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Holy blues mark humphrey thesis writing

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Up is a delight, wonderful characters on a classic hero’s journey in a richly detailed animated world. But for me as always with a Pixar movie, it’s the story that stands out most. Its screenplay, written by Bob Peterson. who also co-directed the movie, makes excellent use of primary character archetypes.


It’s Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) as he hits on all the major P factors:

* The story is told from his perspective. The movie begins with young Carl where we learn about his love of adventure. The story follows Carl as he meets young Ellie, an adventurous soulmate. A montage takes us through their courtship, marriage, and the tragedy of Ellie’s death, all of which impacts Carl deeply. And for the rest of the story, no matter what characters are introduced, the dynamic is almost always based upon each of them in relation to Carl.

* It’s Carl’s goal &- to fulfill his promise to Ellie and go to Paradise Valley in South America &- that sets the plot into motion and creates the end-point of the movie.

* It’s Carl’s character who goes through the most significant transformation, realizing his goal of bringing Ellie &- in the form of his memories of her, her Book of Adventure, and the house itself &- to the exact spot atop Paradise Valley by the waterfall &- then moving into a new adventure with Russell, Dug, Kevin and the rest. In addition, Carl evolves from disliking Russell to becoming Russell’s surrogate father figure. And Carl’s disposition changes as well &- from cantankerous old man, just stringing out the days until he dies, to an upbeat, vital, and ‘;alive’ version of himself.

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The principal Nemesis figure is Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). What’s interesting about Muntz’s character in relation to Carl is that Muntz serves as an inspiration to Carl when he’s a young boy, in some ways the very vision of who Carl imagines himself being and becoming. But Muntz ‘;devolves’ into a Nemesis when he becomes obsessed with salvaging his legacy by finding a rare bird in the jungles of Paradise Valley, his fixation moving Muntz away from the initial innocence of exploration for discovery’s sake to the ‘;dark side’ of exploration in service to one’s ego. In classic Nemesis fashion, Muntz not only provides opposition to the Protagonist reaching his goal &- his efforts to kidnap Kevin, the rare bird who ends up as Russell’s pet and a member of Carl’s troupe, disrupting Carl’s plans &- but also demonstrates how Carl could, if he chose, go down his own dark side path: If he insists on achieving the goal not so much to satisfy Ellie’s dream, but rather his own ego-needs to fulfill the promise he made to her.

By the end of the story, it becomes a classic Bad Guy vs. Good Guy battle with death on the line.

It’s interesting to note that after the movie’s opening newsreel sequence which features Muntz, this Nemesis character doesn’t reappear until very far into Act Two. The script does a good job of interweaving other characters who provide an oppositional dynamic to Carl &- Russell, a thunderstorm, Kevin, and the ever-present hassle of having to move Carl’s house &- until Muntz re-enters the plot.

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Finally, Muntz’s dogs, most especially Beta (Delroy Lindo), are part of Muntz’s team and provide a nemesis function.

The two characters who are tied most directly to Carl’s emotional self are Ellie (Elie Docter) and Russell (Jordan Nagai). In young Ellie, Carl finds the love of his life and they get married. Indeed, it is the inability of Ellie to have a child and her death that drives home the necessity Carl feels to make her goal &- going to Paradise Valley &- his goal. Even though Ellie is dead, she remains very much ‘;alive’ to Carl throughout the story in part through a number of talismans which take on her ‘;spirit’ &- the house itself, the Book of Adventure, her photo, the grape soda pin. And when he finally manages to set the house on the exact spot atop Paradise Valley, as envisioned by Ellie, she magically ‘;reappears’ to him through a series of touching photos in the Book of Adventure, ending with her handwritten note, thanking him for fulfilling the promise he made to her (&”cross your heart&”), then setting Carl ‘;free’ with the admonition: &”Now go have a new adventure.&”

And in deft fashion, the script sets up another Attractor character with which Carl can have that new adventure: Russell. The Carl-Russell relationship has the feel of a classic rom-com dynamic &- at first, Carl can’t stand the kid &- but by the end of the movie, Russell’s dogged determination and basic goodness causes Carl to warm up to the boy. But symbolically, Carl’s biggest point of connection with Russell is that he is the embodiment of Ellie’s adventurous spirit. That’s what Carl gets from Russell. What Russell gets from Carl is a ‘;father,’ someone who does show up for his merit badge ceremony, who does sit on the curb outside his favorite ice cream parlor counting red and blue cars, just like his absentee father used to do.

