Film

A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.

How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.

In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.

In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.

After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.

Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.

16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator

"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.

15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions

The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide

The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.

14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum

Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart

"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).

13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman

Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:

I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.

12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen

I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:

All aboard! Ship of fools ...

It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.

11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith

I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:

We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea

10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.

Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...

We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?

9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure

"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:

Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?


8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors

The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:

Evil walks on the moon ...

Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.

7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up

Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:

The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools

6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf

I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:

See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow

The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".

5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead

"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:

Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.

I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.

4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant

Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.

I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.

This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.

3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale

"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.

Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.

2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party

"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:

Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves

Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.

1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger

After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.

Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:

I alone ... survived the sinking.

This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)

Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:

Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?

But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.

Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.

Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.

Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.

Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.

5

The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...

view /FoolSongs
Sunday, March 29, 2015 09:09 am
A playlist of 16 different songs titled "Ship of Fools"
Story
Levi Asher

I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".

But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.

Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?

I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato's Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.

They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.

Plato's analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase "ship of fools") resembles the same philosopher's famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato's ship.

Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We've mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.

The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.

Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The "fools", who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.

Like Erasmus's similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant's book gave Gutenberg's newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book's popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.

A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn't help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant's book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:

We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.

Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant's Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.

This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship's passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he's never found.

Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing "Ship of Fools", basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.

Like Brant's book of verses, this movie doesn't appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.

The use of "locos" in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that's only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.

In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.

However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.

These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer's "Ship of Fools" woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.

As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called "Ship of Fools". It turned out there were several more to find.

I still hadn't discovered even half of the artists who'd created distinct songs titled "Ship of Fools" -- Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.

Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called "Ship of Fools", listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.

3

From Plato's Republic to Sebastian Brant medieval satire to Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel, the idea that we are sailing on a ship of fools has intrigued many minds.

view /ShipOfFools
Monday, March 23, 2015 09:59 pm
boat full of dumb crazy people, by Heironymous Bosch
Story
Levi Asher

"I'll meet you under the words". There's a large building in Cardiff, Wales with a poem embedded directly into its front wall. The poem is written half in Welsh and half in English by Gwyneth Lewis, who is part of a vibrant Welsh-speaking renaissance that draws in families, musicians, writers, artists, hipsters and academics all across this ancient land. Welsh began to disappear centuries ago when Wales became part of England, but some have managed to generate a significant new sense of community by striving to keep the language alive. When these folks gather for festivals, dances, hip-hop beatbox sessions and poetry slams, they really are meeting under words.

Gwyneth Lewis is profiled in Language Matters, a delightful and captivating two-hour documentary currently running on PBS. The documentary is directed by David Grubin and hosted by poetry raconteur Bob Holman, who visits three locations around the world where great languages are in danger of disappearing: northern Australia, Wales and Hawaii. The films make the case that irreplaceable cultural knowledge is entwined into these regional languages, and that every time a regional language is lost, a way of thinking is lost as well.

The first journey in Language Matters is the most stirring. On the northern tip of Australia, Aboriginal families live peacefully and intermingle freely in small neighborly clusters-- and yet, entire vast different languages are spoken within these family groups. Nobody in this area is monolingual; to speak each of your neighbors' languages is a sign of respect, even though languages like Kunwinjku and Amurdak may be as different from each other as, say, English and Polish.

Some of these distinct languages are only kept alive by individual family networks or, in one extreme case, by a single person. Language Matters focuses on an elderly man who is the last person on earth to speak the language he grew up with. The kind of loneliness he must feel is barely visible in his dignified face, as he calmly delivers halting explanations of living words that will soon be lost.

It's because a language is more than words that no academic transcription can ever capture the essence of a language that was once alive. In this documentary's last segment in Hawaii, poet W. S. Merwin salutes the elusiveness of language, quoting a Hawaiian verse that can be translated, but not translated well, because the Hawaiian rhythms and sounds are part of the verse's meaning. In Hawaii, as in Wales, schools have been built by tuned-in educators and linguists and caring community members to keep their cherished ancestral languages alive. We visit children in schools where they are instructed to only speak Welsh or Hawaiian.

Of course, the fact that these children are immersed in Welsh or Hawaiian at school does not mean they will not learn other languages too. But there is clearly a heavy cultural significance here; to embrace Welsh or Hawaiian is an act of protest against the conformism of an English-speaking planet. The significance feels more acute in northern Australia, where the critical mass to keep dying languages alive does not exist.

Language Matters features stunning dance sequences and beautiful nature photography along with narration and interviews by Bob Holman, who turns out to be very good at this kind of thing. I've known Bob Holman for years via his Bowery Poetry Club, and we published a piece he wrote about slam poetry attitudes called "15 Rules For Hecklers" in 2010. Language Matters is the kind of project Bob Holman is born to do, and if we're lucky he'll do more and more.

There are, after all, so many more endangered languages around the world. I remember visiting my grandmother and her sister in Brooklyn and being amazed by the Yiddish newspapers they read, printed in blocky Hebrew letters completely incomprehensible to me. I was ignorant not only of the language my grandmother spoke, but even of her alphabet.

