Saturday, December 31, 2011

Of widows, wardrobes, and of doctors

As I write this entry in the final days of the year of our lord 2011, that special time of year is upon us once again. The days have gotten shorter, winter’s got our beloved Northern Hemisphere in the midst of its icy grip, and I get a feeling that there’s something in the air… for every ten minutes or so, I have the pleasure of being catapulted from whatever train of thought I’m on by the echoes of an explosion reverberating across my eardrums, no doubt the result of another bunch’a goddamn children running around outside trying to shove firecrackers and roman candles up each others’ asses. Man, don’t you just love New Years?

But what this time of year also entails is the passing of everybody’s favourite Coca Cola-sponsored holiday, that joyous occasion known as Christmas. And you know what that means, boys and girls! Alright, granted, it means a lot of things, but one of the more significant of those to a pop culture connoisseur such as myself (I'm sorry, I have a cold) is that this past Sunday, those savvy enough to tune their television sets into the BBC were gifted with the pleasure of being able to watch this year’s special Christmas episode of Doctor Who (known colloquially quite simply as 'the Christmas special').

And, well, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been looking forward to this. Current show runner Steven Moffat has done a smashing job on Doctor Who so far, and it should be no secret that I thoroughly enjoy Matt Smith’s portrayal of everybody’s favourite bi-hearted, police box-travelling, otherworldly yet quite distinctly British television hero. The Christmas special is the only helping of Who we’ll have to sate our appetites until the seventh season of ‘New’ Who starts up uncharacteristically late in August of 2012. Thus while I did see it somewhat belatedly I still watched the special like a good little boy, and afterwards I figured, why not pop over here and share some of my thoughts on it.

Before I say anything in depth about the episode however, let me express my amusement at how it starts off by replicating the opening shot of an obscure little sci-fi flick from the 70’s known as Star Wars. A shot of the upper part of a planet sitting peacefully at the bottom of the screen and the pointy nose of a star ship slowly gliding in from the top? Seems pretty unmistakeable I say. That’s right Moffat, can’t sneak anything past me! I’ve seen Blue Harvest! Quick, someone get on the phone to George Lucas!

You can't convince me I'm seeing things here!

In all seriousness though, apart from being a cute little reference that’s really neither here nor there. Thus now that I’ve demonstrated my mastery of the minutia of science fiction cinematography, let’s get to the actual episode. How was it?

Well, apart from that opening shot it didn't have very much to do with Star Wars, that’s for damn sure.

In fact, the entire pre-credits scene is something of a red herring, with which the Grand Moff seems to be promising us the sort of episode we quite distinctly do not end up getting. As we’re shown several shots of a gigantic war-like spaceship cruising over the earth, a menacing voice croons “People of earth, you stand alone!” over a speaker. Doctor Matt is outrunning several explosions, apparently having somehow sabotaged the ship into self-destructing, after which he narrowly manages to hoist himself into a spacesuit and comes crashing down to earth with the debris. “Wow”, we say to ourselves, “this all seems mighty exciting! I wonder how the Doctor ended up in this situation? What kind of alien menace did this gigantic warship actually belong to? And surely, they’ll try to get back at the Doctor for how he managed to thwart them in the nick of time!”

None of these questions end up being answered – it’s all just a way of setting up a completely different story. We see the Doctor crash-landing his spacesuit into a field somewhere in the English countryside. How he didn’t burn up in the atmosphere and why he landed in Britain of all places is anyone’s guess, but I suppose asking questions like that makes me a spoilsport so I’ll refrain from it. A friendly lady, Madge Arwell (portrayed by Claire Skinner) discovers him at the bottom of a crater caused by the impact. Doctor Matt somehow put his space helmet on in reverse and is temporarily blinded, so she helps him out of the suit and back to his TARDIS (which is also conveniently located in the immediate area – I know, I know, I’ll shut up now). Several years down the road Doctor Matt, being the nice guy that he is, decides to repay Madge for the favour that she’s done him by showing her and her two small children the best Christmas ever – a plan that ends up transporting the four of them to a far-off planet covered in eternal snow and acres upon acres of naturally-occurring Christmas trees, a veritable winter wonderland. However, as usual things aren’t quite as idyllic as they seem. Three soldiers are stomping about in the snow wearing power armour, talking about how the forest is soon to be ‘harvested’, and more importantly, there might be more to these trees than meets the eye… 


Then again, maybe this is what Christmas on Hoth looks like. Hey, anybody want to watch the Star Wars Christmas special?

