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Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska

by Dave Gourdoux

In August of 1981, despite incredibly grim economic prospects, my wife and I were married. We lived in an upstairs apartment of an old house in an older neighborhood in Kenosha, and although our income was barely enough to cover the rent, it remains probably the happiest year of my life. It was just my wife and I, and we were discovering each other and growing deeper in love every day.  The setting was the warm and bright apartment we rarely ventured outside of, and the soundtrack was the album The River, by Bruce Springsteen.  "Jackson Cage", "Two Hearts", "Independence Day", "Hungry Heart", Out in the Street", "The River", "Point Blank", "Fade Away", "The Price You Pay", and our favorite, "Drive All Night." If we were home, odds are one of these songs was playing.  The River remains my personal all-time favorite album, and the one I've listened to more than any other album over the years.

1982 vintage Bruce
The '80s have become so politically romanticized over the years that people forget that Ronald Reagan's first term was dominated by the inflation and recession that began in the late '70s. Unemployment was high and interest rates were in the stratosphere. It wasn't until 1984 that things started to turn around. At the time, my wife and I were both working part time; she in the mornings for a small accounting firm and me at night, as a computer operator at a credit union.  I went to school in the days. Our newlywed bliss was contrasted by our bleak prospects.  With home interest rates at about 19%, we knew we couldn't afford to start a family yet, and we were convinced that we'd never be able to own our own home.  We eked out a living, thanks largely to cheap rent, and we endured long enough to ride the wave that broke in 1984, when the economy finally turned around, when I got a good job, and in November we purchased the home we still live in today.

It was in the fall of 1982 when I started hearing rumors that Springsteen had released a new album. This seemed unfathomable, because the success of The River had made Springsteen a global superstar. Surely any new release by such a major artist would be widely publicized and heavily marketed. Surely, I, being such a big fan, would have heard something about it. But I remember going to a record store (I can't remember which one - maybe "One Sweet Dream" on 7th avenue in Kenosha?) and sure enough, there it was:

It was a strange cover, a black and white photo of a barren landscape taken through the front windshield of a car, with the words "Bruce Springsteen" in large red capital letters against a black background on top and in the same font, "Nebraska" on the bottom.

I flipped it over, and the back cover was just as sparse, the names of ten songs in red capital letters plastered across the same bleak black drop.  Looking at it in the store, I thought, okay, so he's going minimalist, big deal. Turns out, I'd really have no idea until I got it home and put the vinyl on my turntable.

I bought the thing, and, like I used to do with all of the albums (and I mean "albums" - the big vinyl packages music used to come in) I purchased, I sat in my car and unwrapped the cellophane wrapping and looked at what materials were inside.  Springsteen albums always contained a sheet of lyrics, so I sat there and started reading.

I saw her standing on her front lawn
just twirling her baton
me and her went for a ride sir
and ten innocent people died

Huh?  This wasn't Backstreets! This wasn't Independence Day! What the hell is going on here?  I sat in my car, and decided I'd try the next song, something called Atlantic City:

Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
now they blew up his house too

Chicken man?  Blowing up his house?  WTF? I quickly realized I had to hear these songs; maybe then they'd make some sense.

So I got home and put the album on and from the haunting, opening blues harmonica rift at the beginning of the title track to the final chord of the last song, "Reason to Believe", I was absolutely stunned.  My first reaction was, where's the E Street Band?  The second reaction was, what did I just hear? I still wasn't sure what it was, but I knew it was great, and that I had to hear it again, all the way through.  I think that night I played the album probably five or six times, each time picking up something new, appreciating it on a deeper level.

Musically, the sound is as minimalist as the album cover implied it would be.  It was just Springsteen, most of the time with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. There was something else odd about the album, the way it sounded, the speed, the background noises.  I'd learn later that the album was a collection of demos he and an assistant recorded in his bedroom on a simple four track cassette recorder, and that they were originally intended to be fleshed out with the full E Street Band. Bruce and the band went into the studio, but no matter how hard they tried, something was missing, something was lost from the original recording. They soon realized it was the intimacy, the feeling of Springsteen alone in his room recording it and the listener alone in his room, and the contact, the shortening of distance between the artist and the consumer, that couldn't be replicated with the band or the studio. So they released the demos, remastering them from a beat up cassette tape that Springsteen had been carrying around in his pocket.

