that they shared memories of the visit with their children, hence King Harald's desire to return in October.

Like all good cities, every attempt is being made to put its best face forward for this return visit. In addition to the facelift for the tower itself, The Enger Park Restoration Committee has been raising funds to re-build and expand the gazebo and other structures in the park. You can read more about all that here.

In the meantime, thank you to Bert Enger for the generous donations from his estate which started it all. You can also follow on Facebook the events leading up to October's return of the king.

TOP: Map of Enger Park

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Five Minutes with Artist/Designer Marian Lansky

It was about two decades ago when I first became aware of Marian Lansky's work. I was in need of a designer for a project at the time and she was recommended to me by, I believe, Service Printers. We met for lunch and I reviewed her portfolio. I was impressed. She also said she was too busy with other projects to take on something new. That was that.

This past month I attended an art opening for Mad Women, featuring the work of women in the advertising field. Marian Lansky's exhibited works again made an impression on me, and I asked if she'd consent to be interviewed for this blog. She said she was still quite busy, but made the time.

Ennyman: Briefly outline your career.
Marian Lansky: My graphic design career started in 1989 when my son was a baby and I was looking for a way to be able to make a living at home. I'd always loved combining words and images, and then one day I saw a demonstration of a Macintosh computer with Aldus Pagemaker, Aldus Freehand, and Adobe Photoshop. It was pretty primitive stuff compared to now, but I was hooked. Went to a bank downtown and got a loan to buy a Mac IICX, one of the first HP scanners, and an Apple Laserwriter. Within a couple of years I was making a decent living doing what was, at that time, called desktop publishing.

Enny: How did you determine to make a living in the creative realm?
ML: Before then, I'd worked at a number of different jobs. I wasn't especially fond of any of them, but they were excellent life experiences for me. I'd worked in offices, stores, restaurants and as a registered nurse in hospitals. Coming back to doing something visually creative was coming back to my roots. I'd grown up in New York City and attended the High School of Music and Art as an art major. My art education there was fantastic. The school pulled kids from all over the city (you had to test in by submitting a portfolio of work and taking several hours of drawing exams). We had five studio classes a day in every conceivable discipline, on top of a rigorous academic load.

Enny: Who were your early influences?
ML: My early influences were probably too many to mention. Growing up in NYC, I spent countless hours at museums. They were my favorite hangout. When I played hooky from school, I'd spend the day wandering through museums. And then my teachers… all incredible artists in their own right, were a tremendous influence. As a teenager I loved Matisse and Bonnard.

Enny: Do you consider yourself more designer or artist? And what is the difference between the two?
ML: For the last 22 years, I've considered myself more a designer than an artist. As a designer, you give visual expression to your client's goals and values. Now, however, I am beginning to consider myself more an artist than a designer. In a way, I've become my own client… giving visual expression to my own inner values.

Enny: How have you gone about getting clients? What works and what doesn't?
ML: I've been just unbelievably fortunate in that I never had to advertise to get work. For most of my career I've had as much work as I could handle (and sometimes more!), without doing anything to promote myself. My philosophy of business has always been to keep my head down, put the client first, and do good work. Word of mouth worked wonders for me.

Enny: You have a wonderful portfolio. Do you have a few favorite pieces?
ML: Thank you. I have to say that I usually love the last piece I did the most! I learn more with everything I do. I recently completed a big commission of 14 pieces for a client and what I learned doing those pieces I've turned around and applied to my own work. I finished one yesterday that is my new favorite.

Enny: Any advice for young creative people looking for a career in design?
ML: I guess one piece of advice I'd give to anyone starting out in this business, or perhaps in any creative endeavor--is to love what you are doing. If you don't enjoy it, your lack of joy will show in the work. Find what you love to do, do it well, and the rest will follow.

Marian and her partner Rick Allen own a business called Kenspeckle Letterpress which can be found at www.kenspeckleletterpress.com.

You may follow Marian and Rick's current activites at their Blogspeckle, located on the Specklesphere at
http://www.kenspeckleletterpress.com/blogspeckle/

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” ~Mark Twain

I am currently on disc four of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Part One, as read by Grover Gardner, who has narrated so many hours of literature in my virtual presence that he is becoming a very good friend. This audio book is 25 hours on 20 discs, and it's a most stimulating read.

The first two-and-a-half hours is all introduction, which includes a lengthy and detailed discussion of how the manuscript came to be. Countless caretakers of the manuscripts were involved in preserving Mr. Twain's writing. Many duplicates of various sections are also in existence with words struck out or portions edited in one place but not another. Systems were required for analyzing dates and times portions were produced and determining which version should supercede. The publication begins by identifying all who have been involved in sorting these strands out and assembling them properly over the past 100 years, and thanking them.

Now the notion of publishing this voluminous work 100 years after his death was not the marketing idea of a modern publisher. Quite the contrary. It was Twain's own idea, and he details it in this introduction to the story of his life.

