Saturday, December 17, 2011

Take a Gamer's Holiday: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Whether you recall the 1980s with a laugh, a cringe, or a roll of the eyes, it’s hard to help smiling at the joyful nostalgia that permeates Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Written by the director of the 2008 film Fanboys, the novel speaks to that demographic in its native tongue, presenting a vision that will appeal to those with a taste for cyberpunk, oddball grail quests, flying DeLoreans, or old school gamer lore.

The premise seems simple: in the near future, a billionaire game developer leaves his entire fortune to whomever can solve a series of puzzles within his massively multiplayer virtual reality game, known appropriately as the OASIS. Since the challenge is open to all, everyone from basement dwellers to multimedia conglomerates clamor for a chance to control this digital universe, which has become the preferred platform for socializing, schooling, and marketing for much of the first world.

Enter Wade Watts, named in the alliterative tradition of such nerdy heroes as Clark Kent and Peter Parker. A teenager gamer living atop a stack of RVs, his family life and aspirations were decimated by the socio-economic collapse of the United States. To escape, he dreams of finding success and glory in the OASIS. Seeing the contest as his opportunity, he begins his hunt through the series of clues left by the game developer who, it turns out, obsessed over 1980s popular culture. In this way Ready Player One takes a paradoxical approach to speculative fiction: in a bleak future, advanced technology seems unable to stop humanity’s steady decay, yet provides refuge in the form of retro gaming and classic movies.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Delectable Pastry: Soulpepper Theatre Company's Parfumerie

Oliver Dennis & Patricia Fagan in Parfumerie by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company

Recently, I apologized to an actor friend of mine because I'd missed a play he was in. He laughed and said, “Oh, don't worry about it. It's just a pastry; a confection. It's nothing that serious.” I thought, but didn't say, “A piece of frothy fun, done well, can be as good and as important as a great tragedy.” That thought came to mind as I left Soulpepper Theatre Company's 2011 Christmas show, Parfumerie by Miklós László: it's frothy fun with a serious edge (it's playing until December 30th in Toronto's Distillery District). Parfumerie may be unknown to most people, but it is actually the basis for not one, not two, but three movies, plus a Broadway musical. Do the movies The Shop Around the Corner (1940), In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You've Got Mail (1998) ring a bell? They're all based on this obscure Hungarian play written in 1937 by Miklós László (the musical was 1963's She Loves Me).

The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and directed by comic master Ernst Lubitsch, is one of my favourite movies. So when I heard in 2009 that Soulpepper had found and resurrected the original play, (the new translation was created specifically for Soulpepper by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins) I was intrigued. I waited too long and it was sold out. Last year, Soulpepper remounted their fine production of A Christmas Carol, so I thought I was out of luck. Fortunately, Parfumerie did so well in 2009 that they have decided to alternate it every second year with A Christmas Carol

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Less is More: This One's For Him – A Tribute to Guy Clark

In November 2011, Guy Clark turned 70. All our heroes are turning 70, or 75; I guess that means I’m ageing too. I don’t feel like it, except when I try to do the same old things I always did. Like stand up, or bend over! To celebrate Guy’s birthday, his friends, led by Tamara Saviano, created the tribute album, This One's For Him. Now Guy Clark is one of those heroes who needs to be celebrated, although I’m pretty sure he’d be uncomfortable with the attention.

Last time I saw Guy Clark was at Guelph’s marvellous River Run Centre. I had an appointment to meet with his accompanist and pal Verlon Thompson. Guy was asked from the audience if he was going to come out and sign CDs after the show, and he said, “Well,” in his slow Texas drawl, “do ya want me to?” And sure enough he came out, and stood quietly against the wall, looking ever so much like he couldn’t figure out what all the excitement was about. He took the gushing compliments with an “aw shucks” attitude, and scribbled his signature on a dozen or two CD inserts. He’d done his job, sung his songs and played his guitar, told his stories and entertained us for a couple hours. It was time to go, but the “Master Songwriter” (as his web site calls him) schmoozed for our benefit. He was the old pro.

