Monthly Archives: May 2016

Don Quixote (YGtCTO Words #3)

Book written by Miguel de Cervantes

Is it just the character, so artfully drawn? Hamlet… Faust, maybe… How many characters outside of religious texts have stayed in the common mind for the past four hundred years?

In the foreword to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote, Guy Davenport mentions that Don Quixote is one of those classics that everyone knows, but no one reads, even the occasional professor who teaches the book. I never read it in college, but I do have the excuse that it was never assigned. Much later in life, I decided to give it a spin, granting myself an out after the first section, assuming that it would be a slog.

Nabokov, in his lectures, struggles with much of the content that has been called humorous over the years. He found it beyond slapstick, edging well into cruelty. I can’t fault him his sensibilities (though some of his writings make the sentiment feel a bit disingenuous), but I must confess that I found parts of the book hilarious. This reaction hopefully removes me from the worst of Nabokov’s disdain, which was reserved for those who have sentimentalized Don Quixote over the centuries. That condemnation is something I can wholly endorse, even if the musical has its moments (but we all know that movies and musicals based on books are not the same thing as the book itself).

Make no mistake, the tale told by Cervantes is a march through the horrors man inflicts on his fellow man, 17th century-style, told with a heavy dose of satire about all things powerful at the time- all things being the church and the King. The first part of what we now consider one book was published as a single standalone release by Cervantes and it tells the tale most familiar of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, accompanied by Sancho Panza, on his doomed quest for nobility and true chivalrous love. The story ends with Quixote back home in bed, quite alive.

The book was successful beyond wildest dreams, leading to a variety of knock-off continuations of the story, as Cervantes was slow to recognize market demand and his publishers were slow to get the first book printed in other countries. Finally, Cervantes got a clue and wrote a sequel, even incorporating as a character one of the “Don Quixote”‘s from the most popular rip-off of his work. Accomplishing the task of skewering those who had stolen his copyright, all writers should be singing his praises as a morning ritual.

The sequel is now always packaged with the first part, but few are as familiar with it. I found it magnificent. Sancho Panza fulfills his life desire and becomes the governor of an island. The wisdom that Cervantes brings to bear makes the tale applicable to our own season of political discontent.

Multiple small brilliances fill the book, but the miracle is how strong the commentary on life rings throughout. Much like his contemporary in England, that Shakespeare fellow, Cervantes found a way to talk about life in a way that touched hearts so thoroughly in his time that the book became a necessary part of any library.

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 292 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.

Down River (YGtCTO Music #3)

Song written by David Ackles
Performed by David Ackles

Anyone who has ever scanned through old photographs knows the power of the frozen moment from the past, but no other art form elicits loss, reverie, and longing quite like the combination of lyrics and music. Certainly, a beloved tune from our youth will always take us back, but that song that can make you feel someone’s loss and pain- that is empathy that builds our interconnectedness and our humanity. More than that, a song which creates fellow feeling for the disenfranchised must be acclaimed in any democratic society.

David Ackles was a master songwriter with a wicked way with words- just check out the rest of his debut eponymous record. I probably should not have selected only one song, but Down River is one of the great songs of loss and regret from the past half century. The accomplishment leaves many in the dust. Try listening to it on a long car ride late at night when your copilot is nothing but ghosts. Try singing along and just fight back the slow cracking of a polished exterior.

Record labels seemed to seek out great singer songwriters in the Sixties and Seventies whether or not they worked in the folk vein: Elton John and Carole King became famous, while Laura Nyro and Leonard Cohen had their followers, but they remained short of the top charts. Of course, there were Jackson Brown and Warren Zevon… and David Ackles. Did you ever see a David Ackles recording in a college dorm? Would you remember it?

When we hear one combination of sounds, we may recognize it as musical while another array becomes mere noise. Certainly, some of that is structure imposed on sound, but beyond structure is the recognition that a certain pairing of notes works while another pairing does not. Ackles version of his own song is a tremendous display of arrangement and production. Spooky Tooth covered the tune with a vocal drenched in echo and sung too high, though let’s focus on the gifts offered by the original. And I dare say that any particular affinity is always subjective to the observer in the given moment. When enough people agree that a given pairing is successful, then that consensus becomes popular appreciation. On the other hand, popular appreciation has not always followed great art. Hmm…

The trope of encapsulating one side of a conversation in lyrics is not terribly unique, but difficult to pull off without deteriorating into self-parody. Bruce Springsteen began plumbing it admirably from the very beginning of his recording career, but few could emulate his songwriting skills. It is a style that invites the listener in and almost demands that you take a side, either as the speaker or the responder. Moreover, the best of this format demands that you look at both sides of the conversation. Rosie is not wrong or right. She got on with her life. Our sympathies may lie with the speaker as his point of view is most clearly represented, but the brilliance of Down River is that you can feel his ambivalence. He knows that she made a good decision, even so far as not writing once he was sent away. Lest we forget, there is also that third party involved in their troubled relationship.

