Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 10 Books of 2012

This year, as I posted in October, I've made more of an effort to read books of poems, with decidedly mixed results.  Most I tried out were not worth much attention, and towards the end of the year I drifted away from focusing on poetry.  When my total number of books for the year reached 52, to average out at one a week, I decided that was plenty, and set about sifting through my top choices.  Because of already knowing I was going to go over ten TV shows for this year's TV list, and knowing so few of the many books of poems were real contenders for this year's book list, I decided to take this year's book list down to ten from the usual fifteen.  So it represents a little less than the top 20% of what I've read this year.

title – author – year published

10 - A Gun for Sale - Graham Greene - 1936
Published in the U.S. the same year under the title This Gun for Hire, this book is justly considered one of Greene's better "thrillers" (as opposed to his "novels") and was adapted into Hollywood films five times, the most famous being its 1941 version which made Alan Ladd a star and was the first of his four films with Veronica Lake.  The book is both relentless and relentlessly low-key, detailing a somewhat paranoid but pragmatic hired hit man who murders a foreign diplomat abroad and then, in London, is doublecrossed by his employer.  A disfigured, sensitive, fair man, the killer finds a fragile kind of refuge with a woman he tentatively befriends and enlists to help him serve revenge on his employer.  She is, of course, the girlfriend of the detective tracking the hired killer.  Despite the rather pulpy setup, Greene does an excellent job with the psychological aspects of his main characters, as all of them not only are more than they appear, but also wrestle internally with how they appear to the world versus how they perceive themselves.  Long heralded as one of the 20th Century writers who successfully struggle with the problem of evil in the modern world, this early novel shows Greene honing his talents in a fast-paced, grim noir story.

9 - Chicken Beacon - Richard E. McMullen - 1975
The only random book of poetry I picked up to make this list, it's a short collection of whimsical and funny poems much in the vein of Shel Silverstein, though rather better than most of Silverstein's work, which does think itself quite wonderful for being so clever.  Rather than cleverness, the impetus of McMullen's poems is delight and childlike questioning of the small things of daily life, like getting up for work, getting lost in the woods, full refrigerators, and uncles who are loud.  McMullen, who was a schoolteacher in Michigan and would publish three more poetry books, is completely, refreshingly, outside the poetry "scene," and so his poems are unaware of the posturing, verbal feints, and attempts to complicate and hide emotions which so many of his contemporaries engage in.  He's fun and quirky to read, with an easy sense of fair play that is almost always delicately mentioned without being the point of his poems.

8 - Winter News - John Haines - 1966
Reading more John Haines has been on my list for a few years, and I was pleased to read this collection, his first published, in crisp mid-September weather as the first thoughts of winter were approaching.  Without dramatically dividing the book, the first half tends to focus on the abstractions and states of winter: snow, stasis, ice, hibernation, etc., and looks mostly to nature or solitary figures observing nature.  In the second half, the poems focus on the human and interactive aspects of winter, from building snow forts to crossing dangerous ice floes, as townspeople go slowly stir-crazy and interact in brief, shattering exchanges.  Never one for complicated language, Haines finds a sympathetic milleu for his Anglo-Saxon verbiage in traditional American and European winter landscapes, resulting in a remarkably even psychological tenor to the book, both calm and stretched tight, like an icicle rooted to a drainspout.

7 - The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame - 1908
I'm not sure how I never actually read the full book as a child.  Certainly I knew various episodes from the overall story, from Rat's boating adventures to Toad's manic roadster escapades, but the impetus for reading this classic tale in the first place was something wholly modern: I wanted a brief and easy book to try reading in its entirety on my smartphone, just as a way of experiencing reading through a new technology.  I had never considered the influence of Grahame on Tolkien, but it was made readily apparent through the structuring devices of the episodes, which some of Tolkien's various Lord of the Rings drafts employ, and of the general attitudes of his characters towards work, play, friendships and leisure, all of which approach hobbit culture.  It's a delightful story from beginning to end, spanning a  year and a half in the lives of its characters, from the start of one spring to the end of the following summer.  While never quite reaching into the realm of allegory, there is a rich symbolism to the pastoral English landscape the creatures inhabit, and gently molded characteristics of various social classes to the temperament of each character.  It was pleasantly surprising to find much I could enjoy as an adult from good-natured Mole, hardy Rat, and wise old Badger.

6 - Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America - Frederick Lewis Allen - 1940
Two years ago Allen's first book, Only Yesterday, made #3 on my list.  An immediate retrospective on the 1920s published in 1931, the book was successful enough for a sequel.  And so nine years later Since Yesterday was published.  The second book isn't as particularly engaging as the first, partly because the almost-always-ineffective New Deal machinations of FDR and his cronies do get boring.  I don't know that I'd say the 1920s were a more interesting decade in American life than the 1930s, but certainly there were, from a social standpoint, more things going on.  Inside the Great Depression, which waxed and waned all ten years, the economic conditions of the American family and government simply made culture flatter and less innovative than in the previous decade.  It was a harsher world the U.S. had to respond to as well, from riding high as arguably the only country which came out ahead politically, economically, and socially after World War I, to the ominous unrest rippling throughout Europe which had always been present but took on a new character after the Nazi party's rise to power in Germany in 1933.  As an editor for Harper's throughout the '20s and '30s (and eventually becoming editor-in-chief in 1941), Allen has a great seat from which to observe much of the history he writes about, and the journalistic chops to keep a handle on it all.  As with the first book, his observations and insights are rather striking from such a short historical distance after such events, especially as the book ends with England's declaration of war on September 3, 1939.  Allen can't know anything about the outcome of the war, or even whether the U.S. will enter it, or if the Depression will end.

5 - Landscape at the End of the Century - Stephen Dunn - 1991
Stephen Dunn is not a recent find for me, but it's been a while since I've read his poetry, and this collection, though twenty years old, feels incredibly relevant.  If Richard McMullen took everyday things which impressed themselves upon him and approached them through the whimsical eyes of a child, Stephen Dunn takes everyday things and catalogs them, hides them away, lets them stay buried and swimming around for a while, and then brings them up again by dredging.  Their rough edges are intact; some have even become sharper.  Their tableaus have solidified, not stagnated but rather settled.  One can look at them more directly.  Eerily enough, I have found a few of the poems in this collection to be my own ruminations in quiet and clear moments, either about myself or the world and its people around me, but in language of such crystal that I found myself at first thinking "yes, I think this way too" and then coming to realize "no, not in such a defined way."  I like Dunn's way of putting things, of recognizing how placing one word and then the next and then the next does in fact elucidate meaning, even if meaning is only possible far after the event.

4 - Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television - Harry Castleman & Walter J. Podrazik - 1982
For many people this book would be quite long and boring, but I was really excited to find and read it.  Each chapter is a chronological history and critique of the prime time schedules of each television year from the early 1940s (when "prime time" as a concept didn't actually exist yet) through the 1980-81 season.  Not only the individual shows, but general trends in viewership, watershed episodes and moments, and the varying fortunes of the networks are explored.  My earlier posts this summer about finding new old shows to investigate were a result of reading this.  Imagine my further excitement to find that in 2003 the authors updated the book in a second edition which includes the TV seasons from 1981-82 to 2001-02 - it's already on my reading list for next year!

3 - On the Beach - Nevil Shute - 1957
On my to-read list for years, this novel is one of a very few from Australian literature to break through to audiences in other countries.  Its time period is contemporary to its writing, and details the lives of a handful of people in Melbourne.  Prior to the beginning of the novel, a few days of nuclear war has consumed most all of the Northern Hemisphere.  Fallout from the cobalt-treated bombs used to destroy much of civilization is slowly being taken by the trade winds down into the Southern Hemisphere, killing all human life as it goes.  From the best predictions, humans living in the southern parts of South America and Australia will be the last alive, and they likely have a little less than a year.  What makes the novel remarkable is not the scenario itself, but Shute's characters, who go on with their lives, making do as best as they can, hoping for a reprieve but not expecting one.  There are investigations into possible solutions, but these are secondary to the story.  A mystery involving a Morse code signal from the West Coast of the U.S. is looked into by some of the main characters, but is resolved halfway through the novel.  It's a masterful, mature tone that Shute establishes, that humankind has simply extended itself too far and that's all.  Maybe one day a new species will come along, and some of the characters plan things to leave for them, but man's hour upon the stage is over.  His characters are not hysterics, do not become overly existential, and society doesn't succumb to greedy excesses, or particular violence, or general apathy, even as the months quickly pass away.  It is a quiet book, a sobering book that doesn't veer into moral judgments or political causes.  It is, to be frank, nothing an American could pull off convincingly in a post-apocalyptic tale, which makes the story and the telling all the more interesting.  A recent inheritor and intriguing comparison would be Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which placed at #7 in my top books list for 2009), apart from the persistent violence in that novel.  On the Beach was perhaps the novel which surprised me most this year.

2 - The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro - 1989
Another book I'd wanted to read for a long time, The Remains of the Day is one of those rare stories where both the book and the film are quite well done, but intrisically different in presenting the same story.  The 1993 movie received the full, lush Merchant-Ivory treatment and remains one of the best movies of Anthony Hopkins' and Emma Thompson's long careers.  But the novel is in many ways an even more subtle treasure through its strucutre as the diary of Stevens, an English butler, a proper and professional man with an eclectic and absorbing mix of humility and arrogance in his character, both sides of which he is often scarcely aware of.  Winning the Man Booker prize for 1989, the story alternates between the efforts of Stevens after World War II to visit Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper he served with at Darlington Hall, and reminiscences of their time together there serving Lord Darlington in the 1920s and 1930s.  In various ways, Stevens both tries and refuses to try to deal with unresolved feelings from his former life, involving deliberately repressed affection for Miss Kenton, a frozen relationship between he and his now-deceased father, and a blindness to the naivete of Lord Darlington, who was used as a tool by the Nazis in the 1930s to make contacts within the English gentry, and to help encourage the British government towards a policy of appeasement.  It is a double quest narrative, with journeys both in the present and past to arrive at realizations which belong both in the present and the past.  But Stevens is often incapable of understanding he's even on a quest, much less the ends which wait for him, which Ishiguro deftly indicates to the reader through his unreliable narrator.  Yet throughout all of this, Stevens never becomes a prop, a cardboard cutout, or a symbol for a type of Englishman who has outlived his time, remaining a complex, believable character, utterly insensitive but possessing childlike sweetness, the emotional core of a modern tragedy.

