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2015/01/25

Ellen Foster

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

With an opening line like “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy”, it’s no wonder that the book Ellen Foster grabs a reader’s attention and pulls them in with both hands.

I wound up with this engrossing debut novel by author Kaye Gibbons completely by chance. Taking part in a book exchange at my writers’ group’s holiday party, I mulled over the pile of brightly wrapped mystery packages and finally chose a slim little volume to take home with me. After I’d pulled off the festive paper, I flipped it over to read the back, like so many people do when they pick up a new book. The blurbs exclaimed that the author was “A stunning new writer,” and that the story itself was “A lovely sometimes heartwrenching novel…” Those were some intriguing accolades, so I decided to just open it up and dive right in.

Meeting Ellen, the narrator of the book and the main focus of the story, I could tell almost immediately that she was a young girl, but I wouldn't keep finding out more until I read on. Gibbons does an excellent job of measuring out information in small doses, so that as a reader, we have enough to go on to keep us in the loop, but are still left curious and eager to learn more.

Right away, it’s revealed that Ellen has been removed from her home by the county, and as she starts to look back on the past two years or so that have passed since then, the skillful, slow unfolding of the story takes place. We find out that her father is an alcoholic and her mother was ill, and Ellen learned to basically take care of not only herself, but her parents too. Her language varies between sounding very wise for her age, and still sounding young (at one point, she explains that she thinks her mom has a heart condition because she’d suffered from “romantic fever” when she was a girl), so it’s hard to tell exactly how old Ellen might be. In an especially moving scene, she lies in bed with her mother even after she realizes that she’s died, and we see that while her circumstances may have forced her to grow up faster than she should have had to, she’s still a child trying to muddle her way through an unfair and complicated life.

Besides carefully doling out details (we eventually learn that Ellen was around nine years old when the story starts), one of the writing techniques that Gibbons uses so well is the way she volleys back and forth in the narrative, starting with the present and then having Ellen flash back to talk about the past. Telling a story this way can be tricky; you don’t want details to get confused or have a reader get frustrated by the switching around and find themselves getting lost in the timeline of the plot. The way Gibbons works it in doesn’t do any of this though; she finds connections that make it feel like skipping between the present and the past is one of the best ways that the reader can fit the puzzle of the brave little heroine’s backstory together.


Ellen Foster author Kaye Gibbons
And Ellen herself is a puzzle; the reader gets to be privy to her thoughts and feelings as she grapples with the aftereffects of her past even as she looks forward to a brighter future. In flashbacks, we see her handling situations remarkably well, keeping calm and being very logical about what to do when most other kids her age probably would have been at a complete loss. Getting further into the novel though, you begin to wonder if her composure is a defense mechanism learned from growing up like she did, if it’s her sense of pride and not reality exactly as it happened as she retells the story a couple of years later, or both.


Set in the Southern United States, Ellen Foster touches on issues of race and social class, but does so mostly through the eyes and experiences of Ellen. In a scene where she goes to her best friend Starletta’s house and tells the reader about their home and their lifestyle, it’s plain to see where adult thinking and comments have influenced her thoughts. We get more insights throughout the book, and figure out how these same issues have caused Ellen’s grandmother to basically disown her mother and to harbor an unfair and cruel contempt for Ellen herself.

With heavy-hitting topics like these in the book, you might think it’s a downer of a read. But Gibbons tempers it with doses of humor and hope, making it hard to put down once you start reading it. It’s a modest-sized novel; 126 pages in the copy that I have, and I blew through it in one day. Again, it was the pull of the story and the way it’s written that kept stringing me along though, making me grumble when everyday tasks got in the way and I had to stop reading until I was able to pick it up again.

Not surprisingly, Ellen Foster won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was given a special citation by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. It was also turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1997, which earned a Primetime Emmy nomination.

A still from the Ellen Foster TV movie
Author Kaye Gibbons has also written A Virtuous Woman, A Cure for Dreams, Charms for the Easy Life, Sights Unseen, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, and Divining Women.  In 2006, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster was published, a sequel that brings readers back to Ellen’s story when she's 15 years old.

After just discovering Ellen’s story and the fantastic writer who brought it to life, I’ll be on the lookout for the sequel and any of Gibbons’ other work.

What about you, 2FL readers? What was the last book that you read that you just couldn’t put down?




2015/01/18

Jesse Winchester

by John Bloner, Jr.

Photograph of Jesse Winchester by Jordi Vidal/Redferns
His voice was a marriage of Roy Orbison with a mourning dove or the articulation of a sigh, and his recording career covered over 30 years, yet I had not heard the music of Jesse Winchester until 2009 when he appeared on the Sundance TV series, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With . . ., to sing a tender tune that made Neko Case cry.

