Monday, June 30, 2008

Best of Lists: The Best Of


When it comes to best of lists you either love them or loathe them. Whatever your opinion may be these carefully or hastily compiled lists always seem draw readers dying for a quick fix of opinion based rankings.

Entertainment Weekly Magazine recently released its “New Classics” list for the publication’s 1000th issue. The extensive feature compiled the top 100 supposed new classics from the past 25 years covering damn near every medium–film, music, books, video games, stage, and even technological advancements. While there were a number of WTF entries in each category and countless “I can’t believe you left that out” moments, the lists were entertaining.
Best of lists are inevitable in the world of pop culture criticism. The media realizes that it’s easier for the masses to skim through a list of what certain highly opinionated folk deem the best of the rest than actually dive into something more substantial. Whether it’s Rolling Stone’s recent “Top 100 Greatest Guitar Songs,” Spin magazine’s upcoming “Top 25 Greatest Live Bands,” or the countless end of the year critics picks, there is an over abundance of best of lists for media hounds to soak up.
While an entire column could be devoted to merely debating Entertainment Weekly’s recent feature (its poorly thought out series of lists is most certainly begging for discussion) I thought it might be interesting to list a handful of truly thought out and highly comprehensive lists that are available for music, film and literature. Consider this the Best of “The Best of lists.”
Rolling Stone Top 500: Sure Rolling Stone puts out a lot of pointless, space filler lists (the formerly mentioned Greatest Guitar Songs being one of them), the magazine’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time may be the most well put together list for rock geeks out there. Sure the Beatles take up four of the top ten slots (and rightfully so in the grand scheme of things), the list focuses primarily on America and British artists, the top ten entries all come from the 60s and 70s, and certain classics end up lower on the totem pole than one might expect (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation at #329, twelve slots below No Doubt’s Rock Steady), but reservations aside, this list pretty much nails it. Reading through each album’s descriptions and arguments for their importance, one can’t deny that a lot of time and painstaking debate went into compiling this list.
Moment of Brilliance: Listing Stevie Wonder’s terribly underappreciated 70s masterpiece Innervisions (#23), propelled by the epic centerpiece “Living for the City,” above more obvious choices like Talking Book (#90) or the mass hit Songs in the Key of Life(#56) shows that substance always prosper over hype and sales.

ImageTime All-Time 100: The most striking aspect of Time Magazine’s take on the greatest albums, films and novels of all time was the decision not to rank the entries by greatness. By taking away the urge to argue for the placement of certain titles over others, the critics were able to focus on why these selections are the most important. For films, Time’s two main critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, compile a global list that includes obvious choices like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, or Fellini’s 8 ½, with more curious but respectable picks like Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi classic Brazil, Kurosawa’s highly influential samurai classic Yojimbo, or David Cronenberg’s gross out, mind bending horror film The Fly.
Like the film list Time’s All Time 100 novels encompasses the best of a world of literature placing as much emphasis on modern American authors such as Philip Roth or Don DeLillo with the likes of international greats such as Nabokov or Chinua Achebe. They also pick the best of certain underappreciated genres such as science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), fantasy (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien) and even a bit of horror (James Dickey’s frightening Appalachian woods novel Deliverance).
For music Time’s critics again tried to highlight the album’s impact on music in terms of its importance. Understanding that an artist like Little Richard influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Axl Rose or playing up the importance of the Prince’s genre bending double LP Sign of the Times (they believe it is the best album of the 80s) shows a focus on how the album’s hold up now, the criteria for true greatness. Skimming through the list (organized by decade) and noticing the absence a single Pink Floyd record (a band that many feel is overrated) is evidence that the crew at Time spent many grueling late nights and drank lots of bad office coffee while debating the history of popular music.
Moments of Brilliance: Film critics choose the Coen Brother’s often forgotten noir masterpiece Miller’s Crossing over Fargo, book worms play up the importance of Alan Moore’s staple graphic novel Watchmen as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God, music critics highlight two of alternative’s best female leads by including Hole’s Live Through This and PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert: When it comes to film criticism Chicago has given the world some of the greats. Rosenbaum, the long time critic for the Chicago Reader street publication and Ebert, head critic for the Chicago Sun Times, are both living encyclopedias of a world of film that stretches well beyond Hollywood. Both continue to recognize the current greats while also going back to shed light on the forgotten gems of yesteryears. Ebert’s ongoing Great Movies series is the place to look for the film masterpieces of past and present. Ebert revisits his picks for the Greats often highlighting their importance in present day and why some classics only get better with age. While he covers the obvious greats in his bi-weekly or monthly entries to the lists he also plays up lesser-known titles that are often overlooked upon its release and forgotten with time. Take his admiration for Nicolas Cage’s daring and haunting performance in the great but devastating Leaving Las Vegas or his argument for Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film reviled upon its release but important in the long road, paving the road for films like Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rosenbaum goes even further down the obscure rabbit hole of global cinema. His end of the year best of lists go completely against the grain of his fellow, more predictable film critics shedding light on films that the majority of moviegoers never saw. At his website, www.jonathanrosenbaum.com, this one of a kind critic provides readers with a different take on the best films of each year as well as an alternative to the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time. While the AFI played up obvious choices likeCitizen Kane or Casablanca, Rosenbaum argues for more obscure fare like Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western Dead Man (a film which Rosenbaum also wrote a book on) or Kubrick’s early heist film The Killing. Of his list of the best films of the 90s only three–Dead ManEyes Wide Shut, and When It Rains–were American, while the other hailed from Taiwan, Iran, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal.
Moments of Brilliance: Ebert’s in-depth essay on Spike Lee’s still polarizing film Do The Right Thing discusses, among other things, how certain movie going experiences–that is sitting in theater alive with other viewers–can truly penetrate your soul. While it’s clear Rosenbaum has a bit of a soft spot for indie-darling Jim Jarmusch, there is no denying the importance of this unique auteur whose films continue to puzzle viewers.