Contributing to the intimacy of the record was the songwriting, which was unlike anything Springsteen had done before. He was turning inward, affected by the depression he was suffering from and questioning the validity of the dreams of super stardom that he'd always held, now that they were within his reach, now that they were attainable. He was also examining his relationship with his audience, the blue collar working class he came from, and what they were going through. Nebraska is the among the rawest and most personal albums ever recorded, right up there with Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago  and Springsteen's own, later Tunnel of Love.

The first couple of listens, on songs like "Johnny 99", I thought he was singing about the plight of the working class in the messed up economy we were living in at the time, that theses songs were an extension of the characters in the song "The River."  This may have been true to some extent, but I quickly realized there was more to it than that.

Here's a song-by-song look at the album:

"Nebraska"--Springsteen's telling of the Charles Starkweather killing spree through the Midwest in the 1950s. Springsteen had been reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor and he responded to her Catholicism, the naming of sin.

In a confessional tone, the character in Springsteen's song says:

I can't say that I'm sorry
for the  things that we done
at least for a little while. sir
me and her we had us some fun

Later, awaiting the death penalty, the murderer is asked why he did it:

They declared me unfit to live
said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
they wanted to know why I did what I did
well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in the world.

Compare this to the great O'Connor short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find", in which a family encounters a mass murderer called "the misfit" (note Springsteen's choice of the word "unfit"), who explains his non-belief to the grandmother's failed faith before he kills her:

"If He (Jesus) did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but to throw everything away and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.  No pleasure but meanness," he said, and his voice had become almost a snarl.

In both "Nebraska" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find", the murderer has fallen from grace, and finds "pleasure" and "fun" and meaning only in "meanness."

The second track, "Atlantic City", is one of the iconic songs of Springsteen's entire catalog, and is in many ways the foundation on which the entire album rests.  The song begins with a hit on a crime boss (the "Chicken Man") and a description of the corruption that has reduced this once great city to a model of decay and rot. The chorus describes a hope, a prayer, for rebirth, and a romantic, albeit naive, notion that something of value can be found beneath the decay:

Everything dies, baby that's a fact
but maybe everything that dies someday comes back
put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City

After the first couple of verses describing the decay and fall of the city, the song turns inward, to a guy who's experiencing the same things on a personal level.  He's deep in debt, without work, and his relationship with his girlfriend/wife has reached a breaking point.  Before he loses everything, he offers up his soul:

Well, I'm tired of coming out on the losing end
so honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him

The song then goes into the chorus, with the "everything dies" lyric, and we realize that with the death of his soul, everything has died. The song has a ghostly feel to it, haunted by Springsteen's own
backing vocals and the strange grunts and moans that accompany his voice. "Atlantic City" is one of the few songs on the album that is an instant classic.  Unlike many of the other songs that grow on you in their subtlety, "Atlantic City" is recognizable as spooky and haunting and undeniably great the first time you hear it.

The next song, "Mansion on the Hill", is one of several songs on the album that are directly about Springsteen's childhood.  Born in the poor part of a small New Jersey town, Springsteen's childhood was bizarre and difficult, dominated by his explosive father, who suffered from a severe bipolar personality disorder and was unable to hold a steady job.  By the time he was writing the songs on Nebraska, Springsteen was on the verge of super stardom yet suffering from depression. Dominated by memories of his childhood, he found himself night after night driving to houses he grew up in, and sitting outside parked on the curb.  Mansion on the Hill describes the isolation he felt growing up, and the knowledge of his family's economic class.

In the summer, all the lights would shine
there'd be music playing and people laughing all the time
me and my sister,  we'd hide out in the tall cornfields
sit and listen to the mansion on the hill

The last verse is somewhat ambiguous:

Tonight down here in Lyndon town
I watch the cars rushing by home from the mill
there's a beautiful full moon rising
above the mansion on the hill

To me, this verse always felt a little lonely, like he's still isolated.  He watches the cars rushing home from the mill, but he's not one of them. I've always wondered, is he now inside the mansion? I think this verse is at the core of what drove the creation of the album: with Born to Run and The River, he'd achieved the success he always dreamed of, and was surprised to find he still felt just as isolated as he always had. It's this internal conflict and his ability to  articulate it through music and lyrics in a form we can all understand that makes Nebraska such a powerful experience.

