The “I Can’t Sleep Playlist”

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My computer is sucky, so I can’t youtube without my computer esploding. I’ll see about maybe trying my hand at “borrowing” the other computer and adding them. The list has no real theme, just on this particular morning they kept me feeling okay when I couldn’t sleep. Clearly I don’t have the most diverse musical taste, relying on old favourites… though at this moment it’s largely an issue of comfort.

Sinnerman, Nina Simone
Sisters of Mercy, Leonard Cohen
Sit Down Young Stranger, Gordon Lightfoot
So Long, Marianne, Leonard Cohen
Such a Scream, Tom Waits
(here I realised my player was on normal, not shuffle… I was thinking how amazing it was that all my entries so far were s. Not the coincidence I thought!)
Combat Baby, Metric
Everybody Knows, Leonard Cohen
All the World is Green, Tom Waits
Ecstasy, Lou Reed
It Don’t Worry Me, Barbara Harris
Jackaroe, Joan Baez
Magician, Lou Reed
The Long Goodbye, Jack Sheldon
The Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson
Barcelona, Giulia y Los Tellarini
Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Bob Dylan
Season of the Witch, Donovan
Cemetary Polka, Tom Waits
Heroin, the Velvet Underground
Chelsea Hotel #2, Leonard Cohen.

There is a Cohen special on TV tomorrow on CBC. I will watch it (I’m afraid I’ll forget ūüė¶ ) Hopefully, I’ll have a few thoughts on it for you guys. I think it’s from the Montreal Festival earlier this year.¬†

Bye Bye Birdie (George Sidney, 1963)

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Not without it’s charm, Bye Bye Birdie comes across as the worst kind of glorification of small time values. It runs on the fear of sexuality, especially that of women, and champions committed abstinence in the most naive, cringe worthy context. A film about sex, and how sex is evil. The villain of the film is Birdie himself, a weak parody of Elvis who causes women to faint with a single thrust of his spandex covered pelvis. Not an all together ridiculous parody, it has some grain of truth, but it goes so far as to demonize and trivialize sexual desire. The greater irony is, there are few stars who ever embodied sex quite like Ann-Margret. She doesn’t have to do much of anything to set the loins of a million men into heat. It’s not enough to overcome the ridiculous virginazation of the adults, notably the equally sensuous Janet Leigh who is a self-proclaimed “good girl”, despite 6 years of engagement to the sexless Dick Van Dyck (not that he isn’t charming, but he has zero sex appeal. It’s perfect for light weight entertainment, but further goes to damper my opinion of this film).

I’m usually very lenient with moralizing and supposed conservative values in film, my love for classic Hollywood cinema should be a tribute to that… but this film rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps it’s simply because the film itself is not strong enough to hold my full interest, I was left to nit-pick at the elements that stood out for me. What I think bothered me most was, considering the film works so hard to praise and hold up chaste, monogamous relationships, they never supply one worth aspiring to. The only married couple featured predominantly in the film is Kim’s parents. Though they don’t seem to hate each other, they don’t seem to be in “love”. The father making tired jokes about the unhappiness and repression of marriage, but they also take an extra point to STRESS that they waited to have sex before marriage. He waited five years in fact. There is no reason why women (and men, though the sexual vulnerability of women is especially highlighted) should be virginal, except that is “what good girl’s do”. It’s entirely aggravating, and one of the very worst examples Hollywood has to offer. It further becomes an icon of traditional, and out-moded values in it’s undying support for war, and it’s senseless dismissal of foreign culture (in this case, the enemy du jour, the Russians).

Despite all my qualms, the film is not entirely worthless. The afore-mentioned Ann-Margret is a revelation. She oozes sex, and the director certainly agreed, forfeiting $60,000 of his own dollars to film book-ends featuring the sexy star that are probably the highlight of the picture. The father, played by Paul Lynde is wonderfully comic, selling many lines that should not have worked. THe rest of the cast is fairly adequate, at the very least watcheable. The music is hit or miss, but the choreography is excellent… unfortunately though, it fails at the hands of bad directing in a few cases. It’s also an adequate parody of celebrity culture, but easily the lesser of many that came out in the 1960s.

Lou Reed’s Berlin (Schnabel, 2008)

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Not a success during it’s first release in 1973, Lou Reed rarely performed any songs from the album during his live shows. In 2006 however, accompanied by a 30 piece band and 12 choristers, he did a touring his tragic rock opera across the United States. Julian Schnabel, best known for his plate art and the wonderful, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly took the opportunity to film the event during a five night stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn. He further incorporated some found and created footage by himself and his daughter, notably using Emmanuelle Seigner in various vignettes as the ill-fated Caroline. It’s an interesting touch that enriches the performances, and is especially effective because of it’s scarcity.