It occurs to me now that my grandmother was actually making a choice in continuing to read Yiddish while living in Brooklyn for over 70 years. Of course she was perfectly fluent in English, but Yiddish gave her and her sister a connection to the world they wanted to be living in. I never asked her what this language meant to her, and now I wish I had.

Language Matters appears to be a television documentary about remote cultures and faraway peoples. It turns out to be a show about us all.

6

A new documentary showing on PBS explains the deep cultural significance of regional languages, many of which are destined for extinction.

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Monday, January 26, 2015 09:22 pm
A Welsh poem embedded upon a building.
Story
Levi Asher

As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.

It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.

But even when Mike Leigh delves into British history it's his emotional intensity that is really epic, and every Mike Leigh film will eventually (after much charming misdirection and improvisation) offer a clash and a resolution. Mr. Turner's affective axis turns on the gruff artist's impulsive and secretive love life. He cruelly manipulates and ignores several women, but eventually manages to find his home in a quiet arrangement with a sea salt's widow, played by Marion Bailey.

Like W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, it's clear that the dyspeptic J. M. W. Turner craves the companionship of a loving woman, though he never manages to come to terms with the moral implications of a caring relationship. Turner the celebrity artist is far more confident with his adoring public than with any of the odd human beings he is forced to interact with, and it's impossible not to imagine that Mike Leigh must be painting a portrait of himself with this vision of a stumbling famous artist who lives for his visionary work, while somehow barely managing to survive his everyday life.

Mr. Turner features performances by several regulars in the Mike Leigh acting troupe, like Martin Savage, whose failed-artist character unfortunately doesn't have the dimensionality of his unforgettable George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy, and Dorothy Atkinson, who played Jessie Bond in Topsy-Turvy and here nearly steals the show as a sickly and silent housekeeper who allows Turner to molest her whenever the impulse strikes. Timothy Spall is also a longtime member of the Mike Leigh troupe (though many film viewers will only recognize him as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), and when he paints by violently stabbing his canvas with a thick brush in Mr. Turner he recalls the dumb London punk he played decades ago in Leigh's Life Is Sweet.

These fine actors appear here as tiny objects in a gigantic world: gorgeous skyscapes and mountain surfaces, railway apparitions, marine infinities. Mike Leigh the cinematic painter is certainly competing with J. M. W. Turner the oil painter in Mr. Turner, and since we're on Mike Leigh's home field he very nearly wins the battle.

I came to this film with no special interest in J. M. W. Turner's art. Like most people today, I am more familiar with the French Impressionists than their British predecessors, and I also find Turner's blues, grays, browns and yellows a difficult palette to love. (I learned in my post-viewing research that Turner's paintings were made with inferior crimsons that have badly faded, which may be why many modern art lovers like myself have trouble feeling as rapturous about Turner's paintings as did critics of his era like John Ruskin, who is portrayed in this film as an eager fanboy with a hilarious upper-class English drawl.)

Turner's paintings have faded, but Mike Leigh's film will certainly give his legacy new life. It occurred to me last year as I wrote about the American director Richard Linklater's remarkable Boyhood that Richard Linklater may be the closest thing the USA has to the genius of Mike Leigh, and I thought about Boyhood again as I watched Mr. Turner. Linklater and Leigh have a special quality in common: neither director is afraid to present a simply happy film.

Like Boyhood, Mr. Turner is a happy film not because it ignores tragedy and cruelty and pathos, but because it incorporates them into a stunning grand vision of redemption and love in an uncaring natural world.

2

Timothy Spall plays the artist J. M. W. Turner in a beautiful new film directed by Mike Leigh.

view /SpallTurnerLeigh
Tuesday, January 20, 2015 04:56 am
Actor Timothy Spall with director Mike Leigh
Story
Levi Asher

In 2002, filmmaker Richard Linklater selected a six-year-old actor named Ellar Coltrane to be the star of his new movie Boyhood, which was expected to take twelve years to film.

Linklater also cast seasoned actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke to play the boy’s divorcing parents, and signed his own eight-year-old daughter Lorelei Linklater on as the older sister. Big sister Lorelei steals the show in the movie's first couple of scenes, first with a Britney Spears dance number, and then with a temper tantrum at a family meal. This is where Boyhood’s journey begins. When the movie is over, twelve years or two hours and forty-five minutes later, all of the characters has been transformed, and the audience has been transformed too.

I’m a Richard Linklater fan — sure, I love Slacker and Dazed and Confused, though I never got to see the Trilogy. I'm probably in the minority among Linklater fans because I like School of Rock better than Dazed and Confused. But I have a new favorite Richard Linklater film today. Boyhood is his masterpiece, the most fully realized work of his career.

That’s not to say that Boyhood is different from other Linklater films. The ingredients are the same: lazy Texans of all ages and lifestyles wandering through kitchens and office buildings and parking lots, mumbling and talking, flirting, falling in love, eating, partying, reading, getting on each other’s nerves, learning to forgive each other. Linklater’s genius is always to allow the personalities of his characters to find their own chemistry, and to capture these subtle chemical reactions as they occur on screen.