The next song, "Johnny 99", is one of the purest folk songs on the album.  It tells the story of a guy named Ralph who lost his job at the auto plant, got drunk, shot a cop, and was sentenced to life in jail. His sentence becomes his identity, as from that point on he's known as Johnny 99.  The song ends with Johnny addressing the judge who'd sentenced him:

Well, your honor, I do believe I'd be better off dead
and if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that are in his head
then won't you sit back in that chair 
and think it over judge one more time
and let 'em shave off my hair
and put me on that execution line

"Highway Patrolman"--The most complete story song on the album. This song is so rich in detail and emotion that Sean Penn later adapted it into the film The Indian Runner.  It tells the story of the Roberts brothers, Joe and Frankie, from the point of view of Joe, the older and responsible one of the two. Both brothers find themselves in a place they didn't expect to be; Joe has lost his farm and taken a job as a state trooper, while Frankie is freshly home from Vietnam, and violently exorcising demons.  The conflict in the song is Joe's anguish over doing his job and protecting his little brother:

I've always done an honest job 
as honest as I could
I got a brother named Frankie
and Frankie ain't no good

Frank is always getting in trouble, and Joe keeps responding to the calls he gets:

Well, if it was any other man 
I'd put him straight away
but when it's your brother 
sometimes you look the other way

Until one night, Frank goes too far, and Joe knows this is it:

There was a kid lying on the floor looking bad,
bleeding hard from his head
there was a girl crying at a table
and it was Frank they said

He finds Frank's car on the country roads outside of town:

I chased him through those county roads
till a sign said "Canadian border five miles from here"
pulled over to the side of the highway
and watched his tail lights disappear

The song ends with the poignant chorus:

Me and Frankie laughing and drinking
nothing feels better than blood on blood
taking turns dancing with Maria
as the band plays "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's straying
like any brother would
man turns his back on his family
well he just ain't no good

Joe says goodbye to Frank, and also to his ability to "catch him when he's straying", and the family that he treasured will be forever fractured. Letting Frank escape is a testimony to the love he feels for him (or rather the memories of his little brother), while at the same time he is sacrificing any future relationship the two could have. In order to preserve the warm memories he has of him and Frank, he has to let Frank go.

The song is pure heartbreak and testimony to Springsteen's power as a storyteller.

"State Trooper" follows and closes out side one of the vinyl version.  It is pure darkness and desolation and desperation, as it begins with Springsteen rhythmically strumming the same hypnotic chords over and over.Then his voice reaches out of the speakers and grabs you and puts you on the empty New Jersey turnpike on a rainy night:

New Jersey turnpike
riding on a wet night
'neath the refinery's glow
out where the great black rivers flow

A sense of desperation is then added to the mix with:

License, registration
I ain't got none
but I got a clear conscience
about the things that I've done

He never tells us what those things are he's done, and while his conscience may be clear, he's still anxious:

Mister state trooper 
please don't stop me ...

An internal conversation with the State Trooper reveals a man at the end of something:

Maybe you got a kid
maybe you got a pretty wife
the only thing that I've got
has been bothering me my whole life

Again, Springsteen's command of just the right detail is perfect, as the night horizon is dominated by the red flashing of radio relay towers:

In the wee wee hours
your mind gets hazy
radio relay towers
lead me to my baby

There are the hoots and hollers that one says aloud when trying to stay awake on a long drive.  The song closes with a prayer of desperation:

Hey somebody out there
listen to my last prayer
hi-ho, silver-o
deliver me from nowhere

"Used Cars" is the most nakedly autobiographical song on the album. It tells the story of one in a parade of junker used cars that his father brought home. The song reveals that even at a very young age, Springsteen comprehended the failures of his father and where the Springsteens fell on the socio-economic ladder:

