Thursday, May 21, 2009


When I was a kid in Baltimore, one of my favorite TV shows was a local offering called The Bob McAllister Show (yes, the same Bob McAllister who later became the host of Wonderama). In addition to the usual helping of cartoons, McAllister also featured live action sequences in which the star dressed up as a superhero and did various ridiculous superhero things. It was funny, in the broad, slapstick way of children's entertainment, but what I remember most the amount of time I spent trying to figure out how they did the special effects. Some were fairly easy — for the “flying” sequences, McAllister was simply strapped to a board on a truck and driven around, an gimmick any seven-year old could figure out — and some weren’t (who knew from blue screen at that age?), but overall it made for a significant formative experience. My curiosity about special effects had made me aware that storytelling was a process, and it could be just as interesting, and far more instructive, to focus on how a tale was being told than merely to follow the plot.

Whether this was the first step toward a career in criticism or simply reflected a natural predisposition to analysis is a chicken/egg question I’ll leave to others, but for whatever reason I can’t help but think about the things I listen to, look at, or read. And while that sometimes leads to understanding larger truths about a work, it can just as easily leave me irritated by questions about plausibility, logical consistency and the like. Instead of being intrigued by the mechanisms that facilitate the narrative, I’m distracted by the clanking of their machinery.

Which brings me to Wall-E, a Pixar feature many critics felt was one of last year’s best films. It’s not hard to see why; the film is visually sumptuous, consistently amusing, beautifully paced, and blessed with an appealing cast of characters. It even has a nice moral about the evils of materialism and mindless, endless consumption.

It just doesn’t make sense, is all.

Even if you ignore the way the story scales the whole of human existence down to one city and one spaceship, and accept the notion that robots not only have emotions but fall in love in accordance with heterosexual human norms, the film still asks its viewers to swallow a lot of absurdity. Some of that is simply the price of making the characters more appealing (read: human-like). For instance, there’s no reason a robot would flinch or shudder the way Wall-E does, but because those gestures telegraph emotion, they’re a useful tool for the writers to express Wall-E’s feelings. So we overlook them. There are also some elements that exists as exaggerations in the service of a larger point. Take the opening sequence, in which the camera pans across a city in which half the towering buildings turn out to be, upon closer examinations, huge piles of stacked, compressed garbage. As cartoons go, it makes a powerful image, but think about it for more than a second and it seems utterly implausible. If there really were that much garbage lying around this city, wouldn’t the streets have been several stories deep with trash? And if so, how could anyone living there have possibly made it to Buy N Large, much less to one of the massive space ships that shuttled humankind off the planet?

Still, there are other plot points that simply disregard logic. Start with the Axiom. We’re to imagine this spaceship as the ultimate luxury cruiser, offering robot-assisted entertainment and relaxation to all aboard. At a casual glance, it seems a reasonable product for Buy N Large to offer, but ask yourself: What’s the economic model here? If no one on the ship is creating income, who’s paying for everything? (And how, after seven centuries in space, could the ship still be producing tons of garbage every day? Is there some sort of matter-generating machine on board?) Even the basic social interaction seems implausible. For instance, there’s a touching sub-plot that arises after Wall-E inadvertently tears two passengers away from the all-encompassing video screens that have defined their soft, fat existence. Finally seeing the world around them, they meet and fall in love, which is apparently a novelty on the Axiom. Cute, sure, but if everyone is leading an isolated, electronically-assisted existence, where did the babies in that nursery come from? How could the ship’s population have continued for all those centuries? And, creepier still, why are there no old people or children, just infants and generic adults?

And so on. Of course, it’s not hard to find similar flaws in any other work of fantasy or speculative fiction; the variations on “there’s no sound in space” may be as infinite as space itself. In that sense, the real irony of Wall-E is that if the animation had been a more cartoon-y, I doubt I would have been bothered by half those things. Render a story in ink, with all the natural exaggerations and simplifications that come with the creations of pen and brush, and it’s amazing how easy it becomes to swallow all sorts of silliness, from interstellar railroads to galaxy-traversing battleships. Make it look real, however, and people will expect it to conform to the rules of reality. 

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Idol Evenings

As a critic, I try to make a point of not allowing suppositions or presumptions colour my opinion. If I’m to review something, I make a point of not arriving with my mind made up ahead of time. It’s only fair. 

