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Friday, September 28, 2007

The F-Stop: Steve Forbert and Radney Foster in Robbie's Secret Country

This is long overdue, but I've been busy and there was the painful munching of the 3:10 to Yuma entry, which meant I had to re-obsess on Christian Bale from the start. I think motivation to write it up has also been low for the melancholy reason that Robbie confirmed the series is ending for good with the tribute to the Carter family in December. I'm bummed. It's been a productive little sandwalk for us, and we've discovered a lot of great new music and folks through it. I'll miss it. But I suppose now we can turn our attention back to the Lord on His day.

I've no idea how related the two really are, but in this Onion interview, Robbie reveals that the Secret Country shows were his Donna's (his wife) idea. She wanted him home more and touring less. I note that now the series is winding down, he'll be in Philadelphia and New York in late October. He's a ton of fun to see, so if any of my peeps out there have the means, I highly recommend it. I end with the September fashion report on our host: Entirely seersucker free and mostly normal, save for very funky stripe-y socks.

We were uncharacteristically social before the show. We were seated next to a couple from Saginaw who'd driven up for the show because they (or at least the guy) were big fans of both Radney and Steve. They'd never been to the OTSFM before and didn't know much about it. Well, gentle readers, could they possibly have been sat next to someone more ideal than moi? Almost certainly. But they did get an earful about the fundamental grooviness of the Old Town School, and as the guy was certainly a bigger and more serious music nerd than either of us (he casually mentioned that he'd gone to a song-writing camp taught by Darrell Scott [whose website seems to be undead, but we'll link it anyway in case the zombie apocalypse comes], and there may have been frenzied, jealous squeeing), I don't think he was an unwilling audience. In fact, he passed the major nerd test and squeed about the school's WPA murals. Anyway, nice folks.

I'm sad to say that much of the content of the interview with Steve and Radney is lost to distance decay. I do know that the Eagles did not come up even once. Radney talked frankly and without acrimony about life before and after Foster & Lloyd. In answer to Robbie's question regarding why they had only done a couple of records together, Radney said that they were simply riding off into different sunsets and that he'd felt this was obvious in their last record together.

There was also some general chatting about Radney's more recent career, which has been successful adjacent to, if not actually in, the dangerous waters of contemporary corporate country. Folks like Mr. Nicole Kidman and the former Mr. Renee Zellweger have recorded songs that he's written. (During his performance, he made oblique reference to Keith Urban, not naming him specifically, before doing "Raining on Sunday," and immediately afterward someone in the audience said "Hey, didn't Keith Urban do that song?" to which he replied, "Yes, baby, the skinny Australian kid who marries actresses." Hi. Larious.)

[This entry has been picked up by a few sites discussing Keith Urban. Hello, Lady! In at least one of those, my quoting Radney out of context was taken as Radney making a dig at Herr Kidman. I'd certainly never want to to misrepresent anyone else's opinion, so I'll say for the record that Radney did not seem to evince any ill will toward Keith Urban. His initial reference to him as "some skinny Australian kid who marries actresses" was said in a self-deprecating way (something along the lines of "You all probably don't know this, but some skinny Australian kid who marries actresses recorded this song."), and the repeat of the line was a gentle razzing of the audience member who obviously didn't get the indirect reference. Anyway, just wanted to clear that up. Come for the scuttlebutt, stay for the pie, friends. MZQ.]

Robbie had opened the interview by revealing to his guests (in a way that suggested that a stylish black bag over the head and a number of superfluous turns might have been integral parts of their journeys to the show) that the series is called Secret Country and asking if they qualified. Steve Forbert seemed to surprise himself by saying that he'd always classified himself as folk rock and gosh darn it, he was sticking to it! He also brought to the audience a message of hope: Everyone in folk music gets one big hit. We know not the hour when it will come, but verily, one hit per customer.

Robbie asked if Steve's "one hit" coming pretty early in his career was something of a curse—if he felt doomed to an eternity of audiences filled with shirt-dancing Homers shouting, "Romeo's tune! Now! No new crap!" Both Steve and Radney concurred, though, that it doesn't suck to know there's something that you'll just have to play because the audience is wild for it.

