Saturday, July 22, 2017

Voices from the Grave: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo

Author George Saunders (photo by Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune 2013)

Tibetan theology and the private grief of Abraham Lincoln might not seem like two subjects that naturally go together, but George Saunders masterfully interweaves them in his stunning novel Lincoln in the Bardo. The sixteenth president of the United States has fascinated writers and artists ever since his emergence on the national stage, leading most recently to films such as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, best-selling nonfiction such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and shlock like the “mashup novel” Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and its movie adaptation. However, in this case the titular Lincoln is not Abraham, but rather his son Willie, who died in February of 1862, when the Civil War had been raging for less than a year. Interred in his grave, Willie finds himself in bardo, a liminal state between life and death that features in some Buddhist interpretations of the afterlife. Here, he encounters a panoply of strange new neighbors, such as the naked Hans Vollman and the youthful Roger Bevins III, who sprouts a multitude of eyes and arms whenever he begins rhapsodizing about the beauty of the world that he’s left behind, as if trying to adequately appreciate the entirety of creation. Willie and his companions don’t know that they’re dead, an ignorance which in large part propels the plot of the novel. They’re joined by a wide cast of characters that peoples (or haunts) the graveyard, ranging across every conceivable social, racial, and moral division within their society and often replicating those same hierarchies in death as in life.

Friday, July 21, 2017

High Stakes: Netflix’s Castlevania

Trevor Belmont (voiced by Richard Armitage) in Netflix's Castlevania.

That video game adaptations are generally awful is pretty much a matter of public record. The bad – your Resident Evils, your Tomb Raiders, your Max Paynes – are too numerous to count, and the good – your Wreck-It Ralphs, your Scott Pilgrims, or even The Wizards – usually earn that distinction by not actually being adaptations of a specific game at all. I don’t need all the digits on a single hand to list the adaptations I genuinely like, and they all come with an asterisk anyway.

So the bar is, and has been, set very low for decades now. We’ve all been waiting for something to come along and raise it, demonstrating to a disbelieving non-gamer public that there’s rich fiction to be culled from these sources and reimagined in a cinematic context. I’m not saying that Netflix’s new Castlevania series, written by Warren Ellis, is that adaptation – but it’s damn close.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sometimes The Remake Is Better: Panique vs. Monsieur Hire

Michel Simon in Panique (1946).

Note: The following contains spoilers for Panique (1946) and Monsieur Hire (1989).

TIFF Bell Lightbox, the Toronto International Film Festival’s year-round screening centre, is presenting French classic cinema this summer in Toronto, as it often does during the warm months. One highlight -- or, at least, they think it is --  in their series Panique: French Crime Classics, is the revival of Julien Duvivier’s 1946 Panique (Panic), a dramatic film starring Michel Simon as Monsieur Hire, an unpopular man who is suspected of murdering an elderly woman and whose presumed innocence is quickly thrown by the wayside as his neighbours hound him to a tragic fate. Usually these neglected films, revived for audiences who may not know of them, turn out to be worth your time but Panique, though not entirely devoid of interest, isn’t one of them. It’s a movie whose lofty ambitions aren’t quite reached. But you can catch a variation on the same film in Patrice Leconte’s 1989 Monsieur Hire, also based on Georges Simenon’s 1933 short novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire (Monsieur Hire's Engagement), a movie that is Panique’s superior in virtually every way. (Any number of other films in the French crime series, including The Wages of [Fear [1953], Rififi [1955] and Touchez pas au grisbi (Don't Touch the Loot, 1954] as well as in the related film series centered on filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville [Army of Shadows, 1969] can make that claim, too.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

When We Dead Awaken: George Romero (1940-2017)

Filmmaker George A. Romero died this past Sunday, July 16, at the age of 77.