Linklater has a lighter touch than most filmmakers, and he always seems deeply aware of nature: the soft environments of Texas's communities and college towns, the park benches people sit on, the rumpled clothes they wear. The physical world is the comic foil to his hapless characters, who are often otherwise lost in internal or imaginary worlds. With Boyhood, Richard Linklater is able to elevate his art to a higher level because he suddenly has a new physical medium to work with. That medium is the amazing miracle of human life, of growth, of the way we change as we exist in time.

Empowered with this unique mission to film a fictional coming-of-age story with real actors over twelve years, Richard Linklater is clever enough to retain his light directorial touch, to let the story meander and find its own grooves. The movie's narrative plot line itself is more familiar than surprising: step parents, bicycle rides, troubles with school, troubles with abusive adults, girlfriends.

The film is not perfect: at times the meandering plot hovers pointlessly over nothing much for too long, and there are also moments when the actors fail to maintain the high level of realism and seriousness that usually characterize these performances. One scene with five adolescent boys doing dumb things in a woodshed is so stiff and artificial that I can’t understand why Richard Linklater left it in the film.

But it's only because this movie skims the shimmering surface of naturalism and method acting so skillfully that every flash of a phony moment appears startling and disruptive. Patricia Arquette is wonderful and soulful as the sensible but overworked mother in almost all of the movie, but her acting skills fail her in a scene near the end in which she’s supposed to cry.

She’s crying because her gawky and now cool son Ellar Coltrane is all grown up and heading off to college. This should be a vital moment in the movie, except that Patricia Arquette does that thing where she hides her eyes and tries to talk in a choked voice but everybody watching the movie can easily tell she's not crying. (In real life, when people cry, they don’t usually hide their eyes and turn away. They usually just go with the moment and stare straight ahead and let it all out.)

At moments like these, one wonders if Richard Linklater is being selective enough about his final cut. One also wonders whether or not, say, the great naturalistic director Mike Leigh might not have managed to get Patricia Arquette to cry.

Of course, since this is a Linklater film, all the major performances in this film are uncommonly good. In the end the star who shines most brightly is Ellar Coltrane himself. This young actor does manage to cry in one remarkable moment in the middle of the film. This is when Ethan Hawke tells him that he just sold his Pontiac GTO. The son is devastated, because his father had once said he would give him the GTO when he turned 16. The father is stunned that his son would even take this idea seriously, as he had no intention of ever giving him the GTO. This is the kind of scene in which Linklater's talent for chemistry produces the best results.

In another of the movie's best scenes, early in the movie, the boy is helping his Mom paint the walls of their new home. He sees on a doorway a haunting trace of the family that lived there before: a set of height markings for several children, scrawled in pen and pencil, with names and dates.

Young Ellar Coltrane stares at this exhibit for a long moment. Then, slowly, gently, he begins to paint it over.

4

Richard Linklater’s genius is to allow the personalities of his characters to find their own chemistry, and to capture these subtle chemical reactions as they occur on screen.

view /Boyhood
Monday, August 4, 2014 08:12 pm
Scene from Boyhood
Story
Levi Asher

"Wizard of Oz is on again", I noticed recently while flipping through my favorite classic movie channels. Then I spotted the year on the movie listing: 1925.

Here it was, the early version I'd always been curious to see! This silent-era Wizard came out fourteen years before the great Judy Garland classic, and even though I'd heard the 1925 version was a box-office dud and an artistic failure, I'd long been curious what this interpretation of L. Frank Baum's children's book contained.

It doesn't take long before the problems with this ambitious production begin to reveal themselves. Departing wildly from L. Frank Baum's story from the very start, the movie introduces a meandering political subplot: a prime minister, a threatened land, a secret lost princess whose identity is sealed inside a mysterious envelope. These dreary machinations barely connect to the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz, and the melodrama makes the movie immediately wearying to watch. We would barely know that this is L. Frank Baum's story at all as the movie begins if we didn't see an old man reading the book to a little girl.

This girl, however, is not Dorothy. The 1925 Wizard of Oz was the masterwork of a then-popular moviemaker and clown named Larry Semon whose spindly motions and sad-sack expressions recall Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Larry Semon financed and directed this movie, and he cast his vivacious starlet wife Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy. Here she is -- a rather worldly child -- with kindly Aunt Em in an early scene on the Kansas farm.

Larry Semon cast himself as the Scarecrow, and surprisingly it's not Dorothy Dwan but Semon himself who prances proudly on camera through much of this movie. Larry Semon's vintage comic routines bear traces of various stage traditions from vaudeville to music hall to mime to slapstick, and he's an energetic marvel to watch, even as he shamelessly hogs the screen. Many of his routines go on too long, but he finds the right note in his initial Scarecrow number, a set piece that clearly informed Ray Bolger's Scarecrow in 1939.

The 1925 Wizard of Oz has no Wicked Witch, no Toto, no yellow brick road. It does have a tornado (as seen in that wild image at the top of this page). It also has a gleaming Land of Oz, and one wonders if Larry Semon's movie might have succeeded if he'd left L. Frank Baum's original plot elements to work their natural magic. (As it happened, this Wizard of Oz destroyed Larry Semon last hope for a breakthrough Hollywood hit. He would die three years later at the age of 39).