Steve performed first. There really is no better way to describe him and his style than "folk rock." In a very good way, it's as if his set put us all in a time machine that took us back to the 60s for a good old coffee house show, replete with beatnik-y goodness. He played guitar (amplified only through a mic placed at its level, no pick up) and strangely effortless harmonica. Perhaps I've just been watching too much Joe Filisko (unpossible!), but I've gotten used to thinking of harmonica playing as a contact sport, but Steve's folk zen is strong and I kept doing a double take to make sure that the harmonica was actually coming from the stage. They'd also placed a wooden plank on the stage for him, which acted as a kind of folky, White guy tarima , enabling him to provide his own percussion as well.

Steve's music, true to his folk rock creed, is strongly lyric/story/poetry driven. It's smart and full of word play that evokes pre-self-parodying Dylan, but it's sweeter and more earnest than that, too. (And if it didn't sound condescending as hell, I'd say that Forbert himself is sweeter and more earnest than even early Dylan was. Oops, I guess I just did say that.) It makes his songs a little strange and difficult to write about. For example, I really liked "The Baghdad Dream," but in talking about it, the thing that comes to mind immediately is the fact that it calls for the singer to make bomb noises. Sounds goofy, but it works, at least live. On the flip side of the sweet/earnest-bleeding-into-goofy, songs like "Simply Spalding Grey" lean hard enough to the "smart" end of the spectrum that they have a sizable proportion of the audience asking, "Who is Spalding Grey?" (To which I simply answer, "Not the star of our podunk production of Pinter's Old Times, thanks ever so.) And then there are plenty of songs that are plain old lovely and highly listenable, like "Romeo's Tune" and "Seaside Brown-Eyed Girl."

If Steve Forbert took us back in time, Radney Foster took us where we normally fear to tread—to the world of mainstream country. His songs are good: High energy, tuneful, and hummable with hooks 10 miles wide. And despite what one might deduce from my affection for 20th-century opera, I do like hooks and hummability. But in modern, shrink-wrapped country, songs are so often so injected with both that all the smart, heart, and soul oozes out, and no one even makes pan gravy with them. Ok, I just grossed myself out.

Listening to and watching Radney perform songs like "Drunk on Love" and "Half of My Mistakes," and "Just Call Me Lonesome" (which he marked as his gratis "one hit") I was not only pulled into his performance of them, but I could see someone like Webb Wilder doing them. But I can also see them, through little fault of their own, being sanitized and synthesized and soul sucked enough to wind up on US99. (Does US99 even exist anymore, I wonder?)

And some of them lend themselves to that more than others. At least I think they do. In fairness, it's not like I can ever hear "Raining on Sunday" without knowing first that Keith Urban covered it. And it's not a bad song, it's just a little slicker, a little more full of something substance-esque. Lord knows I'm glad that writing songs that'll be snapped up by mainstream country keeps him and his family (which figured prominently in both his interview and his in-set patter) well-fed and edumacated enough that he can then write truly weird, shockingly beautiful songs like "Kindness of Strangers" and actually record "Godspeed," a lullaby he wrote for his son that is so beautiful, I've mentally filed it with the night of the weeping mess.

Who knows, maybe he'll end up transforming the biz from the inside. Ba'al knows it needs it.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Newton's Cradle: 3:10 to Yuma, Reviewed

Hell and damnation, I lost the start I'd made on this. I think I opened by making a vow to find a movie in current release that passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, but Friday was not that day. In its defense, though 3:10 to Yuma fails it more passively, whereas Shoot 'Em Up is clearly #2, so it tries harder. In short, only ONE of the two women in 3:10 is a prostitute!

