Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Out of Vogue: Joan Juliet Buck and The Price of Illusion

Joan Juliet Buck and her father, Jules Buck, in London, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Joan Juliet Buck)

The shiny surfaces in The Price of Illusion reflect a high-gloss world of celebrity and glamour which the author, former Vogue and Vanity Fair editor and writer Joan Juliet Buck, has polished to brittle brilliance. As the title of her recently published memoir suggests, the book is less a hedonistic romp through a high life made fabulous by the ubiquitous presence of Hollywood royalty and designer labels, and more an archly ironic reflection on the pitfalls of vanity and a preoccupation with appearances. Witty and stylishly written, it is an absorbing and entertaining read, a richly sashed window looking onto a whirlwind time. It has just the right amount of A-list love affairs (Donald Sutherland and Brian De Palma figure large) mixed in with insider fashion gossip concerning the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé and André Leon Tally, to make it juicy, even as the narrative skirts the edges of personal tragedy.

"It is a morality tale," says Buck, 69, during a recent telephone call from her home in the Hudson Valley countryside outside New York. The bucolic setting is deliberate. Buck recently chose it over Manhattan to be as far away from her former life in the fast lane as she could comfortably get. A pop-culture chronicler whose four-and-a-half-decades-long career started at age 23 when she became the London correspondent for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and then features editor for British Vogue and a foreign correspondent for Women's Wear Daily the same year, she speaks through drags of an ever-present cigarette, a habit picked up around the time a young Tom Wolfe made her the subject of "The Life and Hard Times of a Teenage London Society Girl," his essay about the 1960s counterculture. Her voice sounds dry,and slightly gravelly. But her intelligent commentary is as sharp as her prose. "I was always looking for the truth,"she exhales. "But growing up I didn't have many guidelines."

Monday, April 24, 2017

Iconic Shows of the 1960s: Hello, Dolly! and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! at Broadway's Shubert Theatre. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Hello, Dolly! opened in January 1964 and stayed open for just under seven years. It wasn’t the best musical on Broadway in those years – it was no Fiddler on the Roof – but it represented, and continues to represent, the end of the golden age of Broadway musicals. It was a big, brassy star vehicle, built around the rather specialized talents of Carol Channing but flexible enough to be refitted for the long line of older women who made comebacks in the role of the widowed matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi. (The source material for Michael Stewart’s book was the Thornton Wilder comedy The Matchmaker.) There was some controversy when Barbra Streisand, at only twenty-seven, inherited the role in the 1969 movie, but her stupendous performance was its lifeblood; the movie, directed in a stifling, museum-piece style by Gene Kelly, would have sunk under its own weight without her. And it contained one of the great moments in movie-musical history: in the middle of the title song – certainly the best-known item in the Jerry Herman score – Streisand, decked out in a golden Gay Nineties gown with feathers on her head, harmonized with Louis Armstrong, whose cover had been as big a hit as the show itself.

The new revival, starring Bette Midler as Dolly and David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy but parsimonious Yonkers shop owner who is supposedly her client but really the object of her own romantic machinations, arrives with more anticipation than any Broadway show in years. Advance hype aside (and God knows there’s been plenty), how could it not? Midler hasn’t appeared in a book musical since she played one of Tevye’s younger daughters in the original run of Fiddler, before she became famous; aside from the (non-musical) solo performance I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers in 2013, her only New York appearances have been in a couple of revues – one of which, Clams on the Half Shell, I was lucky enough to see back in 1975. Her Broadway comeback, at seventy-one, is not going to disappoint her legion of fans. She plays Dolly with one foot firmly planted in the Jewish vaudeville tradition, grinning that famous cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, and the highlight of her performance is indeed culinary: in the middle of act two she dispatches a stuffed chicken with dumplings at a table stage right with hilarious gusto while most of the rest of the ensemble, gathered in a courtroom upstage after the evening’s hijinks at Manhattan’s Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, waits for her to finish so the plot can take its final turn. And she could hardly have landed a funnier scene partner than Pierce, who revivifies a role that has generally brought out little in the men who’ve played it besides a side of undernourished, overbaked ham. Pierce’s first-act number, “It Takes a Woman,” performed with a male chorus, is one of the evening’s surprising highlights – the choreographer, Warren Carlyle, has staged it wittily – and “Penny in My Pocket,” written for the original Horace, David Burns, but cut out of town, has been restored to give Pierce a second-act number.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sugar and Spice: CBS's Superior Donuts

Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler in Superior Donuts.