Everyone who has had a nodding acquaintance with the popular culture of the past quarter-century or so knows what zombies are. Zombies, which are often called “walkers” or “the infected” or just anything but “zombies,” are people who have died only to be resurrected as inarticulate, humanoid beasts. Decaying but still animate, they are ferociously hungry, and they feast, cannibalistically, on those still living. If they kill someone and leave enough of the corpse intact to rise and stagger about, that person too becomes a hungry zombie. Once a zombie plague has begun, either because of a new fast-spreading virus or a scientific experiment gone wrong or for no detectable reason at all, the countdown to apocalypse is well under way; as the Lord of the Underworld puts it in one of William Messmer-Loebs’s graphic novels about the Greek philosopher Epicurus, when the dead and the living go to war, the living always lose. Once transformed, zombies may make a beeline for those they loved in their former lives, either because of some innate tracking system or just because of their close proximity, but they cannot be reasoned with and have no sentimental feelings, or any feelings of any kind except hunger; the living are nothing but a food source to them. And they can be deterred only through complete physical annihilation – the destruction of their brains, along with as much else of them as possible – which can make for some pretty gory filmmaking. We know all this thanks to Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 horror movie made in Pittsburgh by the director George A. Romero and his screenwriting partner, John Russo, on a budget of $144,000.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Elephant in the Room: The Mystery of Jack White

“Nothing is improbable until it moves into the past tense . . . ” George Ade
As a member of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and the Rome project (with Danger Mouse, Norah Jones and Daniele Luppi), Jack White III has certainly proven himself as a songwriter, singer, performer and musician. But it's also an impressive list when you add up White’s own production work with his bands, as well as producing other stellar artists like Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, The Greenhornes, Dexter Romweber Duo, his wife Karen Elson and even his pal Conan O'Brien.

White also oversees the record label he founded, Third Man Records, where his productions are released and where occasional live concerts are captured on analog tape in the back room. But the real action has always been taking place on 8-track, 2-inch tape in his self-designed, private studio in Nashville, where he's been busy at work since September 2009 on many diverse projects, including Wanda Jackson's excellent album, The Party Ain't Over, and the launch of his publishing enterprise, Third Man Books.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Berkshire Report: Where Storms Are Born and Baskerville

LeRoy McClain and Myra Lucretia Taylor in Harrison David Rivers’ Where Storms Are Born. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

There aren’t any startling surprises in Harrison David Rivers’ Where Storms Are Born on Williamstown’s Nikos Stage, but it has a dramatic arc and it was written with actors in mind – Rivers has given the ensemble of six plenty to play. And it has patches of sharp, lyrical writing; I think Rivers has talent. (This is his fifth play but the first I’ve encountered.) Its high point is the climactic monologue by Myles (Leroy McClain), whose death at thirty-one in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder, is the starting point of the play. Myles appears in flashback at different points but this speech is a dramatization of the letter he wrote his kid brother Gideon (Christopher Livingston), the protagonist of the piece, revealing the truth about the murder. It’s his way of reconciling with Gideon, who has refused to visit him in jail, and of giving him something to hold onto, and as both a descriptive piece and a confessional one, it’s vivifying and affecting. (McClain reads it with brio.)

Gideon is confused and fumbling and desperately in need of male guidance; his father died long ago, and though Myles was a teenage drug dealer (he went to jail at eighteen), he was also the boy’s protector and his counselor. Now in his twenties, working at a desk-clerk job he hates, Gideon mostly keeps his own counsel; he doesn’t confide in his mother, Bethea (Myra Lucretia Taylor), whom he still lives with – only somewhat in his childhood friend and co-worker Worthy (Jonice Abbott-Pratt, in a lively, funny performance that seems to channel bits of Rosie Perez in her early movies). Worthy knows Gideon’s gay but not that he’s sleeping with Benton (Joshua Boone), Myles’ best friend from the neighborhood and his street boss. In the course of the play – which runs ninety minutes without intermission – he moves on from Benton to Luke (Luis Vega), a guard who befriended Myles in prison and who reaches out to Gideon at a gay bar. Rivers doesn’t deal with the complications of Luke’s making a connection with Gideon both on his own behalf and on his brother’s; I would say that’s the play’s major lacuna. Though not the only one: it’s also unclear whether Gideon has come out to his mother and, if she knows he’s gay, how she feels about it. (It’s clear that she knows that he has maintained some link to Benton and that she doesn’t approve of his hanging out with the boy she holds responsible for the corruption of her older son.)

