Sunday, May 21, 2017

Let's Remember the Good Times: In Memory of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell's voice could be as powerful as a hurricane, as focused as a laser. That voice could shatter brick. That voice could cut glass. He’s often compared to Robert Plant, which isn’t a bad comparison, except that he could huff and puff and blow Robert Plant off the stage. He will be remembered as one of rock and roll’s greatest vocalists. And he was a fantastic songwriter, contributing his fair share of classics to Soundgarden’s oeuvre. Naturally, his death on Thursday came to a great shock to fans of Cornell and Soundgarden.

Grunge has a reputation for being dour. And when I heard about Cornell’s death, my mind drifted to how bleak his lyrics could get on tracks like “Fell On Black Days,” “Black Hole Sun,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” and, the now unfortunately titled, “Pretty Noose.” Cornell had apparently been struggling with depression for some time, and his suicide is a reminder that the void can chase us from our teens into middle age and beyond. Depression is a disease, not a phase.

It’s also impossible to separate Cornell’s suicide with the many other deaths that occurred within the grunge scene: Andrew Wood, Layne Staley, and Kurt Cobain immediately come to mind. Associated with Pacific Northwest, grunge music, with its downtuned guitars and sludgy sound, has always seemed to reflect that part of the nation’s downcast skies and omnipresent rain as well as its reputation as a breeding ground for serial killers.

But this was just one side of grunge and only one side to Cornell. In any life, we shouldn’t let the dark times completely define a person. And this is true of Cornell’s music as well. The original grunge scene wasn’t just about the drudgeries of life; there was plenty of irony and humor--plenty of light to balance out the darkness. I’m going to choose not to define Cornell solely by his depression; I choose to see him and his art holistically, not forgetting the kind of humor he infused into his music.

Perhaps the best description of humor in grunge was absurdist. In some way or another, grunge musicians seemed influenced by dadaism, the early twentieth century art movement that rejected logic, reason, and beauty as represented in 20th century capitalism. Dada itself is a nonsense word. Perhaps the most famous piece of dada artwork is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which was a urinal placed in a museum and signed “R. Mutt.” It was a crass middle finger to the arthouse establishment.

The influence of dadaism on Soundgarden seemed to go hand in hand with their punk influences, and it’s in some of their shorter punk-inspired songs that we can see Cornell play around with absurdity. On the one and a half minute long “Kickstand,” a song about the eponymous kickstand that Cornell implores to “stand me up,” the song’s lyrics don’t read easily. He could be writing about heroin, which is always a safe interpretation of music from the 90s, but the mentions of his mother and a “trike” suggest that maybe he’s actually writing about a bike. The song appears to have flummoxed the literal minded people over at “Genius Lyrics,” and that’s because they’re not supposed to be taken literally. It’s much more likely that Cornell intuitively came across these lyrics with a bit of a smirk. The lyrics are absurd, and the music serves as a streak of light in the brilliant if dark Superunknown.

The same can be said about “Ty Cobb,” another punk-dada composition. Included on Soundgarden’s final album of their original run, Down on the Upside, “Ty Cobb” has little to do with the curmudgeonly baseball player, and the title was suggested by bassist ben Shepherd to replace “Hot Rod Death Toll.” Cornell admitted that he knew nothing about Ty Cobb the person. The lyrics and title form a loosely connected game of association. In a stroke of brilliance, the band included a mandolin on the hard-charging track, creating a contrast between the stately instrument and the way Cornell screams the word “fuck” twenty-one times.

Plenty of Cornell’s humor comes from grunge’s troubled relationship with classic rock. Grunge had plenty of punk music’s sneering disdain for the mainstream, but it also happened to be influenced by some of the most popular rock bands of all time. Without a doubt, you can hear the influence of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin on Soundgarden, but the band members spent plenty of time in interviews distancing themselves from these groups. It just wasn’t punk enough.

Whenever Soundgarden explicitly pulled from classic rock tropes, they often did so with quotation marks. The songs “665,” “Beyond the Wheel,” and “667” occur one after the other on Ultramega OK, and they satirize metal’s obsession with satanic imagery. The middle track of the trilogy includes demonic chants and the flanking tracks each make use of backwards recordings. The same album includes a “cover” of John Lennon’s “One Minute of Silence.”

Cornell and Soundgarden were having their cake and eating it too. They both made fun of and borrowed heavily from the bands they satirized. They were experiencing of a form of what the literary critic called “the anxiety of influence,” but without this ironic distancing, Soundgarden wouldn’t have been able to move past those who preceded them. In this way, their sense of humor helped them push their music forward.

Cornell and Soundgarden’s music could be dark, aggressive, and epic, but it could also be really fucking funny. Cornell’s depression seeped into his lyrics, but so did his wry sense of irony. I'll always remember his great cameo in the love letter to Seattle's music scene, Singles. No person is defined by a single act, even when that act is as extreme as suicide. I’ll choose to remember Cornell as a fantastic singer and songwriter, as the frontman of the one of the best bands of the 90s, and as a guy who had a wonderful sense of humor.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (4/5)

When the first montage hit, I knew Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur film was going to be exactly what I wanted out of a Guy Ritchie King Arthur film. After witnessing the death of his parents, a young Arthur floats down a river, Moses-like, until he’s taken in by a brothel. In quick successive cuts and sped up shots, we see Arthur repeatedly getting the crap kicked out of him, train, get the crap kicked out of him again, train some more, and then start kicking the crap out of others. This wordless couple of minutes doubles as both training montage and character development--this version of Arthur is a rock hardened by the pressures of living in the lowest dregs of society. It also showcases some great visual storytelling that’s becoming increasingly rare in modern blockbuster films that are so often bogged down by exposition.

