Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Once Upon a Time in America

Some movies ensnare the viewers from the opening shot. Watching it, you're not entirely sure of what path the filmmakers are taking you on, but you remain invested and curious, entertained throughout but wondering how it will all come together. You question certain elements of the film along the way, thinking of them as minor flaws or distractions, but when you reach the end and the truth is revealed, everything makes sense. Every decision you questioned is now fully understood and appreciated, and everything you thought was good is actually great. You stand up from your seat and glance at a clock, stunned to discover four hours have passed. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

The American Dream, the belief that it does not matter who you are, where you come from, or who your family is, you have the promise of opportunity to achieve great deeds in the United States. It is the story that has helped define America, the social mobility that has separated the U.S. from monarchies, aristocracies, or any other system of entrenched power and wealth. Of course, the American dream has been the source of great debate in recent years. Does everyone really have the same opportunity to succeed, are there barriers in place we don't acknowledge, and what does a person sacrifice in their pursuit of that level of success? Just as he examined the myths of the American west in Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone looks at the hard truths and realities buried beneath the American dream and lets us see its ugly side. This is not a Horatio Alger story; this is a tale of crime, betrayal, and regret.

Thirty years ago, bootlegger David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) tipped off the cops in the waning days of Prohibition, and in the process, his three best friends were killed: Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden), and Cockeye (William Forsyth). Noodles barely escaped from vengeful gangsters, but now it appears he's been compromised. Returning to his former Brooklyn neighborhood, he begins re-examining his life: how he and Max met as boys, rose to prominence in the criminal world, became notorious gang leaders, allied with a labor organizer (Treat Williams), and grew distant as their friendship became frayed. Noodles also remembers Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), the girl who could have been the love of his life had he not been drawn to crime.

Once Upon a Time in America unfolds like a dream. The narrative moves in and out different time periods, transitioning from memory to memory (or hallucinations), and moving along at a deliberate pace. The film covers decades of American history: the impoverished mid-teens, the roaring twenties and the counter-cultural sixties. The sense of time through period details in setting and costumes is astounding. It's a testament to Leone and his writers (adapting a novel by Harry Grey) that the audience never becomes lost. Many of the big moments in the story work as their own stand-alone, little episodes, and while we're not sure how the earlier scenes will eventually tie together, we are intrigued. The film is an epic yet intimate portrait of two lifelong friends, Max and Noodles, and we witness all the events that shaped them.

The film could be interpreted as a fulfillment of the American dream. A group of friends, growing up poor with nothing but their wits and ambition, find fortune and success in the business of their choice. They were as close as brothers, swearing to share everything. The caveat is they did so by breaking the law, killing people, and being absolutely ruthless when called upon. Police are almost incidental to the story, and government services are not non-existent. Competition between criminals drives the economy here, and only the smartest, most skilled, and most brutal will rise to the top. But it can't last; they come crashing down. They end up with nothing, not even their names (evidenced by Noodles going into hiding under a pseudonym), or they end up dead.

Noodles, as seen in his current scenes (the 60s), is old, tired, and alone. Everything he worked for went for nothing. He has neither the fruits of his life of crime nor a peaceful, happy legitimate existence with Deborah. She married someone else, someone else, we learn, who was an old friend of Noodles and manipulated him to call the cops so long ago. That old friend is now a rich politician, a man with real power, influence, and money. In a sense, he stole Noodles' life and is living out his dream. The great irony of the film is we thought we were following Noodles and his decision to betray his friends, but in reality, he was the one who was betrayed.

Leone is the energy driving the movie. His style and skill show a master at the top of his game; it's a shame this was his last hurrah. De Niro gives one of his best performances as the reserved, conflicted Noodles; it's not a showy performance, but it is the story's anchor. Woods, meanwhile, is the volatile one, unpredictable and yet, in his own way, charismatic and driven. The supporting is great with the likes of Joe Pesci, Burt Young, William Forsythe, and others. Even the child actors portraying the younger Noodles and Max do well.

