Sunday, December 20, 2009

"A Blacksmith Courted Me"

Eddi Reader (born Sadenia Reader, in 1959 in Glasgow) is a singer and actress who hit number one in Britain as part of Fairground Attraction with their single Perfect in 1988. She performs in the recently released film Me And Orson Welles. I first came across her singing what has since become one of my favorite ballads, "Blacksmith," also known as "A Blacksmith Courted Me." This traditional English folk song is perhaps hundreds of years old. It was first published by the composer and folk music chronicler Ralph Vaughan Williams (Perhaps best known for his arrangment of another popular English folk classic, Greensleves) in 1909, who got it from a Mrs. Powell.

Reader performs "Blacksmith" on her solo album Mirmama. Here it is below, done justice with her powerful voice and the haunting arrangement. Beneath it are the lyrics from Wikipedia, and then a rendition of Williams' Greensleeves for good measure.

A blacksmith courted me
Nine months and better
He fairly won my heart
Wrote me a letter.
With his hammer in his hand
He looked so clever
And if I was with my love
I would live forever.

But where is my love gone
With his cheeks like roses
And his good black Billycock on
Decked around with primroses.
I fear the shining sun
May burn and scorch his beauty
And if I was with my love
I would do my duty.

Strange news is come to town
Strange news is carried
Strange news flies up and down
That my love is married.
I wish them both much joy
Though they can't hear me
And may God reward him well
For the slighting of me.

Don't you remember when
You lay beside me
And you said you'd marry me
And not deny me.
If I said I'd marry you
It was only for to try you
So bring your witness love
And I'll not deny you.

No, witness have I none
Save God Almighty
And may he reward you well
For the slighting of me.
Her lips grew pale and wan
It made a poor heart tremble
To think she loved a one
And he proved deceitful.

A blacksmith courted me
Nine months and better
He fairly won my heart
Wrote me a letter.
With his hammer in his hand
He looked so clever
And if I was with my love I would live forever

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Henrik Sundholm's "Visual Ideas"

Swedish blogger Henrik Sudholm considers himself an amateur photographer. He only just bought his first camera. If this is what he considers amateur work, it will be interesting to see what he does once he has better honed his skills! His usual subject is landscapes that have been altered by man. He thinks those alterations are improvements, just like his digital editing of his own work can be said to raise the mechanical process of photography to the level of fine art. Above is a detail from his "Yellow Locomotive III." Below is "Smoke Shafts." Check out Sundholm's photographs at Flickr and his essay Thoughts On Photography at his blog.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lie to Me "White Lie"

Lie to Me, which debuted in Jan of 2009, is a crime drama with a twist that has become a pleasantly unexpected hit. The show involves Dr. Cal Lightman (the Oscar-nominated character actor Tim Roth) and his team of human lie detectors who use the science of microexpressions to determine the veracity not only of their subjects, but often of the clients and agencies that have retained their services. Much of the show is formulaic, along the lines of House, with sexual and psychological tensions among the players bridging the plots of the otherwise largely self-contained episodes. All the usual politically correct stereotypes and cliches are there, the misunderstood Muslim, the hooker with the heart of gold, the farmer with a tractor bomb. But the show's gimmick, the scientists' ability to detect lies, means that the writers are always dealing with deeply held values worth lying about. You can focus on the drama and disregard the not always so subtle moralizing. The clip below, where the unpaid intern and loose cannon Eli serenades some kids to keep them calm during a bomb threat is maybe not the most riveting, but in context, it was one of the more memorable scenes in recent scripted television. You can and should catch Lie to Me at Hulu or elswhere and monday nights on Fox. Enjoy also the voice of Felicia Day, here a school teacher, also known to many as Penny, the love interest of Neil Patrick Harris from Joss Whedon's cult hit, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Alice" — Syfy's retake of Wonderland

"It'll be just like the old days — justice, reason, and the rule of law!" If you've ever wanted to hear that phrase belted out by the smooth yet stentorian Tim Curry, one of the greatest voices of our time, then that's just one more reason to check out Alice, the new miniseries by Syfy, cable's rebranded Sci-fi channel. Alice is a two-part four-hour miniseries set in a modern-day Wonderland. Written for adults (the show is sponsored by Kay Jewelers) the retelling is hip and visually stunning with some dark but mostly comedic edges that make for a quite satisfying retelling of the Carroll Lewis classic.

In this version, Alice (Caterina Scorsone) is all grown up, and a karate instructor to boot, even if she has some issues, a father who abandoned her at age ten and a problem committing to mister right. When she brings home her latest, Jack, to meet mom, he offers her a ring out of the blue. She turns down his proposal, but he slips the ring in her pocket. Trying to return it she shes him dragged off through a dark alley by thugs, and chasing after she falls through the looking glass to an alternate dimension.

