Saturday, November 28, 2009

Far From Reality

When historical films are made about long ago periods like the Civil War or the American Revolution, it's easy for the filmakers to get away with little inaccuracies about those times because there is no one from those times alive today to would know the difference. These days more and more films are made about the 1950's and beyond and those of us who were around then can tell immediately when a certain movie gets things really wrong.

This brings us to Todd Haynes' acclaimed 2002 film "Far From Heaven" which is set in the 50's and has a plot that sounds okay on paper but is grossly off in execution.
The film stars Julianne Moore as a picture book 50's suburban housewife who is stunned to one day discover that her husband is homosexual. She is so ashamed by this that she confides, not in any of her normal circle of friends but her handsome black gardener.

This isn't too implausible a storyline for a "Hidden Life of Suburbia" movie and the film does a credible job in delineating the shame-faced, underground world of 50's gay men. It's the other part of the plot that defies belief. Even in Connecticut, where the film is set, there is no way on God's earth a black worker would be as openly casual and friendly with his white female employer as the gardener, played by Dennis Haysbert, is here in 1957. Also while others react to their public conversations with glares and the occasional menacing remark, the overall responses from the other white characters are way too tame. In the South back then black men were getting lynched if anybody even thought they were looking at a white woman. We're supposed to believe that in Connecticut you could talk to and ride around with a white woman and just get a few dirty looks?

The response from the black characters in the film is just as bad. There is some grumbling from other diners when Haysbert drives Moore to a black roadhouse for lunch but no trace of the anger or fear such a thing would engender in the real world. Even Moore's black maid, played by Viola Davis, doesn't say a discouraging word about all this when in reality she would have been screaming at Haysbert from the rooftops. Rocks are thrown at Haysbert's house late in the film but ony by other blacks. In the real 50's Haysbert would have lucky if his house wasn't burned down, and it wouldn't have been black people doing it.

For all that this is a very well acted film. Moore, Haysbert and Dennis Quaid are all excellent but the story they have to act out makes you shake your head. All this movie shows is how clueless Todd Haynes is about the sad history of black-white race relations in this country. I seriously doubt he's read books like Native Son or Man-Child In The Promised Land. If he had he'd have a different view about how willing black men were to mix with white women in the 50's.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


It was said of Miles Davis in his electric period that, no matter what craziness was going on around him on the bandstand, he always played like Miles Davis. The same can be said for one of Miles' innumerable collaborators, the venerable Lee Konitz. No matter what setting he puts himself in, large groups, small groups, duos, solos, with strings, even free improv, he always sounds like himself with that distinctive, high-flying, behind-the-beat sound.

I saw that first hand last night watching him in a concert at the Kennedy Center. At the age of 82, he still has it. He played with a trio called Minsarah whose members looked young enough to be his grandkids. They went through a broad swath of styles and approaches from minimalism to the restless pulse of the Sixties Miles Davis Quintet but whatever the kids threw at him, Konitz was on top of it with unflappable cool. A calypso beat under "Cherokee"? No problem. Ghostly noir sounds on "Stella By Starlight"? Got it covered. A quick dash of Tristano-like unison melody. In his wheelhouse.

Konitz is known as a cerebral player. That is certainly true but he is also capable of great beauty. He proved this when a gorgeous solo alto improvisation led into a ravishing "Body And Soul" that sent lazily sighing notes spiralling out of his horn weith no seeming effort. It was a soft, sensual soundthat seemed to be channeling Lester Young. Through all this he was cracking jokes awith audience and seemed to be having a ball. When drummer Ziv Ravitz ended "Body And Soul" with small tinkling cymbals, Konitz responded with a few notes of "Jingle Bells". This was a fabulous show from a living legend.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Musical Epiphany

I've been both an idiot and a snob.

When going out to see live music I normally go for people I've heard of, touring musicians I've read about or heard somewhere and ignore all the local talent that constantly plays in this area. I was emphatically reminded how dumb that is tonight by seeing some local musicians at Twins Jazz tonight, the Brad Linde Quartet.

They did include one out-of-town guest, pianist Dan Tepfer but the rest of the group lives here and they played a blazing set of Lennie Tristano-Warne Marsh-Lee Konitz derived "cool" jazz that had all the things I love about this music, intelligence, logic, imagination and musical telepathy. Tepfer was amazingly versatile going from Keith Jarrett rhapsodies to minimalist swing dead on the beat with accents reminiscent of Monk, Powell and others. His long florid introduction to "Stella By Starlight" was jaw-dropping. The two saxophonists, Linde on tenor and Sarah Hughes on alto, looked ridiculously young but they were both expert at explosive unison play and their solos had immaculate behind the beat phrasing that touched on all the "cool" shamans, Konitz, Marsh, Getz, Mulligan, all the way back to Lester Young.

I've been feeling a little jaded from going to local free improv shows which are often mostly people making squealing random noises on laptops. This show was a powerful reminder of the beauty of real instruments improvising on melody, chords and rhythm, a joy I've denied myself far too much lately. It's high time I checked out local jazz much more frequently.