National Public Radio’s 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century:Leave it to NPR to create the snobbiest best of list for music. Rather than focus solely on recorded albums (as almost every other list does) NPR 100 goes beyond to cover all composed pieces of music. From rock to reggae, classical to country, songs to albums, NPR tries to encompass it all and does a damn good job. For serious listeners out there this is one of the best reference lists out there for important pieces of music. Similar to Time’s All-Time 100, NPR does not rank the pieces but rather focuses on their importance in the tide of time. From Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to Paul Simon’s multi-cultural record Graceland, NPR’s critics intermix their own opinions of the recordings with interviews with experts and the artists that helped shape American music.
Moment of Brilliance: Rather than talk more about Talking Heads’ records or its unforgettable concert film Stop Making Sense, NPR focused on David Byrne and gang’s composition, “Once in a Lifetime” as being one of the first popular jam tunes. The Heads were able to compose an entire song built around Tina Weymouth’s simple but tight bass line and worldly percussion rhythms.

Amazon.com’s Listmania Feature: While the latter lists and list makers are all from well-seasoned critics and know-it-alls, sometimes you just want to know what the average Joe likes. Amazon became much more than a bookstore years ago and while it tries to everything–some better than others–one of the sites most ingenious features was the creation of Listmania. Want to know which are the best James Bond flicks? Interested in diving into the music of Neil Young but don’t know how to navigate through a discography of over 30 albums, check out the many Young fans who post their rankings on Amazon. Sure some lists will interest you more than others, the feature gives fans a chance to be the critic.
Moment of Brilliance: Want to dive into the world of avant-garde, experimental films? Check out one user from Japan’s list of“Totally Trippy Films For Your Multi Colored Nights.” Other random and fascinating lists are waiting for those curious.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Random Album Facts: Loveless


My Bloody Valentine released their magnum opus,Loveless in 1991 after a grueling two-year recording process. Since its release the Irish shoe gazers have been silent. No follow up album, no live performances since 1995, and pretty much nothing holding the band’s reputation together but rumor, hype, and the fact that Loveless remains one of the most innovative and untouched experimental albums out there.