Now my ma she fingers her wedding band
and watches the salesman stare at my old man's hands
he's telling us all about the break he'd give us if he could
but he just can't

He feels the shame of the neighbor's superior and sympathetic eyes on the Springsteens:

The neighbors come from near and far
as we pull up in our brand new used car
I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry
and tell them all they can kiss our asses goodbye

The song closes with a brief and poignant acknowledgement of sympathy for his father and his family's place in the world:

My dad, he sweats the same job from morning to morn
me, I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
up the block I can hear my little sister in the front seat, blowing that horn
the sounds echo all down Michigan Avenue

His voice almost breaks as he sings the last verse, and it's an honest and emotional moment.

Then comes "Open All Night", and he is again out on the highway at night, but this time he's driving with a girlfriend as his destination:

I remember Wanda up on scrap metal hill
with those big brown eyes that make your heart stand still

Th song is rich in imagery and detail, and it's the closest thing to a happy song on the album.  It ends with a variation of the same prayer that closes "State Trooper."

Hey ho rock and roll 
deliver me from nowhere

The song, just Springsteen and a guitar, has a rhythm and beat to it, and is almost rock and roll; at least the closest thing to a rock song on the album.  And although the singer is alone again in the darkness of night, there's still hope. In that respect, it's the most Springsteen-esque song on the album.

"My Father's House" is next, Springsteen's song about the late night trips he found himself taking to the houses he grew up in. In the song he has dreams about being a child again, and running through the night woods from some unnamed menace, until he reaches his father's house:

I broke through the trees and there in the night
my father's house stood shining hard and bright
the branches and brambles
tore my clothes and scratched my arms
but I ran until I fell shaking in his arms

He awakes from the dream determined to put aside all of their differences and reestablish a relationship with his father.  He gets dressed and drives to the house and goes to the door, only to find "a woman I didn't recognize" tell him that his father doesn't live there anymore.

The song closes with a verse that sums everything up much better than I ever could.  There is no redemption to be found here, yet the house maintains its grip on Springsteen's psyche:

My father's house shines hard and bright
it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
calling and calling, so cold and alone
shining across this dark highway where out sins
lie unatoned

"Reason to Believe", a rare exercise in irony, closes he album out. It opens with:

Seen a man standing over a dead dog
lying by the highway in a ditch
he's looking down kinda puzzled
poking that dog with a stick
got his car door flung open 
he's standing out on highway 31
like if he stood there long enough
that dog'd get up and run

Again, his selection and use of detail and images is exquisite. How does he react to seeing such a sight?

Stuck me kinda funny
seems kinda funny, sir, to me
still at the end of every hard earned day
people find some reason to believe

In the verses that follow, he describes a woman who supports her lover only to have him leave her at the end of a dirt road, where she waits for him to come back.  He describes the birth of a boy named "Kyle WIlliam" and in the next moment his death and burial in a "whitewash shotgun shack."  Each verse is followed by the "Struck me kind of funny" lyric, and how people find some reason to believe when the bleakness of what he describes would seem to be indicative of no reason to believe.

Finally, the song (and the album) ends with:

Congregation gathers down by the riverside
Preacher stands with his bible
groom stands waiting for his bride
congregation gone, 
the sun sets behind a weeping willow tree
groom stands alone and watches the river rush on
so effortlessly
where can his baby be
still at the end of every earned day
people find some reason to believe

In this verse, the groom is Springsteen himself, jilted by his faith, his Catholicism, his faith in rock and roll, his faith in humanity. On the precipice of super stardom, he finds himself alone and abandoned, haunted by the same darkness he ran to music to escape from. "Reason to Believe" is the summation of the crisis of faith the entire album tried to articulate.

By writing and recording Nebraska, Springsteen wrestled with these demons, in the process creating an enduring work of art. The songs can be hard to listen to, and they can take you to your own dark places, but if you're willing to go there, you might find some things you recognize, and in the process, feel a little less alone. This is what great art has always done for me, and Nebraska is art of extraordinary depth and substance.