I haven't seen the original 3:10 to Yuma with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, something I'd like to remedy in the near future. In the meantime, however, this version provides plenty of grist for my always verbose mill. I'll start with the fact that for something that is so reflexively classed as a Western, it's an odd one. Oh, certainly it's all about the frontier, the Other, the marginalized, and the boundaries of the social contract, which often seem to be back thataway a piece. But the stakes are small and the hats defiantly neither Black nor White. (Well, of course, there is literally a Black hat, and a fine, fine hat it is, even if it does remind me of a completely different hat.

Christian Bale, of course, is all about the layers and excels in subtle. In the case of 3:10 to Yuma, he has considerable assistance from the script. Dan Evans is inarguably a failure. He cannot feed his family, and he will not [finish his sentences, apparently. I think I meant t o say that he will not push back violently or strut about, making manly demands.—Ed.]. Practically his first line of dialogue is "Please don't do this," as thugs sent by his banker burn his barn to the ground for nonpayment. He limps through his life literally, thanks to a "friendly fire" injury when his state militia unit was conscripted to defend D.C., and metaphorically under the weight of his wife's disappointment, his older son's contempt, and the world's soul-crushingly thorough scorn.

Another actor would have trod the Jason McCord/Tommy Yellow path—wallowing, glowering, cowering, and chewing the scenery—but not Bale. His smile is rueful but genuinely pleased as his younger son brags of his role in the war. The unexpected chuckle he gives as he tells his wife, "No one could think less of me," lends depth to his subsequent line, "I've been waiting for 3 and a half years for God to do me a favor." And his unapologetic declaration that Zipacna (yes, it does always come back to Stargate SG-1, unless of course it comes back to Jean Webster) "was an asshole" just after Zippy becomes the first and most ignominiously murdered of their posse is a welcome surprise in lieu of the dour, self-righteous monologue I half expected.

Like Hank Hill, Dan Evans is complicated and bears close watching. Rather than being positive that he is the story's rock-solid man of decency, Bale lets us see just how much life—and not just life on the frontier—has eroded not just his tolerance for superficial niceties, but every internalized check on behavior. The result is something almost unheard of in Westerns: A character—a lead character, a would-be White Hat—whose behavior is almost completely unpredictable.

Certainly this injects a kind of tension into the story that is also not common in Westerns. This is born of the fact that Dan (curious that it feels "righter" to call him Dan, as Wade does), being acultural, is not just unknown but unknowable. (Which is especially fascinating with an actor like Bale, who tells you who the character is in every line, every move, every expression.) In pleasantly nerve-wracking character limbo, the audience is left to accept the interpretations of other characters, however false they ring in our ears. (Yes, we're talking about things ringing false in our ears.)

Dan's being culturally unmoored has especially interesting implications for his relationship with his sons. With his identity as a human being in question, Dan is something of a chaos player of a father. His rage against the bank's thugs, his idolization of Wade, his contempt for his father's weakness all go unanswered. But where the audience might wait for Dan's character to uncover itself, William is the voice of every doubt, every criticism, every gob-smacked moment.

When Dan rolls over for Wade to save his own life and the life of his sons, we want to think better of him. We want to assure William that his father is braver and wiser than he can know, even as we wonder why Dan should be pointlessly brave, reflexively antagonistic to the Black Hat. After all, it's really the money at stake. The only life remaining to be saved is that of a Pinkerton, and we know how Al feels about them.

A better example still leads up to Wade's arrest. Dan (who has saved that Pinkerton after all) alone holds his ground in the saloon as what passes for law in the town cowers outside. Wade is still upstairs, unable to resist a bid for more permanent female affection. Other than knowing that it's less than 30 minutes into the movie and no one's yet mentioned the titular conveyance, making it unlikely that we'll lose either of our leads so soon, the audience has very little idea how this will play out.

Wade's actions are at least familiar: He's the sensitive, artistic thug who sees himself as Robin Hood. Where possible, he'd just as soon not shoot a landsman in the head. He attempts to buy Dan's noninterference. And Dan decides to play. And the audience, still inclined to see Dan through the eyes of his elder son, squirms as he names his price. And we writhe as Dan wheedles another dollar and another.

