Saturday, May 14, 2005

Concept Bands

Ever since the emergence of rock 'n' roll, image has played a central role in the music. Bob Marcucci and Peter de Angelis, a team of record executives and songwriters, shaped the image of early rock performer Fabian Forte to the point of even choosing which songs he performed. Brian Epstein was responsible for shaping The Beatles' image from that of rough and ready, leather clad rockers to a more family friendly image. Andrew Oldham reshaped The Rolling Stones' image into a less family friendly one. Given the role image has played in the careers of various rock bands and artists over the years, it was perhaps inevitable that the phenomenon I call "concept bands" would emerge. A concept band is a band centred around a single image or concept or a number of related concepts.

I am not sure what would qualify as the first concept band, but I am thinking a good argument can be made for Alice Cooper. The band was led by the singer of the same name (who went on to become a very successful solo artist). It was in 1965 that Vincent Furnier, soon to become Alice Cooper, formed a band called the Earwigs with four high school classmates. The band would later be renamed the Spiders and then the Nazz. The band changed its name when they learned of the existence of Todd Rundgren's soon to be famous group. The new name, "Alice Cooper," came from working with a ouija board, which informed Vincent he was the reincarnation of a 17th century witch by that name. They released their first album Pretties for You in 1969. The album failed to chart.

Both the band and the artist Alice Cooper played a pivotal role in rock history. Even if they weren't the first concept band, they were among the first to incorporate theatrics into rock performances, not to mention that they were on the vanguard in a new subgenre of heavy metal called "shock rock." Indeed, they may have well invented shock rock! Their image (and the image Alice has retained in his solo career) was largely drawn from old horror movies, Gothic literature, and even vaudeville. In any one of Alice Cooper's stage shows from the Seventies, one might see guillotines, electric chairs, boa constrictors, and a lot of fake blood. Alice Cooper proved very successful in the Seventies, producing a number of hit albums and classic songs ("Eighteen" and "School's Out"). There is perhaps no greater measure of Alice Cooper's success than the fact that they have inspired many, many bands since their first record came out in 1969: W.A.S.P., White Zombie, Marilyn Manson, and even KISS owe a good deal to Alice Cooper.

Another early concept band, although not nearly as successful as Alice Cooper, were The Residents. While Alice Cooper drew liberally from macabre pop culture, The Residents centred on the idea of performance art. Indeed, it is difficult to say that The Residents are so much a rock group as a performance art group. They formed in the late Sixties, although they would not become The Residents until 1971. Perhaps a bit too outre for the big recording labels, they formed their own in 1972. The Residents would pretty much remain in obscurity until music video became hugely popular. Among the earliest groups to work in both film and video, The Residents' remake of "Land of 1,000 Dances" received a lot of airplay on MTV and other video venues. The video was certainly unique, with the anonymous Residents dressed in costumes made from newspapers. The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video referred to the video as "The most utterly, exuberantly original and bizarre performance video ever." Depsite some notoriety for their videos, The Residents never have achieved fame and fortune, although they continue to perform to this day.

A more successful concept band was based in part on the Alice Cooper model. In 1970 Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley formed the band Rainbow (not to be confused with Ritchie Blackmore's later band of the same name). The band would eventually become Wicked Lester and would even win a recording contract with Epic. Unfortunately, no album ever emerged. After various personnel changes (namely, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley joining the band), Wicked Lester became KISS. Initially KISS drew inspiration from the various New York city glam rock bands, such as The New York Dolls. Not particularly caring for the feminine make up that the Dolls wore, they went a different route and created their own garish, greasepaint make up style, each adopting his own identity in the process: Paul Stanley became the Star Child, Gene Simmons became the Demon, Ace Frehley became the Spaceman, and Peter Criss became the Cat. Along with the makeup came garish costumes and a stage show that included fire breathing, explosions, and, of course, fake blood.

