Thursday, September 08, 2005

Fake Book

On August 30, while much of New Orleans was underwater, George W. Bush was photographed playing a guitar given to him by country singer Mark Wills. Numerous pundits with a firm grasp of the obvious, seized upon this to draw comparisons with the Emperor Nero, who allegedly played fiddle while Rome burned. (Never mind that fiddles didn’t actually exist back then; “fiddled” sounds better than “played the lyre.”)

What bugs me about the photo, however, is that it gets described as showing the president “playing guitar,” when at best he’s only posing, trying to look like he’s a-pickin’. How do I know? Just look at his left hand. Like many a duff guitarist, he’s formed the hand shape for an open-G chord — except that instead of having his fingers in place to play G (third fret on the lower E string) and B (second fret on the A string), he’s a fret off, at G-sharp and C. His little finger may be adding an A (fifth fret on the upper E string), but it’s hard to be certain. In any case, were he actually to strum that guitar, the result would be utter dischord, revealing him as someone who doesn’t know diddley about guitar. Instead, he poses quietly, and only instrument geeks like me notice.

I don’t mean to single out the president on this, because instrumental fakery is disturbingly widespread. One of my favorite moments in Oliver Stone’s The Doors is a rehearsal session in which the band is ostensibly learning “Light My Fire.” One of the band calls out the changes, and as he does we watch John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) fingering the chords on guitar. And getting most of them wrong.

Even when the actors know what they’re doing, mistakes can happen. Taylor Hackford was justifiably proud of the fact that Jamie Foxx, who plays Ray Charles in the bioflick Ray, is a trained pianist who didn’t have to fake the keyboard parts. Indeed, the credits feature an overhead shot of Foxx’s hands accurately miming to the classic recording of “What’d I Say” on a Fender Rhodes. But as all vintage keyboard buffs know, “What’d I Say” doesn’t use a Rhodes — it’s a Wurlitzer electric on the track.

I know, I know — this is precisely the sort nerdery that gets lampooned in The Rock Snob’s Dictionary (although why actually knowing something about the craft of music-making counts as snobbery is itself rant material). But every time I see a model mishandle a prop trombone, or watch an actor flailing his or her fingers ineffectually along a saxophone, I’m reminded of how distanced the average person is from the art of music. It’s depressing to think that for many educated people, being able to play an instrument is as much a lost craft as spinning wool or carpentry.

In that sense, having Dubya pose as a guitarist is just one more example of how people get the government they deserve. As if another such example were needed.

If it makes you feel any better, many of my friends and I all laughed our asses off at Bush's "G-chord".
The problem (of music performance in movies, not the problem with the Bush administration) is particularly obvious when we are shown string players. Forget about the placement of the fingers. The movement of the bow often has little relation to the rhythm of the music we're hearing, something that can be visually obvious even from a distance, and probably even to people who don't play any instrument. You'd think that a movie industry that can make landmarks appear to blow up can make actors appear to play instruments. Or, if the players are only extras, hire musicians who are accomplished enough to fake the bowings. Most amateurs can do this for most music.

As for the problem of the Bush administration, that's somewhat different in character, and would not be ameliorated at all if GWB became a guitar expert... unless he and his henchpeople so fell in love with the instrument that they resigned in order to devote more time to it.
Maybe he was auditioning for the part of Danny in the no-doubt-someday-to-be-made movie of "The Partridge Family: Gettin' Old But Still Comin' On and Gettin' Happy."
The bad movie-instrument-miming that most offends me is Sean Penn's in "Sweet and Lowdown," because Woody Allen is himself a musician and should know better, because Penn is supposed to be such a committed actor who researches his roles so thoroughly, and because his brother is himself a musician of no small distinction. At one point Sean Penn is playing a "solo" that concludes with a downward run, and he actually mimes an ascending sequence on the neck of his guitar. Very irritating.
OK, so W isn’t a guitar player. It doesn’t bother me that he’s posing as he accepts a gift.

What bothers me is your insinuation that he’s out screwing off when he should be helping Katrina victims. Perhaps he should have cancelled all his engagements, put on his overalls, and went down to New Orleans.

The rest of the story is about his appearance at an event honoring WW2 veterans.

Is there something wrong with honoring veterans?
Craig, I didn't insinuate that Dubya was "out screwing off." I noted that many pundits used that photo as an excuse to make hackneyed allusions to Nero. I think you're being a bit defensive here, and might want to ask yourself why.

Larry, I haven't seen "Sweet and Lowdown," and you've given me a good reason to keep it that way. In fairness, though, I understand that sometimes the music we hear in the theatre is not what's playing when the actors mime, in which case the blame lies more with the editors. But it's a shoddy deal, nonetheless.

John, would you really deny Danny the chance to play himself in the Partridge flick?

Jeff, if you have accesss to the New York Times archives, you may want to dig out a piece they ran about "Master and Commander," in which the writer -- himself an amateur string player -- comments that while it's admirable that both actors studied enough violin and cello to make their duets look real, the lack of mistakes made them sound, well, too good to be true.

And thanks, nhennies. It's good to know I wasn't the only one who checks the fingering in guitar picture.

Also, a bonus shout-out to Alex Ross, who made much notice of this item on his blog. If you don't already read The Rest Is Noise, use the link and check it out!
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I was surfing around and found another George Bush site.George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People This place has a ton of funny videos and mp3s.
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One of my favorite moments in Oliver Stone’s The Doors is a rehearsal session in which the band is ostensibly learning “Light My Fire.” One of the band calls out the changes, and as he does we watch John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) fingering the chords on guitar. And getting most of them wrong.

Please. John Densmore was the drummer. And as anyone who's ever been in a band with a drummer knows, every drummer thinks they can play guitar, and not a one of them can (except Charlie Benante from Anthrax, but that's a whole different story...)

So, a drummer fucked up the chords - hell, that only makes it more realistic.
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