This One’s For Him is a two-disc set that feels almost like one of Guy’s own records, except everybody else is singing the songs. The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas using a core group of musicians including Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, Lloyd Maines, Jen Gunderman, Glen Fukunaga, Glenn Worf, Kenny Malone and Larry Atamanuik, among others. These names will be familiar to regular listeners of Texas songwriter music. They’ve played around and are all masters of their craft. The tone is acoustic, warm, and comfortable, all the way through from the first sound on Disc One. I say first ‘sound’ because before he launches into “Old Time Feeling” Rodney Crowell says “Let’s give her a good go and make ol’ Guy proud of us…” It lends an air of honesty and intimacy to the proceedings which remains throughout both discs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Luck: David Milch’s Return to HBO is a Sure Bet

Dustin Hoffman as Chester 'Ace' Bernstein in Luck on HBO

On January 29th, the first season of David Milch’s new HBO show, Luck, will begin – and it shows every sign that it can live up to the best that both Milch and HBO have to offer. Though we’ll have to wait six weeks to see new episodes of the show (which boasts screen legends Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in their first regular roles in a TV series), this past Sunday HBO gave audiences a sneak peek at the new series when it aired its pilot episode.

Coming out of the gate strong, this show takes its time, and respects its audience, subjects, and characters the way that only a show which is truly meaningful to its creators can. Knowing a subject too well can be a liability when making a drama. (David Simon’s intimacy with Baltimore was an asset for most of the run of The Wire, but if the final season staggered just a bit, it was likely because Simon was just a little too close to the world of the Baltimore Sun that he introduced in that fifth season) But here, it seems, Milch’s lifelong association with the racetrack only seems to give him the confidence necessary to take it slow. A story that was basically five decades in the making, it paints a patient portrait of a unique world.

David Milch on the set of Deadwood
In December 2007, one month into the Writers Guild of America strike that would bring Hollywood to a standstill for three and a half months, David Milch – most famous as the creator of HBO's groundbreaking Western Deadwood – gave a series of impromptu lectures before a small audience of fellow writers and strikers at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills. (An astute soul taped the talks, and they have been available online ever since. For the singular insight they offer into one of television's most creative and dangerous minds, I cannot recommend them more.) Interspersed with anecdotes about his first sexual encounter and his decades-long struggle with drugs and alcohol, the extemporaneous lectures touched on everything from Milch’s philosophy of writing, the deep ambivalence TV writers feel towards their bosses, and the essence of the creative process, to the life of St Paul and the nature of religious faith.  And Milch also spoke about two very personal television projects that he’d been kicking around for a long time, both of which were extremely personal to him, and neither of which (he implied) he expected to ever see the light of day. One was a show about the racetrack. Luck is that show.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Rump of the Sixties: The Doors – A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years by Greil Marcus

Looking over the pieces I've written in the last year, I've spent a good deal of time dealing with the troubling legacy of the Sixties. Even my next book, which I'm now writing and preparing for publication, begins with the early promise of that decade and follows the subsequent ones as if tracing the endless ripple of a pebble tossed in the sea. My preoccupation is not based on my age either (although I grew up in the Sixties), or holding on to some sense of nostalgia for better times. I'm also not locked into the glory days of my youth (they weren't very glorious to begin with) and clinging to some talisman against the bitter cold. Although there are some people I know who decided to stop listening to music, reading books, and seeing movies that didn't conform to the values they treasured when they were young, I'm not grappling with the Sixties, either as an idea or a time and place, as a means to avoid the realities of the current decade. Quite the contrary.

