Thursday, March 5, 2015

Looking for Clues: The Whites, Die Again and The Skeleton Road

The first thing to say about The Whites (Henry Holt) is that it is by “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.” Now, Richard Price is a long-time and much respected writer of crime fiction (Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life) and film scripts (Sea of Love, Mad Dog and Glory, Shaft, The Wire, the upcoming Child 44). So why Harry Brandt? Authors usually use pseudonyms not so much a disguise as an indication that the book is not like his or her other works, that there is a substantial change in style or substance. There is no such differentiation in Richard Price/Harry Brandt. Both write gritty urban thrillers, police procedurals with high-octane plots, infused with street smarts and salty language. In The Whites, Detective Sergeant Billy Graves is in charge of the Night Watch, a ragtag group of cops who respond to every major crime committed in Manhattan between 1 and 8 a.m. Their job is to secure the crime scene, canvas witnesses and then turn the whole thing over to the day shift. Graves had been tarred by an incident 18 years before, in which he accidentally shot a 10-year-old. Now, after years of nowhere postings, he is perfectly content with his overnight job. He runs his own unit, and he’s more or less free to mind his two sons during the day while his wife, Carmen, works as an emergency-room nurse. So when his squad is called out to Penn Station at 4 a.m. to investigate a stabbing, it’s routine. But the identity of the victim is not routine. He is Jeffrey Bannion, suspect in the brutal murder of a 12-year-old boy in the 1990s, when Graves was a member of the Wild Geese, an elite anti-crime unit not entirely averse to dealing out rough justice. Bannion is the obsession of John Pavlicek, a retired member of the Geese. The cop slang for the object of this obsession is a “White”; all the WGs, including Graves, have one. Not surprisingly, it occurs to Graves that Pavlicek could have knifed Bannion, but the former cop alibis out. Graves keeps poking around, however, and discovers that the Whites of other WGs have died suspiciously. Meanwhile, in a subplot that could support another novel, a vengeful cop, one with a 20-year-old reason to want bloody revenge, is stalking Graves’ wife. This is a harrowing read from beginning to end, enlivened by slick dialogue and a rough-and-ready view of both cops and the mean streets they inhabit.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Celluloid Cities & The Spiral of Time

H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) in Time After Time.

Why is it that movies set in American cities do more to characterize their locations than to simply inhabit them? Los Angeles on film is as different from New York, as San Francisco is from Los Angeles. While L.A. sprawls outward across a wide screen into places where people never have to encounter each other, San Francisco creates a concentric circle where characters obsessively retrace their steps with the expressed purpose of encountering others – that is, those who are also circling the same territory. In the movies, San Franciscans seek to explain psychological riddles that can never be solved. "What used to mean San Francisco for me is disappearing fast," wrote film essayist Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) in 1994, years after he became obsessed with the city, and with Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), which was set there. "The spiral of time, like Saul Bass’s spiral in the credit sequence, the spiral of Madeleine’s hair and Carlotta’s in the portrait, cannot stop swallowing up the present and enlarging the contours of the past." San Francisco is continually lost in the spiral of time and its characters quickly find themselves out of time.

The H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) of Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time (1979) travels to the Bay area in a time machine believing that the future holds forth a socialist utopia, as well as an escape for him from the moral strait-jacket of Victorian England. As he arrives in 1979, he's hot on the trail of Jack the Ripper (David Warner), the mass murderer who got there first. Jack believes the future will prove his view that human existence is nothing more than a charnel house of death and destruction, and where people hunt and are hunted. Welles has greater hopes. But when he arrives, he can only circle a strange city that gives him no peace, or place to rest, and where utopia can only live up to its translation which is about being nowhere. The Ripper, by contrast, is more cozy in San Francisco than he was in the deep fog of London. The spiral of time, however, gets to determine our perspective and that of the characters. If both men had come over, say, a decade earlier, the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco might have actually confirmed Wells's idea of enlightenment and the Ripper would have taken a bus in frustration to L.A. where he possibly could meet up with Charles Manson. But the Bay area of 1979 wasn't tanning itself in a Summer of Love. San Francisco was one year removed from the mass suicide of 913 San Franciscans who fled to Guyana and followed cult preacher Jim Jones into a twisted idea of socialist utopia. And if seeing the lifeless bodies of men, women and children scattered across a jungle landscape weren't already more than enough, a week later, former city supervisor, Dan White, assassinated Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall. So when the Ripper tells Wells that here in the steep hills of San Francisco, he fits right in, he can't help adding that the city makes him look like a rank amateur a century earlier.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Night Life: What We Do in the Shadows