I’ll forego summarising the entire episode (just go watch it if you haven't) but the point I'm trying to make is that instead of a big scale, fast paced, action packed story, what we get here is a simple character-driven piece with a nice quiet feel to it, in a rather calm and intimate setting. This isn’t the first time Moffat’s pulled a trick like this. He used a similar set-up with the two-parter at the end of the fifth season, teasing a big confrontation between the Doctor and many of his most iconic enemies in the first episode, yet sweeping all the baddies under the rug in the second and having the Doctor and his companions deal with the problem of a dying universe with nothing more than a single Dalek and of course the pressing threat of time and inevitability standing in their way.

That’s perfectly alright, of course. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I want space opera I’ll go watch the aforementioned Star Wars or something like Battlestar Galactica. If you'll forgive me a quick aside, as much as I enjoyed Russell T. Davies’ run on Doctor Who with him it was usually the fast paced, highly dramatic type of stories that you got. Of course that's not neccesarily a bad thing, and often times the results were good fun (though sometimes not so much) but that’s not the way Moffat usually operates and I applaud him for it. I feel Who is at its best when keeping the story relatively uncluttered and easy to follow, choosing simply to plop a select few characters into a unique and difficult situation and seeing how they react. This is what this year’s Christmas special does (and last year’s did as well), and it is all the better for it. We’re given the time and opportunity to get to know the few characters there are, to get a feel of the ins and outs of the situation and of what exactly is at stake before it all comes to a head.

To be fair part of the reason this episode worked for me is the reason that pretty much every Moffat-era episode of Who has to me so far been at least watchable, and that is that Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor is once again outstanding. What I like about his performance is that it encapsulates so well those aspects of the character I consider to be essential, being both childlike and energetic and somehow old and venerable. The scenes where the Doctor shows Madge and her children around the country home he has prepared for their Christmas celebration is a great example of that gleeful childishness Matt brings to his portrayal of the character, as he is so obviously proud of the many toys and gadgets he has prepared to entertain them, being infinitely more excited by his handiwork than they are. Yet as soon as the children leave the scene Doctor Matt shows himself to be more than just an ignorant little kid, sympathizing with Madge over the recent death of her husband and instantly understanding why she hasn’t been able to break the news to the little ones. 

Seriously, look at how excited he is!

While these may seem rather contrasting personality aspects to combine into one character Matt Smith just manages to pull it off so well. His energy and enthusiasm makes him a joy to watch, but it’s those times when the veneer of youthfulness is lifted and the centuries old Time Lord underneath is glimpsed that his performance gains a weight and intensity that frankly transcends his young age as an actor. When he says lines like “Look at these eyes. They’re old eyes”, we actually believe that this young fellow running around our television screen being all energetic and inquisitive is at the same time this tired, wise old man of the universe. Of course each actor who's portrayed the Doctor has worked this duality into his performance, as it is indeed a staple of the character, but with Matt Smith it never seems forced, it's always very natural. His performance never feels pretentious or overimportant. Moreover, he’s never really in control: most of the time he’s more like a bumbling old fool who’s not entirely sure what’s going on, yet tries so hard despite all that, always with the best intentions. As a particularly tense and bizarre situation develops itself in the episode in question, Madge’s daughter inquires of the Doctor: “What’s happening?”, to which he unabashedly, yet in a somewhat panicky voice, responds: “No idea! Do what I do: hold tight, and pretend it’s a plan!” That really says it all, if you ask me.
Anyway, I’m getting off track, I’m not writing this merely to gush about Matt Smith (and I swear, one day I will write a blog post that does not include the word ‘gush’), so don’t let me give you the impression he is the only capable actor in this piece. Without Karen Gillan or Arthur Darvill to act off of he certainly serves as the episode’s centre of gravity most of the time, but Claire Skinner gives a solid performance as the widow Madge Arwell that should not go unmentioned. She’s obviously an experienced actor, with a lot of the strength of her role coming from the little details, like the way she can never seem to quite look her children in the eye when they ask her what’s happened to their daddy, responding with a dismissive answer and that forced little smile that looks so genuinely painful. The actors portraying her children do a passable job, with Holly Earl as daughter Lily Arwell getting a few moments to shine as the concerned and savvy older sister. Guest star Bill Bailey, whose role I was kind of excited and curious about, gives a rather understated and sober performance as the chief of the three soldiers patrolling the otherworldly forest our heroes find themselves stranded in. I’m tempted to say he’s phoning it in, but maybe I was expecting too much: it is a pretty small and simple part after all. If I want to get my jollies off’a the old guy I can always watch QI or Black Books, or some of his comedy routines.