Now that the bad news about the 1925 Wizard of Oz being a turkey is out of the way, here's the good news: the film provides a fascinating opportunity to contrast what one film version may do badly and another may do well. While the impeccable and nearly perfect 1939 Wizard of Oz beats the 1925 movie on almost every count, there is a single important innovation in the 1925 version that clearly inspired the 1939 version.

This is the notion of transformation, the idea of a Land of Oz that is a mirror of the farm in Kansas, and the pleasure of watching three clumsy farmhands emerge as their shadow selves: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. So much of the beauty of the great 1939 Wizard of Oz is tied up in this magical transformation, which does not occur at all in L. Frank Baum's original book. It is found, however, in Larry Semon's 1925 movie.

Before Larry Semon's Scarecrow becomes a scarecrow, he's one of three farmhands who travels in the flying house with Dorothy to Oz. He then hides himself by stealing the clothes off an actual scarecrow and stuffing them with straw.

It's delightful to see young Oliver Hardy (sans Stan Laurel) as the Tin Man, who similarly adopts his junk-pile uniform in order to hide from predators.

It's an even-bigger surprise, and not a very happy one, that the Cowardly Lion in the 1925 movie is played for broad laughs as a racist caricature of a shiftless African-American. We first meet this character as a farm worker played by G. Howe Black (his real name was Spencer Bell), and even before he reaches Oz he's forced to run through a few variations of the depressingly familiar "scared by a ghost" comedy routines that audiences seemed to always expect from African-American performers in the 1920s and 1930s. Why, we must wonder today, was it so entertaining in this era to watch African-American actors pretend to be scared out of their wits? The 1925 Wizard of Oz mines that trope mercilessly. During the tornado scenes (which, for some reason, are filmed in vivid blue) a blot of lightning tries to chase him down, and this happens:

Later, this character transforms himself into the Cowardly Lion (cowardly -- get it?) by hiding inside a costume that he finds in a cave.

Meanwhile, the Wizard of Oz doesn't stand out much in this movie, and mainly serves as a foil for the other actors:

Despite the many disappointments of this movie, we must give it proper credit for inventing the metafictional device that was used so effectively in the 1939 version when the farmhands played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr morph into the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the (now white, still funny) Cowardly Lion. One wonders if the 1939 script might have missed the innovation of aligning Dorothy's three friends from Oz with real-life counterparts from the farm in Kansas if Larry Semon's movie hadn't come up with it first.

There's something haunting about Larry Semon's face when he hams it up as the Scarecrow. We see in his eyes the deep hopes he held for this expensive production, and can only imagine with sadness how lost he must have felt when the work crashed at the box office, taking his career down with it. The transformation was only half complete.

3

Comedian Larry Semon's silent-movie 'Wizard of Oz' from 1925 provides a fascinating case study in what one film version may do well and another may not.

view /Wizard1925
Thursday, July 31, 2014 07:26 am
Screenshot from 1925 Larry Semon film of Wizard of Oz
Story
Levi Asher

Every once in a while I find myself wondering why I run a blog series called Philosophy Weekend that doesn't necessarily resemble anybody else's idea of what philosophy is, and maybe also doesn't necessarily resemble anyone's idea of what a weekend is.

I was in one of these questioning moods a few days ago when I watched an excellent film on late-night cable TV that gave me the insight I needed at the moment: Happy-Go-Lucky by Mike Leigh.

I love Mike Leigh's humble, amusing movies, which are almost always about ordinary British people dealing with ordinary problems. In Secrets and Lies, an adult woman finds the mother who gave her up for adoption. Nuts in May takes place in a nature camp where a boisterous partier sets up a tent next to two stern hippies. Vera Drake is about a woman who secretly performs illegal abortions. Leigh's masterwork Topsy-Turvy imagines the backstage action behind Gilbert and Sullivan's premiere of "The Mikado".

A Mike Leigh movie doesn't look or feel like anybody else's movie. The sets and performances aim to be completely natural, and his sensitive performers don't overact for the cameras but rather move and speak like real people do: polite, hesitant, often unsure of themselves. In a typical schlocky Hollywood movie, a married couple having an argument will often yell at the tops of their lungs, even when they're standing face-to-face only inches away from each other. In a Mike Leigh movie, a married couple having an argument looks like a real married couple having an argument. When a Mike Leigh film suddenly explodes into a sneaky emotional climax (as they tend to do) we are reminded of the communicative power of a quiet speaking voice.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a classic Mike Leigh setup. Poppy, a London schoolteacher played by Sally Hawkins, has a strange quirk: she's relentlessly cheerful, gabby, upbeat. Everywhere she goes, she compulsively cracks jokes, breaks rules, calls attention to herself. She knows that people find her energy level odd amd annoying, and she also knows that her manic style amounts to one of many life choices she's implicitly made that have not worked out particularly well.

She finds her opposite when she signs up for driving lessons with a tense driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. He objects to her chattiness, asks her to wear proper footwear, makes racist remarks about other drivers. The confrontation that finally erupts between this dour man and this ebullient woman is the transformative event in this film, as Poppy learns the full impact of her behavior on others, and comes to realize what her quirky commitment to joyful living is grounded in.

