Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Good News X 3: Steph Cameron, Loudon Wainwright III & Jesse Winchester

With the recent news that Bob Dylan has two upcoming releases, The Complete Basement Tapes in November, and a new album for later this year, it's hard for me to contain my enthusiasm for the former and my interest in the latter. Dylan continues to be an important artist regardless of his failing voice. He writes, tours and reaches people through his songs no matter how jaded one might feel about the music business in general. Even at this stage in his career, some critics can dismiss Dylan, but he certainly cannot be ignored. Which brings me to a young singer-songwriter from Winlaw, British Columbia, by the name of Steph Cameron. Considering the thousands upon thousands of singers with guitars looking for the grail of artistic and financial success, she is a standout for her turns of phrase and first-rate guitar playing on her debut album, Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Counterscript: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

The best way I can think of to both summarize and recommend David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is to compare it to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Both are sublime fantasies that plumb the depths of human experience, encouraging our nascent desire to believe that there are worlds and powers unknown to us, hiding behind the curtain of everyday life. Both narratives swirl around the nexus of a girl, who perseveres through hardship and sacrifice to emerge as a woman on the other side. And both represent a level of skill and craft in storytelling that are, in my eyes, unrivaled in fiction.

When Holly Sykes, introduced as a teenager in 1980s Britain, finally becomes a vessel for a supernatural war, it comes as no surprise. Her beginnings in Kent give no indication that she will be brought together in the Swiss Alps with Hugo Lamb, Cambridge “poshboy” and all-around cad, and go on to start a family with war correspondent Ed Brubeck, and a friendship with has-been novelist Crispin Hershey. None of these intricate inter-relationships suggest the larger story at play, but you – and Holly – know that it is waiting there at the edge of sight, burning slowly, biding its time. When it does arrive, and The Bone Clocks fully embraces its outlandish core narrative, it feels inevitable, and as natural as breathing. The characters are the true focus of Mitchell’s talent, the sentinels standing astride the story, and they are imbued with seductive power. Through Holly’s eyes, the world is bright and immediate and difficult, hard to trust and harder to love; through Hugo’s, it’s a panoply of charades and facades, of use and misuse, of Ayn Randian self-interest and unwelcome conscience; through Crispin’s, it’s humourous and self-obsessed and cynical, full of vanity, loneliness, and the cruelties of age. Any one of these perspectives would be enough to carry a solid novel – but Mitchell gives us these and more, and they never cloy or overstay their welcome. Each is a world that is delightful to inhabit, even in its darkest and ugliest moments, that feels so fantastical and real that it can only be true.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tragic Muse: Medea and A Streetcar Named Desire

Danny Sapani and Helen McCrory in Medea, at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The great Greek tragedies are as hard and piercing as flint, and they lead us into a terrible darkness. The best productions, like Carrie Cracknell’s of Euripides’s Medea at the National Theatre (featured a few weeks ago in the NT Live HD series), leave us feeling altered. Euripides was a master ironist and a master of language; he was also a brilliant psychologist, and never more so than in Medea, a witheringly complex and precise portrait of a woman who, cut to the bone by her husband Jason’s betrayal – he abandons her and their young sons to marry Glauce, the princess of Corinth – decides that the only way to get revenge is first to poison the bride and then murder her own boys. (She convinces herself that she’s somehow protecting the children by keeping them safe from their enemies.) Euripides doesn’t make it easy for his audience: he refuses to portray Medea as mad – to give us a way of understanding her behavior that distances her from us. The chorus of Corinthian women who interact only with her sympathizes with her anger, though it terrifies them. Her logic, ghastly as it is, is no less reasonable than Jason’s when he protests that she’s the problem, that her temper has made her her own worst enemy, and explains that marrying into the royal family will somehow benefit her and their sons.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

More than Just a New Perspective: Jo Baker's Longbourn

In the interest of full disclosure, a confession: I love Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceI loved it when I read it for the first time in fifth grade, I loved it even more when I understood it more fully in high school, and that love only grew deeper during re-readings in college and afterwards when I could reflect more consciously on the gender and class dynamics that the original novel depicts. And I will defend the novel, on literary and social grounds, before all comers. It is, for one, set in a remarkable context – the family at the center of the novel are not members of the 1%, where most of the novels of the period take place, but members of the 15% where the pressures from below and above are most keenly felt. Every devotee of Pride and Prejudice will tell you that it is Elizabeth Bennet who is the heroine of the story, despite the fact that the narratives of her older sister (Jane) and younger sister (Lydia) both follow the more standard trajectory of romantic and moral narratives. But the reason I, and generations of other women, love Elizabeth Bennet is because she is capable of saying ‘no’: without blushing, and without prevaricating, she is a wholly feminine, intelligent woman who has no qualms about refusing the narrative that has been laid out for her. And while her opposite number, Darcy, begins the book as a rude misogynist, he too is worthy of continuing affection, if only because he is a man who respects (or at least, learns to respect) a woman who says ‘no.’