Once Upon a Time in America is a powerful, absorbing portrait of crime, power, and friendship. Do not be scared off by its four-hour running time. Every moment is essential to illustrating its narrative, and when it's all over, you're left re-examining every point along the way.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ran

Ran (1985) is legendary director Akira Kurosawa's final masterpiece. The mastermind behind such classic efforts as Rashoman, The Seven Samurai, and Ikiru, Kurosawa directs what is often referred to as the Japanese King Lear. Like Shakespeare's tale, Ran concerns an aging monarch who foolishly divides his kingdom among his children, banishes the one child smart and good enough to see the folly of the plan and his most trusted servant, is rebuked and rejected by his other offspring, and is driven mad as the land becomes engulfed in war. Both stories also prominently feature a royal fool whose silly behavior and nonsense songs reveal the blunt truth of the monarch's behavior.

Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the elderly leader of the Ichimonji Clan. Following a boar hunt, he decides to relinquish his power and divide his kingdom between his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Saburo recognizes the plan would never work because he and his brothers were raised on conflict, but his protest enrages Hidetora, who banishes Saburo and Tango (Masayuki Yui), a trusted adviser who defends Saburo. With Hidetora's authority gone, Taro and Jiro, at the pressing of Taro's wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), conspire against the old man. Driven mad by his sons' betrayal and stripped of all the trappings of power, Hideotora wanders the wilderness, accompanied by his fool Kyoami (Pita) and visiting the ruins of castles he's destroyed, the legacy of a lifetime of conquest and bloodshed. All the while, the sons continue to plot, dragging the whole kingdom into war.

Without giving too much away, Ran ends on a final haunting shot of Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), a victim caught up in all the chaos around him. It was revealed earlier that his family previously ruled the land until Hidetora seized and destroyed their castle, murdered most of the family, blinded Tsurumaru, and married his sister Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki) to Jiro. The final shot reveals Tsurumaru, alone in the wilderness at the edge of a cliff at sunset. One false step will send him to his death. Is there no better image to encapsulate the human condition?

Time and again, we bear witness to poor decisions being made by people of power who trust the wrong advisers. Hidetora disregards and banishes his one trustful son, and Jiro and Taro allow their manhood and pride to be goaded and manipulated by Lady Kaede (who certainly reminds viewers of another Shakespearean figure, Lady MacBeth). Hidetora does not recognize the truth Kyoami and Tango speak, and Jiro overrules his most capable adviser Lord Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa) by going to war at Lady Kaede's urging. They cannot not see the danger in front of them, and as a result of their mistakes, people get hurt.

Ran is also about the relationship between parents and children. Hidetora expects unconditional obedience from his sons, even after he has abdicated. The difference between reality and his expectations of reality shatter his psyche. The traitorous sons only ever really obeyed his title, and with that gone, they have no reason to keep him around. Later, realizing his error of judgment, he is too ashamed to seek out the forgiveness of the one son who loved him. Yet, Jiro and Taro only seem to be following the example of their power, who took all the power and land he could by sword and cruelty. It's only natural they too would be seized by greed and the lust for power. Like father, like sons.

But Ran is more than a family drama. Better than just about any other director in history, Kurosawa could convey the epic scope of war, and Ran ranks as perhaps his greatest achievement in that regard. IMDB notes he used 1,400 extras for the battles scenes, but through careful camera placement and editing, it looks like much more. The viewer feels caught in the middle of the carnage, buried in a tide of soldiers and horses as waves of arrows and bullets fly by, and blood flows readily. This is probably Kurosawa's most graphically violent work. Arrows gruesomely protrude out of men's bodies, and one shot in particular, as Roger Ebert pointed out, of a soldier clutching his own severed arm likely influenced a similar image used by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. Early in the film, we witnessed sweeping green fields and majestic mountains, but the battles occur in nightmarish, barren castles engulfed in flames.

Visually, the battle scenes are striking. I don't know how common of a practice it was in feudal Japan, but here, the soldier's wear banners and flags on their backs to identify which lord they swear allegiance to. The bright, boldly-colored insignias - red, blue, yellow, white - contrast with the violence, but the result is curiously beautiful, almost like a moving painting (even more of an accomplishment when you consider Kurosawa was reportedly nearly blind when he made the film and relied heavily on storyboards and assistants to frame shots).