So the Attractor function is passed like a baton &- starting with Ellie and her dream of going to Paradise Valley, and once that dream is realized, to Russell, as Carl’s goal shifts to embrace Russell’s goal: Save Kevin and reunite the bird with her babies.

One final thought re the Attractor: The house itself is an extension of the Ellie-Carl dynamic, so it’s interesting to note that after Ellie relieves Carl of the obligation to realize their shared dream, Carl becomes ‘;free’ of the house as well. Of course, it’s a beautiful and fitting touch that the house ends up atop Paradise Valley, back on the spot where Ellie dreamed for all those years.

In my view, the Mentor is Dug, voiced by the movie’s screenwriter Bob Peterson. This may cause some head-scratching, but consider this. First, Dug is the character who has the most insight and understanding of the jungle, Muntz, and Muntz’s other dogs &- and with this ‘;wisdom’ fulfills at least one function of the Mentor character. Also Dug plays a pivotal role in assisting Carl in the Final Struggle, another role often played by the Mentor. But I think the most important mentoring Dug does is by providing a symbolic conduit for Carl to see Russell with ‘;new’ eyes. For just as Dug is loyal, trustworthy, and dogged in his pursuit of that which is good, so is Russell. Indeed, the identification &- as far as Carl is concerned &- between Dug and Russell is such that they share an exact same beat: The house rises into the air, Carl settles into a chair, then a knock at the door. First time, it’s Russell; later, it’s Dug.

With Dug, Carl can envision what a companion can be &- after all, that’s one of the primary descriptors of a dog in relation to its owner. Carl’s experience of Dug teaches Carl that Russell can be a good companion, too, opening up a possibility Carl had left for dead after Ellie was gone.

From scene to scene, this dynamic shifts from one character to another as at times Russell, Dug, and even the house present obstacles and roadblocks to Carl, but the primary Trickster character is Kevin. First off, Kevin is actually a girl, not a boy &- a trick played on Russell and the others. Second, Kevin constantly messes with Carl: Kevin eats Carl’s walker; Kevin eats some of the house’s balloons; Kevin follows the group when she’s not supposed to, then disappears when they need her around. But most importantly, Kevin is the cause of the biggest test Carl has: Getting Kevin back from Muntz so Carl can (A) get the house to Ellie’s spot atop Paradise Valley and (B) save Russell’s life. In other words, it’s Kevin who brings the Nemesis back into the plot; without Kevin, there is no Final Struggle &- no Big Test &- at least as it’s played out in the movie.

&- This is the second consecutive Pixar movie (after Wall-E ) to feature a lengthy sequence in which there is literally zero dialogue. Wall-E has a first act that is comprised almost solely with Wall-E on the planet by himself, going about his business, then interacting with Eve (where they do eventually engage in some rudimentary dialogue). In Up. after young Carl meets young Ellie, there is an absolutely beautifully crafted sequence tracking key moments in Carl and Ellie’s marriage &- all with no dialogue. It’s not only wonderful storytelling, it’s a great reminder: Movies are primarily a visual medium.

&- There are so many talismans. objects that take on emotional / symbolic meaning. Everything from the grape soda button to Russell’s merit badges to Ellie’s photo to the Book of Adventure to the house. There’s even a motion &- crossing one’s heart &- that takes on enormous significance, both between Carl and Ellie, and Carl and Russell. Another great reminder: Make use of talismans.

&- Last night, I had a post about movie cliches with this point:

Actually from a screenwriter’s standpoint, cliches can be a helpful starting point. Take the cliche, go in the opposite direction, and have fun with it.

Pixar is fantastic at doing this and nowhere better than with the Nemesis dog Beta. A vicious looking Doberman, when we first meet the dog, his speaker-altered voice sounds like a cousin of Alvin the Chipmunks, completely the opposite of a snarling ‘;bad’ dog &- a fine example of going in the opposite direction of the cliche and having fun with it.

&- Finally, I have to say that Up is a remarkably sweet movie. And I mean that in the most positive way possible. The characters are so loveable, so engaging, so resonate emotionally, and the themes simple, honest, real &- all of that with not one whiff of edge. seemingly Hollywood’s most vaunted contemporary aesthetic. To which I say, &”Hallelujah!&” It proves there is room for all types of movies, even a sweet movie with a grumpy old senior citizen as a Protagonist. And the $68M in opening weekend box office is a tremendous affirmation of Pixar’s instincts.