This year MBV embarked on its first world tour (or really first tour) in over ten years. The band is currently scheduled for an appearance at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom–one of five U.S. cities on the band’s lineup. So far setlists from the band’s recent shows look to be rooted primarily from MBV’s two studio albums–Loveless and Is this Anything–along with a handful of EPs including Tremolo and Glider. In interviews the band’s talking head, Kevin Shields claims that a new album is three-quarters of the way finished but whether or not new material will be unleashed on the eager audience of shoegazers awaiting the band’s arrival is up in the air.

While most serious music lovers are probably familiar with MBV and most likely escape into the world of Loveless on a semi-regular basis, I thought it would be cool to uncover some of the secrets and random trivial facts that went into recording and releasing this album.

  • My Bloody Valentine got its name from an obscure Canadian B-Slasher film of the same name. Kevin Shields has said in interviews that the band had toyed with earlier names for the band including Burning Peacocks.
  • The recording process of Loveless was a long, grueling experience that took over two years, in 19 different recording studios, and cost Creation Records nearly £250,000 almost bankrupting the label all together.
  • While past MBV endeavors were collaborative between the band members, Loveless was hands down Kevin Shields baby. The control freak musical mad scientist played all of the guitar and bass parts, wrote 2/3 of the album’s often undistinguishable lyrics, and even recorded many of the drum tracks.
  • MBV’s drummer and co-founder Colm Ó Cíosóig only contributed to two of Loveless’ tracks, the punch the gut opener “Only Shallow” and “Touched.” While Shields need for creative control played into this outcome, Ó Cíosóig was also extremely ill during most of the recording stages for Loveless and was at one point homeless. The other remaining tracks were produced from pre-recorded drum loops from Ó Cíosóig.
  • Loveless was the first project for then new vocalist Bilinda Butcher. It is said that Shields was inspired by Butcher’s dream like vocals but still made her endure bizarre recording practices such as closing off the window between the studio and the control room, thus not allowing anyone to watch the musicians at work.
  • MBV moved from one cheap studio to the next over the recording process and listed every single person involved in the liner notes for Loveless. Shields once said that, “even if all they did was fix tea, that might have had an effect on the album’s outcome.” In reality Shields only trusted himself and producer Alan Moulder with the important recording procedures thus giving him near complete control.
  • MBV deliberately did not include lyrics to Loveless in the album’s liner notes since the mystery of the sound is an important element of the sound. In the Japanese release there are printed lyrics (a requirement in Japan) but they are supposedly not even close to being correct. Likewise internet lyric sites all differ in some way with their interpretations.
  • While it’s assumed that the band took copious amounts of drugs–specifically psychedelic substances such as ecstasy–while recording Loveless, the truth is Shields main mind-altering drug was lack of sleep. Shields was interested in dreams and achieving the hypnagogic state, which is experienced between wakefulness and sleep and can produce hallucinatory events. Much of Loveless was created or imagined late at night while Shields was alone in the studio.
  • While much of Loveless’ “swirling guitars” sound like a dozen or so instruments being used, the majority of the effects used during the recording was simply realized with a tremolo arm or wammy bar.
  • The large budget for Loveless nearly bankrupted the band’s label, Creation Records. Creation would later be propelled from Indie status to mega stardom with its work with the U.K. band Oasis. Shields has said in interviews that most of the money spent was actually for living expenses over the two years and that the music itself only cost a couple thousand pounds. MBV believes Creation exaggerated greatly how much the album actually cost.
  • Loveless was recorded almost exclusively in mono.
  • Shields and Butcher both had a fascinating obsession with chinchillas and during the recording of Loveless it wasn’t uncommon to have up to 14 little critters running around the studio on a give day.
  • Shields once said in an interview, “My whole memory of making [Loveless] was just this constant sense of presence, like it was a mixture of angels and, funnily enough, cow ghosts, ghosts of cows. I don’t know why, but I kept having this impression of bloody animals and cows all the time–really big, weird faces with big brown eyes. But not like aliens.”
  • For a quick, highly informative read about Loveless and My Bloody Valentine check out Mike McGonigal’s book Loveless, which is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Trent Reznor's Twisted Bender of Creativity



(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

Considering most musicians in their 40s tend to slow things down, Trent Reznor has been a busy boy. Coming from the man who once spent five years to release a follow-up album (the highly ambitious/anticipated double-disc mammoth The Fragile), and another six for its successor (2005's With Teeth), the last two years for his band Nine Inch Nails have been some of the most creative and innovative in its career.