In the first big battle, in which Hidetora's loyal band of warriors is slaughtered, Kurosawa elects to only use music for much of the sequence's audio, leaving out sound effects and dialogue. It's a disquieting, surreal effect to see guns fire and men scream but not hear them. No salvation is coming. All we can do is stare as the monarch's world literally crumbles.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Anyone reading my blog could probably guess I like to write. Between my blog, the newspaper I work for, and what I refer to as my side writing (fiction, poetry, screenplay), hardly a day goes by when I'm not composing words to page or screen. I must admit there are times I don't feel inspired, times when I blow off my writing, and times when I doubt my abilities. Whenever I begin to pity myself, I should remind myself of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the memoirs of the same name written by French journalist and magazine ditor Jean-Dominique "Jean-Do" Bauby. Following a stroke, Bauby became afflicted with locked-in syndrome, a condition in which his body was completely paralyzed except for his left eyelid. His mind, unaffected, became trapped in a useless vessel. Despite this condition and with the help of speech therapists, Bauby wrote the book. As the alphabet was spoken to him in order of the most commonly used letters, Bauby would blink to formulate his thoughts. The process was long and challenging, but he managed to complete the book. Merely days after its publication in 1997, he died of pneumonia.

The film is a recreation of how Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) awoke from his stroke-induced coma, adjusted to his new condition, and ultimately wrote the book. Strictly speaking, the only physical action we can see Bauby perform in his present condition is blink, and it's the film greatest achievement that it is able to dramatize how he wrote the book and do so successfully. Like The King's Speech , the subject threatens to be incompatible to film or any visual medium, but somehow, it works. The film is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and moving.

The first 30 minutes or so are entirely from Jean-Do's point of view. We see what he see; his limited surrounding are confined to his hospital room, the doctors and nurses who treat him, the family and friends who visit, and a few outdoor scenes. During this stretch of the film, there are no establishing shots or objective camera angles. Like Jean-Do, we only catch glimpses of the world around, and the result is a disorienting, claustrophobic, and borderline frightening experience. It's a bold strategy on the part of director Julian Schabel, but it works; the audience identifies with Jean-Do's condition. Watching his efforts to recover become a struggle we're invested in rather than a freak show we gawk at.

Eventually, Schabel breaks away from the subjective viewpoint to show Jean-Do in his surroundings and mixes in flashbacks to show his pre-stroke health. It's not pretty what's become of his body, but being around him so long and privy to his thoughts has acclimated us. The movie shows considerable strength in depicting Jean-Do as a fully-rounded character and not just as an object of pity. We follow his confusion, despair, efforts to reconnect with his family (which was already strained before his stroke), and imagination. The story of a disabled individual overcoming limitations often threatens to become a movie-of-the-week soap opera, but Jean-Do and the people in his life come off as real. Performances all around are excellent.

The human mind and body are two of the amazing machines on the planet, capable of so many incredible acts, but on the evidence of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the mind is the more impressive specimen. Even with his body deteriorated and immobile, Jean-Do, with the help of others, manages to showcase the depth of his thoughts and the vividness of his imagination. The body is the temple, but the mind is the shrine. Watching the film is a reminder of that potential.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Seventh Seal

When confronted by the possibility of death, most people seek comfort in their faith, the belief that when their mortal bodies expire, the deeds of their lives will have ensured sanctity and salvation for their souls. But for many, doubts may linger. What if there is no god? What if, after death, there exists nothing? That fear can drive a person to despair, and it's these questions and more that director Ingmar Bergman explores in The Seventh Seal (1957).

After 10 years of fighting in the Crusades, knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) and his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) have returned to Sweden. The Black Plague devastates the land, inspiring religious zealotry and fear among the populace. Block, disillusioned by his experiences, is soon confronted by Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has come for Block's soul. Desperate to learn of God's existence, Block challenges Death to a game of chess to buy time until he knows for certain there is some greater meaning to existence. The game occurs throughout the movie at different points as Block and Jons journey to his castle. Along the way, the men encounter actors Mary and Joseph (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe) who have an infant son Michael, the preacher who convinced to take up the Crusade and is now robbing corpses, a blacksmith and his wife, a girl sentenced to be burned at the stake for consorting with the devil, and others as Block searches for and demands answers.

