Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Edward Hopper is one of the most interesting painters of the 20th Century. Hopper's subject matter comes from the common features of American life (gas stations, motels, apartments, restaurants, theaters, railroads, offices, and street scenes) and the people who inhabit these spaces. He also painted seascapes and rural landscapes. He had a singular style and vision that stayed consistent as various movements and trends evolved and changed around him. 

His figure paintings focus on the subtle interaction of human beings with their environment. There are solo figures, couples and groups and the works carry the emotional themes of solitude, loneliness, regret, boredom, and resignation. They have a film-like quality as if something has happened or is about to happen.

His paintings are composed by creating environments with geometric designs around the subject or subjects. The compositions are carefully thought out and the elements are arranged with a perfect balance. There is also a psychological depth to the work because the light and shadow in the paintings create a mood that is comparable to the cinematography of film noir. 

House by The Railroad (1925) depicts an isolated Victorian wood mansion in a field by a railroad. This painting is the first of a series of stark rural and urban scenes that use sharp lines and large shapes with atmospheric lighting creating a mood of isolation and loneliness. He was a realist, but he simplified the shapes and details and reduced the picture to a few basic shapes creating a minimal realism. He used saturated colors to heighten the contrast and add to the mood. This painting had an influence on several films including the house in Psycho by Hitchcock, and the house in Terence Malick's Days of Heaven.

Early Sunday Morning (1930) shows an empty street scene in sharp side light. There is a fire hydrant and a barber pole on the street in front of a row of windows on a red building, but Hopper left out any human figures to heighten the feeling of desolation.

Hopper's solitary figures are usually women - dressed, semi-clad, and nude - often reading, or looking out of a window, or in the workplace. 

When painting couples, they seem alienated and uncommunicative. Often the viewer takes on the role of the voyeur spying on the tension between the couple. In Office at Night (1940) Hopper creates a psychological puzzle with a sensual undercurrent. The man focuses on his work while his attractive secretary pulls a file. There is an eroticism and tension heightened by the high angle view looking down on the couple.

One of his best-known paintings is Nighthawks (1942). It depicts customers at the counter of an all-night diner. The shapes and diagonals are carefully constructed. The viewpoint is cinematic - from the sidewalk, as if the viewer is approaching the restaurant. The diner's harsh electric light sets it apart from the dark night outside, enhancing the mood. The interaction is minimal except for the counterman having a few words with one of the men. The inspiration for the painting came from the short stories The Killers and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway. Hopper stated that the painting had more to do with the possibility of predators in the night than with loneliness.

Gas (1940) presents a fusion of several Hopper themes, the solitary figure, the melancholy of dusk, and the lonely road.

Hopper claimed that he didn't consciously embed psychological meaning into his paintings. He was interested in Freud and the power of the subconscious mind, but he felt the meaning came not from a conscious effort but subconsciously through the act of conceiving and executing the painting.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Bruce Springsteen recently released The Promise, a box set collection of The Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions. Darkness was his fourth album and the first after Born To Run the recording that catapulted him into a major figure in the rock world. The Promise box set has added 21 new songs plus remasters of the original ten that came out on Darkness. The new songs include Because The Night that was recorded by Patti Smith on her Easter album. There are also alternate takes of Racing In The Street,  Candy's Room (Candy's Boy), and Factory (Come On), that have different arrangements and lyrics. Also in the box set are several live performance and studio archived DVDs and amazing packaging that is an exact replica of Springsteen's notebook from the era. This includes lyrics and alternate lyrics, influential songs by other artists, and photographs and contact sheets from that period.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town came out in 1978, three years after Born To Run and after various legal hassles where Springsteen took control of his own work. In the sessions they recorded around 70 songs. Springsteen wanted a dark focused vision where all of the songs worked together to present a cast of characters who were on the edge. They had very little and were in danger of losing that. Their only hope for redemption was in working harder and their escape came behind the wheel. The musical style remained grand with powerful drums and searing guitar solos. Darkness wasn't as highly produced as Born To Run, but still had a full bodied sound. Springsteen's conviction in his singing adds weight to the songs. There are some great tunes on The Promise, but many of the songs would not work in the final vision of what the album became. In the end Darkness On The Edge Of Town was edited down to ten songs that are dark, serious, and intense, and have a powerful emotional impact.