Peter Case: Full Service No Waiting

by Jav Rivera

It was the late 90s and I had become a fan of a radio show titled "Acoustic Cafe", which aired on Sundays. Because of my work schedule I would record the show on cassette and then play it back in the car. One of their shows played a song by Peter Case entitled "On My Way Downtown". I quickly became obsessed. I rewound the tape over and over again just to play that song. I had never heard of Peter Case and had no idea how long he had been on the music scene. What I learned over time was that, above all else, he was one of the strongest songwriters I've ever discovered.

To both critics and fans, Peter Case is known for writing very real lyrics put to bluesy, country-influenced, singer-songwriter music. His words often tell autobiographical stories that touch on very personal issues. Whether he focuses on his personal relationships or on a character, the subjects and topics are all very realistic and relatable. By the time I was discovering "On My Way Downtown", Case had already released 7 solo albums, plus several albums with his former bands The Plimsouls and The Nerves. With his 1998 album "Full Service No Waiting", Case had perfected his writing style, and had a fine grasp on how to produce an album full of incredible arrangements. It's no wonder I was hit so hard. I wasn't prepared to hear a song so perfectly put together.

I bought "Full Service No Waiting" on CD, before iTunes was a thing. Those of you who are old enough to know the music world prior to iTunes may understand the importance of this. I didn't have a chance to preview the album. I knew one song and bought the album based on the strength of it. This was why singles were so important back in the day. Fortunately for me, Peter Case produced a thoroughly perfect album. Each tune felt like it was put together with tiny, delicate hands.

The album starts with "Spell of Wheels." Immediately the listener is brought into a story about some friends taking a drive and the experiences they have (some dark, some fun). It's a song that tells the listener to pay attention, because this is going to be a very different kind of album. These songs will haunt you as much as they make your toes tap. These songs will challenge you as much as they make you sing along.

Another tune that I can't seem to get enough of is "Let Me Fall." The title alone is one reason I connect with it so much. As has been my M.O. since I was very young, I prefer to make my own mistakes. I don't like being held back by people telling me what might go wrong. Essentially, "Let Me Fall" is a song about a girl making a decision about love. It could be interpreted that this girl is waiting for an opportune moment to sneak out of the house and meet her love. What better request could there be from someone who simply wants some freedom to make a personal choice? Besides its title and theme, I absolutely dig the acoustic guitar's riff. It's got a bit of a sway. It makes me slide from side-to-side while I wear socks on a vinyl floor.

It's hard to chose a favorite track from this album, but I think for me it's "Beautiful Grind." Found late in the album, it picks up the pace from its surrounding songs and includes one of my favorite instruments: a pedal steel guitar. It's used sparingly and comes in and out at the perfect times. Combined with a fun pickin' acoustic guitar, the two compliment each other. The former has a sad, reminiscing feel and the latter has a light, grinning face.

But for me, the song wouldn't be half as good if not for the lyrics. As one might imagine based on the title, "Beautiful Grind" tells a story about a family's daily routine. But Case expertly goes back and forth in time. One part of the story takes place during the beginning of a relationship, the other takes place as a married couple with children. By simply wording his lyrics a certain way, the listener can understand that his feelings towards his wife are still as strong as they were when they first kissed. And using a storm as a metaphor (which, from the story, takes place during their first kiss), it's such a simple yet powerful lyric: I feel the current in my heart. I only see you when the lightening strikes.

If the album hasn't already gotten your attention, "Crooked Mile" should grab you by your shirt. Immediately the guitar pulls you in with fierce picking. There's a heavy blues influence, but instead of using distorted electric guitars, Case instead keeps the acoustic sound of the album intact. And "Crooked Mile" is that much more powerful because of it. When he wants you to feel more, he doesn't turn up the volume nob or add feedback; Case simply switches from picking to heavy strumming.

It's the kind of song you might hear on the corner by a street performer, a kind of song you have to stay to hear in its entirety. Asking a question as a kind of chorus: Who's gonna go your crooked mile? In other words, who in your life would follow the paths that you choose to take?  It's an excellent question that anyone can ask of themselves. And like Case's writings, it's completely relatable. That's his secret. Even though his talent is above the average songwriter, his words still reflect an everyday man.