Jonathan Brugh in What We Do in the Shadows.

New Zealand has been home to sheep, cricketers, and hobbits – but until now I had no idea it was also a preferred haunt for the living dead. I don’t mean the shambling, decayed, starved-for-gray-matter kind of undead. I mean the coffin-dwelling, garlic-fearing, blood-swilling kind – the mythical vampire, who as it turns out aren’t really that bad, apart from having to murder people every now and again. Hey, everyone gets peckish sometimes; I don’t blame them.

What We Do in the Shadows introduces us, Best in Show mockumentary-style, to a cabal of four vampiric flatmates living in a dilapidated Wellington mansion. All are centuries old and only venture outside at night, meaning their grasp on modern culture is ever so slightly stunted. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is the eldest at around eight thousand, a dead (zing!) ringer for Count Orlok who spends most of his time entombed in the basement doing unspeakable things to chickens. The others, Vladislav (a medieval torture enthusiast, known as “Vlad the Poker” in his heyday, played by Jemaine Clement), Deacon (the self-professed “young bad boy” at the tender age of 183, played by Jonathan Brugh), and Viago (a genial 18th century dandy played by writer-director Taika Waititi) prowl the streets of moonlit Wellington in search of victims and a fun place to go dancing. After one victim, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) almost escapes, Petyr inadvertently bites him, and the group must reluctantly take him in and show him what vampirism is all about. Nick brings a human friend – a computer programmer called Stu – to show them all the technological advances they’ve missed out on while they’ve been hanging upside down in the closet, or making objects float in front of the mirror.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Last Five Years: Two-Handed Musical

Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick stars in The Last Five Years.

What could have been in writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s head when he came up with the cockeyed idea of adapting Jason Robert Brown’s through-sung two-character musical The Last Five Years to the screen? Did he believe that the two characters, Jamie (played in the film by Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick), whose five-year relationship disintegrates in the opening minutes, were so compelling that an audience would ignore the inescapable staginess of the conceit? (They’re not.) Did he imagine that the baffling flashback/flash-forward structure would be somehow elucidated by editing? (It isn’t.)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Pop Journalism: Books on Bob Dylan, The Band and Paul Simon

“Definition of rock journalism: People who can't write, doing interviews with people who can't think, in order to prepare articles for people who can't read.”

Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

This quote from Frank Zappa has always struck me as funny. Funny because, having written several thousand words of music reviews over the years, it might even apply to me. Of course I rarely if ever interview anyone, it’s all just my opinion. I might borrow a controversial quote, like this one, and use it as a springboard into a discussion about something or other. But does Zappa speak for all rock journalism? I just finished reading the third of a series of new books published by Rowman & Littlefield about rock music. American rock music specifically. The publisher has selected a cross section of important American artists and matched each of them with an appropriate author to come up with books on Bob Dylan, the Band, Paul Simon and others yet to come. I have read the Dylan, Simon and The Band books. They stand individually, but they also sometimes lean on each other for support. The first book in the series is Bob Dylan: American Troubadour by Donald Brown. Brown is a theatre critic and book reviewer at the New Haven Review. He also teaches at Yale. His book begins with a timeline contrasting important events in the history of the world (Dec.7 1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbour) with important dates in the life of Dylan (May 24, 1941 born as Robert Allen Zimmerman to parents Abram and Beatrice in Duluth, MN). A similar timeline appears in the Paul Simon book but is inexplicably missing from The Band volume. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Guts on the Page: Notes on the Absolute Unity of Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau (photo by Carola Dibbell)

