A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Saturday, July 28, 2007

I Know What I Like

and I Like What I Know...

Only one of the songs that was really cool to see live-- from 1976. It was on VH1 Classic Concert, and it was Tony, Phil, Mike and Steve during their Trick of the Tail tour. Phil had a full beard and mustache and a full-head of hair. I literally did not recognize him at first. Mike had long straight hair down to about the middle of his back and no facial hair at all. Tony, interestingly enough, looked almost no different. A bit younger.

They did the Carpet Crawl, most of TotT, I Know What I Like and Supper's Ready. I'm sure there was more, but that's all that made it onto VH1. The live version of Entangled was extremely effective, and I had never before heard that song live. Haunting. Tony Banks playing the... lute? The harmonies between Phil, Mike and Tony were really quite lovely.

Not a lot of staging. No real light show or any sort of display. But still really, really cool.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Really Good Book

Finished Potter #7. Fabulous. Just phenomenally good. No spoiler alerts-- this post will not contain any revelations about the book.

I went into the Deathly Hallows with high hopes, but also serious trepidation. Perhaps my view had been colored by the lackluster Order of the Phoenix movie, or perhaps because I had been disappointed with other epic sagas, but for whatever reason I just didn't think Rowling would be able to satisfactorily wrap everything up and without making the final book seem rushed and superficial.

Needn't have worried.

The story moves nearly effortlessly along, seamlessly sewing up loose ends as it goes and the ending was very satisfying. Most amazingly, Rowling actually works new stuff into the plot. I was nearly constantly delighted by the book, by the unexpected twists and turns in the plot, by the continued character development and by the way Rowling worked past bits into the current book.

My only real disappointment was that it had to end. Which is the conundrum of any good book, much less a really great book like this one-- you want to see how it all turns out, you want to experience it all, and yet you don't want it to end because there will never be another first time. The joy of reading a truly great novel is one of my most favorite ways to spend time, yet when it is finished, I sometimes wish I could forget it all so I could read it again without knowing what I now know.

I still don't fully understand why the Potter books are the phenomenon that they are, but I do have some thoughts on the matter. One of the reasons I think the series has done so well is that it has gotten better as it has gone along-- with the exception of #2, every book has been better than the previous book. No easy task, since many a promising start has bogged down in boring exposition and lackluster plot lines-- see Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series or Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series for excellent examples of this.

Secondly, they are continually inventive-- every book adds something to the previous ones, and also often provides further clarification or detailing of things that happened in the earlier stories. Even in book 7, Rowling is still adding new things--the Deathly Hallows-- and fleshing out things that are only mentioned in passing in previous books.

Thirdly, each one has a distinct and satisfying end point. The 'each book is a year in Hogwarts' structure of the series is brilliant. Even though life does not usually provide us with such easily digested beginning and end points, people like their stories to have them. This is another flaw that many-- indeed most-- epic stories suffer from. They are not self-contained.

Fourthly, Rowling uses the somewhat unusually literary device of having nearly everything in the books happen from Harry's viewpoint. There are exceptions, but not many of them. As a writer, I'm sure this was a real crimp in Rowling's ability to give the reader the knowledge needed at any given point-- surely it would have been easier to write much of the story if it could have been told from Ron's viewpoint, or Hermione's, or Dumbledore's or... well, you get the idea. As a reader, however, it really, really, really gets us to identify with Harry and his struggles, joys, triumphs and losses. It is greatly to J.K. Rowling's credit that she is skillful enough to make her narrative understandable without needing to go outside of Harry's head very often. It also means that, should you wish to, Rowling can now go back and tell, for instance, Luna Lovegood's story without having some of it being a mere rehash of the Potter storyline. Nice.

Fifthly, Rowling was able to make the grand saga accessible and enjoyable for both children, young adults and adults. No small feat. While the later books are definitely heavier and darker, the foundation for young adults and children is laid in the earlier books, which are shorter, more whimsical and more charming. The progression to the heavier material is progressive and seamless. Which ties into...

Sixthly, the books really do reflect Harry's journey from early adolescence to adulthood. The early books are more childlike, but as Harry's troubles and trials grow, so do he, Ron, Hermoine, Ginny, Fred, George and all the rest of the Hogwarts' students. Perhaps the only aspect of going through your teenage years that isn't reflected well in the Harry Potter stories is adolescent hormones and concurrent sexual development. This topic Rowlings touches on very lightly, but I don't think this distracts from the works much, if at all, because Harry is so beset with other issues that it really isn't hard to believe that sex and the various matters related to it would be way down the priority list for him.

Seventhly, Rowling is a truly gifted story teller. I've heard others claim that the Potter stories aren't that great, that there are better things out there, but I don't agree. I'm a pretty widely read person, and I think both the story, and the telling of it, are top notch-- as good as anything I've read in many years. Perhaps as good as anything I've read, period.

Finally, I think Harry Potter came along at just the right time. For whatever reason, the first book resonated with its readers, and each subsequent book has done likewise-- perhaps in some fashion, Rowling has been able to capture the essence of her times and distill them into the story of the Boy Who Lived. Or maybe it was blind luck.