Bottom line, they’ve done it yet again. All hail Pixar!

UPDATE: In thinking about the movie some more, two other thoughts came to mind. (1) If I recall correctly, after Ellie and Carl suffer their setback in an attempt to have a child, there’s a scene of Ellie sitting alone outside &- depressed. Carl sees her through the window of their house. Then he takes the Book of Adventure out to her. She smiles. So in a way, that underscores even more the symbolic heft of Carl’s promise to her: Paradise Valley doesn’t just represent Ellie’s dream of adventure; it also takes on an emotional connection to the couple’s loss of a child. In a way, I suppose, rekindling the fantasy of going to Paradise Valley fills the vacuum created by their childlessness. And thus, isn’t it interesting to think that Carl chooses to fill the vacuum of missing Ellie and missing his home as well (being relocated to the retirement village) by rekindling &- again &- the dream of going to Paradise Valley. (2) Several times on the journey in South America, Carl looks up to the house, hovering above him, and talks to it as if he’s talking to Ellie. And that makes sense, does it not, not only because of her identification with the house, but also being up in the ‘;heavens,’ her floating house ‘;up there’ as well.

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Bill Monroe is the father of bluegrass. Muddy Waters sired Chicago electric blues. The kind of music John Fahey started doesn’t have a catchy name yet (“American Primitive Guitar” has been suggested) but as surely as Monroe or Muddy, John Fahey has created a highly original style of American music that has become enormously influential. He was the first to demonstrate that the fingerpicking techniques of traditional country and blues steel-string guitar could be used to express a world-full of non-traditional musical ideas — harmonies and melodies you’d associate with Bartok, Charles Ives or maybe the music of India. The whole phenomenon called New Age music might never have happened without him (though Fahey resolutely refuses to take the credit or the blame for that!)

I met a lot of great musicians in 1964, the year I did sound and lights for the Ash Grove (Los Angeles’ top nightclub for traditional music) and all kinds of things for the UCLA Folk Festival (I was a grad student there, in Folk Music Studies). My first meeting with John is as lively in my mind today as anything from ’64. As this (then) skinny six-footer in blue jeans ambled toward me across the UCLA campus, the first thing I spotted was the stack of LPs he was carrying. DEATH CHANTS, BREAKDOWNS AND MILITARY WALTZES, read the crudely silk-screened covers. JOHN FAHEY – GUITAR.

“Is that a new John Fahey album?” I asked before I realized I was speaking to the man himself. Not that many people knew about his earlier album. but a couple of years earlier up at Reed College I had borrowed and taped one of the 95 existing copies of the 1959 LP cryptically labelled JOHN FAHEY on one side of the cover and BLIND JOE DEATH on the other, without a word of further information. I’d played the tape a few times on the campus radio station, and a great many times at home.

Fahey, in town for the folk festival, was pleasantly surprised to encounter a stranger who knew his work. and we quickly discovered mutual passions for blues and country music on pre-WWII 78s, 20th-century classical music, and railroad lore.

John joined the UCLA Folk Music Studies program that autumn. He decided to write his master’s thesis about one of his idols, the pre-WWII Mississippi blues giant Charley Patton. One slight problem: the faculty insisted that John’s thesis had to include illustrations of Patton’s music in standard notation. John has never learned to read or write music; he carries his hundreds of compositions around in his head, along with all the other music he knows.

The serendipitous solution to that problem became an item of music history: While performing on tour at Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass. John met a young local musician named Alan Wilson, who 1) was highly familiar with Charley Patton’s blues, 2) could read and write music, and 3) wanted to see the West Coast. And so Alan Wilson spent the fall of ’65 in L.A. helping John write his thesis (which was eventually published in England by Blues Paperbacks). Meanwhile John introduced Alan to the blues aficionados of L.A. including a large young man named Bob Hite who owned L. A.’s biggest blues 78 collection at the time, and yearned to sing in front of a live blues band. One day Alan brought his guitar and harmonica to Bob’s place. The duo quickly became a jug band and then an electric blues band, named after a Tommy Johnson 78 in Bob’s collection: Canned Heat. (It was Fahey who gave Alan his famous nickname. It started as “Blind Al,” after the nearsighted Wilson lost his eyeglasses early in their trip West; by the time the pair reached L.A. it had mutated to “Blind Owl.”)