Like Alice Cooper, Kiss drew their image largely from old horror movies. Unlike Alice Cooper, they drew more heavily from Marvel Comics (which Gene Simmons read voraciously as a child). In fact, the personas of KISS were more or less superheroes. Marvel Comics published a comic book based on the band (printed with KISS's own blood....) and there was even a TV movie portraying the band as superheroes--KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, first aired in 1978. KISS was one of the most successful rock bands of the Seventies, producing a string of hit albums and a number of classic songs ("Love Gun," "Calling Dr. Love," "Detroit Rock City..."). There can be little doubt that the concept behind Kiss added largely to their success. Everything from the make up to the KISS logo (complete with lightning bolts, it was created by Ace Frehley) seemed to be designed for mass merchandising. And KISS was heavily merchandised in the Seventies, with everything from greasepaint to action figures bearing the KISS logo.

When it comes to concept bands, perhaps there is no truer concept band than Devo. Devo was based around one, single concept--devolution (the idea that mankind is devolving to a lower state of being). Devo was formed in 1972 by two art students at Kent State, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale . Like The Residents, Devo embraced film and video whole heartedly. In 1976 they released a short film, "The Truth About De-Evolution," complete with their own spastic remake of "Satisfaction." The film won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, where it was seen by both David Bowie and Iggy Pop. On the strength of those two artists, they were able to get a recording contract with Warner Brothers. Indeed, their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo was produced by Brian Eno. It was with their next album, Freedom of Choice, that the band would see their greatest success. The video for their single "Whip It" was played constantly on MTV, giving the strange band exposure it might not have otherwise had. Their next album, New Traditionalists, would do well, but their album sales would eventually slip until they lost their recording contract. Devo was certanly one of the strangest bands to ever appear on the rock scene. Their image was purposefully nerdy, with the band dressing in black turlenecks, plastic haridos, and flower pot hats (energy domes, supposedly). Among the various imagery used by Devo was Booji Boy, a deformed infant sybmolisng the infantile regression of mankind. Their music was largely simple, consisting of guitars and synthesisers, although their lyrics dealt with some deep concepts. Although Devo played their image for humour, they addressed such themes as consumerism, the class system, and various other serious topics.

This is only a very, very short list of concept bands. I suppose that there have been many, many more since the Seventies. Indeed, I suppose arguments could be made as to which bands actually do qualify as concept bands. For instance, I can see an argument being made for The Sex Pistols being a concept band, given their rebellion against anything and everything, including rock music itself. To a degree what qualifies as a concept band and what doesn't may largely depend on one's point of view. Certainly, KISS and Devo are clearly concept bands, but, then, what about The Sex Pistols or even a rockabilly band like The Stray Cats?

Of course, the big question may be what impact the whole concept (no pun intended) of concept bands has had on the history of rock music. Certainly some concept bands, such as Alice Cooper and KISS, have had a lasting impact in terms of music sales and even merchandising (especially in the case of KISS). That having been said, while there have been many concept bands over the years, they have never constituted the majority of rock acts. Indeed, the last new concept artist to appear on the scene that I can name was Marilyn Manson. It is possible that the concept band is simply an idea whose time has come or gone or, like various subgenres of rock music, it will come in and out of vogue. It then seems possible to me that concept bands could have another hey day like they did in the Seventies and Eighties. And I rather suspect that not all of those concept bands will draw upon Alice Cooper and KISS for inspiration.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Some Songs to Go with the Picture...

I just thought maybe I should provide some music to go along with Leighton's The Accolade. I imagine "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues is technically set in the Sixties when it was written, but for some reason the song always brings to my mind the days when knighthood was in flower. I think it is then a fitting song to accompany Leighton's painting.

"Nights in White Satin"--The Moody Blues

Of course, if you're in the mood for another of Leighton's paintings, there is always...
"Lady Godiva"--Peter and Gordon

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

Okay, I am still in a mood for art. Below is one of my favourite works of art of all time. It is The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton. Leighton was a Victorian era painter, born in London in 1853 to artist Charles Blair Leighton and his wife. He entered into adulthood working in an office, but soon took up painting full time. Leighton has largely been forgotten (the average person probably does not recognise his name), but his works are still popular, still providing many prints and paintings. Leighton specialised in period pieces, particularly those from the Middle Ages, although he also did paintings from the Regency as well. In this he was not alone, as many Victorian artists looked to the chivalrous past for inspiration. Indeed, in many ways his paintings can be described as the artistic equivalent of the writings of Sir Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson. Some of his other paintings include Lady Godiva (1892), Tristram and Isolde (1907), and The Boyhood of Alfred The Great (1913). He painted The Accolade in 1901. Leighton died in 1922.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Native American Art