Mark Twain had an unusually interesting life and he wanted to tell about it. But he did not know exactly how to do it. Begin with his birth and take the chronological approach? One could precede that and talk about ancestors and their influence. And should one bang it out on a typewriter? And what about all the stories and insights and feelings and beliefs that you wanted to share that you feel you can't because you will hurt other people?

This last was a thorny item for Twain. And he literally mulled it over for years, at one point suggesting that those stories be told between-the-lines, knowing they would still be painful to others when deciphered. No, the best way would be to give strict instructions that the manuscript be left unpublished till 100 years after his death, at which time he would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent."

The other matter of how was resolved when he hit upon the idea of dictating his life story. And even in this form the guy was an original. It would not be a story told in any particular order. Rather, whatever interested him at the moment is what he would talk about.

The hundred years has passed and the book is now a reality, capturing all the wit and humor and acerbic commentary one might expect from the pen, or in this case tongue, of Twain. Here's one example. A reviewer wrote with such over-the-top praise for something he had written that Twain confronted him thus. "Oh come on, in the Twain household they don't lather it on with a knife, they use a trowel."

In the intro when Twain was wrestling with the problems of candidly telling his story, I thought about today's world where so much of what people think and feel is posted on blogs and on Facebook and who we are encountering when we see one another so apparently transparently displayed. What kinds of things would be written and posted if the only readers were people who lived 100 years from now, after we're dead and gone? How many people on Facebook are portraying themselves as they are, and how many have been crafting an identity that is far different from who they really are?

As for the Autobiography, here's a good summation of the book from a review by Publisher's Weekly:
Eschewing chronology and organization, Twain simply meanders from observation to anecdote and between past and present. There are gorgeous reminiscences from his youth of landscapes, rural idylls, and Tom Sawyeresque japes; acid-etched profiles of friends and enemies, from his "fiendish" Florentine landlady to the fatuous and "grotesque" Rockefellers; a searing polemic on a 1906 American massacre of Filipino insurgents; a hilarious screed against a hapless editor who dared tweak his prose; and countless tales of the author's own bamboozlement, unto bankruptcy, by publishers, business partners, doctors, miscellaneous moochers; he was even outsmarted by a wild turkey. Laced with Twain's unique blend of humor and vitriol, the haphazard narrative is engrossing, hugely funny, and deeply revealing of its author's mind. His is a world where every piety conceals fraud and every arcadia a trace of violence; he relishes the human comedy and reveres true nobility, yet as he tolls the bell for friends and family--most tenderly in an elegy for his daughter Susy, who died in her early 20s of meningitis--he feels that life is a pointless charade. Twain's memoirs are a pointillist masterpiece from which his vision of America--half paradise, half swindle--emerges with indelible force.

In the meantime, have a great new week.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Steampunk Chronicle Premiere at Friends of Industry


Last night I took in a steampunk event at the Gustave Campini's Friends of Industry art space in downtown Duluth. The event included steampunk art, costumes and a the world premiere of Chronicle, a multi-media show based on a comic book being produced by Eric Horn and friends. From what I've been told Steampunk is a huge new passion, not unlike the Trekkie movement that resulted in Star Trek conventions around the country.

Steampunk is a subset of science fiction, except these futurists are from the past. Think of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Put yourself in 1880 and imagine what the future would look like, what space ships of tomorrow might look like from the vantage point of pre-flight and what futuristic weapons and uniforms might consist of.

If you ever saw Will Vinton's claymation production The Adventures of Mark Twain, you will recall seeing a steampunk-style flying contraption that carried the story, along with its characters. Mark Twain had a fascination with the future, and was intensely curious about the capabilities of science. As a result he developed a close friendship with Nikola Tesla and spent a lot of time in that brilliant man's lab.

Some people credit cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling with the re-birth of interest in steampunk. The two wrote The Difference Engine, a book that brought their futurist sensibilities to Victorian England.

Steampunk artisans take ordinary objects and make extraordinary masks, gear and goggles using materials that were likely to be found 130 years ago, hence the preponderance of leather, brass, wood and iron. Events like Campini's last night provide the occasion for steampunk fans to get decked out and show their stuff.

As a starting point to learn more about Steampunk, visit Wikipedia.

Below: The Victorian era projection screen.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Telling Stories: Phil Spector's Agony & Ecstasy

Yesterday I finished the audio book Changing My Mind, a wonderfully rich collection of essays by Zadie Smith. What impressed me was the honesty of her perceptions. When reviewing movies she doesn't go with the crowd, she goes with the way she sees it. And her breadth of experience gives a good vantage point for these perceptions. Even stronger are her insights on the various books and writers she assesses. Being a novelist herself, she shares not only what is happening on the page, but shines a light into the corners of what she suspects was happening in the minds and souls of those who were doing the writing.

Though her essays on Liberia, Katharine Hepburn or going to the Oscars make for great (by which I mean insightful, thought-provoking) reading, Smith's at her best when dissecting the problems of storytelling.

