Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Into That Good Night: The Image of Mortality in Art and Culture

Dylan Thomas.

In 1952, one year before his untimely passing at the far too young age of 39, Dylan Thomas wrote one of his most famous poems, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," in which that repeated chorus followed observations on why mortality seemed to bug him so much. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Ironically, in 1936 when he was younger and less literally at the doorstep of that diminishing light, Thomas had written a different but equally arresting poem, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," and it was one that optimistically celebrated the fact that we could never be vanquished by that damn light switch. Oh what a subtle difference one’s proximity to the darkness can make.

Such deep poetic insights into the human condition invite us to consider the importance of three key subjects and themes that have recurred throughout human history: the fact of our mortality, the potential for immortality, and the opportunity for transcendence. Art and cultural history are both replete with a perpetually challenging wonderment relating to these basic human subjects, whether it is in the form of poetry, philosophy, religion, mythology, painting, sculpture or movies. In addition, these themes are explored equally through liturgical and sacred as well as secular and entertainment formats. In a sense these themes are tied to the elemental subjects expressed in art throughout its long history from the cave wall to the computer screen: the mysteries of the self, of society, of nature and of the spiritual.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Critics Notes & Frames Vol. XXIV

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (photo by Mary Ellen Matthews)

I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. But for the last 40 years, Petty and the Heartbreakers helped keep some of the idealistic dreams of the sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” plaintive ballads like “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers created an immediacy that made each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those who remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radio, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought that instant delight to the music they played. I think critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine nailed Tom Petty’s appeal and longevity perfectly when he said that “[Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers] didn’t break from tradition the way their punk contemporaries did. Instead, they celebrated it, culling the best parts of The British Invasion, American garage rock, and Dylanesque singer/songwriters to create a distinctly American hybrid that recalled the past without being indebted to it.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Time and the Conways: Time Lost and Found

Elizabeth McGovern, Matthew James Thomas, Cara Ricketts and Anna Camp in Time and the Conways. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The English playwright and novelist J.B. Priestley was fascinated by time and wrote a series of plays about it, though only one, An Inspector Calls, has tended to get performed on these shores. But now Roundabout Theatre has elected to open its 2017-18 season with his Time and the Conways. First produced in 1937, the play was inspired by J.W. Dunne’s theory of time. It’s set shortly after World War I, at a 21st birthday party for Kay Conway, one of six siblings in a moneyed British family, and nineteen years later, when the Conways have fallen into financial disaster and personal unhappiness; act three – performed, in Rebecca Taichman’s production, after the sole intermission – is continuous with act one.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Enigmatic Reunions: Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café

Author Linden MacIntyre.

Ari Folman’s animated 2008 quasi-documentary Waltz with Bashir is the filmmaker’s cinematic effort to address and perhaps atone for his complicity in the 1982 massacre of thirty-five hundred unarmed Palestinian civilians in the West Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Folman was a nineteen-year-old Israeli soldier at the time and he repressed almost all memories of the events until, twenty years later, a friend recounted a recurring nightmare of a pack of ravenous, fanged dogs running through the streets of Tel Aviv before stopping at an apartment building and snarling up at a silhouetted figure in a window.

This visceral nightmare is the opening scene in the film and the effect is electric and immediately engages the viewer. Both Folman and his friend are convinced that the dream is related to what happened in Beirut years earlier because the dreamer recounts how he killed twenty-six watchdogs during the war. Folman seeks out friends and compatriots to interview who recall their experiences, which often bleed into fantasies of that surreal time. The animation is particularly effective in visualizing these fantasies. The interviews became the film’s fulcrum as animated versions of likely very real people speak about their memories with Folman’s avatar. With the assistance of one of his own recurring dreams, Folman is able to piece together what did happen when a Christian Phalangist militia committed these atrocities with the unwitting assistance of the Israelis, including his personal role in that massacre. At this point, the animation gives way to actual footage of the slaughter's aftermath and its effect is extremely powerful.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Neglected Gem # 108: The Clock (1945)

Robert Walker and Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945)