I must confess that I love Native American art. Indeed, I developed a love for Native American jewellery at a young age, in the Seventies when Native American jewellery of turquoise and other materials was in fashion. Of course, while I do love Native American art, I must confess to knowing very little about it. I can name only a few artists and I am largely ignorant of the various artistic traditions of the various Native peoples. Like a lot of people in mid-Missouri I am part Cherokee, but then like a lot of people in mid-Missouri I am also largely ignorant of my Native heritage.

Here I should point out that the term "Native American art" is somewhat misleading, just as the term "Native American" is. The term "Native American" does not refer to a single ethnicity no more than the terms "European" or "Asian" do. There are many different Native American tribes, each with their own histories, customs, beliefs, and so on. One Native American tribe may be as different from another as England is from Saudi Arabia. "Native American art" then simply refers to the collective art of those peoples who lived in the Americas prior to the coming of the Europeans. It is comprised of a vast array of different styles and works in different media; it is perhaps more varied and diverse than European art ever was.

Aside from the Native American jewellery I saw as a child, I cannot say when I had my first significant exposure to Native American art. I suppose it was at one of the pow wows that were once held in Moberly every year. The pow wows were organised by the late Harold Carlson and took place the first weekend after Labour Day. At the pow wows there were always a good number of merchants. And some of them actually sold genuine Native American art. It was not necessarily the expensive works of art one might find at a gallery, but it was art nonetheless. As to the pow wows, sadly they ended when Harold Carlson passed on a year or two ago.

A more substantial encounter with Native American art occured when I first visited Best of the West in Columbia. Best of the West is a store which sells authentic Native American art, jewellery, and decor. Much of it comes from the American Southwest, although they also carry Native American works from elsewhere as well (such as the Cherokee baskets). They have a wide array of kachinas, pipes, dreamcatchers, sculptures, and jewellery. Indeed, their jewellery is impressive, in silver, gold, turquoise, red coral, and other materials. They recently had a fire in their basement, but fortunately it did little damage. I wish they still had a web site so you readers could see some of their goods. It is easily one of the coolest stores in downtown Columbia.

As far as Native American artists, I only know a few by name (as I said, I am largely ignorant of Native American art). One of my favourite painters is Michael Horse (if some of you find the name familiar it is because he is also an actor who has appeared in such films as Riders in the Storm and Navajo Blues, not to mention done a lot of voice work in cartoons). What I like about Michael Horse's paintings and drawings is that they have a sense of movement to them. It's as if each one tells a small portion of a story. An example is Buffalo Hunt. You can practically hear the hunters bearing down on the buffalo. A man of many talents, he also makes jewellery. He makes the most beautiful rings in a variety of media. David K. John is another of my favourite painters. He has a wonderful sense for colour. Much of his appeal for me is that his work seems more expressionistic, rather than a literal potrayal of what he is painting. He draws much of his inspiration from Navajo mythology. I also like the work of the late Dan Viets Lomahaftewa. I like his work because he mixes traditional Hopi styles with modern ones. His paintings also have the most vivid colours I have ever seen.

As far as sculpture goes, I like the work of Cecil Calnimptewa, a Hopi who makes the most beautiful kachinas. The detail in his kachinas are just incredible. And his kachinas practically seem to be in motion! Another sculptor I like is Richard Hunt, a Kwaguilth Native from British Columbia. His work is just beautiful. I also like the work of Roxanne Swenzel. Her work conveys emotion very well. Her sculptures also seem to me to blend both her Pueblo and German heritage, showing influences from both.

For those of you interested in Native American art, here are four links to the web sites of four very nice galleries:

Kiva Fine Art

Rainmaker Art

Shared Visions

Yosimite Native Art Gallery

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Elisabeth Fraser R.I.P.