Fahey didn’t play Monterey Pop or Woodstock like Canned Heat did. Incredibly enough, he never performed in public for pay anywhere until after his third LP was released in 1964. John was born (Feb. 28, 1939) and raised in Takoma Park, Md. a leafy suburb of Washington. In his early teens he became a country music fan, acquired a $17 Sears Roebuck guitar, and began teaching himself how to play it.

One day he found some old country 78s in a thrift store. He liked what he heard and eagerly searched for more. He soon discovered that two of the USA’s premier record collectors lived nearby. Dick Spottswood introduced John to pre-war blues, after piquing his interest with a record by Blind Willie Johnson (which John says he hated at first, but couldn’t get out of his mind). Spottswood also showed John how to “canvass,” going door-to-door through the area’s poorer neighborhoods offering to buy up old records; John would do that regularly for many years. Joe Bussard owned not only thousands of rare 78s but also a tiny record company called Fonotone, whose “releases” were newly recorded 78 rpm discs made one-at-a-time on an old disc cutter, and sold by mail-order to hardcore 78 collectors. John made his very first recordings for Fonotone at age 19, two dozen sides of traditional blues guitar (some of which were named after German philosophers, another longtime passion of John’s). Bussard paid him in old blues, country and jazz 78s.

Though there’s not much evidence of it on the Fonotone records, Fahey at 19 had already begun composing, forging his unique synthesis of traditional picking techniques and modern music. The following year an Episcopal priest, who had heard John play at a church youth group function, showed John how he could put out his own LP for a few hundred dollars, using the custom pressing facilities of a major record company. John saved up some of the money from his gas station job, borrowed the rest, and did just that, ordering 100 copies (five of which were broken in shipment) and calling his “label” Takoma, after his hometown. This was the album that said “John Fahey” on one side and “Blind Joe Death” on the other. “One of the ideas was to try and convince people that white people could play blues too,” John told me.

It took a couple of years to sell those 95 copies at parties and at the gas station. Meanwhile John studied philosophy at American University in Washington. He spent some time in Hawaii (soaking up a lot more music than sunshine) and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley before winding up at UCLA in ’64.

By happenstance John and I rented beach cottages nextdoor to each other in Venice, Calif. that year, and I came to know his taste in cigarets (Gauloises, the strongest he could find), music (he still loved blues and early country as much as ever, but Charles Ives was more likely to be on his tape player) and women. John had a succession of affairs which he told the world about in his compositions often using the women’s real names in the titles — “A Raga Called Pat,” for instance, and “Knott’s Berry Farm Molly.” Speaking of Molly, I went to a party once with Molly and John. My musical judgment having been altered by gin and juice, I commandeered the living room piano for an unsteady rendition of “My Blue Heaven.” I thought nothing more of it until some time later when I got a call from John. “Barry,” he said, “I’m recording a new album and I want you to come to the studio, drink exactly the same amount of booze as you did at that party, and play “My Blue Heaven.” There’s a mercifully brief snippet of “Heaven” on John’s twenty-minute “Requiem for Molly” (not included here. Molly hadn’t died, by the way, except maybe in John’s mind).

There were other small collaborations. When John finally started performing regularly in the mid-1960s, I helped him drive to some out-of-town gigs. He got impatient if the speedometer dipped below 80. but though he had nerves of steel on the road, it took him a long time to get over his youthful stage fright. He’d make himself more comfortable with an ever-present half-gallon bottle of Coke, often spiked with bourbon. Concerts could be adventures: John, who had been known to heckle campus speakers in his days at UC Berkeley, often heckled the audience while changing guitars or re-tuning. In the days when political correctness didn’t have a name yet, John could be counted on to be as politically incorrect as possible. One never quite knew whether he was speaking his mind or simply playing devil’s advocate for the fun of it, to get a rise out of people. (He did get picketed a time or two). John could go on like that for 10 or 20 minutes before getting around to the next piece of music.

Speaking of words, John’s liner notes are a literary genre of their own, as original in their way as his music. Starting with his fourth album, The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions (1966), his Takoma albums came with inserts filled with long, involved stories about John and his friends, male and female, in which real events blended seamlessly with allegory, fable and myth. Often the participants’ real names were used; at other times names were changed to protect the innocent. (I’m somewhat proud to say that “Tree Sloth Man” is me). Most massive of these missives is the one for The Voice of the Turtle, whose bound-in insert also contains numerous rare snapshots. (The LP itself is more of an audio scrapbook than a serious musical contender, but it remains a great Fahey collectible. Later pressings may lack the insert pages. I might also mention the America album, where fifty-odd spare but scary drawings by Patrick Finnerty take the place of Fahey’s words but communicate similar thoughts).