In my personal life, I’m not always so diligent — especially when it comes to choosing how I spend my leisure time. As a result, I’ve spent the last eight years happily avoiding the phenomenon that is American Idol. Oh, sure, I’ve been aware of the show; I was familiar with the judges and the winners and the basic format, so I knew all about William Hung and Sanjaya Malakar and But I never had to watch the show, so I didn’t. 

In fairness, I should mention that I don’t watch much TV, period, and seem incapable of the sort of every-episode viewership shows like Idol demand. (It’s even worse with serials; despite valiant efforts and a lot of VCR programming, my wife and I have failed to ever see a full season of the Sopranos, MI5, or 24.) I should also add that, apart from a few performances by Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson, I’ve not been particularly impressed by the post-Idol work of any of the finalists. 

After watching both of this week’s episodes, I have to say I feel utterly vindicated in my presumptions. It may have been “rock and roll week” on Idol, but the performances didn’t rock my world. If anything, they left me in despair, wondering in what world the evening’s performances would have been considered rock.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by looking at the positives.

There’s no disputing the level of musicianship on the show. The performances may not have been to my taste, but there was no shortage of ability on stage. In fact, it would not be exaggerating to suggest that each of the contestants had, overall, better chops than the singers whose work they were covering. The one exception here would be Danny Gokey, who clearly cannot scream as well as Steven Tyler. Or James Brown, Paul McCartney, or several dozen others I could name. But the ability to scream does not seem to be something they look for in Idol contestants (as opposed, say, to in audience members), so we’ll let that pass. 

So why didn’t that surfeit of technique strike me as being a virtue? Yes, Adam Lambert showed plenty of power and conviction when he sang “Whole Lotta Love,” and his high notes were rock solid. They were also carefully massaged with vibrato, something that made Lambert’s performance seem smoother and more like “great singing” than what Robert Plant did on Led Zeppelin II

But “Whole Lotta Love” isn’t supposed to be “great singing.” It’s supposed to be raw, nakedly powerful, bluesy and elemental. Frankly, it sounds better without the vibrato, which is one reason Plant always seemed more of a great rock singer than the more polished Freddie Mercury.

And the sad thing was, Lambert’s performance was by far the best part of the show. 

Allison Iraheta’s version of “Cry Baby” was an admirably athletic rendition of the Joplin oldie, and managed to convey a hint of emotion despite Iraheta’s apparent belief that feeling the blues means singing as hard as you possibly can. (Although I blame Joplin as much for this.) She was similarly full-on in her duet performance with Lambert, but at least the material — Foghat’s hard-grinding “Slow Ride” — supported her exertion. She shouldn’t have been cut, but was. 

Kris Allen, who looks like a K-Mart knock off of the young Michael J. Fox, sang “Come Together” as if he’d never heard the Beatles’ version. That’s some sort of accomplishment, surely, but not one I’d care to applaud. The original was preternaturally cool, twisting a Chuck Berry car race lyric into a series of stoned non sequiturs, but Allen felt more comfortable playing it hot and funky, and ended up making the classic cover band mistake of ruining a tune by trying to improve on it. He also joined Gokey for a trainwreck rendition of the Styx tune “Renegade,” and let’s be honest here — if “Renegade” is what this show considers “classic rock,” no wonder I didn’t like it. Still, Allen made it through both looking cute and Fox-y, and that was enough to ensure his return. 

As for Gokey, well … words fail me. I understand that he’s a big audience favourite, but I don’t get it, at least not on a musical level. The rasp in his voice, which presumably passes for character in Idol-land, actually worked against the melody in “Dream On,” and there was a strange tenseness to the performance, as if Gokey saw the song as some sort of terrifying personal challenge — which, given how he handled the final note, was very likely the case. Factor in his less-than-awesome share of the Styx tune, and I came away from Tuesday’s show wondering how this guy ever made it to the finals. 

Then, on Wednesday, Ryan Seacrest showed one of the Ford “music videos” (read: commercials) the finalists had made, and suddenly all became clear. Gokey has a perfect jingle-singer voice, gritty enough to vaguely recall Michael McDonald, but otherwise utterly lacking in character. And sure enough, each of the others sounded equally at home in the ad, hitting their mark every time and singing with the perfect degree of bland professionalism. It was as if they’d each found their calling. As Seacrest might have put it, they were home.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Live or Memorex

There's a fair amount of footage online from Britney Spears' concert at Mohegan Sun, where a fan got onstage during "Womanizer." The great thing about this clip (the kid turns up at 2:20) is that Spears is clearly screaming at the intruder, yet no scream is audible.

Oh, for the good old days, when singers at least sang along to their pre-recorded tracks...


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