I am sure it has happened to most of us. We are watching a television show and we recognise an actor from yet other guest appearances on other TV shows. These actors were the unsung heroes of series television's Golden Age (which I could as the Fifties and Sixties), the chracters actors. Yet another of their number has died. Character actress Elisabeth Fraser passed on Thursday at the age of 85 from congstive heart failure.

In case you don't recognise the name (which I am sure most of you don't), Elisabeth Fraser was probably best known for playing Sgt. Bilko's girlfriend, Sgt. Joan Hogan, on The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko). Fraser had a long career on stage, in film, and on television. She started at the tender age of 18 on the Broadway stage, playing the ignenue in the play There Shall Be No
. Her role in the play attracted the attention of Warner Brothers who signed her to a contract. She made her film debut in One Foot in Heaven in 1941. Perhaps her best known early role was that of June Stanley (daughter of the unfortunate Stanleys who must host Sheridan Whiteside as his leg mends) in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Later in her career Fraser played a succession of brassy blondes on both film and television. She played Miss Forsythe in the 1951 version of Death of a Salesman, Alice Pepper in The Tunnel of Love, Nina Bailey in The Glass Bottom Boat, and Shelley Winter's friend Sadie in A Patch of Blue.

Of course, Fraser was probably best known for her many television roles. Besides playing Joan on The Phil Silvers Show, she also played Hazel Norris on the television version of Fibber McGee and Molly. She made a large number of guest appearances, in a wide number of genres shows. She appeared in anthology series, such as Four Star Theatre and Kraft Television Theatre. She appeared in dramas, such The Defenders and Wagon Train. She appeared in action series, such as 77 Sunset Strip and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. But the largest number of guest appearances she made were in sitcoms, taking memorable turns in The Addams Family, Bewitched, The Jack Benny Programme, Maude, and The Monkees.

She appeared a few more times on Broadway throughout the Forties and Fifties, including the original stage version of Tunnel of Love, The People, and The Best Man.

Elisabeth Fraser was among my favourite character actors. She was perfect for roles of brassy broads, and had a natural gift for comedy. Her timing was impeccable. Indeed, as Joan Hogan she was a perfect match for comic genius Phil Silvers as Ernie Bilko. While I suspect most TV viewers won't remember her name (such is the curse of character actors), they will remember her.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Architecture of Cinemas

As I have stated here before, my parents never went to the movies. I really don't know the reason why, but they didn't. As a result, I really did not start going to the movies regularly until I was about 13. I can still remember the first movie theatre I ever went to because it was one of only three (counting the drive-in) in the county. It was the Cinema in Moberly. The Cinema was one of the oldest theatres in the nation even at that time and still showed its days as a "movie palace." Perhaps because the Cinema was the first movie theatre I ever attended, I have always been fascinated by cinema architecture.

Hard as it may be to believe today, the movie and the movie theatre did not come about at the same time. Originally, movies had to be viewed on either Kinetoscope or Mutoscope machines. To watch movies the viewer had to look through a lens in the machine; as a result, on any given Kinetoscope or Mutoscope, only one viewer could watch a movie at a time. These machines filled the penny acades and "peep shows (a "peep show" being a penny arcade devoted to solely to Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes)" of the late Nineteenth century.

The way people watch movies would be changed in the mid-1890s when a number of different individuals would hold public screenings of motion pictures. The first public screening of a motion picture was held by Charles-Emile Reynaud at the Musee Grevin in Paris, France. His Praxinoscope displayed animated drawings, among the earliest cartoons. It seems quite possible that Reynaud's invention influenced fellow Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumiere, who invented the Cinematographe, a device which could act as both an motion picture camera and a projecter in 1894. That same year Woodville Latham and his sons Otway and Gray started development of their own movie projector, the Eidolscope (the system the Lathams developed for looping film--the Latham loop--is still used in modern day projectors). The Lumiere brothers would display their first film shot with the Cinematographe in March 1895 at meeting of the Societe d'Encouragement a l'industrie Nationale in Paris. On April 21, 1895, the Lathams would show the first film they had shot with their Eidolscope to reporters. It is believed to be the frist public screening of a film in the United States.