Bruce Springsteen came onto the scene in 1973 with the release of Greetings From Asbury Park. It was in the tradition of Bob Dylan, folk-based tunes arranged for an electric band featuring piano, organ, and 50s style saxaphone breaks, topped with acoustic guitar and Springsteen's voice singing lyrics of detailed imagery. His street scene could be haunted and tragic as on Lost In The Flood or full of romanticism and youthful energy as on Spirit In The NIght. 

Later that year he brought out his second album The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle. It was an ambitious project that expanded Springsteen's sound into jazz and other elements. It was the realization of Springsteen's poetic vision that would soon be tarnished by disillusionment. The album creates a street-life mosaic of working class society that synthesizes popular musical styles into complicated, well executed arrangements. The songs become cinematic (especially Rosalita) and point to what would come with Born To Run.

Born To Run exploded in 1975 and took a sonic leap from his first two records. The band changed with the two virtuoso players, keyboardist David Sancious, and drummer Vini Lopez being replaced by the professional and less flashy Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg. The songs were sweeping and dramatic. The album was full and highly produced with layers of guitar, layers of echo on the vocals, lots of keyboards, and thunderous drums. Springsteen was saying goodbye to his romantic vision of his teenaged street life and a darker, more bitter vision was setting in. Thunder Road, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Born To Run, She's The One, and Jungleland present a powerful, grand, and exalting musical work.

Springsteen took a different direction with Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It had the power of Born To Run, but the songs were stripped down and bleaker. The darkness and bitterness of Punk Rock had an influence on him. He combined this with his own stories of those who are struggling to survive. The album starts off with Badlands which was inspired by the film of the same name by Terence Malick and refers to a rocky desolate area in South Dakota. Adam Raised A Cain is short, intense, and angry. Some hope is expressed with the uplifting The Promised Land. Factory is a ballad about the hard life and dignity of the working man. The title cut ends the album and expresses an emotional climax to a great album.

In 1980, Springsteen released The River, a double album of 20 songs. It follows up the themes of Darkness with wide-screen mid-tempo rock and stories of conflict and disillusionment. The song The River, Independence Day, and Point Blank present a world-view that is dire, but less judgemental. Springsteen now sees romance as a possible escape. There are also more lighthearted pop/rock shorter songs on The River that are influenced by mid-60s music.  These  include songs like Hungry Heart, Sherry Darling, and Out In The Street. Springsteen decided to include these tunes on this album as a counterpoint and to create a more eclectic sound as opposed to the tight edit he had on Darkness. The second side contains three moody ballads - Stolen Car, Drive All Night, and Wreck On The Highway -  that are imbued with a sense of hopelessness and anticipate the next record Nebraska.

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen decided to release the demo versions of his latest songs, recorded with only acoustic guitar or electric guitar, harmonica, and vocals. His storytelling had become richer and over time Springsteen's songs had become darker and more pessimistic, but those on Nebraska would be his bleakest ever. The title track is a first-person account of the killing spree of the murderer Charles Starkweather. This set the tone for a series of portraits of small-time criminals and desperate characters. Nebraska was a risky, challenging album, that opened up another and different direction for the music of Bruce Springsteen.

In 1984, a new phase in Springsteen's career started with the release of Born In The USA. He became a huge commercial success and rock star. The content still dealt with the same struggles, but the sound changed to a more polished production with galloping rhythms and chiming guitars. The title track was co-opted by the election campaign of Ronald Reagan. The verses described the disenfranchisement of a lower-class Vietnam vet, and the chorus was intended to be angry but came off like an anthem causing it to be misunderstood. Springsteen had softened his message with nostalgia and sentimentality. There are good songs on Born In The USA, but for me the production has a dated 80s sound with the keyboards dominating making it one of my least favorite albums by him. 

Springsteen had earned a reputation as a great live performer and in 1986 he released Live 1975-1985, a mammoth five cd box set with performances of many of his greatest songs, some which didn't appear on any of his studio albums.