The first time you watch a Mike Leigh movie you might think he doesn't know how to make movies at all, because he avoids all the conventions other film directors employ. A Mike Leigh film seems to exist in its own private universe. The sets look exactly like the world we live in: shopping centers, highways, kitchens, banal office buildings, public parks. He doesn't even use actors who are familiar from other films (though many of his best ensemble actors later went on to play minor roles in Harry Potter movies, which sadly squander their sensitive talents).

I consider Mike Leigh one of the great film directors of the modern era, along with David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino. But he stands apart from the others. There's never any doubt that Lynch and Kubrick and Coppola and Scorsese and Tarantino learn from each other and refer to each other's movies. Mike Leigh makes movies that don't connect to other movies. He just keeps doing it his own way, year after year.

This feels personally significant to me because I often worry that my Philosophy Weekend blog posts don't seem to connect with what anybody else is writing about or blogging about or even thinking about. When I write, say, a 9-part series on the causal relationship between war and genocide, I know that I'm not doing philosophy "the right way", and I'm also not doing political punditry "the right way". I know I'm reaching readers, which makes me very glad -- but I also feel very "alone out here" in the sense that I am not regularly connecting with other political philosophers or bloggers, and often not even paying attention to the topics or formats that are trending around me.

Sure, this leaves me feeling isolated -- but when I watch a Mike Leigh film I am reminded how much creative energy we can generate by simply doing our own thing and not worrying about whether or not we're conforming to external standards. Rather than work harder to meet the expectations of what a political philosophy blog should be, I prefer to pursue my own style to its maximum extent -- and it happens that the personal style I would like to maintain also resembles that of a Mike Leigh film. Like this unique director, I want to always keep it down to earth. I want to write about ordinary topics that ordinary people think about. I want to sacrifice bombast for warmth, commercialism for connection, hype for honesty.

So I find every Mike Leigh film a bracing personal inspiration, and I also find special inspiration in Happy-Go-Lucky, the movie I happened to catch on TV this week. Even though I'm not a gabby extroverted British woman like the character played by Sally Hawkins -- actually, I'm zero for four there -- I do share one strange quirk with this character. Like Poppy, I'm an optimist, and I always try to always see the positive side of a bad situation, and I definitely prefer to see life as a comedy rather than a tragedy. I think this comes out often in the arguments I try to lay out here on Philosophy Weekend: my strong belief that world peace is inevitable, my conviction that money is not very important, my belief that people who commit evil acts do so because they are confused rather than intrinsically evil.

If I ever get better at this philosophy of life stuff, maybe I'll be able to express more clearly than I can today how all of the various points I'm discussing here connect, and what it all adds up to. For now, the best I can do is decide to keep going, to keep doing what I'm doing, because I enjoy doing it. Sometimes it takes a late night film by a British director that runs on cable TV to remind us that what we're doing is okay, and that we want to keep doing it.

2

Every once in a while I find myself wondering why I run a blog series called Philosophy Weekend that doesn't necessarily resemble anybody else's idea of what philosophy is, and maybe also doesn't necessarily resemble anyone's idea of what a weekend is.

view /HappyGoLucky
Saturday, April 26, 2014 08:25 pm
Happy Go Lucky by Mike Leigh
Story
Levi Asher

It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.

My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.

On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.

Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.

I bet you don't know that Nick Mason -- who played drums for Pink Floyd and is the only member of the band who played at every single Pink Floyd concert and on every single Pink Floyd record -- wrote a book called Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd in 2004. Or maybe you've seen this book around and maybe even bought it, but I bet you didn't read it, and didn't know that it contains a full-fledged personal autobiography that is beautiful, warm, informative, funny, inspiring and reflective. Why don't you know this? The publisher screwed it up.

Nick Mason's book should have been published as a straight memoir, like Pete Townshend's memoir or Bob Dylan's memoir or Patti Smith's memoir. Instead, probably because of Nick Mason's lack of celebrity (all the members of Pink Floyd kept a low profile), Inside Out was published as a big coffee table book, crammed with full-page color pictures and Hipgnosis artworks. Sure, the photos are striking, and there's no doubt that Pink Floyd's visual experimentations are good enough to fill a coffee table book. However, the horrible "two-for-one" idea of packaging Nick Mason's autobiography with an visual record of the history of Pink Floyd seriously devalues Nick Mason's text, obscuring his thoughtful words like so many clouds.

Let's face it -- people don't read coffee table books. They buy them as presents, they decorate with them. Inside Out is expensive, and it's the size of a large dinner plate. It's as heavy as a brick. The pages are thick shiny cardboard, so you have to pin the whole contraption down with a wrestler's grip to read a damn page. And you can forget about carrying it on a train or taking it to work for lunch hour. Inside Out was not designed for actual reading, and that's why nobody reads it. There isn't even a Kindle version available.

Could it be that Chronicle Books, publisher of the American edition (and an otherwise excellent and innovative publishing company) didn't know that a Nick Mason memoir would sell on its own, that Pink Floyd is one of the most popular rock bands of all time, that Pink Floyd fans read a lot of books? Have they seen Pink Floyd fans? This book could have been a number one bestseller -- after all, many Pink Floyd albums were.

