Friday, March 26, 2010

CANT GET YOU OUT OF MY HEAD: You Shook Me All Night Long

The Song: "You Shook Me All Night Long"
The Singers: AC/DC
The Songwriters: Brian Johnson, Angus Young, Malcolm Young

Satellite radio has much to recommend it. No commercials, an incredibly wide range of genres, and virtually no hosts (save for the presence of all four surviving MTV VJs on "80s on 8"). But once you get past that, there really aren't a lot of surprises. All the hits gets dragged out for another run. And that includes songs like this.

She was a fast machine
She kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman that I ever seen


Let's just stop right there, because right off the bat, this is one of the funniest, most epic failures in the history of rock lyrics. We kick off with this ham-handed car metaphor, but then, only two lines in, the guy just gives up. It's like, after he came up with machine and motor, he couldn't think of another entendre to save his life. So he just gave up. "That's it, mates. I'm tapped out." BUT HE KEPT GOING WITH THE SONG! What happened? Did he come up with it in a freestyling throwdown? Did they accidentally record his first draft? I mean, at least TRY to be suggestive.

She had the sightless eyes
Tellin' me no lies
Knockin' me out with those American thighs


Oh, I'm sorry. So the girl is blind. I feel terrible now.

Wait. What?

Takin' more than her share
Had me fighting for air
She told me to come but I was already there


Oh...oh, wait a minute. Hang on just one cotton pickin' minute.

Is this song about sex?

'Cause the walls start shaking
The earth was quakin'
My mind was achin'
And we were makin' it and you -

CHORUS:
Shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me all night long


Look, I realize that 98% of rock songs are about sex. But there's something so basic, so blunt about these lyrics that if you think about them for more than two seconds, you won't be able to stop laughing. It's like the guys from AC/DC just got out of their first day of "Introduction to Metaphor" class, and were so excited that they just couldn't wait to try out their new-found skills.

Workin' double time
On the seduction line
She was one of a kind, she's just mine all mine
Wanted no applause
Just another course
Made a meal out of me, and come back for more


These aren't even actual sentences anymore.

This is normally the point at which I say something about the band. Not gonna happen. I don't give a whit about AC/DC. They specialize in a brand of music that I've sometimes heard called "hard rock" and other times called "metal" but which I know best as "music Shane doesn't particularly care for". Some songs, however, transcend their genre to become truly ubiquitous. And then I hear those songs on satellite radio, and they attach to my brain like remoras, and I have to write about them to get them out. And here we are.

Had to cool me down
To take another round
Now I'm back in the ring to take another swing


And now it's about boxing. Let's see if the folks at Songfacts can help me out.
Johnson came up with the line "She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean" when he realized that cars and women were very much alike - they go fast, let you down, but then make you happy again when you see the new model. AC/DC has never been known for deep, meaningful lyrics.
Thank you, Songfacts. Thank you so much.

'Cause the walls was shaking
The earth was quakin'
My mind was achin'
And we were makin' it and you -

CHORUS:
Shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me all night long


I wonder what would happen if you didn't try to be coy about it (and I'm being REAL generous describing AC/DC as "coy" here) and just sang what you were actually talking about.

AND WE
WE HAD SEH--EH--EX
YEAH, WE
WE HAD SEH--EH--EX

Knocked me out and then you
Shook me all night long
Then you were shakin' and you
Shook me all night loooong
Yeah you shook me
Well, you took me

(guitar solo)


Speaking of guitar solos, I checked, and this song is available on Rock Band. But here's the thing: aside from the solo, it's a really repetitive song. It must be really tedious to play. And yet AC/DC has to play it at every single show. They can't avoid it. That must drive them nuts. It's like a hard-rockin', chick-bangin' Groundhog Day.

You really took me and you
Shook me all night long
Oaaaaaahhhhhh you shook me all night long
Yeah yeah you
Shook me all... night... long
Ya really took me and you
Shook me all night long


Is that it? Is that everything?

Yeah you shook me, yeah you shook me
All night loooong!


Okay, then.

Fun Fact: This is an actual thing. So is this. Makes you wonder how hard rock fans can live with themselves.

Friday, March 05, 2010

FINAL CUT: In the Big Blue World

So, I find myself in the awkward position of explaining why I think the highest-grossing film of all time doesn't suck.