1 - The Killer Angels - Michael Shaara - 1974
The first I'd heard of this book was not as the 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner, or as the basis for the acclaimed 1993 film Gettysburg, but in a random online interview with Joss Whedon somewhere in the mid-aughts as he discussed sources of inspiration for his short-lived 2001 TV show Firefly, which has long been a favorite show of mine and many of my friends.  I only received and read the novel this year, as a gift of my musician friend Eric Peters in thanks for helping him raise the funds to make his 2011 album Birds of Relocation, which landed at the #1 spot in my top albums list from the first half of this year.  With all that weighty background, I expected to enjoy the novel, but was unprepared for how emotionally strong it was, and how Shaara truly is able to - despite the cliche - make history come alive.  The book chronicles, as factually as is possible in a character-based fictional novel, the events and motivations of the soldiers surrounding the battle of Gettsyburg, in early July of 1863.  Though the action proceeds chronologically, each chapter is focused on the persona of a specific commander, general, or lieutenant and comes from their point of view.  Often the chapters alternate between the Union and the Confederacy, and overall there are seven different narrators, though two are used much more frequently than the others.  The multi-day battle is covered in relentless physical and psychological detail; Shaara's primary source documents are various letters and reports, from during and after the fighting, written by several of the men involved to family or friends, or commanding officers.  Powerful in both its style and scope, the book pulled me along, making me stay up quite late to finish "just one more chapter."  I haven't had that experience in a long time, and it solidified The Killer Angels as my number one book for this year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Top 10 (ish) TV Shows of 2012

I was having a really hard time compiling a TV top ten this year.  No matter what criteria I tried to use, I kept getting more than ten shows I wanted to highlight as excellent television.  Then I thought of a friend here at Bluebell who teaches media studies and his method of a yearly top list for television which isn't numerally designated at all.  Instead, there's different tiers of quality, and however many shows fit each category are put in, and ordered alphabetically.  He uses four tiers but I've decided to use three.  Overall there's fifteen shows I'd like to call attention to this year, and so with that many, I'm also going to write a little bit less about some of the shows which have appeared on these lists before.  Last year I also added clips for each entry, but this year I'm only going to do so for shows which haven't appeared here before.

show & season - year originally broadcast - network - episodes & run time

Tier 3 (think of these between 8-9-10 in the traditional list):

The Avengers, season 4 [part 1] - 1965 - ITV - 13 eps., ~60 min. each
I've been watching a half-season of The Avengers each year for several years now; it's nice to see a half-season finally make its way onto a year-end list.  (The show was released on DVD in half-season sets, and it's been simply an easier way for me to watch/keep track of watching the show.  Each episode is a stand-alone anyway.)  One of the very first continuing British series to be successfully exported to America (following the international success of James Bond), The Avengers focuses on John Steed, laconic but effective British agent, and his various partners in crime-solving, all of them amateurs.  Though the show's first season is largely lost, seasons 2 and 3 mostly feature Honor Blackman as partner Cathy Gale.  When Blackman left to star opposite Sean Connery in Goldfinger, Diana Rigg was cast as Steed's new partner, and season 4 is the beginning of her appearances as Emma Peel.  In its second and third seasons, The Avengers is a witty but dramatic spy series, largely plot driven, with relatively few fantastical characters or storylines, and is a strong show.  But as Bond - and his imitators - moved towards more world-in-the-balance plots with farcical villains, The Avengers adapted this ideology for a small-screen audience, and became an inspired visualization of an unlikely harmony between classic suspense and the new "mod" world of Britain in the '60s.  Steed, who had always been somewhat anachronistic as a spy, had his Victorian dress and mannerisms emphasized, while Peel adopted first Cathy Gale's leather wardrobe, which then morphed into the character's trademark catsuits.  Though the series focuses on farce and gets truly wacky in season 5 (and, I'm told, somewhat immature as well), what I liked best about season 4 was that it marked a transition period, as the show was flexing its creative muscle and bringing in outlandish characters and plots but was also still focused on dramatic suspense and solving mysteries rather than just stopping maniacal bad guys.  The chemistry between Patrick Macnee (as Steed) and Diana Rigg is also pitch perfect; half the fun of the show is their banter and bon mots.  For example, here was the audience's introduction to Emma Peel in the first episode of season 4.

Justified, season 1 - 2010 - FX - 13 eps., ~40 min. each
Justified was a shot in the dark for me, something I'd heard was a decent show but didn't really sound up my alley.  The first season, while it has a few weak moments and a couple of go-nowhere characters, was overall a solid, engaging, entertaining piece of television, held together largely by some good writing and excellent performances by lead Timothy Olyphant and his old friend/new enemy played by Walton Goggins.  The setup is somewhat predictable: Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens is punished for his bounty-hunteresque approach to a high-profile case, and exiled to the Lexington office, near to where he grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky.  Some people are happy to see him again, some aren't.  Raylan slowly reintegrates with his surroundings, as a slow arc begins to build around local gun dealing and drug-running involving his former friend, with far-reaching implications in the local and regional criminal underworld.  In the same way that Castle caught my attention a few years ago for having uniquely urban and postmodern-tinged murder mysteries as a definine feature, Justified evokes a Wild West feel and flavor to its murders, integrating this surprisingly well with Southern characters and situations.  If you could imagine some scrawny orphans taken in and raised by Flannery O'Connor and Elmore Leonard, you could end up with the characters of Justified.  Here's the original promo for the first season.  I'm definitely curious to see more.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery, season 1 - 2001 - A&E - 8 eps., ~46 min. each
This adaptation of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries had long been a recommendation from grad school friends, and was one of my "this has been on my list forever, I just need to watch it" series.  I'm glad I did.  The always-impressive Maury Chaykin and always-interesting Timothy Hutton play Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin.  Nero is both the world's greatest living detective and as Archie points out, possibly also the largest.  An enormous man with enormously eccentric habits, Wolfe detests leaving his New York brownstone, and only takes cases so that he has the money to indulge in rare culinary treats and cultivate his prize-winning orchids.  Archie does most all of his legwork, assisted at times by on-call detectives who come whenever Wolfe needs them.  As Wolfe hates to leave, Archie is often charged with summoning (by any means necessary) the suspects to Wolfe's home, where Wolfe is frequently as short-tempered with them as he is brilliant at solving crime. All this is much to the exasperation of Inspector Crammer, a hard-nosed NYC detective who resents Wolfe's interference with "police business."  Stout wrote a truckload of Wolfe mysteries over forty years, never ageing his characters and continually setting his stories contemporaneously to the time period he wrote them in; for the television series, the stories are set in the 1950s, providing a delightful period setting and costumes for what are, in essence, genteel whodunnits along the lines of the more sedate Sherlock Holmes stories, though always involving at least one murder in the course of the investigation.  Another innovation which makes the series unique and enjoyable is that the secondary cast is made up of a stable repertory of skilled actors, mostly originally from the stage.  For example, the lustrous and witty Kari Matchett is, in one story, Archie's girlfriend, and in another, the murder victim, and in still another, a sister of the murdered man and a prime suspect.  A last mark in the show's favor is that the plots are extremely faithful to and careful with the source material.  For a glimpse of how sharp both the characters and dialogue are, here's a clip from the middle of the episode "The Doorbell Rang," with Wolfe and Archie looking into the murder of Morris Althaus, a man who was writing a magazine article about the FBI.  In the clip, they interview the young woman who lives in the apartment below Althaus.

Prohibition - 2011 - PBS - 3 eps., ~105 min. each
So, technically this is a miniseries instead of a series, but still a TV show, and this documentary from Ken Burns is likely my favorite of the half-dozen of his documentaries I've seen, about a topic I've been fascinated by for years: the collective insanity of Prohbition in America in the 1920s and early 1930s.  Divided into three episodes chronicling the run-up to and passage of the 18th Amendment, life under Prohibition in the '20s, and its eventual downfall and repeal, Burns takes an issue ostensibly about alcohol, and reveals its underpinings as a debate about morality, free will, the divide between passing and enforcing laws, and the democractic process as it played out in ever-expanding circles from churches to "societies" to communities to states to the nation.  His cast of commentators is frankly spectacular, from insightful historians like Daniel Okrent and Catherine Gilbert Murdock to snarky journalists like Pete Hamill and Jonathan Eig, calm theologian Martin E. Marty to excitable law professor Noah Feldman.  Even ex-Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens gets in on the action.  And action it is, as the central figures of the documentary become rumrunners like Roy Olmstead and George Remus, gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, those who rallied the "drys" like Carrie Nation, Wayne Wheeler, and Mabel Walker Willebrandt and those who spoke out for the "wets" like Al Smith and Pauline Sabin.  Here's a super-quick overview.  I knew the documentary was going to be on this year's list when I was disappointed it lasted for "only" five hours...

