Friday, 4 March 2005

Gene Kelly Versus Fred Astaire

Among fans of Hollywood musicals it is often said that there are two camps: Gene Kelly fans and Fred Astaire fans. I really cannot say I belong to either camp myself, as I admire both men equally. I really cannot say one was superior to the other, either as a dancer or an actor. I certainly cannot say I prefer Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire or vice versa.

In fact, when it comes to dancing, I think that comparing Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire may be like comparing The Rolling Stones and The Kinks. Just as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks are two fine rock bands with different styles, so too were Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire two dancers with two different styles of dancing. Gene's style of dance tended to be very athletic and low to the ground. Indeed, when I think of Gene Kelly dancing, I think of him as doing so without a partner. The two dance sequences from his films that come to my mind are the Alter Ego sequence from Cover Girl and the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence from Singin' in the Rain, both of which are performed by himself.

While Gene's style was very atheletic, Fred's style was more about grace and elegance. While Gene's style tended to be low to the ground, Fred's style tended to be a bit higher. And while I usually think of Gene as dancing without a partner, I always think of Fred as dancing with one. The dance sequences from Fred's movies that stand out in my mind for the most part are those in which he had a partner, whether Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, or Cyd Charisse. It seems to me that Gene was most impressive dancing solo or, at least, alongside others. Fred was at his best when he had a beautiful woman in his arms.

Not only were Gene and Fred's styles fairly different, making comparisons difficult, but their images were even different. In most of his movies, Gene appears to be strictly working class. When I think of Gene Kelly, I tend to think of him in T-shirts and khakis. I imagine in a later era he might have actually wore blue jeans. And while Fred Astaire preferred informal wear in real life, the image most people have of Fred from his movies is that of a man in top and tails. Gene Kelly once said, "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando." With respect to their dancing styles--Gene's athletic, dynamic style and Fred's graceful, elegant style--as well as their images, Gene's quote would seem to be true. Gene Kelly was definitely a working class dancer, while Fred Astaire characterised a more upper class style of dance.

Insofar as their dancing styles and images go, then, I believe that Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were two very different performers. For me, at least, this makes comparisions between the two very difficult. In some ways comparing them to the Stones and the Kinks may have been flawed. Perhaps it is better to say that it would be like comparing Led Zeppelin and Nat King Cole--Gene and Fred belong in totally different genres of dance.

Beyond their dance styles and images, I can look at their movies. While I still can't say I prefer Gene to Fred or vice versa, I can say that I prefer Gene's movies to Fred's movies. Two of the movies in which Gene starred and which he also directed are counted as the two greatest musicals of all time--Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris. At least as I see it, Fred only starred in one movie that was nearly as great as either of those two--The Band Wagon. Beyond such classics as Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, and The Band Wagon, it seems to me that Gene's movies were superior in quality for the most part to Fred's movies. Cover Girl, On the Town, and Anchors Aweigh are all better than most of Fred's films, Easter Parade, Holiday Inn, and Top Hat being notable exceptions. When it comes to the quality of their movies, then, I would say that Gene Kelly has the edge over Fred Astaire.

One point of comparison that I have not brought up yet is their respective appearances. To tell the truth, as a heterosexual male, it really doesn't matter to me what Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire look like. I have observed that among female fans of musicals, however, Gene actually has the status of being a sex symbol. Quite simply, Gene is considered a "hunk (or whatever word they're using today)." Most women I know do not find Fred Astaire incredibly sexy. As I said, this makes no difference to me, although I must admit that I find it slightly amusing. I have always joked that I would like to look like Gene, but I would want Fred's wardrobe...

Ultimately, it seems to me that I still cannot say I prefer Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire or vice versa. For me at least, their dancing styles are two different for comparison and I happen to like both of their styles equally well. I do prefer Gene's movies and I do prefer Fred's wardrobe (I always wanted to dress in top hat and tails), but when it comes down to Gene and Fred as performers, I like them both equally. I think both Gene and Fred were equally talented performers, whose influence is going to be felt for years to come in both musicals and dance. I suppose that is the only conclusion I can draw in comparing the two men.