Saheem Ali’s staging could use more imagination (and Arnulfo Maldonado has given him a flexible, evocative unit set to work with), but he does a good job of directing the actors. Except for Taylor, who overacts, all the actors turn in creditable performances, though Livingston, in the most challenging role, hasn’t worked out exactly how to convey the inner life of a young man who isn’t comfortable with his feelings. Rivers has drawn Myles, Benton and Luke as foils – three characters who have responded in different ways to life for a young African American New Yorker – and McClain, Boone and Vega, all striking stage presences, suggest those differences in their scenes with Livington’s Gideon, who is implicitly weighing them against each other. Where Storms Are Born (a clumsy title) is a small achievement but a play that engages you with all six of its characters is worth talking about.

The cast of Dorset Theatre Festival’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery: Raji Ahsan, Brian Owen, Liz Wisan (centre), Caitlin Clouthier, and Dave Quay. (Photo courtesy of Dorset Theatre Festival)

I made my first visit to Theatre Dorset in Vermont, near the Massachusetts border, over the weekend and found it to be a lovely space, rustic and intimate. (It’s about an hour’s drive from Williamstown, not far from Bennington College.) Having missed my chance to see Tyne and Tim Daly in a new Theresa Rebeck play, Downstairs, I decided to check out Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a sort of parodic vaudeville by Ken Ludwig after the manner of The 39 Steps, with a cast of five, three of whom (two men and one woman, at least in this production) play about a dozen parts among them. The shifting back and forth is part of the joke; there are moments when a line by Holmes (Liz Wisan) or Watson (Dave Quay) demands that one of the three shifters – Brian Owen, Raji Ahsan and Caitlin Clouthier – leap into one character moments after abandoning another, and the actors’ incredulousness at being asked to labor so assiduously is fun. Except for Wisan, who doesn’t get to demonstrate much versatility (despite the fact that she’s cross-gender-cast), the actors all demonstrate physical and vocal talents, especially Clouthier, who burlesques a number of accents. The problem is that the director, Jen Wineman, hasn’t shaped the production at all, so it looks as if the actors made up stuff as they went along. And since she clearly didn’t curb their self-indulgence, every routine goes on for half a minute or a minute too long, including some (like Owen’s screaming tantrum as the foppish naturalist Stapleton) that aren’t even remotely funny.

Alexander Woodward’s set is amusingly littered with props, mostly specimens Holmes has collected, and they’re nifty to look at. But since only the opening scene takes place in Holmes’ study, the omnipresence of his collection (and his furniture) is distracting, too, and a little confusing. My favorite part of the set was the upper level, above the backdrop, which gets employed at various points and in a number of ways, mostly of them unpredictable. Aaron P. Mastin provided the costumes, which enhance the humor.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Who Watches the Watchers: Sepinwall and Seitz's TV (The Book)

A scene from The Sopranos, one of more than 100 shows discussed in Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz's TV (The Book).

“When you hear the words The Dick Van Dyke Show, imagine the gears of a Swiss watch ticking.”
– Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, TV (The Book).

The best criticism, whether it is of the written word or flickering images on a screen, isn't tempered by love – it is fuelled by it. TV (The Book) (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), by television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, has the stated ambition to present an established TV canon, to boil down decades of television and take a first crack at providing readers with an "essential viewing list." Substantial television criticism is as new as TV's still-recent surge in ambition and quality, and popular book-length studies of any comprehensive nature are rare (Sepinwall's own 2012 The Revolution Was Televised and David Bianculli's 2016 The Platinum Age of Television are among the few). Sepinwall and Seitz shared a TV column in New Jersey's Star-Ledger in the late 90's and, though this is their first collaboration in two decades, the dialectical spirit of that relationship marks the text as a whole. With TV (The Book), Sepinwall and Seitz offer an appropriately down-to-earth reflection on an art form that is populist par excellence, a book that is more conversation than classroom.