Tier 2 (think of these between 4-5-6-7 in the traditional list):

Downton Abbey, season 2 - 2011 - PBS - 9 eps., usually ~53 min. each
I won't say much about Downton, as it appeared last year as well.  Suffice to say World War I is a horrible thing, and great for story ideas.  Though at times the melodrama was a tiny bit much, the ever-expanding cast of characters is satisfying.  It was also fun to see Julian Fellowes taking pages from writers like Austen and Hardy, who are never so overtly invoked on the small screen anymore unless it's in miniseries based on their own books.  And Maggie Smith is every inch the grand dame, whatever the decade.

Foyle's War, season 3 - 2004 - ITV - 4 eps., ~95 min. each
Likewise the previous two seasons of Foyle's War have been on my top ten lists.  The show has become one of the very few I turn to when I want a specific mood: not quite melancholy, but quiet and reserved, good for a rainy indoor day, good when I want to relax and immerse myself in another time when things were slower and more serious.  Still a DI in the southern town of Hastings during World War II, Christopher Foyle deals with cases on the home front while longing to be of more important use to Britain's war effort.  It is very rare that I've seen a period drama recreated better on the small screen, and the writing and acting is uniformly strong.

The Good Wife, season 1 - 2009-2010 - CBS - 23 eps., ~42 min. each
Another recommendation from another trusted friend, I approached The Good Wife with relatively high expectations, as the feedback I'd gotten from anyone I'd mentioned it to had been that it was "a lawyer show, but much more than a lawyer show."  I would have to agree with that assessment.  Though there are a couple of stumbles with secondary casting, the central cast (Julianna Marguilles, Josh Charles, Archie Panjabi, Matt Czuchry, and Christine Baranski) is rock solid.  The premise is actually quite strong as well: after a sex scandal sends a prominent politician to jail, the show focuses on his "good wife" who supported him throughout his career by giving up her own and standing by his side through the scandal.  Now, she has to start over as a fledgling laywer once again, and deal with the constant anger she feels but can't publicly express towards her husband while being a single mother.  CBS is usually the network who would take this concept and make it a mawkish kitchen-table drama or an action-packed procedural, but in a delightful reversal of expectations, the show is really about Alicia Florrick's empowerment as her own person again, making her own decisions and proving herself as a competent attorney and mother who doesn't let herself wallow in the self-doubt she sometimes feels.  The characters are complex and nuanced, with equal amounts of virtue and vice.  More than anything else, Alicia and her fellow lawyers show an intriguing, realistic mix of wanting to work for justice and recognizing the need to work for profit and advancement.  The show also takes a rather ingenious spin on the default trope of having conniving and self-centered lawyers at the opposing table.  Here, the DAs are sometimes conniving, but the real whack jobs are the judges, who are almost always petty, capricious, or just randomly odd, often engaged in their own juridical politics and indifferent to the lawyers and clients in front of them.  The show does a good job balancing "work Alicia" with "home Alicia," though various arcs play out in both arenas.  Chris Noth is also quite good as Alicia's cheating, yet remorseful, yet rather callous husband, who takes it for granted that once he beats the sex scandal charges everything will go back to the "good" that it was.  I will definitely be watching more of this show.  But I couldn't find a decent clip, so we'll have to go with a "behind the scenes" promo instead.  It's a little too showy for what I wanted, but it does convey a decent sense of the setup and main character.

Leverage, season 4 - 2011-2012 - TNT - 18 eps., ~42 min. each
The first three seasons of Leverage went up and down in my rankings, from #6 to #4 to #8.  Season 4 recaptures much of the fun and class of seasons 1 & 2, and remains a perennial favorite.  The characters are smart and well-acted, the dialogue first-class.  The show's formula is predictable, but in the best kind of way, and this season the format is deliberately played with in a handful of episodes, adding some fresh air.  Clearly they also listened to my critique of how the proposed arc of season 3 vanished for much of the season; here, rather than a direct arc, many of the season's episodes are loosely connected by a couple of new, rather shady, secondary characters whose reasons for first helping and then interfering with the team slowly come into focus.  There's some nice revisits from old guest stars, and alongside the ocassional twist in the formula, it made me place the show back in the middle of my rankings.

Sherlock, season 2 - 2012 - BBC - 3 eps., ~90 min. each
Last year's #1 slips to the mid-range this year, for only one reason: when you have a show with a three-episode season, if only one of those episodes is disappointing, that looms large.  Such was the case with the second episode of Sherlock's season 2, based on "The Hound of the Baskervilles."  However, the first and third episodes, based on "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "The Final Problem," respectively, are nothing short of the first season's brilliance, and no show can have almost perfect episodes constantly.

Survivors, season 1 - 1975 - BBC - 13 eps., ~50 min. each
Another show which has been on my list for literally years and I felt I just had to get to, Survivors was created by Terry Nation and may well be the best for-its-time post-apocalyptic show I've ever seen, or at least its first season is rather amazing.  The impressionistic opening credits swiftly reveal the cause of the end of civilization: an unnamed scientist working in a laboratory accidentally drops a beaker of liquid, and as he travels to other countries for his job, gets sick.  As the first episode begins, the virus he unwittingly spread has infected a large percentage of Britain's population and society is beginning to shut down.  By the time episode two begins, there are a very few people left alive, all of them having been sick, but somehow their bodies were able to fight off the virus.  The season chronicles several of these survivors, focusing on three in particular, as they eventually find each other, explore this decimated world, and start to try to build a colony of like-minded people.  As they do, they encounter other camps of people, some friendly, some not, all trying to just survive.  Story and budgetary limits mesh well: the landscape of Survivors is the lovely but empty English countryside; the cities are cesspools of dead and decaying bodies, and are never shown.  Just because the people have recovered from the deadly virus doesn't mean they can't be killed by other diseases, roving thieves, or plain old starvation.  So partnering up with others is both necessary and dangerous.  Some supplies (food and farm animals, for example) are urgently needed, while other things (houses, cars with gasoline, guns) are overabundant.  All public services are out - there is no way to contact anyone, and no estimate of how many people have been spared, or if the government even exists.  There's a large cast, not all of whom do survive, and some inspired writing for several of the episodes.  There is one caveat if this does sound like your cup of earl grey, however: it's a slow-paced show, and very heavy on dialogue.  Characters weave in and out of the storyline, which has an open-ended arc, peppered with meandering side plots which can take up one or two episodes along the way.  It's a show that doesn't present a novelistic story with a clear beginning, middle, and end as much as a serial tableau which unfolds rather than builds on itself, which is another contributing factor to its realism, as is its use of no incidental music apart from the main title sequence.  A landmark series in its day, in intervening decades the show was largely forgotten, but the BBC remade it in 2008 (and I'm curious to watch that after I go through all three seasons of the original).  The first part of the first episode can be found here.

Tier 1 (think of these as between 1-2-3 in the traditional list):

Battlestar Galactica (2004), season 4 - 2008-2009 - SciFi - 20 eps., ~45 min. each
I know, I know, I'm so behind on finishing up BSG.  Well, it was still epic and amazing and utterly satisfying, even though the critics say there are some threads left dangling and various science-fiction luminaries and diehards were alienated by the rather controversial ending.  I loved it.  The season as a whole might be its strongest, or at least on par with season 1.  Gone are the stand-alone episodes which weakened season 3, and structurally season 4 has a few different twists I thought were really well done.  (The identity of the final Cylon model, for example, was revealed way earlier than I thought it'd be.)  Everyone knew going in this was going to be the final season, and the characters - and writers and actors - give it their all.  It's rare that such a good series can end itself so well, but BSG was a wonderful ride I really enjoyed and will definitely revisit.

Game of Thrones, season 2 - 2012 - HBO - 10 eps., ~60 min. each
I couldn't help be amused at those, fans and critics alike, who saw season 2 as a "chaotic" or "fragmented" season.  There's war on multiple fronts going on for the throne of a vast kingdom.  Don't people understand the tropes of high fantasy?  Don't people know medieval wars worked?  Those looking for grounded, fully sympathetic "good guys" or those looking for a character to serve as a narrative shingle to hang "the right perspective" on have entirely missed the point of George R.R. Martin's books or the show based on them.  Alchemist and I, however, enjoyed most every minute, this being one of two shows we watched on our own each week and then talked about together after each episode.  She'd read the first two books of the series years ago; I've read the first and second books after seeing each season.  We're both excited for next year and season 3 as neither of us have any idea where the storylines are going.

Homeland, season 1 - 2011 - Showtime - 12 eps., ~55 min. each
This show seemed almost too good to be true before I started watching it: some of the creators of 24 matched with the prodigious talents of Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.  One hestiates to use the words "instant classic" but Homeland succeeds brilliantly at being both a product of its time and fitting inside a long tradition of American ruminations on warfare (literal and psychological) on the small screen.  The opening credits, which don't appear until the second episode, give an impressionistic tour through the childhood of Danes' Carrie Mathison alongside various presidential speeches and events revolving around terrorism, through 9/11 and to present day, signaling a contemporary focus but also a historical one: all this has happened before, and yet each time it is new, terrifying, and deadly.  The setup is ingeniously simple: Mathison, a CIA operative with mental health issues she keeps from her colleagues, is given intelligence that an American POW has been turned by al-Qaeda.  When an incursion into a terrorist camp yields the surprise of Nicholas Brody (Lewis), a U.S. Marine captured years ago and presumed dead, Mathison is convinced she's found the sleeper agent.  Brody is brought back home to much fanfare and tapped by the Vice President as a symbol of the good that the American military is doing in the Middle East.  With her superiors incredulous and dismissive, Mathison mounts her own illegal investigation into Brody, who meanwhile has been trying to reintegrate with his wife and children, and yet as the media attention dies down, is starting to act very strangely.  The plot is absorbing, moving faster than I expected it would, and in directions I hadn't dreamed (and are a refreshing change from what I'd have guessed would come from the creators of 24).  The characters are nuanced and captivating; Danes and Lewis are captivating and utterly real as they play them, with stalwarts Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin in supporting roles as Carrie's boss and Nick's wife.  I'm struggling to know what else to say without giving away spoilers, so here's the original promo before the series aired.