Because I love Pride and Prejudice, I am wary of adaptations and spin-offs. I enjoyed the two most famous movie adaptations of the novel (1940 and 2005), and Melissa Nathan’s modern and layered retelling in Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field (HarperCollins, 2001). But I have not read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2009), and I feel no great urgency to do so. I’m sure it is, on its own terms, a remarkable book, but I have no particular desire to remake the world of the original. And this is the distinction for me between good and bad sequels or adaptations: does they break the original? Or do they widen the readers’ perspective on the original without resorting to interventions that undermine Austen’s text? It is in stretching the world of Pride and Prejudice without breaking it, in preserving the original in the service of creating something genuinely new, that Jo Baker's Longbourn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) excels.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Formula Film with a Human Face: The Criterion Collection Release of Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill

When Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill came out back in 1983, it was understandable (especially if you were a political activist in the Sixties) if you found yourself appalled at just how glib and superficial the whole treatment of the period was. In it, a group of former college radicals gather for a weekend when one of their former comrades, Alex, who has lost his way, commits suicide. As they bury him, they dredge up the good ol' days and reflect on what has happened to each of them since. This would have been perfectly compelling if The Big Chill had believably suggested that any one of these people were ever once radical, let alone political activists. The level of ease they reach together in that South Carolina home, even when they rub each other the wrong way, doesn't take into consideration the uneasy course the country has taken since they last took up sides against it. The group seems more caught up in what middle-age and their choice of occupation has done to them rather than what has happened to the United States by 1983.

For a movie supposedly about the politics of a turbulent period, there is little to find that's political in it. With no sense of what happened in the land between their time as committed activists and now, there's not even a comprehension of how some of the counter-culture (especially the Weathermen) began turning criminal, even psychopathic, like the political revolutionaries in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, or the bombers in Jean-Luc Godard's prescient La Chinoise (1967), as the decade drew to a close. The shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in the early Seventies are never alluded to on this mournful weekend, and the picture never once mentions a President. The country itself is what ends up missing-in-action in The Big Chill. For all their former activism, and their engagement in the world, the collective gathered here are only interested in their state of mind and their own well-being rather than the state of the country. You're never convinced that this group was ever made up of idealists who, by the Eighties, turned into narcissists. They suggest instead refugees from one of Werner Erhard's human potential encounter groups rather than anyone who did time in the SDS. Despite the death of one of their own, which provides the very title of the picture, there is little in the way of a chill in the air considering where America actually was when the film came out.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Actors Rule: The Last of Robin Hood and Love Is Strange

Dakota Fanning and Kevin Kline in The Last of Robin Hood.

In The Last of Robin Hood, Kevin Kline plays the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn in the last two years of his life, 1959-1961, when he fell for an aspiring L.A. actress named Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning). Beverly is only fifteen, but years of acting classes and singing and dancing training and auditions have given her physical confidence and a mature, working-woman comportment, and her mother Flo (Susan Sarandon) encourages her to dress like someone in her twenties. Flo has also secured a fake birth certificate for her, presumably so that she can do an end-run around the laws governing the hiring of minors. When the movie begins Bev is dancing in the chorus of a Gene Kelly movie. (The script doesn’t identify it, but it’s Marjorie Morningstar.) Flynn, a womanizer with a well-known penchant for young women, eyes her at the studio – he’s filming Too Much, Too Soon, the Diana Barrymore story, in which he plays John Barrymore – and sends his friend, the costume designer Orry Kelly (Bryan Batt, from the TV series Mad Men), over to the set of the Kelly picture to bring her over to meet him. On the pretext of having her audition for a Broadway play he’s signed to perform in, he invites her to his lodge for dinner and champagne and takes her to bed. He doesn’t find out she’s underage until his young assistant, Ronnie Sheldo (Matt Kane), realizes that the reason she looks so familiar to him is that she was several years behind him at Hollywood High. But by that time Flynn is smitten; though his lawyer, Melvin Belli (Ric Reitz), warns him he’s playing with fire, he won’t consider giving her up.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It's a Man's World: David MacKenzie's Starred Up

Jack O'Connell in Starred Up.

The 24-year-old English actor Jack O’Connell gives a startling performance as a violent convict in the prison movie Starred Up. The title refers to the practice of transferring underage prisoners from “Young Offender Institutions” to adult prisons when they prove too unmanageably violent. O’Connell’s Eric Love, who has just been dropped into the same maximum security facility where his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is serving time, is a coiled spring, a ruthless street fighter who’s ready to lash out with his fists and feet at any perceived threat or provocation. (And not just his fists and feet: no sooner has he checked into his new digs, than he sets to work building a homemade weapon. At another point, going down fast and with no other method of inflicting punishment available to him, he fastens his teeth onto a guard’s crotch.) But he’s also a kid, and the face riding his muscular body is clear and open, occasionally breaking into an impish, childlike grin that can stop your heart. When he decides that a fellow prisoner who has entered his cell might be a danger to him, he flips out and leaves the guy splayed out, bloody and unconscious, on the floor of his cell. Then, taking the scene in and deciding that he’s overreacted, he’s like someone coming to after a blackout episode. He hauls the man he’s just attacked on his back and goes looking for help, explaining that there’s been an “accident.”