Perhaps more signficicant than either the Latham or Lumiere's demonstrations of their inventions to American cinema history is the first public screening of movies for a paying audience. It took place on April 23, 1896 at a Vaudeville theatre, Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City (curiously enough located on the corner of 34th Street and Broadway where Macy's now stands....). The movies were only part of the bill at the theatre that night, as they would be at other Vaudeville theatres around the country in coming years. It would not be long, however, before the movies would find venues of their own.

As to what constituted the first cinema in the United States, sources are conflicting. Many consider it to be the Vitascope Hall, which opened in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 26, 1896. Others maintain that the first cinema in America was Tally's Electric Theater, which opened in Los Angeles in 1902. Ultimately, perhaps it doesn't matter who was first. Cinemas would soon start springing up all over the United States. The early theatres were often simple affairs, operated out of storefronts and often using little more than benches for seats. Motion pictures continued to be shown as part of Vaudeville theatre's bills and eventually the Vaudeville theatre would leave its mark on cinema architecture. The big time Vaudeville theatres were often ornate affairs, with classical facades, plush seating, and even oil paintings. In 1913 a movie theatre opened in New York City that utilised the architecture of the better Vaudeville theatres. The Regent featured a Venetian palazzo exterior, with an auditorium done in Spanish-Moorish design. Its wall panels were satin and it even featured a ceiling mural. While the Regent was fancier than many theatres of the time, it nearly failed. Its owner Henry Marvin had to call upon impresario Samuel L. Rothapfel, who would later open Radio City Music Hall, for help. Rothapfel saved the Regent. Regardless, more ornate movie theatres would follow.

In 1920 the San Francisco Fox opened in the city of the same name. It was done in Baroque and French Renaissance style. The theatre not only featured antique furniture and paintings, but its own hospital for the medical emergencies of patrons! The famous Roxy Theatre was opened by Samuel L. Rothaphel (his nickname was Roxy) in New York City in 1927. It is often considered the greatest cinema ever built. The Roxy could seat almost 6000 people and featured a hospital, a radio broadcast studio, and washrooms that could handle up to 10,000 people. Grauman's Chinese Theatre opened the same year in Hollywood, California. The theatre was built in Chinese style, complete with pagodas and temple bells. It features many statues and fountains. As a tourist hotspot (this is where the footprints of many celebrities can be found), it is one of the few theatres of its time period to still be open. Because of the sheer opulence of these various theatres, they came to be known as "movie palaces." It is hard to argue that the term is not fitting.

From the Twenties into the Thirties, cinema architecture made a dramatic change. The Old World opulence of the movie palaces, often utilising Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic, and other sophisticated designs, gave way to Art Deco as the preferred architectural style. Film and architectural historians have always debated why cinemas made the shift to Art Deco, but I think it was simply a case of changing tastes in architecture. The period from about 1925 to 1945 was the era of Art Deco. This was the period during which the Daily News Building (1930), the RCA Building (1932), and, the most famous of them all, the Empire State Building (1931) were all built in New York City in the Art Deco Style. Art Deco was then the architectural fashion of the moment. Indeed, it might well have been unusal if cinemas had not followed suit in adopting the Art Deco style.

Here it must be pointed out that simply because Art Deco became the dominant style in cinema design, that did not mean opulence did not leave movie theatres. Done in Art Deco design, the famous Radio City Music Hall definitely qualifies as a movie palace. At the time it opened, Radio City Music Hall was the largest theatre ever built in the United States. The Paramount Theatre built in Boston in 1932 is another example of an opulent, Art Deco movie palace. It seated 1700 and was built specifically for talking pictures.