Reznor's recent creative spur all started on the tour for NIN's fifth studio album, the rather uninspired "With Teeth." Desiring to record a bleak futuristic concept album to shed light on the United States' current administration, Reznor created (or rather conjured up) Year Zero. Exorcizing his inner demons once again, "Zero" was a refreshing return to form for Reznor and would be the start of new day for NIN both musically and conceptually.

The sprawling 16-track "Zero" was significant not only for its message but also its delivery, primarily the extensive viral marketing campaign that backed the album's official release and an organized Internet leak. While past NIN efforts showcased Reznor as a sonic mad scientist, constantly pushing the envelope of the industrial genre he helped start, "Zero" was a vehicle for Reznor the savvy businessman, or anti-businessman.

The concept of "Zero" was to include not only the album but also a record of remixes (Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D), a possible feature length film, and now, according to Reznor, a television series all encompassing the shambled dystopia of Reznor's future America. Reznor even came up with some creative methods for leaking the songs and portions of the album to diehard NIN fans - leaving mini USB memory cards chock full of MP3s and other "Year Zero" propaganda in the bathroom stalls at concert venues or treating frequent website visitors to snippets of "Zero." Reznor has always treated fans to pleasant surprises.

Trent Reznor"Year Zero" was the last official studio album on NIN's former label, Interscope, fulfilling a long-standing frustrating contract and paving the way for complete musicalindependence. After releasing "Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D" Reznor followed in the footsteps of Radiohead and many other artists currently embracing the inevitable industry changes in how we acquire music with an Internet exclusive release of a 36-track suite of instrumental compositions entitled,Ghosts I-IV.

While initially coming out of left field (after all it was released just shy of a year after "Year Zero," which was unexpected considering NIN's last couple spaced out releases), the content of "Ghosts" and the methods used to release the album seemed inevitable choices.

For starters, "Ghosts" was a pet project Reznor was aching to do for many years but never could due to pressures from his label. A four-volume set comprised entirely of bizarre instrumental compositions, carefully paired with bleak photographs (included in a 40-page book) doesn't exactly scream Billboard trendsetter. Artistically, however, "Ghosts" serves as a haven for Reznor to showcase his undisputed gift for taking ordinary sounds and taking them to extreme, undiscovered directions.

On past NIN efforts instrumental tracks were commonly used to bridge songs together, provide glimpses of grace amongst cuts rooted in chaos, and, in the case of The Downward Spiral's "A Warm Place," pay homage to a major influence, David Bowie (the song is a manipulated cover of a Bowie B-side, "Crystal Japan"). Many have also said that while Reznor continues to evolve his sound, his lyricism has always been an Achilles' heel, often recycling the same dismal predictable themes.

"Ghosts" was no doubt marketed mainly to diehard NIN fans (36-tracks without a solid single to anchor it down isn't exactly aiming for the mainstream). By allowing listeners to have a choice in how they acquire the album Reznor embraced the future of music distribution and did so with success. "Ghosts" was released in a number of formats ranging from a free nine-track sampler to an expansive limited edition vinyl, CD, and MP3 suite.

For digital music sampling wizards (and Reznor realizes that there are many out there) "Ghosts" was also made available in a number of different digital formats, allowing fans to take individual tracks from songs and remix the content to create their own unique compositions. While much of these methods were no doubt lifted from Radiohead's In Rainbows pay-what-you-feel Internet stunt of last year, Reznor was clearly taking things to a higher level.

Last month Reznor surprised fans yet again with The Slip, a surprisingly low-budget, 10-song record blending messy, fast-paced garage rock with moody ambient ballads that was released 100% free to listeners at NIN.com. While "The Slip" isn't as conceptually sophisticated as "Year Zero" or as groundbreaking as say Pretty Hate Machine or "The Downward Spiral," it is a rough and fun rock record that not only gave Reznor a single (the catchy techno cut "Discipline") to tour with but again proves that Reznor is currently enjoying the luxuries of his newfound creative spree. He even managed to produce Saul Williams' last album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, which was also made available via digital download.

