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.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Neglected Gem #72: Funnyman (1967)


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, which cleaned up at the Academy Awards this past weekend, is about an underappreciated actor’s struggle to break through a creative and personal block and redeem himself in his own eyes and those of his friends, colleagues, his audience, and his muse. Gonzalez Inerritu and his co-screenwriters, Nicolas Giacogone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, inflate their subject into a commentary on the current state of Western culture and a teasing reality-vs.-illusion game about the extent of the hero’s madness, dressed up in a sustained technical feat that must have demanded crack, to-the-second timing from everyone involved. John Korty’s obscure 1967 movie Funnyman, starring Peter Bonerz as an actor working in improvisational revue theater in San Francisco, offers the chance to see the same basic idea treated more modestly, in a casual, off-the-cuff manner. It makes for an interesting contrast, though that’s hardly the only reason to see Funnyman, if you ever have the chance. (Never released to home video, the movie recently turned up briefly on YouTube, and was included in a rare Korty retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Humour and Humanity in the Memoirs of Catherine Gildiner

Author Catherine Gildiner in Toronto (Photo by Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News)

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
This apt epigraph opens Catherine Gildiner’s first volume, Too Close to the Falls (ECW Press, 1999), of a memoirs’ trilogy that was followed by After The Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009) and Coming Ashore (ECW 2014). Anecdotally, some readers have indicated that they prefer the first volume and I think I understand why. It has laugh-out-loud humour and describes, in the style befitting a young precocious Cathy McClure (her maiden name), life during the conservative 1950s in small-town Lewistown, New York, and a childhood that, though chock-a-block with incredible escapades, was a happy, secure one, albeit in some ways unconventional. (Cathy, for example,  has no memory of ever having eaten a dinner at home since her mother did not want to cook.) Perhaps most importantly, each of the thirteen chapters recounts a pivotal event or relationship that reverberates in the subsequent volumes, a pattern I noticed because I read the third volume first and read backward to the first. Arguably, After the Falls has a less sassy, more sombre tone than Too Close as she describes her activism in the civil rights movement after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and explores more fully her relationship with her parents. Nonetheless, that and the concluding volume, that narrates her time in Oxford, Cleveland and Toronto from 1968 until 1974, acquire greater depth and continue to demonstrate her strengths. She is a gifted story-teller who vividly evokes the cultural texture of the eras of her memoirs. She also reveals her humour, her vulnerabilities and above all her humanity, alongside a penchant for finding herself in bizarre and almost improbable circumstances.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Swan Song: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a documentary with an extraordinary sense of time and place. The turbulent period it captures within the walls of the secretive Studio Ghibli, Japan’s premier animation house and purveyor of inexhaustible whimsy, feels like the last deep breath before the end, chronicling the release of two animated feature films: studio director Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (the latter of which was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards). Like Miyazaki himself, it’s at once as melancholy and uplifting as all Ghibli films, and serves as not only a glimpse into one of the most reclusive film studios in the world, but as a lasting testament to the magic that lives there.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lady, Be Good!: Flapper-Era Gershwin

Tommy Tune in Lady, Be Good! at New York’s City Center. (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

George Gershwin wrote sixteen Broadway musical scores in the 1920s (two were shared with other composers), and though some of the early ones rendered up small treasures like “Drifting Along with the Tide,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Somebody Loves Me,” his first distinguished work was for Lady, Be Good! in 1924. It was his initial collaboration with his brother Ira, and the first he wrote for the peerless team of Fred and Adele Astaire, who later starred in the Gershwins’ Funny Face. (In Hollywood, at what turned out to be the final years of George’s far-too-short life, he and Ira wrote two fantastic movie scores for Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and one for Astaire without Rogers.) Adele never made a movie – she retired in 1932 to marry an English lord – but she was reportedly Fred’s most gifted dance partner, and if there is no visual record of the quality of her dancing, the recordings they did together preserve her quicksilver flapper personality. Several of the most charming ones are from Lady, Be Good!, including “Hang on to Me” and the ineffable “Fascinating Rhythm,” a syncopated tune that seems to embody an entire era.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Evolving Female Detective: Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc Novels

Novelist Cara Black (Photo by Michael Allen Jones)

From a doorway, Aimée saw the flic round the corner, then stop and question a woman with shopping bags. Quickly, Aimeé slipped inside the tattoo parlor. […] Seated before the mirror, a tanned, topless woman fanned herself with a Paris Match magazine. From the edge of her left shoulder to the top of her spine, an intricate lizard design was etched in green-blue. Fine droplets of blood beaded the edges. Hunched behind her, a man with a whirring instrument started intently at her back.
Aimée winced. The price of adornment was minimal to some.
Not to her.  
[…] 
The coppery smell of blood made her uneasy.
Outside the curtain, she heard the flic questioning the makeup artist in the next room. No way she could go out there now.
The tattooist tapped his fingers on a Formica table lined with instruments. 
[…]
Footsteps approached.
“Go ahead.” She nodded, then put her head down. She covered her face with a towel and pulled a sheet over her leather skirt, praying it would be over quick. And that the flic would leave.
From Murder in the Sentier, the 4th book in the Aimée Leduc Investigations by Cara Black
If you are a voracious reader – and when I say voracious, I mean the sort of person who dives headlong into a new book full of hopes (often to be disappointed) – there are few things more satisfying that finding a genuinely rich and satisfying series character. While single works of literature often provide new best friends or lifelong influences (Pip, Elizabeth Bennet, Madame Defarge, Butt the Hoopoe…), our relationship to characters who we encounter in book after book may be less dramatic but far deeper. Granted, series’ characters are often less dramatic in their emotional impact – it is hard to imagine Oliver Twist retaining his impact if we were to follow him into middle age and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. But a good recurrent character, the kind that is hard to build and even harder to maintain, can impact the reader more softly, more slowly, the way that an old friend does. They may rarely surprise us, but they are a joy to be around, and when they do surprise us the revelation may be all the more shocking by virtue of its unexpectedness.

Recurrent characters are generally to be found in the mystery/detective/thriller genre of novels. One of the earliest paragons of this type is without a doubt Sherlock Holmes, who set a standard for recurrent detective fiction and actually introduced the idea of narrative continuity into the genre. The brilliant, addicted, and socially dysfunctional Holmes has been followed by a host of remarkable characters – among them Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey, Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot, Parker’s Spenser, Grafton’s Milhone, and Camilleri’s Montalbano. Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc is an important voice in this chorus, and it is through Aimée that Black’s books illustrate both how far the genre of the recurring detective has come, and how much room there still is for it to evolve.