It turns out that Jack is the Jack — the Jack of Hearts, son of the casino-boss Queen of Hearts, Kathy Bates and her put-upon King, Colm Meaney — and the leader of a resistance trying to overthrow his mother's tyrannical rule held in place by a drug economy that refines the emotions of kidnapped earthlings into chemical elixirs.

With its battles, beasts and betrayals (Beware the Jabberwock, my son!) the story is your standard fantasy adventure fare, sometimes light in the plot, but quite pleasant. We meet the roguish Hatter, played by British heart-throb Andrew-Lee Potts. He and the White Knight, played by the delightful Matt Frewer, whom you may recognize as the former Max Headroom, set off with Alice to find her father and return to her own world, even if she has to overthrow the Red Queen to do it. The show is full of familiar faces and the visual art blends iconic images from the classic book illustrations with quirky and sexy modern effects that recall Twin Peaks and Farscape. The show will be replayed on Syfy, Sunday December 13 from 5pm til 9pm Eastern. Set your DVR.

Here is the intro at YouTube:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"What Art Is" Two by Matthew Scherfenberg

Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and the subject of two recent biographies, was both a literary artist and a philosopher. Defining art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments," she was a champion of a heroic view of man and a keen critic of nihilism, obscurantism and the dilapidated edifice of modern art. She wrote a collection of essays on aesthetics, The Romantic Manifesto as well as producing lectures on writing which also deal with aesthetics and cognition which were edited and published posthumously as The Art of Fiction and The Art of Non-Fiction. These three works provide a unique look into the nature of art, mind and communication. There is also a valuable in depth and critical collection of essays on Rand's aesthetic ideas entitled What Art Is by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi.

Rand explained that "Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence." (“Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto, p 45)

Rand considered painting, literature, dance, music and architecture to be high art, but she excluded photography. Her inclusion of architecture as high art has been controversial since, except perhaps for monument building, it is inherently utilitarian. Her exclusion of photography has been challenged as ignoring the fact that it is not at all limited only to utilitarian, rather than strictly contemplative. She writes:

"A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative, skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete. There is an artistic element in some photographs, which is the result of such selectivity as the photographer can exercise, and some of them can be very beautiful—but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc. The commercial art work in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art." (“Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto, p 74.)

While I do understand Rand's point, it seems just a bit too much of a reach to exclude all photography from consideration as high art. You may be familiar with the black and white nature photography of Ansel Adams or the work of the photographer husband of Virginia O'Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz. (In the middle of the page is his "Snapshhot: Paris.") I think looking at the two modern color photographs reproduced here by the photographer Matthew Scherfenberg say more about the selective and non-utilitarian nature of art photography that any thousand words can.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"V" Beware Lizards Bearing Gifts

The 1980's science fiction mini-series "V" was a smash hit, and it looks like the remake, by the producers of The 4400, will be just as thrilling and just as topical. The series premiers tonight at 8:00pm Eastern on ABC. According to wikipedia: "V generally got favorable reviews, scoring 71 out of 100 on Metacritic. E! Online rated the pilot episode "on a scale of 1 to 10, we give it an 11. V is the best pilot we've seen in, well, forever." The website Seat42F rated the pilot episode an A+, applauding its cast and effects and naming it one of the best pilots in years. USA Today's Robert Bianco put V on his list of the top ten new shows, stating that the remake is well-made and "quickly establishes its own identity." King Features' entertainment reporter Cindy Elavsky calls V: 'the best new show on television, by far. The special effects are feature-film quality; the writing is intelligent and time-relevant; and the acting is first-rate. The first five minutes alone will hook you for the entire season.'"

Here are some comments from Glenn Garvin (of Reason Magazine) at the Chicago Tribune:

"Imagine this. At a time of political turmoil, a charismatic, telegenic new leader arrives virtually out of nowhere. He offers a message of hope and reconciliation based on compromise and promises to marshal technology for a better future that will include universal health care.

"The news media swoons in admiration -- one simpering anchorman even shouts at a reporter who asks a tough question: "Why don't you show some respect?!" The public is likewise smitten, except for a few nut cases who circulate batty rumors on the Internet about the leader's origins and intentions. The leader, undismayed, offers assurances that are soothing, if also just a tiny bit condescending: "Embracing change is never easy."

"So, does that sound like anyone you know? Oh, wait -- did I mention the leader is secretly a totalitarian space lizard who's come here to eat us?"