The Seventh Seal is a movie that is almost easy to make fun of. It's so direct, so straightforward, and so stark about it's theme, it could potentially come off as pretentious and self-important. Most movies about faith and spirituality attempt to do so in a more subtle manner or by dancing around the issue, but this film puts it right out there; our protagonist literally wants to know if God exists.

Literally, the film is about how people behave and react when confronted by death. In the feudal age, as we seem by the terror of the plague, we see religion was not much comfort. The religious leaders we see are corrupt, cynical hypocrites or superstitious flagellants driving people into further terror by claiming the plague is God's punishment. This atmosphere of hysteria and fear gives The Seventh Seal an almost apocalyptic atmosphere . Later, when a thunderstorm rages, it feels like the world is falling apart. The use of stark, black-and-white cinematography is the perfect vehicle for this mood. Humanity is a tiny light surrounded by uncompromising blackness.

This dilemma is reflected on an intimate level by Block's encounters with a personified Death. His journey is one of trying to understand the mystery and inherent unfairness of existence. Early on, we see him in a confessional booth of a church. Looking through the grid, Block appears to be imprisoned, an apt metaphor to describe how cut off he feels from comprehension. When Block challenges Death, he tries to defy,subvert, and outsmart him, but it is ultimately futile; no matter who you are and what you do, Death will win and claim his prize. Death offers no respite.

There is some hope. Mary, Joseph, and Michael (naming the baby Jesus would have been too obvious I suppose) manage to survive and escape Death's clutches, at least for the time being. They are not driven by fear, superstition, or confusion; they live and are happy. They are not ignorant; Joseph in particular has visions, is able to see Death (who only interacts with Block and no one else sees), and witnesses a macabre parade at the end, but they are not consumed the same questions, doubts, or fears that haunt Block and others. As long as people like Mary and Joseph are around, there's hope for humanity.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Superman

I've grown fairly weary of origin stories. You know, the movie that shows you how a superhero acquired his/her powers and became who he/she is. In the last few years, we've seen Batman Begins, The Fantastic Four, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Spider-Man (and its upcoming reboot), The Green Hornet, The Green Lantern, etc. While some have been very good, others have been trite and by-the-numbers. At times, it feels like all you have to do is switch the characters from one movie to the next, and it's the exact same story. I think I speak for a lot of fans when I say let's move on and explore other story possibilities.

Superman (1978), directed by Richard Donner, is regarded as the first modern superhero movie and has served as a model for all that followed. It is an origin story in every sense of the term, but amazingly enough, the film still holds up remarkably well. Just about every arc and plot point has been used in some way by countless films since, but Superman remains one of the best.

On the distant planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) warns of the world's impending doom, but his findings are disregarded. Before Krypton is destroyed, he manages to send his infant son Kal-El to Earth where he will be raised by humans but "won't be one of them" On Earth, the boy is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who discover his great powers. Growing up as Clark Kent, he eventually discovers his true origins through holographic recordings from his biological father. As an adult (Christopher Reeve), Clark lives a double life in the city of Metropolis: one as Superman, the near-invincible superhero and one as a reporter at the Daily Planet, working for editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) and falling in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). All the while, Superman tries to figure out who he is and determine what his role to humanity should be. Meanwhile, super genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) plots to hijack two nuclear missiles and use them to destroy the west coast, driving up the value of the property he owns in the desert. When he learns of Superman, Luthor vows to destroy him.

Many comic book-to-movie adaptations can come off as campy or overly stylized. What Donner does best is give Superman an epic feel. Watching the movie is akin to witnessing modern myth. Instead of seeing Jor-El, Krypton, and Clark Kent's childhood as mere background information, these sequences are presented as important episodes in the chronicles of Superman. We are watching a hero being forged, not explained. The special effects, though slightly dated in some aspects, still hold up and even today are daring and ambitious. The flying scenes in particular, I think, haven't been topped. Throw in one of John Williams' best scores, and you have a modern epic.