He then followed up in the next few years with Tunnel of Love, Lucky Town, and Human Touch which in my opinion are not as strong as the earlier albums, but do contain some good songs. I do love the songs Souls of The Departed, Human Touch, and Tunnel of Love. Also, in this period The Streets of Philadelphia, Secret Garden, Murder Incorporated, and This Hard Land were released on the Greatest Hits album.

In 1995, The Ghost of Tom Joad was released. The album was mostly a solo effort by Springsteen in the vein of Nebraska. The album depicted how Americans had gotten better at ignoring the divide between the rich and the poor. The album is very low key and more overtly political than Nebraska. The songs contain an undertow of bitterness as they depict an America that has turned its back on the working class and the foreign-born. There is also a compassion in songs like The Line, Sinaloa Cowboys, and Balboa Park. Two of my favorite Springsteen songs come from this album - Youngstown and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

The box set Tracks was released in 1998 containing numerous outtakes from Springsteen's career, including The Fever and a great acoustic version of Born In The USA.

As the new century came in, Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band and created an excellent live album - Live In New York City - that was released in 2001. It contained beautiful versions of Atlantic City, Mansion On The Hill, The River, Youngstown, and If I Should Fall Behind. There are also killer versions of Prove It All Night, Murder Incorporated, Badlands, Born To Run, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, and Jungleland. There is also the emotionally moving song American Skin, that tells the story of the unarmed Amadou Diallo who was cut down by 41 shots by the NYPD in The Bronx.

This started a highly productive period for Springsteen in the 2000s where he produced many recordings and played live throughout the decade, solidfiying his place in rock history. The studio albums included The Rising which was his response to 911, Magic, and Working On A Dream, all with the E Street Band. He also produced another acoustic album Devils and Dust. In 2006, he made the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions that consisted of folk tunes popularized by Pete Seeger. He rounded up 13 musicians and recorded the album quickly without much rehearsal giving the work a rowdy, rambling, and live feel. A live album - Live In Dublin featuring many of these songs plus some other Springsteen compositions came out in 2007.

In 2006, a great live album of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1975 was released. It was right after Born To Run and has amazing versions of a lot of the songs from that album, plus pieces from the first two albums including a knockout 17 minute version of Kitty's Back and Detroit Medley.

In 2008, an EP called Magic Tour Highlights came out that had audio and video versions of four songs from the concerts of that year. Springsteen does Always A Friend with Alejandro Escovedo, a cover of The Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! with Roger McGuinn, and 4th of July, Asbury Park where the video is a tribute to the recently deceased Danny Federici. It also has my favorite song and video by Bruce Springsteen. The Ghost of Tom Joad is performed by Bruce, the band, and Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. It is an electric version where Bruce and Tom share the vocals and play some amazing electric guitar. The performance soars and is the perfect example of how powerful, thought provoking, and moving Bruce Springsteen's music can be.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I read On The Road when I was young and it had a major impact and influence upon me. It is clear, poetic, raw, and written with an enthusiasm for life. It is a story of a passionate friendship and a search for revelation. Kerouac takes us through the highs and lows of hitchhiking and bonding with fellow travellers. On The Road expresses the restless energy and desire for freedom that makes people rush out and see the world. It is a cross-country bohemian odyssey that not only influenced writing in the years after its publication but also penetrated into the deepest levels of American thought and culture.

On The Road was published by Viking Press in 1957. It is an autobiographical work based on Kerouac's spontaneous road trips across America. It is one of the defining works of the Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and experimentation with drugs. It is a work of fiction but many of the characters are based on real-life people and friends of Kerouac's including Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.

The myth is that Kerouac wrote On The Road in a three week period in 1951, typing continuously onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. This is true to a certain extent, but Kerouac had kept notebooks on his road trips from which he worked. He had actually started an earlier version in 1948 based on his first long road trip in 1947. Neal Cassady wrote him a 1000-word rambling letter in 1950 that inspired Kerouac to outline the "essentials of spontaneous prose" and tell the story of his years on the road. He wanted the novel to be like a letter written to a friend in a form that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz. The first draft was then produced on the roll in 3 weeks in April 1951. Over the next several years revisions were made and sections omitted and inserted, before it was finally published in 1957.

