Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Theatrical Death Trip through Bosnia's War

I only got to see one film at the year's D.C. International Film Festival, but it was a film that Balkans via Bohemia readers will be interested in seeing if it comes their way: Goran Marković's film Turneja ("The Tour").

It is a bleak and bitter tragicomedy about a group of Belgrade actors who sign up -- out of boredom and perhaps a bit of greed -- to perform on a "tour" of the front lines of Bosnia's three-sided war in 1993.

Problem is, they don't know that they'll be performing literally on the front lines in an effort to lift the morale of Serbian troops. Let's just say: There will be blood. And rakija. And all the horrors of war. And that an attempt to play Feydeau's farce A Flea in Her Ear cannot help but end very badly indeed.

I've always liked Marković's work. His 2002 movie about the winter street protests of 1996 that nearly brought down Slobodan Milosevic -- Kordon -- was brilliant. And The Tour is very good, though stretched out a bit unevenly in plot and tone to make sure that the hapless actors encounter almost every side of the war.

There are, however, many wonderful performances. (Many American TV viewers will recognize Croatian actress Mira Forlan from stints in Babylon 5 and Lost.)

A couple clips are circulating online, including this harrowing scene in which the actors stumble through a mine field, happening first upon encircled Croatian troops and then upon a Serbian paramilitary commander (played with feverish intensity by Sergej Trifunovic) who is clearly based on Arkan and his troops. (Trifunovic is staggeringly good, getting the notorious down the obsession with his soon-to-be-wife, Ceca, and her song "Kukavica.")

The clip of that scene -- this one shorter and with subtitles, and this one longer, and without. The Tour is definitely worth catching if it comes to your town at a festival or otherwise.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Labor and Theater: Wha'ppen?

The article I wrote for The American Prospect on labor and theater in America -- and the overall lack of cultural juice that unions have had over the past 30 years -- is finally up on the magazine's website.

I got the idea to write from a new selection of plays published this month by Cornell University Press called Staged Action: Six Plays from the American Workers' Theatre. The collection is edited by Lee Papa, an assistant professor of drama studies at College of Staten Island/CUNY, and it really is a terrific window into an often ignored corner of America's artistic life.

As I note in the article, Papa opted not to include better known labor plays such as Waiting for Lefty and The Cradle Will Rock (which served as the focal point of Tim Robbins' 1999 film of almost the same name), preferring instead to excavate two plays from college labor movement, two plays from the International Ladies Garments Workers Union (including the phenomenally satiric and successful Broadway revue, Pins and Needles -- which a few colleagues have pointed out was recorded in 1962 after a Broadway revival with a cast including Barbra Streisand) and two plays from the stormy discontent of the 1920s labor movement, including a long dream play about a hunger striking labor organizer by Upton Sinclair.

The limits of word count did not let me unpack these plays as much as I would have liked, but I do think that the book is definitely worth picking up -- especially for John Howard Lawson's 1925 play Processional (poster on left from LOC). While the poster hypes the works as "The First Modern American Play" (and Eugene O'Neill might beg to differ with that), Processional is an astonishingly audacious but curious piece of work that stretches out a broad American canvas of labor, flappers, the Klan, jazz, big business, journalism and every ethnic stereotype in the book and let then lets those forces slug it out . (Genre also takes a beating, as the play veers wildly from slapstick to tragedy to romance to agitprop.)

As I say in the Prospect article, Processional is undeniably flawed. But it clearly provided a bevy of ideas that have been worked into American theatre since that moment. It may not be the first "Modern American Play," but it definitely accelerated the tempo of modernity on the American stage -- and yoked low comedy and stark social critique in a way that hadn't happened before it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

R.I.P. Harry Kalas

Just got word that longtime (and legendary) Philadelphia Phillies announcer Harry Kalas died this afternoon at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. -- just as he was about to call the Washington Nationals' season opener.