For most established artists some people might argue for content over quantity, believing that it's better to take time between masterpieces rather than unleash mediocre album after album. In the case of Nine Inch Nails, Reznor seems to have found a happy balance between the two. "Year Zero" was as innovative and interesting as NIN's early records, "Ghosts I-IV" was the result of an idea that Reznor seems to have been dreaming up for quite some time, and "The Slip," while not a masterpiece, is a nice taste of what Reznor has up his sleeve, served gratis to boot.

It's hard to say what else Reznor is cooking up musically, since the past two records were released out of the blue. NIN is about to embark on a major U.S. tour, and Reznor has already spoken of his future plans for the "Year Zero" concept. Whether or not NIN's current creative spree seems like an overload of more loud industrial rock, consider this: a veteran artist like Reznor could continue taking his time between records and still reap the benefits from a loyal fanbase, but instead he's experimenting and treating the world to his art. Good or bad, that's entirely up to the listener, but it's hard to deny that at the age of 43 Reznor's artistic inner demons are still hard at work and he remains one of the most innovative musicians working today.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Once Upon a Time...


Many artists have tackled the leap from music video filmmaking to full-length features, with few successfully making the change. Music videos, like film shorts, carry the luxury of not relying on solid narrative but rather focusing almost solely on stunning visuals.


Take your pick of some of the greats–Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Ferris, David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, to name a few–all made sly transitions from artistic music shorts to acclaimed feature films by bringing along their unique artistic visions and pairing it with good, old fashioned story telling. Then there’s Tarsem Singh (most commonly referred to simply as Tarsem), the Indian born music video and commercial director whose second film, a sophisticated, beautifully imagined but ultimately flawed fairy tale called The Fall, is currently enjoying a limited release, two years after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.


Tarsem jumped on the scene after directing the award winning video for R.E.M.’s hit single, “Losing My Religion” in 1991. You might remember it as the video in which Michael Stipe waves his hands a lot while an emotionless Peter Buck somberly strums a mandolin. Actually this video and many other commercials helmed by Tarsem, feature a unique style of lighting, set and costume design, and an overall artistic vision seldom see in music videos.


The director made his feature debut back in 2000 with the visually stunning but mediocre psychological thriller, The Cell.The film starred a still up and coming Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn and benefited from eye-opening and highly imaginative effects but was ultimately weighed down by an uninspired script.


The Fall is a film that took a little over four years to make and was filmed in 28 different countries damn near spanning the globe, including India, Argentina, Indonesia, China, Egypt, South Africa, Romania, and the Czech Republic, among others. Much of the film was financed by Tarsem himself and above all seems to be a personal dream project that the director has been conjuring up in his imagination for a long time. Unfortunately the film, like its predecessor, excels in its stunning visual beauty but falls short due to shoddy acting by a cast of no-name players and dialogue that at times is laughable.


It’s a shame that The Fall managed to get bogged down in something as trivial as the script but then again, therein lies the fine line between visually acute music video directors and feature filmmakers–story and substance must be as important as what the viewer sees. The Fall had the potential to be one of the great modern day fairy tales, a wonderful genre that has almost become extinct amongst the slew of Hollywood blockbusters, remakes and super hero adaptations.


ImageTarsem no doubt envisioned The Fall as an extravagant way to transport audiences into the tender imagination of a child–the stuff that the best fairy tales are made of. Technically set “once upon a time” in Los Angeles during World War I, The Fall tells a story of a stunt man whose heart (woman) and body (accident) are broken. Stuck in a hospital bed he finds comfort telling a wild tall tale of bandits and magic to an innocent little Romanian girl who unfolds the story in her mind and for the viewers delight.


The story itself is a bit simple, albeit predictable, dealing with fairy tale staples like revenge, love, an evil emperor, and a slew of colorful heroes. Told in the classic “an you were there, and you were there,” Wizard of Oz manner, The Fall is undoubtedly the result of one filmmaker’s nostalgic love of escaping to dazzling worlds via the magic of motion pictures. It has everything going for it and carries the potential to be one the great modern day fairy tales had the director focused more attention on the dialogue and laughable cast.