Word of mouth would have boosted sales, because Nick Mason has a very natural voice and a charming British sense of humor. Here, he's talking about the hangers-on who began to show up after The Wall hit it big:

As always there was some political and financial repercussions as the album climbed the charts. We had lawyers representing all and sundry trying to scramble aboard the gravy train. One voice heard on the album after we recorded a random turning of the TV dial belonged to an actor who thought the success was primarily due to his contribution. We offered him a settlement with the option of doubling the amount if he gave it all to charity. He took the half for himself.

Mason is an observant, detail-minded and philosophical writer. He often muses about the technology of music (or, equally often, the technology of racing cars or lighting systems or houseboats) as it relates to human nature.

I loved the sound he [Alan Parsons] could get on tape for my drums. In rock music, getting this right is still one of the great tests for any engineer. Since the drum's original use was to spur on troops to warfare, rather than winning over a maiden's fair heart, it is hardly surprising that many a battle has been fought over the drum sound.

As the anecdotes accumulate in Inside Out, one suspects that the punchlines only work so well because the stories have been worked out over dinners and wine for decades. Well, this is one reason storytellers go to dinner parties -- to practice -- and it's one reason that older people write such good memoirs.

The passage of years probably also helped to strengthen Nick Mason attitude in life. He appears throughout the career of Pink Floyd to have been a humble, accepting and nonjudgmental person. This is a good trait in a drummer, who has to get along with guitarists and singers, and it must have come in particularly handy for Nick Mason, who spent two decades as half of a rhythm section with Roger Waters, Pink Floyd's genius bassist and a notoriously difficult man.

Mason hints wryly in Inside Out at scenes of near-abuse from the temperamental Waters in cold studios on sleepless nights. But he also makes it clear that he considers Roger a lifelong best friend. On the first page of the book, he and Roger Waters are fellow teenage architecture students in a London school, along with a third architecture student and jazz keyboardist named Rick Wright. The first time Roger Waters spoke to Nick Mason at this school was to ask to borrow his car.

The vehicle in question was a 1930 Austin Seven 'Chummy' which I'd picked up for twenty quid. Roger must have been desperate even to want me to lend it to him. The Austin's cruising speed was so sluggish that I'd once had to give a hitch-hiker a lift out of sheer embarrassment because I was going so slowly he thought I was actually stopping to offer him a ride. I told Roger the car was off the road, which was not entirely true. Part of me was reluctant to lend it out to anyone else, but I think I also found Roger rather menacing. When he spotted me driving the Austin shortly afterwards, he had his first taste of my penchant for occupying that no-man's-land between duplicity and diplomacy. On a previous occasion, Roger had accosted Rick Wright, who was also a student in our class, and asked him for a cigarette, a request Rick turned down point blank. This was an early sign of Rick's legendary generosity.

I love this opening sequence, and I also like the way a closing sequence in the book's final chapter echoes it perfectly. Here, the late-period post-Waters Pink Floyd is picking songs for Division Bell.

At band meetings we now started whittling down the possible songs to the probables. We set up an extremely democratic system whereby David, Rick and I would each award marks out of ten for each song, regardless of who had originally generated the piece. This should have worked smoothly, had Rick not misinterpreted the democratic principles underlying the voting system. He simply awarded all of his ideas the full ten points, and everything else got nil points. This meant that all of Rick's pieces had a ten-point head start, and it took David and me a while to work out why this new album was rapidly becoming a Rick Wright magnum opus …

The same issue reappeared a decade later when we were selecting tracks for inclusion on 'Echoes', the compilation album which required input from David, Rick, myself and Roger. As well as the oars being poked in by a whole galley-load of record company executives, engineers, producers and managers, this time we had to deal with the fact that Roger, like Rick before him, would only vote for his own tracks. God bless democracy.

It's fitting that Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright were architecture students, because Pink Floyd's amazing record albums were among the most diagrammatic and conceptually ambitious of the classic rock era. The albums they are most famous for today, though they are not my favorite Pink Floyd albums, are The Wall (a heavy psychological dissection of Roger Waters's personality problems), Wish You Were Here (their gentlest work), and Dark Side of the Moon (their most complete masterpiece). As great as these three records are, I sometimes resent the way they overpower Pink Floyd's previous career, which was even better. I also resent the fact that the blatant, earnest, almost adolescent expressionism of these three rage-filled albums has left an impression that adolescent rage was all Pink Floyd was ever good at. In fact, their earlier records were their best, and these lack the mawkishness of their more famous works.

I'm taking about the amazing experimental albums they recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Soundtrack from More, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. This was after they recovered from the loss of Syd Barrett (whose Pink Floyd-created solo albums during these years are also masterpieces) and all four members of the band began reaching their potential and fully exploring the possibilities of their ensemble.