Most surprising to me was realizing just how well Christopher Reeve played both the Man of Steel and his meek, clumsy counterpart. We've all heard jokes over the years about the how stupid Lois Lane must be not to realize Clark is Superman without the glasses, but there's so much more to both performances. From how he carries to his mannerisms to how he talks and reacts to others, Reeve sells both identities that even a cynic like me can see how everyone else in the movie would be fooled. Other actors have played superheroes that lack secret identities (like in The Fantastic Four or X-Men) or have a mask to hide behind (which presents its own acting challenges), but Reeve is the only one I can think of that plays the superhero with a secret identity and without a mask. I think he deserves more credit than he's gotten.

Unfortunately, what Superman lacks is a villain worthy of its epic status. Lex Luthor is one of the classic villains of comic book lore, a diabolic genius who sees Superman as the only impediment to world domination. Now, it's pretty common in comics that the hero is more than capable of defeating the villain in a straight up fight, but I don't think it's quite as lopsided as Luthor and Superman. The intrigue is always seeing how Luthor will outmaneuver and outsmart Superman. The film goes in that direction with his scheme to destroy the West Coast, but it feels pretty small-scale compared to world domination. On one hand, you have Superman, last son of Krypton and defender of Earth, and then there's Luthor, evil real estate mogul? I've long complained about Gene Hackman's portrayal, but it's not really his fault. Hackman can do intimidating and evil, but here, all he needs is a goofy costume and he'd fit in on an episode of the Adam West Batman series. Bragging about how he is the "greatest criminal mind" in the world is silly, and the scenes in which he and his goofy sidekicks Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) plot and carry out his schemes feel like they belong in another movie.

The ending itself is anticlimactic. I like how Luthor forces Superman into a Catch-22 situation involving two missiles heading for opposites ends of the country, but after what happens, Superman flies around the world several times, spinning the earth in the opposite direction to go back in time. Not only is this deus ex machina, but it raises so many questions about what he's doing, whether it would actually work, and it negates the earlier dilemma: a being that can fly so fast he'll reverse the spin of the earth's axis is fast enough to stop two missiles. More than any other super heroes, Superman is given too many convenient powers by writers too cowardly to a see storyline through to is logical conclusion.

Superman the character has never been one of my favorites. I appreciate his iconic status, but I always thought he was too powerful, too goody-goody to be of much interest. However, Superman the movie, I must admit, is one of the better comic book movies. It takes the source material seriously and has an epic few superhero movie strive for. It's a classic.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Alien

For a long time, I considered Aliens (1986), the sequel to Alien (1979), better than its predecessor. There was more action, the characters were more fun, and James Cameron did a fine job expanding on and exploring the creature's life cycle, but strangely enough, I find myself drawn to Alien more as I get older. Maybe the "send in the marines to blast bugs" storyline grew old, maybe my tastes have changed, but I now prefer the original and will hold it up among the best of the genre.

The commercial spaceship Nostromo is hauling ore when its computer detects what seems to be an SOS signal and awakens its crew from cryogenic sleep. The crew -Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt), Ash (John Hurt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Bret (Harry Dean Stanton) - land on a nearby planet and discover a derelict alien spacecraft on the surface. Inside the ship, they find a chamber of bizarre, giant eggs that hatch a creature that attaches itself to Kane's face. After the creature dies and Kane seemingly recovers, the crew is ready to resume course when another being emerges in a most horrific manner. Now the crew must fight for their lives against a ruthless and dangerous enemy.

At its most basic level, Alien is a slasher movie set in space: a small group of people being stalked and killed by a seemingly indestructible being in an isolated setting. Unlike the glut of slasher movies that appeared in the 80s, Alien does not come off as hokey or cheap. Director Ridley Scott takes his time, building a methodical pace and establishing a futuristic, claustrophobic, and slightly Gothic atmosphere. The Nostromo feels like a real starship, the crew a real crew, and the planet an actual, desolate landscape. Most importantly, the alien feels like a real creature.

We only catch glimpses of the creature. Scott is content to leave in the shadows and mostly talked about by its prey and let us fill in the blanks with our imaginations. The creature changes form, growing, that it's nearly impossible to get a definitive understanding of it. It's all the more frightening because the characters spend so much trying to figure out exactly what it is they're dealing with, and the conversations about the alien -what it is, what it's capable of- are just as compelling as the stalking and killing scenes. Those conversations build up the alien presence and tighten the suspense. It's not just a monster; it's a monster that evolves and adapts unlike anything they've ever encountered, and it feels like a something that could actually exist in space. It's not just a plot device to pop out and go "Boo!"