Kalas' voice was a thread woven through my childhood and early adulthood -- through good times (the Ozark/Dallas Green-era, the amazing 1993 season, and last year's World Championship) and bad times (uh, the rest of the time, and the crushing playoff defeats of the late 70s). In part, that was because my brother Tom -- now as sportscaster and anchor for WHYY-TV in Wilmington, Delaware -- does the best impression of Kalas I have ever heard. (Keep an eye on Tom's blog "Unobstructed View" for more info in the next few days: He spent a lot of time with Harry the K as an intern.)

Kalas' idiosyncracies were his best feature: Anyone in Philadelphia circa 1975-1986 could tell you that every home run by Hall of Fame 3B Mike Schmidt was intoned thusly: "Home run Michael Jack Schmidt!" (His call of the Phillies' World Series championship last year is here.)

And for those of you who are so anti-sports that you can't even bear the Super Bowl... Kalas was also the voice of the wonderful Animal Planet counter-programming each year on that day: The Puppy Bowl.

Update 4/13: Tom's post on Kalas here. Though, he sold himself short on his youthful impression of Kalas. It was astonishing in its verisimilitude and nuance for a 10 year-old.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Melody Nelson: Gainsbourg's Greatest?

So you're asking what Balkans via Bohemia is doing here in the land of French psychedelic orchestral rock, on the trail of one of the strangest (and sampled and influential) concept records in, ahem, histoire.

Well, there are Yugoslav dinars at the very foundation of the tale of Serge Gainsbourg's 1971 record, Histoire de Melody Nelson. How's that?

First, the quick synopsis for absolute beginners. Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) -- son of Russian Jewish immigrants, survivor of the Nazi occupation of France -- was one of the most incredibly talented musicians in Western pop. He started out as a painter who played piano in bars, and in pop music terms, was a late bloomer. He was 30 years old -- and really the last great figure to emerge from the French chanson tradition -- when his first record, Du chant à la une appeared in 1958. He quickly veered into jazz, and his records from 1959 to 1964 remain classics of suave and syncopated lounge. (The most readily available collections of this amazing music in the US are 1997's Du Jazz dans la Ravin and Couleur Café. The former record, in particular, is stunning.)

Gainsbourg's mid-60s work also pushed from jazz into world music (especially Africa and Cuba), but then he made one of the most stunning reversals that any artist has ever pulled off -- and started writing straight-up pop songs for idolettes in the yé-yé movement. He wrote brilliant songs for Françoise Hardy and -- most notoriously -- France Gall. His songs for Gall ranged from the sublimely sweet ("Attend ou va t'en") to brusquely mod ("Laisse tomber les filles" -- check out the video) to the mass-pleasing mindlessness of "Poupée de cire poupée de son"-- winner of the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest for Luxembourg! (Gall was also the victim of Gainsbourg's cruelest prank: He wrote a song for her in 1996 called "Les Sucettes" -- "Lollipops" -- which was essentially a paean to fellatio. The video of the two of them singing it together really says it all. Gall eventually got the joke and stopped singing any Gainsbourg songs.)

By that time, Gainsbourg had moved on to an affair -- and musical collaboration -- with Brigitte Bardot. Gainsbourg's songs for Bardot were daffy (the mod-mad "Comic Strip"), delightful ("Harley Davidson") and downright brilliant (the much-sampled duet "Bonnie & Clyde"). Together they also recorded a version -- which remained unreleased until 1986 -- of Gainsbourg's most notorious record,
"Je t'aime... moi non plus." (Bardot refused to allow the release of this version at the time.)

Which brings us to Jane Birkin -- the young English actress who eventually did sing "Je t'aime... moi non plus" on the version which became a chart-topping scandal in 1969 -- and served as Gainsbourg's muse for Histoire de Melody Nelson. (Birkin also served as the muse for Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas -- creator of the "Birkin bag.")

Birkin met Gainsbourg in 1968 on the set of a film that Gainsbourg was making. After an initial culture clash, they became lovers and collaborators on songs such as "69 année érotique." (It's only every 100 years that you can write a song called "'69 Erotic Year!")