These were also the years in which Nick Mason's ability to create dramatic and dynamic drum parts became most evident. His name is often neglected when listing drum legends like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon of the Who, but Mason's clever, theatrical drum style put him in their class. For a glimpse of Nick Mason and the entire band at peak power, here's A Saucerful of Secrets from the Live at Pompeii movie:

The release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 ended Pink Floyd's reputation as a collegiate prog band. They transformed into blockbuster rockers, specializing in massive stadium concerts (two of which I was lucky enough to see in my teenage years). During this period Roger Waters began to dominate the band, and much of Nick Mason's later story in Inside Out is about the power struggle that eventually took a surprising twist when David Gilmour and Nick Mason managed to wrest Pink Floyd slyly out of Roger Waters's hands and recreate the band without him. (As a Roger Waters fan, I mostly lost interest in Pink Floyd at this point.)

Nick Mason reveals many musical secrets in this book, such as the fact that he had to play the heartbeat in "Speak to Me" on a drum because their tapes of real heartbeats sounded too "stressful", that the climactic crescendo that segues between "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" is a piano chord played backwards, that Rick Wright played the melody of "See Emily Play" on the fading notes of the Wish You Were Here album as a tribute to Syd Barrett, who Nick Mason remembers as a once "delightful" former band-mate who frighteningly lost his mind.

Nick Mason was as sane as Syd Barrett wasn't, and as calm as Roger Waters wasn't. Together, Barrett and Gilmour and Waters and Mason and Wright produced a body of work that equals that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, though Pink Floyd has never reached their level of wide acclaim.

This may be because the members so rigorously avoided celebrity -- an avoidance that might have been grounded in necessity, since they didn't really have the personal charisma to achieve it. Pink Floyd was music by nerds, for nerds. That's why I'm sure Inside Out would have sold so well: nerds read a lot of books.

Note: While this review is about the American edition of Inside Out, I see that there is a British edition which may be easier to read, and thankfully is available on a Kindle. This British edition, which I have not seen, apparently also includes an update about Pink Floyd's reunion (including Roger Waters, finally) at Live 8 in 2005. This wondrous 25-minute reunion can be enjoyed in full right here. It'll probably make you want to read this book, and I suggest you try the British edition.


1

Pink Floyd's drummer has written a clever and honest autobiography, though unfortunately the book's format will keep readers far away.

view /NickMason
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 04:17 pm
Nick Mason and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd
Story
Levi Asher

It's probably the best tween book of the modern era; at least it's the best one I can think of. Well, hell, everybody loves Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which was published fifty years ago this year.

The anniversary is already getting so much attention -- an event on March 15 at the 92nd Street Y on Harriet's own beloved Manhattan island featuring Gregory Maguire, Leonard Marcus and Rebecca Stead, a Booktrib appreciation featuring crime writers like Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke and Sarah Weinman -- that I almost want to skip mentioning it on Litkicks. Except for one thing: I love the book as much as everyone else. I can't not say so.

Harriet is about a churlish, opinionated 11-year-old who tears bravely through New York City's varied neighborhoods looking for trouble, and finally finds worse trouble than she ever wanted in the trivial atmosphere of her own schoolyard. I value the story for its emotional sophistication, its appreciation for the delicacy of a kid's emotional stability, and for the drama of the devastation that occurs when it breaks. The break in Harriet M. Welsch's swirling life of urban adventure occurs, of course, when her private notebook falls into someone else's hands. All the kids in her school read what she's written about them. The revelations hurt Harriet's own closest friends the worst, and Harriet is shocked to discover that even the dull kids in school that she never bothered to care about suddenly have the power to hurt her back, and badly.

It's a parable about being a writer, of course -- and a particularly instructive one for non-fiction authors or bloggers or journalists who may occasionally have to issue retractions, since it is a published retraction that finally saves Harriet from the depths of misery, restoring her from the stunning blow.

The author Louise Fitzhugh always kept a low profile, so there isn't a lot of material to search through when trying to connect the author to the character. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee but never put herself forward as a Southern writer. Instead she migrated to New York to study at Bard and Barnard and hang out with artists and writers. Her first book is the delightful Suzuki Beane, a smart beatnik parody of Kay Thompson's Eloise, featuring a different kind of city kid quizzically wandering the streets in search of realness. This first book clearly paved the path for the more accessible Harriet the Spy, which established Fitzhugh's career. Later, she lived on Long Island's East End and in Connecticut, privately enjoying her fame, apparently trying not to be too obvious about the fact that she was gay in order to avoid coloring the perception and universal popularity of her girl hero. She died way too young, at 46.

Harriet the Spy is Fitzhugh's most famous book, though my personal favorite would have to be the amazing sequel, The Long Secret. Now, I know I just said Harriet the Spy was probably the best tween book ever -- so you may be wondering how I can say Harriet the Spy is the best tween book ever if it's not even the best tween book by Louise Fitzhugh? Well, I once had the same problem explaining why I think Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks is the best record album of all time, even though Street-Legal is my favorite Bob Dylan album. Like Dylan's Street-Legal, Fitzhugh's The Long Secret is more searingly personal and painful than its more famous predecesor. It goes further into the deep journey, but it's the kind of work that better fits the concept of "favorite" (implying a very distinct personal choice) than "best" (which implies a universal likeability).