"You know, Fawz, in this crazy and uncertain world, what could be more comforting than a doughnut and a cup of coffee? To be the one to bring that to people … there could be no higher calling than that. " – Arthur, in Superior Donuts
I began watching CBS's new midseason sitcom Superior Donuts the night it premiered back in February, and at the time I never expected to enthusiastically recommend the show to anybody. Adapted from a 2008 stage play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County ), for its first two episodes Superior Donuts seemed to be an entirely watchable, and not especially notable, multi-camera sitcom. Set in a struggling doughnut shop in urban Chicago, the show's main selling point seemed to be the welcome return of television veteran Judd Hirsch (Taxi, Numb3rs) to primetime comedy. Now 82 years old, Hirsch's last regular television role was the aged son to the immortal lead character in ABC's Forever (cancelled in 2015 after a single season). Though there are few gaps in the actor's almost six-decade-long career, you'd have to reach back to 1997's George and Leo (where he co-starred with Bob Newhart) to see him helm a network comedy series. Here, Hirsch slips almost too seamlessly into the role of Arthur Przybyszewski, the grumpy and grizzled 75-year-old doughnut shop proprietor. Joining Hirsch are an ensemble of other recognizable faces, including Katey Sagal (Married… with Children, Sons of Anarchy), as Randy DeLuca, a local beat cop and daughter of Arthur's now-deceased best friend; comedian Maz Jobrani as Fawz, an Iraqi-born self-made entrepreneur and real-estate developer; and David Koechner (Another Period), as underemployed shop regular Tush. If you watched only those first two episodes, you saw a sincere, well-delivered but entirely unremarkable example of the soundstage laugh-track sitcom – with the television veterans serving to make you feel like you'd seen this all before.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Recovering a Lost Treasure: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961)

Rita Tushingham as Jo in Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey 

Shelagh Delaney was only nineteen when she wrote A Taste of Honey, a 1958 coming-of-age play about a teenage girl set in Delaney’s home town of Salford, Lancashire, but it’s one of the treasures of its patch of British theatre, sometimes called the angry young man movement and sometimes the epoch of kitchen-sink realism. The heroine, Jo – played in the West End by Frances Cuka and on Broadway in 1960 by Joan Plowright – lives with her promiscuous mother, Helen, who sneaks them out of their digs whenever they can’t pay the rent and relocates so often that Jo never has a chance to make school friends. Helen cares about Jo, though they quarrel habitually and Helen’s attention has a habit of wandering. At forty, she finds a man eight years her junior who wants to marry her; he and Jo can’t get n so, she goes off to live with him and leaves her self-sufficient daughter behind. Jo has a fling with a sailor; after he goes off on his ship she discovers she’s pregnant. She sets up house with a gay man named Geoffrey who’s devoted to her, but when he decides to hunt down her mother because he thinks Helen should know about Jo’s condition, he finds himself displaced. Helen’s new husband leaves her for a younger woman (“his bit of crumpet”) and she’s drawn back to the daughter she traded in for a new life.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Here Be Monsters: The Comic Book Legacies of Bernie Wrightson, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson

A panel from Swamp Thing, story by Len Wein and art by  Bernie Wrightson, November, 1972.

When comic book geeks gather to talk about the history of the medium and, as is the custom on such occasions, break it up into decades, the 1970s never get any love. In the conventional wisdom’s most widespread take on the subject, comic books caught fire in the 1960s, with the excitement and freshness of Marvel Comics’ re-invention of superheroes on one floor and the rude, gleeful explosion of the undergrounds on another, and solidified those triumphs in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the coming of such maverick genre creators as Alan Moore and Frank Miller and indie upstarts such as the Hernandez Brothers, Peter Bagge, Dave Clowes, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet, but nothing much happened in between except exhaustion and false starts. There’s an alternate history waiting that mirrors the American moviemaking renaissance that accompanied the confused death throes of the studio system in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s a story about how the major publishers DC, which decisively lost its first-place status in the marketplace, and Marvel, which came out on top just as it was being abandoned by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the two artists most important (along with writer-editor Stan Lee) for its triumphs in the ‘60s were left so confused that they were willing to try a little bit of anything just to see what might stick.