But what really sets Alien apart from its imitators and copycats is its genuine sense of wonder and discovery. Many slasher movies follow what I like to think of as the "party plot" : throw a group of teenagers together where they can party, make out, do drugs, have sex, etc. with a killer occasionally breaking up the narrative-less monotony until we get to the final girl. Here, we follow the crew of the Nostromo as they encounter awe-inspiring sites (the spaceship, the space jockey) and are pulled in along with them on the journey.

It's impossible to discuss Alien with mentioning Ripley. As played by Weaver, Ripley became the series protagonist as the tough, take-charge woman of action. At this point, she's one in a group of survivors and struggling to comprehend and react to what's going on. While the performance would serve as a template for the series, I do believe Aliens contains the most interesting characterization because of the connections she develops with those character and the decisions she makes to confront the alien menace once again, knowing what they're capable of. Here, she's just trying to survive, but that's not to say she's not the Ripley we all recognize. She's just more straightforward and perhaps a little more innocent.

Alien gave us one of the coolest taglines ever: "In space, no one can hear you scream." In the sci-fi horror genre, nothing can top Alien. For any fan of science fiction or horror, Alien is required viewing material

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Warriors of God

The Crusades have long fascinated me. I'm not sure, but I think the first time I ever heard mention of them was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and in various interpretations of Robin Hood. Granted, the Crusades in those movies were never at the forefront so much as they were character or expository background. In a few history classes, I learned the general outline of what occurred during the Crusades and what they meant to both Europe and the Middle East, but I never really invested much time or effort in exploring that period of history.

Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by James Reston, Jr. is a duel biography of two of the most prominent and remembered leaders of the Crusades: King Richard I of England and Salah ad-Din, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. As asserted by Reston, the Third Crusade, launched by the Europeans to retake the Holy Land after Saladin had successfully re-taken Jerusalem for Islam in 1187, is in many ways the most compelling of the Crusades. It marked a turning point for those series of conflicts after the Christians' early successes, eventually leading the dissolution of the Latin Kingdom and the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Middle East, and it was the campaign in which Richard and Saladin carved their reputations: Richard as a bold, dynamic warrior King, the epitome of chivalry, and Saladin as a unifier of Muslims and defender of the faith, beneath only Allah and Muhammad in terms of reverence.

Reston goes beyond the romantic views of these important leaders, painting more complex images. Richard is depicted as something of a war junkie, constantly seeking glory and in the process alienating his allies. Saladin makes a number of costly mistakes that threaten to tear apart all he's won. Both men oversee a number of atrocities and killings, although Saladin is presented as the more cultured and moderate leader, negotiating the safe passage of Christians after taking Jerusalem.

Alternating chapters between Saladin and Richard, Reston depicts how they came to power in their realms, chronicles their early successes - Richard rebelling against and fighting for his father King Henry II and Saladin's victories after unifying Syria and Egypt - their battles with each other, the back-and-forth diplomacy and bantering, the uneasy truce they reached, and their fates after the Third Crusade ends. Ironically, despite being the main figures of this conflict and the numerous clashes between their armies, Saladin and Richard never met face-to-face, preferring to communicate with messengers when the need arose.

Along the way, we learn about other fascinating figures from the period: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard's mother (whose own story is certainly worth a book); Phillip II Augustus, King of France and Richard's political rival, fellow Crusader, and, Reston asserts, homosexual lover; Rashid al-Din Sinan, leader of the Assassins; Karakush, who began as Saladin's slave and eventually became governor of Acre after Saladin captured it; Alais, Phillip's sister and Richard's betrothed; and more. There are so many little stories and dramas along the way.

One of my biggest errors in thinking about the Crusades was thinking of them as one big, sustained military campaign, and what Reston does remarkably well is illustrate how there was so much more than that. There was politicking, diplomacy, personal rivalries and alliances, economic aspirations, cultural immersion and clashing, and religious zealotry. It's a much larger picture than the battles, although Reston gets across their bloody costs and importance in the greater scheme of things.