Thursday, 3 March 2005

The Beatles

It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.
They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile.
So may I introduce to you
The act you've known for all these years...
(Lennon/McCartney, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"


In this blog I have already mentioned The Beatles many, many times. I've reviewed three of their four movies (A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine) and referred to them in my articles on the British Invasion, the Age of Anglophilia, animated feature films, and Sunday morning cartoons. Part of the reason I have mentioned them more often than other musicians, or any other artist in any other medium for that matter, is the impact that they had on the late twentieth century world; however, I must admit that most of the reason I've mentioned them so often is that they probably had a greater impact on my life than any other artists in any other medium.

Given when I was born, this should not be surprising. I was born a week from today in 1963. When The Beatles arrived, I would have been just shy of being one year old. Indeed, given that my parents regularly watched The Ed Sullivan Show, my first exposure to The Beatles could well have been that fateful night in February 1963 that they appeared there. Even if I was fast asleep in the crib at the time, there would be almost no way I could avoid The Beatles in the next few years. My older sister bought their records and their music was constantly being played on the radio. In 1965 a Saturday morning cartoon based on the Fab Four debuted on ABC. I can remember watching it loyally, both on Saturday morning and later when it moved to Sunday morning. I remember listening to "Yesterday," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "She Loves You," and many more songs. I can even remember the TV spots for the landmark animated film based on their music, Yellow Submarine. To a large degree, I suppose I was programmed to be a Beatles fan.

Of course, The Beatles had broken up several years before I was old enough to buy records. That did not deter me in my love for the band. The first album I ever bought with my own money was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I bought their other albums too...Meet the Beatles, Revolver, Rubber Soul... I watched their movies as a child--CBS showed Yellow Submarine every July 4th for many years. I remember being outraged as a teenager at that travesty of a movie called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I knew who Sgt. Pepper's Band was, and they weren't The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton.

It is difficult for me to say why The Beatles appealed to me as a child and why they still appeal to me as a nearly 42 year old adult. I can point to the brilliance of their lyrics, the sheer creativity of their harmonies and chord progressions, the diversity of styles to be found in their songs, and so on, but ultimately words fail me. For me at least, it might be sufficient to say that The Beatles made more listenable songs than any other band and did it better than anyone else. Cultural snobs might mock me, but I can find more artistry in "She Loves You" than Bach's Concerto in D Minor.

And it would seem that I am not alone. The Beatles were a veritable phenomenon. As I pointed out above, their music was to be heard everywhere. The Beatles were so popular that they paved the way to the United States for a horde of other British bands. American artists would not retake the charts until 1966. The Beatles made feature films. They were the first living people to have a Saturday morning animated cartoon based on their likenesses. Ever since 1964 there has been some form of Beatles merchandise available to the public, from the dolls Remco made in the early Sixties to lunchboxes to Todd McFarlane's series of toys based on Yellow Submarine. In fact, it may be a mark of The Beatles' impact on society that John Lennon's death was not merely referred to as a murder in the American media, but an assassination, as if he had been a head of state or government official.

Given The Beatles' impact on my life, it should be no surprise that the murder of John Lennon was a signifcant day in my life. I had the flu that day and so I was going to stay home from school. Lying in my bed, my brother burst into my room and uttered the words, "John Lennon is dead!" My initial reaction was to tell him that he was lying (well, actually my words were stronger than that, but they aren't family friendly...). When he persisted, I walked into the living room to see the Today Show and the awful truth. John Lennon had been shot and murdered. I remembered that for the rest of the day I listened to my Beatles albums. And I cried. I had never met John Lennon, but I cried as if I'd known him all my life. When George Harrison died four years ago, even though I was 21 years older and well out of school, I cried again.