Of course, the episode certainly wasn’t spotless: there are things here that might turn off some people. I’ll be honest and say that a good chunk of it felt somewhat overly silly and corny to me at times. We’re not quite talking flying shark level of silliness like last year’s Christmas special (though I enjoyed that one even more, so on second thought maybe this episode did needs its equivalent of the flying shark) but some of it is rather out there. A lot of the aforementioned toys and gadgets Doctor Matt prepares to entertain Madge and kids are overly comical (the kitchen faucet labelled “lemonade” comes to mind) and the happenings in the otherworldly forest of naturally occurring Christmas trees did at times come close to inducing a reply somewhere along the lines of “really now?” And of course, being a Christmas story and all, it is rather obviously designed to tug at your heartstrings, what with the grieving widow and the kids oblivious to their father’s death and all that. However unlike last years special (even if that was ‘just’ a clever reworking of the Ebenezer Scrooge theme) I have to say that it didn’t really hit home with me on an emotional level. I certainly cared about the characters and what was going on in the story, but I didn’t feel myself moved quite as deeply as the writing probably intended me to be. Maybe I’m just a bitter old curmudgeon, but it took less than five minutes for Up to stir something in me: come on Steven, you’re gonna have to try harder than this if you wanna reach this guy!

 I'm being sarcastic, of course. I need this in my house. 

Also, since this is Steven Moffat writing a Doctor Who episode, the time travel as plot device aspect is once again quite blatantly present. We’ve certainly gone a long way since ‘Old’ Who, in which the TARDIS was used as nothing more than a convenient way to dump the Doctor and his companions in a new location and time period to kick off a story without needing to explain how he got there (hell, most ‘Old’ Who stories implied that the Doctor barely knew how to properly fly the thing at all). Indeed, time travel is oftentimes the proverbial meat and potatoes of the Grand Moff’s plots, regularly being used as a clever way to solve problems, though, as much as I like his writing, it sometimes becomes a bit too much of a ‘get out of jail free’ card. He doesn’t quite pile paradox upon paradox here as he does in stories like “The Big Bang”, and, well, most of season six, but he does use it as something of a trick near the end of the episode to give the entire story more of a happy ending than it would’ve otherwise had. I did think it was a bit of a cop-out, though to be fair I kinda saw it coming – and hey, it’s a Christmas story, it’s supposed to have a happy ending right? 

And y’know, thing is, I’ve just spent two paragraphs being critical of aspects of the Christmas special but while I was actually watching it none of that stuff really bothered me all that much. Sure, it’s all rather silly, but what has Doctor Who been recently if not at least a tad silly at all times? Sure, it’s all kinda corny and there is at least a small amount of plothax at work, but sometimes you have to be able to look past that sort of thing. In this case, the story is just so fun, engaging and intimate and the performances are just so sincere and heartfelt that it transcends its shortcomings and becomes enjoyable despite, or maybe even because of them. The same paradox might be at work here as is present in the character of Doctor Matt: that combination of silly, gleeful, childish energy and some kind of aged, venerable weight and sincerity is probably as present in the television show as it is in it’s titular character (haha, I said tit). We have to remember that this is a family show, after all, made to appeal to both kids and adults, so it has to have something for everyone. In the recent years and in this particular episode, it has certainly stayed true to that vision.

And another thing... wait, is that monkey in the picture wearing a smoking jacket?

So in conclusion, I must say I rather enjoyed this year's Doctor Who Christmas special. I have to say I didn’t think it as good as last year’s special, which was truly something, well, special (and no, not just because of the flying shark – I thought it was genuinely a deeply moving and engaging story). Despite its shortcomings, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is a perfectly good piece of television, very charming, quite intimate and very entertaining. It’s well worth your time, and of course I am very much looking forward to what the Grand Moff has in stall for us next year! 