A perfect example of this is "Still Playin'." It's the last track of the album and unapologetically tells of someone (more than likely Case himself) who will keep performing despite the lack of fame or fortune. But it's relatable because within the song he writes: Judging every note I play. The only request I've heard all night is can you sing far, far away. It can sound a bit self-deprecating, but more importantly, it sounds real. And it sounds real because it is. Case spent several years performing on the streets, just trying to make ends meet. This song represents his life at that time, from concerns for his future to the diligence that went further than most people could have given.

Peter Case (circa 2010)
Peter Case has a knack for writing poetic yet direct lyrics that just about anyone can relate to. And with his taste for blues and folk, his music fits perfectly for his kind of songwriting. He's a real human being with real problems, and he continually does what he knows best: be real. All of his albums are worth a listen, but if you have to start somewhere, start with "Full Service No Waiting." (And then immediately go to "Beeline" and "Flying Saucer Blues", which to me are nearly as perfect as "Full Service No Waiting".)

For more information about Peter Case, visit his official site: www.petercase.com or better yet Google his name. It's not surprising to a diehard fan like me to find articles like this written about Case all over the Internet. But to a new fan, you may be taken back by the amount of quality work Case has released, and the amount of people who have supported him through articles.

TRIVIA: Peter Case's son Joshua shares writing credits on "Spell of Wheels." Additionally, the song was inspired by an incident that Joshua had in the early 90s.


Red Cliff

by John Bloner, Jr.

"Don't hurt yourself, Dad," my teenage daughter said as I leapt from the sofa and slashed the air with a butter knife, while crying out,"Crouching Tiger!"

As my toes tapped carpet, I hissed, "Hidden Dragon!"

I admit this feat played better in my head. I'm not exactly Roger Ebert with my film reviews and bear no resemblance to Bruce Lee, yet in that year of 2000 I wanted to share my joy about Ang Lee's motion picture, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" after I had just seen it on the big screen.

"Crouching Tiger", as well as other films in a hybrid form of Hong Kong cinema, including the focus of this month's article on John Woo's nearly five-hour motion picture, "Red Cliff", reminds me of why we go to the movies. These films demand a large canvas, carrying the pageantry and emotions found in opera, while often containing a quiet hero who stays to himself, but who employs unique skills when a situation calls for his action. Violence is prevalent in "Red Cliff", but the choreography employed in combat leaves me breathless after each viewing. In this regard, "Red Cliff" is not "Rambo" or "Die Hard"; it's "Top Hat" or "Red Shoes."

Chinese filmmaker John Woo left his native country to make movies in Hollywood, turning out "Face/Off" and "Mission Impossible II" to box-office success before he returned in 2007 to helm a historical drama,"Red Cliff", based on a battle from early 3rd century China, when that country's imperial army of north waged war on the Yangtze River against the allied forces of the south.

The film clip below gives a glimpse into the action found in "Red Cliff", but does not reflect everything that the picture brings to the viewer. How could it? "Red Cliff" lasts almost five hours. Over 2,000 people worked on its set.  It was not only the most expensive, but also the highest-grossing film in Chinese history.

Director John Woo wanted to make "Red Cliff" over 20 years earlier, but lacked the capital and the technology to make his dream a reality. Instead, he made his reputation with action films, both in China and in Hollywood, where he helmed "Face/Off" with John Travolta as Nicolas Cage (and Cage as Travolta) and "Mission Impossible II" with Tom Cruise.

Returning to China in 2007, he was rewarded by the Chinese government with the funds and the freedom to film "Red Cliff". No one told him what he could or couldn't do with his film. There were no executive meetings to tamper with his vision. He received his budget and was allowed creative control over his project.

Filmmaker John Woo with his actors, portraying soldiers of the imperial army
"Red Cliff" has all of the ingredients of an epic:

1. It has a hero. (Several of them.)
2.  Many people's lives depend on him (and, in the case of "Red Cliff", they depend on her too).
3. Its costumes and physical settings are jaw-dropping.
4. Its musical score carries you along on the long journey. (Thanks to Taro Iwashiro & the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
5. They are expensive to produce.
6.  Their running time is typically over two hours. ("Red Cliff" last 288 minutes.)