It is difficult to say what the future holds, but I have a feeling that The Beatles will be remembered for a long time to come. They may be the only rock group to be so remembered, but I have no doubt that they will be. I am guessing that they will become a permanent part of Anglo-American culture, alongside William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens. Somewhere, some place, the music of The Beatles will be playing.

Wednesday, 2 March 2005

The Wonderful World of Harry Potter

Every now and again a children's book or a series of children's books come along that appeals to adults as well. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, L. Frank Baum's books on the land of Oz, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels have all been enjoyed by children and people of all ages. The latest such books would seem to be the Harry Potter series, written by J. K. Rowling. In fact, I daresay Mrs. Rowling may have more fans who are over 15 than those who are under 15!

I was introduced to the Harry Potter books by my friend Brian. If it was not for the fact that our tastes in reading material are generally the same, I might well have been sceptical. After all, it seemed to me that the last children's book published that appealed to both children and adults was probably the last book written by Dr. Seuss. Here I must point out that this was before Harry Potter mania really hit--before the merchandising and movies, so all I had to go on was Brian's word. As it is, I found that I could not put down Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (I do prefer the original, British title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone...). It was quite possibly the most compeeling work of fiction I have read since Clive Barker's Great and Secret Show.

As I see it, the Harry Potter books appeal to both children and adults on many levels. Perhaps their greatest appeal may be their sheer originality. In most other children's fantasy books, the magical and mysterious is to be found in another land, usually accessed through some unusual portal. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice enters a strange, new world through a mirror. In Alice in Wonderland, she does it through a rabbit hole. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Narnia is reached through an old wardrobe. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is swept away to Oz by a tornado. But in the Harry Potter books, the magical and mysterious are right next door. Wizards live right beside Muggles (that's non-wizards for those of you not familiar with the jargon), all the while keeping their society and their magic hidden form them. In fact, the school which Harry attends, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is not reached through a rabbit hole or a wardrobe, but by train! Rowling crafted a world in which magic exists side by side with the mundane and I think that is much of the appeal of the Harry Potter books. It gives the reader the opportunity to believe that wonderful things, magical things, do indeed exist in our nine to five, timeclock world. Indeed, the reader can easily imagine that he or she might just be a wizard himself or herself.

Another part of the Harry Potter books' appeal is an outgrowth of Rowling's idea of having the magical coexist with the mundane. Quite simply, she has created a wonderfully complex society for the wizards and witches of the Harry Potter universe. The wizards' society has its own history, culture, and customs, quite separate from those of muggles. We know that wizards and giants do not particularly get along. We know that a house elf may be freed of his or her service by granting him or her clothes (an idea J. K. Rowling drew directly from folklore). We know a good deal about the civil war among wizards which Voldemort (or perhaps I should say "He Who Must Not Be Named" just to be safe...) precipitated. Perhaps Rowling's world is not as complex as Tolkien's Middle Earth, but it is fairly complex for any book, let alone a series of children's books.

Of course, as much as the magic and the magical society that goes with it in the Harry Potter books appeal to their fans, I suspect much of the series' appeal may be a bit more down to earth. Beyond the wizardry and witchcraft, the Harry Potter books are about coming of age. Harry must adjust to the idea that he is a wizard (which isn't too far removed from most of us who went through puberty, I suppose...). Like most of us Harry had a crush on someone, unrequited at that (I don't think he'd won Cho Chang as of the last book...). Like many of us he has faced bullies in his time (Draco Malfoy and his cohorts from House Slytherin). And like many of us Harry has felt himself to be the outsider at times. His aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, are Muggles and have always mistreated Harry because he is a wizard. At Hogwarts, Harry is known as the one person to survive Voldemort's attacks and later as the school's resident hero. Indeed, Harry's really close friends can probably be counted on one hand. Anyone who has felt like an outsider in his or her life can easily identify with Harry Potter.