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Hobbit: trailer, hopes and expectations

And so it begins again. Eight years ago The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King hit theatres and blew away audiences everywhere (and ‘merely’ entertained to a very satisfactory degree the more nitpicky Tolkien geeks like myself). Now, finally, the long awaited adaptation of The Hobbit has tenaciously crawled its way out of development hell and the first trailer’s been released to the public. Thus the internet is in an uproar, with people proclaiming left and right that this is going to be the best thing ever and that they HAVE to see this movie.

Might I not be so critically inclined I would be one of them. To a certain extent I am. Sure, I want to see this film. Tolkien’s books are very near and dear to my heart. I grew up reading them. And while I do find Peter Jackson’s films have their fair share of faults, the moment you sit me down to actually watch them I’m perfectly happy to look past most of the problems, be a good boy, suck my thumb and enjoy myself. Say of ‘em what you will but whatever they get wrong I think they really capture the look and feel, the atmosphere of Tolkien’s world. Watching them you get the feeling that yes, this is what he must have imagined it to be like. 

But anyway, I’m getting off track, and I must always try and stem my gushes constructively. We’re here to talk about the trailer for The Hobbit, so the logical sequence of events would be to start off with giving it another watch. Let's do that, shall we? 

Yup, that’s it, right there. That’s the proverbial ‘thing’. Looks good, doesn’t it? But let’s grab our scalpels and try to dissect it a little. I love the smell of Hobbit blood in the morning! Sorry about that, I have issues.

So, my psychiatrist tells me that when discussing matters it's usually a good idea to start off by outlining some of the more positive aspects. Just now I stated (through phrasing it as a rhetorical question, clever bugger that I am) that this is a good-looking trailer, and I stand by that. Those set and costume designs that give off that distinct combination of old times-eyness (if that’s a word) with more than a hint of whimsical fantasy, that continually slightly gloomy and dreary atmosphere, the imposing and sweeping landscape shots and of course the bombastic, epic music: all the elements that mister Jackson employed so effectively to lure us into Tolkien’s world eight years ago are still in place. 

The casting seems good and is a thing to be excited for. Of course it's at least partly lifted from the previous movies - that's not really cheating though, as these're the same characters and this is obviously a prequel. Martin Freeman, a frood who knows where his towel is (and if you didn't get that reference, you might know him as Watson from the excellent 2010 modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation by the BBC) looks to be a good choice to play young Bilbo. He's got that image of the demure, mild-mannered little man who can nonetheless be brave and stubborn and a surprisingly badass mofo when the time calls for it. Judging by the scenes we have in this trailer I do get the idea that yes, this is the Bilbo I was reading about all those years ago. I like how he really does look like a young Ian Holm here - I wonder if a lot of makeup went into creating that effect? Either way, that's a good thing, adds a bit of consistency. 

I really love how cartoony some of the dwarves look, with those big noses and ridiculous beards. Fantastic stuff. It’s also good how different they look from each other. In the novel most of the dwarves apart from Thorin never take center stage for long so there is the danger that they kind of start to blend together in your mind. Speaking of Thorin, also known as mister Richard Armitage, also known as that German guy who shot Stanley Tucci then swallowed a cyanide capsule in Captain America (the bastard!)... eh, he hasn't convinced me yet. Then again, he really barely has any scenes in the trailer, which seems to be focusing mostly on Bilbo and Gandalf. He seems at least fitting for the role for as far as I can see, but time will tell. 

Seriously, these guys look great. Excellently unique character designs.

Of course no words need be said about Gandalf the Grey, also known as sir Ian McKellen to his friends and the pool boy, also known as YOU SHALL NOT PASS to eldritch abominations wrought of flame and denizens of the internet everywhere. He was great in the previous films and his performance looks to be equally satisfying here. Cate Blanchett will apparently be making another appearance as Galadriel, which somewhat mystifies me as the character wasn’t actually in the novel. She never really did it for me in the previous films, but eh, we’ll see where they plan to go with her. Someone who was in the novel and is also slated to make an appearance in the film (though for now he is merely Sir Not Appearing In This Trailer) is the beloved Agent Elrond, so that should be a jolly good time.