The narrator is Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and the catalyst for the adventures to come is his friend Dean Moriarty (Cassady). In the beginning Sal sees Dean as the epic hero because of his free nature, and his reluctance to conform to social demands. Dean had been in prison which solidified Sal's view of him and prison had fueled Dean's obsession with the road and the need to be free. Sal is fascinated with humanity, with his friends, jazz, the landscapes of America, and women. 

Sal takes off for Chicago, marking it as specific area of jazz history, somewhere between the bebop of Charlie Parker and the cool period that began with Miles Davis.

The automobile keeps Sal and Dean constantly in motion. Dean's madness is glorified and he does whatever he pleases. There are drugs and liquor, and a character loosely based on William Burroughs is into heroin. Women drift in and out and Dean treats everyone terribly, but still Sal sees him as a god-like hero.

As the book evolves, Sal becomes less idealistic about the road and being down and out, and his reverent tone for Dean changes to one of disappointment. When confronted about his abandonment of his wife and child, Dean falls silent. Sal notes that "in the past Dean would have talked his way out, but now he fell silent....He was BEAT."

Sal's last trip is through the Mexican countryside to Mexico City with Dean and another traveller they had met in Denver. They have a marijuana-infused introduction to Mexican culture, including a vivid and expensive sojourn to a bordello complete with mambo music and underage prostitutes.

Sal gets dysentery in Mexico City and Dean abandons him feverish and hallucinating. Sal reflects that  "when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life."

The novel ends a year later in New York, after a plan to move to San Francisco with Dean falls through, and Dean ends up going by himself. Sal ends up on a pier reminiscing about God, America, and the idea that "no one knows what is going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old."

On The Road takes you on a quest across America that you can see, smell, and feel. It inspired me to travel myself. Once, I hitchhiked from Tulsa, Oklahoma to San Francisco and back again with a friend, even spending three days in jail in Wanatchee, Washington. I experienced the highs and lows, living on peanut butter, down to a few bucks and still being a thousand miles from home, and then catching that magical ride all the way from Flagstaff to Oklahoma City. Another time I hitched with another friend to Mardi Gras which included sleeping under a bridge underpass in Mississippi. Many times, I took the bus between Tulsa and New York. Just thinking about it makes me want to chuck it all and hit the road, but of course we are tied down by responsibility.

On The Road is a great book that expresses the outlaw spirit that was the underbelly of conformist 1950s America.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Days of Heaven is a poetic and dream-like film. It has Biblical undercurrents in its plot, as the main characters go on a transformative journey from a hellish Chicago factory to a paradise of endless land and sky in the panhandle of Texas. The central character Bill (Richard Gere) has committed a crime and along with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister (Linda Manz) they flee the city for the open fields of America where they find work on the harvest on the land of a wealthy farmer played by Sam Shepard. In the end, a swarm of locusts leads to a tragic conclusion where the images are consumed by flames.

Days of Heaven came out in 1978, and was the second work by Terence Malick. He made Badlands in the early 70s and after Days of Heaven he would not make another film for 20 years until The Thin Red Line in 1998. His fourth film The New World was released in 2005. 

All of Malick's work has a pastoral, humanist, and transcendental quality with an emphasis on image and music. The story is told through visuals, with minimal dialogue. All of his films use a voice-over narration by one or more of the characters to move and comment on the story. The music adds a spiritual and emotional quality to the cinematic experience. 

There is a dark edge to the films as well as they show human suffering and the inequality of the social order in the worlds they depict. Malick's films show the people in power, and those who have little or nothing, and the conflict that arises from this imbalance. 

Days of Heaven has amazing cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. They photograph America as a strange and beautiful place. It takes place in the early 20th Century and has a silent film quality. The landscape becomes a dominant character. It is larger than the people in the film.

Malick and Almendros didn't use studio lighting much and modeled Days of Heaven after silent films that used natural light. They were inspired by painters such as Vermeer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. A lot of the film is shot during the magic hour - in the 20-25 minutes between sunset and total darkness. In the incredible apocalyptic locusts scene, this lighting style creates haunting silouhettes of man against the horizon.