For Richard's story, I appreciated how Reston explained not just the actual military campaign in the Middle East but also the journey to the Holy Land, which itself contained conflict at Sicily and Crete, which Crusaders traditionally used as staging points. We also follow Richard on his journey back to Europe and his imprisonment in the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany) and the political maneuvering and posturing of several monarchs and Church officials that accompanied that situation. In a hindsight, it's easy to see why the Crusades failed: the Europeans were divided among themselves, driven apart by petty issues and in some cases more concerned for military glory and conquest than they were in carrying out the task they took an oath for.

If you're like me and wanted to learn more about the Crusades, Warriors of God is a good starting point. The book a balanced look at two of the Crusades' most dynamic and influential leaders from both sides of the fighting, and it's rife with conflict, drama, and history. It's a stellar look at how individuals shape history.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Flowers and Firearms in Cleveland

This is my second entry about Guns N Roses. Love them or hate them, GNR is one of those bands you can't help but talk about. This particular rant of mine was originally written in-flight while traveling back from England this past Christmas, and I'm finally transcribing it.

Anyway, Guns N Roses is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and there is talk some of the members of the classic lineup might reunite to perform at the induction ceremony. Most notably, singer Axl Rose, the only original member still in the band, and former lead guitarist Slash, whose feud with his former front man is well documented, have both indicated separately they might be willing to reconcile their longstanding differences.

I guess there are two questions: do they do deserve induction, and should anyone care if they reunite? In a word, yes. My criticism of the Rock and Hall of Fame not withstanding (the number rock legends I believe should already be in), Guns N Roses was on top of the music world for a time, and the members collectively contributed a number of iconic songs: "Welcome to the Jungle," "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Paradise City," and "November Rain" to name a few. They even had a number of other songs that might not have reached classic status but are pretty good in their own right.

The band emerged from the hair metal scene in Los Angeles at the time, distinguishing themselves as a raw, authentic voice in period when people considered music kind of phony. They could rock and be mean, funny, vulgar, and surprisingly tender at times. These guys have been called modern-day outlaws, and while that's an exaggeration due to the group's notorious drug use and rowdy behavior, they established themselves as a group to pay attention to. They played music that couldn't be tamed.

While I can think of other groups and acts I'd prefer inducted before GNR (Deep Purple, Kiss, Rush, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Ronnie James Dio) and though the band became a bloated, indulgent shell by the time the class lineup called it quits (some would argue it remains so), Guns N Roses put out great music, and I believe they deserve their induction.

Still, after all these years and all the toxic words the members have hurled at each other, is it worth to see the classic lineup back together, even if it's only one show? Seeing the gang back together would have an element of melancholy. These guys went their separate ways more or less 20 years ago (depending on which member left), and I cannot help but think about all the music and shows they could have created together during that time. Would it have been any good? Who's to say, but it certainly would have been worth checking it out and being able to decide. The fans never got that choice, and ultimately, the fans were the ones who missed out the most.

When people watch something they love fall apart, it's painful, and seeing the group together again would remind people of that. It would be nice to see the old group one more time, but I'd understand if they didn't reunite. It would bring up old wounds. Plus, from what I've read, there are no plans for a long-term reformation; Axl's not getting rid of his current group, and the others - notably Slash and Duff McKagan - have other projects. Even if they did all get back together, I don't believe it'd the same. Somethings are best left in the past and remembered.

I was born in 1987, the year Appetite for Destruction, the group's breakthrough album, debuted. Likewise, I was 12 when Axl unveiled the new lineup, and I was 21 when "Chinese Democracy," the would-be magnum opus 14 years-in-the-making, was released. It would be inaccurate to say I grew up with the band; I was too young to be there for their peak, and I wasn't into music as much as I am to pay attention to the hype surrounding their newer material. My observations only comes from looking back at the period and listening to their music.

I do know that for a brief period, Guns N Roses was the greatest rock bank in the world, which few bands can lay claim to. The downfall of the group, the perils of the music industry and the dangers of drugs and egos are part of their story, and for their music and their story, they belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The shame is the group itself did not stay together long enough to make their case more obvious.