Storytelling takes on such a variety of forms. This week's Sound Unseen/Duluth International Film Festival is full of stories. Thursday night we were introduced to Harry Belafonte's story in the documentary film Sing Your Song, which could just as easily been sub-titled, "Don't Give Up the Fight." Last night, we saw a portrait of Phil Spector titled The Agony & Ecstasy of Phil Spector. It's a remarkable accomplishment by director Vikram Jayanti because the camera never blinks.

Songwriter and record producer Phil Spector has been a major influence in modern music in part because he was striving for something more than just the next hit record. His concept of the "wall of sound" is now almost cliche, but was revolutionary in the Sixties. Hits like The Ronettes "Be My Baby" struck a nerve with audiences across the airwaves. Songs like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers and "Da Doo Ron Ron" established his cred as someone who knew how to reach a mass market. When two years of recording songs for the Beatles' last album failed to produce a product, Spector was called in as Mr. Fix-It and in four months Let It Be was released. And no matter how much Sir Paul disliked the outcome, I for one consider it a favorite, recalling the very moment I heard it for the first time. After the break-up of the Beatles, Spector produced music for both Lennon and George Harrison.

But this is only backdrop for the documentary which used Spector's murder trial as a thread to weave all the pieces of his life story into a whole. Or was it the other way around? Maybe the trial is the backdrop and the real story is the man himself, in his own words, for that is what we get here... Spector spending a day in his home explaining the meaning of his life, Spector sitting on his couch talking, the camera rolling. In the background is the white piano he bought for his friend John Lennon with which the song "Imagine" was recorded.

There is no effort to conceal the size of his ego. At various points he compares himself to Galileo, DaVinci, Bach and Michaelangelo. And he is clearly bitter that someone like Tony Bennett, who was a coke head in the sixties, can get his past absolved, but Spector is treated like a leper. Or that Buddy Holly, who performed for only three years would be a legend and get his own postage stamp.

About the trial. Spector had been accused of having murdered B-movie actress Lana Clarkson in his home with a handgun. The defense points out that the angle at which the bullet entered was the angle a self-inflicted shot would be fired. They also showed that if Spector had fired while standing next to her with the gun in her mouth, the manner in which she was killed, it would have splattered blood and debris on his clothing, hands, face and hair... which did not occur.

Some of the reviews of this film describe Spector as creepy. His pasty skin and not so pretty sagging flesh repeatedly fill the screen. His flambouyant hair and attire give him an almost comical aspect at times. But I can't help feel pity for the man. As Jimi Hendrix once sang, "Loneliness is just a drag." In fact, early in the film Spector himself is asked why he lives alone in such a large castle. He said it's better than a single room with a toilet. Was he referring here to the jail cell he would eventually be occupying?

The first trial ended in a hung jury. The day-long interview with Spector takes place two weeks before the verdict. We follow much of the courtroom drama which is interspersed with Spector's candid rambling. We see palsied hands quivering through much of the film. And at one point John Lennon's poignant "Crippled Inside" becomes the soundtrack, another Spector-produced song. Spector knew the meaning of crippled because his father blew his own brains out with a gun.

To some extent we're all crippled inside and in this respect Phil Spector's story -- bizarre as it seems -- is our own story. To cite Goethe, our hearts are capable of all things from megalomania to murder. Whether Spector is innocent or guilty on the murder charge, to some extent one can only say, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Belafonte Film Reminds Us to Not Give Up the Fight

Last night we went to see the opening night feature Sing Your Song, a documentary about the career of Harry Belafonte, produced by his daughter Gina who was also present for an informative Q&A session afterwards. Now wouldn't it be great if after every time you saw an interesting film you could have the producer or screenwriter or director there to interrogate. That's one feature of film festivals you just don't experience every day.

Till last night I never realized how central of a player Belafonte was in the civil right movement. Like Sydney Poitier, Belafonte was a high profile black in Hollywood who experienced first hand the unequal treatment people of color had to endure. Both became seriously involved in the fight for rights in the racially charged south, putting their lives at risk simply to be there.

But for Belafonte it didn't end in the South. He visited Africa and allowed the sea of sorrows there wash over his unshielded heart. We talk about death with dignity in this country, but there is no dignity in starvation and he allowed himself to witness this over and over again so that he would not forget, so that he would speak and take action against the injustices that contributed to this suffering.

He also became friends with South Africa, and specifically with Nelson Mandela, whose life was likewise dedicated to non-violence and the elimination of injustice.

I'm writing as if you all know who he was. He fought in a black unit during World War II then became a singer, which brought him into theater and ultimately Hollywood, films and TV. Everyone knows at least some of his songs. For example, try Day-O, the calypso song that was featured in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice.

As a great films must be, at its heart is a great story. And in its aftermath there was much to think about. Many of the things we experienced ourselves in our youth we did not understand, in part because we did not know the truth behind the news stories we were fed. Films like this continue to shed light and help us process our own experiences.

Thank you to the film festival staff for the 17 films that will premiere this week and all their efforts to create a significant event for the arts community. This one premiered at Sundance and will be on HBO this coming October.Tonight I'll be checking out the juried Short Films at Zinema followed by The Agony & Ecstasy of Phil Spector. Can't wait.