In December 1966 John and I drove his ’56 Chevy to Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas to record several old-time musicians as a project for UCLA (including fiddler Hubert Thomas, heard on this anthology). Evenings in motel rooms gave me a chance to listen in on John’s compositional process. Lying on a bed in his underwear after dinner, guitar in lap, he’d start out by going over a traditional tune, and then let his fingers “free-associate” (his own word for it) until they formed new licks and phrases to his liking. Having got the basis of something, he’d add more and more to it until he had a composition with a beginning, middle and end. (Once he’d composed a piece, he might play it again and again in concert with little variation, or he might change it over a period of time).

On that trip we also canvassed African-American neighborhoods in towns along the way for old 78s. (John once got arrested for that, but was let go when he convinced the cops that he was leaving money in their town, not taking it out). Fahey supported himself through the 1960s auctioning those 78s by mail to collectors around the world, but a couple of his other trips down South yielded still more precious results. In 1963, with ED Denson (his partner in Takoma Records at the time), he rediscovered Booker (Bukka) White, the great Mississippi slide guitarist who had been living in obscure poverty for years, unaware that anyone still cared about his music. A couple of years later, with fellow guitarists Henry Vestine and Bill Barth, John found Skip James in a Mississippi hospital. At the time, only a few record fanatics remembered Skip’s amazing 1932 recordings, but the tours and albums he made after his rediscovery cemented his place in the blues pantheon.

Now as for John’s place in the pantheon. By the early 1970s Fahey had toured widely and recorded a dozen LPs, including two albums each for Vanguard and Reprise, and a Christmas LP for Takoma that has sold well into six figures (it’s called The New Possibility, and it’s now available on a Rhino CD). Ever since then, most record stores big and decent enough to have a Folk Music section have generally stocked at least a couple of Fahey’s works therein, though one might well argue that he belongs instead in the Classical section. (I won’t mention “New Age” anymore, except to point out the clear echoes of Fahey’s work you can hear in Will Ackerman’s playing, along with Leo Kottke’s, and that they used to call George Winston “the John Fahey of the piano” around the time Winston made his first LP — which was on Takoma Records).

John sold Takoma to Chrysalis in the mid-1970s, but continued recording for the label until 1983. As acoustic music regained its popularity in the late 1970s, John was internationally recognized as one of the genre’s major attractions. He travelled extensively, recording music in Rome for the film Zabriskie Point and an entire album in Tasmania, and taking an extended break from touring to experience life at a Hindu monastery in India.

In 1981 John and his wife Melody moved from Los Angeles to Salem, Oregon. In an eloquent farewell piece in the Los Angeles Reader, writer Mark Humphrey paid tribute to Fahey the “self-proclaimed ‘existential guitarist,’ part time protector of turtles, and full-time misanthrope, dabbler in philosophy, thaumaturgy and Catholic existentialism, fancier of dark beers and darker music, and venturer into what he calls (tongue only slightly in cheek) ‘The VOID.'”

Resettled in the quieter environs of Salem, John enjoyed the green countryside and the passing freight trains. He underwent psychonalysis, and relieved himself of some painful childhood memories with a series of autobiographical vignettes in the literary magazine Grinning Idiot (where he shared cover billing with such luminaries as the late Charles Bukowski).

Fahey continued touring regularly until 1986 when he contracted Epstein-Barr syndrome, a long-lasting viral infection that sapped his energy. Diabetes followed with other ailments, and a very painful divorce. It’s not been an easy road back. The dark beers are history now, along with the Gauloises, and so is a lot of the darker music. John is still fiercely proud of much of what he played and composed in earlier times, but his greatest creative pleasure in the 1990s has come from making sunnier music inspired by pop songs of the late 1950s — “Twilight Time” and “Sea of Love” for instance. He’s gotten into record collecting again — this time he’s after classical LP’s from the early years of stereo. He’s writing a book of reminiscences about musicians he’s known and studied. He still plays splendidly, and with good fortune the new millenium will be blessed with wondrous new Fahey soundtracks for its meditations, just as the past few decades have been.

(from the notes to Return of the Repressed, The John Fahey Anthology. Rhino R2 71737)

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