Monday, June 25, 2012

Reentering the Tunnel of Love

by Conroy

“There's a crazy mirror showing us both in 5-d / I’m laughing at you, you're laughing at me / There's a room of shadows that gets so dark brother / It’s easy for two people to lose each other, in this tunnel of love”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Tunnel of Love”

Bruce Springsteen surely ranks as one of the most successful and admired musicians of the rock era.1 His career has been a rare combination of immense popularity and critical adulation, and he’s been doing it for 40 years. In fact it’s the very scope of his career and the enduring airplay of his biggest hit songs (not to mention his reputation as a colossus of arena-rock), that can obscure the fact that Springsteen was capable of startling artistic turns. It’s been 25 years since one of these turns when he released what has become an overlooked album, a forgotten masterpiece, Tunnel of Love.

Ask fans or critics to identify Springsteen’s best album and they’re likely to say Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A. or even The River. Few, I suspect, would choose Tunnel of Love. Springsteen developed a pattern of alternating between “big” accessible albums with smaller more intimate ones. He followed Born to Run (1975) with the darker Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978); The River (1980) with the down-right bleak Nebraska (1982).

But Springsteen roared back after that album, becoming a rock god, The Boss, after releasing the immensely successful album Born in the U.S.A. (1984)2 and enjoying its immensely successful follow-up tour. Born in the U.S.A. was, among other things, an anthemic and exciting album. That’s why it sold so well. And naturally there was tremendous anticipation for the follow-up. When he delivered Tunnel of Love in 1987, I doubt many fans could have anticipated the sound or subject matter. Rather than traffic in the same blend of power rock, Springsteen did a 180, turning inward and stripping his music down, almost entirely removing the E Street Band from the recording sessions. He turned from the social and political to the personal and introspective. It’s a startling 12 tracks.3

Above and beyond anything else, Tunnel of Love is an album about love and doubt and marriage and disappointment. Or what I like to term a divorce album. Befitting its subject matter, the music is mostly subdued and lyrics dwell on failed marriage and love. While this may seem like a recipe for dour listening, Springsteen’s evocative lyrics paint stark pictures and his music while stripped down remains haunting. In many ways the album is a cousin to U2’s Achtung Baby, which is also a divorce album, and no less compelling for it.

I think you have to be a little careful when considering autobiography in an artist’s work, but in the case of Tunnel of Love, Springsteen’s personal life may well have inspired his art. He married actress Julianne Phillips in 1985 during the Born in the U.S.A. tour. A newly married man in his mid-30s, a mature Springsteen seemed to find disappointment instead of happiness. And it’s hard not to connect an album full of tracks about failed love with the experience of his recent marriage. Consider that it was during the Tunnel of Love tour 4 that he separated from Phillips and began his relationship with E Street Band back-up singer Patti Scialfa.5

This personal history is worth remembering when listening to the album. Here’s a track-by-track review:

“Ain’t Got You” sets the albums tone with Springsteen’s arrhythmic, country-twinged vocals backed by a spare guitar. The lyrics focus on a musician, indistinguishable from Springsteen, awash in wealth, luck, and luxury, but lacking love. The opening verse says it all:
“I got a fortune of heaven in diamonds and gold / I got all the bonds baby that the bank could hold / I got houses 'cross the country honey end to end / And everybody buddy wants to be my friend / Well I got all the riches honey any man every knew / But the only thing I ain't got honey I ain't got you.”

Tougher Than the Rest and All That Heaven Will Allow
The song is clever and a bit funny, and its longing leads directly to the second—and standout—track, “Tougher Than the Rest.” A slow ballad backed by an insistent drum-bass line and a mild synthesizer drone (this is still a mid-80s album after all) the lyrics show hope for true love: “Well if you’re looking for love / Honey I’m tougher than the rest.” But a hope full of compromise:
“Well ’round here baby / I learned you get what you can get / So if you’re rough enough for love / Honey I’m tougher than the rest,” and “Well it ain’t no secret / I’ve been around a time or two / Well I don’t know baby maybe you’ve been around too / Well there’s another dance / All you gotta do is say yes.”
“All That Heaven Will Allow” carries on much in the same musical and lyrical vein, but the compromise isn’t with love, but with circumstance. This is the last time on the album that belief in love triumphs over all: “Rain and storm and dark skies / Well now they don’t mean a thing / If you got a girl that loves you / And who wants to wear your ring.”