This is the poetry of pain and encapsulates the very difference between prose and poetry. Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants skirts poetry, but settles ultimately on the side of prose. By doing so, Hemingway places its tension squarely in the philosophical. We can feel that couple’s pain, but it is muted. The ex-con in Down River, on the other hand, takes us straight to the heart of loss. The combination of the music and the words creates that poetic moment, that emotional sustenance that can speak directly to the core of our beings. Prose allows that one step of removal from having to feel. We can view and judge based on that pause in synaptic response. The writer may have placed their heart on the page, bled the ink, but they also placed thought before feeling with the distancing mechanism of commentary. Poetry places heart before brain. Then combine that poetry with music and you mainline emotion.

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 293 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.

Dog Day Afternoon (YGtCTO #6)

Movie directed by Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by Frank Pierson

This film was released just over three years after the attempted theft that inspired it. P.F. Kluge wrote a magazine article about the bank robbery. Those participants in the actual event who survived were available to the filmmakers. But this is not a documentary- not reportage. Yet it emphasizes the truth of the created world within the story, the validity of its themes as commentary on the world that we all share.

Why is this movie not more ridiculous? At every possible turn of events, the plot precariously dances along the edge of the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Assuredly, the story started as real life, but how often real life falls into parody in the hands of film makers. Parody, in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the fact that Dog Day Afternoon does not take that path is a testament to the sincerity of the vision shared by everyone involved.

Watching the movie again, one is struck by the solidity of the presentation. The bank feels like a crappy edifice built around a central safe, just like so many bank branches. The employees are all distinct individuals, coping with a situation vacillating between the terrifying and the absurd. They care for each other and for their jobs about as much as any of us care for our co-workers or our places of employment. The thieves are not brilliant or unusually brave. They are not heroic. The police behave admirably in their effort to avoid unnecessary violence, but the situation is no model argument for negotiation. The shear weirdness that develops as negotiations proceed demonstrates the uniqueness of the situation. If anything, the film argues for the individual treatment of desperate occurrences. Circumstances always defy expectations, especially yes/no decision-making under duress.

Dog Day Afternoon plays like an epic, though far shorter than three hour period pieces. It is most certainly of its time and not just the decade, but the season. This is New York before AIDS, before cell phones, before Giuliani. Sure, the film explores themes of media exploitation and misplaced moral outrage, but these all develop within the confines of a small bank branch on a commonplace block. The protagonists are just some average bank robbers that would not have merited more than a sidebar buried deep in the pages of the dailies if they had succeeded in their initial escape. What started with Arthur Miller, among others, on stages tears the crime film here, Al Pacino as Willy Loman as bank robber, just as caught out in his indiscretions, though far more publicly. In the end, he is no more mourned.

American film in the Seventies brought a furious list of anti-heroes, protagonists for an angry nation. Many were id run rampant, like Dirty Harry, allowing communal purging of all that disillusion, confusion, and anger. Dog Day Afternoon presented someone more sympathetic for the doomed foreshadowing apparent the moment his co-conspirator runs away. He is no hero, but he is a human being. Any art that is willing to show us humanity in all its myriad forms cannot be, should not be dismissed.

More than all that, Dog Day Afternoon requires us to decide where our sympathies lie, much as the radio and television audiences within the film itself must decide. Their loyalties shift as the crime carries on and they become familiar with the criminals’ backgrounds. Like them, we also only have hints about their real pasts as low level thugs. Instead, we see desperation, love, and confusion. Arguably, the law stationed across the street is as much audience (Greek chorus if you will) to the bank robbery as we are. Their reactions offer a point of view that ultimately makes the final act of brutality more than inevitable- rather understandable as another footnote on our path toward a world view.

An important side note: no actor has the career batting average of John Cazale: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter, and the present piece under consideration. That’s it- not a drop in quality in the lot. Like Lou Gehrig, he died too young, but left greatness to be remembered and studied. While his character was inspired by a youth half his age, more than anyone else in the cast, he gave body and soul to someone more of fiction than of fact.

An odd side note: at its best, the Netflix series Bloodline feels like the machinations of Game of Thrones scaled to the reality of Dog Day Afternoon.

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 294 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.