Mad Men, season 5 - 2012 - AMC - 13 eps., ~47 min. each
I had hoped this would happen at some point before the show's final season, and it has.  In season 5 Mad Men officially lost its status as the critics' darling, garnering mostly "it's adequate" reviews and even though nominated 17 times, winning no primetime Emmys.  Finally.  Accolades are wonderful, but it's nice to have weeded out the fair-weather fans.  After a complete shocker to close season 4, expectations were high for season 5, and the premiere received quite a lot of attention.  But as the weeks progressed, it was clear this season was giving us the one thing we never, ever thought we'd see: a Don Draper happy with his life.  As the critics and some fans scratched their heads, other fans just rolled with it, excited about an honestly new chapter for the characters.  We realized before the season was half over that this was pretty much the most nuanced and intentionally paced season yet, and I for one loved it.  Alchemist did too; this was the second show we watched each week and discussed afterwards.

The Wire, season 4 - 2006 - HBO - 13 eps., ~57 min. each
This show is another that has moved up and down in my yearly ratings, the first season getting #4, the second off the list entirely (it was a rather shaky season), season 3 going back up to #4, and season 4 now entering the top tier, so far the best season in my opinion.  As each season revolves its characters and stories around a general urban theme, season 4's is education, introducing four schoolboys as compelling new characters caught between corner drug-runners and a faltering school system who both try to entice them, but with few people in either group seeing them as real people.  Being the son of a reading resource teacher who spent 34 years in a largely inner-city school system, the show's debates about No Child Left Behind and "teaching to the test" were all too real, as were the machinations of administrators at the city and state levels playing politics with not only the dollars for adequate support and training, but even the basic supplies of the classroom.  As usual, there's stellar writing and acting throughout, and though there were fewer powerful individual moments than in season 3, there were some long-standing consequences for certain characters that finally played out in satisfying ways.  The internal arc, especially concerning the four boys, was also very compelling without detracting from continuing characters and their stories, save for Dominic West's McNulty, who seemed to get the short end of the stick for the first two-thirds of the season, though that's probably my only critique.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012, Second Half

The moderate success I had in the first half of this year with trying to focus on albums made earlier than 2012 or 2011 continued in the second half of the year.  Oddly enough, more than other half-years, this July-December felt more fragmented than usual in my musical adventures.  That may have been because I found myself listening to more soundtrack material than usual, or because I tried out fewer new bands this time around.  Regardless, here's the list for the second half of 2012.

position - artist - album - year of release

5 - Simple Minds - Once Upon a Time - 1985.  Simple Minds are often considered an also-ran in the music scene.  As a soul-tinged, New Wave rock band from Ireland in the late 1970s, they experienced the double-edged sword of coming to prominence around the same time as U2, which gave them a faster worldwide audience than many bands, but also made them live in a rather heavy shadow behind what is usually considered the defining rock band of the 1980s.  Jim Kerr and his bandmates were friends with the Bono cohort and comparisons between the two groups were well-founded as often as they were mistaken.  It doesn't make for an even-keeled career, and Simple Minds complicated their place in the music world further by being restless in terms of genre, sliding between styles every album or two, a practice they continue to do today.  Once Upon a Time is, in all fairness, a poppier Unforgettable Fire: a good album, with a few very good songs, that ends up being a collection of decent but rather provincial tracks instead of a cohesive musical statement with broad appeal.  Though Once Upon a Time is musically more accessible, Unforgettable Fire is lyrically stronger.  Separate from U2 comparisons, Once Upon a Time (and its immediate predecessor, Sparkle in the Rain) move away from New Wave towards American-flavored stadium rock.  Standouts include the hit single "Alive and Kicking," the rollicking immediacy of "All The Things She Said" and the album closer, the anthemic "Come a Long Way."  In their following album, they'd morph to a Celtic/folk sound, which would then get discarded in favor of straight pop by the start of the 1990s.  Their heavier albums from the mid-to-late '90s I find more interesting, but it was fun to go back and give their '80s sound a try.  The album is a solid, engaging piece of rock history that does have something to share beyond the synthetic sounds of the mid-'80s, but doesn't transcend them.  Here's a quite decent (albeit slightly slowed down) version of "Alive and Kicking" with orchestra from 2007.

4 - Lowen & Navarro - Broken Moon - 1993.  In college, over a decade ago, a friend who often had somewhat questionable taste in music said he thought I might like this low-key two-man acoustic group, Lowen & Navarro, that his dad had introduced him to.  It was an out-of-left-field recommendation, but the album he gave me, their 1990 debut record Walking on a Wire, stuck with me for several years afterwards, though I never explored their other albums.  Earlier this year, when I was sharing random songs with Alchemist, she really liked one from Walking on a Wire, and I gave her the rest of the album.  A few months later, she shared Broken Moon, their second album, with me.  Lowen & Navarro are classic New Folk, easy and comfortable in an acoustic, stripped-down sound and straightforward, no-frills harmonies.  Like most of their contemporaries from that time period, their songs are thoughtful and quietly expressive, often ruminating on the essential relationships of life in honest ways.  Broken Moon alternates easily between upbeat affirmations of the goodness of life and love, and how it takes so little for our lives to be thrown so off-course; for us to find ourselves lost, and yet what manner of wonderful things we can find when we're lost.  As you might expect, various night-time imagery is the thread running through the album, and though these images are simple, the emotional expressions attached to them can be complex; the title track's chorus ends with "And it's strange/somehow you can see more clearly/by the light of a broken moon."  It's a little slice of the joys and sorrows of everyday life, sometimes a bit precious, sometimes a bit one-note, but overall a grounded album good for cool autumn evenings and a special someone.  Watch a performance (not from 1993) of "Maybe Later."

3 - Sixpence None the Richer - Lost in Transition - 2012.  Sixpence is a band that has had more than its fair share of rotten luck, from a rocky but promising start in the early '90s to chart success in the late '90s ("Kiss Me" and a cover of "There She Goes") to their label breaking up and leaving them in limbo, to a delayed and underpromoted but outstanding album (Divine Discontent in 2002), to a band breakup soon after, to a reformation and solid EP in 2007, a disappointing Christmas album in 2008, and over three years of more label troubles and several false starts for this new album.  It's not a surprise to me that the album's title changed from Strange Conversation to Lost in Transition.  Likewise the songs on this record, several of them floating in various forms for years, can be forgiven for not really cohering into a stable whole.  The album in indeed a transitional experience, and while some tracks suffer from too much tinkering ("Should Not Be This Hard"; "Failure") and others simply feel played out before even seeing the light of day ("Don't Blame Yourself"; "Be OK"), a thin majority of the songs recapture the lyrical insight and sonic uniqueness that first brought me to the band a decade ago.  The transitional nature of the songs is also not all bad: both "Sooner Than Later" and "Give It Back" appeared on the 2007 EP but the new versions here are refined and made stronger in ways songs can sometimes be after a lot of attention, the latter track being perhaps my favorite single song of the entire year, on the strengths of an ingenious melody line, hard-hitting lyrics, and achingly beautiful guitar work from Matt Slocum.  Fun rocker "My Dear Machine" kicks off the record in fine style (including some quirky and effective horns), clever radio single "Radio" talks about a relationship influenced by a radio single, and the intentionally clunky piano chords which anchor "Safety Line" help make a surprisingly tender love song.  Lost in Transition lands in the middle of pack because its rocky moments are almost cringeworthy, but its best moments are almost sublime.  The life of Sixpence as a band has been a rollercoaster, but that does mean they give you an exciting ride.  For the release of "Radio" as the first single, the band decided the official video would be a professionally shot live version.  Watch it here.

2 - Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid - 2008.  Various bands seem to enjoy cultural clout in Britain and on the Continent without gaining much traction in the U.S., and Elbow is such a band.  My own interest in them stemmed from the fact that frontman/lyricist Guy Garvey is very consciously an inheritor of Peter Gabriel's musical style and has a similar vocal range.  I chose this album, their fourth, to explore first because it won the Mercury Prize the year of its release, a British award with a reputation for going to the feisty, hard-working underdog rather than the latest fad.  The album is a rather stunning one, literally without a weak track in the list, though there are a few moments which sound a little too much like Coldplay for my comfort.  That aside, the strong set boasts an opening four tracks which only get better as they go, starting with the startlingly fresh "Starlings" (yes, I'm aware of what I did there), moving to the weighty lyrics but jaunty music of "The Bones of You," then perhaps the most enduring track on the album, the tender and beautiful "Mirrorball," ending with the bombastic half-electronica half-rockabilly gem "Grounds for Divorce."  Even in their more serious moments, there is an element of humor in Elbow's writing, and even in absurdity there's a glimpse of tragedy, displayed in a delightfully intricate way in "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" and to great broad comic effect in "The Fix," which has my vote if the brilliant BBC series Hustle ever needs a new theme song.  "On a Day Like This" was actually used by Britain as backing music for some of their Olympic coverage this year, and Elbow performed it live at the closing ceremonies.  I would love for more Americans to be exposed to and know this album.  It was one of my own best musical surprises in the entire year.  Watch the official music video for "Grounds for Divorce," then the well-translated live version with the BBC Orchestra.