Then came Melody Nelson, which has just been released for the first time in the United States by Light in the Attic Records. The label won acclaim a few years ago for its tremendous batch of re-releases from 70s funk/soul queen Betty Davis -- and this edition of Melody Nelson is crammed to the gills with comprehensive liner notes by Andy Beta and Andy Votel, an interview with Gainsbourg from 1971, detailed studio information and the lyrics.

Before this new release, Melody Nelson has only ever been available in the US as an import, but its influence can be heard in genres from indie rock (Beck, Mick Harvey, Pulp) to hip hop and trip hop (De La Soul and Massive Attack both sampled it.) I've found, however, that for friends whom I've given this record it's often an acquired taste at first. Stylistically, the record effortlessly straddles surreal prog-rock and symphonic lyricism -- and those coming to it from a classic rock background usually detect a certain lack of fluidity in the rocker side of it. (The arrangements by Jean-Claude Vannier -- another important figure in the history of French pop -- are delightful and delectable all at once.) But after a couple listens, Melody Nelson becomes more compelling, as the record reveals how it is stitched together elegantly with Gainsbourg's spoken word poems and sullen ache of a croon.

And what's Gainsbourg on about with those words? Melody Nelson is a concept record. Breaking it down to plot is as reductive as doing so with, say, The Who's Tommy, but it goes roughly like this: Jaded lecher drives heedlessly and daydreaming into a dead end, accidentally knocks a teenaged girl off her bike. ("Melody") The story pulls back to reveal itself in its tender and tragic entirety ("La Ballade de Melody Nelson"), then zooms into an almost microscopic dissection of the bliss of the instant connection between Melody and narrator ("Valse de Melody") and the erotic bewilderment and passion of middle-aged man ("Ah! Melody"). The illicit relationship is consummated in a mansion ("L'Hotel Particulier") and just as quickly Melody flees back to Sunderland (yes, quite an unexpected turn there in "En Melody") and dies in a plane crash, leaving the narrator to weave an intricate web of metaphor about cargo cults and the cruelty of the godless universe. (This video of "Cargo Culte, and the others linked above, are from videos Gainsbourg made in 1971. And very much of their time.)

Accounts of the record's conception agree that Melody Nelson draws from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Gainsbourg's own weird associative logic, and a considerable amount of time spent in a parked Silver Ghost Rolls Royce -- staring at its hood ornament. And the latter element is where the Balkans enters the picture.

Gainsbourg earned the money for the Rolls Royce by making two movies in Yugoslavia. In Sylvie Simmons biography of Gainsbourg, A Fistful of Gitanes, she notes that Gainsbourg was ejected from the country because he burned a Yugoslav banknote during an argument at dinner one night and was charged with being a "capitalist provocateur." Tito's government did let him finish the final movie, but escorted him to the airport the moment it wrapped.

So Gainsbourg arrived back in Paris with a suitcase full of Yugoslav dinars and bought an old Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Lacking a driver's license, Gainsbourg simply sat in the car -- smoking and dreaming up Melody Nelson.

Diving deep into the record as I've been writing this, I'm as entranced as ever by it. The spindly bass lines spiking and plunging, the crazed guitars weaving and scratching and wailing in and out of orchestral sweeps and powerful choruses. Above all, it's Gainsbourg's mastery of tempo -- in music and words -- and ability to encompass dissolution, tenderness, lust and the ache of loss.

In a career as long as Gainsbourg's (and he went on to explore reggae, rockabilly and disco pop , as well as set fire to more money and tell Whitney Houston he wanted to "ferk her" on live television in France), it's hard to say whether Melody Nelson is his best record. (Pitchfork just gave this re-release a perfect 10 of 10.)

You could make an argument, for instance, that 1964's Gainsbourg Confidentiel and its string of jazz pop gems might be even more coherent and sparkling -- if not quite as audacious. You could even argue that Gainsbourg is best considered as a "singles artist" -- and that even at the end of his career he still managed records that were scandals and successes.

