Sunday, May 20, 2007

Another New Jersey Moment

On Saturday Night Live last night, host Zach Braff, South Orange native (and, unless I am misremembering, a graduate of Columbia H.S. in Maplewood), gave a shout out to the Campus Sub Shop in South Orange -- home of an excellent cheesesteak (probably the first one I ever experienced).

Hey, it's just a sub shop, but of these moments is New Jersey lore made, and Braff sent up the Garden State amusingly, and -- more to the point -- ironically, as he sang to the tune of Long Island native Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind."

Which reminds me of the time when, in high school, my brother walked into the Seton Hall gym, only to find the aforementioned Billy Joel at the piano doing a sound check for his concert that evening. And what was Billy Joel singing, you ask. Why, he was singing Bruce Springsteen's New Jersey anthem "Born to Run."

Only in New Jersey, kiddies, only in New Jersey.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Once: a musician's life

Once, a new film by the Irish director (and former member of the Frames) John Carney, chronicles a week in the life of a musician, played by the Frames' Glen Hansard, in which he busks in downtown Dublin, repairs hoovers (vacuum cleaners) with his dad, meets a Czech immigrant played by Marketa Irglova, and repairs her vacuum. They fall in love, which neither one of them wants to admit it, and collaborate (she was classically trained on the piano back home; now she cleans houses) on a CD's worth of tracks that he hopes will make his name. We never learn either of the characters' names.

Sounds simple, even sentimental, but it's not. As far as I can recall, Once is the most clear-eyed view of an ordinary musician's life that I've yet seen on the screen. Hansard's character, serious and a bit depressed, is obsessed with making his songs better. When Irglova plays for him, in a beautiful scene inside a music store, she gets the same bug he does. No, there are no cliches about either making beautiful music with the other -- they misunderstand each other but work it out, culminating in a long recording session with musicians they pick up busking on the street. Hansard acts with his soulful eyes and his height, creating a character who wants his work to succeed because it is the only way he can speak deeply; his battered guitar is a external manifestation of his psyche. Irglova convincingly creates a young Eastern European woman whose life is much more complicated than the Irishman can comprehend, despite his genuine like for her. The way she nonchalantly drags a canister vacuum cleaner down the high street in Dublin speaks oodles about what she's been through and how much it takes to ruffle her.

Amazingly, every time Hansard or Irglova plays a song, we hear the whole thing, not an excerpt, nor does their work run primarily as background, although there are some montages. While this is a boy-meets-girl film that will appeal to many romantics, it's also a feature for musicians, and those who love them. Carney hasn't compromised in making it clear that, to these musicians, love and music are essential, even when music comes first.

Hansard and Irglova wrote most of the songs in the film, both separately and together; the soundtrack is well worth checking out.

Photo of Glen Hansard performing in Central Park last summer by Gisele13 via Flickr.

Monday, May 07, 2007

R.I.P. Isabella Blow (updated)

Insofar as hats go, this is mild stuff for Isabella Blow, the style icon who passed away in Gloucester, England, earlier today. Blow was essentially a talent scout for fashion; she could sniff out a fledgling designer from twenty paces. Famously, she bought Alexander McQueen's entire graduation fashion show from Central St. Martin's School of Art; her long and fruitful collaboration with Philip Treacy began when he designed the hat for her marriage to Detmar Blow.
There are many great stories about Ms. Blow, her style, and especially her wearing of eccentric hats. She was the kind of person who turns up completely unexpectedly, as she does, exiting a church, in the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The Guardian (U.K) describes many of her hats in the three articles devoted in Tuesday's paper to Ms. Blow. Alexander McQueen called her a "cross between Lucrezia Borgia and a Billingsgate fishwife." The Times has a tad more about Ms. Blow, nee Broughton, and her colorful family: her grandmother claimed to be a cannibal, and her grandfather was embroiled in the "White Mischief" scandal in Kenya that was the subject of an entertaining film. The Times also spends a bit more time talking about the hats. Blow's discoveries brought her notoriety, which she enjoyed, but little money, which toward the end of her life is said to left her depressed; she died of cancer at the age of 48. The photo above was taken in March.
Update: Subsequent stories in the British press revealed that Ms. Blow died from ingesting paraquat, an insecticide, that she drank during a weekend house-party at her home. Her father-in-law committed suicide the same way.
Photo by Piers Allardyce via Flickr.