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September 2006

September 21, 2006

Bob Dylan's Modern Times

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I must confess to never having understood the Dylan phenomenon. I have understood his talent, his charm, and the spark in my mother's eye when his name is mentioned, but never have I really got it--The Judas Moment, the spiritual dualism, the ego, the mystic. It may be, as essayist Ian McDonald has it, that Dylan came to represent the younger half of the "great disruption" of the 1960s. Dylan as the Dalai Lama of cool in a generation defined by the schism between two competing ways of life: a battle of fathers and sons. I'm fond of this theory, but I have no firm belief--I was born just months after Chapman fired a revolver into the chest of that other pop messiah.
And so it feels strange to review this thing--if Dylan's phenomenon is properly located in generations, I am very far away. My generation is not so clearly marked by the "hard rain" Dylan prophesied, but by the odd terrors of asymmetrical warfare. Note also that Dylan's own experiments with acid and self--the tinkerings that helped him make his best music--burnt him out, and he has long since retreated back to something like the wandering Woody Guthrie figure that emerged in New York in the early '60s.
Modern Times is Bob playing around with ol' Muddy Waters riffs, breathing life into them with his grainy, wheezy delivery. It's a voice that's seen the schism, and fought it with myth and amphetamine, and a strange liking for self-invention. I gotta say I'm glad he's still around, and that his voice itself is suggestive of an enormous historical legacy. Those who grew up with Dylan may like to see him now as traveling mystic, happiest when he's on a remote porch with a guitar and a bottle of moonshine. Maybe Dylan himself is happiest when he thinks that too, but I have no opinion, other than this: there is a great depth and charm to this record, made from the puff and grunt of our greatest musical enigma. This is Dylan breathing in deeply his country's blues history, and exhaling it with a musical instinct that will probably go down as history's most observed and argued about.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 6:40 PM

September 13, 2006

Geoffrey Wright's Macbeth

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It would be tedious to begin this review with lofty considerations of Shakespeare--of who the man was; of what modern treatments of his work should be. We were treated to enough of that when op-ed pieces all over our nation opined with Bloomian reverence to defend the Bard from outcomes based education. Nothing was ever really said, except heated calls for the protection of our great canon. I myself am sympathetic to Harold Bloom's conservatism, but a Year 10 classroom is not the place for it, and I am certainly not sympathetic to journalistic hacks huffing and puffing in Shakespeare's shadow.
And so to move away from the grandiose, I'll tell you this--I think Shakespeare's important because Kenneth Branagh taught me so. It was then that I began to get a feel for Will's skill with "pathos" and "gravitas" and all those words forlornly shackled to the dramatic arts.
Branagh's Hamlet was great because Branagh knew Shakespeare, and you, Geoffrey fucking Wright, are no Kenneth Branagh. If we are to accept this basic principle, that Shakespeare's "big plays" are great, and can still tell us things, then we are saying that Shakespeare must be the centre of a modern treatment--the script writer, editor and advisor. In Wright's Macbeth, cheap theatrics and a taste for fetish are the unfortunate centre, and Shakespeare seems very far away...

A Humble Litany of Advice Written for Geoffrey Wright in the Hope That He Will Never Make a Film Ever Again:

1. Cast actors who can act and understand Shakespeare. I can not stress this one enough, Geoff. If you are bold enough to adopt Macbeth, then bloody well do it. Allow good actors to inhabit your film, to fill the spaces with the grand and subtle grotesqueries of Shakespeare. Great actors can do this with their eyes; good actors should be able to do it with Will's words. In this case, bad actors mumble and mutter words they clearly have no idea about. It is obvious. It is rude. It is embarrassing. It is fucking blasphemous.

2. Reliance on a highly contrived aesthetic to divert the audience from the hollowness of it all just won't do. Ostensibly, this film takes place in modern day Melbourne--in the heart of the city's gangland milieu. In reality it takes place in Wright's bawdy, neo-gothic fantasies--all fashion and fetish so that the actors are made to wear clothes resembling the reprehensible wankery of a Milanese catwalk. iPods boom in the background, and De Palma-red soaks everything. The witches are lascivious demons, all pout and curves, and Worthington reduces the teetering Macbeth to Liam Gallagher suffering a methamphetamine nightmare. Swagger, swagger, swagger, suggesting nothing of the major curse he has inflicted upon himself--his own intimacy with his heart of darkness. Ahh, to hell with it. You get the picture. Shakespeare needn't work within the physically realistic--but, damn it, the press kits promised me gritty verisimilitude of Melbourne's gangland. I got delirious goth fantasies instead. So what? Well, it accompanied a distorted Shakespeare--like a carbon copy was placed over the First Folio and mistakenly shifted a few inches.

3. An obnoxious score just won't do either. The strings in this film made me ill, so much so that I wondered if infrasound had been smuggled into the score. Either way, they are an obnoxious distraction, much like the actors, the sets, the costumes, and the lighting. It is all, simply, too much. Too earnest. Too cool. All groin and gore and guns. Yes, Shakespeare was often all that, but then so are the porno vids I keep under the bed. I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that Shakespeare had a little something else, right? but Geoffrey Wright just couldn't see it. Don't go see this.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 5:44 PM