But for my money, for an artist that trafficked in songs about lust, there isn't another moment in his career that touches
"L'Hotel Particulier." The throbbing bass and lazy snap of the snare under Gainsbourg's whispered vocal evoke the druggy feeling of anticipated desire, with bits of piano and strings and then a pulsing insistent organ riff foreshadowing the song's stunning climax in a wash of stings propelled into a tug of sensual to-and-fro. It's as perfect as pop sex ever gets. Even more perfect than the famous Je t'aime... moi non plus. And the song cycle in which it is embedded is pretty amazing too.

You can buy Melody Nelson direct from Light in Attic here.

Breaking Out of Bosnia's Stalemate

I have a new piece up at The American Prospect website today about the seemingly interminable political stalemate in Bosnia and how to resolve it.

The Dayton Peace Agreements that ended Bosnia's vicious three-sided war have always had their critics -- and those critics have not always been wrong. Agreements whose sole aim is to end killing aren't always the best foundation for building a nation. And even 10 plus years have not knit the warring parties back into a cohesive nation. So the impulse to rewrite or tear up the agreements is getting stronger.

The Dayton Agreements have also been tested sorely by external factors -- including the grant of independence to Kosovo last year. Bosnia Serbs are asking why they don't have a right to self-determination and secession. There are a lot of good reasons why -- including a moral revulsion at cementing territorial gains made by ethnic cleansing. But the grant of independence to Kosovo has renewed the question in Republika Srpska.

The United States has so much on its plate right now that it is likely not seeking to re-involve itself in Bosnia's politics. But if there is going to be a rewrite or renegotiation of Dayton, the U.S. will need to play a major role in knocking heads to get it done.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Work of Genius and Bravery

(April 1, 2009) At Inside Higher Ed today, my colleague and friend Scott McLemee uncorks one of the greatest academic exposes since the outing of Paul de Man as a Nazi-sympathizing journalist in mid-20th Century Belgium.

In my five years as editor of the research section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I had never been privy to the existence of a secret "AcademoList." But McLemee somehow gained access to it and rips the lid off this deep dark listserv cabal of left-wingnut academia here.

The tale of how McLemee stumbled on the listserv will appeal to those who trawl the thankless precincts of cultural studies -- a world where personas shift kaledescopically and the securing of Ur-cultifacts is an elusive and dangerous game:

The back story of how I gained access to AcademoList is perhaps needlessly complex. Suffice it to say that there have been rumors for some time now about a black market in VHS tapes of certain cable-access programs from the 1980s, including Camile Paglia’s brief but intense period as Christian televangelist.

For years I have been trying to locate copies of "In the Kitchen with Slavoj" -- in its day, the most popular cooking program in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, even though each episode ended with the studio audience refusing to eat the dish the host had prepared. This kind of thing you don’t find on eBay.

Anyway, a friend of the publicist of a friend of mine passed along contact information for someone who might be able to help. Following a mix-up in e-mails, I was forwarded information on how to subscribe to AcademoList.

The entire article is worth your time, but McLemee's revelation of how a commercial academic press triggered the current economic meltdown should excite intense cross-disciplinary interest:

The whole meltdown really started in mid-2005, when the academic publishing powerhouse Elsevier doubled the subscription price for Studies in Advanced Topological Regression Analysis -- a journal known for its tiny but strangely devoted following among video game designers. (Go figure.) I am told that one of its articles was an important influence on Grand Theft Auto III.

In order to absorb the six-digit increase in subscription cost, several cutting-edge research universities were obliged to triple the size of most lower-division courses, thereby eliminating hundreds of adjunct jobs. Most of those adjuncts had subprime mortgages. The rest, alas, is economic history.

As I say read it. And let me tip my hat to McLemee's brave reporting. He will make many enemies with this article. But he followed the evidence right where it led. The repercussions of this article in higher education will be immense.