Monday, September 29, 2008

Keats and the Squirrel

My students, writing on “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” have all started with the withered sedge and the dearth of birds as symbols of desolation, which of course they are. But the landscape is not described entirely in terms of desolation. It’s desolate for the knight, but not for the squirrel. And someone is enjoying that harvest. It’s the opposite of “Grecian Urn,” where the townspeople are frozen in time on the pilgrimage to the sacrifice, and the little town is empty. Here the knight is frozen in place, forever unable to partake of the harvest.

This also suggests that the narrator is just passing through. He’s seen signs of the harvest before he gets to the barren place where the knight loiters. Real life and real nourishment aren’t that far away, but it doesn’t seem as though the knight is ever going to get to them…and it seems as though that’s his choice. He’s loitering. Did the word have the same connotations in Keats’ time? Apparently, yes. the OED quotes Sir Walter Scott in 1814: “Officers…loitered in the hall, as if waiting for orders.” The knight doesn’t seem to be waiting for orders; he’s already gotten them from the pale kings and princes. Don’t bother to try to go anywhere.

The knight is in thrall to his world between illusion and reality. The sedge is withered, not because he’s in a place of perpetual barrenness, but because the harvest is done and winter’s approaching. The traveler knows this. He is presumably going to keep going, on to a farmhouse where he can get some good bread or other fruits of the harvest. And he seems to know that there’s nothing much he can do for the knight.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who Has Websites?

The brilliant (and under recognized in this country) French filmmaker Pascal Aubier has his own website -- unfortunately for his American and British and Canadian and Australian fans whose French may not be up to snuff, it's only in French. This also means, I've discovered, that if you don't have your Google search engine set to "Search for pages written in any language" (under Preferences) his website won't be listed.

At least he has a website. Francois Truffaut, as near as I can make out, doesn't. Neither does Jean-Luc Godard, although he does appear to have a MySpace page. Nor Eric Rohmer. Nor Bernard Tavernier. Has the idea of individual websites not occurred to French filmmakers yet? Or anywhere in Europe? There's an Ingmar Bergman website, but it seems to exist only in English -- and I have reset my preferences to "Search in any language."

The Bergman site is a fan site.

Do filmmakers not have their own sites? Individual movies do -- you can see them included in all trailers these days. Martin Scorcese doesn't, though there are several Scorcese fan sites. The Coen brothers do. Neil LaBute doesn't. Jon Avnet doesn't. There are a bunch of Tarantino fan sites, but he doesn't have his own.

Why not?

So Aubier is in the vanguard. But not in English.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Battle of the Decades

The Beatles won the last BOTD convincingly, but hardly unanimously. Chuck Berry got strong support, and both Mariah Carey and Benny Goodman got well-deserved votes. Nothing for Barbra Streisand, though she was worthy too.

Well, they can't all be choices among songs and artists of this level, and I'm afraid this one is not. But here goes:

THE 40s
Margaret Whiting o/Paul Weston
It Might As Well Be Spring

THE 50s
Johnnie Ray with The Four Lads

THE 60s
Ray Charles Singers
Love Me With All Your Heart

THE 70s
Lee Michaels
Do You Know What I Mean

THE 80s
Madonna -- True Blue

THE 90s
Shiny Happy People

It could be worse. As I was copying and pasting this, some of the songs turned over, and we had Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), Disco Duck, and the Ames Brothers.

For you whippersnappers, the Ray Charles Singers are not Ray Charles, and in spite of the psychedelic video, they ain't psychedelic either.

And I can get rid of Lee Michaels almost as easily. He was the harbinger of the new spirit of FM radio, which was that it was starting to get a little boring. This isn't the worst song ever recorded, but who wouldn't change the station when it came on?

You might not turn off Johnny Ray quite so quickly (or you might turn him off more quickly). He was kind of horrible, kind of mesmerizing. He was sui generis, and also almost totally deaf, which may or may not explain his singing. Anyway, "Cry" was his ur-song, and it became famous for its naked display of emotion by a male singer -- was he unmanly? Was he the new man? This YouTube video also has his version of "Just Walking in the Rain," originally recorded by the Prisonaires, who were maybe the original gangstas, in that they were real prisoners, let out on a work-release program to record a handful of great songs at Sun studios. You can sample them here;

This brings us to the two whippersnapper numbers, probably destined to be the big vote-getters this time around. Did Madonna ever make a bad video? If she did, it wasn't this time around, especially the booty-shaking trio at the beginning. She didn't make many bad records, either. However, I think I'd give REM, and their strange take on the world -- David Byrne meets the Marshall Tucker Band -- the nod here.

But I have to go with my dear friend Margaret Whiting. No one sang a pop song like she did, found the meaning in the words the way she did. When the Kool Jazz festival replaced Newport, and moved to New York, they called Margaret and asked her to appear in an evening of Tribute to the American Song. "But I'm not a jazz singer," she told them. "I only sing the melody."

"Exactly," they replied. "And do you know how hard it is these days to find someone who can do that?"

Margaret never stopped being herself, never stopped being true to the great songs of her father and her mentor Johnny Mercer, and was never a fogey, either. Her championing of the First Amendment rights of the erotic film industry led to meeting the love of her life, gay porn star Jack Wrangler. They've been together since 1976, married since 1994, and he's successfully produced shows for her and others.

A memory: when I started working with Margaret, I took Jon and Claudia to an upper West Side cabaret where she was featured. Somehow, the cabaret had neglected to provide an MC, and Margaret was stuck in the wings, waiting for someone to introduce her. Jon took the bull by the horns and introduced her from his seat at a table. She gratefully came out, graciously thanked him, and gave one of her always-great shows.

Here's my bio of her from The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture:

The YouTube video pairs her with George Shearing; has just a clip of "It Might as Well Be Spring."

My vote, and my heart, to Margaret Whiting.

Concert cancelled

Sadly, the Dennis deYoung concert has had to be cancelled.