Spare Parts, Cautious Man, and Walk Like a Man
The albums falls from its tenuous hope on the next three tracks. “Spare Parts,” a country-rocker that tells the story of a man who runs out on his pregnant fiancĂ©. “Cautious Man,” the album’s sparest track, is a somber ballad of a loner who battles his demons and his desire to walk away from his wife. Then there is “Walk Like a Man,” another slow ballad, that sounds like a message to Springsteen’s father conveys the sentimentality and hope attached to marriage:
“I remember ma draggin’ me and my sister up the street to the church / Whenever she heard those wedding bells / Well would they ever look so happy again / The handsome groom and his bride / As they stepped into that long black limousine / For their mystery ride.”

Tunnel of Love
Having firmly established a grim and soul-addled mood, Springsteen speeds up the music with one of the album’s best tracks, “Tunnel of Love.” The title track is awash in synthesizer (it’s easily the most musically robust track) and jangling guitar. It also introduces the albums central metaphor, comparing love and relationships to a funhouse ride, it’s worth quoting at length:
“Fat man sitting on a little stool / Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you / Hands me the ticket smiles and whispers good luck / Cuddle up angel cuddle up my little dove / Well ride down baby into this tunnel of love/

I can feel the soft silk of your blouse / And them soft thrills in our little fun house / Then the lights go out and it's just the three of us / You me and all that stuff were so scared of / Gotta ride down baby into this tunnel of love/

There's a crazy mirror showing us both in 5-d / I’m laughing at you you're laughing at me / There's a room of shadows that gets so dark brother / It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love/

It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough / Man meets woman and they fall in love / But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough / And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can't rise above if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love.”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prometheus and the Alien Saga: Revisited

by Conroy

A few months ago I posted on the then upcoming film Prometheus and how it may or may not relate to the Alien movie franchise. While I was excited to see a film where director Ridley Scott went back to the “Alien universe”, I was nervous that Prometheus might fail to live up to Alien or Aliens or even undermine some of the mystery that was crucial to the first film. Now having actually seen Prometheus and having thought about it for a few days, I can discuss what the film does and doesn’t accomplish.


Prometheus and the Alien Universe
The story of Prometheus “exists”, without question, within the Alien universe [1]. For instance, in Prometheus a science mission travels far across space to a moon (LV-223) in search of the “Engineers” a humanoid species apparently worshipped several millennia ago by primitive cultures all over Earth. The Engineers turn out to be the Space Jockey species glimpsed aboard the derelict spacecraft in Alien. And the spacecraft of the Engineers is of the same design as the Space Jockey ship seen in Alien. The humans are soon confronted with a host of creatures that share characteristics with the iconic alien, including an unremitting hostility, caustic blood, and a terrifying lifecycle. There is even a xenomorph-like [2] creature “born” at the end of the film. One of the more interesting aspects of the Alien movies was the existence of androids and their relationship to humans. Prometheus continues this, and indeed one of its most interesting characters, David portrayed excellently by Michael Fassbender, is an android whose nuanced but company-first behavior hints strongly of the android Ash in Alien. And while I'm on characters, Prometheus continues the Alien franchise’s tradition of strong female leads, this time with Noomi Rapace playing Elizabeth Shaw as a scientist turned survivor.

Beyond these direct connections between Prometheus and the Alien movies, there are the stylistic and thematic similarities. Like all Ridley Scott movies Prometheus is wonderfully rendered, but it maintains the dark tones and sharp division between dirty grays, browns, and blacks, and crisp almost sterile whites that are such hallmarks of the Alien movies. This isn’t to say that there isn’t ample color in the movie (there certainly is, especially inside of the ship Prometheus) but the movie more or less adheres to the color palette established by Scott in Alien. Perhaps the most incongruous thing is that Prometheus in 2012 includes a vision of late-21st-century technology (holographic survey models, advanced smart-phone/iPad like computers, robotic surgical capsules, etc.) that were entirely (and intentionally) absent from Alien in 1979, a story which ostensibly takes place long after the events in the later film [3].

