Monday, December 24, 2012

On encouraging children in the arts

Jackie Evancho is a 12 year old child with a Sony recording contract for doing classical crossover albums. Her dreams have come true in part because she worked hard to achieve them--but all that hard work would have gotten her nowhere if she was born with a tin ear and a wispy voice. 

It takes both gumption AND natural talent.

My objection is to encouraging kids who aren't going to get there no matter how hard they try because they weren't born with what people like Jackie was born with.

We should all have our dreams, and our parents should have helped us realize the realizable ones. When our parents give us dreams we can't achieve no matter how hard we try--and which we try to achieve instead of working of what we actually can accomplish--then like Simon Cowell I'm the one being kind to tell them the truth and you're the one being cruel, by setting them up for a fall.

It is true that nearly everyone who has achieved great things has had people who didn't think they could. Every best-selling novelist has a shoebox full of rejection slips. 

But it is equally true that everyone who reached for something beyond their grasp also have the equivalent of a box full of rejection slips--only they reflect reality.

We should all pray for the discernment to let us encourage everyone we meet to achieve the dreams they have or could have or should have...that are realizable. OTOH we should also pray for the discernment to not encourage dreams we know are hopeless.

That's one reason why I've never wanted to teach a writing class. I'd have to tell most of the students to write journals but don't try to publish anything because they can't achieve that. 

You shouldn't be cruel to people whose dreams you know will fail. And you can take the easy way out and just make polite noises when they're obviously begging you for encouragement in their Quixotic quest. But you'd be kindest if you Simon Cowell'd them.

It's not the adult's job to be the child's friend. They have friends their own age. It's your job with children to at least be the guide on side if you don't wan to be the sage on the stage. But steer them toward the spot where the fish are. Don't give them a bum steer.

EDIT ADD: When I did my student teaching in several grammar schools, my instructors told me I taught 3rd grade as if it were 4th grade, 4th as it it were 5th, and so forth. I challenged them and stretched them, tried to find what they were capable of. I was both demanding and encouraging. I just never told someone they were something they weren't.

re: Les Miz--the movie--my fears confirmed by NPR

I just heard David Biancouli's (sp.?) brief review of Les Miserables the movie on today's episode of Fresh Aire. He called it an abomination, just as I feared, in part because the actors weren't good enough singers to sing their roles, and in part because so much of the camerawork consisted of the camera coming in at different angles for tight closeups on their faces as they're singing badly (by "badly" I don't mean by church choir standards, but by professional musical theater standards).

What a pity. I think of myself as a sophisticated listener and of Les Miz as high art for the masses--but I still wept when I saw it live. So very sad that the movie version won't be iconic, but instead a very expensive tribute to bad judgments.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Is Les Miz: The Movie...musical?

I've seen several clips from stars of Les Miz touting the movie on talk shows. And as usual for movie musicals, they cast stars and had them sing rather than casting singers and having them star.

That's why you saw the astonishingly beautiful Natalie Wood open her mouth in West Side Story and Marnie Nixon's astonishingly beautiful voice would emerge.

AutoTune has made this less necessary.

And of course you have many actors dubbing themselves, especially when they're required to sing while they're running around.

Now we have the most anticipated movie-of-a-musical in decades, Les Miserables. In which a selling point is that the performers are neither other-dubbed nor self-dubbed. What you see is what you hear, so to speak.

Which would be great if what you heard was what we've heard in its stage productions.

It's so not. Take Amanda Seyfried's Adult-Cosette. She is gorgeous, can act, and looks the part. She can sing on pitch--I'm no expert on detecting AutoTune unless it's done on purpose, but it doesn't matter, because what's wrong with her voice, AutoTune can't fix. Her voice is as un-beautiful as her face is beautiful.

Her tone is not better than what you'd find in the average church choir soprano, plus she has one of those high-speed quavers that I find nearly unlistenable to.

And this isn't a bit part. It's Adult-Cosette.

I heard Ann Hathaway too. Someone I'd be delighted to have in the choir of the church I attend. But Fontine? Uh-unh.

They showed a bit of Hugh Jackman speak-singing his way through a duet with Cosette.

I was just stunned. Les Miz has some of the best music of any musical since the Richard Rogers/Frank Loesser days. The music isn't incidental to Les Miz--it's the heard and soul of it.

They could have done a movie of the book, using the same cast as this movie, and I'd have had no complaints.

And the emotional honesty of the story does call for the voices you hear emerging from the mouths you see.

Just not these voices.

Maybe the other parts fare better, but thus far my impression is that Hollywood picked Hollywood's own for the cast. They could have had their pick of Broadway stars for this, but instead we get...what we got.

I hope and pray that the few snippets I've heard are the musical exceptions to a better rule.

I doubt it.

And if I'm right, I have to ask: why do a musical if you don't care about the music?

Normally Hollywood botches musicals. It "opens up" the setting, taking the extreme artificiality of people bursting into song every few minutes, and superimposing that artifice on realistic settings--on location or on big sound stages.

But at least Hollywood used to make sure you heard really good singing, whether from someone who had the complete package, like Shirley Jones, or a team who divvied up the whole package between them, like Natalie Wood/Marnie Nixon.


What I don't get the most is that Les Miz's creators are still alive. And they've overseen Les Miz being produced all over the world. So it's not like they don't know their way around a contract. So how did they let this happen?

Wouldn't it be interesting if, a decade or two from now, someone re-did the soundtrack of this movie, dubbing in the voices of great Broadway singers, offering that as a viewing option?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Advice for female celebrities appearing on talk shows

It's easy: don't wear anything that makes you feel the urge to tug on it (up down or sideways), and whatever you do wear, don't tug on it constantly during your interview.

Case in point: Olivia Munn, 32, beautiful actor who has appeared in Maxim (a so-called "lad's magazine" in teensy outfits) and suchlike. If you Google her name and pick Images you can see that while she's no Lindsay Lohan, she isn't prudish either.

Yet on Jay Leno's talk show last night she appeared in a dress that was practically Amish by late night talk show standards--long sleeved, high necked, no holes--but it was gathered up on one side, as you can see.

Munn was onscreen 8 minutes, and she spent much of her airtime trying to not be in that dress. She tugged down on it repeatedly, tried to pull the longer part over the shorter part, put her hands over the exposed thigh, went back to tugging it down, and so forth.

It made her look neurotic and also made it hard to pay attention to whatever she was saying. Jay Leno didn't make her wear that dress. The stores are full of attractive outfits for famous women--outfits that show less leg. Thus not only neurotic but a little dimwitted. And she's known for being smart--college-educated. But she made herself look ridiculous--and her constant dress-tugging is already appearing all over the Internet.

She just has no excuse. Whatever glamorous effect she was shooting for by wearing the dress in the first place was lost by her onstage antics. She could have put duct tape over the slit and it would have looked better than she did.