In fact, this movie seems like it’ll be lifting more than just actors from the previous films. The novel was originally written before The Lord of the Rings proper and later even received slight alterations to fit into the universe Tolkien established in his magnum opus (mostly to be found in the scene between Bilbo and GollĂ»m, the chapter name of which was name-dropped in the Fellowship movie: "Riddles in the Dark", in case you missed it). Here, however, the Rings films are obviously already in place and out there, so this movie is quite obviously being framed as a prequel. So we get little things like young Bilbo staring in awe at the shards of Narsil at Rivendell and the trailer being framed as old Bilbo telling Frodo a tale of his adventures. I wonder if that’ll be in the final film? Would be a fun way to frame the story, though I don’t really think it’s necessary. Anyway, details like these are neither here nor there, they’re just fun little continuity touches for the more obsessive fans. 

A recycled set, no doubt, but you can't convince me that this does not at least look promising.

However, the urge to make The Hobbit fall in line with the other Jackson films is also where some slight fear about the direction of the movie starts to creep in. Go back to the trailer for a moment and listen to that rendition of the dwarves chanting Thorin's song. Awesome stuff, right? Pretty damn haunting. It's very gloomy and downcast, almost like a dirge. Yet there might be hints of a problem there, because from there on the trailer takes a distinct turn for the dreary. 

And while The Lord of the Rings is certainly like that (as in, the books are like that, and thus the films are like that and should be), The Hobbit is generally a rather light-hearted little romp. Let's not forget it was written as a children's book. Even after the aforementioned alterations we still have things like Elves dancing about and singing songs, and trolls exchanging playful banter while threatening the dwarven party before Gandalf shows up and outsmarts them by playing a clever yet cartoonish trick. I can understand and appreciate the effort to truly make it feel like a prequel to Rings and thus shifting the feel and atmosphere to make it feel like an extension of that story. However, it'd be a damn shame if the light-heartedness would get burried underneath all that.

I wonder how much Pete 'n his team are aware of this dichotomy and how far they're taking it into account. You see, the trick is that The Hobbit is actually quite a different book than The Lord of the Rings. Apart from being more accessible and concisely written the story is also of much less epic proportions, it feels more down to (middle) earth, more intimate, more whimsical, even cartoonish at times. I think attempting to drag it in line with Rings without losing too much of that is a real tight-rope act. Perhaps I'm being overly skeptical, there's plenty hints in the trailer that the upbeat stuff is certainly in there, like the dwarves falling on Bilbo's doormat all in a huddle and them dancing a merry jig at what looks to be the going-away party at Bag End. Still I have to be critical and hope it's a consideration Jackson has made and that he's managed to go about it in a decent enough manner. I'm sure it'll be an entertaining movie even if he hasn't, but I do fear that in that case something will be lost. 

The man who has to make it all happen... wait, why isn't he wearing proper pants? 

But hold on a damn second, I haven't even mentioned that this thing has a subtitle. Cripes! This piece'a shit is gonna be a two-parter! Yes, this is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, coming to theatres in 2012 to tell you exactly half the story, so Peter Jackson will be able to wring us for admission fee again in 2013 and double his winnings. What an asshole! In all seriousness, this is probably a good thing. I said above that The Hobbit is a very concisely written book. This means that you can't really cut too many corners in leaving things out of an adaptation before the seams start to show, so it's nice to see they're making sure they have plenty of room to get all the important stuff in there (though the cynic in me wants to say that ticket revenues did probably play a role in the decision...). Still it does mean we'll not be getting to see some of the fun stuff just yet, especially big bad dragon Smaug, who as word on the street has it will be voiced by mister Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch - also known as the literal Holmes to Martin Freeman's Watson in the BBC's aforementioned Sherlock, so that should give that series' fandom an opportunity to have some fun.

But yeah, that's the trailer for The Hobbit for ya. I ended up rambling about it a bit longer than I thought I would but I hope it's given a bit of insight into what I hope and expect the film to be. And while I've been relatively critical I certainly am looking forward to this movie - c'mon Pete, don't fail us, we know you've got it in you!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bob Dylan, the great enchanter

Seeing as how this blog is currently named after a Bob Dylan song, I thought it would be pungent to start off by writing about the man who is currently one of my favourite artists and entertainers, not to mention a rather inspiring figure. A word of warning, this will be a fairly noncritical and praise-filled treatise: if you do not wish to see me gush, then pray, avert thine eyes!

I’ll be the first to admit the music of Bob Dylan, born as mister Robert Zimmerman (no, you can't call him that), isn’t the type that’s going to appeal to everyone, especially in this day and age. The elitist in me wants to lament how much of a shame this is. That if you don’t ‘get’ Bob Dylan you simply don’t ‘get’ music. Of course at the end of the day that’s all rather subjective. It just means that you look for other things in music than I do. That’s perfectly alright.