The Great Depression was not a particularly good time for the movie palaces. From 1930 to 1932, the number of theatres nationwide dropped from 22,000 to 14,000. Many theatres used giveaways, such as dishes and other objects, to lure audiences back into theatres. Others would hold raffles for household appliances. Theatres had hit hard times like everyone else. World War II saw theatres recover a bit and soon new theatres were being constructed. These theatres differed from the extravagant movie palaces of the Twenties and the Art Deco cinemas of the Thirties. The availability of varous materials being restricted because of the war, concrete and glass were most often used to build the new theatres. Unfortunately, hard times would hit theatres again in the late Forties into the Fifties. Television and the proliferation of other pasttimes stole cinemas' audiences from them. The drive-in theatre largely took over from the movie palaces of old. By the late Sixites, the drive-ins would face a new threat. Multiplexes, often housed in shopping malls, began appearing. Multiplexes could show several different movies on their multiple screens, making it hard for both drive-ins and the older theatres to compete. Many of the old movie palaces saw their last days during this era.

As I said earlier, the first theatre I ever attended was the 4th Street Cinema in Moberly. It was acutally one of the oldest cinemas in the naiton and certainly one of the longest operating. It was built in 1913 and lavishly outfitted, with gold leaf, white marble wainscotting, and mahogony doors. It had lost much of its glamour of past years when I first entered its doors, but it was still a beautiful theatre. It closed its doors when B & B Theatres opened the new Five and Drive a few years ago. Fortunately, they donated it to the Moberly Historical Society who are in the process of restoring it.

The other theatre of my youth was the State, which stood just down 4th Street from the Cinema. The State was also a fairly old theatre, having been built in 1922. Like the Cinema, it had lost much of its glamour by the time I attended it, although it was still an exquisite, old theatre. What I can remember of the State is its red velvet drapes and white marble. I seem to remember old timers telling how the major releases would be shown at either the Grand (also called Halloran's--it closed down before I was born) or the Cinema. The State usually got the cowboy B pictures and other shoot 'em ups. Sadly, when the State closed, it was converted to office space.

Yet another theatre of my youth was the Kennedy Theatre in Kirksville. It opened in 1927 and done in a Colonial Revival design. With a seating capacity of 1122, it was one of the biggest smalltown theatres I'd ever been in. It was also one of the most beautiful theatres I'd ever seen. I used to go with my brother to the midnight double features they had there on Saturday when he was attending NMSU. Indeed, it was Kirksville's home for The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Unfortunately, the Kennedy closed in 1985 and was demolished in 1992 for a bank parking lot. Personally, I think they should have torn down the bank and turned it into a parking lot for the Kennedy... Anyhow, you can see a picture of it here, along with pictures of Moberly's old State and Cinema Theatres.

Huntsville also had its own theatre, although it closed before I was born. The Roxy Theatre is a bit of a legend in Huntsville. I am not exactly sure when it opened, although I know it was open for many, many years. My brother claims that he can still remember its sign from childhood. Sadly, I have yet to find any pictures of the theatre (for some reason every photo of Huntsville during that era is of the other side of the street). The Freemasons currently are located where the theatre once was. Salisbury still has its theatre, the Lyric, which opened in 1924. I went to a movie there once in grade school, but I really don't remember much about its interior. Its exterior in its heyday was Art Deco. Sadly, its exterior has changed since then. It no longer even has a marquee, simply a sign reading "Lyric."

There are three other theatres I should mention here. One was the Liberty in Mexico, Missouri. I never attended the theatre, although I had driven past it plenty of times. It was built in 1920, making it one of the earliest Art Deco thetres around. I remember that it had much more neon than either the Cinema or the State did. It also had an unsual colour scheme--brown. Sadly, it closed in the Eighties and was demolished in 1995. Another theatre I should mention is the Missouri Theatre in Columbia. It opened in 1928 and was originally a Vaudevile theatre. Bob Hope and the Rockettes had both performed there at different times. Its architecture is baroque, complete with a chandelier and gold leaf. The Missouri closed in 1988, but was purchased by the Missouri Symphony Society, who use it to this day. The third theatre I wish to mention is the Paramount Theatre in Abilene, Texas. It was built in 1930 in a Spanish/Moorish design, with lots of neon. I did not go inside it last time I was in Abilene, but it is absolutely beautiful on the outside, particularly at night when the neon is lit up. If anyone reading this ever is in Abilene, they must see this theatre.