The Long Secret is also a parable about being a writer, but the hero of this book is shy Beth Ellen, who only received a glancing look as a bland side character in Harriet the Spy. Harriet doesn't particularly like or respect Beth Ellen, and it's not clear that Beth Ellen likes or respects Harriet either. (In this way, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret work particularly well together as a dual parable about two writers.)I like Secret slightly better than Spy because of the heightened emotional conflict and the deeper personal stakes. I also think Louise Fitzhugh works an even greater magic with the lazy, luxurious surroundings of Water Mill, Long Island (a real-life beach town near the Hamptons) than she does with the broader, messier pallette of New York City. (I also like the drawing of Water Mill that appears on the first edition cover, an edition I've never seen in real life. Here it is on Etsy.)

A third installment of the Harriet Saga called Sport was published after Louise Fitzhugh's early death, though I can't say anything about it because I aged out of reading it as a kid and was put off by discouraging reviews as an adult. If anybody has read Sport and thinks it bears adult reading today, please post a comment to let us all know.

I eventually took my kids to see the Harriet the Spy movie that came out in 1996, and I think they sorta liked it and I sorta liked it too, but I didn't like it a lot. Michelle Trachtenberg was way too likable and graceful to play boorish, cantankerous Harriet, and the whole movie was infested with a strangely joyful and youthful freshness that must be a good quality in itself, but has nothing to do with the twisted, isolating psychological undertone of the original book.

But the movie did little harm to the Harriet legacy, and we can rest assured that nature will take its course and the movie will be forgotten. The books will stay with us -- forever, I suspect.

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Louise Fitzhugh's 'Harriet the Spy' and 'The Long Secret' are parables about being a writer.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014 11:18 am
Harriet the Spy original cover
Story
Levi Asher

We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.

A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung's illicit lover, Jung and Freud's intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.

The passage of fetchingly hysterical Sabina Spielrein to mature and productive work as a psychologist forms this movie's basic plot, and the famous rivalry between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud swirls around Sabina's success story. The menage a trios plot frame probably helped to make this film possible (a conventional love story always helps an ideological dispute go down) but unfortunately the romantic subtext doesn't particularly gel at any point, and the inevitable comparison to Truffaut's Jules and Jim (or Paul Mazursky's wonderful American knockoff Willie and Phil) doesn't help. Kiera Knightley gets to chew on a lot of furniture in the opening scenes, but once she is cured there is only tepid chemistry between her and the stiff, dignified Carl Jung. This is the least satisfying aspect of A Dangerous Method, and perhaps better chemistry between actors could have helped. (We know that David Cronenberg can film great love scenes; sparks flew like crazy between Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum in his best film, The Fly.)

Sparks do fly here between Fassbender's shy, hesitant Jung and Mortensen's intense, domineering Freud. A Dangerous Method wastes no time getting to their core conflict: Freud saw sexuality as the key to every mental illness, while his younger protege searched for wider and more general causes. When the two first meet in Freud's office (decorated, as seen above, with a wonderful array of significant objects that feel positively Jungian), they already feel the tension of their eventual break. They banter about whether or not Freud's place in the field of psychoanalysis resembles that of Columbus (who saw the shore of a new world, but did not know what shore it was) or Galileo or perhaps Moses, with Jung as his Joshua.

Jung is disappointed to find Freud locked into a defensive and embattled stance against the critics of psychoanalysis, and he gently refuses Freud's urgent invitations to become a partisan in this cultural battle. Jung's interest in the social nature of consciousness and the possible validity of religious impulse alienates Freud. The break as depicted in this film matches exactly the story known to historians of the movement, and is presented with more clarity than theatricality. Cronenberg's artistic restraint is admirable, though perhaps a cinematic flight of fancy or two might have actually helped this work to soar. As it stands, the most emotional moment in the movie comes at the very end, when it is revealed how various heroes of this story were suddenly destroyed in World War Two.

Was the promise of psychoanalytic research itself lost in that disastrous war? I liked A Dangerous Method best as a reminder of the importance of the mission that inspired both Freud and Jung (and other early psychologists like Otto Gross, who also appears within this film's menage). I have written about Carl Jung on this blog once or twice, but not as much as I would like to. His importance is barely recognized in the world today, his reputation nebulous, his ideas considered quaint. His greatest idea was to explore the collective unconscious -- the ways in which we think, feel and act in groups rather than as individuals. This is a vitally important project that has been largely abandoned since the murderous maelstrom of the mid 20th Century. It was not abandoned because it was not important. Perhaps it was abandoned because it was too important.

Carl Jung was once massively famous, but when his name today comes up the context is often biographical or artistic, as when books like his curious creative work The Red Book are newly published. But it is not Carl Jung the person who is most important today -- rather it is the project of understanding the gigantic but often invisible influence that collective consciousness has on individual human existence that is important, and needs to be carried on. Perhaps it's a good thing that David Cronenberg's film A Dangerous Method presents Carl Jung as such a bland character. The real importance of Carl Jung is not in his personality, but in the forgotten project he began.

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A David Cronenberg film about the rivalry between two key founders of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014 05:52 pm
Jung and Freud in A Dangerous Method
Story
Levi Asher