This brings me to another part of the Harry Potter series' appeal. Quite simply, Rowling has created some of the most interesting and complex characters in the history of children's books. We have Hermione Granger, the child of Muggle parents, who more often than not prefers to do things by the book. We have Ron Weasley, part of a large wizard family, who usually does not care much for rules. Even the instructors at Hogwarts have their own personalities. For me perhaps the most interesting is Professor Snape. From the beginning it seems as if Snape has it in for Harry. But as the books progress, it seems to me another picture of Snape has developed. I don't think Snape dislikes Harry--he simply wants Harry to achieve his full potential and does not want Harry lured to the "Dark Side" as Voldemort was. I suppose this is just an example of the compexity of Rowling's characters. The reader can speculate about their motivations for literally hours.

The Harry Potter books have proven enormously popular for the reasons I have give above, as well as others which I haven't mentioned. Beyond the books, which are always at the top of the bestseller lists, there have been the very successful movies, tons of merchandising, and an incalculable number of web sites and email lists. I do not think that Harry Potter mania is just a fad. I do not think that many years from now people are going to be asking who Harry Potter was. Instead, I think the Harry Potter books will join the Oz books, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and others as classics of children's literature. I think 100 years from now, people will still be reading them.

Tuesday, 1 March 2005

Ye Olde Barbershop

The barbershop has always been a part of life in the United States. Indeed, there can be no doubt that barbers numbered among the Colonists who settled here. I suspect that for most Americans the barbershop does not bring to mind a place where men can have their hair cut and their beards shaved, but a meeting place where they can discuss everything from politics to the latest gossip. For many small towns, the barbersop was often a gathering place for men.

This is even reflected in American pop culture. Floyd the Barber (Howard McNear) was one of the main characters on The Andy Griffith Show. In fact, until Howard McNear's death, Floyd's Barbershop appeared in nearly every episode of the show. I got the feeling it was to Mayberry what the Forum was to Rome... Of course, the neighbourhood barbershop also played a central role in Barbershop and its sequel. There, like Floyd's Barbershop in Mayberry, it was also the local gathering place. Babershops have appeared in movies from The Music Man to Chinatown. In fact, the word barbershop has even been applied to a genre of music. Whether barbershop harmony originated in barbershops or not is debatable, but one thing or not. The musical genre and the place of business have been connected for a very long time.

Of course, barbers were around before Europeans even set foot on American soil. Barbershops existed in Rome, where even there they were gathering places for the latest gossip. In medieval Europe, barbers were also dentists and surgeons. "The Company of Barbers" was chartered as a guild in England under King Edward IV in 1462. Thirty years later a guild for surgeons was founded. Under Henry VII, in 1540, the two guilds were combined. Indeed, the barber pole that is so much a part of barbershop imagery owes it look to the fact that barbers originally engaged in blood letting as surgeons. The red and white stripes symbolised bandages. Of course, as medical science progressed, eventually barbers would cease being physicians and physicians would cease being barbers.

As a young child my father cut both my hair and my brother's hair, owning one of those electric clipper sets so popular in the Sixties. Eventually, however, we got our hair cut at a barber. The first barber I remember going to was Leon in Huntsville. He had the red and white striped pole in front of his shop. And I remember that he had a cache of classic Marvel comic books. It was in that shop that I first encountered both The Avengers and The Fantastic Four.

Of course, it wasn't long before we started going to Nathan Logan's barbershop in Salisbury. Nathan Logan was perhaps the foremost barber in either Chariton or Randolph Counties. Indeed, he had cut four generations of hair in our family--he cut my father's hair, my brother's hair, my hair, and my nephew's hair. I remember his shop had a barberpole in front and a sign bearing his shop's rather fancy name--I think it was called "Logan's Tonsorial Parlor" or something like that. While Nathan didn't have any comic books, I always liked going there. It smelled of witch hazel and shaving cream. And Nathan was a jovial, red haired man with a gift for jokes. He was in many ways the perfect barber--skilled with scissors and comb and possessing the gift of the gab. To give you an idea of Nathan's importance in the history of mid-Missouri, the Charition County Historical Society Museum has a reconstruction of his barbershop--complete with his original barber chair and pole!