Watching The Fall is a treat for the eyes and it brings up memories of countless other memorable fairy tales that no matter how they age never cease to electrify the imagination. There are the classics such as, The Wizard of Oz or Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride to more recent greats like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children, Guillermo Del Toro’sPan’s Labyrinth, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (or the equally great Howl’s Moving Castle).


Then there are the early films of Terry Gilliam, particularly Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which it’s safe to say influenced Tarsem in terms of brining to life mature tall tales. Gilliam was one of the pioneers of the adult themed fairy tale with films that were eye opening for adults and children alike while maintaining a link to realities of modern life.


Visually The Fall showcases our planet’s natural beauty in an entirely authentic manner, without the reliance of computer generated background effects. It’s no wonder the film took a whopping four years to complete. Watching the film is as much about trekking the globe in search of the perfect panoramic shot, the perfect temple, the perfect island, the perfect mountain, you name it, as it is about watching the fairy tale unfold.


Certain shots and sets pay homage to surrealists like Dalí or naturalists like Winslow Homer, while the costume work is reminiscent of the old Hollywood big budget epics. Finally the pristine cinematography of the natural surroundings brings to mind naturalist films such as Baraka, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, and most recently BBC’s Planet Earth mini series, not to mention filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick.


Coming from a man who spent most of his career dolling up Nike and Levis ads or encouraging Michael Stipe to wiggle for the camera, The Fall is an impressive sophomore release for a director who is just shy of becoming one of the more visually brilliant filmmakers working today. With his third film, an intriguing sounding thriller called The Unforgettable slated for a 2011 release, Tarsem is a promising filmmaker to keep an eye on.


Side note: While The Fall is hardly a flawless film it is definitely worth seeing and deserves to be experienced on the big screen. Like most small films with limited releases it will not be around for long.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Surviving Survivalist Television

(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

At the age of 23 Bear Grylls was the youngest climber ever to ascend the summit at Mount Everest. Recently Bear drank his own urine for the amusement of thousands of television viewers. In 2000 Grylls traveled around the island of the United Kingdom on a jet ski. While filming in the African savannah Bear took a hearty bite out of a recently deceased zebra. In 2003 he led the first-ever unassisted crossing of the North Atlantic Arctic Ocean by boat. This past fall Bear skinned and disemboweled a camel then used the empty carcass for shelter.

Bear Grylls is without a doubt a self-professed adventurer. He's also the host of Discovery Channel's extreme survival show, "Man vs. Wild." You can judge for yourself which of the feats mentioned above encompass Bear the accomplished outdoorsmen or Bear the over-the-top TV personality.

Then there is Les Stroud, the more refined Canadian super outdoorsman and host of Discovery's other hit survivalist series, "Survivorman." Stroud is less concerned with the flashiness of reality television, choosing technique and survival tactics over sensationalism. In terms of popularity, Bear's got him beat. Let's face it, we're a culture obsessed with over the top drama.

Survivorman

To be fair both survivalist series are very similar in their intentions - send a man off into the wild solo and learn about the various survival techniques needed to brave the elements. The shows are highly informative, even though the chances of the average viewer being forced to climb inside a dead camel are about as slim as said viewer even seeing a camel outside of the comforts of a zoo. Then again, television has always been an escapist medium.

So which show is the more realistic? Which show is worth the viewers 45 minutes? To answer this question one must question what they look for in a television show of this nature?

For the true adventurers, "Survivorman" is hands down the most authentic look at what it takes to survive in a multitude of different scenarios. Stroud walks viewers through the basics like finding potable water, making fire, staying warm, hunting and gathering food where you would least expect it, etc. Each episode is based off an entirely plausible scenario of being stuck in the wild (canoeing accident, lost in forest, broken down vehicle, even an impressive episode where Stroud is on a raft in the middle of the ocean). To top it off Stroud is alone for a whole seven days without a camera crew (a luxury Bear so controversially benefits from). Despite this arguably more impressive setup, the restless viewer might find Stroud's no thrills how-to lessons to be a bit trite.

Grylls falls at the other end of the spectrum - action, suspense, and the gross out element. Almost every episode of "Man Vs. Wild" begins with Bear doing a back flip of sorts from a plane or helicopter into his newest destination (seriously, even during a scene as simple as jumping six feet from a tree branch into a marsh, Bear finds it necessary to wow viewers with his acrobatics).

