Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Inspiration of the Moment: Andrew Bird

Saturday night, I had the pleasure of catching the St. Vincent/Andrew Bird concert in Portland. Both performances were fantastic. I’ve been to upwards of a hundred shows in my day, and never have I seen an audience so completely entranced. For three hours, it seemed as though no one hardly moved or breathed or even blinked.

Part of what made Andrew Bird’s set so special was that he was performing solo. With just a violin (and occasionally some guitar) he recorded a series of loops live, on stage, and used a bank of foot pedals to trigger the loops as needed. Layer by layer, he built each song right in front of the audience—perhaps some percussive plucks to start, a few mandolin-like strums over that, then a gorgeous melodic line repeated in two, then three-part harmony. On top of this, he played guitar, whistled, and sang. Spinning behind him was a custom, double-belled-gramophone-shaped Leslie speaker.

There is a nerve-wracking element to creating live loops. Right away, I started thinking, “What if he doesn’t time it right? What’s he going to do?” I found out soon enough. He recorded a loop that ended up being a little too laid back for the song and then just simply stopped, explained the problem, and tried again. There were a few more times throughout the show where he had to re-start--and you know what? It didn’t matter one bit—not to him, not to us. This wasn’t about his ego; this was about making gorgeous music. This is the mark of a true artist. He embodied his art so completely, I started to wonder if he would be able to exist without it.

For those of you who live in Maine, you can catch Andrew Bird and St. Vincent on AUSTIN CITY LIMITS on MPBN, October 28th at 10:00pm. For the rest of you, check out this performance from last year at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Time Traveler's Strife

I want to love ABC’s new drama, FLASHFORWARD. I really do. First, there’s the great cast (Joseph Fiennes! Sonya Walger! The guy from HAROLD & KUMAR! among many others). The premise is irresistible: everyone in the world blacks out for 2 minutes and seventeen seconds. During the blackout, as you can imagine, all kinds of catastrophes take place (plane and car crashes, fires, a large number of people die just falling and hitting their heads) and there are enough explosions and general chaos to make Michael Bay proud. As the story progresses, we learn that during the blackouts, everyone gets a glimpse of their future, six months from now. For some, the glimpse is as mundane as reading the newspaper on the toilet, while for others, it’s earth-shattering: a woman leaves her husband, a sober cop falls off the wagon, a man who sees nothing grapples with the possibility that he will soon be dead.

Cool, right?

The hope here is that FLASHFORWARD will be the next LOST, but I’m having my doubts. Because I’m an intensely curious person and I want to know who is behind the blackouts and why, I keep watching. I’m hanging in there even though much of the dialogue seems lifted from an action movie, even though I feel bad for the actors, who seem so much smarter than the stories they’ve been handed, and despite the fact that the show is constantly three steps behind its audience, when it should be three steps ahead. This story is ripe for a heavy exploration of predeterminism vs. free will, but so far the characters are just moping about, resigned to their various fates.

Writing about the manipulation of time is always dangerous territory. Unlike writing about, say, vampires, who may or may not be allergic to garlic or sunlight or silver, depending on who you ask—we all have a pretty solid opinion on how time works. The writer who chooses to explore time travel must be ruthless in his authority and meticulous in his construction. No matter what his particular theories are about time, the writer must be certain the story adheres to its own internal logic. He must be on constant lookout for anachronisms and inconsistencies. Even a small slip-up and the audience will be unable to suspend their disbelief.

One of the difficulties FLASHFORWARD has is that the story takes place in a framework of an otherwise normal world. The characters inhabit a world like ours, in present day, with lives just like ours. Except for the blackouts, these characters adhere to rules and logic not unlike our own. This makes any sort of reach into the fantastical a bit harder to swallow. When we put ourselves in the characters’ shoes, we have less tolerance for their inaction. The world they are in we know well—and we also know what they need to do about it.

LOST, on the other hand, beautifully side-steps these problems because it takes place in a world that below the surface resembles nothing of ours: smoke monsters, moving islands, immortal characters—just for starters. The world of LOST is so fully imagined that once you throw a little time travel and precognition into the mix, no one hardly notices. We’ve already bought into that fantastical world and are ready to accept whatever the writers give us.

I’m hoping that FLASHFORWARD will eventually take its cue from LOST and start creating its own world. Something that leads us to believe this is a well-thought out story and not a hapless rip-off. There are a few hints that the show might take that direction—misplaced wild animals, hidden codes, people immune to the blackouts, etc. So, for the time being, my curiosity has the best of me. That, plus it's a lot of fun to yell at the TV.

Now, if only they could do something about that overwrought dialogue…