I haven’t seen many concert films in my life, it’s difficult for me to judge this against others of it’s type. It has the advantage that I like Lou Reed a hellavalot, and even though Berlin has never been one of my favourite albums it certainly benefits from the live show… and I don’t think I’ve yet to listen to a Reed album I don’t enjoy on some level. The band is very strong and it’s impossible for me to choose a standout. Every last person contributes at some point or another, and is given the opportunity to shine just a little brighter. It’s clear how much work and team effort went into putting together this performance and the end results are quite spectacular. Reed himself is a rather restrained performer, and some have criticized him for not showing the same passion as some of his contemporaries. I have to agree outright, because while Reed doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic or a very theatrical presence, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him. His focus and passion seem to channel right through to the chords of the guitar rather through the movement of his body, but even then, there are lapses like the very emotional Caroline Says II and The Kids. While I appreciate a sort of exuberance from musicians, I also like Reed’s restraint, and they really do service these two songs in particular. One almost feels as if Caroline herself is being held back, trying to hold back the tears, trying not to cry. It’s truly heartbreaking.

An interesting concert film, though, I can’t imagine it having much to offer for someone who isn’t fond of Reed’s music. Though it tries something new, it never falls for the gimmick, allowing the artistry of the words and music take full force. Berlin is an extremely heart wrenching opera of sex, drugs, abuse and family and how it all comes together to tear at the character’s lives. I might have to revisit the album detached from the film, because I truly think I underestimated it the first time I listened to it.

State Fair (Walter Lang, 1945)

I’m so easily manipulated, I’ve been told by many I’m the perfect audience. Quiet, attentive and responsive. I should be paid for my services by a comedian, because if someone tells a joke, I will laugh. Perhaps that’s why I have such an attachment and aptitude for classic Hollywood cinema, I accept the romance, the comedy and the horror that it presents, not necessarily as factual truths, but emotional ones. State Fair (1945) is not one of the all time great musicals, but it’s one of the tender, sweet ones that Minnelli had pioneered just a year before. It’s not about spectacle, riches or stage, it’s about family and the lives of every day people. The magic and tribulations of every day life. Not much happens in the film, at least not in terms of action, emotionally we run through what feels like a lifetime of emotions and every one of them is as sweet and sincere as the last.

Though these types of films are a kind of wish fulfillment, the idea that out there someone is perfect for you, and happiness is possible. It has that same longing for a new life and new love that everyone has no doubt felt at one time or another. The spectacle of the fair allows it to happen, a meeting place of different people and places, a celebration of life at it’s fullest. I was most sympathetic to young Margy’s character transition, as I think I’m near the same time in my life as she is. Actually, watching the film, I wonder how I’ll feel about these films ten or twenty years down the line as so many of my favourites or films that attract or “speak” to me include characters just a few years away from my own. I’m at a point in my life where I’m the “ideal” female target age of popular classic Hollywood cinema, and just a few years off the early 20s woman popular in the new Hollywood vehicle. Will I still feel the same affection? The same kinship? It’s all worth wondering as huge what-ifs, looking down the road at the person I may be, not the person I am. Margy is one of those girls who just feels as lost as I am, her make-up and hair may be done up with a lot more elaborately than my own, but her crisis feels just as real.

Writing this out, I feel so unlike myself as I say I yearn for the simple things in life. I do, and I don’t. I don’t know how to define simplicity, it’s not some conservative ideal of the perfect home, perfect husband and perfect job, but rather the idea that a person can be happy. This film touches for that because that’s what Margy years for, she doesn’t necessarily want a new world, she doesn’t want the old one either… she wants her own. The film is never condescending to the country life, and similarly does not demonize or caricature the city either. The fundamental equation is that people can feel, and we are also capable of change… it’s even necessary. We have to work for what we want, and looking on the bright side of life might just win you a few extra dollars. Even though on those cold and unhappy days where you feel as if the world is a rotten place, I think it never hurts to try and see a little good in it, and the people around you. That at any opportunity something can jump up and surprise you for the better, and it can happen anytime and anywhere.

As I said, I’m a total sap for these kind of films. The songs and the romance always sways me, and leaves my stomach fluttering with butterflies. I’m happy I’m a push-over though, films like this, however momentarily seem to infuse me with an energy to be happy and to be the best person I can be, and I don’t see any harm in that.