What this description doesn't tell you is that many of the most memorable scenes in the film are quiet and tender. In the film clip below, a training exercise is interrupted by the song of a child's flute. Watch as the scene moves from chaotic to compassionate to majestic in only three minutes and thirty seconds.

"Red Cliff" is a study in contrasts. The commander of the northern army is impulsive, ruthless, and wields a force of fighters far greater in number than all of the soldiers that the south can muster. By sheer size, he believes he can overpower his opposition and bring unity to China.

The southern kingdoms have a tenuous bond. It could collapse at any time, leaving them even more vulnerable to attack than if they would work together.

A military strategist, Zhuge Liang, embodies the best and worst qualities among them. He is a brilliant strategist, able to take apart an army several times the size of his own forces with careful planning and attention to the land and skies, using dust and wind as his allies. However, he is also indecisive, a character trait that nearly kills him. The story of "Red Cliff" is more than a depiction of men at war. It reveals the war going on inside each man--aggression versus pacifism, compassion versus callousness, and impulsiveness versus deliberation--and how the outcome of an inner struggle can reveal a person's character.

Face/Off of a musical kind: Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung)
The bond between the kingdoms of the south is not strengthened through the writing of a treaty or a meeting between its warlords, but through music--a 3rd century version of dueling banjos (or in this case, dueling guqin zithers). In the photo above and video below, strategist Zhuge Liang (the bearded one) and the rival southern warlord's advisor, Zhou Yu, say a lot about themselves without uttering a word.

My favorite part of "Red Cliff" doesn't take place until two hours into the film when Sun Shangxiang, a younger sister to one of the south's warlords, infiltrates the northern army and befriends a sweet-natured boy, Sun Shucai, in her disguise as a fellow male soldier. I was reminded of Shakespeare's heroines in the story between them.

They have nicknames for each other. She is "Piggy" to his "Pit", a reference to his strong appetite, a.k.a. a "bottomless pit".   She can carry her disguise as a boy because of her extensive training in the martial arts and use of the sword and bow, while she manipulates Pit to make drawings of the enemy encampment and to escape capture from fellow soldiers who identify her as a spy.

Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) is a skilled equestrian, martial artist, swordsman and archer
When "Red Cliff" was released to an international audience, its running time was dramatically reduced by about one hour and twenty minutes, removing the story of Piggy and Pit. This is equivalent to performing "Romeo and Juliet" minus its two title characters.

Zhao Wei is not only one of China's most popular actors, she is also, according to Forbes Magazine, one of its most popular celebrities. Along with her film roles, including "Shaolin Soccer" and "Painted Skin: The Resurrection", she is also a film director (her debut film, "So Young", arrived in 2013) and pop singer. 

Actress Zhao Wei (Sun Shangxiang aka Piggy) and actor Tong Dawei (Sun Shucai aka Pit)
"Red Cliff" has been released on DVD/Blu-Ray in its original release time and in the abridged version. There should be no decision on the version selected. "Red Cliff" reminds me that a film's running time should not be decided by the average limits of bladder control or someone's perception of an audience's attention span. Would you crop the Mona Lisa so that visitors to the Louvre would not be distracted by her hands or its rural setting of northern Italy? 

Learn more about "Red Cliff" at imdb.com.


Janette Louden

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

One of my friends has an annual Halloween-themed “Monster” show at his art gallery. The walls are always a showcase of some incredible talent, and one year, as I wandered down the rows, I came upon a piece that I instantly fell in love with. It was titled “Mummy, There’s a Little Girl Under My Bed”, and showed a green monster with a teddy bear cowering on a bed while a pig-tailed little girl peeks up from underneath, smiling. It was the work of visual artist Janette Louden, and even though I’ve seen quite a bit of her work since then, it’s still one of my favorite pieces. I’m not savvy as far as knowing any of the technical nuances that qualify a piece as being “good art”, so my personal litmus test is whether or not it has some element to it that stops me in my tracks and causes me to pause for a closer, longer look. In this case, it was the humor and lovely details that made me stop and look deeper. Louden’s work often has a spark of playfulness in it, like the little monster being fearful of the human under its bed, or a cartoon pirate character who has a heart tattoo with the word “Mum” written inside. And no matter if it’s a whimsical piece or a realistic one, there are consistently beautiful details that showcase this artist’s inherent talent.