Man vs. Wild

Bear's stern British narration voice makes even the simplest of feats seem to be life threatening. Above all, when this man takes on the wild he seems destined to look for the most extreme ways of surviving, rather than the simplest or safest methods. Sure, while you could technically spear a salmon and eat it while it's still alive (as our Bear so fittingly does in an episode braving Alaska) why not just wait till it's dead?

In one episode of "Survivorman" in which Stroud is stuck in a Georgia swamp, he shows viewers an old Native American technique for catching fish and frogs in a makeshift water corral trap. Whereas Bear Grylls seems solely concerned with putting his body through excruciating unpleasantness for the pleasure of the television audience, Stroud is more focused with informing us about the many survival techniques out there and the history of his given environment.

With a name as blatantly over-the-top as Bear Grylls it's no wonder that the self-proclaimed survivalist/thrill seeker's show has higher ratings. An extreme sounding name such as Bear or the even more ridiculous, Dog the Bounty Hunter is ripe for sensationalist reality TV, which is what the average viewer yearns for.

Television viewers these days enjoy watching people eat horrible things or live out excruciating situations from the safety of the living room. "Survivorman," which was created before "Man Vs. Wild," is currently on a hiatus from TV with a third season possibly in the works. "Man Vs. Wild" is still going strong, proving that no matter what ratings always prevail in the television arena. While "Survivorman" is without a doubt the superior program when it comes to the authenticity, Bear's on-screen personality will always garner the most viewers and nails the entertainment draw of survival television.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

McCarthyism


When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping behind him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.


So begins Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, soon to be a major motion picture. The veteran American author, whose prose is often compared to the likes of Faulkner, Melville and Joyce, has been a household name in the literary world for a number of years but is just starting to move into the mainstream spotlight thanks to some recent and upcoming page to screen adaptations.


It’s been a surprisingly busy past couple years for the mysterious author. The observant moviegoer might recognize McCarthy’s name from last year’s No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award winning film adaptation of the author’s 2005 novel of the same name. Though the film was very much in the Coen tradition the story, complex dialogue and underlying message/critique of violence in society was all McCarthy.


NCFOM was not the first film to take on McCarthy’s literature, nor will it be the last. Billy Bob Thornton directed a not-so-well-received screen adaptation of McCarthy’s most critically acclaimed novel and National Book Award winning, All the Pretty Horses, in 2000. An adaptation of McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark, is supposedly in production according to Imdb.com. Next fall fans of the author will get to see The Road, the author’s latest novel, come to life on the big screen and there’s also a proposed and possibly worrisome film adaptation of McCarthy’s most brutal but arguably his finest work,Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, slated for a tentative 2009 release.


Those familiar with McCarthy’s varied canon–starting with his Tennessee Appalachian period, followed by a move to the Southwest where he would take on the Western genre–will know that NCFOM and The Road, the author’s last two novels, were the most celluloid friendly. They lacked the author’s usual dense and sometimes cumbersome flow and were both dealt with a current or not so far off time period.


The Coen’s take on NCFOM was respectful of McCarthy’s original text while also adding a bit of the filmmakers’ signature sense of style, use of quirky supporting characters and sly dark humor. The Road, McCarthy’s haunting post-apocalyptic thriller just finished production and has the potential to be yet another successful film thanks to a unique, lesser-known director and a perfectly assembled cast of strong character actors.


The post-apocalyptic film has morphed into its own genre over the years with horror films ranging from 28 Days Later to this year’s I am Legend, not to mention past sci-fi staples such as the Mad Max trilogy and James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which used the threat of nuclear proliferation as its canvas. Where McCarthy’s The Road differed from the more extreme stories mentioned above is in its chilling sense of realism and constant reminder of hopelessness, page after page.