David, the complicated android
Many of Prometheus’s themes align with Alien and Aliens. In general, the Alien universe is a hostile place. Individuals like Ripley and the other major characters have few or no friends, love is distant or hidden, trust is fleeting, and ultimately, survival becomes the entire focus of Ripley and those around her. These themes, along with others, are all front and center in Prometheus. In the purest sense of the word Prometheus isn’t a prequel to Alien, the end of Prometheus does not lead to the beginning of Alien or even demand that the story ultimately get there. But it is a movie that takes place in the Alien universe sometime before the events of the first film.

Unanswered Questions
Prometheus is a thoughtful film in that is raises questions about the creation of man in an original way. The film suggests and then later seems to confirm that humans were created not in the image of God (at least not directly) but in the image of the Engineers, an advanced extraterrestrial species. Following clues unearthed in archeological finds all over Earth, a team of scientists determines that the Engineers came from a distant star system invisible to early man, and interprets this as a message from the Engineers to find them when man is ready [4]. A scientific expedition funded and directed by the Weyland corporation [5] travels to the star system in the hopes of finding the Engineers and gaining answers to some of the eternal questions that have haunted man throughout history. Where did we come from? Who made us? Where are we going?

The expedition arrives at moon LV-223 only, seemingly, to find a long abandoned station with no living Engineers left. However, like the eggs in Alien, things inside the station are in fact dormant, not dead. As events unfold it becomes clear that the station isn’t a place to find answers but a place entirely toxic – hostile, to hammer home a theme of the Alien universe – to humans. And the Engineers aren’t interested in teaching man but seem to have been planning for man’s eradication. The original questions remain unanswered and many more arise. Why are the Engineers ready to eliminate the human species? Where are they really from? What went wrong at this “dead” station?

Readers of this blog will know that I like this type of uncertainty and unknowing. The more I study the universe the weirder and more indifferent to humanity it seems [6]. Questions of man’s origin, be it God or nature or the product of alien Engineers, should be left obscured in art so they can better reflect the obscurity of reality. Several reviewers have criticized Prometheus for leaving too many unanswered questions, a point-of-view that I fundamentally disagree with. Humans have learned so much in the last several thousand years, but there is vastly more that we don’t know. I appreciate a movie like Prometheus that asks a lot of big questions and shows us an original idea but that doesn’t pretend to have an insight on all the secrets of the universe.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Ultimate Map

by Conroy

One of the first books my parents gave to me as a child was an atlas, a gift that I credit with kindling my life-long fascination with world geography. I loved the bright color maps of countries and regions I hadn’t even heard the names of before. I studied the accompanying photographs, charts, and statistics with great intensity. After that first atlas I couldn’t get enough, wallpapering my bedroom with the maps that came in National Geographic magazines, getting new and bigger atlases [1], and memorizing lists of the largest islands, longest rivers, most populous cities, etc. I think this all appealed to me because atlases and maps provide one way to imagine and relate to the rest of the world. Maybe it was this early childhood exposure, but for me the world is organized in my head as one big map, and everything else, cultures, languages, histories, places, current events, and even some memories, are just layers to be accessed from this underlying picture. Is this the way you think?

I’ve explained geography to others as having two fundamental components: (1) the physical reality of our world, like the oceans, great rivers, and high mountain ranges, and (2) the relationship of one place to another, like how Great Britain is separated from mainland Europe by the narrow English Channel. These fundamental components are, well, fundamentally important to the long development of human civilization and the common facts of everyday experience. San Francisco has its remarkably consistent temperatures because of its location on a peninsula adjacent to the Northern Pacific and the cool California Current that flows along America’s west coast. Great Britain avoided invasion in World War II because Hitler’s war machine lacked the naval craft to cross the 20-mile wide Straight of Dover. India and China border one another but their civilizations have little in common because they’re physically separated by the highest mountain range on Earth. Geography is central to these facts. The story of history and the interactions of civilization are substantially informed by the geographical relations of people and places; that’s what the term geopolitics means. And the facts of everyday life, the language you speak, the weather you experience, the types of outdoor activities you participate in are inextricably linked to geography.