Neko Case
This song, "Sham-A-Lam-Dong-Ding", reminds us that the romantic heart of America still beats strong, while it wraps itself in the style of 1950s-60s R&B classics, such as "Save The Last Dance For Me" and "There Goes My Baby", and uses nonsense lyrics, popular in the doo-wop era, to impart deep emotions.

"I grew up loving to hear the boys singing to the girls," Winchester confessed to CBC Radio. "There's something so sweet about it, so human. It never fails to touch me."


Jesse Winchester emerged in a decade when a musician could entertain with the use of only his voice, paired with a piano or an acoustic guitar. In the 1970s, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman and many more made their names as modern-day troubadours, gifting us with well-turned phrases married to melodies.

From the first song he wrote, "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz", to the final cut on his final album, gentleness flows in his music like the waters of the Wolf merging with the mighty Mississippi river. While I'm a northern boy, living in Wisconsin, and he was the consummate Southerner (even after spending years in Quebec), each time that I listen to his music, I swear I can smell the sweetness of magnolia trees.


After ten years without a new studio release, Winchester delivered Love Filling Station, a summation of everything that this artist had done well over his career. It contains songs that glow, shimmer and shake, thanks to performances by some of newgrass' finest talents: Jerry Douglas on lap steel, Russ Barenberg on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle, and vocalist Claire Lynch, who cuts loose with Jesse on the country rave-up, "Loose Talk."

Love Filling Station begins with the slow weave of "O, What A Thrill", moves to the clog dance beat of "Jump Jim Crow" in "It's A Shame About Him", finds solace from a broken heart with his six strings in "I Turn To My Guitar", and captures the work song tradition in "Wear Me Out" to tell a tale of a man whose mate demands much of him in bed.

The touchstone of this album, however, is a cover of a song co-written and made popular by Ben E. King: "Stand By Me." I've heard this tune hundreds of times by various artists in my life, but it took Winchester's version for me to see its power goes beyond its intoxicating bass line and its ethereal chorus.

Whenever you're at a crossroads in your life, this song has something to say to you. It can carry a secular or religious meaning, drawing its source from an old gospel hymn and, even deeper, from The Book of Psalms.


 In 2013, Winchester returned to the studio to record A Reasonable Amount of TroubleHe'd encountered more than a reasonable amount of trouble since 2011, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. In remission from the disease, he was able to create what would be the coda of his career. In February 2014, cancer returned, this time to his bladder. He passed away two months later.

The record doesn't play like a eulogy, even though there's a line in the first track that says adieu in the most beguiling way (see below). A Reasonable Amount of Trouble serves up stellar musicianship, courtesy of God's own fiddle player, Stuart Duncan; Leonard Cohen's bassist, Roscoe Beck; and Jerry Douglas on lap steel is back with Winchester for one last ride (and, oh, what a ride it is).

Jesse Winchester could sing doo-wop, gospel and honky tonk and make tunes written by others his own. Love Filling Station had "Stand By Me", and A Reasonable Amount of Doubt includes "Devil or Angel", "Rhythm of the Rain", and "Whispering Bells." Songs that someone may have heard a hundred times on the radio suddenly sound as if they were being played for the first time. There is an endearing quality in each note that he played and sung.



Photo: Jamie Martin/Associated Press
Winchester could break your heart, but he could also make you shake your booty. In 1977, he sang, "I'm still doing the rhumba, baby/So I'm still the man for you." This song went on to be covered by Jimmy Buffet, Little Feat and (my favorite version) Nicolette Larson with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

Over 40 years later, Winchester was still stepping out to remind us to "Never Forget to Boogie." In February, 2012, he performed at Blue Rock Artist Ranch & Studio, performing (in the video below) cuts from throughout his career, including:

Never Forget to Boogie
Bless Your Foolish Heart
Talk Memphis
Gentleman of Leisure
A Showman's Life
You Can't Stand Up Alone




Author and environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, "I choose to listen to the river for awhile, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars."  Winchester knew a thing or two about waterways, having grown up in Memphis.  On his 1981 album, Talk Memphis, he sang "Come trail a finger in a river's flow/Come help me wonder where the soul will go."

From now on, whenever I listen to a river speak, I will think of Jesse Winchester, and when I listen to his music, I will be reminded of the waters coursing through our land.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next month.

Jesse Winchester, surrounded by musicians who made magic on his final two recording. Clockwise from top left: Jerry Douglas • Andy Leftwich • Jim Horn • Claire Lynch • Russ Barenberg • Mark McAnally • Mark Fain • Stuart Duncan
To learn more about Jesse Winchester and listen to his music, visit this artist's page at AllMusic.com

2015/01/11

Adaptations

by Dave Gourdoux

I love movies and I love books.  When a movie is based on a book, more often than not the result is disappointing.  But when it's done right, the adaptation of a book into a movie can transcend the book, and make you see things you might not have appreciated before.