In the early ‘70s, DC and Marvel wound up showcasing the four-color pop visions of several up-and-coming artists whose distinctive, eccentric styles (and time-consuming, perfectionist work ethics) would have once made them very much at odds with an industry that valued hacks who could meet a deadline and stay within the confines of a house style. At least one of these artists, Neal Adams, with his cinematic compositions and dynamic character poses every panel seemed to set off a sonic boom on the page was perfectly suited to the bulging-vein action hyperbole of superhero comics. But many of the other new stars Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael Kaluta, Howard Chaykin, Marshall Rogers were oddballs whose baroque styles drew upon classical illustration and older magazine art. And except for Rogers whose breakthrough came in his collaboration with the writer Steve Englehart on a series of Batman comics most of them did their strongest work when assigned to characters (Conan the Barbarian, the Shadow, Chaykin’s Ironwolf) who were only “superheroes” by circumstance or association. And none of them left behind a stronger legacy than Bernie Wrightson, who, until his death last month at the age of 68, was Godzilla’s closest competitor for the title of King of the Monsters.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Boy Who Slept – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was published by Nintendo on March 3rd.

I finished the storyline of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in an intensive three-week sprint, during which time I played, watched, and thought about pretty much nothing else, and since the day in late March when I watched the credits roll, the game has had another three weeks to settle into my brain. I was surprised to discover that I needed that remove; I needed time to adjust to the experience and realign my understanding of the global context of things. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: I’m now measuring my gaming history in terms of “Pre-BotW” and “Post-BotW.” With this latest iteration of the storied Zelda franchise, Nintendo’s achieved nothing less than a personal best, which means that the rest of the gaming world – and the individual gamers like me within it – will be recovering for some time from the aftershocks of this seismic success.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998)

Sandra Oh in Don McKellar's Last Night (1998).

I was glad to see that Don McKellar’s fine feature debut Last Night (1998) was part of the roster of the large list of Canadian films to be picked for free showings on National Canadian Film Day 150. This annual appreciation of Canada’s cinema is taking place on April 19 across the country, this year showing 150 different films among its 1,700 events, in commemoration of Canada’s forthcoming 150th anniversary. Last Night was originally commissioned by a French film company as one of a series of ten films from ten countries, entitled 2000, Seen By... (2000 vu par...), all offering cinematic views on the Millennium, though Last Night doesn't specifically indicate when it's taking place. McKellar’s Toronto-set, quietly apocalyptic drama, which he wrote and directed, is a unique take on the end of the world as we know it.  It’s also one of the strongest English Canadian film debuts from an outsize talent who, though he has not subsequently carved out a consistent film career, is still making his mark in his native land.

The initial brilliance of Last Night’s concept is that the news that the world is going to end has already been digested and accepted by humanity – the science-fictional aspects of the film’s premise thus don’t need to be explained in any possibly pedestrian or pretentious way – leaving only the remaining question: how will you spend your last hours on earth? The answer is: in many ways. A disparate group of Torontonians each selects a pathway to what some hope will result in something else after the end. (The movie never does spill the beans on that possibility. The only clue that something's off is that the sun never sets.) At the centre of the film is Patrick (McKellar), a lonely cynic who doesn’t want to spend time with his family or friends as the end looms. On the other hand, Sandra (Sandra Oh of Sideways and Grey’s Anatomy) wants merely to connect with her new husband Duncan (Videodrome director David Cronenberg) so she doesn’t die alone. Patrick and Sandra accidentally meet up and slowly bond even as Toronto’s residents go through various actions in their final hours. Some, like Patrick’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie of Hardcore Logo and Battlestar Galactica), are intent in carrying out all their long-held sexual fantasies, and others simply finish their work. Duncan, who works at a gas company, is going through his customer data base and calling them to reassure them that their gas will stay on until the end, a very polite Canadian way of providing reassurance. As the clock ticks down, the movie’s strong emotions bubble to the surface, providing a mélange of poignant, comic, tragic and memorable moments, with the film as a whole leaving an indelible impression.