(Just so we're clear, Avatar has only the 15th-highest gross when adjusted for inflation, and that's ignoring the huge surcharge attached to the 3-D glasses. No one cares about any of that, of course, but just so we're clear: box office reports? Lies!)

As one of the last 10 people in America to see Avatar (and that should go down to 9 if my wife chooses to see it instead of Cop Out), I'm well aware that I'm very late to the party to say much of anything about the movie. At the same time, that also means that I've had a chance to take in the observations of the rest of the civilized world. So I feel like I get to sit on a jury that is only just now learning the true facts of the case. So let's come to a verdict, shall we?

First off, we need to clarify which of two prevailing arguments about Avatar is true. It is either:

- A stunning achievement, using the most current movie technology to create visions never before seen in the most immersive cinematic environment yet devised.

or

- A tired rehash of hackneyed plots and pilfered set-pieces strapped to boatload of atrocious dialogue that no amount of visual effects can conceal.

Ha ha! I'm kidding! It's both. It is transforming AND unoriginal. It's breathtakingly wonderful AND sadly underwhelming. It's a floor wax AND a dessert topping. It is the London Symphony Orchestra playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." The pros and cons are so clearly split that it is a film almost guaranteed to polarize its audience. Oddly enough, with so many films being made that make you go "eh", I actually think that's kind of a plus.

This dichotomy may make you split your feelings about the movie just as cleanly. I spent a couple hours arguing with one of the proprietors of the Critical End! movie review podcast and blog. He thought the effects were lovely and the story was so rote as to be insulting. So he gave the movie a rating of 5 out of 10. And I guess I get that. 10 for visuals, 0 for story... it averages out.

"But the look and feel of the film is so revolutionary," argues I, "that you have to set petty concerns about clich├ęs and commend the film for its overall impact."

"The scope of the achievement," retorts he, "is exactly why I have to ding it for the crappy plot. With all that power comes great responsibility. It's like getting Renoir and having him draw Marmaduke. If you want pretty visuals without a compelling story, get a screensaver."

(Incidentally, Marmaduke is an actual movie. Coming this summer. With Owen Wilson voicing the title role. So...you know...that blows.)

We went on like this for a while, both of us respecting the other's position while still thinking him to be a raving nutcase. So here's my last stab at making a case for Avatar as worthy of the hype. To him, and to myself.

Is Avatar perfect? Hardly. There's plenty to pick on. The story is pinched from at least a dozen places. The subtitles are in Papyrus font. That song at the end is god-awful. Story non sequiturs abound, like an insubordinate pilot who is never punished for her dereliction. A giant fighting robot that, hilariously, has its own giant knife for up-close fighting. An extremely rare mineral which is given the accurate but still incredibly stupid and unoriginal name of unobtainium. Little things like this still nag at me.

And then there are bigger problems. The acting is mediocre at best. Our hero, played by Sam Worthington, sports an accent I can only describe as Australian-Brooklyn, which robs most of his big speeches of their gravity. Villains Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi conceal their evil in no way whatsoever, depriving the film of potential suspense or character development. (Although Ribisi has several scenes where he appears to be conflicted, but for no obvious reason. It's like they're scenes of him playing a totally different character.) And Sigourney Weaver has it worst, trying mightily to come off convincingly as a peace-loving botanist whose every speech is in the tone of a hard-boiled Marine.

Ah, yes. The speech. Dialogue in this film is like a lead rainstorm. A character actually says "You are not in Kansas anymore." Another rallies the troops by telling them they will be fighting "for our children, and for our children's children." Plenty of people yell "Noooooo!" It is almost awesome to watch the film and see how many opportunities were not taken to find new ways of saying things.

So should we be critical of Avatar? Heck, yeah, and I hope it's clear that I am. But in the end, I am able to brush all that away. The plot, the characters, that stuff is not as good as it could be, but it doesn't ruin the film for me. And why not? Why am I willing to cut Avatar so much slack? The answer is a single word.

Titanic.

I haven't mentioned the name of the Grand Panjandrum responsible for Avatar yet. He's James Cameron, the film's director, writer (and lover of military jargon), editor, cinematographer, production designer, slavedriver, and all-around visionary. And the reason I've waited until now to bring him up is because he did all this exact same stuff on his last movie 12 years ago. A little thing called Titanic. And of course, the bastard's gone and done it again.