What makes a great adaptation of a book?  First of all is the source material.  There has to be something in the book that makes it worth filming. The director has to have a vision, had to be personally affected by the book. Second, the director can't be so in love with the book that he isn't willing to be at least a little bit unfaithful to it. It isn't possible to cram everything that happens in the book into the two hours that is the duration of most movies.  This is my problem with a movie that most of my friends love but I don't - The Shawshank Redemption.  To me, it's too earnest, and it plods along, holding the Stephen King book on which it was based in deep reverence.  I much prefer Brian De Palma's film of King's Carrie, because it is more alive, and the filmmakers aren't afraid to take chances with the material.

Another thing about adaptations of great works of literature: more often than not, the great books have great and memorable characters. This presents the opportunity, if the film is cast correctly, for great performances.

Here are some of my favorite movie adaptations.  The list is off the top of my head, and I'm certain there are a lot of great movies I've overlooked, but here goes:

14. Catch-22, 1971, Directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joseph Heller.



Catch-22 was one of the most eagerly anticipated films ever made.  It reunited Nichols and Henry, the same director and writer of The Graduate, and Heller's surreal novel, equal parts comic and tragic, was one of the most celebrated books of the 1960s.  An all star case signed on, including Orson Welles, Bob Newhart, Jon Voight, Art Garfunkel, Richard Benjaimin, and in an inspired bit of casting, Alan Arkin as Yossarian. Filming took place in Mexico and quickly ran over budget and behind schedule. The final result is a mess. None other than Joseph Heller criticized the film for being too faithful to his novel, and he was right. One of the rules of good adaptations is that the film has to decide on a narrative and point of view of its own, especially when there is as much going on in the book as there is in Heller's manuscript (for an even messier adaptation of a great book, check out Milos Foreman's 1981 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime). Despite the mess, Catch-22 is still worth watching, as the sheer genius of the cast frequently rises above the chaos and Arkin's performance as Yossarian is brilliant.

13. Tomorrow, 1972, Directed by Joseph Anthony, screenplay by Horton Foote, from the short story by William Faulkner.


A small, low budget black and white film that not many people have seen, Tomorrow is probably the best representation of Faulkner ever put on the screen. It tells the story of a simple man (Robert Duvall) and a pregnant woman (Olga Bellin) who wanders into his life. Bellin is quite good, and Duvall is simply amazing (his performance in this film was the model for Billy Bob Thornton's character in Sling Blade.) All of the Faulkner themes are here, including the contrast between the ephemeral nature of existence and the enduring power of love.

12. In Cold Blood, 1965, Directed by Richard Brooks, screenplay by Brooks from the book by Truman Capote.


Capote's book about the real life brutal murder of a small town Kansas family helped usher in the "new journalism" that would be further explored by Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, blurring the line between fact and fiction, using the devices of a novel to tell a non-fiction story. The film was even more controversial, as Brooks cast neighbors of the victims in small roles and shot key scenes in the actual house where the murders occurred. It's these details, plus the documentary feel of the film (shot on location in black and white) that stretched the boundaries of narrative versus exploitation to a degree not seen since Tod Browning's 1933 horror film, Freaks. In 1965, In Cold Blood was one of the most chilling films ever made, and although it's lost a little bit of its edge over the years, just remind yourself that it all really happened in the exact place it shows us, and you'll feel some of the same impact.

11. Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1962, Directed by Sidney Lumet, directly from the play by Eugene O'Neill.


Unique among adaptations, Lumet filmed Long Day's Journey Into Night directly from O'Neill's play. That's not to confuse it with a filmed play, as Lumet opens up enough to show us the Connecticut countryside that the family's home is in. The movie, like the play, is bleak and unforgiving, telling the story of one of the most dysfunctional families in all of literature. The performances of each of the four actors are exceptional, with Ralph Richardson as the father and Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as the sons all giving their best performances. But it's Katherine Hepburn, as the heroin addicted mother, who is especially brilliant, able to transcend time and space and appear beautiful and young in one moment and violent and psychotic the next. It's an unbelievably intense performance, the greatest of the greatest film actress's long and brilliant career.

10. Adaptation, 2002, Directed by Spike Jonez, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, from the book The Orchard Thief by Susan Orleans.