The one time I broke bread with Robert Christgau, he told me a variant of the old joke equating opinions with assholes: “Everybody’s got one.” “Ah,” he grinned, “but not everybody has 10,000!” That joke turns up in the introduction to his new book, Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (Dey Street Books)—followed by the real zinger: “It distresses me that the wit of this riposte so often fails to impress the asshole I’m talking to.” Wondering if I laughed hard enough at the time to have eluded that tag, I bored into these 365 pages of unadulterated Bob-ness and felt on every single one the pull of warmth and acuity against the push of bluster and bullying—the alternating currents that for me have always characterized Christgau’s criticism.

This applies to Going into the City as much as to any other thing he’s written. A partial list of words describing his work might include self-aggrandizing; pompous; invidious; overwritten; showoffy; superficial; and hipsterish. Among the things his work could never be accused of being are uninformed; ungenerous; humorless; evasive; snobbish; sluggish; falsely modest; and truly modest. The latter qualities, in unique combination, have always made Christgau one of the few pop critics worth following. The former have meant that reading him is a conflicted, jittery experience, pleasurable and despairing both, in which a helpless and melting love for one so wise and wonderful is certain to be summarily smacked by an ego so unmediated one can scarcely countenance it in an adult old enough to get drugstore discounts.

Friday, February 27, 2015

American Dreams: ABC's Fresh Off the Boat

Randall Park and Constance Wu in ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.

Comedies are a tricky business: a still mysterious alchemy of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and like a good joke, possible to dissect but impossible to clearly explain. The family sitcom – from Family Ties to The Simpsons to Everybody Loves Raymond to Modern Family to this season's Blackish – is perhaps a bit easier to break down. The family, like the workplace, is perhaps the closest thing to a universal experience we currently have. In the end if the relationships feel real and the comic nuances hit the right tone, it doesn't matter whether that workplace is a police station, a paper supply distributor, or a parks department in a small Midwestern town, nor if the family is white and upwardly mobile, Italian Catholic, Black, gay or straight, or even animated. Whatever their experience might be, viewers will find their own way into that world – and having done so hopefully laugh a little. But this balance between  the known and the unknown is perhaps where most of the battles are won and lost. Err on the side of too familiar, and a new series simply feels unnecessary. Too unfamiliar, and well, even the most pointed and brilliant comedy will never find an audience to begin with.  

Earlier this month, ABC premiered Fresh Off the Boat, a new family comedy adapted from the 2013 bestselling memoir of the same name by restaurateur, and former Food Channel personality, Eddie Huang. The sitcom begins in 1995 – as 11-year-old Eddie, his parents, his Mandarin-speaking grandmother, and his two young brothers move from Washington D.C.'s Chinatown to sunny and suburban Orlando to follow his father's dream of opening a restaurant. Eddie's parents Louis and Jessica are Taiwanese born, but Eddie and his brothers are American, born and raised – albeit within the shelter of an urban Chinese enclave. The "boat" they are "fresh off " of is in fact a minivan, though Florida might as well be a new continent for the Huangs. In full on Wonder Years mode, the real-life 32-year-old Eddie Huang provides a voiceover to many of these early episodes, giving the series a recurrent taste of some of the bite of his memoir, while also providing some insight into the young Eddie's struggles in his new environment. ("Remember: this was 1995, before the Internet. I couldn't just search, 'Asian kids who like hip-hop.' I had to figure out a way to fit in.”)

To get a few things out of the way quickly: Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American network comedy since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl was aired and cancelled (also by ABC) in 1994, a full year before this nostalgic coming-of-age period comedy is actually set. On those terms, Fresh Off the Boat is both significant, and important. Those terms, however, don't tell us what perhaps is most urgent: is the new series funny, charming, and (apologies!) fresh enough to watch? Fortunately, the answer is a firm yes. Six episodes have already aired and all demonstrate that Fresh Off the Boat is likely the most promising new network comedy of 2015.