It has become fashionable to pick on Titanic for the lame dialogue (Tim Sniffen used to love throwing out the quote "Here's to making it count" at opportune moments), the lame romance ("I love you, Jack." "I love you, Rose." "I love you more, Jack." "Me, too, Rose."), the lame villain (ah, Billy Zane). But it was always clear to me that none of this was the point. James Cameron had one goal with Titanic: to put you on the boat as it sank. He enlisted every special effects trick in the book to bring that ship back to life in a way that made it impossible for you to doubt that you were seeing the real thing. Then he cobbled together a romantic couple that may not have been clever or original, but served the role of taking you to every essential part of the ship as it went down. Jack and Rose weren't characters. They were tour guides for history.

If Cameron is really copying anyone, it's himself. Avatar is all about this remarkable new world and these strange creatures. The Dances With Wolves storyline is good enough to get by. But the real goal is to put you on this planet, as thoroughly and convincingly as possible. Our protagonist, Jake...he doesn't have to be great. Once again, he's a tour giude for the fantasy. He's taking us to everything worth seeing.

I should say a word about the stupendous 3-D technology that makes you feel like you're enveloped in the film. The past few times I've tried to watch 3-D, it hasn't worked for me. I've gotten double-vision or blurring or dimness. Not so here. Cameron has broken the bank creating depth that really works, that is watchable without strain for nearly three hours, and he doesn't have to poke a single stick at the camera to let you know it's working.

So again, you may ask, "Why am I cutting him so much slack? So he makes great visual effects. So what?" And I guess the answer is because, to my mind, he's NOT making great visual effects. He's taking the visions in his head and putting them into ours. Look, a lot of filmmakers can give you special effects. Take hacks like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. From what I've seen in the trailers, Transformers 2 and 2012 are just dripping with effects. I can totally picture Emmerich telling a bunch of animators, "I wanna see the Christ the Redeemer statue blow up. Can you do that?" And they say yes, and you've got yourself a movie. You can lump George Lucas in there, too. The Star Wars prequels are bad in their own right, but the bigger issue is that the visuals just share the screen with the story, rather than serving it. Those three movies are essentially promotional reels for ILM. But that's all these directors are really doing: ordering off a menu. They don't have a vision.

James Cameron, God love him, has vision. He has things in his head, and if he has to take 12 years and invent whole new camera systems and push the limits of computer technology way past its limits to get what he wants, he'll damn well do it. He's been pushing the edges for a while now. The water alien in The Abyss took us to the liquid metal killing machine in Terminator 2, which was a short trip to the fully-realized RMS Titanic, which finally took us here. He's redefining the movies, and amazingly, doing it in a way that works.

One last analogy, which I hope will somehow finally illustrate my point. As you may know, George Harrison first discovered the sitar on the set of Help!, where it was included as a funny prop. But he was fascinated by the instrument, so he finally bought one (because he was a Beatle, and that's what you did when you got a little curious about something). And he fiddled with it, trying to play it like a guitar, and the instrument's exotic sound debuted with the Beatles as the perfect accompaniment to John Lennon's tale of infidelity, "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)."

But Harrison wanted to know more, and he eventually studied with the world's foremost sitarist, Ravi Shankar. It was from Shankar that he eventually learned the right way to play a sitar. And that led to all kinds of other stuff, like Harrison's growing interest in Hinduism and the Beatles taking up with the Maharishi and whatnot.

But what's interesting here, I think, is that Shankar was never much impressed with Harrison's early dabbling on the instrument. Someone asked him why not, since George's sitar had lent such a stark and lovely counterpoint to the Beatles' music. Shankar replied that, for someone like him who knew the instrument so well, George's playing was still wrong, and it would be like praising a child for banging on a piano.

I guess what I'm saying is, in many respects, what filmmakers have been able to do with visual effects thus far has been very impressive. You need only look at this demo reel to see what visual artists are capable of, and how far-reaching and pervasive their work has become. But Cameron makes them all look like amateurs, dabbling on instruments they don't fully understand. He's Ravi Shankar, and everyone else is just banging on pianos.

I guess that's why I didn't think Avatar sucked.