In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman, the celebrated screenwriter who twisted and bent storytelling conventions in films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (both also directed by Jonez), writes a screenplay about his own real-life neurotic adventures trying to write an adaptation of Orleans' book while suffering from writer's block. Kaufman is not sure that the book is up his alley, and with nowhere else to go, he decides to write a script about him writing the script. The movie then takes two paths: the first about Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) writing the script, the second the film of the adaptation he's writing. It's been done before, in 1981's The French Lieutenant's Woman, which tells the story of the 1963 novel written by John Fowles while in parallel telling a love story involving the actors playing the leads in the adaptation. But in The French Lieutenant's Woman we are watching two full and complete parallel stories; in Adaptation, we watch each story as they are created by Kaufman/Cage, and we see Kaufman's frustration boil over until he creates a twin brother to himself, who rescues the script by suggesting cliche ridden twists and ridiculous subplots, and we see the two worlds, the world Kaufman creates and the world he exists in while creating the adaptation, intersect and collide. Adaptation is hysterically funny and inventive, and it gives us a rare glimpse into the process of writing a screenplay. We get just enough of Orleans' actual book to get an idea of what it's about, but this is really about the process of giving birth to a successful script.

9. Breakfast of Champions, 1992, Directed by Alan Rudolph, screenplay by Alan Rudolph, from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.


Breakfast of Champions was written by Vonnegut in 1972, as he turned fifty years old and was going through a mid-life crisis. The result was probably his funniest and most sardonic book, and also his most sophomoric. The book is filled with crude drawings by the author (including one of his own asshole), and the plot, what there is of one, involves a used car salesman named Dwayne Hoover who's coming unglued and Vonnegut's frequent alter-ego, the reclusive and eccentric science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, and their eventual and unavoidable meeting in a small Midwestern town's arts festival. The book seems impossible to film because half of what makes it so enjoyable are Vonnegut's little asides to the readers, oftentimes in the form of stories that Trout wrote. But Alan Rudolph successfully captures the tone of the book, which is surrealistic absurdity. Rudolph lets the actors, Bruce Willis and Albert Finney as Hoover and Trout, and Nick Nolte, as a salesman who works for Hoover, all shamelessly ham up their roles. The movie, like the book, is a mess of exaggeration and excess, but it captures the mood and feel of a man going through a mid-life crisis.

8. Wuthering Heights, 1939, Directed by William Wyler, screenplay by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston, from the novel by Emily Bronte.


In the novels Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, Emily and Charlotte Bronte effectively invented the romance novel. The plot of Wuthering Heights has been copied so many times that it has become cliche: beautiful young upper class woman (Catherine) and a lower class worker (the stable boy, no less) named Heathcliff fall into a deep and doomed love. Catherine rejects Heathcliff and marries another of her same social class. Heathcliff goes away to make his fortune. He returns with wealth and power and forces his way into Catherine's life; he courts and marries her sister-in-law. Catherine, still in love with Heathcliff, falls ill, and Heathcliff is at her side when she dies. What separates the movie from other romances and why it still stands head and shoulder at the top of the genre, is Wyler's direction and Laurence Olivier's performance as Heathcliff. Wyler films the moors and the darkened English landscape with a stunning desolation and bleakness that provides the perfect backdrop to the romance. Olivier, in his first great film performance, is more than dark and brooding. He's so intense he is frightening,and his capacity for cruelty to Catherine, despite of, or because of his love for her, is as nuanced and complex as it is menacing. As played by Olivier, Heathcliff becomes one of the most fascinating lead characters in any film.

7. The Yearling, 1946, Directed by Clarence Brown, screenplay by Paul Osborn and John Lee Mahin, from the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.


The novel The Yearling is widely considered a classic american children's story, but I think that is selling it short. I'd put it on the list of great American novels. Its themes--loneliness and death in the vanishing Florida wilderness--are uniquely American. Most of all, it is about the relationship between a father and son, and the child's journey into adulthood. Clarence Brown's film version captures the mood and the essence of the book perfectly, and Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman are perfect as the father and the son. Also perfect is Jane Wyman, as the cold and harsh mother. The mother has to be harsh, because the father is overly romantic and still something of a child himself. Wyman keeps the family grounded. She has difficulty expressing her love, but it's there. The Yearling is that rare film where the characters are all emotionally complex and three dimensional.


6. A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, Directed by Elia Kazan screenplay by Tennessee Williams, from his own play.


In A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois give what are arguably the two greatest performances in the history of film. Kazan had directed the Broadway production, and most of the play's cast, including Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, was recast in the movie. The biggest exception was replacing Jessica Tandy as Blanche with Leigh. It was an inspired choice, as Leigh had already played the archetypal southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Williams had written Blanche as a faded version of the romantic icon who clings to the mythic and illusory "gentlemen callers" and the high ideals of youth and privilege and esteem, while the truth is that she has become an aging scandal. Kowalski represents harsh and unforgiving truth, and is determined to expose Blanche and all her beautiful lies. While Kazan stays faithful to the stage production (in terms of setting, the film isn't very "cinematic," in that the action takes place on the set modeled on a small part of New Orleans' French Quarter), he uses the cramped quarters to establish a sense of claustrophobia, and you can feel the gritty heat and the stale air as Stanley and Blanche go about destroying one another.