Regardless, the whole is a fine saga indeed, and the concluding chapter of the saga is a masterpiece.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Extended Trailer

That's how one critic described the latest Potter film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I went to see the film with my kids yesterday afternoon, and it's not an inexact description. When you try and cram an 800+ page book into a 2 1/4 hour movie, it is likely an impossibility to make it feel anything but superficial and rushed. By way of comparison, Peter Jackson took nearly 10 hours to film the three Lord of the Rings adaptations, and still didn't cover everything. The three LotR books together are only about 300 pages longer than Order of the Phoenix.

Still, the movie wasn't bad-- it was, in fact, okay. Fairly entertaining, with a pretty good treatment of the really major points of the book-- as opposed to the fairly major, but not quite critical bits that are ignored or barely touched upon by the film. I probably would even have given the film a good rating if not for two factors: 1) The movie focus too much on Harry himself to the detriment of all other characters and, more significantly, 2) Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore is simply dreadful.

Spoiler alert-- if you haven't seen the movie or read the books, what follows may reveal bits that will lessen your enjoyment when you do see/read them. Probably not, but you never know.

The first complaint may also be unavoidable-- Harry is, after all, at the center of everything that happens since the books are written almost exclusively from his viewpoint. But this movie, more than any of the others, seems to focus so tightly on Harry that everything else seems superfluous. There is no mention of the Hermoine/Ron relationship outside of a few passing remarks and a scene or two where Ron gets defensive/jealous. The 5th year OWLs are barely touched upon, and when they do get coverage they are altered from the book for no discernable purpose. The troubles of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are brushed over, and Kreacher plays no real role in the movie at all, other than to allow the CGI people to have some fun.

But, the source material was so vast, there were bound to be many, many, many, many things that got left out, and all of the really important bits (though not necessarily the most interesting or entertaining) center around Harry. So, though disappointed by the Harry-centricness of the movie, I understand it and can live with it.

What I don't get is why Michael Gambon is still portraying Albus Dumbledore. Gambon may be a fine actor, I have no real basis for judgment outside of the Potter films, but he is a lousy Dumbledore. In the books, Dumbledore is a calm, clever fellow who never loses his cool and has an easy, reassuring and humorous manner in dealing with people. He is nearly unflappable, and he has a certain sense of strength about him-- a presence, if you will.

Richard Harris, who played Dumbledore in the first two movies before his death in October of 2002, was PERFECT in the role. He radiated a quiet aura of reassurance, compassion, confidence and power. As the greatest wizard of several generations should. Harris also beautifully captured Dumbledore's quirky, almost childlike, sense of humor and wonder without ever losing the sense that he could reduce you to dust in a heartbeat if he wanted to.

Gambon has none of those qualities. Instead, he seems agitated, cranky, suspicious and uncertain most of the time. He is, quite frankly, the anti-Dumbledore. Trying to step into Harris' HUGE shoes would have been daunting for any actor I have no doubt, but you don't do the exact opposite of what Harris did just to be different. Not with an iconic role like Dumbledore. In the books, Dumbledore is described as the "only one he [Voldemort] ever feared" and with Harris you could see why. With Gambon, I think-- why would Voldemort be afraid of this guy? He can't even stand up to Delores Umbridge.

That scene, when Dumbledore "confronts" Umbridge outside Hogwarts, was the thing that sealed it for me. Gambon's Dumbledore sounds forlorn and pathetic, like Umbridge really does have the upper hand on him. He snaps at the surrounding students and looks small and defeated as he stalks off screen. All completely and totally WRONG in relation to the book or how Dumbledore acts in every other situation. It's like Gambon has never even read the books and neither has the director.

All of which is very odd, because other than Gambon the casting for the Potter films has been absolutely outstanding. All of the main and supporting roles are dead on ball accurate (it's an industry term) except for Gambon. How did they manage to get everything else so right and this crucial bit so terribly, terribly wrong? And why don't they fix it?

It is very disappointing to me that the people in charge of the Potter films have stuck with Gambon for the last three films in the series because he is really, really bad in that role. Which is a terrible sign for the next film-- and probably for the final one as well-- as Dumbledore plays a very large part in the 6th installment of the series.

Perhaps they will see their mistake and make a change before #6, but it seems pretty unlikely given that they've stuck with Gambon for three installments now.

One final quibble-- the treatment of the fight in the Department of Mysteries was disappointing. We only see two rooms-- the prophecy room and the arch room-- and the actual running (literally) dogfight between Dumbledore's Army and the Death Eaters suffers greatly because of this. I was so looking forward to the room with the fish tank full of brains, too.

Overall, I give HPatOotP an "Eh, not bad, see it if you are a fan, don't bother if you're not" rating.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Go Ron Go!