1 - Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited II - 2012.  A double album of faithful homage to the progressive glory years of my favorite band by their lead guitarist during that period?  Please and thank you.  It may be the most obvious and expected #1 ever on these lists, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an utterly satisfying experience to listen to, or rather, be enveloped by.  In 1996 Steve Hackett, lead guitarist of Genesis from 1971-77, released Genesis Revisited, a single-disc collection of tracks, all reinterpreted and some greatly reinterpreted, from his years with the band.  It was an interesting experiment, not quite a knockout album (he changed a little too much in too many songs), but it yielded a strong supporting tour and several tracks which are still regularly in his live set.  Fast-forward 16 years, through a few albums in one of Steve's occasional turns towards classical acoustic guitar, a one-album romp through industrial prog, some other scattered work, and two solidly progressive outings reviewed here in previous years (Out of the Tunnel's Mouth; Beyond the Shrouded Horizon), and now we have Steve deciding to take a more studied, more intentional, and ultimately more traditional look at his Genesis years.  There are changes: real string sections instead of or in addition to organs and Mellotrons, some double- or triple-tracked lines simplified to one, some simple lines made more complex by adding a line or doubling up with another instrument (usually the bass, which is different than the usual Genesis method of doubling guitar and keyboards).  The sound stays familiar even if the notes change a bit, if that makes sense.

From a purely musical viewpoint, the songs are still fresh, their intricacies of construction still engaging and revolutionary, and the small army of 40-odd musicians Steve assembles to pull it off are top notch, though it's amusing that it only took five guys back in the '70s.  In fact, the only serious critique I can level is that none of the twelve vocalists (!) the album uses ever quite hit the sweet spot that is Peter Gabriel's approach to vocals.  Nad Sylvan, on "The Chamber of 32 Doors" and "The Musical Box," comes closest, though his take on Phil Collins' vocals for "Eleventh Earl of Mar" is less well done.  Francis Dunnery, on "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight" and the ending sections of "Supper's Ready," also does an excellent job.  The rest are fine - Roger King a bit more so because I'm used to his vocals on Genesis tunes in recent Steve Hackett tours - but they make me miss Peter.  The only travesty is Amanda Lehmann singing "Ripples," because her soft vibrato voice just isn't strong enough to sell the melody.  She also sings the vocal section of Steve's own "Shadow of the Hierophant," and she's much more in her element here where the vocal is supposed to be sweet without much power to it.  This brings up another point: four tracks on the double album are from Steve's solo records, but all of them are intimately connected with Genesis, three of the four having had early versions tried out by the band in the studio but never having made it past that point, including the epic "Hierophant" and instrumental stalwarts "Please Don't Touch" and "A Tower Struck Down," the latter becoming completely reworked for this album and incorporating a large amount of orchestration to good effect.

Many classic Genesis songs are here, from 1971's loud and blisteringly raw "Musical Box" to the delicate, subtle precision of 1977's "Blood on the Rooftops."  Steve throws conventional tracking wisdom to the wind and plunks the epic 23-minute "Supper's Ready," by any account the most complicated and important track in Genesis history, right down in the money spot: disc 1, track 3.  Despite the fact that most of the tracks are over seven minutes, he finds ample room in two discs to include some excellent second-tier choices, tracks like "The Return of the Giant Hogweed," "Entangled," "The Lamia," and "Can-Utility and the Coastliners" which were not among the standout tracks on their original releases, but deserve some spit and polish and a second look.  The first two in that list coming off quite well indeed, along with a razor-sharp take on the satirical "Broadway Melody of 1974" and a positively joyful "Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers..."/"...In that Quiet Earth."  Of course there are a few other tracks I would have loved to have had included, like the jazzy pastoral "After the Ordeal" or my favorite second-tier track off the concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: the pleasantly absurdist "Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist."  ("If he wants you to snuff it/all he has to do is puff it.")  The only real surprise among what wasn't included is another crucially important track from The Lamb, "The Carpet Crawlers," whose absence is doubly odd since it was performed at most of Steve's 2011 shows.

I could go on and on about the weirdly wonderful brilliance of Genesis in the 1970s, but I learned a very long time ago that progressive rock, then and now, is either something you gravitate to or you just don't.  It's not polarizing music so much as it's so exactly what it is, the people for whom it is a delicious cup of tea are a narrow section of society.  Unfortunately this means many people, including many prog fans, equate that narrowness with elitism or high culture or snobbery.  Nothing about Genesis music could be further from the truth, even if they did sometimes heavily rely on Ovid's myths, Victorian symbolism, T.S. Eliot, puns involving gangland slang from the East End, and the Book of Revelation for lyrical content.  The intricate, carefully considered, ingeniously crafted music, and the ideas behind the songs, however inaccessible the lyrics could sometimes be, were humanistic, socially conscious, and asked some of the big questions of life.  Rock culture can and has often done far worse with itself.  So if old school Genesis is your thing, Steve's new album is a bracing breath of fresh air from the past, and you should explore it.  And if not, I've just had you read four paragraphs about it, which is good enough for me.  The tour for the album hasn't started yet, so there's no videos to link, but here's the entire record available for streaming.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Skyfall Review

I haven't read many reviews of Skyfall, but one I did read lamented what they called the "fragmentary" and "unsatisfying" scene in the movie which finds Bond at the top of a glass skyscraper in Shanghai, pursuing an assassin on a job for his unnamed boss. Bond wants the boss's name, and after the assassin completes his work, killing an unknown businessman in the skyscraper across from theirs, Bond accosts him but the assassin falls to his death before revealing anything. This reviewer said they were "driven crazy" by not knowing anything about the businessman being killed, why it was done, and how it tied into the film's overall plot. This struck me as an extreme misunderstanding of Skyfall itself, as a structured film and moreover as a Daniel Craig Bond film. The identity of the businessman and the motives for his death are completely unimportant and unconnected to the overall plot of Skyfall, except as a structural premonition to help understand the character of Silva, the unnamed boss and primary villain of the movie. Silva's motives are entirely personal, and so this seemingly random killing only reinforces that: to the film itself, he matters not at all. It's also a telling illustration of how the franchise's writers have changed the stakes in Bond 23, continuing on the trajectory of character development as presented in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the other Daniel Craig Bond movies.

In the first of those films, the villain's motive is the funding of terrorism, but the character development centers on Bond's identity, the identities of his enemies (some of which get upended, then reversed again by the end of the film), and the question of trust. In the second film, the villain's motive is a combination of enabling a dictator to come to power, and the acquisition of water rights under that dictator. But the character development centers on Bond's need for information on the Quantum organization, partly in a desire to revenge Vesper's death, and he's paired with a Bond Girl on her own mission of personal vengeance against the dictator, who killed her family when she was a child. Identity and trust are the common threads once again. The pattern only increases in Skyfall, with a twist, as for once in the history of the Bond franchise, the villain's motives are of an entirely personal nature: Silva's vendetta against M. Anything extraneous to that focus is trimmed from the plot, hence the murdered businessman is unimportant and it's a mistake to attach expectations of his connectedness to the plot. (The real purposes of the scene are to link the assassin, who Bond already knows, with a gambling chip that was his payment for the job, leading Bond to the casino where he meets Severine, who was also in the skyscraper across the way and was the lure for the businessman. It's also a great action sequence that continues a theme of falling from a great height, figuratively and literally, that contributes one meaning to the film's title.)

And so after CR and QoS, with the themes of identity, trust, and revenge already established, Skyfall takes us another leg down the road, giving the villain his entire motivation and complicating the tenuous trust Bond and M have built over the previous two films. Unlike QoS, which picks up its story literally a couple of hours from the end of CR, Skyfall seems from all indications, though it's never said outright, to be happening a handful of years after the events of the two earlier films, with comments made about both Bond and M aging, and the presence of a new, very young quartermaster, who makes it clear that "exploding pens" and the like are things Q Branch doesn't "really do anymore" and that he considers Bond "a blunt instrument." Likewise, the audience is thrown a curveball by the Quantum organization, which had been the shady backbone supplying villains for both previous films, not appearing or being referred to at all. (Throughout the film, I had been hearing Silva's name as "Silver" and assuming he was yet another Quantum agent since they seem to have code names involving colors. This is why you stick around to watch the end credits, kids: it helps avoid simple mistakes in interpretation!)

Identity and trust and revenge remain central to Bond 23, and perhaps all Daniel Craig Bond movies will, which frankly is a strategy which has been working pretty well so far. Silva was another double-0, who M had made the hard decision to abandon when he was captured (which is not foreign to the Judi Dench M; cf. Die Another Day), and who mentally snapped while a hostage, especially after his posion capsule didn't kill him but horribly disfigured his mouth and digestive tract. It's particuarly fitting that, as Bond unofficial rules state all primary villains need some sort of physical deformity, Silva's is interal and not visible, save for once when he removes his fake teeth. Revenge is an internal motivation, Silva-as-villain comes from inside MI6, Silva's bomb explodes within the walls of MI6, and Silva's computer virus works because he dupes Q, an internal MI6 agent, into bringing it inside the MI6 computer network. Silva screams for M to use his "real name;" it is telling that James Bond needs no alias for his work with MI6. The initial MacGuffin to set everything in motion is a hard drive with the real names of all NATO agents embedded in terrorist cells. Bond's identity is brilliantly evoked during his word-association test as part of the battery of physical and mental challenges he needs to pass in order to return to active service. (How had no one in the past 50 years thought of doing this before?) His responses show that if nothing else, Bond still very much knows exactly who he is:
Psychologist: "I'm going to say a word, and I want you to say the first word that comes into your head. For example, if I say 'day,' you say..."
Bond: "Wasted."
Psychologist: "Agent."
Bond: "Provocateur."
Psychologist: "Woman."
Bond: "Provocatrix."
Psychologist: "M."
Bond: "Bitch."
Psychologist: "Gun."
Bond: "Shot."
Psychologist: "Murder."
Bond: "Employment."
Psychologist: "Country."
Bond: "England."