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, 1991, Directed by Simon Callow, from the novella by Carson McCullors, adapted for the stage by Edward Albee, screenplay by Michael Hirst.


In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Carson McCullors deepens her exploration of themes she presented in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. The worlds McCullors creates are dominated by loneliness, and love is a destructive force of nature that has a will of its own. It has no reason or rationale; it just is, and there's not much one can do about it. People fall in love with the most grotesque with no idea of why or how. In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, these themes reach their zenith as McCullors presents perhaps the oddest love triangle ever. Miss Amelia, a harsh and hardened and mannish woman who is physically stronger than most men, suddenly falls head over heels in love with a hunchbacked dwarf who comes to the small town and claims to be her Cousin Lymon. Meanwhile, Ameilia's ex husband, Marvin Macy, has just been released from jail and has vowed vengeance on Miss Ameila. Macy was once a violent criminal who changed his ways when he fell in love with Miss Amelia. So deep was his love that he gave up his life of crime as well as all of his earthly possessions. After the wedding, though, Miss Amelia violently rejected Macy when he tried to consummate the marriage, physically throwing Macy out. Upon Macy's return, Cousin Lymon is mesmerized and falls in love with Macy. The love triangle is complete, as Macy is still in love with Amelia, Amelia is in love with Cousin Lymon, and Cousin Lymon is in love with Macy. All of the loves are powerful and all are unrequited.

The reason this film makes the list is because it so effectively evokes the novella. The dusty streets, the clapboard buildings, the dimly lit cafe, are all exactly as I pictured them when reading McCullors' novella. The characters come right out of the book too, in the way they look and in the bizarre behavior they display. As Miss Amelia, Vanessa Redgrave is perfect - she's an enigma, simple and plain and tough, and the climactic fight between her and Macy (played by Keith Carradine) is not soon forgotten.

4. Lolita, 1962, Directed by Stanley Kubrick, screenplay by Vladimir Nabakov and Stanley Kubrick, from the novel by Nabakov.


James Mason, as Humbert Humbert, gives one of the all time great performances as Nabakov's man who becomes obsessed with a young girl, Lolita, played by Sue Lyon. Mason's performance is all the more remarkable when one remembers that Stanley Kubrick is the director. In most Kubrick films, actors are something of an afterthought. Mason has a depth that a Kubrick character rarely achieves, and Peter Sellers, in the expanded role of Claire Quilty, is his usual brilliant self. What makes Lolita so significant is that it was able to be made and get past the harsh production code censors who ruled Hollywood morality at the time, Nabokov and Kubrick raised Lolita's age from twelve in the book to fourteen in the movie, and only suggested the sexual nature of their relationship. Quilty's expanded role was a key change, too. As Humbert's nemesis, Quilty is something of a dark and sinister alter ego of Humbert, and it's interesting to speculate if he really exists or if he is a manifestation of Humbert's guilt (note that the name "Quilty" rhymes with "guilty").

3. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, Directed by Robert Mulligan, screenplay by Horton Foote, from the novel by Harper Lee.


One of the finest and most faithful adaptations ever filmed, To Kill a Mockingbird perfectly captures not only the look and feel of Harper's novel, but also the author's voice and her poetic prose. The love and respect that Atticus Finch was written with comes through in Gregory Peck's rock solid performance. When Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) finally makes his appearance, it's about as perfect as film can get.


2. Wise Blood, 1979, Directed by John Huston, screenplay by Bemedict Fitzgerald, from the novel by Flannery O'Connor.


I've only seen this movie once, over thirty years ago, but I remember it as capturing the surreal and dark and caustically funny mood of the book, one of only two novels that O'Connor ever wrote. In O'Connor's novel, the main character, a young man named  Hazel Motes, is one of the most bizarre characters ever conceived, and he becomes the embodiment of all of O'Connor's complaints about Protestants and non-Christians. Motes becomes a street preacher, starting the "Church of God Without Christ." He is the strangest character in a book filled with strange characters.

The film was one of Huston's last, and, though not many people have seen it, one of his best. He cast the character actor Brad Dourif, best known for his role as Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in the lead, and it's an inspired choice, as Dourif is quirky and odd enough to embody Motes, and he is a strong enough actor to carry a movie. Huston succeeds more in bringing out the comedic elements in the book; O'Connor injects Hazel with an odd pathos that I don't remember the film capturing.

