Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Film Review: It Might Get Loud

It Might Get LoudIt Might Get Loud directed by Davis Guggenheim (Thomas Tull productions and Sony Pictures Classics, NR, 98 minutes)

Starring Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White

Everyone loves electric guitar. Beyond its pleasant aesthetic and varying tonal qualities lies an iconic cultural status. From the metal-head who spends more time shredding in Guitar Center than in the classroom to the almost universal urge to play guitar in the air when a real guitar does not suffice, guitar wins. I am unaware of the competition guitar entered but it totally won.

It Might Get Loud caters to our dreams and desires. While our rock star fantasies died before inception through Junior High and High School bands or garage rock with friends, the movie documents the rise past these beginning stages by Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White. We visit early practices spaces with each guitarist. We get to hear the records that influenced these guitarists to continue their craft.

With gorgeous cinematography, each guitarist explains the methods by which he creates his music. We see Jimmy Page leaning on his overdrive, the Edge explaining his use of delay, and Jack White jamming with his son. The documentary is at its best when the guitarists reminisce on foundational stories of their careers. Jimmy Page discusses how Led Zeppelin recorded IV as he walks through Headley Grange  – the house where the band practiced and recorded many songs. The Edge describes the connection he found with a Gibson Explorer as he searched for his first guitar purchase. And Jack White vividly explains how being a musician alienated him from his peers in his Detroit neighborhood but also inspired him to continually play more music.

Despite the many beautiful portions of the movie, It Might Get Loud has many faults holding it down from being an excellent film. Like a loud and lazy guitar solo, the movie has little structure and no direction. Too often the guitarists wax poetically about what it means to play guitar without ever pulling their grand metaphors back to reality. When the three guitarists meet in a big warehouse to talk about guitar playing techniques and jam Led Zeppelin, U2, and White Stripes songs, the interactions seem awkward and forced.

Ultimately, I would liken It Might Be Loud to an intermediate guitarist playing guitar for an hour and a half. If that thought annoys you, this movie is not for you. Conversely, if you can handle such mindless compositions, you may walk away with an appreciation for these guitarists who have made a living doing the very thing about which most can only dream.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers: A NovelThe Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen (New York: Random House, 2010. 397 pp)

Born in Rhode Island, Thomas Mullen graduated from Oberlin College. His first novel, The Last Town on Earth, received  the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction, Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune best book of the year. Mullen currently resides in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.

“Large than life, she’d heard someone say. What can be larger than life? Death, or is that smaller? People do tend to become larger in death, their finer qualities extending outward like an endlessly serialized tale, their flaws and foibles forgotten, their stories continually retold. Larger than death. She thought about that and smiled, here, late at night, in a graveyard” (395).

Mullen’s pen – or for those who appreciate realism, his keyboard – speaks to a profound truth. Those people we remember fondly or infamously will inevitably become caricatures of who they really were. For me, Randy Johnson’s fastball gains speed and Ken Griffey, Jr. roams a larger territory in centerfield as the memory fades. Someday, the exploits of these players will become as legendary as the mythical feats of Babe Ruth himself. Similarly, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers points readers to the intersection between fact and fiction.

Placed in the murky depths of the Depression Era, the fictional account of Jason and Whit Fireson (known as the Firefly Brothers) fits neatly between the bloody shenanigans of Al Capone and John Dillinger. As reputations grew, the exploits of these mobsters became fabled. In the case of the Firefly Brothers, it seems that death holds no power over them. Fittingly, the book starts with Mullen writing:

“It all began when they died” (p. xiii).

Whether they are running from death or running to death depending on your interpretation, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers reads as a mystery novel because, the brothers’ actions in the book are shrouded in the mystery of life and death.

Despite the supernatural elements of multiple resurrections, the perspective in the book is down-to-earth. Upholding the tension between fiction and fact, the historical reality of the relationship between the poor masses and the banking elite frame our protagonists as either victims of trying times who rob banks to make ends meet, or as social heroes rebelling against institutional evils.

On a personal level, the Depression left the family of the Firefly Brothers fatherless and in a complete mess. The government indicted their father – having lost his business to his creditors – on charges of murder. While the novel carries its fair share of Tommy Guns and speakeasies, the weight of broken relationships and a struggling family generates the backbone of this book.

