Monday, February 2, 2009

Other Worlds


Of the people I've read, seen and listened to recently, three strange bedfellows have emerged: Ben Folds, Werner Herzog and Hooman Majd. That's fun to say. Read those names again, really fast.

Ben Folds has released a new album, "Way to Normal," which I've devoured in my car in the post-Christmas weeks. Two nights ago I watched the newest Werner Herzog documentary, "Encounters at the End of the World," on DVD. And three months ago, I bought and read Majd's nonfiction work, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, simply on a hunch after seeing him on "The Daily Show."

Each in its own way does what art is supposed to do: takes you to another world.

Herzog's film lacks a certain clarity, yet is visually, if not thematically, arresting. Inspired by gorgeous footage of a diver under the Antarctic ice shot by his cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, Herzog decides to earn a National Science Foundation grant and take a crew to McMurdo Station, the continent's largest settlement. He seems to have taken the trip with only a negative idea to guide him: "I will not make a movie about fluffy penguins." In the end, what he does is take you inside two places: 1) the minds of the cowboy researchers and explorers who are drawn to McMurdo; and 2) Antarctica's stunningly alien visual landscapes--most notably beneath the oceanic ice and inside a volcanic steam tunnel.

What's ultimately most interesting about the film is its juxtaposition of a certain DIY vibe (the people part) with a high-def reverence bordering on religiosity (the nature part). You meet a man who talks about icebergs with the smile of a new father. A woman who hitchhiked between continents while sitting inside a newly minted sewer pipe. A cell biologist who is convinced that human beings evolved from their microscopic ancestors to escape the incredible violence he studies among those creatures. A former banker who drives the Antarctic equivalent of a bus. And perhaps the world's only Bulgarian tractor-driver/philosopher. At the same time, you see ocean-floor dwelling creatures that will haunt your dreams, listen to seal calls that sound like Battlestar Gallactica, and see land- and seascapes so blue and magical, you could swear you've just entered a Yes album cover.

Hooman Majd's book is in some ways an even more deliberate attempt at transportation. As an American-born Iranian, Majd is the perfect ambassador to straddle both worlds and provide the translation. The structure and purpose of the book are simple: Majd takes a sort of Iranian road trip with the express purpose of trying to make an American audience see the complexities behind the evening news videos. Like Herzog's work, Majd's feels loose. His purpose is not to force anything; it's simply to travel, talk, experience, document, and then edit out all the boring stuff. Majd is not a particularly artful writer, but his sincerity of purpose is what matters. He seems authentic, and you trust him.

What emerges of most interest are, again, two things: the perspective of the Islamic Revolution (today celebrating its 30-year anniversary) as an escape from monarchy; and the image and symbolism of the Persian garden. These two forces strike an identifying blow, at least to this American. We tend to think of the move from Shah to Ayatollah as an odd choice for oppression. But to the vast majority of Iranians, it was the exact opposite (just because a leader wears Western clothes doesn't mean he isn't an evil monarch--perhaps the same kind of man who fueled our own Revolution). The garden is a compelling monolith-busting symbol, as Majd observes that for most Iranians, almost any rule is fine for when you're in public, but don't even think about enforcing it within the home and garden. Lord knows we also have our love of personal privacy. Iranians feel the same. In fact, their gardens provide the etymology of our word, "paradise."

And finally, Mr. Folds. No singer-songwriter has ever been as skilled at leaping from hilarious adolescent tantrum to soul-wrenching melodic sincerity. This album is certainly no exception, and might actually be his best. On first listen, it simply has plenty of both elements--on some tracks proving that the piano is, in fact, technically a percussion instrument; while on others, showing that Ben can match Elton and Billy damn near anytime he wants to.

On closer listen, I was struck by another songwriter contradiction that Folds somehow manages to transcend. His lyrics are alarmingly "on the nose"--meaning, on one level, they're so specific as to be impossible to apply to anyone else. Witness:

If I'm the person that you think I am.
Clueless chump you seem to think I am.
An errant dog so easily led astray,
Who occasionally escapes and needs a shorter leash, then
Why the fuck would you want me back?

Is there any doubt that Folds actually experienced being called "an errant dog" by his now former-wife? (If there's any doubt, he also includes a song called "Errant Dog.") Yet the title of this song is "You Don't Know Me"--a wonderfully simple universal sentiment of both bitterness and self-absorption that has probably been thought by every person at every age in human history.

Folds shouldn't be able to get away with this kind of thing (he's a sort of anti-Dylan in not providing any vague "I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it" lines to read between). Yet this song absolutely obsesses me in its tight perfection.

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