Here is a trailer:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)

Originally recorded in South Africa by Solomon Linda and The Evening Birds in 1939, the song Mbube, which most of us are familiar with as The Lion Sleeps Tonight, earned for its writer a one time fee and no royalties. It has been rewritten twice, and covered by such artists as Pete Seeger and the Weavers, The Kingston Trio, The Tokens, Miriam Makeba (famous also for her "Click Song"), and R.E.M. The song earned some $15 million dollars in licensing fees from the Disney movie The Lion King alone. It is arguably one of the most beloved and successful musical compositions of the Twentieth Century.

The song was written about King Shaka of the Zulus (1787-1828) who was refered to as The Lion and of whom it was rumored he had not died, but was asleep in the jungle and would one day return. The bastardized word "Wimoweh" which was the title of Seeger's version of the song is a corruption of the Zulu uyimbube, "you are a lion."

In its various versions the song was a hit in South Africa and Britain, and reached the top twenty in the US three times, reaching number one with The Tokens in 1961. Below are three versions of the song. The first is the original recording of Mbube by Solomon Linda and The Evening Birds from 1939. Second is Miriam Makeba's 1960 cover of Mbube. Third is the Token's 1961 number one US hit.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"One Second After" William R. Forstchen

U.S. Army Colonel John Matherson is offered a general's star if he will accept assignment to a NATO post in Europe. But his wife Mary is ill with cancer, and he declines the commission, moving instead with her and their two daughters to her Christian-college hometown in the back woods of North Carolina. There he accepts a teaching position and adapts to a life very different from that of his Newark, NJ childhood. Then, one fine spring day, not only do the lights go out, but cellphones and car transmissions die and electronic devices of all kinds cease to function.

William R Forstchen's One Second After is a post-apocalyptic tale in the tradition of Lucifer's Hammer and Alas, Babylon. It tells the gripping story of survival in America after an EMP attack cripples the US. A threat known since the sixties, an Electromagnetic Pulse attack can be made using as little as just one small nuclear device set off high above the atmosphere. The high-voltage flux thus generated will fry any non-hardened electronics within the line of sight. The damage would be virtually complete and all but irreversible. In the first minute alone more than half a million people would die as their planes fell paralyzed from the sky. They, as the cliché goes, would be the lucky ones.

The story is fluidly written, and the plot grips you. The work is both realistic in its portrayal of how people react to disaster and romantic in portraying heroic people who identify their values and then struggle to maintain them. I finished this book in two eager late-bedtime readings. My throat tightened with emotion a few times. The book does have a few minor drawbacks, there is too much exposition as opposed to dramatization. Forstchen often relates the story after the fact rather than describing it in real time. And the repeated use of the expression "should of" instead of "should've" which was meant to convey local dialect seems more like a spelling error than a colorful regionalism. But if a story like this one chokes you up and you find it hard to put the book down, then it's a good read. And if it makes readers think about a serious threat to the civilized world, all the better.

While it does stand alone as a story, it's obvious that the author has a point to make. Hostile reviewers complain far too loudly that this is not a work of great literature. But Forstchen's goal was not to present a work of despair or self-recrimination acceptable to the aesthetic tastes of the political left. Frankly, I expect Forstchen would forgo the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature if he could make the issue of preventing an EMP attack just one tenth as fashionable as was dealing with Y2K in its day. Forstchen has given us two good reasons to read this book, the warning message it implies and the story itself. Warner Brothers has optioned the movie rights. There is a Wikipedia article, and the book has an official website,, with links to congressional documents, as well as scientific information and information about the author and the real-life setting for his novel. You can also see the author speak on on YouTube and listen to an hour-long interview at BookTV, which I strongly recommend. And I recommend this book without reservation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

United Breaks Guitars

It probably won't come as a surprise to most people that baggage handlers for United Airlines throw luggage. Nor would most people be surprised if flight attendants were to ignore passengers' complaints when they saw their belongings being tossed about. And of course, we can easily imagine the professionally friendly unhelpfulness of customer service representatives refusing to take responsibility to pay for fixing one's damaged goods. But imagine the surprise of United Airlines executives when muscian Dave Carroll made a song about his flying experience, "United Breaks Guitars." This cute country-western song is wonderful revenge. It became an internet hit, with over 5 million views. After it made cable news headlines United Airlines suddenly became a bit more accomodating. But Carroll has chosen to forgo compensation, and enjoy his alternative means of satisfaction. You can enjoy it too, listen to his song below at YouTube.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson "Hopscotch"

Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), senior field man for the CIA, has once again outwitted Yaskov of the KGB (Herbert Lom), making the biggest bust of his career. But his by-the-book boss, Myerson (Ned Beatty), is tired of Kendig's liberty taking, and decides to promote him to a desk job. Kendig opts for retirement with his Austrian girlfriend Isobel von Schoenenberg (Glenda Jackson), but on his own terms, and the fun begins.