1. The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, Directed by John Ford, screenplay by Nunnaly Johnson, from the novel by John Steinbeck.


The Grapes of Wrath was initially published in 1939 and instantly regarded as a classic American novel, winning the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was adapted for film in the same year it was published, and the film was released in 1940. It was directed by the great poet of American cinema, the incomparable John Ford.

Both the book and the film came out so quickly that they were extremely topical and uniquely and unquestionably American. Still in the throes of the Great Depression, Steinbeck's story about families being thrown off of their farms in dust bowl Oklahoma and their subsequent exploitation in the migrant fields of California has a feel of authenticity because it was occurring as he wrote it. The film has the same feel to it, and now, more than seventy years later, watching it feels almost like watching a documentary.

The book created one of the central characters in American literature, Tom Joad, and the movie cast that most American of great screen actors, Henry Fonda, in the role. Fonda's performance is so great that after seeing the movie, it's impossible to read the book without projecting the image of Fonda on Joad. Fonda's performance is as much responsible as Steinbeck's book for elevating Tom Joad to one of the iconic characters in American literature, and Ford's brilliant visuals stand next to Steinbeck's prose, making the movie a true companion to the book, and, in my opinion, the greatest adaptation of a book into a movie ever.


2015/01/04

Jorge Drexler

by Jav Rivera

It was early morning and I was too snug to get out of bed. My alarm went off and the radio station was recapping the Oscars. They mentioned the name Jorge Drexler and his award for Best Original Song for the film Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries). They played an excerpt of Drexler singing a capella and suddenly I was awake. He had a gentle voice and the melody was tender. I rolled out of bed and quickly wrote his name down. I had never heard of Jorge Drexler, nor had I seen the film. Yet.

Jorge Drexler
Although I had been aware of the film, having seen the trailer months earlier, I had not seen it when the radio alarm went off. But now I was intrigued by both the film and singer. Not so much because of the award, but because the lyrics to Drexler's song "Al otro lado del río" produced imagery that I couldn't connect with the scenes of the film's trailer. I wondered what a river had to do with the film.

Clavo mi remo en el agua
llevo tu remo en el mío.
Creo que he visto una luz
al otro lado del río.


English Translation:
I plunge my oar in the water
I carry your oar in mine
I believe I have seen a light
On the other side of the river


With my interest piqued, I finally watched Diarios de motocicleta and was beyond impressed. The river, as it turned out, was a very important factor in the main character's life. I immediately bought the soundtrack to the film, which was primarily made up of music by the film's composer, Gustavo Santaolalla (another artist I fell in love with). But the soundtrack also included Jorge Drexler's award-winning song, "Al otro lado del río." (And eventually, I bought the DVD of the film once it was released.)



That wasn't enough for me. I researched Jorge Drexler and discovered that this Uruguayan musician had been making music since 1992. I didn't know anything about his other music, so I bought his 2004 album, "Eco", which was his latest release at the time. The version I bought included "Al otro lado del río", which was added to the album after the song had garnered so much attention. Much to my surprise, "Eco" was one of the most flawless albums I ever bought. So good, in fact, that even the magnificent "Al otro lado del río" felt out of place. Even though it worked to add the track for promotional purposes, "Eco" was an already great enough album and artistically didn't need it.

Mostly, the album proved to me that Jorge Drexler was an artist that I should be paying more attention to. So eventually, I bought everything he had released by that time (and I continue to buy anything he releases). Comparing his music from his early days to his current music, you can hear a distinct change in the production and quality of his music. "Eco" was clearly a landmark album for Drexler. That's where I noticed the biggest change occur (more about that later). But all of his music has a certain quality, so to choose just one album to focus on seems a shame. Instead, I'll highlight selected tracks from a variety of his albums.

I'll start with "Eco" since that's the first Jorge Drexler album I bought. As I mentioned earlier, "Eco" is a flawless album. There's a variety in styles, excellent production value, and incredible song craft. Comparing this album to his previous work, one thing that stands out is the recording of Drexler's vocal work. Before "Eco", Drexler's vocals sounded flat and almost in the background. Don't misunderstand this statement. Drexler has a beautiful voice and it's clear that the man can sing, no matter what album. But I'm specifically referring to the manner (or quality) in which his voice was recorded prior to "Eco". It may be easier to say that his earlier recordings sound like they're using a cheap microphone. (Recording engineers would probably disagree, because technically, that's not the real issue. But the majority of people aren't engineers, so this statement is just a means to help explain my point.)