I have to say that I miss the movie palaces of old. I remember that when I was growing up, much of the pleasure in going to the movies was simply in looking at the surroundings of the Cinema or State theatres. In today's multiplexes too often the only thing to which look forward are the previews and the movies, and sometimes not even that. I think if I ever strike it rich, I might try to buy the Roxy from the Freemasons and restore it to its former glory. I can't think of too many better things than owning my own movie palace.

Monday, May 9, 2005

Hero (or Ying xiong)

I recently bought Hero or, to use its Mandarin name, Ying xiong on DVD. I had seen the movie in the theatre and was suitably impressed. Seeing it on DVD, I am still very impressed. If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was not enough, Hero should prove once and for all to Western audiences that not all swordfight/martial arts movies are simply a bunch of action sequences strung together.

Indeed, Hero is a very hard movie to describe. It is set in ancient China, when that empire was still made up of separate, warring kingdoms. The film makes use of a framing device in which a warrior approaches the king of Qin, the most powerful kingdom, with news that he has killed three deadly assassins who wanted to kill the king. Through this framing device,varying accounts much in the style of Rashomon are told of how the man called Nameless defeated the assassins. I must insert a word of warning that the summary I have just given does not do the movie justice to the movie. Hero is not simply a variation on Rashoman and there is a lot more going on than varying tales of how one man killed three of ancient China's deadliest assassins. Indeed, on first viewing I can safely say that most everyone will not know what Hero is about until the very end of the film.

Perhaps the film's strongest point is its cinematorgraphy. Chris Doyle does a marvelous job of capturing on film many places in China that had never been seen on film before. Indeed, the landscapes are incredible to see. He also does a great job of shooting the scenes involving vast numbers of extras (those involving the army of Qin and the king's guard), something a bit trickier than many people believe (just contrast Troy's cinematography with this movie).

The direction of Zhang Yimou is also impressive. He treats each story as its own little mini-movie, each one with its own colour scheme and textures. He imbues Hero with a psychological depth rarely seen in any film.

Hero also features some of the most incredible action scenes ever captured on film. Like most martial arts movies, the action scenes are stylised rather than realistic, yet at the same time they are like nothing one has ever seen before on film. Among the most impressive fight scenes is Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow) and Zhang Ziyi's (Moon) battle within a golden forrest (shot in Mongolia). Similarly impressive is the scene in which Tony Leung Chiu Wai ( Broken Sword) and Maggie Cheung storm the King of Qin's palace.

The film also benefits from some solid performances. As Nameless, Jet Li proves once and for all that he is not just a martial arts wizard, but that he can actually act. Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung are even more impressive in the more demanding roles of assassins Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Indeed, given that the personalities of Broken Sword and Flying Snow change from story to story, both would be difficult roles to perform.

If Hero has one weakness, it is its framing story. While I enjoyed it myself, I can see how others might find it a bit talky, even stodgy. Part of this is largely due to how these scenes are shot, almost with the point/counterpoint method of American Sunday morning news commentary shows. If a viewer enjoys intersting conversations regardless of how they are shot, then he or she probably will not mind the framing story. If not, he might find the framing story very dull.

At any rate, I do recommend Hero. If one has a high tolerance for the framing story, then he or she probably will enjoy the film. This is no ordinary martial arts movie, but a film with a good deal of depth and intelligence to it

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Photograph by Ringo Starr

This morning I am still not particularly well and I find myself quite a bit down. Indeed, Ringo Starr's song "Photograph" keeps going through my head. The song is from his album Ringo, released in November 1973. In a strange way the album could be considered a Beatles reunion, as each of The Beatles was featured on it. That having been said, John, Paul, and George did not perform together at any point on the record. They did not perform on the same songs. In fact, at no point were they even in the recording studio together (feelings were still a bit strained between them at this point)! All of them did contribute to the album. John provided "I'm the Greatest." Paul wrote "Six O'Clock." In the case of "Photograph," Ringo co-wrote the song with George Harrison. It is one of the most Beatlesque songs any of the former Beatles performed after they had gone their separate ways.

Anyhow, it seems that "Photograph" is my song for the day. Here's a link to the song in RealAudio:

"Photograph"--Ringo Starr

Seeing that this is Mother's Day, it might be fitting for me to wish all those mothers out there a happy Mother's Day!