The psychologist next says "Skyfall." Bond's face grows drawn, and he doesn't answer. The psychologist repeats the word, and after a continued uneasy silence, Bond snarls "Done" and leaves the room. Considered later, in the light of knowing that Skyfall was his family's ancestral home in Scotland, it is worth realizing that, even as Bond is unwilling to address the demons of his youth and the death of his parents when he was a child, Skyfall is still where he goes, with M, to both retreat from Silva and lay a trap for him. Silva explicitly refers to M as "mother" or a mother-figure several times through the course of the film; on reaching Scotland, M and Bond talk briefly of how orphans are always the best agents in the service. M trusts Bond with her life, even trusting him to the point of overriding his failing marks on his various tests and sending him back into the field; Silva tries to undermine this trust, and Bond's confidence, by telling Bond the truth. Through Silva's story of catching rats, and even Silva's rather odd attempt to seduce Bond, the idea of the two of them as brothers and nemeses and as two sides of the same coin emerges as a clear idea which is shown rather than stated. This makes a triangular relationship with M which propels the rest of the film. That Skyfall the estate is destroyed (from the air) and our protagonists escape (underground) with a stand-in father-figure of Skyfall's gamekeeper (a nicely chosen role which adds to the wordplay of the situation), brings this rather neat, though thankfully only lightly outlined, Freudian drama full circle. This is, after all, James Bond, not Ingmar Bergman.

Various small touches keep the film on a snappy and enjoyable tone: M's bulldog statue, the character of Mallory (with his perfect name for the role he will assume), the addition of Moneypenny (I don't want to brag, but I knew who she was from the moment halfway through the film she mentions possibly leaving the field for a desk job), and the brilliant casting of Ben Whishaw as Q, who finds a way to finally update the quartermaster's role into a 21st Century version of what it once was under Desmond Llewelyn: simultaneously whimsical and edgy, with a push-pull personality. Lastly, as we all know, there's product placement and then there's good product placement. Whoever came up with the idea of Q drinking from a Scrabble-brand mug which has a big "Q" and the letter score "10" in subscript is a genius. Likewise one of the most viscerally satisfying moments in the movie was when Bond angrily realizes that Silva has been manipulating all of their movements and he and M need to stage a quick getaway. Bringing M to a run-down garage, he uncovers a pristine Aston Martin DB5 (with ejector seat). It's an interesting side note how all three Daniel Craig Bond movies have referenced Goldfinger in a very direct way, with two of those references being an Aston Martin.

Skyfall is an excellent Bond movie, partly because of how it stays true to the Bond mythos (I should also quickly point out that Adele's title track is a brilliantly realized piece of retro-Bond music), partly because of how well it marks a transition point in the current reboot of Bond from new agent to seasoned veteran, and partly because of how effortlessly it jettisons world-in-the-balance tactics for personal motivations, something both previous movies angled towards, but this one stakes its center on. What's next? Daniel Craig has two more Bond movies in his current contract, and if word on the street is true, the writers are aiming for Bond 24 and 25 to be connected as a loose two-parter. What that exactly means, no one is saying. I for one would like to see the return of Quantum and a re-energized 007 taking them on. 23 films in 50 years is a great achievement; here's to 50 years more.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bond, Connery Bond

When you begin dating someone new, there's all those important questions which get asked in the first month or so.  What's your family like?  Who inspires you?  What kind of life do you want for yourself?  You've watched every Bond movie, right?  Shockingly, though Alchemist had reasonable answers for the first three, the last question was a no.  She's seen several of them, but not all of them, and not any of them in quite a while.  And so we embarked on watching all 22 (23 next month) official Bond films as a long-term project.  ("Official," of course, means the Eon/Danjaq produced movies only, and does not include the 1967 version of Casino Royale or Kevin McClory's 1983 production of Never Say Never Again.)  Our format is pretty simple: we're watching the movies in chronological order, and all viewings need to be accompanied by some form of alcohol.  We usually have food, too.  In the past year we've gotten through the Connery films (plus the one-off with George Lazenby) and so I thought it might be fun to do brief reviews of each film from a contemporary perspective; that is, to comment on how well the films hold up 40+ years later.  And for fun, to give each a rating between 001 and 007, lowest to highest.  As we complete each actor's tenure as Bond I'll post reviews, so expect these posts to be few and far between...

number - title - year released - Bond actor - rating

01 - Dr. No - 1962 - Sean Connery - 005
When the British secret intelligence station in Jamaica fails to check in, Bond is sent to investigate.  He discovers that the reclusive scientist Dr. No has claimed a small island near Jamaica as a headquarters and is killing anyone who discovers the island.  Dr. No plans to stop an American manned space mission with a weaponized radio beam.

The first Bond movie rests comfortably right above average in my ratings scheme because it's a strong outing but still in some places an unsteady first movie.  The strength lies in how much of the classic look and feel of "a Bond film" is in place right from the beginning: there's the gun-barrel opening; the stylized opening credits sequence (though the nearly nude women won't come in until the second film); the "James Bond Theme" music - that guitar line with the brassy orchestra coming in; the intentionally stark, angular sets and cinematography; the martini shaken not stirred; and the badinage and dark humor in Bond's interplay with M and Moneypenny, sexual innuendo with women generally, and the puns he makes after enemies die.  (There is rather a lack of humor in most of the original Ian Fleming novels.)  Other than this (and Connery's obvious Scottish heritage) much of Bond is similar to Fleming's version, though the movies tend to be only loosely based, plot-wise, on the various books.  The plot here is not precisely interesting, though there's more of one than in some other Bond films.  Bond's introduction, at the card table opposite a beautiful woman who asks his name, his response of lighting his cigarette and saying "Bond, James Bond," is still striking and effective.  The first appearance of Ursula Andress, however, coming up from the ocean in a bikini with a belt, is less impressive 50 years and thousands of ogling camera setups later.  Bond's indifference and occasional cruelty (though toned down from the books) is offset through a combination of both the writing and Connery's performance, both emphasizing an impish bad boy image, which of course became the archetype for the film character no matter who played him.  Certain sequences - like Bond's close encounter with a venomous spider and his late-night trap for one of Dr. No's informants - retain the suspense they were clearly intended to convey.  But the last section of the film, on the floating mad scientist's headquarters, throws off the pacing and takes too much time, lingering on the lavish sets and eerie computer banks, needlessly following Bond through each step of his escape, evading some guards and confronting others.  The eventual destruction of the control center and death of Dr. No is done well enough, but the payoff feels too small for the long buildup.

02 - From Russia With Love - 1963 - Sean Connery - 007
SPECTRE, an international criminal spy organization, puts an elaborate plan in motion to steal a Lecktor cryptograph machine from the Soviets and also exact revenge on James Bond for killing one of their members, Dr. No.  Their operative, Rosa Klebb, recruits the beautiful Soviet spy Tatiana Romanov and has her contact, seduce, and offer Bond the Lecktor as part of a fake defection ploy.  However, Tatiana is unaware of SPECTRE's existence or intentions, thinking she is doing this for her superiors.  Bond travels to Istanbul, acquires the Lecktor and attempts to smuggle Tatiana to the West via the Orient Express and Venice, pursued by SPECTRE agents and assassins.

The second Bond movie finishes establishing the essential hallmarks of the film series (minus two important contributions).  Additions include Q and his gadgets, Bond traveling to multiple countries over the course of the film, a pre-credit action sequence, the aforementioned stylized titles with provocative female forms, and the tradition of a movie-specific (and often title-specific) theme song with lyrics sung by a popular recording artist.  There's little, almost 50 years on, that doesn't work in this film, one of a very few Bond movies to actually focus on a secret-agent plot.  Bond is wickedly dapper, his allies intelligent and perceptive (Kerim Bey is the most entertaining Bond ally in the Connery films), his Bond girl suitably courageous and needy at the same time (it is 1963, after all), his enemies fanatical and honestly scary.  Red Grant, at first saving Bond so he can later kill him, is an imposing, menacing foe; the final confrontation between the two in a moving train car is still one of the very best fight scenes in the Bond canon. The sets and clothes and food are expensive, the music brash, the effects of good quality, the writing outstanding, and every scene which is supposed to be suspenseful actually is, even though the filmmakers shamelessly steal a pursuit sequence from Hitchcock's North by Northwest.  Though not the first Bond movie, From Russia With Love serves as a better introduction to the character and his world, and is without question one of the best entries in the entire series.

03 - Goldfinger - 1964 - Sean Connery - 007
Bond is asked to look into the business dealings of Auric Goldfinger, a bullion dealer who MI6 suspects may be smuggling gold internationally.  Bond's investigations in Florida and Switzerland attract swift reprisal from Goldfinger, who captures Bond.  Unsure how much Bond knows, Goldfinger keeps him close, bringing him to Fort Knox where the final phase of the plan is to irradiate the US gold supply, making his own smuggled gold worth many millions more.

With Goldfinger, the last two hallmarks of Bond films come into place: the Aston-Martin car loaded with special tricks, and a subtle (growing less so in most later films) parodical aspect to Bond and the storyline.  There's suddenly much more amusement and a lighter touch to the storytelling, for example in henchman Oddjob, who is both a caricature and yet very deadly.  And there is still nothing in the Bond canon matching the risque menace of the superb Honor Blackman, pointing a gun at a groggy Bond and saying "My name is Pussy Galore."  ("I must be dreaming," he murmurs.)  Yet like From Russia With Love, most every aspect of the film is top-notch, with a better balance between plot and action than either of the first two films.  A welcome and interesting twist is that Bond spends much of the latter half of the film a prisoner.  There's a shift towards spectacle as well: Jill Masterson suffocated in gold paint; Bond strapped to a table about to be killed by laser beam; the electrocution of Oddjob.  Though the category of "blockbuster" would not be invented for another decade (by Spielberg with Jaws in 1975), Goldfinger fits the bill, and it's with this film's release that Bond became a legitimately international phenomenon.  The pacing is one of the best things about it, and the writing is at least as intelligent, or more, than almost any contemporary thriller.  Pressed to name a "best" Connery film, I would choose Goldfinger, which means it also may be the best Bond film ever.