This has been going on since forever. Minnie Driver's first movie role seen widely in the states was the starring role in Circle of Friends (1995), for which she gained quite a bit of weight. Then she made the rounds of the talk shows to promote it. I think first was the Jay Leno show. She appeared with all the weight gone, & obviously so because it was a minidress.

Spent the whole time tugging the top up and the hem down.

There's a broader lesson here--if you're conscious of your self, you won't be self-conscious on any occasion.

Friday, November 23, 2012

What you should know about portamento when listening to a singer

Portamento is a musical term, meaning, basically, sliding between two notes on the sheet music instead of crisply hitting the first, then the next. But more generally it means all the little stuff singers do instead of singing mechanically.

Portamento is musical seasoning. You've have soup that was too salty, right? And soup that lacked salt. Neither is fun to eat. Ditto portamento. Bad singers use portamento like bad cooks use seasoning: to mask the fact that the basic ingredients aren't very good.

In opera, for example, singers who aren't sure of just exactly where that high note is will sliiiiiide up to it, hoping to come across it--though like as not they still sing the note a bit flat anyway. I've heard opera singers and country music singers and pop singers all abuse portamento this way. The better your pitch sense is the more annoying this becomes.

But imagine hearing someone with no musical imagination sing something without any note-bending, without any accelerations or hesitations, nary a gospel lick, nor blues lick either (very closely related, those)--and you're back to that bowl of soup that tastes like hospital food.

I've heard singers with un-beautiful voices make their bones as song stylists--which is perfectly acceptable. I've also heard singers with beautiful voices (like Barbra Steisand) overuse portamento--as if they didn't trust their own basic materials.

Listen to Jackie Evancho sing anything for an example of using portamento just right, within the scope of her genre ("classical crossover"); to Bonnie Raitt for bluesy pop; to Mahalia Jackson for straight-from-the heart gospel licks; to Dulce Pontes, La Albita and Elis Regina for Latin music... Those singers will teach you most of what you need to know about portamento.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Does 12 year old Jackie Evancho understand what she's snging about?

Years ago a university chemistry class got a guest lecturer for the day. Afterward the students were asked about the lecturer. They all agreed he was the best chemistry lecturer they'd ever had, bringing the concepts alive for them as never before. They figured he must be some Pulitzer Prize-winning genius.

In fact he was a professional actor who knew nothing about chemistry.
The point wasn't what he knew or didn't know--it was what the students learned when they listened to him.

His area of expertise wasn't chemistry--it was communication.

Likewise what Jackie Evancho knows is the language of music--of tone, of phrasing, of portamento (all those little notes that aren't in the score), of passagio (seamless transitions from chest to head voice), of vibrato.

If you played just the audio of "The summer knows" for someone who'd never heard--or heard of--her, theyd probably say the singer must be a tall, heavyset (to support the big voice) woman in her 30s, who's been around the block a few times.

I've tried this experiment and that's the result I usually get.

It's important to note that Jackie never tries to act a day older than she is. That's not the way in which she's precocious.

As for what she herself understands--of course she knows little about romantic love etc. But she does understand--as do many 12 year olds--love in a more generalized sense, and longing, and loss. Jackie just does more with that than most.

So she's the storyteller, not the story; a conduit for your own life experiences, not hers, connecting those experiences to those that the song she's singing deals with.

Lastly, she's not a "child singer." There are a lot of those. They sound like children. They're cute. They compete with other children.

Jackie is a singer who happens to be a child. From the start she has competed with adult singers for sales of her CDs, DVDs and concerts. She sings in an adult voice. she mostly sings songs other adults sing. Her CDs chart on Billboard Magazine against those of singers like Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban. And her fans are rarely fans of child singers.

It's hard for critics to categorize Jackie because in a way she's a category of one. There has never been a child in history of recorded music who sounds/sounded like her. Julie Andrews, at Jackie's age, sounded like a child with a beautiful, agile, wide-ranging child's voice. She didn't sound anything like Jackie, who's not as agile and not quite as wide-ranging, but whose tone and texture and vibrato aren't excelled even by highly-trained adult singers.

Some people get there by training, others by sheer talent. Jackie's the latter--living proof that we're not all born the same.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

More on the undertone of sadness in Jackie Evancho's art

Jackie Evancho faces a paradox. The interpretive genius that enables her to connect with her audience in such an emotionally powerful way at the same time isolates her. Maybe that's the real essence of the "darkness within her light."

Musically at least, she sees deeply into the human heart. Yet the more this ability ennobles her and makes her famous and successful...the less time she can spend with ordinary people, and, progressively, her extra insight into the human heart includes sensing how few people have her depth. 

She now has at least one foot into adolescence. I seriously doubt whether she's thought about this consciously yet, but who will she be able to even date when she's old enough to do that? She doesn't go to school. She know a few girls who are her childhood friends. Most of the boys she knows are siblings or cousins. 

So on both the practical and the philosophical level, she's coming to realize the degree to which her life of the heart separates her from other hearts. And there's not much she can do about it. She is who she is. Even if she stopped performing now, she'd still be herself, with the abilities she has, whether she uses them professionally or not. 

When she's 16--the age her mom identified as when she'd be willing to let her start dating--most boys her age will be too intimidated to ask her out, and unwilling to be identified as someone's boyfriend instead of the girl being identified as his girlfriend.

At her current age of 12, the dating stuff is well over her horizon. But she's insightful. Surely in some way she sees it coming, and she already experiences it. Who are the fans cheering her from those expensive front row seats? Old coots mostly, who will never be in her dating pool. And boys her age are mostly listen to Rihanna and Pink and Fergie and Selena Gomez and Beyonce and Lady Gaga and Kei$ha etc....not her. 

She will find love, eventually, to be sure. But it will be a challenge. And even outside of the world of's always lonely at the top. Whether it's as a CEO or as a prima ballerina or as a potter on the crafts fair circuit or as the top cop in your precinct. Being the best at anything isolates you.

Hence, perhaps, the undertone of sadness in much of her music. Her way of seeking the consolations of philosophy...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

New CD "Songs from the Silver Screen" by Jackie Evancho

Executive summary:

This CD perfectly expresses the paradox that is Jackie Evancho-the most beautiful voice of any singer whose voice has been recorded, coupled with intuitive mastery of the art of singing--immaculate phrasing, use of portamento, seamless passagio, and above all the ability to connect the listener emotionally to the music--all contained, however improbably, within the small-for-her-age frame of a cheerful 12 year old suburban American girl whose talents were as much of a surprise to her parents as they were to the rest of us.

And of all her CDs, "Songs from the silver screen" most embodies this paradox, applying her formidable musical skills to musical piffle like "Pure Imagination," the theme song from the children's film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." There are more serious songs on the CD-most notably Ennio Morricone's theme from "Cinema Paradiso" and Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Music of the Night " from "Phantom of the opera," written for its antihero.

That is, the musical interpretive genius who is Jacqueline Marie Evancho is at the same time Jackie Evancho, a child who still loves Disney cartoons. And in this CD you see the confluence of the genius and the child.

As such, I doubt she'll ever do such an album again-even now, you see her looking forward towards her adult life in a way that she hasn't in the past. And about half the songs here embody that looking-forward-ness. So this CD's collection of songs combines a fond farewell to her childhood with a wide-eyed first step into the hormonal hurricane of adolescence.

I also doubt that the children's film songs here will ever again get such remarkable renditions. Because Jackie is the rising tide that lifts all musical boats. This CD answers the question of how important execution is vs. the original material that emerged from the composer's pen (or keyboard or virtual input). Even the piffliest of the songs here-"Pure Imagination" is worth listening to because Jackie Pygmalioned it, lifting it out of the musical gutter just as Professor Henry Higgins turned Eliza Doolittle into something like a real lady.

So even if you disdain many of these songs (at least as originally sung) and their cinematic sources, don't let that turn you away from this unique, evanescent testament to Jackie Evancho's 12th year on this lucky planet. And anyone who aspires to be a singer needs to get his, regardless of their own chosen genre-because this CD could be the musical text for a master class in the art of singing so that you carry the audience away with you to whatever emotional destination you choose.

Not that even Jackie could explain what she does. She can't. It's up to you to pay attention to what she's doing when she's doing it-and the more attention you pay, the more your efforts are rewarded, as you swim into the shimmering depths of her voice.

Buy this CD and bring some beauty into your life, whether it's just for a gentle background sound or for intense scrutiny-either way you'll find what you seek. A bit like those chilcren's films that are made to entertain both their intended audience and their parents.


The details:

There's an undertone of sadness in much of Jackie Evancho's music. I doubt anyone-even her parents-know where that comes from. It's as if the singer is a veteran chanteuse in her late 60s, looking back on a sunny youth with both fondness for how wonderful it was and regret that it's long past, never to return.

All of us adults were once 12 years old, but not one of us was the 12 year old that Jackie Evancho is. Not that it's obvious in interviews. I've known kids that age who presented themselves as well as she does, and spoke about as well as she does, with the kinds of charming grammatical boo-boos typical of thoroughly middle class children. She doesn't exude the gravitas Scarlett Johansson did at the same age. Until Jackie sings, that is.

Some other kids even display the kinds of lofty goals she expresses, such as "I'd like to sing for the President of the United States"...the difference being that she has sung for the President-more than once even.

And some also express some of that sadness, but it's usually over personal stuff-drunken parents, acne, whatever. Jackie's isn't for herself. It's for all of us, all of us embraced by her loving concern for all of our griefs large and small, and the mortality that overshadows this life.

I'm doing a little mindreading here, to be sure. As I said, she isn't particularly articulate about her art. Not need she be. You can see how intensely she's concentrating when she performs-rarely smiling, her brow often furrowed as she shapes every note, every phrase, every verse, precisely as she wants it to be. I think I'm right but there's no way to prove it. Just regard her art and see if what I say resonates with you.

You can expect to see hundreds of reviews for any Jackie Evancho album, all of them gushing over her voice, her songs, her character, her family, her nascent beauty, her fashion sense, etc. etc., all concluding that you'd have to be nuts not to buy this CD.

Personally I agree. However, I can understand why some would not. Musically speaking, Ms. Evancho dwells far from the world Rolling Stone Magazine covers-and equally far from the pure classical world for that matter.

So if you only like pop, or jazz, or field recordings of Tuareg musicians, Jackie Evancho isn't for you. Her music doesn't rock and it doesn't roll. It's irony-free. It's generally aspirational, slow to medium-tempo'd, usually with ornate orchestral accompaniment. It hearkens back to Linda Ronstadt's "Lush Life" album with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. I long for her first "unplugged" album, but that's probably a long ways off.

Meanwhile we have "Songs from the Silver Screen," and even if you aren't a fan of Classical Crossover-her nominal genre-you may still want to get this CD, because she possesses, arguably, the most beautiful singing voice of anyone in the history of recorded music. It soars over accompaniments normally found on "Easy Listening" albums and song choices that would be pedestrian in anyone else's hands. When she sings songs that have been done to death by others-or which we think of as being "owned" by another artist-she sweeps all that history aside, singing it as if it's the first time it's ever been sung. She never references other singers musically, and you'd be hard-pressed to find something she's imitating. She doesn't read music, so she learns songs by listening to others' renditions, but she seems to shed those renditions in the process of absorbing the songs, until all that's left is what's uniquely hers.

Consequently, though I wouldn't buy the collection of movie theme songs that comprises "Songs from the silver screen" if anyone else were the singer, Jackie Evancho can and does pull these songs out of their cinematic boxes, dusts them off, and sets them going in a new direction. You might say they get Jackified. High-Jackied? (This is where my wife tells me to stop messing around and get down to business.)

I'll add some thought to the individual songs, in the order in which they appear on the CD. I won't talk about the movies they come from by & large because Jackie recontextualizes them-her approach is so original it really only makes sense to consider them afresh.

1. Pure Imagination

The intro-a lush assemblage of celeste, flute, veils of strings, echo-reflects the Pretty Serious Treatment this song gets. After Jackie starts singing, a drumset pulls it into a midtempo piece marked by discreet rimshots and flurries of orchestration that create a kind of musical dialogue with Jackie's singing.

This is the kind of arrangement that David Foster has parlayed into a small fortune, so it's popular, and it's well-executed here by seasoned studio musicians.

The question for me is how would it compare with the singer doing the song acapella? Not that acapella is necessarily better-just that it's my starting point. The equivalent of zero-based budgeting in economics. Here my impression is that the arrangement sets a mood clearly. It intends to wrap you in a kind of Wall O' Sound that generates its own little universe-one which embodies the concept of "aesthetic distance" I learned about in college philosophy classes. The goal with this arrangement is, I believe, to make you feel something about that song that's neither intense nor pallid-that is, definitely engaged, but not weeping or laughing either. Fairly calm.

This is the metier of so-called "easy listening" music found in elevators and supermarkets. "Pure Imagination" is a definite step up from string arrangements of Beatles songs (which can drive me out of a market). And the arrangement may be appropriate for the song, whose lyrics talk about the joys of imagination, but not of the imagination found in, say, Goya's terrifying tributes to the brutal Napoleanic invasion of his country early in the 19th century. This is more like the imagination of lying on your back with your sweetie on a calm summer's day and imagining what animals the little puffy clouds in the sky look like.

So if this song, then this arrangement may be most appropriate for the Jackie classical crossover treatment. I hope Jackie never picks a song as musically lackluster as this again, but as I said earlier, I see this CD as her farewell to childhood, and I guess she enjoyed the movie. The song may not deserve her love, but her loving, sincere treatment certainly makes it all it can be/

2. The Music of the Night

Here's a song more worthy of Ms. Evancho's art. It shows off her passion, her rich lower range, her soaring high notes, her attention to the meaning of the lyrics-in this case a song sung by a criminal psychopath attempting to seduce a young female singer by appealing to a modicum of darkness swirling around inside her.

In her TV special Jackie sang this wearing a tuxedo with ruffled sleeves and high heels, and the outfit combined with her absolute authority as regards this song, made for a commanding presence and presentation. I tell you this because when you hear her sing it I want you to visualize Jackie singing it in a tux-and doing so convincingly. It's pretty stunning to hear how Jackie phrases this song perfectly. Listen to it five times in a row, as I just did, and you'll just marvel more and more at what an awe-inspiring singer this girl is, and how she brings her "old soul" to a song I wouldn't have dreamed a 12 year old child from a near-idyllic background could grasp a very adult song like this so well, leaving not a moment of her performance to chance. And she does it just about as well in live performance-so this doesn't represent a tribute to the producer's art. It's a tribute to Jackie's-her art and her emotional intensity.

I said she recontextualizes everything she does. This is one of the best examples. She first heard this when she saw the movie at age 7, and by all accounts it had an electric effect on her. My guess is that she felt something inside made her different from every other kid she knew. Not consciously, nor to anyone else either. She hadn't known anyone could make a sound like what she heard before this, as far as I know.

She was different, she felt it, and within a year or so everyone around her knew it as well. Not just the ability to sing well-but also the passion to become world-famous for what she does, and the drive and discipline to make that happen. You can't tell what she is by looking at her playing with her family and friends, or even from seeing her in concert. It's the in-between times that make her different-the concentration it takes to learn a song the way she learns a song, the acceptance of a life less ordinary-a life spent on airplanes and in hotel rooms and strange cities (from St. Petersburg to Tokyo so far), and through it all never to waver from her goals.

Greatness isolates. That's the "darkness" inside her. Not evil. But, in a deep sense, solitary. And at odds with the friendly, bubbly, social kid who is also Jackie Evancho. There's a price for fame, and she's already paying it-and accepts that price.

And in her last, sustained note of this song, if you listen to subtly disturbing chord progression underneath it, you can hear that darkness in a way that isn't obvious musically in the rest of the song. Actually it starts out, musically, rather innocuously. It's the very end that puts into music what the words have been saying all along. The chord progression finally resolves, but it leaves a dark residue behind in your mind.

3. Can You Feel the Love

I think Elton John did an admirable job with this song, elevating it above the normal forgettable Disney fare. And Jackie does it more than justice, down to the smallest detail. Such as the way she sings "moment" the first time in the song, lingering on the "n" before adding the "t' instead of making it one sound as we mostly do. This kind of thing isn't an affectation the way she does it-listen to the moment she sings "moment" and see if it doesn't make perfect musical/lyrical sense to do it as she does it.

This is also a good example of Jackie's "aspirational" mode. She does a lot of aspirational songs, and this is largely devoid of that sad undercurrent you can sense in some other songs she does. It's uplifting. Makes you want to go out and accomplish something-something worthy.

4. Reflection

This too is aspirational, and Jackie has said how close to her heart it is. It's about living behind a mask, struggling to break free. Most of us first encountered Jackie on America's Got Talent at the age of 10. But she'd been competing-and mostly losing-in local and regional competitions for 2 ½ years by that point, trying to get somewhere, sending in audition tapes to talk shows (that were never answered). Meanwhile you have to imagine how most people-peers and adults-treated her. She's small (even for her age) and cute and friendly. It's a miracle her mom took her seriously, but most people around her-and it was reasonable, really-just saw a little kid whose big dreams were what most little kids' big dreams are-talk.

You can hear all that remembered struggle in the impassioned way she sings this song. Yes, it's a kid's song, a Disney cartoon song, only slightly more memorable than most of its ilk. But even if Jackie gives it more TLC than it deserves, when she sings it you believe it and her. She means every word. You can't buy that sort of conviction at any price, and her rendition makes the song into something it didn't start out being.

5. The Summer Knows

How does a 12 year old kid from the `burbs who wears a Promise Ring sing a song like this, and sing it with such conviction, double entendres and all? This is a bittersweet pop standard that's an inch away from being the blues. I'm sure if you put the question to Jackie, she'd just shrug and say "I dunno." This is serious right-brain stuff, so it's not surprising her 12 year old left brain can't wrap words around what she does here.

And to some extent she's leveraging your own understanding of summer flings recalled with a mixture of pleasure and regret-the literary convention of "ubi sunt" ("those were the days"). She know exactly how to make the music. You know how to use the music she made to trigger and contextualize your own recollections to make up your total experience.

The true artist doesn't have to have had all the exact experiences he puts in his art. He just has to understand joy and sorrow, attraction and repulsion, regret and's up to you to fill in the details specific to each of our lives.

That said, I'm impressed by her tackling this song in this album. It becomes progressively harder to think that there's any kind of song she can't do, and do exceptionally well.

I'm sure some Concerned Parent types will have fits over songs like this. I would direct their attention to the many, many thousands of abused and neglected children leading tragic and often brief existences in America and abroad. Just because Jackie sings about adult topics doesn't mean she's in a hurry to experience them personally-but neither is she interested in avoiding knowing about the world as it is, warts and all. This is a very clear-eyed child whose mother has said she doesn't wall her four kids off from reality. And Jackie strikes me as having a lot of personal discipline-and judgment. Her campaigning on behalf of animal welfare is part and parcel of this. I wouldn't be surprised if as an adult she didn't get involved in the sorts of human welfare activities that responsible celebrities like Meg Ryan and Angelina Jolie pursue.

6. I See the Light

A sort of love song from a charming Disney movie becomes a tribute to freedom and brotherly-sisterly affect in this duet with Jackie's older brother Jacob. Jacob has a pleasant, clear young teenage boy's voice-any church choir would be delighted to have him. And he shows the pitch sense his celebrity sister is known for. I don't think singing will be his direction, but the occasional duet with Jackie will be very, very sweet. Jackie has a special bond with Jacob because after leaving her primary school to travel the world performing, Jacob left too and has been her constant companion on the road. You can see how much he means to her when they perform together.

I wouldn't want more than one song on an album to be a Jackie-Jacob duet, but one is great-and shows how Jackie can harmonize and blend beautifully, even with a weaker singer (no insult to Jacob-very few human beings aren't "weaker singers" than Jackie). Josh Groban is a great duetter, and I think Jackie will be one too.

7. What a wonderful world

A simple song can be a great song when it's done straightforwardly with great sincerity and the shaping Jackie does, so subtly you might not even notice the touches she's using to deliver the emotional content into your heart-unless you listen to it repeatedly. Her rendition of this could be the "required listening" for a master class in portamento-that's the note-bending that's usually not in the sheet music, but which keeps a song from sounding mechanical. I also appreciated the restraint of the arrangement here.

Listen to how she sings "for me and you" in the first verse, just for one example. She turns "and" into a multinoted piece of musical perfection that expresses the emotional import of that simple conjunction, tying her and the loved one she's singing to in something that's more of an embrace than an association. All those pitiful American Idol singers thrusting gospel licks into every bar should listen to what portamento can accomplish when it's used with refinement, in the service of the lyrics, and not just for showing off one's vocal agility.

Because Jackie never shows off. Everything she does musically, she does in the service of the song. This is a key element of her musical genius. She never gives in to the sort of diva-yodeling that has made Christina Aguilera much less of a singer than she could be.

8. Se

This is another of her trademark aspirational-yet-poignant songs. I don't speak Italian and haven't looked up the lyrics. Instead I treat it as a gorgeous vocalise, filling in the content with visual associations, of which I have many, having traveled in 17 countries (not including Italy however).

I think this uses Morricone's own arrangement, and it complements Jackie's power and subtlety nicely. I hope the maestro hears it and appreciates what a wonderful gift Jackie has given him. And musically I think many would agree that it's the best song on the CD, exploiting her range, expressiveness, tenderness, compassion, hope, love....I have no idea whether Jackie can express any emotion that isn't admirable. She's never done so. I'm thinking something heartless and heartbreaking like the love duet from Die Dreigroschenoper " (Kurt Weill/Bartolt Brecht) ( But admirable-emotionwise, she Da Man.

9. My Heart Will Go On

Most pop music fans think Celine Dion owns this song. No more. I predicted a couple of years ago that when Jackie tackles a song it becomes her property from then on. This rendition, accompanied by Joshua Bell (one of the most famous violinists alive), is so ineluctable I now hear it even when remembering the memorable images from Jim Cameron's movie. And her amazingly long, delicate, held note at the end shows that she's rapidly outgrowing the breathing challenges her tiny body imposed on her at age 10.

When songs have been out there as much as this one has they often/usually become a cliche, a hackneyed shadow of themselves, even when done well. But on this CD "My heart will go on" have been given a second life. Jackie ace with songs like this is her evident sincerity. Can't fake that. She makes you believe her and the song. Package deal. I hope she never sings a jingle for a junk food restaurant. That would be the death of me, I fear.

10. Come What May

Here Jackie transforms the impassioned love duet from "Moulin Rouge" into a duet with The Tenors-formerly known as The Canadian Tenors. It would be hard to overstate just how well she does pitting her voice, coming out of her 4'9" frame or whatever it is now, against three grown men who are all professional singers. She holds her own and then some, not to mention producing some of the spine-tingling harmonies I've heard in a long, long time.

And it's fascinating to hear how she negotiates this emotional territory. I doubt she's been in love yet, and this is anything but steamy, but as with "Nessun Dorma," what she puts out is utterly convincing.

Note that she isn't just singing the melody-she sings a descant for much of it, showing that there are sopranos out there who can sing something besides the melody.

This song is an anthem-big sound, big passions, big orchestral accompaniment, four big voices-honestly it's kind of stunning. I sure hope she does more work with these guys-the four of them are a powerhouse combination.

Playing it for this review, I had to stop the playback for a minute before going on to the next song, just to let its reverberations die down in my head, and to mentally replay bits of it, like the first place she shifts into a descant and one of the tenors goes onto the melody. Ay caramba.

I pity the people who are too tragically hip to hear what's here. I absolutely love Miles Davis' "So what" which is still so hip it's almost too hip to exist on this planet. But there's room in my heart for that and for this, and there should be in yours too.

11. Some Enchanted Evening

In concert Jackie has said this song embodies what she imagines her first love might feel like. And she's taken a song written for an operatic bass-and a male character, naturally-in one of the most iconic musicals ever. No problemo. Change a few pronouns and she's off to the races.

Off to the races against what I'd call a revisionist orchestration. It's fully in keeping with the other original arrangements on this CD-lush, lots of strings, unrhythmed intro followed by a rhythmed body of the song, marked mostly by rim shots (hitting the wooden frame of a drum with a drumstick).

I'm a little ambivalent about the arrangement, which seeks that "aesthetic distance" I talked about earlier, while Jackie's own singing is anything but mannered, as the accompaniment seems-to me-to call for. Personally I'd love to have heard her singing this to the original Rogers & Hammerstein arrangement, which I think is better suited to Jackie's sincerity.

Just speculating but I wonder if the arranger tried to "lighten the mood" in view of Jackie's age? If so I disapprove. Jackie can take care of herself musically, and "Come what may" shows what Jackie can do when she's given the opportunity to go straight ahead into the passionate depths of a song instead of floating around in an inner tube. This arrangement would be great for a Perry Como. Not for someone like Jackie.

Doesn't mean I won't listen to this song, but I may fiddle with my home theater settings to try to foreground-ize her voice more and push the accompaniment into the background more.

12. When I fall in love

Same kind of arrangement here, again somewhat undercutting Jackie's approach. I look forward to the day she takes charge of every aspect of her CDs' production, as I'm sure she will.

The song itself is both romantic and clear-eyed. It's a song by someone who's been around the block-rode hard and put away wet, as a cowboy might say-so it's kind of minor keyed, which you don't expect in the average love long. Of course it's a song about falling in love rather than a love song per se, but still...the lyrics say that these things often don't work out, while at the same time saying that the person singing is ready to go all in with the right person-100%-which I'm guessing is also how Jackie sees things and will continue to see things.

This song choice is more proof that Jackie's an Old Soul. This is very sober romanticism-no blinders on at all. No effort to make the world any different than it is, while still maintaining her own lofty goals in life.

It puts her mark on the ground. As does the whole album.


Jackie did a movie theme song on her last album-"Lovers" from the Chinese epic "House of Flying Daggers." Makes you think she'd like to do movie theme songs. I hope Hollywood is paying attention (and Paris and Rome for that matter, since she sings well in French, Italian, and Latin, as well as in English).

The only problem is that a song that fully exploited her range and other capabilities couldn't be sung by most pop singers. But what an instrument for a movie composer to exploit.

Meanwhile you can do your bit by buying this CD. For Jackie's hardcore fans that's a no-brainer. But even if you aren't partial to the Classical Crossover genre-and I'm not myself, actually, apart from Jackie-there's a lot here that you won't find elsewhere.

Because no one sings like Jackie, regardless of age. People say "one of a kind" just as hyperbole, and then it sounds hackneyed when it's actually true.

As is the case here.

Now go buy the thing. I'm going to go and play the album again.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why foreign movies are so much better than American ones

  • Actually, the average foreign film is just as crappy as the average American film, only without the optimism and the great Hollywood production values. The foreign movies American film critics laud are exotics in their own countries, by and large. If Americans could see the foreign movies that are most popular in their own countries it would be an eye-opener. 
    Moreover, Hollywood blockbusters offer simple black and white morality and rudimentary screenwriting in part due to the fact that they cost so much to make they can't make a profit without major foreign sales, and moral nuances and interior lives don't fly in major foreign markets.
    That is, the market for nuanced films is no larger abroad than it is here, and exists in some countries only because the government subsidizes the creation of such films.
    BTW people in other countries don't like subtitles any more than the American Joe Lunchbox does. The norm is dubbing, even in sophisticated countries like Germany (where Schwarzenegger is dubbed by a German who speaks hoch Deutsch instead of Ahnold himself, due to his hick Austrian German accent).

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why don't the Olympics include snorkeling and cut swim styles nobody uses?

Seriously, when is the last time you saw anyone trying to get somewhere in the water use anything but the Australian crawl? Look at triathlons. Butterfly? Backstroke? Not when you're in a hurry. If the Olympics tried to make their swimming contests resemble what people really do, they'd have the different distances and relays and make them all freestyle--use whatever you choose.

When they mandate a particular stroke, be honest and admit it's because they think these alternate strokes are...pretty. OK--then in such races, score them on how aesthetically the swimmers do that stroke, same as you would in artistic gymnastics.

Otherwise define the distance and leave it up to the swimmer how he covers it.,

Ironically the two strokes most used in the real world besides the Australian crawl are the side stroke and what you do with swim fins.

People use the sidestroke to conserve energy and when it's useful to keep your head out of the water.

Finning is extraordinarily common. The Olympics should replace their goofy not-used-in-real-life strokes with races of different distances where the athletes were allowed to use fins/mask/snorkel. What possible reason could they have to exclude this? After all, besides running events we have bicycling events. A bicycle is exactly the same kettle of fish as swimming with fins. This should be a no-brainer, and it would be exciting to watch, because with fins you can really haul.

And while I'm at it, I'd love to see races on scuba. We now have the technology to show what's going on underwater, so it would look great on TV...not so much in a stadium. So you'd do it in the ocean, around a marked course. It's a serious challenge to make speed while encumbered with scuba gear. But again this is something real people really do in the real world, but since it isn't a live spectator thing I wouldn't push for it as seriously as snorkeling.

Another argument in favor of the snorkeling event is that it might well favor a different body type than what you see for most swimming events (a bit less so for the longest distances), since the major source of propulsion moves to the legs.

While I'm at it what's with the rowing stuff? Those boats are made to move in a straight line--they're hyper-specialized, and really divorced from real-world rowing.

So how about making the rowing events around a course, with turns in both directions--even a set of esses like you'd see in road racing for cars? I'd find that far more interesting to watch. I mean, what if the kayak races went down an arrow-straight course? No one would put up with that.

The closer Olympics sports map to the real world, the better it will be for attendance and support, sez me.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

water strider

Seen on a nature walk by the birdwatching center in Bolinas, California. I love the shadows they cast.

shot with Canon G11 with an Olympus telephoto add-on lens + Lensmate adapter; 180mm equivalent

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Color in monochrome photos

This is a photo I shot in Taipei's international airport last October. It's not very colorful except for the country's mostly red flags. I don't think this shot would work in B&W, but I also don't think it would work if the rest of the shot (apart from the flags) had been colorful. The flags "pop" because the surroundings do not.

Canon G11, hand held, ambient light; photo here is greatly reduced from the hi-rez original.

Here's another example, from Bali last year, taken at Pura (temple) Gading Wali. You could shoot this in monochrome as far as the plants in the foreground are concerned, but the scarf on the statue really needs to be in color.

Same camera, with an Olympus 1.7x telephoto lens mated to the Canon with a Lensmate adapter. Photo again greatly reduced from the original.

But this shot of a fabric store in Ubud, Bali, obviously needs to be in full color, while this

, of a beach near the aforementioned temple, should be close to monochrome for the best effect.


Elsewhere I was discussing the idea of an image of Jackie Evancho in B&W with her blue eyes in color, perhaps for a poster or a T shirt.

Someone else pointed out that the bit of color in a B&W image was a cliché no real photographer would use.

I said this:

re: clichés

In every kind of artistic endeavor, acquiring good taste is great--pretty essential, really. And part of that is of course realizing what bad taste is in that field, and part of bad taste is the cliché. 

But acquiring good taste is a stage, not the end point, though it is the end point for most who acquire it. "Good taste" basically means not making mistakes. Products in good taste are pleasing, competent, are rarely offend. 

They also rarely transcend either, though.

Shakespeare saw Hamlet before he (re)wrote it. It was a popular play of the day, but when Shakespeare saw it he thought he could do it better. He was write (so to speak). The plot was clichéd, but Shakespeare's execution and brilliance with the language made his version a classic and the predecessor a footnote.

If you want to see photography's clichés go to an Ikea store and look at the photographic prints there. 

If you look at them--and they'll probably include a B&W print with a bit o' color somewhere--you should see that those clichéd images are there because they tap into something in us. Humans love lush greenery and fresh water, baby animals with big eyes, etc.

Those things are both clichés and things we're hardwired to respond to. 

They aren't clichés because of the subject matter or use of a particular technique, but because they're executed in a routine, un-brilliant manner. It's like the difference between a crummy movie about a pretty girl dying of cancer and a brilliant movie about a pretty girl dying of cancer. 

Execution. Execution trumps everything. E.E. Cummings once wrote a poem that he built out of the verbal clichés of the day. It was brilliant.

But the cynosure of making humdrum done-to-death material glow in the dark is...Jacqueline Marie Evancho.

Look at all the songs she's done that have been beaten to death and then the dead thing beaten with abalone pounders until it was a paper-thin pulp.

Yet when she does them it's as if we'd never heard them sung before. That goopy song from Pinoccho, When you wish upon a star. Impossible dream. Danny boy. Jackie is living proof that the true artist knows what clichés are but doesn't keep him from using them IF done right.

Because nothing--absolutely nothing--becomes a cliché in the first place unless it's something many people respond to. They're a part of the artist's toolkit. They're a dangerous part because using them means you're going where darn near everyone has gone before. But real artists don't let that stop them under the right circumstances. 

Bottom line is that like so many things, even good taste should be used in moderation...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

No-spoilers review of The Avengers in 3D--for those who don't normally see comics-based blockbusters

Here I'll try to help those who aren't dedicated followers of the Marvel Comics franchise decide whether to see this movie while it's still in theaters, along with whether to buy it. These aren't questions for the fanboys. They're going to see and/or buy the DVD of this regardless, as its huge ticket sales attest already.

But what about the rest of us? You wouldn't even be reading this unless you felt some desire to occasionally see a big action movie with fabulous 3D special effects and charismatic stars.

But you don't see most of them, because they're just so painfully stoopid, with 2D characterizations and a plot that just exists to get you from one fabulous F/X sequence to the next, and the director is a great special effects supervisor who thinks he's also a screenwriter.

Likewise you probably like science fiction...except when it's all fiction no science, which is usually the case.

The last big budget scifi action movie I saw was Avatar. I enjoyed it enough to see it twice (partly to test two different 3D systems), but it hasn't left much of a residue in my mind/heart. Nothing wrong with film, but it lacked something. Perhaps it shows the difference between fine craftsmanship and true art. For me it lacked heart.

On the other hand, I loved Serenity, whose director/screenwriter/auteur Joss Whedon knows how to direct an ensemble cast and make you care about their characters, tell a story that's actually a story, make the special effects work for the story and the characters instead of vice versa, and who understands that even the most serious drama needs a sprinkling of wit and a certain anarchic impulse to keep it from being too full of itself.

So--was this true of Avengers, with the same director/screenwriter? Both movies have a lot of things in common, besides Joss Whedon. Each continues a franchise, with the challenge of lassoing in both franchise fans and new viewers. Each has a fairly large ensemble cast. Each pits flawed heroes against villains who aren't entirely cartoonish. Each has women who are actually interesting characters and not just eye candy (not that they aren't that too).

My bottom line is that both films are worth non-fanboys seeing them. For me Serenity is more successful, but that doesn't mean Avengers isn't good too.

Good enough so that my spouse, who generally prefers "art films" (as do I), now wants to see at least some of the preceding franchise movies--especially the Iron Mans. That's high praise. She'd liked Serenity, but agreed with me about Avatar, and found Hell Boy pretty much a waste of time.

Some of the things we most liked about Avengers will be exactly the things some fanboys don't like, mind you. Character development means less action while that development is going on. Frequent, sly injections of humor mean the heroic, humorless posturing of so many action flicks is being diluted--good from my point of view, but the reason, I think, for some of the less favorable reviews here.

For me the most memorable character was a secondary one: Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. Unlike the four main characters and the main villain, her human strength isn't augmented, so though she's as martial artsy as the rest, her real "superpower" is a wily brilliance coupled with and coolly exploiting the kind of looks that hampers heterosexual men's ability to think coherently in her presence.

I would love to see a prequel about her that develops her backstory, because, more than any other character, she's the one who's had a change of heart about whether to serve good or, well, not evil, but amoral self-interest. I'm not revealing anything here because this change takes place before Avengers' story begins.

In this sense she's like Angel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise, or, earlier, Xena Warrior Princess. Like them, Johansson's character has to keep consciously choosing to do the right thing--it's not an automatic reflex like it is for Captain America, for example. And because of that, her goodness is...gooder...because it is a choice.

Plus she is a spy, an assassin, a professional deceiver, using the exact tools she'd used before. So her goodness is the goodness of a battle-hardened warrior, not a saintly flower-strewing do-gooder.

In one scene she has to do battle with someone she cares about, or at least cared about. That makes for a much more interesting battle than one between a White Hat and a Black Hat, where all you care about is the Good Guy winning.

And actually, fine action sequences notwithstanding, my personal favorite scene in the movie is a conversation she has with a Bad Guy, in which there's no fighting at all. They just talk. But now, several days later, I'm still thinking about what she did in that scene--both Johansson and her character.

The unique thing Johansson brings to an industry chock full o' beautiful women is her gravitas. She doesn't ask you to take her seriously. You have to. You can't not take her seriously, even though your hormones are yelling "Battle stations!"

I don't think this is an act. She had this in Manny & Lo, when she was 12. She had this in The Horse Whisperer, when she was 14. She had this in Lost in Translation, when she was 17 yet playing a woman in her mid-twenties--convincingly. (Side note: Ryan Reynolds has got to be the biggest estupido in show biz. I bet their real problem was them both eventually realizing that she was considerably smarter than him, and his ego couldn't take it.)

That said, the other major characters all have inner conflicts that get explored. This is the way in which the film is really three-dimensional. Though its use of 3D seems pretty good to me as well. 

Avengers isn't a profound art film like, say, Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha--a truly great war movie we saw 30 years ago and that still sticks in our minds. But it's way better than most Hollywood blockbusters (such as Avatar) IF you want character and story and actual acting in your blockbusters and not just a White Hats Black Hats story that's mostly a parade of special effects sequences.

I do think it's worth seeing in the theater, and in 3D. We have a 46" 1080p 120hz flatscreen TV and a Blu-Ray home theater (not 3D), but I'm still glad I saw this in the theater. It has the visual bigness that justifies the investment (even if you do buy the disk later), and though I haven't researched it thoroughly, I get the impression that home 3D isn't ready for prime time yet. So both the visual scale of the film and its 3D exploitation make it a good candidate for a theater visit, even if you see most films on your home system, as we do.

The music score wasn't memorable either way--neither thrilling nor annoying. For me (and I'm a music buff) it was just there.

Footnote: Gwynneth Paltrow only appears in a few scenes, which I regret because she's a luminous actor. She plays Robert Downey Jr.'s partner/lover, and as I recall she's always barefoot. It's kind of cool that she is--this one detail showing her character's insouciance despite her high-pressure job. But my spouse wondered if it was also because Paltrow is taller than Downey. Just sayin'...

Lastly, for those whose love of science fiction is alloyed by some knowledge of science--you'll be best off if you regard this as a fantasy movie and not as a science fiction one, despite the abundant hardware. After all, two of the characters are deities from the ancient Norse religion. Another transforms periodically in a way that flagrantly violates the law of conservation of matter/energy.

But even the hardware is, scientifically, nonsense. IronMan would need a fuel tank the size of a shuttle booster to do all that scooting around in the air, and since his very heavy exoshell has no flight surfaces, he'd always have to fly in stall mode at around a 45 degree angle at slower speeds in order to keep from plummeting out of the sky. The flying carrier is aerodynamically impossible. The G forces on IronMan would turn him into a red good inside his suit in short order.

These aren't exactly criticisms of the film. Whedon once said, decades ago, that he strove to be emotionally true, but that he didn't sweat the technical details. And here he's filming a movie with at least half a dozen films and hundreds of comic books and graphic novels preceding it, locking him into much of the pseudotechnology you see here. So I'm just trying to manage your expectations. Serenity is a real science fiction movie, but it's not based on comic book superheroes and demigods. So don't leave the theater complaining about such stuff. You've been warned.

Bottom line:
1. If you're a Marvel franchise fanboy, see in theater, then buy disk. But do expect that it being directed by Joss Whedon makes it different from every other film in the franchise, especially in the injection of sly humor frequently. So be prepared for its Whedonization.

Also, since it assembles everyone for the first time, it has to be a different kind of film from all the single-main-character predecessors. The fact that it's starting a new series of films featuring all these characters together means there has to be more than the usual amount of exposition in order to assemble the team.

2. If you're an art house film lover (as in you instantly recognized my reference to Kurosawa and Kagemusha and perhaps wondered why I didn't reference Seven Samurai

HOLD THE PRESSES! That's it. This is Seven Samurai redux. Assembling a team of mismatched misfits to fight a passel of baddies in defense of people all of whom did not appreciate their sacrifices. Seven Samurai is one of the greatest films of all time, but conceptualizing Avengers as a blockbuster homage to it (and I'm sure Whedon has seen it) is a good mindset to bring to this party.  )

So to restart the point, if your an art house type, and you're with friends who want to see a spectacular big-budget action movie, this will suck way less for you than most of the alternatives. It's also a good family reunion PG-13 movie. I know much younger kids I'd take to it, and others the same age that I wouldn't. Depends more on the kid than the age. And if you're the "teachable moment" type of parent, this is a great film to take the kids to and then talk about the characters and actions afterwards. They might not even realize they're being, well, taught something.

3. If you're a spouse who normally wants to watch things like Downton Abbey (which I'm watching now and loving BTW), married to someone who wants to see things blow up and gorgeous actresses doing the blowing-upping--for you the long-suffering spouse, Avengers has enough character/story stuff to serve your interests while hubby is enjoying the film's more kinetic aspects.

It has lots of violence, but you're emotionally insulated from it, by the "live-action cartoon" quality of the film. This is nothing like Saving Private Ryan or Kill Bill I&II. It could be shown on primetime broadcast TV without editing, I believe. No sex, no revealing clothing even (Scarlett Johansson's catsuit is no more or less hoochie than what the Emma Peel character wore in the eponymous 1960s British TV series), almost no cussing, and no "hard cussing."

I don't want to mislead people into seeing films I like, or into not seeing films I don't like. I want to provide objective help for you, whatever your tastes are. So if you see Avengers and feel I misled you in any way, please add a comment to this review and I'll edit what I said in here to take account of your input.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Recently I had occasion to re-watch a number of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, dating back to 1997.

There's nothing like that now.

We have some comedies that are often quite funny, some dramas that are often quite dramatic, a handful of shows that are well-written and character-driven, and some fantasy shows that actually use the fantasy to explore this reality in ways that shows about this reality cannot.

But none combine all of that, as Buffy did.

And I find works of art that blend all these elements are more than the sum of those elements--a bit like a great Indonesian Rijstaffel, maybe.

Buffy's also more than the sum of its people. The artistic chemistry of show creator Joss Whedon and star Sarah Michelle Gellar was extraordinary, and unmatched by either since (though Whedon's Firefly came close, as did Angel).

For the show had the added benefit of exposing people whose good taste is so conventional they can't perceive quality if it comes from unauthorized sources--such as a TV show--such as a TV show with "Buffy" in its title--such as a TV show about vampires--such as a TV show about high school--such as a horror show--such as an action show--such as a show that defies the normal conventional boundaries between drama and comedy, intellectual and lowbrow, fantasy and "realism." (I put "realism" in quotes because innumerable TV shows and movies without a whiff of the supernatural or science fiction in them are vastly less "realistic" about human character/actions/motivations than many sci-fi/fantasy shows.

90% of TV is sucky (to paraphrase Sturgeon's Rule). So? 90% of opera is sucky. 90% of NYTimes Bestseller novels are sucky (if not more). Really, if you look at the judgment of history of all kinds of works of art, very little really stands the test of time.

Which doesn't invalidate all these genres. If just invalidates categorical dismissal.

I recommended the movie "Let me in" to an acquaintance from church in passing. Later he ran into my wife and asked her what it about about. She said "It's a vampire movie." He said "That's all I need to know."

This guy is very intelligent, but not in this case. He was thinking associatively. Twilight is a juvenile movie series about juveniles for juveniles, therefore all vampire movies are movies about sexuality for the teen girl crowd, all using the same stereotypical vampire metaphors.

And this was especially egregious in this case, because the guy knows I'm smart. We've talked about artsy movies many times. But his prejudices overwhelmed such specifics.

Ditto Buffy. I've seen the faces of many educated people just congeal when I mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nothing with such a name could possibly be anything but piffle. It doesn't help that the eponymous movie WAS piffle. But dismissers forget that Hamlet was a second-rate play by a long-forgotten author before Shakespeare re-did it as an eternal classic.

But another problem arises even for those who buy my argument and are willing to give the show a chance: the first episodes represent the creative team finding their footing. It gets better later, but it's so serialized--essentially it's a 100 hour-long movie--that you can't just skip the first season. You really have to see it from the start, and trust that the glimmers of greatness you see from the start bloom later. And they do.

That said, though you'll have to re-watch these episodes in the sequence of the whole show to understand everything that's going on, there are some episodes to try if you need further convincing. However, watching them will inevitably fill your head with spoilers for the episodes you skipped over. Likewise, if you do a little Google research, you'll see which episodes got the most critical acclaim while others are ones you'll probably only see once (apart from references bits of them later).


So if you require more convincing and are willing to live with spoilers, The Body is the most serious of all Buffy episodes, the least supernatural, the most heartfelt (Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is very close to her mother, has said it was the hardest episode for her to do), and the most artistic in terms of brilliant cinematography, lighting, understated acting, great ensemble work etc. In it Buffy deals with the death of her mother due to non-supernatural circumstances, which means that powerful as she is she can't do anything about it.

And Once More with Feeling--the Buffy Musical--is the episode that required the most work on everyone's part, is the only episode shot to seen in widescreen format, and is the only musical or opera ever made to my knowledge where there's a reason why everyone's singing. It's also just about the only TV show musical episode where it being a musical isn't a stunt, but actually advances the plotlines and the story arc significantly. It's also the only musical in which the ensemble ranges from fine singers (Giles and Tara) to expressive singers lacking strong voices (Buffy most notably) to near-non-singers (Willow, Dawn, Zander), and exploits their particular skills perfectly--and which is better for having a range of singing ability like that.

The episode just after that, Tabula Rasa, has all the central characters' memories being wiped, forcing them to discover who and what they are. A virgin viewer would get to make those discoveries along with the characters, which could be very entertaining. It's one of the funnier episodes as well.

And the episode just after THAT, Smashed, revels in sheer exuberant PG-13-barely kinkiness, showing what might happen when two beings with supernatural physical strength get it on, to speak delicately, in a house not built to withstand that happening.

For fans of clever horror movies, the much earlier Hush episode would be a good one to start with. With the added fillip of it including the scene where Buffy and Riley each discover that the other isn't just a college student, with one of the best near-mutually-fatal double-takes in cinema history.

-------------END OF SPOILERS

Buffy is a vampire show that isn't really about vampires. It's a coming of age story that isn't just about people discovering their sexual/romantic dimensions. It's much bigger than that. It's about the hero's journey--and the journeys of the hero's band of followers as well, for they also have stories, and important ones at that.

It's about finding out what you are, what you want to be, what you can be, and ultimately what you must be.