Originally from England, Louden studied 2D/3D visual communication at North East Worcester College to earn her degree, and worked as a graphic designer at an advertising agency after graduation. This gave her experience with print production and creating newspaper ads, marketing materials, and collaborating with photographers and printers. When an opportunity at Garnet Publishing, near London, opened up, Louden took a graphic design position there, working on book layout and jacket design. The company produced a large amount of educational material, and she was able to create some illustrations for Garnet’s publications. While she enjoyed graphic design, illustration was her true passion, so by the time she left her position with the publishing company, she had the distinction of producing about seventy-five percent of their illustrations.

Louden moved to the United States in 2004, and embarked on a freelance career. She’s been prolific in contributing illustrations to children’s books and educational materials, working with many different authors, and publishers such as Red Robin Books, Story Sacks, and Macmillan Publishing. One of the projects she’s illustrated was an educational set that included twenty-five books, a board game, playing cards, posters, and a playing mat. As part of her work with Macmillan, Louden uses her own style, but also matches a head illustrator’s work when needed. She also continues to use her graphics experience in her freelance work, creating logos, web banners, and brochures for small businesses.

Whether it’s paid work or a personal piece of art though, her work has continued to garner attention. It’s been displayed in galleries in both Minnesota and Wisconsin and won several awards.

With such a rich art career already to her credit, one of the things that is most impressive is that Louden is a self-taught artist. Louden says that she learned by studying intensely and replicating others' techniques, which allows her to have a large range of styles and experiences working with different mediums. She works both traditionally and digitally, and can be a bit of a chameleon, able to adapt her own style to suit different needs while also being able to copycat others' styles, if required. She’s worked with a variety of artistic mediums, including watercolors, pencil, ink, Prismacolor, acrylics, and even needle felting, wood whittling, and Sculpey clay. She says that she really enjoys using colored pencils for creating pieces, but that there’s a certain charm to using a “scratchy ink pen” too. “I love dipping the nib in ink and the resistance and scratchiness on the paper”, she explains.

In 2012, she created a series of murals for an elementary school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and as part of that, spoke with a group of children about the project. Louden felt that it was important to share one of the lessons that her journey to becoming a full-time artist taught her:

“I failed art in school. I was pretty much told that I’d never be able to succeed as a freelance illustrator, as it’s far too competitive. All I was really good at, at least in my opinion, was drawing, and I was being told that I wasn’t good enough. That’s a hard thing to deal with. But it’s all I wanted to do. And now, I get paid for drawing! So I really wanted to get across to the kids not to let anyone tell you that you’re not able to do something you really want to do. If you work hard enough and practice enough and don’t give up, you can achieve amazing things.”

As Louden has continued turning her childhood dream into her full-time job, she doesn’t just squirrel herself away and draw in solitude. She shares what she’s learned over the years with others, through her time as a painting instructor at “The Paint Pub” in Minnesota and now as she offers painting parties for groups of friends, families, work colleagues, or anyone else interested in a unique and fun event.

Even the name of Louden’s freelance business, Red Lead Illustrations, is a nod to her craft. “I use mechanical pencils to draw with, and when I’m doing rough sketches, I use a pencil with red lead. It doesn’t smudge like regular graphite lead. Illustrators often use the red (or a blue) pencil, then ink over their rough lines. Then if an image is scanned in, the red doesn’t show so much. I mostly like it (the red lead) because I don’t like smudges”, she jokes.

Smudges or not, there's a little bit of Louden's vibrancy and wit in each of her creations, inviting viewers to linger over them, and inevitably, to be charmed by what they see. To learn more and find other examples of her extraordinary work, visit her website at www.redleadillustration.com.

* Just-for-fun Pop Quiz *
What “useless” items did Janette pay to have shipped over to the US when she moved from the UK?

A.  A huge box of old cassette tapes.
B.  School reports from middle and high school.
C.  Stuffed toys.
D.  All of the above.