04 - Thunderball - 1965 - Sean Connery - 004
At a spa for R&R after killing a SPECTRE operative in France (the pre-title sequence), Bond stumbles across a man with a curious Tong tattoo, and a dead body covered in bandages from head to toe.  He's called back to London with all the other double-zero operatives, as SPECTRE has stolen two atomic bombs and is threatening to destroy major world cities if a ransom is not paid.  In the mission dossier Bond recognizes the dead man, and convinces M to change his assignment to the Bahamas, in order to track down the man's sister, who ends up being the mistress of Emilio Largo, the SPECTRE second-in-command.

Calling From Russia With Love and Goldfinger the high points of Connery-era Bond is nothing distinctive, but my take on Thunderball is that it's a sprawling, messy film with a disappointing second half, and that's not the usual party line from most Bond fans.  For most, Thunderball continues in much the same vein as the previous films, perhaps not quite as good, but much better than middling, which is where my rating lands.  And truthfully, most of the first hour is well done, with humor and suspense, and moves along at a steady clip.  But the second half drags.  Primary Bond girl Domino is elegant and gorgeous but not a very compelling character; Emilio Largo is smart and cruel in the way a good Bond villain should be, but lacks the fanatical spark which makes other Bond villains more memorable.  Worst of all, especially from a 21st Century viewpoint, is the endless underwater camera work, which was new and exciting in 1965 but now feels predictable and gets boring quickly.  Alchemist fell asleep during the interminable underwater showdown between Largo's thugs and Felix Leiter's troops; by the time we get to the actual final action sequence aboard Largo's boat, Thunderball had passed the two hour mark and we both just wanted the movie to be over.  So it lands in the exact middle of my ratings scheme, for a solid first half and a humdrum second.

05 - You Only Live Twice - 1967 - Sean Connery - 005
After an American manned craft is kidnapped in outer space, Bond fakes his own death in order to follow British intelligence information which indicates the ship that perpetrated the deed splashed down in the Sea of Japan.  When one of his MI6 contacts is killed, he tracks the killers to a Japanese corporation, which turns out to be a front for Ernst Blofeld, head of SPECTRE.  A Soviet spaceship is then kidnapped, bringing the U.S. and Russia to the brink of war.  Eventually Bond and his allies track the criminal operation to a huge hidden base inside a volcano, where Blofeld is about to launch another kidnapping mission in order to force the onset of World War III.

It's also my own quirk to rate this film not only higher than Thunderball but on a par with Dr. NoYou Only Live Twice is sometimes cited as the weakest Connery Bond film, which I would disagree with.  Fault is often given to the script by Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl), but the truth is more complicated.  Dahl had relatively little experience with scriptwriting, and Fleming's original novel was a real mess, with very little action and only one major female character.  Additionally, the film's director, Lewis Gilbert, was new to the Bond franchise and had never directed so large a production before.  The result is likely to be pleasing to you if you tend to enjoy a slower paced, more character driven plot, albeit one with the trappings of the fantastical (between the space themes and the huge volcano set), which I do.  The film also had the poor luck to come directly after the gadget-filled hyperactivity of Thunderball.  Here, there's only one real gadget (the superb Little Nellie, a lightweight gyrocopter), and Bond stays in Japan for almost the entire film.  I would argue this is the first Bond film which deliberately involves slower pacing, and the first where it works.  Tiger Tanaka is the second most entertaining Bond ally in the Connery movies, and he gets a decent amount of screen time as well, though all three Bond girls are rather forgettable.  From a contemporary perspective, another thing the filmmakers get right (I suspect mostly because of Dahl's own East Asian travels) is a lack of "orientalism"; other than one or two throwaway lines, Japanese society and customs are presented as authentic instead of "odd" or "Other."  The wedding sequence in particular, where Bond pretends to marry a local operative in order to investigate discreetly, is treated with respect, though of course afterwards Bond is still Bond and tries to sleep with his "new wife."  During filming Connery let producers know he was done as Bond, hating both the huge amount of celebrity the role had given him as well as not wanting to be typecast, so even before the film premiered, the seach for a new Bond was underway...

06 - On Her Majesty's Secret Service - 1969 - George Lazenby - 003
In Portugal, Bond saves the life of a beautiful woman on a beach, both from herself and from a pair of thugs.  Later he tracks her down and learns she is Tracy di Vincenzo, daughter of Marc-Ange Draco, leader of a powerful European crime syndicate with information on SPECTRE.  As Bond seeks to acquire this information, he and Tracy begin to fall in love.  Draco's info leads Bond to Bern, Switzerland and then to a remote mountaintop retreat in the Swiss Alps, where Blofeld is using hypnotism to enlist a cadre of twelve "Angels of Death" to spread a deadly virus worldwide if his ransom demands are not met.  When M refuses to mount an operation, Bond turns to Draco, and they storm Blofeld's hideout.  Reuniting with Tracy, Bond pops the question, and they get married.

In an alternate universe, George Lazenby did more than one of his contracted seven Bond films.  (I'm not saying he did all seven, but there were at least one or two more.)  In that alternate reality, we all could be much better assessors of whether he was a good choice as Bond or not.  As it is, we have only one film to judge, and there are numerous factors as to why OHMSS is the most challenging and difficult-to-classify film in the Bond canon.  First, it's the most radical Bond story ever told: one woman captures his heart and he marries her.  Second, the picture was helmed by Peter Hunt, who had worked as an editor or second unit director on all of the previous films, but had never occupied the director's chair before.  Hunt very consciously set out to make "his" Bond film, with less reliance on the traditions set in place previously.  Third, it's the second-longest Bond film ever (only Casino Royale is longer), at 140 minutes.  Fourth, composer John Barry, who had worked on several Bond films already, decided to throw out most of the established score from the other films and compose in a different style for OHMSS.  Fifth, Blofeld has a more physical role in this film than in any other.  And lastly of course, there's George Lazenby, a model who'd only been in TV commercials before landing the role, and who'd had almost no acting experience.

My overall take is this: OHMSS is an interesting failure as a Bond film.  Diana Rigg as Tracy is one of the highlights of the picture, but Tracy herself as Bond's one true love is just not possible in the world of 007, so those parts of the film feel forced.  Peter Hunt, as might be expected of a first-time director, gives a methodical but bland tone to the film: the best direction is unquestionably the establishing and long-camera shots in the mountains and during the skiing sequences, and the sections of "people in rooms talking" are competent but uninteresting.  The plot is certainly the most seriously treated of any Bond film, and in some places that's good and in others bad.  In terms of pacing, the film falls somewhere between You Only Live Twice and Thunderball, as the slower speed actually helps tell the story better, and yet the film is just too long.  As far as the score goes, it actually doesn't hit me much either way, which is poor form when it comes to a Bond film.  However, most of the casting is well done, including Telly Savalas as a more physical Blofeld and German actress Ilse Steppat as his murderous henchwoman, Irma Bunt.  Finally, George Lazenby doesn't really have the acting chops to pull off Bond, especially in a much more serious storyline like this.  At the end of the day, Lazenby is the one thing James Bond absolutely cannot be: genial.  I cringed the first time I saw him say the "Bond, James Bond" line years ago, and I cringed yet again this time.  If there were other Bond movies with Lazenby, we'd have had a chance to see him perhaps grow into the role, exercise a little more panache or humor, and be given a faster-paced, lighter-touch plot and general tone.  He might've been a good Bond.  Sadly we'll never know.  Currently, it's trendy in circles of Bond afficionados to see OHMSS as the "lost classic" Bond film.  The movie does have a few merits (such as the brilliant breaking of the fourth wall at the end of the pre-title sequence), but only a few.

07 - Diamonds Are Forever - Sean Connery - 1971 - 003
Bond tracks Blofeld to an underground base where a look-alike is being changed through plastic surgery to resemble Blofeld, and he kills both.  Going back to work for MI6, M tasks him with impersonating a diamond smuggler and meeting the smuggler's contact in Amsterdam.  The contact turns out to be Tiffany Case, a thief and middleman, and the two succesfully bring the diamonds into the U.S. to pass them on to Case's contact.  Meanwhile, two offbeat hired killers are tracking and disposing of all the prior contacts in the diamond-smuggling chain, including trying to kill Bond.  When they kill a woman who resembles Tiffany, Bond uses the mistake to convince Tiffany to work with him against the head of the smuggling ring, reclusive Las Vegas casino owner Willard Whyte.

