Under (and East of) the Land Down Under

If you watched the Grammy Awards earlier this month, you’d have seen that the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” won the prestigious Record of the Year award. The ubiquitous single, a former number one hit in the United States and over twenty other countries, is by Gotye featuring Kimbra. Gotye (real name: Wouter De Backer) was born in Bruges, Belgium, though his parents moved to Australia when he was just two years old. In Sydney, his parents enrolled him in school as “Walter,” the English equivalent of Wouter. They would later move to a suburb of Melbourne and the name “Walter” eventually transformed to the less formal “Wally.” Similarly, the name Gotye, is an intentionally Kimbramodified spelling of “Gauthier,” the French version of Wouter/Walter. Suffice to say that Gotye has the variations on the name pretty well covered. Now 32, Gotye has released three albums as a solo artist while maintaining concurrent membership in the indie-pop trio The Basics, who also have released three albums. Well, enough about Gotye, he’s already gotten plenty of press lately.

Who, on the other hand, is Kimbra, who provides the female vocal on “Somebody That I Used to Know” and came to the Grammys wearing what looked like a Björk castoff? That’s what I wanted to know, so I did a little digging into her biography and I checked out her album Vows. Kimbra Lee Johnson was born in Hamilton, New Zealand in 1990 and (like Gotye) is now based in Melbourne, Australia. Although she is yet to have a solo single chart in the United States, Vows, her first album, peaked at number fourteen on the Billboard album chart. I have to say, it’s one of my favorite albums from this past year. Ostensibly an alternative rock album, Kimbra visits so many genres in the course of the CD as to make it virtually uncategorizable. No matter, `cause she effortlessly moves from one genre to the next, or combines aspects of various ones, yet manages to deliver a satisfying whole.

New Zealand seems an unlikely place to produce an international music star. The country’s population is fewer than 4.5 million people (slightly less than that of Louisiana) and they’re spread over two main islands and several much smaller ones in a rather remote area of the globe. Off the top of my head, I could come up with only a few Kiwi artists who have had an impact internationally. After further research I found that there have actually been only a few Kiwi artists whose fame has traveled beyond the national boundaries. Most, if not all, of those artists tackled the world by way of Australia, a nearby country having a fully-fledged music industry that New Zealand itself lacks. As a result, it’s somewhat difficult to talk about New Zealand music acts without acknowledging an Aussie influence.

The Kiwi acts that have made a sizeable impact outside of New Zealand are truly a diverse lot:

Crowded HouseCrowded House was formed from remnants of the Auckland, NZ band Split Enz, which remains one of the country’s all-time most successful rock groups. The major creative force in Crowded House was Neil Finn, who with his brother Tim had been major songwriters for Split Enz. Besides Neil,  the trio known as Crowded House originally featured a pair of Australians and was based in Melbourne. Later on, Tim Finn also came on board for a time, making it a bit more Kiwi. Both New Zealand and Australia claim Crowded House as its own and each ranks the band among the most popular in their nation’s history.

Te KanawaLyric soprano Kiri Te Kanawa was born in Gisborne, NZ of Māori and European ancestry. She is among the most popular opera singers of the last fifty years, starring in productions internationally, especially in Great Britain and the United States. Te Kanawa is comfortable singing in a variety of languages and performing works from the 17th to the 20th Centuries. Although she has now retired from performing operas, she continues to give concerts and recitals. Her career on disc includes literally dozens of recordings and she is considered one of the foremost interpreters of Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, Handel and Puccini.

Keith UrbanCountry singer-guitarist Keith Urban was born in Whangarei, NZ, though his parents moved the family to Australia before he was school age. Urban had four number one country hits in Australia before heading to the states to try his luck in Nashville. After several years of near anonymity, doing session work and leading a band called The Ranch, Urban broke out in 1999 with his self-titled solo album debut. That disc featured “But for the Grace of God,” the first of his fourteen number one country singles in the United States. Urban is a multi-instrumentalist who has recorded nine hit studio albums and garnered numerous major awards.

PrintJemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie first met at Victoria University of Wellington (NZ), originally appearing together in the five-person comedy troupe So You’re a Man, before reducing to a duo as Flight of the Conchords. After stops in various corners of the British Empire, they landed in London, where they were given their own series on BBC Radio 2. That series eventually led to their HBO TV show, also called Flight of the Conchords, which aired for two seasons. The duo’s comedic songs have led to several hit albums, one of which (the EP The Distant Future) won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 2007.

Here’s a reminder that CDs at the Des Moines Public Library check out for three weeks (with two possible renewals) at no charge. DVDs check out for seven days for just one dollar. Stop in at your nearest branch, or visit us online at dmpl.org, and check out New Zealand’s greatest music exports.

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It’s a Holiday, by George!