As the twentieth century many men started going to hair stylists rather than barbers. I have to admit that I am one of them. That having been said, I still have a fondness for barbershops. They bring to mind images of smalltown life, of men gathered together discussing the latest news, weather, and, of course, gossip. And to this day I love the smell of witch hazel.

Monday, 28 February 2005

Grouching about the Oscars

As most everyone anywhere near a TV set or newspaper know, last night the 77th Annual Academy Awards were held. For me, at least, the Oscars held no real surprises. Indeed, the Oscar for Best Picture was awarded as I predicted it would be in Friday entry. I was pleased with some of the awards. Others, well....

As usual, I was pleased that some won awards and displeased that others did. I was very pleased that The Incredibles won Best Animated Feature Film. While I love Shrek 2 dearly, I think that The Incredibles may actually have been the better film. In fact, I was rather surprised that it won--I thought that the Academy might give the award to Shrek 2, which made more money. I was also very happy that The Aviator took away awards for Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, and Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett, who was wholly convincing as Katherine Hepburn). It was also good to see Jamie Foxx win Best Actor for his performance in Ray; seeing him on screen it is hard to believe it isn't Ray Charles.

As to the Oscars awarded that displeased me, I have to say that I am shocked that "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" (from The Motorcycle Diaries) won best song. Quite frankly, in any language the song is just plain unlistenable. I cannot see how anyone could have thought that "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" was better than "Accidentally in Love" (from Shrek 2). As to the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, I'm not too happy with some of the nominees, let alone with Spider-Man 2 winning. The effects in Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban and Spider-Man 2 are spectacular, but to some degree they are also nothing we haven't seen in the previous Harry Potter and Spider-Man (beyond Dr. Octopus, anyway). I do believe I, Robot deserved to be nominated, but the movie with the best effects wasn't even nominated--the spectacular Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I suppose the fact that it wasn't nominated was punishment for not doing great box office...

Of course, as might be expected, I am not happy that Clint Eastwood won Best Director for Million Dollar Baby. Here I must emphasise that I have always been a Clint Eastwood fan from childhood. I not only admire him as an actor, but as a director as well. His film Unforgiven is a true classic. But this year I am convinced that Martin Scorsese did a much better job of directing The Aviator than Eastwood did of directing Million Dollar Baby. It should come as no surprise, then, that I am not happy that Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture instead of The Aviator. To me Million Dollar Baby is simply a standard Rocky story with a novel twist attached. The Aviator is the epic tale of one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century. Siskel and Roper maintain that Million Dollar Baby won because it has "heart," because viewes could identify with Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) as an underdog. I disagree. To me one of the great things about The Aviator is that it humanises Howard Hughes. The movie draws in the viewer to the point that he or she finds himself or herself sympathetic to Hughes and even identifying with his struggles. Perhaps because the plot of Million Dollar Baby is somewhat cliche, I cannot say that the same thing about that movie. Don't get me wrong. Million Dollar Baby is a great film, even if parts of it seem to have been painted by numbers. But it is nowhere near as great as The Aviator.

As to the ceremony itself, I was happy with it. I thought Chris Rock was very funny and did a very good job. For the most part the speeches were brief and to the point. I can't recall anyone droning on for minutes at a time. I also like the fact that they got to the awards very swiftly--I do believe I prefer a shorter opening. As to the acceptance speeches, I thought Jamie Foxx gave the best. It was very touching and he seemed very sincere to me.

As to the fashions, well, I am not going to talk about the fashions. This is one of the things that has annoyed me about the media come Oscar time. I sometimes think they spend more time discussing who is wearing what than who won what. Quite frankly, it would not matter to me if everyone attended the ceremony dressed in T-shirts and jeans.

Anyhow, that is my review of the Oscars this year. For me at least, the wrong movie won Best Picture and the wrong director won Best Director. But then that is not uncommon at the Academy Awards. I suppose that I can only hope that my favourite Best Picture nominee wins next year....