Lazenby hadn't enjoyed the experience of filming of OHMSS, and dropped the role soon after.  Connery was lured back for one more film by a huge paycheck which he then used in its entirety towards establishing the Scottish International Education Trust, which gave grants to artists residing in Scotland.  It's pretty obvious that in a few of the sequences, Connery isn't particularly excited about the role anymore, and though I wouldn't say he phones in his performance, it's certainly the least-nuanced of his turns as Bond.  The plot is rather weak, the action sequences are generally rather weak, and the character of Tiffany Case is rather weak (though Jill St. John does a better job with the script than many other actresses would).  Overall the picture earns the same low rating from me as OHMSS, though for completely different reasons.  Perhaps in reaction to reviews saying OHMSS was too serious for a Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever swings the pendulum the other way and aims for more humor, and broader humor, than any earlier Bond movie.  This is largely unsuccessful apart from the farcical yet terrifying hired killers Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, though in some of the Roger Moore films it would be better utilised.  As it is, this is the worst Connery film.  Though Goldfinger had roles and locations in America, this is the first Bond movie to be largely oriented towards American audience tastes, both in terms of tone as well as in casting and locales.  Partly that's due to the Fleming novel, which also largely takes place in America, but intentionally or not, this film begins the dominant trend of Bond films in the 1970s to angle away from international audiences and be geared more towards American ones.  This isn't necessarily a fault or failure; first-world cinema was itself starting to be weighted more towards the American box office during the early '70s, which has only continued since.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Reading Random Poetry

Though I've not been writing much poetry of late, I have been deliberately adding more poetry to my reading lists, and I'm doing it in a new way.  Instead of pursuing poets I know I already enjoy (though I am also doing that), or taking recommendations from friends, or searching out specific poets to assuage the "a good English major should read these people" mentality, I'm taking advantage of my job as a librarian.  Because of the summer Buttered Biscuit programs and a strong English & American Literatures department at Bluebell, we have rather an abundance of poetry volumes from throughout the 20th and early 21st Centuries, just sitting around waiting to be read.  Library shelves usually look like this:

So what I've been doing is choosing a random shelf within the contemporary literature section, which would be in the PR 6000s for British lit or the PS 3000s for American lit.  This isn't a photo of either of those sections, but say it was.  And say I picked the second column from the right, second shelf down.  It's the shelf which starts with a thin orange book and has four thin green books next to that.  I look somewhere on that shelf, pulling out various thin volumes, and keep the first book of poetry I find.  Then, I can advance in a straight line, within the column or within the row.  I can doubleback as well, but have to stay within the cross made off of whichever initial shelf I chose.  Same process per shelf: keep the first poetry volume I find.  I gather a half-dozen volumes this way, check them out, and whenever I'm done with them (around the longer fiction and nonfiction books I'm reading), bring them back and get another half-dozen from another starting place.

I've already read around 20 poetry volumes this way over the past few months, and I've learned something I had always guessed but had never seemed apparent from the syllabi I was given in college and grad school: most poetry is pretty awful.  Most poetry I've been finding has dealt in offhand trifles, and yet is imbued with such self-importance by its writer.  Most of it has been one extreme or the other: stiflingly pedantic or so loose nothing from it sticks.  It's very hard to summon emotional reactions to such poetry - I simply finish reading it and it's over and I move on.  No second thoughts, no consideration required.  Structurally, sometimes it's so florid and so hell-bent on using wildly intricate words in unexpected ways I feel like there's no actual content there, just some wordsmithing, just an intellectual workout.  Or it's so issue-focused (or "ism"-focused) there's no sense of nuance or art to the construction of its words.  And I can appreciate a few poems along those sorts of lines, but a book of them is just a turn-off.

Poetry's great gift is its ability to invoke connection, often between common and perhaps dissimilar things, and then open a door to an emotional response, through careful use of structure, content, tone, and style.  And though there are epic poems and some of them are quite bracing and fresh, despite how long ago they were written, my own opinion is that in the early 21st Century, the best poetry for our historical moment is brief, precise, and polished or sharpened as the need arises.  In my view, contemporary poetry should present the reader with a surface either like that of glass, or of a mirror (both in order to see more clearly), or of a lanced point in order to be a goad.  It can take itself seriously or not, use big words or not, encourage a point of view or merely present one.  It can be highly descriptive or highly personal or highly fragmented, or not.  It can be quiet or loud or silky or strident.  What it can't be is boring.  What it can't be is purely academic.  What it can't be is intentionally obscure, and this last sin is perhaps the hallmark vice of our age.  I'm all for intelligent, referential, smart poems and poets in touch with local and nationwide and global currents of thought, expectation, assumption, and emotion.  But I'm also sick and tired of poets who see the world as a jumbled chaos and reflect that in their writing, or worse, hide behind their poems as if they were building confusing language like a wall which only a "discerning few" can scale.  It's been cool for a long time now to be postmodern, to be disenchanted, to navel-gaze.  But in my experience, people who only talk about themselves find they have an audience of one, and people who are bored by the world write boring poems.

I'd like to say I've discovered a few diamonds in the rough, a few forgotten artists who gave me some new ideas and breathed some new life at me from these dusty old pages of library books.  And true enough, there's been that rare glimmer.  But most of the poets have been a disappointment as far as gaining insight or meaning into myself or into the world around me, and I wasn't really expecting that.  Perhaps there really is a canon of "good" or "the best" poems and poets, though it's quite unfashionable to think so.  Still, I hope to continue having the motivation to read random poetry.  Even with the frequent disappointment, there's something exciting in picking books off the shelves for no reason in particular and giving them a go, the old college try, to see what unexplored vista might be waiting for me.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Important Goodbyes

Recently I tried to help a friend who was having what I've seen to be a common problem among college students.  Working for Bluebell for almost a decade now, I've seen it come up regularly, though I daresay it happens more frequently and is kept close to the vest.  As she said to me, he just didn't understand her anymore.  She felt neglected, she felt a little adrift; when she was indulging her emotions a little, she felt used, though she knew that wasn't his intention.  They had been so close when they'd started spending time together a couple of years ago; he would say funny and insighful things and she loved him for that, for being serious but not taking himself too seriously.  Now it just wasn't working anymore.  He was distant, he kept talking about things she felt were trivial, maybe a little too pop culture.  Worst of all, looking back (because hindsight can be valuable and heartbreaking at the same time), she felt she could have - should have - seen this change coming, from little things he'd say or do, or random new friends that came into his life.  She knew she had to say goodbye, and leave.

As always, it's hard to know what to say.  There's all the reasonable things: people just change and sometimes grow apart, or one person will grow up a little and the other person hasn't yet, or life can just intervene and set two people down different paths.  But emotionally, the reasonable things don't matter so much.  She'd put a lot of herself into this relationship and she felt betrayed, however unintentional it was on his part.  I told her it was okay that the magic had gone and things were over, even if it hurts.  I told her it was okay to grieve.  I myself have had to learn, the hard way, that sometimes it's more important to move on instead of dwelling on lost love.  But it's still hard to tell someone to "get back out there" and see who else tickles your fancy, and it's hard to hear it when things are so recently over, so I didn't say it.  She'll find her way; we all do.  Years later she'll look back and hopefully all that will be left will be the good times, the fun memories.  Sharing a few years with someone is still a special thing, and even though we don't know if and when that will end, I've found that later on most of us experience a gratefulness we'd had that time together at all.  You find there's always a little place in your heart for them, a very small but tender place.

I'm speaking, of course, about when that one musician or band you truly loved in college almost inevitably betrays your devotion by putting out an album (or several) which are so substandard or are just no good, having no fun and no art to them anymore.  Or else, they've stayed exactly the same but you've changed, and though no fault of their own, they just don't resonate with you anymore.  People change, people grow apart.  Losing art is not the same as losing a person, but sometimes, with some people and some artists, it can be pretty close.  My sense from my friend is that the latter scenario is happening here; she picked up the new recent Mumford & Sons album and found it too similar to their previous work to speak to her anymore.  She's matured some since their debut in 2009 and they, apparently, haven't.  I make no judgment on it since it's her impressions of them and their music, but that seems to be her perspective on the situation.  It's an old story, and I can remember various other friends through the past decade, lamenting poorly-conceived artistic turns by Jack White, or Ryan Adams, or Bright Eyes, or The Hold Steady, or even Barenaked Ladies.  The friend I felt most sorry for was someone who adored The Arcarde Fire and felt betrayed by their album The Suburbs, while almost all of their other fans proclaimed it a triumph of being able to straddle their artistic integrity and (relatively) new-found public acclaim.  It's easy to love an album almost no one else loves, but can be very hard not liking an album almost everyone loves.

My own band betrayal didn't actually happen inside of college, but I was betrayed by the band I discovered and loved best while in college: Caedmon's Call.  They were this folk/rock/Christian group with intelligent, thoughtful lyrics and rich, melodic music.  After a pair of plucky independently produced albums and a meticulous major label debut, they released two outstanding records while I was in college, and then lost their way.  Their label put pressure on them to make a "worship album," which they acceded to against their better judgment; concurrently they lost their two primary songwriters.  I'll let a paragraph from their Wikipedia entry tell the story, as I actually wrote most of this paragraph several years ago.  That it has gone unchanged and unchallenged by other fans I take as a small comfort: "The albums In the Company of Angels: A Call to Worship and Back Home came during an interim phase in which Aaron Tate and Derek Webb were mostly inactive as writers for the band, Aaron only contributing lyrics for the song "Beautiful Mystery" on Back Home and Derek contributing music and lyrics for "Awake My Soul" to that record as well. A diverse array of songwriters provided material for the band. These albums, while still largely driven by the acoustic guitar, were characterized by simpler lyrics and melodies than the band's past material, and more of an adult-contemporary feel that did not sit well with most older fans. Many felt the source of the band's relevance to be the hard-hitting, deeply introspective lyrics penned by Tate and Webb, which often included common and obscure Biblical, historical, and popular references cast in new contexts. Caedmon's was often billed or described as 'a thinking Christian's band.' Lacking these kinds of lyrics, many fans began looking elsewhere."

Caedmon's Call never regained the fans, like me, they had lost, or the relevance they had been known for in Christian music circles.  From 2004-2010 they released four albums, each faring more poorly than the previous in both acclaim and sales.  A special printing of their August 2010 album limited to 1,000 copies has, over two years later, still not sold out.  There are good times to be remembered, and when I hear some of that early music I do, but if I think for longer about the band it's still an awkward, uncomfortable experience.  So I have deep sympathy for my friend who has needed to let her favorite band go, and move on.  In music, as in love, we all hope for the best and sometimes are left with the worst.  But we pick ourselves up and keep looking because, much more often than not, we end up finding someone better, we end up more mature and with a better knowledge of ourselves and what we want, and we end up making better choices about who we let sing to us their songs.