With "Eco", Drexler's voice sounds rich and in the forefront. It's almost as if the microphone and his voice had become more intimate. A great example of this union is in the lovely track, "Salvapantallas". The song, whose title is translated as "Screensavor," is a simple tune about a photograph on the writer's computer. The photo of course being someone he cares for deeply. It's on "Salvapantallas" where Drexler's voice leads the music. It's accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar riff and a delicate keyboard/synthesizer in the distant background. For me, "Salvapantallas" is one of the strongest tracks on the album and easily one of Drexler's all time best.

"Guitarra y vos" is one of those unusual tunes that fits in multiple genres. Drexler combines standard rock instruments with a rap-like quality. It might be considered closer to hip-hop but it's really its own thing. The lyrics, especially, stand out. Drexler talks about all the things important in life. But when it all boils down, the most he can give is his guitar and voice.

The last track I'll highlight from "Eco" is my personal favorite song by Drexler. "Deseo" isn't just my favorite on this album, but of all his albums. The production/composition alone is absolute perfection. Each instrument is just as important as the others, and if any of them were taken out, the piece would weaken. The heavy bass, the melodic guitars, the various instruments all add something, with Drexler's voice and lyrics being the icing on the cake. "Deseo" translated is "Desire" which is the perfect reason why the track has a somewhat romantic, even sexy, sound to it. It's not cheesy romantic -- it's better described as sensual.


Drexler's music is very much influenced by traditional Uruguayan music mixed with jazz, pop, rock, and electronic music. Going backwards to his earlier (pre-"Eco") albums, Drexler was on safer grounds. His musical experimentation was less apparent during those days.

From his "Frontera" album, released in 1999, the track "Memoria del cuero" is the stand-out song. It's got a thumping dance beat and a distorted voice track, all surrounded by electronic-type rhythms. This can easily be combined to visuals in a movie set on the dance floor with a laser light show bouncing all over the walls. It's not what you'd expect from an artist who wrote the very somber, acoustic song that won his Academy Award.

And from his 2001 album "Sea," my favorite is easily "Un país con el nombre de un río" (translated: "A Country with the Name of a River"). Here, Drexler smoothly blends an acoustic guitar with electronic elements. His voice is finally reaching the quality of "Eco" and the writing is touching. In fact, one of his best traits as a writer is his point of view. Many of his songs could almost be deemed as political, in the sense that he writes through the eyes of the people struggling to survive. It's on this track when you really see the master come out from underneath the shell of a student.

And though his writing has always been one of his strongest qualities, I don't often listen to his earlier work because everything after "Eco" is just so much better. It's not that his music or writing wasn't good; it's the recording/production quality that I have trouble getting past. Fortunately, in 2008 Drexler released a live double-album titled "Cara B".

It's on this release where some of his rare and older tracks are performed in a more stripped down manner. With all that unnecessary production from those early albums, it's easier to hear the true nature of the music, and can finally be appreciated. Many of the tracks, in fact, are performed with just Drexler and a guitar. There are other instruments as well, but his voice and acoustic guitar are the most prominent. These versions are so good that I was surprised to find out that many of them came from his pre-"Eco" albums. And those early tracks benefit the most from this live album. Some of the more memorable tracks are "Dance, Dance, Dance", "Horas", "Soledad", "Dove sei?", "Toíto cái lo traigo andao", "Milonga paraguaya", "Zamba por vos", and "Dance Me To The End Of Love".
 
Going back to 2006, Drexler released "12 Segundos De Oscuridad". This album almost sounds like a continuation of "Eco" with its song variety and experimentation. But it's hard to describe the difference. It almost has a softer edge to it without slowing down the pace. Gentler might be a better way to explain it.

Ten of the twelve tracks are original compositions, but it's the cover of Radiohead's "High and Dry" (from their album, "The Bends") that shocked me. I hadn't noticed the title of the song when I first played it. And since it's a very different take on the song, I was unaware that it was a cover. But then as Drexler started to sing, I noticed two things: one, he was singing in English (a very rare thing for him), and two, the lyrics. As he got to the main chorus I recognized the tune. I thought to myself, "Oh wow! This is such a cool version of this song." And it truly is. It's Drexler and an acoustic guitar. If you don't already know Radiohead's version, Google it and you'll hear a very different song. At this time in Radiohead's career, they were still primarily an alternative rock band using the standard electric guitars, drums, and bass line up (they've since moved well beyond that). Drexler's version of "High and Dry", on the other hand, has a "Spanish" flavor.

The two other tracks that stand out for me are "Inoportuna" and "El otro engranaje". The former mixes upbeat, catchy music with slow, sad vocals. The lyrics are pretty dark, actually. Drexler basically talks about how life doesn't wait for you, especially when wrong things happen at wrong times. The latter, "El otro engranaje", brings in a brass section. And though in the past Drexler's music has used various instruments, including horns, "El otro engranaje" makes them more apparent. This seems to foreshadow his work on his next album, "Amar la Trama".