When it was released in 1945, The Clock was a moderate box-office success. But most people wouldn’t recognize the title today unless they’ve happened across it on Turner Classic Movies, where it’s a perennial. The plot is simple. Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker), a soldier on a forty-eight-hour leave in New York before departing for the front falls in love with Alice Maybery (Judy Garland), a secretary he encounters by chance in Penn Station – she trips over his foot at the bottom of an escalator and loses her heel. Drawn to her immediately, he asks her to show him the sights of the city; surprising herself, she agrees, and they spend the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. He asks her to meet him that night, and they spend the entire evening together, into the small hours of the morning, when they are befriended by a milkman and wind up making his deliveries for him when he gets hurt. By now Alice and Joe are deeply in love. They decide to get married before he returns to camp, but obtaining a license and getting to the justice of the peace by the end of business hours present challenges they almost fail to overcome. They do overcome them, however, and spend their wedding night in a hotel before Joe has to leave Alice. That’s the entire story.

The Clock gave Garland her first non-musical role, and it was the first non-musical project for its director, Vincente Minnelli, whom she requested as a replacement when the original director, Fred Zinnemann, didn’t work out. Both star and director had just come off Meet Me in St. Louis, an unqualified triumph, and they married as soon as The Clock wrapped; their feelings for each other surely leaked into the picture, which is one of Hollywood’s loveliest romantic dramas. No one ever shot Garland as exquisitely as Minnelli – or lit her like George Folsey, the cinematographer on both movies. (Minnelli directed her in only one subsequent film, The Pirate, and he was behind the camera for her numbers in Ziegfeld Follies and Till the Clouds Roll By as well.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Infinite Regress: David Foster Wallace & Writing About Writing and Not Writing

David Foster Wallace giving a reading at San Francisco's All Saints Church in 2006 (photo by Steve Rhodes)

It has recently come to my attention that the meaning of life can be found in the 1996 novel by the late American author David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. I can indeed confirm this, even though it is a delayed realization of some fifteen perplexed years. There are a number of explanations for why it took so long to realize that the meaning of life is easily found in Infinite Jest (page 492, to be exact) but those would not add anything salient to this basic empirical fact. The meaning of life recurs on page 997, as if for some sort of echo effect that manages to reassure the astute reader that, indeed, he or she is on the right track after all. But just where does that track lead? Did DFW find out? If so, after visiting us from 1962 to 2008, he is regrettably no longer able to file his remarkable reports from the front. Or has he only gone on to the actual front? “One never knew, after all, now did one now, did one now did one,” as he himself said in the “radically condensed history of post-industrial life” from his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, 2007. Late late Wallace.

If one could envisage a large balcony jutting off a big old ornate building somewhere in the Swiss Alps (SA in Wallace-speak), with obscurely wounded inmates lounging on large deck chairs bundled in thick blankets and conversing about the meaning of life in their own distinct accents or dialects, then one could probably see that Harry Haller is there from the novel Steppenwolf, Hans Castorp is there from The Magic Mountain (he is their genial host, in fact), Ulrich is there from The Man Without Qualities, Gwyon is there from The Recognitions, Benny Profane is there from Pynchon's Should Salinger or . . . God, no, who wants to listen to Holden with his constant cringing and whining? Certainly not gentlemen of the caliber of Haller, Castorp and Ulrich. Old-world, you know. He could always sit with Profane, I suppose. After all, it’s a community of shadows of their former selves, or of their creative authors. And Wallace’s Hal Incandenza IJ character is sitting there quietly in the corner, seemingly lost in a private reverie, or maybe he’s just pouting, thinking about Norman Mailer.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cells Within Cells, Interlinked: Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. (Photo: Stephen Vaughan)
Note: This review contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.

I have a . . . complicated relationship with Ridley Scott. I’m skeptical enough of his work, both old and new, that the prospect of a sequel to one of his better-loved films – directed by another filmmaker, to boot – was less than appetizing to me. I simply didn’t agree that the world needed more Blade Runner; Scott’s visually gorgeous 1982 tone poem was a sumptuous enough meal for me (if not a very nutritious one), whose working elements felt like they would be next to impossible to recreate. Learning that Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite filmmakers, was the one being tapped for the sequel only served to complicate my feelings further. The casting of Ryan Gosling as the new blade-running protagonist boded well; the inclusion of Hollywood’s chief aging grumpypants, Harrison Ford, did not. It was nearly impossible to calibrate my expectations, so . . . I chose not to. I tried to ignore the marketing campaign for Blade Runner 2049 (except for the tie-in short films, which I thought were brilliant). I went to see it with very little idea of what I was in for.