Although a few states officially celebrate Presidents Day, believe it or not, there is no such federal holiday, despite retailers grabbing and running with the idea. There is, however, a federal Washington the Warriorholiday (with several states joining in, too) designated to honor George Washington’s birth. This year, Washington’s Birthday will be observed on February 18, as it regularly falls on the third Monday of February. Strangely, the day chosen by act of congress to celebrate George’s birthday never falls on the day he was actually born. This is made even stranger by the fact that they had two chances for it to happen.

When Washington was born in 1732, America was under the rule of Britain, which was still using the Julian calendar. At the time of his birth, Washington was born on February 11. Later, after the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain, and thus, in the American colonies, Washington’s birth date was changed to February 22, in order to sync the eleven-day change in calendars. Today, Washington’s Birthday is officially celebrated on any one of seven days from one year to the next. The range of dates is February 15-21, which means it misses both old and new dates established for Washington’s birth. It’s no wonder congress can’t agree on complex budgets, when they can’t even figure out the calendar that we all use equally!

So, why does Washington deserve his own day, when other U.S. presidents haven’t received the same honor? Washington was both a successful army general who led the colonies to You Are Thereindependence, and was the first president to serve under the U.S. Constitution. He came first and despite being succeeded in the presidency by many brilliant minds (and a few not-so-brilliant ones), his accomplishments hold up to the test of time.

How high, in fact, does Washington rate? Among U.S. presidents, three names regularly appear at the top in polls of academics when ranking the greatest to have served in that office: Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whereas “Honest Abe” has been a frequent movie subject over the decades (the latest film, Lincoln, will be released on DVD February 26), and FDR has received notable treatments on both big screen and small (including Hyde Park on Hudson, which is currently at The Fleur), “The Father of Our Country” has never received a major silver screen biopic during the sound era.

You’d think that with Washington’s lasting acclaim, he would have inspired myriad moviemakers to have made several epic depictions of his life, but that hasn’t been the case. Aside from a pair of now seldom-seen mid-eighties miniseries starring Barry Bostwick (perhaps better known for playing Brad “Dammit Janet” Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show), there hasn’t even been much narrative treatment of the first president on television, either.  Fortunately, several TV documentaries and docudramas devoted to Washington’s legacy have been Valley Forgeproduced. As we are fast approaching Washington’s Birthday, it may be a good time to pop a disc into your DVD player and celebrate “The Sage of Mount Vernon.”

The following titles, which are in the DVD collection of the Des Moines Public Library, provide quite a hodgepodge of Washington lore:

You Are There: The American Revolution and George Washington – Walter Cronkite, later the longtime CBS Evening News anchor who was considered the most trusted man in America, earlier hosted You Are There, a 30-minute CBS docudrama series that ran from 1953 to 1957. This disc contains two Washington-centered episodes from 1955:  Washington’s Farewell to His Officers (December 4, 1783) and Washington Crosses the Delaware (December 25, 1776). This time capsule may tell you as much about the constraints of early TV production as it does about those two historic events, but that also doubles your chances of enjoying it on some level.

Washington the Warrior – Produced by the History Channel and narrated by Stacy Keach, this program concentrates on Washington’s early military career, his retirement, and then his eventual return to duty during the American Revolution. Strangely, this was filmed in Lithuania!

George Washington – Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound) made this 30-minute entry in the Animated Hero Classics series. OK, this isn’t actually a documentary or docudrama, but it may provide children with a good introduction to Washington, the general.

George Washington: Founding Father – One-time TV series star Monte Markham co-produced, co-directed and narrated this relatively brief, straight-up documentary overview of Washington’s life for the Arts & Entertainment Network.

Valley Forge – A pivotal moment in the American Revolution is highlighted in this episode of the History Channel’s Save Our History series. After several decisive defeats, General Washington withdraws his troops to Valley Forge, where he manages to turn his ragtag rebels into a cohesive fighting force.  A mix of historical reenactments and interviews with academic experts help explain this critical period in the War of Independence.

Black and White Movies: A Grey Area

Sometime last fall, I took one of my sons to see director Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it was that it was in black and white. That’s striking because it’s an extremely rare occurrence for an animated film to be released that way. Frankenweenie came out one week after Hotel Transylvania, a
Frankenweeniesimilarly horror-themed cartoon. Despite Burton’s name recognition, Frankenweenie was absolutely trounced at the box office by Hotel Transylvania, which didn’t seem to receive half the pre-release publicity of the Burton film. Both films, surprisingly, receive the same exact viewer rating on IMDb.com at 7.1/10. So why did one do so much better than the other in drawing moviegoers? Did it matter that one of those two lacked color?