November: The Month of the Musical

As I said I would, I ignored the poll and decided to focus my ¬†viewing attentions ¬†for November on the musical. Once the month starts I’ll have a little more to say about the genre itself, but for now I’m just allerting you what to expect and asking for some recommendations. Obviously, I won’t be able to get to all of them, but it would be nice if someone pointed me in a direction I wasn’t aware of before. Here is a short list of ¬†films I will most likely be seeing:

The Merry Widow (1934)
Strike up the Band (1940)
State Fair (1945)
Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
The Pirate (1948)
Carmen Jones (1954)
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
The Pajama Game (1957)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007)

As you can see, I’m interpreting musical ¬†very loosely to allow concert films, and even documentaries on musicians and music. So be open with your suggestions

Album of the Week: New Skin for Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen

I’ve always liked Leonard Cohen. Being a fellow Montrealer, for a long time I liked him just “because”. Then when I started expanding my music taste in my teens, I’d be listening to Jeff Buckley and notice that the song had been written by none other than Mr. Cohen. Then in my last year of high school, I remember a teacher asking us to write a short essay on the following question: “Is Margaret Atwood Canada’s greatest writer”. No offence to Atwood, but I’ve never liked her prose, especially not in poetry (though I do enjoy Alias Grace)… so I argued that she wasn’t, even though I personally had a difficult time finding an alternative. I suggested both Roch Carrier and Mordecai Richler, because I felt that their work represented a far more vast representation of the “Canadian experience”. Looking back, I think selfishly, I clung to them as compatriots who shared my experience. Though Carrier was not born in Montreal, his writing on the lives of the Quebecois always felt more at home than anything that Atwood had written. There was also a sort of sentimental attachment to his children’s story, The Hockey Sweater, that was a staple for most Canadian childhoods, mine included. I’m also sure, Richler’s own children’s books played a big part in my appreciation for his work. I never suggested Cohen, though, I think if I were to go back, he would be my choice, no questions asked.

Earlier this year, I started listening to his music. I got my hands on his entire discography, and almost listened to it album cover to album cover. I was simply blown away, beyond a simple reflection of the so-called “Canadian experience”, which is still elusive as Canadians don’t seem to agree on who they are, it was a profound exploration of human relationships. With his songs he transcends any kind of nationalistic pride, or attainability. They simply exist, an often mournful cry for companionship and understanding, with brief, but full portraits of happiness and love. Though there are a few songs I’m not particularly fond of, every single album has at least a handful of songs that are able to touch or excite me in some way.

Though, it changes on almost a day to day basis, today I’ve settled upon “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, as my favourite of his albums. There are personal reasons involved, as several of these songs remind me of people I care about, but also have served as inspiration for some of my recent work that I’m proud of (a rare feat indeed). Two songs in particular that never fail to move me are “Take this Longing” and “I Tried to Leave You“. Both are bittersweet, the first about an encounter between two lovers, possibly for the last time. While the other, about someone who can’t seem to leave, the reasoning is almost painfully obvious, but I don’t think love is ever obvious, which makes it so tragic. His songs all seem to have a natural appreciation and I’d even say, understanding, of women. Though most of his work seems to be about the struggle of human interaction, he has a unique sense of the individual. Even when a character or person seems elusive, there is always a marvel or magic to them, that reminds me of life in a wonderful way. I know my mother doesn’t really like Cohen because she finds his work depressing and, she is even known to say “Listening to him is enough to drive anyone to suicide”. Though I can’t deny the aching heartbreak and confusion that seems to pervade his work, something about it is calming and hopeful. I think in a lot of his work, even what we understand as “simple” emotions like happiness or sadness is complicated by unease and insecurity, and I relate to that in a way that makes me feel a lot better about the world around me.

This entry, more than anything else, was spurred by my reading of his novel “Beautiful Losers”. I’m almost finished, and it’s been a very long time, if not a lifetime since I’ve been so excited and moved by a novel. Experimental and raw, it is still very reflective and calculated. For a moment it reminds me of the work of the beat poets, especially Kerouac’s On the Road, but subdued and more introspective. It’s an exploration of relationships and interaction, history and the self. It typifies Canadian literature, without being obvious or clear. It’s a search for identity, and warmth. The protagonist working to survive each day, his best friend F living a life too big for any man is crushed by his own spirit and the unnamed narrator’s wife, who is doomed from the onset, unable to connect with a world that has already cut her short. Wildly explorative, sensual and experimental, the book is one of those rare pieces of art that seems to hit a stride of consciousness that replicates the logic of thoughts and dreams. It’s just free. Assuming I like it as much once I finish it (just a few more pages to go!), it might very well be my favourite novel.

That’s all I have to say about Leonard Cohen for now, I also just want to mention another Canadian song writing great I’ve been listening to a lot lately, Gordon Lightfoot. Take a listen.