Ultimately, Mullen fashions a page-turner out of Depression Era mobsters. Whether the narrative is intended to be fact, fiction, or something in between, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers depicts a broken family trying their best with the circumstances provided to them. This book is a nominee for my book of the year and I recommend it to everyone.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: The History of the Siege of Lisbon

The History of the Siege of LisbonThe History of the Siege of Lisbon: A Novel by José Saramago (San Diego: Harcourt & Brace, 1998. 314 pp)

José Saramago was a Nobel Prize winning author from Portugal. He passed away at the age of 87 on June 18, 2010. Although Saramago did not receive widespread recognition until he was 60 years old, he has been highly prolific in the years since. Blindness, one of Saramago's most highly regarded books was made into a major motion picture in 2008. He is survived by his wife Pilar Del Rio and a daughter from a previous marriage.

Before we begin, I must confess that José Saramago is one of my favorite authors. His creativity, social critiques, and pseudo-realism in works like Blindness, The Stone Raft, and All the Names leave spellbinding memories etched in my brain.  With Saramago’s recent passing, I felt it necessary to finally read his Nobel Prize winning book, The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

Characteristic of Saramago’s work, The History of the Siege of Lisbon contains long flowing sentences with little punctuation. Where a period would usually suffice, Saramago inserts a comma; where quotation marks typically reside, he deletes them. With these characteristics in mind, the book requires a close reading.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon follows a lonely proof-reader named Raimundo Silva through his secluded lifestyle within the remarkable metropolis of Lisbon. Raimundo’s only friends seem to be reference books on grammar and his only hobby is to correct the thoughts of others. One day while Raimundo edits a book detailing the history of the siege of Lisbon, he decides to create instead of edit. Where the book once reminded us that the crusaders came to the aid of the Portuguese in the war against the Moors, Raimundo’s newly revised edition  concludes that the crusaders most certainly did not heed the call to help their Portuguese brethren. A simple “no” not only alters the course of history, it also modifies his relationship with his publishing house. Ultimately, Raimundo’s talent is the only thing that keeps him from unemployment.

The turmoil generated by a proofreader’s decision to create instead of edit brings Raimundo some unlikely benefit: the publishing house hires a lovely woman named Maria Sara to proofread the proofreaders. As the narrative expands, Raimundo and Maria’s relationship slowly turns from professional to something slightly more romantic. Raimundo’s brazen attempt to alter a historical fact intrigues Maria and one day she encourages him to finish the history of the siege of Lisbon with the changed premise regarding the crusaders. What follows is a masterfully blended tale of both Raimundo and Maria’s relationship and the relationship of characters developed in the revised history book Raimundo writes at the request of Maria Sara.

“The two roses in the vase are standing in water from which they draw nourishment, it is true that they do not last long, but relatively speaking, neither do we” (285).  

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is ultimately a book about life, death, and the relationships that keep us going. Years pass on a clock and years pass on a face, but the more important part of life is the relationship you have with the people around you, the joy of having a second rose in the vase.

As mentioned before, The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a challenging read. José Saramago’s unique style coupled with a story told in two dimensions requires an astute eye. However, persistence pays off with this book as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is willing to work through the challenging syntax in order to see the narrative as a whole. However, if you are new to José Saramago, I urge you to start with a more popular work such as Blindness.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Film Review: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock HolmesSherlock Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie; Warner Home Video, 128 minutes.

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachael McAdams, and Mark Strong.

The mystery genre has always been slightly problematic for me because it seems easy to connect events through tenuous circumstances and odd observations. Suppose the killer has dirty hands: the mystery writer makes the detective deduce that the killer works in the coal mine in the neighboring county. However, dirty hands do not guarantee the occupation of this individual. The killer perhaps recently landscaped his or her backyard. The foundational reasoning in Sherlock Holmes carries these same inferences.

Logic aside, Sherlock Holmes mixes both good and bad in a strikingly mediocre movie. Concerning what is good; Robert Downey, Jr. hoists the movie on his back bringing eccentricity to the Sherlock Holmes character. In mannerism and speech, Downey creates a magnetic character capable of keeping the audience entertained long after the rest of the movie sputters out.

On the bad side, Sherlock Holmes flows poorly. The storyline is hard to follow as Holmes and Watson wreak havoc on Nineteenth Century London. The writing does little to direct the viewer as clarity is sacrificed for a psuedo-intellectualism. I often did not know what Shrelock Holmes was saying but he certainly sounded knowledgeable! Additionally, big visuals and action scenes overshadow the intrigue of this would-be-mystery thriller.

Despite its many flaws, Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining movie. Robert Downey, Jr's performance redeems the movie in my mind and makes it watchable. I recommend Sherlock Holmes as a Saturday-afternoon rental.