Hollywood has a long tradition of trying and failing to bring King Arthur to the screen, from the leaden musical Camelot my parents forced me to watch as a kid to the “respectable” 90s version First Knight to the Clive Owen starring film that drained the tale of its myth and magic--you know, all the good parts. The most successful King Arthur films are without a doubt Monty Python’s irreverent take and John Boorman’s surreal Excalibur. On some level, Ritchie imbibed the lesson from these two successful adaptations: if you’re going to tackle an oft told tale like King Arthur, then you’ve got to make it weird.

And the movie opens weird, with Camelot under siege by elephants the size of mountains. An evil mage Mordred has come to claim the lands of Uther Pendragon, but he is defeated by the king. The danger isn’t over, however. Uther’s brother, Vortigern, (here played by Jude Law) stages a coup, killing Uther and his wife, but letting their son Arthur slip away. (Never trust a young Pope).

When we finally meet adult Arthur after the frenetic montage, he’s more concerned with taking the piss out of his buddies and protecting the girls at the brothel than of staging a rebellion. Things change when Uther’s sword, Excalibur, reveals itself after years hidden under the tide. Knowing that Arthur is still out there and still a threat, Vortigern lines up all the men in the kingdom to try out the sword, hoping to uncover the last threat to his kingdom. After Arthur pulls the sword, he’s slated for execution, but the Vortigern resistance snags Arthur and takes him to their hideout in the woods to meet their leader and former Uther ally Bedivere.

The film follows the basic template of “the hero’s journey,” so you can imagine what happens from here. Arthur resists the call before finally meeting his destiny. By eventually accepting his role, he can unlock the powers of Excalibur, which in this version grant Arthur immense power up, like Cloud’s omnislash limit break in Final Fantasy 7 or Mario getting the star if you want to go old school. As with most blockbusters these days, the narrative is set on clearly defined rails, but it’s Ritchie’s flair as a stylist that makes the story work. Ritchie loves to intercut non-chronological sequences, using staccato editing to bounce back and forth in time. When Arthur refuses the call, Bedivere and a newly arrived Merlyn acolyte discuss whether to send Arthur to the “badlands,” a place of giant snakes and bats that would look great as a Manowar album cover. This moment is the katabasis or descent to “hell” portion of the journey, and it’s quickly montaged away at the same time that Bedivere and the mage discuss whether this dangerous journey is a good idea.

It’s this irreverence that elevates the material. Sure enough, King Arthur suffers from many of the problems that persist in fantasy films: a cumbersome backstory and the use of random magic as narrative device. But by quickly shuffling through these necessary but rote elements in the fantasy genre, Ritchie gets the audience straight to the good stuff.

And Ritchie gets plenty of help from others in this romp. His cast has an easy camaraderie with plenty of easy joshing between the characters. (With only a single female character of note, the mage who has only a handful of lines, this is a movie made by dudes about dudes and for dudes.) Jude Law once again reminds us at how damn good he is at chewing scenery. But Ritchie’s biggest ally might be composer Daniel Pemberton, who previously worked with the director on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Instead of solely relying on medieval signifiers in his music, Pemberton makes use of clipped percussion, which perfectly compliments the film’s rapid fire editing. “Growing Up Londinium” treats every sound like a drum, even the shallow breathing that functions as just another instrument.

King Arthur could have been just another Lord of the Rings knockoff, but Ritchie avoids this pitfall by injecting a bit of verve and energy. Sure, he’s influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, but he’s also pulled in Sergei Eisenstein inspired montages, his early crime films, video games, Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, and heavy metal album art. The common complaint against Ritchie as a filmmaker is that he favors style over substance. That might be a legitimate critique if we’re talking about art house cinema, but when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking style over substance is exactly what we should be aiming for. (And if you truly believe there’s lots of substance in today’s superhero saturated marketplace, then you need to get out more). While he started out making indie crime stories, Guy Ritchie might actually be most in his element making sleek, fun blockbusters.

Unfortunately, it looks like King Arthur bombed on its opening weekend, so don’t expect King Arthur 2: Merlyn’s Boogaloo. Perhaps more disappointing is that critics savaged the film despite the fact that it looks and feels different than the unending stream of blockbusters we’ve been getting these days. (Plenty of critics liked to mock the name of one of the film’s major locations, the city of  Londinium, apparently ignorant of the fact that this was the actual name of London starting in 43 AD). Still, let’s hope that Ritchie gets a chance at helming some more big budget films on the studio’s dime. I think up next is the live action Aladdin film about a charismatic, street-smart criminal who becomes royalty. It sounds a little familiar. Anyway, Ritchie’s King Arthur will be heaped upon the open grave of failed franchises, but like the legend itself, I have a feeling it will once again be resurrected...probably on basic cable.