The follow up album to "12 Segundos De Oscuridad" was 2010's "Amar la Trama". This is an interesting album because after "Eco" and "12 Segundos..." I wasn't ready for something so different. In fact, at first I was taken back. I wasn't sure if I liked it. It had a very live band sound to it. The music contained a lot more brass (horns, trumpets, etc.) instruments than his previous releases.

"Amar la Trama" has some catchy tunes, and even one track, "I Don't Worry About a Thing", had a duet with Paul McCartney. (Yes, The Beatle, Paul McCartney.) And though the album wasn't bad, I just wasn't expecting this kind of music from Drexler. And that's the thing about expectations; it can distort the truth of things. A few months after first listening to it, I had gotten in the mood for Drexler's music. So I started playing all his albums. When I got to "Amar la Trama" I finally heard it for what it was: a magnificent entry to his already stellar collection.

Now that I had smacked myself on the forehead for being so idiotic with my initial reaction, I was hooked. I listened to it over and over for days and days. It got to the point where I wanted to know more about the album's production, and why it sounded so different. I did a little research and discovered new reasons to love this album even more. First of all, the album was recorded in just four days! For those of you who don't know, most albums take weeks, months, or even years to record. Second of all, the band played live during the sessions which helped get that full sound. Instead of the more modern (and now typical) manner to record instruments separately and mix them together, Drexler and his band got in a big circle and recorded together live. The deluxe version of this album includes videos of some of the tracks being performed/recorded. It's great to see Drexler surrounded by his band playing together. He looks at ease and the entire group look like that they're having the time of their lives.

One of my favorite tracks from "Amar la Trama" is "Mundo abisal". It's a great example of this live, full band sound. There's one point of the song where the saxophone goes into a solo. But it's what happens at the beginning of this solo that is unique. The mix gets muffled as if the speakers are being covered up by a pillow. Eventually the mixed pulls out of it and clarity is once again restored. That first time I heard the song I was confused, but it stuck in my head.


The album's opening piece, "Tres mil millones de latido", gets you right in the mood for a very "brass" album. I, personally, can't get enough of that ending. I love the loose feel of the brass section spinning around. I equate it to a couple of painters throwing paint on a canvas in random, yet unison, fashion. I love the ending so much that I have to start the song from the beginning just to hear it again.

But above all, the best song on "Amar la Trama" is "Noctiluca". With its clean electric guitar strumming, Drexler gives that intimate feel again. It's just him and a guitar, and an occasional ringing of a music box in the background. The minimalism creates a very personal atmosphere. And to add more heart to the song, as it turns out, not only was the song written for his son, but his son is also the one turning the music box.


His latest release, "Bailar en la cueva", is highly influenced by dance music, and the title track starts things off with a joyous beat. What I enjoy most about this album is the fact that his previous album was a very different genre. Whereas "Amar la Trama" focused on brass, "Bailar en la cueva" is more electronic, with thumping beats. It's a fun album and a great way to introduce Drexler to anyone who enjoys party music.

And tracks like "Organdí" and "Todo cae" remind fans that Drexler can still produce heartfelt songs, no matter what genre he takes on. "Toda cae" is also a bit reminiscent to a Beatles tune from their "Sgt. Pepper" days.

Dance music may not be on the top of my list, but even I couldn't help but wiggle my ass and tap my toes to Drexler's 2014 album. If I had to choose, my favorite track on this album would be "Bolivia". It's got a slithery sound, like a snake trying to tempt another. Drexler seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of music and is fearless in his execution. From traditional Uruguayan music, to jazz, to dance, to folk, to electronic, to pop -- Drexler is the master of genres. He's not afraid to mix things up and experiment. It's as if he has a carefree attitude about experimenting while respecting the art of music. I think it would be a better place to live if all artists were as courageous as he.


And now that I think about it, it's amazing to me how a short moment on the radio turned me onto one of my favorite artists. Jorge Drexler has inspired and influenced me as an artist, but more importantly, he's brought so much incredible music to my life. I hate to think of my life without it. And with every new album, I cannot wait to discover what kind of music and experimentation Drexler decides to try.

For more information, visit Jorge Drexler's official website: www.jorgedrexler.com


TRIVIA: At the 2004 Academy Awards Ceremony, the producers did not allow Jorge Drexler to perform his song, despite being the songwriter and singer of the tune. It was deemed that Drexler was not a famous enough performer. The song was instead performed by actor Antonio Banderas and guitarist Carlos Santana. When Drexler won the Oscar, he sang a verse from the song a cappella, followed by a simple "Thank you" before walking off stage with award in hand.