The wonderfully stylized London Underground map
Anyway, for me, it’s the results of geography, the histories and cultures and climates and sights, which make maps, our most basic visualization of geography, so endlessly interesting.  In fact, my girlfriend finds it amusing that even now whenever I’m confronted with a map I can’t resist studying it with terrific focus. And maps are more than functional tools, they can also be art. A few years ago the Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore had a wonderful exhibit on maps. It included ancient tapestries of the then known world to the modern stylized depiction of the London Underground system. And it’s hard to not appreciate the clarity and simple beauty of the London Underground system map or the wonderful detail and color of the (very best, in my opinion) road maps provided by companies like ADC [2].

An ADC road map of Washington, D.C.

A Mapping Revolution
There’s only one drawback to traditional maps – they’re static. Any given map is set at one scale and depicts just one area (even if it’s the whole world). You need an entire book (an atlas) to show maps of different locations, details, and data, and that still doesn’t allow for reader configuration of the format or content. But the internet, smart phones, and the massive proliferation of information is changing all that, and more interestingly, proposed enhancements from Google and Apple might take maps to their fullest expression.

Starting in the 1990s Mapquest and other sites began to offer digital maps, usually for road directions. I didn’t care for these maps because you could only see an area the size of your computer monitor and the maps themselves were rather dull to view. But when Google Maps came out in the early 2000s the aesthetics began to improve and over time they have added important enhancement like an ability to scroll across the entire globe, zoom in an out for greater or less detail, and new layers providing satellite imagery and terrain.

Google’s companion Google Earth application added the ability to change perspective and included 3-D buildings in major cities. Later Google added Street View shots taken from cars mounted with cameras providing 360 degree views that let you actually see – not imagine – what a place looks like. This is a massive shift, converting a map to a far more sensory and immediate experience. Now it’s possible to view, say, the streets of Rome without ever having traveled there. Certainly this is no substitute for actually being there in person, but it does bring views of places all over the world right onto your computer screen.

Other functions allow you to toggle on features like up-to-date traffic information, user photos, labels, and links to Wikipedia articles. And this doesn’t even touch on the powerful linking of maps with GPS, which shows you just where you are and can direct you to just where you’re going, anyplace and anytime. Now Google has announced that they plan to add even more functionality to their maps, including more 3-D buildings and street view shots taken by pedestrians of places where cars can’t go, allowing a user to view cities as if they were in a helicopter, or see nature along hiking trails from thousands of miles away.

These changes have been added incrementally over the last decade so you might not realize just how incredible they really are. No longer are maps 2-D static views limited to a specified area and providing limited information. Google Maps, and probably Apple’s soon to be released map application, provide users a map or satellite photo of any place on the globe, street-level views along a growing network of roads and soon along non-road areas of interest, links to encyclopedia articles, and access to real-time information like traffic conditions or the proximity of coffee shops. And you can do it all from you mobile phone. Enhanced views, more information, and real-time data; that is a mapping revolution.

I wrote above that in my mind I view the world as a large map with much of my knowledge and experience layered onto the underlying structure. Aren’t these new and improving interactive digital maps getting closer and closer to this mental image? The more functionality that is added, the more information is linked, the closer we get to a version of a map that I could have only dreamed of as a child.

Maps as Art
If there is one area where static maps still beat their digital cousins is in presentation. Static maps, done well, are far more visually appealing than Google Maps or any other product available on the internet. There will be no museum exhibits showcasing digital maps (at least not in their current form). And there is an inherent limitation to maps that are restricted to showing only an area the size of a computer monitor or the even more restrictive smart phone screen. I have little doubt that Google and Apple will continue to improve the visual presentation of their map programs, but who can say if they’ll ever be as good as a printed version. I still have a large map of the United States hanging on my home office wall and I still find myself studying it from time to time. Next to my office desk are several atlases and I do occasionally pick them up and flip through their pages. But it’s to the computer I mainly turn for maps now. The functionality of digital maps is just too useful. Hopefully one day the style will match the substance, and then we might really have the ultimate map.



[1] Including an old one my uncle had from the late 50s that included a lot of post-World War II/early Cold War names and notations and anachronisms like Japan regaining full sovereignty after the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco or South Africa still ruling Namibia (or Southwest Africa as labeled).

[2] Whose motto is “The Map People.”