And of course. I understand. That particular blend of blues and folk rock that characterizes the majority old Bob’s oeuvre isn’t the sort of thing likely to be heard blasting out of the speakers tuned into your local radio station. That corny old-fashioned harmonica, the often rather scarce and sober production values and especially those bizarre, unpolished vocals aren’t necessarily easy to get into. They’re an acquired taste.

Indeed, when you take a purely analytical approach to Bob Dylan’s music, when you start picking apart the various elements and putting ‘em under a magnifying glass it’ll quickly start to seem that most of it really isn’t all that special. While certainly proficient with his guitar and harmonica he’s not that outstandingly skilled at ‘em for anyone to take special notice. His melodies are uncomplicated and repetitive (and derivative, I hear, but I don’t know dat music too well on a technical level so stop asking). This isn’t King Crimson or Yes we’re talking, this is pretty simple stuff. Grab any old busker off the street, give him a scrap of sheet music with a Dylan song on it and a bit of time, and he could likely play a serviceable impression. And veritable bibles’ve been written about Bob’s infamous singing voice, that wheezy, rasping, nasal whine that sounds like a dying dog’s last desperate cry transmitted through a barbed wire microphone and an amplifier made of polystyrene. 

But doggonit, you can’t be purely analytical with something that tugs at our heartstrings quite as much as music and you can’t be purely analytical with Dylan. A while ago I said I doubt anyone can really put their finger on what it is that makes him quite so good and quite so fascinating. Indeed, there is something elusive and mystical about his power, but I think I can still say a thing or two about it.

Dylan's iconic mid-60's image: a thin tiny fellow in shades, a strange look for a big music star at the time compared to say, The Beatles or The Beach Boys. 

Of course the simple (and probably too easy) answer is that rarely the greater than the sum of its parts argument has been more relevant than with mister Zimmerman. Sure, his playing is fairly basic, sure, his music is rather simple, and sure, his voice tends to sound like he gurgles with a cup of shrapnel every morning. But when you put it all together something special happens. There’s a sincerity and an authenticity there that transcends those shortcomings, the way it all blends together to form the Dylan we (well, I, at least) know and love is quite unique. 

And while I’ve spent a paragraph and a half lambasting aspects of his music (purely out of rhetorical reasons, I swear) the one part of Dylan I think no one should truly complain of are his lyrics. With the Zimm-meister, the main driving force has always been the words. That’s why you’ll find nary a purely instrumental track by him, and if you do it’s not going to be very interesting. It’s about the words man, it’s all about the words!

And those words, well, they’re a doozy. In a letter to a lady friend I recently wrote that I consider Dylan to be a great poet. To some this might at first seem an overblown label to apply to a 'mere' musician, but it’s true. Dylan was one of the first musicians, and certainly the most significant and influential, to truly marry art with popular music, showing us that it could be about more than simply hot cars and fast women (or were those adjectives the other way around?), that it could be significant, that it could mean something to us. At the dawn of time (of the modern music industry, that is) it was Bob Dylan, not The Beatles, who was the first to really bring the art, the poetry, into popular music.

As I write this, I’m listening to Dylan’s 1965 album Blonde on Blonde. It’s not quite my favourite Dylan album, that title still goes to Blood on the Tracks (which I should blog about in full at some later point in time). But as much as I love Blood on a personal level, one has to admit that his Bobness’ finest work as a lyricist is to be found in his 60’s catalogue, of which Blonde on Blonde provides some of the best examples. This is Dylan the enchanter at his greatest and most mystical, this is him taking the enchantment to its highest level. “Visions of Johanna” is often seen as being his crowning lyrical achievement, so it might be rather chewed out to reference it here, but it’s cited as an ur example of his magic for a reason. If you’ve never heard it, go ahead and listen to it. Run along. I’ll wait.

Ah, you’re back. Excellent. Wasn’t that beautiful? But what of those words, you ask? What of those lyrics? Surely when you get down to it most of it's nonsense, it doesn't actually mean anything? But ah, young grass eater, herein lies the power of poetry, herein lies the power of Bob Dylan! 

 The cover for Blonde on Blonde, the album said by Dylan to be the closest he ever got to the sound he hears in his mind: "that thin, wild mercury sound".