The production was not rigidly prepared and allowed for improvisation. Malick shot tons of footage and put the film together in the editing room. Often dialogue sequences hit the cutting room floor, replaced by long held shots of nature. There are shots of wheat fields swaying in the breeze under storm clouds. He begins scenes in the middle of a tracking shot and ends with cuts to black or dissolves causing a floating in and out feeling that contributes to the dreamlike quality of the film. The voice-over narration ties the elements of the film together without being too literal.

Linda Manz does the voice-over in Days of Heaven as Sissy Spacek did in Badlands. Manz was a non-actor who had a natural presence. She never seems to be acting, playing, or forcing her reactions. She talks about God and Satan, the value of people, and the coming of the apocalypse. Her words are full of wonder and cynicism, but there is a detachment as well. Her commentary portrays the world through the eyes of an innocent, which creates a distance between what we see and her character's perception of what's going on around her. 

Ennio Morricone's soundtrack is dark and foreboding. It is haunting and adds to the timelessness of the film.

In his last film, The New World, the last 20 minutes are transcendent as the opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold is put against a montage of natural images. Malick creates hypnotic experiences with his use of music and image.

Terence Malick's films are unique because they put a visual and aural emphasis on a vast natural world that would just be a backdrop for most filmmakers. Man is just a small part of a world full of life and death. Days of Heaven is a beautiful, strange, and haunting cinematic experience. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Sally Mann became well known as a photographer in 1992, with the publication of her book Immediate Family. The book consists of 65 black-and-white photographs of her three children, taken when they were all under the age of 10. Many of the images were taken at the family's remote summer cabin along the river, where the children played and swam in the nude. They explore typical childhood themes of skinny dipping, dressing up, napping, and playing games, but they also touch on darker themes such as insecurity, loneliness, sexuality, and death. When Immediate Family came out there was a lot of controversy, including accusations of child pornography, and of being a work of contrived fiction. Mann herself considered the photographs to be natural and honest - through the eyes of the mother - who lives with her children everyday and is aware of the various moods of their young lives. The book has an open candor and is photographed with maternal care. The photographs are beautiful, luminous, strange, and dream-like. She goes deeper into the meaning of family than most would be willing to go. 

In the mid 1990s, Mann started photographing landscapes on wet plate collodion 8x10 glass negatives. She also used a 100 year old Bellows view camera that she had used with her earlier work. Many of the prints were 40"x50" and manipulated with the wet plate collodion process. This gave the images a ethereal quality and revealed many flaws and artifacts from the process and the old sometimes cracked lenses that she used.

What Remains, published in 2003, is in five parts and is based on the exhibition that was at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, DC. The first section contains photos of Eva, her greyhound after decomposition. The second part has photos of dead and decomposing bodies at a federal Forensic Anthropology Facility. The third part details the site on her property where an escaped convict was killed. The fourth part is a study of the grounds of Antietam, the site of the bloodiest single day battle in American history during the Civil War. The final section is a study of close-ups of her children. All of the images have an element of decay in the way they are printed as they are faded and again reveal the artifacts of the process and the plates.

In 2005, Mann published Deep South that consisted of landscapes of the south, including battlefields, decaying mansions, shrouded landscapes and the site where Emmett Till was murdered. The images in Deep South hover somewhere between document and dream. They have a spiritual quality as if the history they depict still exists as a ghost.

Proud Flesh was published in 2009, and is a study taken over six years of the effects of muscular dystrophy on her husband Larry Mann. It consists of nude studies of a mature male body. It suggests a profound trust between woman and man, wife and husband, artist and model and reverses the roles in a male-dominated field by having the female artist turn the camera on her husband at some of his most vulnerable moments.

Recently, another book was published - Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit, which is an exploration of her approach to the human body. It includes her earliest platinum prints from the late 1970s, Polaroid still lifes, early color work of her children, haunting landscapes, recent self-portraits, and nude studies of her husband.

Sally Mann makes exquisitely beautiful photographs that are personal, ambiguous, contradictory and center around the relationship between the human figure and landscape, and the history that resides in these places. The photographs are controlled but have an improvised quality as well. The compositions seem so perfect, as if they must have been planned out, but they also feel as if they could have only been captured at that perfect moment that only lasts for a fraction of second. Her photographs reveal the process of living and dying at the same time.