Bohemian Rhapsody Still Hard to Pin Down

Freddie Mercury is still an enigma. So is Queen. There’s a danger to pigeonholing the band as either hard metal or popular crowd pleaser, to using Freddie as a poster boy for the gay ’80s or Brian as an emblem for the big-haired glam rockers of the late ’70s. Queen was always hard to pin down.

Hey hey hey hey it was the D.N.A.
Hey hey hey hey that made me this way
–“Sheer Heart Attack” by Queen

Mercury/Malek comparison
Freddie Mercury and Rami Malek at Live Aid. Photo by 20th C. Fox at thenationalae.com.

In the new biopic of the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody,”  Rami Malek is terrific as Mercury, the spark of life and chaos that brings the lush guitar layers of the band’s musicianship to life. Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello, and Ben Hardy are lovely as Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor who create the sounds that now rank among the greatest rock songs–the greatest songs–of all time.

What Movie Were They Watching?

The critics have generally panned or dismissed the film. Rotten Tomatoes (a critical compilation) was barely 59% last week. Audience responses, in contrast, have been 94%. One of the greatest curiosities then, as we sat watching, tapping our feet, and singing along under our breath, was why?

The reality was perhaps more interesting, and more nuanced, but in any case the overall narrative architecture of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a Lego palace of clichés. A band strives to get to the top and tastes the sweet and sour sides of success. A misunderstood genius suffers for his art, alienates those who care for him most, and finds forgiveness and redemption. A lot of the story may be true, but none of it feels remotely authentic.–Review from A.O. Scott at The New York Times

A big part of the reason for the negativity is that the film fiddles with Queen and Mercury’s timeline, for dramatic effect. Mercury did not know he had AIDS in 1985 when they performed at Live Aid, the performance that a 2007 BBC poll ranked as the greatest rock performance of all time. One of Freddie’s sustained notes during his a cappella section became known as “The Note Heard Round the World.” Because that performance–in retrospect–looms large in the annals of rockdom and for the history of Queen itself, it would make sense to create it as a climax for their story. Hence, it’s the beginning and end of the movie, hence that glosses over the fact that Freddie lived another six years and that Queen continued to release albums during that time.

Ok, so be forewarned about that lack of historic “accuracy.” Continue reading “Bohemian Rhapsody Still Hard to Pin Down”

Heartland I: The Carving Climbing Out of the Mountain

Crazy Horse carving, September 2018
“My lands are where my people lie buried.” Crazy Horse Memorial, September 2018. Photo by kajmeister.

Korczak, the sculptor, slung his drill over his back and climbed over 900 steps for almost 40 years.  He blasted bits out of the granite mountain, day after day, grinding down the 563 -foot side to lay out room for a long pointing arm. If ever there was a visual definition of the word “surmount”–to mount upon, to prevail over–this must be it.

One man, one drill, one mountain.

Crazy Horse Memorial 1974
Memorial in 1974, when I first visited. Photo by memorial staff, copy on Pinterest.

He hadn’t gotten especially far by 1973, when I first saw the Statue-To-Be, driving across South Dakota on our cross-country trip moving from Detroit to Sacramento. Now, returning back to visit some of my old haunts in Michigan, the memorial was the first big stop on our trip through the heartland, this pink-tinged grassland of our country’s center.  Korczak’s grandchildren are now in charge, and the crew is slowly but surely pulling the image of the proud warrior out of the granite. Continue reading “Heartland I: The Carving Climbing Out of the Mountain”

Women Inventing the Language of Themselves

 

Panel symbolic language representing poem to Inanna
Panel from Nancy Castille’s “Hieratica,” an invented symbolic language, photo by kajmeister.

In honor of Women’s History month, I’d like to highlight the work of two women who are linguists. One toiled for years to decipher a baffling script, though her contributions have been treated as nearly invisible. The other is a friend who recently created a symbolic language to encode a sacred Sumerian text. Both are inspirational examples of perseverance and intuition in unpacking the mysteries of ancient languages.

The Language of the Labyrinth

Alice Kober was a teacher at Brooklyn College in the 1930s who conducted a two-decade odyssey into the mysteries of a pre-Greek language called Linear B. A treasure trove of artifacts on the island of Crete were discovered after the Ottoman Empire fell and the last of the Turks left. Archeologist Arthur Evans uncovered a wealth of tablets in 1903 that suggested a robust culture dating back to 1200 BC, a thousand years before Golden Age of Greece. Attempts to translate the tablets had eluded scholars who had tried to link the symbols to Greek or other languages, and Kober was determined to find the secret.

Alice Kobler deciphers Linear B
Alice Kobler and Linear B, photo from BBC.com

Continue reading “Women Inventing the Language of Themselves”

Battle of the Sexes: The Political is Personal

I remember September 20, 1973 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in three straight sets at the Houston Astrodome in the Battle of the Sexes.  I remember when Ms. magazine debuted and when Virginia Slims was a sponsor of the magazine and women’s tennis, when people debated about the merits of letting cigarettes bankroll feminism, but feminism needed the money. I recall when it was fashionable for men to call you “little lady” and drape their arms around your shoulders in casual conversation. I remember when tennis rackets were made of wood.

When Rackets Were Made of Wood

The movie, Battle of the Sexes, brings the story of the King/Riggs match to life.  The film gets the tennis right; the film gets a lot of things right. Wooden rackets weighed 25-30% more the aluminum ones, and the racket face was much smaller, which means players couldn’t hit the ball anywhere as hard. Tennis then was much more a game of strategy — ball placement, serve and volley, and the strategic use of the lob. The tennis match choreography shows this to great effect. To the modern viewers, the play may seem oddly lethargic, almost as if it was in slow-motion. That was the reason Riggs beat Margaret Court, known at the time as The Arm because her height advantage gave her more power and a longer reach. Riggs wasn’t faster; he played more strategically and was wilier about placing the ball. After all, if you can play wearing scuba flippers or wearing a hoop skirt, then your play is about wrist movement, not power.

The trailers for the movie and many of the reviews don’t mention Margaret Court, but she’s a core part of the film, which I appreciated. King would never have played Riggs if he hadn’t already beaten the #1 women’s tennis player. The movie even hints at Court’s rampant homophobia which has made recent headlines, a topic that would have not been included in any biopic of this subject made before the 1990s.  Emma Stone is a credible King, but Steve Carrell is a drop-dead perfect Riggs, a showman playing tennis in a dress or with a drink in his hand to win a bet, a game of slow but deceptively accurate shots. Continue reading “Battle of the Sexes: The Political is Personal”

Tax the Peasants with this One Weird Trick!

Taxes are universally despised by everyone who pays them; shared resources are universally used by everyone who pays taxes. These are common unpleasant truths like waste disposal and knowing where hamburgers come from. No one is pleased when April 15th approaches.

While the income tax in the US is a phenomenon that started in the middle of our young history, taxation in general goes back to the dawn of civilization. The notion of paying resources into the central governing body is at least as old as the development of writing. Many of the earliest forms of writing – cuneiform on clay tablets from Lagash, Sumeria ( now modern Iraq) – reflected accounting for taxes paid by the farmers and peasants.  Some of these predated coinage, so many taxes were paid in kind. Farmers paid with chicken, livestock, or grains and if they didn’t have the goods, they paid in labor.

20170412 tax gods_of_egypt___tax_day_by_serverustare
SeverusTare, Deviant Art

Continue reading “Tax the Peasants with this One Weird Trick!”