Of course, it's possible—likely to the point of being inevitable—that Dan is stalling to secure Wade's capture. So why writhe? Why writhe even if he isn't? Why shouldn't he get the money that will save the ranch and feed the family? And why is it that his decision, moments later, to take the railroad man's money—to join the posse, to undertake something monumentally stupid and dangerous to achieve exactly the same goal—a relief?

It seems I must amend my earlier statement: If it doesn't all come back to Stargate or Jean Webster, it will definitely come back to Diana Wynne Jones:
"A gentlemen never works magic against a woman, particularly his own mama."
Gentlemen, it seemed to Christopher made things unreasonably difficult for themselves in that case.

The movie isn't at all simplistic in its departure from Western conventions. It's not that Dan is a worse man than we'd expect, and Wade is a better one. As Wade himself tells William Evans, he is all bad, as no one with his history and experience could be otherwise. And as the shallow civility and the superficial trappings of principle fall away from the rest of the posse, Dan is left to be the hero of his own story and that of his sons.

And as much as this is a story about the binary opposition of Wade and Dan, there's an appealing undercurrent in which all men are one and all stories are the same. One character's rage, betrayal, amorality, whatever, may find its dead end (because they really kick you out of the Western club if there aren't casualties), but his momentum is carried over into a newly introduced character, situation, or scene. (My personal favorite is when the gang literally comes out the other side of a tunnel to find Wade captive to and being tortured by a low life whose even-lower-life brother Wade may or may not have killed.)

The story is by no means perfect in keeping up with its own level of complexity: Dan resorts to mumbling "decent" a few to many times; the doc's assertion that torturing anyone, even Wade, is morally wrong, falls curiously flat; and Wade's face turn at the end is surprising more because the motivation behind it remains obscure than because the audience's faith in humanity is believably renewed by it.

In general, Wade's characterization isn't given the attention it deserves and needs to balance the care lavished developing Dan. Not being much impressed with Mr. Crowe's acting chops, my instinct would be to lay the blame at his feet, but I can't do that in good conscience. I'm afraid there are simply too many shortcuts taken with Wade. For example, when some of the gang ponder applying Wade's own rules to the situation and abandoning their pursuit, Charlie Prince (Wade's lieutenant, played expertly and thoroughly ookily by Ben Foster) savagely reminds them what Wade has done for them and what they owe him. This (and, no doubt, not wanting to die at the inventive hands inspired by insanity) is enough for the gang, but not really for the audience. What has Wade done that would inspire loyalty and the willingness to risk life and limb for him? It's an interesting question never explored.

But Crowe is good. He's unnerving and vaguely repellant, but in a charismatic way. It is my theory that this is not acting. However, my theory is undermined by some work that is inarguably acting—and acting very nearly up to the level of Bale's at that—near the end when the canvas has been all but pared down to Wade and Dan, with their respective "sons" still very much at issue in how the story plays out.

Most everyone is good. Logan Lerman deserves special mention for not being simply the teenage voice of rock-bottom parental approval ratings. He does not let William's anger and frustration with his father become either a simple reflection of what the audience is feeling or, worse, a performance that is directive to the audience.

Ben Foster, as I mentioned earlier, is great as Charlie Prince. His attachment to Wade, as unexplored as the script leaves it, is a snippet come to life from the dime novels we glimpse on William's bedside table. As such, he provides a grim prophecy of the boy's future in the absence of an alternative role model to such outlaws. He plays just enough of the little-boy-lost that there's an involuntary, but genuine, pang in how he meets his end.

Both M and I were sure that we'd seen Dallas Roberts (the dandiefied train representative) in something before. He was Sam Phillips in Walk the Line, but that didn't seem to be it. Certainly the sense of familiarity with him is in part due to the necessity of having this character, regardless of how many other conventions of the genre one is flouting. Still, he too delivers good that he can truly call his own.

I'd best skip over the subject of Alan Tudyk, but rest assured a certain creator of a certain series about a certain Vampire Slayer is not fooling me and he's on my list.