Only a few months after recording Blonde on Blonde Dylan went and suffered a mysterious motorcycle accident, and it’s tempting to think this busted his brains so badly he was never able to produce anything quite as artistically immaculate afterwards. The truth however is probably that in those early years of his career he was simply graced with some sort of divine inspiration. He claims to have written the enchanting “Blowing in the Wind” in ten minutes. I’m inclined to believe him. It's likely that he was simply on some sort of creative high that just had to fade with time, that no mortal man could have sustained for long. Just look at the opening lyrics for “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” off of his first electric album, Bringing It All Back Home:

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

What the shit does that even mean? Hell if I know, and I’m pretty sure old Bob wouldn’t be able to answer the question any better. There likely is some kind of sense and logic to these lyrics that might be plumbed with time and rigorous analysis, but at a casual listen, it really sounds like nothing more than silly, senseless raving. Yet when set to that dreary guitar line and spoken with that gruff and honest voice of his, it simply works. If you or me tried to write something like that we’d end up with gibberish, but Dylan pulls it off magnificently. Even the most seasoned of professors would have trouble untangling the knots of songs like “Visions of Johanna” and the title track on Highway 61 Revisited, at least if it’s any sort of clear meaning we’re looking for. But, of course, those songs don’t actually mean anything, not in any concrete sort of way. Dylan's poetry isn’t meant to convey something grounded in reality but an emotional mood, a state of mind, perhaps an abstract idea. What these songs mean is what Bob feels and thinks as he writes them, as he sings them, what we feel and think as we listen to them. That effect, that’s the mark of a true poet.

Of course in the early to mid 60’s Bobbo wasn’t just writing pseudo-mystical word salad poetry devoid of any concrete meaning. One of the main criteria often given for art (which I don’t entirely agree with, but that’s a topic for another day) is that it has to be invested with a certain social consciousness, the urge to bring about a change in society. This is certainly strongly present in a lot of Dylan’s songs: indeed, it was by penning protest songs (although he personally disliked the term) that his Bobness first achieved widespread fame and notoriety. I could name several examples here but let's suffice with what is probably my favourite Dylan song in this category, “Masters of War” off of The Free-Wheelin’ Bob Dylan. This song is arguably as relevant today as the day it was written. It’s a fantastic piece of work simply for how downright spiteful and venomous it is. Just look at those words. They send a chill down my spine, that they do, a chill at the righteous anger Dylan must’ve felt when he wrote them:

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

That’s not to say his records after the mid-60’s should be binned and forgotten, far from it. My praise doesn’t merely apply to his early work. I’ll give that the general consensus is that there’s certainly a lot of chaff among his later output (his trilogy of Christian rock records from the early 80's, his so-called "born-again period", comes to mind). However I’ve already said Blood on the Tracks is my favourite album of his, and that one’s from 1975. And by all means, check out some of his more recent stuff! The ones I’ve heard are Modern Times and Time Out of Mind, and they’re good fun, with the latter being something of a minor masterpiece in my opinion (if you can stand the singing, which has gone from merely a nasal wheeze to a deep, gravel-like growl like coming from some sort of monstrous rock golem – I think it’s great though, he’s become a real dishevelled old bluesman now). It’s all not as mystical or innovative as some of his earlier outings but there’s lots of enjoyment and above all lots of stories to be had, because I think Bob is perhaps above all a great teller of stories through music. Blood’s tantalizing kaleidoscope of tales of love lost and hearts broken is a fantastic example of this. And in this Dylan once again proves his ability as a poet, for while one often gets the sense these stories are highly personal they are usually presented as abstracts, we feel they could be anyone’s, they’re as much his as they are ours.

His Bobness singing at the 2011 Grammy Award ceremony, backed by rising folk stars Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers. 