Whenever I read a demographic study of viewing habits stating that young viewers automatically surf past channels playing something in black and white, I get a little depressed. That’s because literally hundreds of big screen masterpieces and dozens of small screen classics were shot in black and white, and are no lesser for it. Anyone who dismisses everything produced in black and white out of hand is cutting her/himself off from many rewarding viewing experiences. I suppose that such viewers just assume that anything in black and white is therefore old and automatically unrelatable to their own experience. Well, that strikes me as fallacious reasoning, as great art – whatever the format – is, by definition, timeless.

So, why do many viewers entirely disregard black and white photography? Sure, there are many old movies and TV series that are just plain bad and likely not worth your time, but isn’t that also true of many new movies and TV series? I suggest that choice of film stock shouldn’t be a make or break attribute in judging the overall effectiveness The Artistof a given title any more so than aspect ratio (so-called full frame vs. widescreen, for instance), language (locally spoken, silent or foreign), editing style (languid takes vs. quick cutting), or do numerous other factors that differentiate films, one from another. A film is a complex weaving of various artistic (and, yes, financial) considerations into a unified whole. The greatest examples cohesively bind many of these choices together, even overcoming one, or more deficiencies. Personally, I don’t consider lack of color to be a deficiency, but apparently many people do.

Black and white, in the hands of a great director (let’s not forget the absolutely crucial role that the cinematographer plays here, as well) makes the screen glisten, producing a wondrous sheen not unlike a dream image. I use that comparison quite purposefully, as dream research by the psychiatric community has long stated that a portion of one’s dreams are in black and white (though the amount differs greatly from one person to the next). Additionally, it’s worth noting that in nocturnal situations without artificial lighting, we regularly see everything on a grey scale (whether it‘s a late-evening walk, or waking in one’s bed before sunrise). Many people claim that films in black and white film are lesser than those in color because they are unrealistic, unnatural. We may be living in an increasingly electrified world, but living and dreaming without color is very much part of the natural human experience. And so, making movies in black and white is another way of representing that shared human experience artistically on screen.

The Man Who Wasn't ThereBlack and white film, of course, was perfected first, but numerous attempts were made in the early years to create a lifelike color stock, but with varying results. The first film shot in a successful modern color process was Becky Sharp in 1935, which utilized three-strip Technicolor. At the start, color was a very expensive proposition, meaning that only a few films were chosen each year to receive the color treatment. In the forties, as more color processes were introduced and the cost dropped, an increasing number of films were shot in color. During the fifties, when the motion picture industry was ferociously competing with the television industry for the viewing audience, the percentage of films shot in color annually finally surpassed those made in black and white. As the decade wore on, more and more Hollywood movie studios moved into television production and the two mediums were no longer at such odds.

By the early sixties, the percentage of films made in black and white actually increased to the point that black and white nearly equaled the number of films made in color. At that point, black and white vs. color became less a financial consideration than an artistic one. Once network television went to all-color lineups in the mid-sixties, however, the silver screen was forced to follow suit. By 1970, black and white films had become a rarity, generally reserved for extremely low-budget titles.

Raging BullIt’s true that aside from rare, individual episodes, all American network television series have been shot in color for forty-five years. Thus, any black and white TV series is indeed old (relatively speaking, of course), but that’s not necessarily true of movies. Typically, there is a big-budget Hollywood movie filmed in black and white every year, as well as a few low-budget, independent ones. Some of these films include short color sequences or colored special effects, but they remain primarily black and white films. Today, it’s actually more expensive to shoot a film in black and white, as few companies produce the film stock needed, and few labs process it. Any film shot in black and white in the current era is done so purely for artistic reasons.

Since 1970, many of America’s greatest living filmmakers have shot black and white films: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Joel Coen, Darren Aronofsky, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and the aforementioned Tim Burton. Independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has made four black and white movies, but no one has worked in shades of grey more than Woody Allen, who has made seven such works. Clearly, these filmmakers believe that there is an inherent quality in black and white cinematography that’s key to putting over the subject matter of their films.

With that in mind, I now list a dozen outstanding movies made during the past forty years that were very intentionally shot to utilize the artistic value of black and white film (listed in reverse chronological order, with director), all of which are available from the Des Moines Public Library:

The Artist, 2011 – Michel Hazanavicius;

Sin City, 2005 – Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino;

The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001 – Joel Coen;

American History X, 1998 – Tony Kaye;

Ed Wood, 1994 – Tim Burton;

Schindler’s List, 1993 – Steven Spielberg;

The Elephant Man, 1980 – David Lynch;

Raging Bull, 1980 – Martin Scorsese;

Manhattan, 1979 – Woody Allen;

Lenny, 1975 – Bob Fosse;

Young Frankenstein, 1974 – Mel Brooks;

Paper Moon, 1973 – Peter Bogdanovic.