I am on board the Ron Paul express to the White House. The man is decent, honest, forthright, funny, charismatic and self-depreciating. He is the perfect antidote to the last sixteen years of Clinton and Bush-- none of Clinton's posturing and preening and careful parsing and slick double speak, none of Bush's idiocy, cronyism, contempt for the Constitution and complete disconnection from reality.

For the last several years I've looked for a non-politician candidate I could get behind because all of the politicians were turds of one sort or another. But the concept, while appealing, was completely impractical since a non-politician has no chance of winning, and even if they did they would be massively hamstringed in a political arena familiar to all the other players.

Then along comes Ron Paul, a little known congressman from Texas who is running as a Republican simply because he knows no one will pay attention to him as a libertarian. But he isn't a Christianist Republican, ala Romney, nor an autocratic disciplinarian, ala Giuliani. He is proponent of small government, individual freedom, fiscal prudence, and transparency in government. Above all else, he appears to still have principles. Read about him here, and then tell me he isn't an appealing option to all the other turds the Republicans and Democrats are trotting out.

He was on The Daily Show a week or two ago and he was so refreshingly honest and earnest I couldn't help but smile. He didn't get all of Jon Stewart's gibes, but he never got defensive or condescending. Above all else, I think this phrase from his website resonates with me deep down to my core:
Congressman Paul’s consistent voting record prompted one of his congressional colleagues to say, “Ron Paul personifies the Founding Fathers’ ideal of the citizen-statesman. He makes it clear that his principles will never be compromised, and they never are.”
A citizen-statesman in the mold of our Founding Fathers. Yeah, I can get behind that.

And the truly astonishing thing? He's not going away anytime soon-- he actually has a shot of winning the nomination (not much of a shot, but probably a better shot than McCain does these days). He's raising money far better than expected, and he has a terrific grass-roots support network.

For the first time in my life, I am going to donate to a presidential candidate and volunteer to help his campaign. America needs Ron Paul right now.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Summer is Here

It's July, it's hot and I have now visited both a small, church festival and Summerfest. All of which certifies that summer has arrived in Wisconsin. I actually prefer spring and fall-- not so blasted humid-- but summer is awfully nice, nonetheless. The days are long, and you can recapture a bit of the freedom of being a child by playing with your kids outside in the gloaming hours of a Midwestern twilight. Feel the sand in your toes, or the soft texture of the grass under your feet. Bask in the warm embrace of the sun and watch as your shadow stretches longer and longer.

The church festival was a small affair, by Wisconsin standards, held by the Xavarian Fathers on their missionary grounds in Oak Creek. Beautiful setting, gorgeous day, ice-cold beer. Hard to go wrong, though the fairly awful singers that were on the festival's only stage during the day were a small blemish. They were some sort of Von Trapp family singers-- an old dude on a guitar, his wife (who looked far too young for him), their five daughters ranging in age from about 17 to 9 and one poor, sad sack son, around 8. Truthfully, they weren't horrible, but I kept thinking-- when do these guys get any time to be away from each other? Anyway, the food was good, the kids enjoyed spending money on goofy carnival games and it was a terribly Wisconsin way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Summerfest was the anti-church festival. Huge, jam-packed with people, a multitude of stages, and everything non-Von Trappish all on one large festival ground. Great fun, though, in a very different way. Jenn and I were sans kids, so that allows more freedom and is a nice change of pace. We enjoyed Think Floyd-- who were musically dead-on balls accurate (it's an industry term) but vocally mediocre-- and bumped into some people from our bowling league there. They were wasted. What were the odds. Summerfest is over-priced (especially compared to the small church festival), but for a once or twice a summer visit it isn't that over-priced. Less than a Brewer game, for example. Happy beer buzzage ensued, and I think I got a pretty good contact high from all the wicked weed being smoked in my general vicinity.

Which brings me to the Roger Waters' concert. Manifique! He opened with a DOBA version of In The Flesh, which opens with the lines: So ya, thought ya, might like to... go to the show. Nice! The sound was fabulous, the band was fabulous, and Roger was in good form-- I was a little concerned that he might be a bit worn down since the Summerfest show was towards the end of the tour, but he seemed full of energy. Visually, the show was excellent-- the Marcus Amphitheater is a great venue, especially when packed to the gills with an appreciative audience-- and the acoustics were superb. The woman he had to do the wailing on the Dark Side of the Moon sequences was awesome, as was the sax player. They even played two tracks off of The Final Cut-- the title track and Fletcher Memorial Home. That album is underrated, imho. Quite a bit of The Wall, Pigs from Animals (complete with inflated pig, scrawled with anti-war, anti-Bush slogans, carried amongst the audience by production crew members) and, of course, all of Dark Side of the Moon.

Well worth the money. Most excellent show. I have to say, quite a bit better than the Gilmour headed Pink Floyd tour I saw back in the late 1980's. Of course, that was a stadium show and I was nowhere close to the stage, but still-- the guitar work of Dave Kilminster and Snowy White was better than Gilmour's rendition of his own riffs. Those guys were spot on. And the mix of songs Roger had the band doing was nearly flawless, right up to concluding with Comfortably Numb in the encore.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?