With that, though, I feel we haven’t quite entirely put our finger on the magic. His words and how they operate are a big part of it, but that's not the entire story. It’s in the complete package, the way all the parts come together, as I already mentioned earlier. And what characterizes said complete package most of all in my opinion is just that rough edge, that lack of sophistication, that ordinariness for which one might condemn it. 
Let’s go back to Bob’s singing voice for a moment. While many people have condemned it for being whiny, grating and sometimes downright unlistenable, frankly I think it’s great. Author Joyce Carol Oates described it as being “as if sandpaper could sing”. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Just think what it’d be like if sandpaper could sing. Think of the things it might sing of. If it’d be anything like the things Bob Dylan sings of, then I think that would be downright marvellous. What makes his singing so attractive is exactly that lack of training, that hoarseness, that everydayness. Like this could be the voice of any of us. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk expressed the desire to be able to write sentences that any man might have written, yet imbue them with weight and significance in a way only a single man out of an entire generation could. If we substitute “sentences” for the vocal instrument (because indeed, not just anyone could write the stuff old Bob wrote) then we might have a good characterization of Bob Dylan’s singing. It’s the voice of the everyman singing words and meanings that are completely and utterly unique, combining the everyday with the mystical. 
Indeed, this might be where the magic, the enchantment can be found. The music of Robert Zimmerman is so captivating because of the distinct lack of pretense and artificiality through which it reaches us. Bob Dylan has never been particularly interested in blowing away his audience. Listening to his music you never really feel yourself awstruck or humbled by its magnificent splendor. Instead Bob himself is the humble one, as if he's saying: these songs're all I got, they may not amount to much, but won't you listen to what a guy's got on his mind? At the start of this blog I said you could pluck any old busker off the street and he'd probably be able to do a decent cover of a Dylan song after a bit of practice. But of course his Bobness himself started out mostly playing in clubs and cafes and on street corners, and he never really shed the feel and image of the simple street musician. Listening to his records you get the idea that this is the sort of man you might imagine playing his heart out in an alley somewhere, in a grimy little basement bar or even in your own living room. And you think that yeah, this guy is one of us, he shares in our worries, in our hopes and in our dreams. He may be more skilled at expressing them than we are, but listening to his music it never seems like he lets his skill, his creativity, his genius go to his head. His music is never self-indulgent or pretentious. Instead it is intimate, personal and always extremely sincere. We can find ourselves in his words and the images and feelings they invoke in us. Thus his voice is our voice and can remain our voice. 

 Dylan during the mid-70's Rolling Thunder Revue: more a fool or vagrant than a rock star. 

To conclude, one factor of Bob’s music I haven’t really touched on here is that while I find it deep, moving and beautiful it’s often also hilarious – mister Zimmerman’s obviously always had a good sense’a humor. In an interview he once responded to the question “what makes you laugh?” by saying “oh… something funny”, after which he flashed the interviewer a sly grin. So I’ll leave you with the to me most amusing Dylan lines I’ve come across so far, from the aforementioned “Highway 61 Revisited”:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

Hello, what's all this then?

I suppose to kick off the party it'd be a good idea to write a word or two (or more) explaining what this blog is all about, on the off chance someone might stumble in here from the cold and wonder. Thus, I do believe that here I will now do just so.

The idea to start keeping a blog of some kind has been with me for a long time now, but never actually got realized. I’m a person who makes a lot of plans, but is ever less likely to actually act upon them. However there’s no a time like the present, so a few days ago I figured, what the hey.

So what might one in the future be finding upon this hallowed page? Well, that kind of depends. If I get bored of this thing fast, as I must admit is likely, you probably won’t be finding a lot apart from a treatise on Bob Dylan’s merits as a poet and musician (which I’ve as good as finished writing) and potentially a short analysis of the trailer for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (which I plan to write).

If I manage to keep it at though, then likely you’ll find quite a lot of stuff. I’m a guy who’s interested in a great number of things and likes to have an opinion on many of them, and I’ve long thought that working through and developing these opinions by putting them into writing might be an interesting intellectual exercise and create some order in the chaos that is my mind.

"Y'gotta have an opinion", says Vincent Vega to the man in the back of the car - though then again, I suppose we all know how that ended. 

The subtitle for this blog says “enthousiasm, pop culture, art, criticism.” Pop culture and art (pop culture moreso than art, though I think much of pop culture CAN be considered art, but that’s a topic for another day) is what I mainly expect to write about. This might be further subdivided into film, television, music, literature, video games, and the occasional everything. Enthousiasm is the means through which I expect to express my opinion, as I think it very important for people to be enthousiastic about things. Criticism is the form in which I hope my opinions might manifest themselves, though it’s often more likely to be gushy praise: I like more things than I dislike, or at least am more likely to talk about the things I like.

I don’t expect anyone to read this stuff, as it’s all likely to be extremely inconsequential. And though I’d like it to be read frankly it doesn’t have to be, I write it for myself first and foremost. But if you find yourself intrigued, please join me on this trip into the matters that preoccupy my silly brain.