The New York Times recently ran a story about the filming of The Road and the difficulties of recreating a desolate American landscape in today’s world (the crew settled on Pennsylvania and the Lake Erie region for it’s crumbled America backdrop). The film was directed by the rising Aussie filmmaker, John Hillcoat, whose gritty take on the Western set down under in 2005s The Proposition, just so happened to be one of the closest film portrayals of the brutal violence depicted in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. With The Road, Hillcoat directs Viggo Mortensen and newcomer child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and son walking a mysterious unnamed road through a desolate and crumbled post-disaster America.


Joining Mortensen is Charlize Theron as the Wife (who in the novel is only mentioned in back story), Robert Duvall,The Proposition’s Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams aka Omar from HBO’s late series The Wire and possibly one of the best character actors working today, Garret Dillahunt, who had a small but memorable role as a slow-witted deputy in NCFOM. Aussie musician Nick Cave, who scripted and scored The Proposition, is also hard at work on the soundtrack for the film.


While normally a story as dark as The Road might turn moviegoers away, the post-NCFOM Oscar sweep and the fact that Oprah picked McCarthy’s novel in her book club two years ago gives the film version of the book the potential to be one of 2008s best films.


Then there’s Blood Meridian, quite possibly the white whale of film adaptations. Little is known about this project other than the fact that the film’s scribe is William Monahan, a rising name who won an Oscar two years ago for The Departed, and the person helming the director’s chair is veteran Ridley Scott. While both talents backing this film are notable and have the filmmaking chops (Scott has proved time and again that he has a knack for onscreen violence) there is a greater underlying question of whether or not Blood Meridian should make the leap from page to screen.


It is rarely the case that films best the books that they’re based on. That goes without saying. With Blood Meridian many believe the story is simply too densely written and overly violent (even for today’s standards) to come alive on the big screen. Others argue that if done well it has the potential to be one of the best and most historically accurate portrayals of the “real” Wild West ever seen on film.


For those unfamiliar with the story McCarthy tells the stomach turning tale of the Glanton gang, a group of weathered, blood-thirsty soldiers just out of the Mexican-American War in the mid 19th century who are contracted to travel through northern Mexico collecting the scalps for a price. Led by a larger than life character known as the Judge (if you thought Javier Bardem was creepy as Anton Chigurh in NCFOM read about the Judge to see what true heartless evil really is) the gang of misfits roam the desert landscape leaving a sanguinary trail of destruction behind them.


While the violence in the book is often unimaginable it serves as a reminder of the horrors our American forefathers unleashed on the North American natives and of the blood that built this country. To justly recreate the sort of mayhem McCarthy weaves in Blood Meridian it’s safe to say a film adaptation of this tale has the potential to be one of the most violent films ever made, making Mel Gibson’s biblical lesson in torture seem tame in comparison. To give you a taste of the madness McCarthy unleashes on his readers during one early scene the gang stumbles upon a tree riddled with the corpses of infants and children. This brings up another dire question about the making of this film: is there an audience for such brutal, in-your-face violence? Should a story like this, no matter how historically relevant, be brought to life for the movie going audience? If so, how do you stage a scene like the one just mentioned?


John Hillcoat’s The Proposition took the concept of Western film iconography and turned it upside down with its portrayal of Australia’s brutal, blood-soaked past. The film was, again, a reminder that the chapters in history aren’t always pretty. Ridley Scott has too dabbled in violent historical fiction with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but unlike Hillcoat’s more subtle and refined style, Scott seems stuck in the big budget Hollywood spectacle mindset, which is exactly what Blood Meridian the film should avoid.


McCarthy fansites and message boards have been flooded with dream casts/directors for Blood Meridian with many saying the only true filmmakers to tackle the project would be the late John Huston or Stanley Kubrick or someone like Terrence Malick, all of which could bring to life such an epic story. Many worry that Scott will destroy the project’s potential by opting for a movie star filled cast with the likes of someone like Russell Crowe. Perhaps the film adaptation just wasn’t meant to be.


For fans of Cormac McCarthy the recent production news and photographs from the set of The Road is a breath of fresh air since the project seems to be in good hands and will most likely be worthy adaptation. It’s hard to say how many more books McCarthy has in him as he–he just turned 74 this year–but hopefully his new foray into the mainstream eye might encourage curious minds to check out this literary master’s collection of tomes. His work is difficult to read and sometimes stomach but his style and comprehension of the English language is unprecedented.