This delightful, light-hearted and witty 1980 film didn't stand out at the box office, but it does stand the test of time. The plot, which details Kendig's exploits as he settles some scores and manages to avoid CIA and KGB agents who would rather kill him than let him publish their embarrassing secrets, is fast-paced and well constructed with plenty of surprising hi-jinx to which the comedic Matthau is well-suited. British actress (and now Labour party MP) Glenda Jackson is a perfect counterpoint as his love interest, adding class with her Shakespearean skill. Sam Waterston plays Matthau's sympathetic protege who works to bring him in for Myerson, just not too hard. The movie is full of the slapstick comedy at which Matthau was never better. But it works especially well being integrated into Kendig's clever schemes to out-spy and outwit his former bosses and secure his freedom. Here is the article at Wikipedia, avoid the spoilers in the plot summary. The film is available and can be streamed instantly at Netflix.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chinchilla Surprise

Okay, so this was just cute. And a good excuse to listen to Henry Mancini's 1962 hit "Baby Elephant Walk." Chinchillas are anything but elephants, being South American rodents bred for fur. These docile rodents were hunted to near extinction by 1900. Their fur is extremely soft. Evidently they also make nice pets, enjoy the video.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Simone sings Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now"

While George Gershwin, 1898-1937, is noted as perhaps the most prestigious American classical composer of the Twentieth Century, his influence on modern popular music can be compared only with such greats as Duke Ellington and the Beatles. His folk Opera, Porgy And Bess, fuses the blues, jazz and classical forms. Summertime is perhaps the best known of the songs of Porgy and Bess, but My Man's Gone now is the most challenging and rewarding of its compositions.

Nina Simone, 1933-2003, was perhaps one of the most accomplished jazz performers of the Twentieth Century, a composer and pianist in her own right, her perfomances benefited from her composer's ability to adapt a work and her virtuoso skill as a singer. Her incredible power and emotion were showcased in a voice with exceptional range. In the West this High Priestess of Soul held a place comparable to that of Umm Kulthum on the Levant. Pegged in later life as a protest singer, and suffering from personal difficulties, she became an exile to Barbados, Liberia and France. This should not overshadow her musical accomplishment.

Here you can enjoy the fusion of these two great artists of the last century, with Nina Simone's signature recording of what I consider Gershwimn's greatest work, My Man's Gone Now, from Porgy and Bess:

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bioshock and Ayn Rand

The Year 2008 saw an innovation in video gaming that, to the best of my knowledge, was a first. That was the year that the famous novelist, screenwriter and philosopher Ayn Rand made the jump into this immensely popular form of entertainment. And with no less than Bioshock, one of the most popular games of the year. From Wikipedia: "The game [designed by Ken Levine] received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and ranks as the thirteenth best video game on Game Rankings based on reviews from critics. It was particularly well-reviewed in the mainstream press where its "morality-based" storyline, immersive environment and Ayn Rand-inspired dystopic back-story were all singled out for praise."

Rand is known to many as the author upon whose work the classic film The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal was based. She is known to others as the author of the 1957 apocalyptic blockbuster Atlas Shrugged. And she is infamous for her pro-individualist and pro-capitalist philosophy, Objectivism, which rejects skepticism, relativism and mysticism, and advocates a heroic view of man and argues that your personal happiness is the proper goal of enlightened moral action.

Of course, Bioshock doesn't provide a clear or even fair picture of Rand's thinking. That isn't its goal. Its goal is to entertain, which it does. Bioshock's clearly Rand-like anti-hero, Andrew Ryan, points the way to the philosophy almost inadvertently. In the game, this character builds an utopia based on individuality and non-intervention which has turned into a dystopia. Obviously this is not a particularly flattering picture of her philosophy. One thing is crucial though, you can't present a dystopia without somehow showcasing the values that the society was trying to achieve.

For a member of a generation that never had contact with a living Ayn Rand, this is important. I was a child when she died, and there honestly isn't a push among the old guard Objectivists to reach out. Some of us who played, and loved, this game had eyes to see, ears to hear. Some of us put down our controllers for a moment and picked up Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. A smaller percentage found Rand's pro-freedom, pro-man, pro-happiness philosophy to truly resonate with us and began to pursue it with vigor – hopefully enough to bring it to a new generation. I haven't played Bioshock in months, although the announced sequel and movie may change that. But I find I apply some aspect of philosophy in my life every day. All from a game that used some compelling concepts as window dressing, and inadvertently pointed the way to something profound. For a video game, that is truly historic. – Ryan Keith Roper

For those who are interested in learning more about Bioshock, (at Wikipedia here) this is a helpful video from YouTube:

For those who want to learn about Ayn Rand, here is her classic film, The Fountainhead: