Saturday, August 29, 2009

Autumn Rising

Something to do with all this late August rain and the quirky little cold front that's mischievously mimicking October. There's a more then a little autumn creep in the air this weekend.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Guralnick, Elvis and YouTube

I've been thinking a lot about Peter Guralnick's amazing Elvis Presley biography since finishing it last week. One of Guralnick's gifts as a biographer is his ability to completely disappear behind the narrative. The storytelling throughout the two volumes of his Elvis biography are guided by the words of Elvis, his family, friends, girlfriends, gurus, doctors and the objects and documents that surrounded them. You get to know and appreciate the accomplishments and shortcomings of an Elvis blissfully free of all the pop-culture detritus (not entirely unjustified) that's cluttered so many assessments of Presley.

Presley's unmaking came in the form of an intense four-year slide into polypharmacy and its attending dependence on a near grotesque amount of medications readily administered by celebrity smitten doctors. The pathologists who examined the lab results from Elvis's autopsy found, according to Guralnick, "the detection of fourteen drugs in Elvis' system, ten in significant quantity. Codeine appeared at ten times the therapeutic level, methaqualone (Quaalude) in an arguably toxic amount, three other drugs appeared to be on the borderline of toxicity taken in and of themselves." You could have gotten high just licking Elvis the dude was so pumped full of drugs.

I find it fascinating that Elvis' cultural ascendancy coincided with (and was propelled along by) the spread of home televisions into the living rooms of large swaths of the U.S. That's where so many people first saw him. It used to be that catching a glimpse of any of this footage after it first aired meant you were either a media scholar happily burrowing through an archive or simply lucky enough to catch a repeat of the original.

Now, of course, a pretty sizable chunk of Elvis video culled from TV guest appearances, specials and movie clips is being posted on YouTube, Google Video and other video hosting sites. A huge spectrum of televised popular culture is available online, legally or not. I'm smitten with the idea about the potential this has to democratize media access with Youtube and other file hosting sites acting as informal (and unstable) archives. Sometimes a copyright holder will go after these videos and hosting sites like YouTube will dutifully remove the video at the copyright holder's request often ignoring the fair use considerations of the poster. I have no idea how aggressive Lisa Marie and the Estate of Elvis Presley are about challenging copyright infringement and fair use but there's a lot of Elvis clips out there.

In any case, in '68 Elvis made Christmas special for NBC. The producers were committed to getting Elvis back to his roots. He hadn't performed live in years and his recording output over that same time had largely consisted of schlocky soundtrack albums. They brought in Scotty Moore, the guitarist who played on Elvis's seminal Sun recordings from 54-55 among others to capture a kind of informal jam for the program. Here's a great, smoking clip from the '68 special on NBC of Elvis performing a spirited version of That's Alright Mama.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Home and Place

"A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image."

"There are as many intimate places as there are occasions when human beings truly connect. What are such places like? They are elusive and personal. They may be etched in the deep recesses of memory and yield intense satisfaction with each recall, but they are not recorded like snapshots in the family album, nor received as general symbols like fireplace, chair, bed, and living room that invite intricate explanation. One can no more deliberately design such places than one can plan, with any guarantee of success, the occasions of genuine human exchange."

-Yi-Fu Tuan

Been way too overwhelmed with ideas of late though barely the time to see any of them through. Video stuff mostly. I'm happily going into
pre-production mode and preparing to finally film the documentary I've been wanting to make for a few years now exploring some of the inchoate ideas I've had about "home" and "place." My focus is going to be Bay Village, the suburb I grew up in. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in, a place that I feel great affection for. I'm still intimately and intensely attached to it. It's my favorite archive. I feel a kind of loyalty to it that I don't with many if any other places. It's a symbol of my early self and in some ways, especially as Cathy and I are searching for a new home, its influence still deeply resonates. So there's that. How to creatively document how my current ideals of what constitutes "home" were indelibly shaped by the formative years of adolescence I spent residing in this house. What's the character of this sentiment? Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, "Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning." So I look forward to exploring concentrically, from my first home, to the block I lived on, to the the relatively small radius where I spent the most time and the places that have gone on to exist most powerfully in my imagination. What are its intimate places, and how are they shared, amongst peers or even across generations, down through time?

And how to tell a story about home and place that's indicative of a certain Midwestern upbringing?
A short documentary that might be of interest to more folks then just my family, friends and those who grew up in Bay Village. What's the best way to frame that and tell this story in a little under 10 minutes? Right now I like the idea of exploring these ideas concentrically, moving from the home I grew up in, extending to the block my home was on (and the woods behind it), extending to my hometown (at least the portions that I spent the most time in and so have taken on the most significance), eventually radiating outward to encompass a little of both Cleveland and Chicago. (I think it's important to explore, too, how these places, as Yi-Fu Tuan writes, "can acquire deep meaning for adults through the steady accretion of sentiment over the years." Attachment to place as a function of time. 10 years of time as a child are very different then 10 years spent as an adult. (This, according to Yi-Fu Tuan, is one reason why we can't go home again).

So begin with the house. You hear my parents talking about buying the house. I'll interview them over a couple bottles of red wine. I'll include some old photographs. Pictures on the stairs of the kids at Christmas. Birthdays. Graduations. Holding old photographs up and framing/ blending them into their current appearance. The mesh of the past with the present. What inanimate objects do my parents still have that reverberate with the most meaning? The grandfather clock, certain Christmas ornaments, the curve of the stairs? Then I'll extend to the block I lived on. What are its landmarks? Dover and Douglas. The old public-library. My elementary school. The small patch of woods running behind our house. How violent summer storms seemed to me as a child with all those tall old trees hovering over my parents house (you can't see the roof of their house using Google Earth it's so obscured by trees) precariously bending and violently rustling their leaves! Scared the shit out of me. Chicago's thunderstorms have always felt meek in comparison.

Yi-Fu Tuan is the guru of place. So, we'll end with with the quote that probably best encapsulates what I want to convey:

"A homeland has its landmarks, which may be features of high visibility and public significance, such as monuments, shrines, a hallowed battlefield or cemetery. These visible signs serve to enhance a people's sense of identity; they encourage awareness of and loyalty to place. But a strong attachment to the homeland can emerge quite apart from any explicit concept of sacredness; it can form without the memory of heroic battles vis-a-vis other people. Attachment of a deep though subconscious sort may come simply with familiarity and east, with the assurance of nurture and security, with the memory of sounds and smells, of communal activities and homely pleasures accumulated over time. It is difficult to articulate quiet attachments of this type."