As far as popular culture goes, for me, it still lives and breathes in the present. For instance, I'd love to write more about contemporary music; why I'm mesmerized by Matthew Friedberger's sinewy guitar that snakes its way through The Fiery Furnaces' "Two Fat Feet" from their debut 2003 album Gallowsbird's Bark; how Seattle's Fire Theft seems to effortlessly embody in their single "Chain," an emotional hailstorm, the void left by Nirvana; or, the impish joy I hear in Rachel Nagy's libidinous "very nice" that kicks off The Detroit Cobras' "Ya Ya Ya (Looking For My Baby)," a full-tilt boogie that would make John Lee Hooker smile; on how I'm moved in the most peculiar way by The Handsome Family's "Weightless Again," a song that both laments and justifies suicide in a manner as wistfully satirical about the subject as Steely Dan's "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"; or why Okkervil River, on I Am Very Far, and the Decemberists, on The King is Dead, continue to rehabilitate our notions of what constitutes musical Americana.

As much as I continue to enjoy new music, it's still too immediate, too much of its time, for me to reflect back on it with any real authority. It has yet to trace its own path into the future where it might find a meaning for itself beyond what it represents now. What I enjoy in writing about Sixties culture is the task of putting to the test the relics that have stood the test of time, as well as the things that haven't; that is, figuring out what new meaning continues to breathe life into work that could have (and maybe should have) expired a long time ago. In a sense, that's the underlining theme of The Doors A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years (Public Affairs, 2011), where critic Greil Marcus ponders the dark magic of the L.A. group The Doors, a rock band dead for over forty years now, but hardly gone from cultural relevance. In examining what they mean today, indeed how they've endured both on the radio and as part of the embroidery of the lost Sixties, Marcus not only reveals the obvious (that they weren't really a group of their time), but that they somehow (despite this) characterized their time, and took on the leaner, meaner, violent side of that decade's demise. (As Marcus reminds us, they weren't one of the 'love' bands.) And their best music, like that pebble in the sea I mentioned earlier, continues to ripple along as if they never went away.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Grandstanding: Other Desert Cities

Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach in Other Desert Cities (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Jon Robin Baitz’s critically acclaimed new Broadway play Other Desert Cities is an American family drama with an eleventh-hour revelation. Structurally and generically it harks back to the Victorian-era well-made plays that Ibsen and Chekhov each took a hand in sabotaging but that survived nonetheless into the twentieth century, where they furnished a model for American playwrights like Arthur Miller (who added a Freudian element) and later a blueprint for TV serials. Baitz must think he’s creating something new because he’s stocked his play with political content, but it’s a screechy, grandstanding melodrama in which every hinge creaks.

The setting is Palm Springs, where Polly and Lyman Wyeth’s two grown-up children have come out to spend Christmas with them. Lyman (Stacy Keach) is a retired ambassador and he and Polly are still conspicuously active in Republican circles. (Polly is played by Stockard Channing, but I saw her understudy, Lauren Klein.) Before they entered politics both Wyeths had Hollywood lives, Lyman as a handsome leading man while Polly and her sister Silda (Judith Light), transplanted Texas girls, wrote a series of popular detective movies. The team split up when the two sisters stopped getting along well enough to collaborate, and their animosity is more apparent than ever now that Silda, a recovering alcoholic, has moved in with Polly and Lyman. Their son Trip (Thomas Sadoski) produces a TV show called Jury of Your Peers in which the jury is made up of celebrities. Their daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) is a journalist who has just completed a manuscript. When the family is assembled she announces that it’s a memoir about the family, centered on the tragedy they’ve never recovered from: during Vietnam their eldest, Henry, became involved with a radical anti-war group that bombed a recruitment center, killing a homeless man, and out of guilt and despair Henry drowned himself. Brooke has never forgiven her parents for turning their coming-apart son away when he sought their help after the bombing, nor has she recovered, after all these years, from the feeling that Henry, her hero, abandoned her when she was a little girl, not even leaving a note for her when he chose to take his life. This event which almost destroyed her family haunted her into her shaky adulthood – she’s had a breakdown and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. In researching the book she’s used her aunt as a resource. Silda has her own axe to grind: her fury that her sister and brother-in-law’s fervent loyalty to the GOP cause prompted them to see their own son, whom they struggled to bring up in their political image, as a traitor for defecting to the left wing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

In Darkness: A Harrowing Tale of Enlightenment

Milla Bankowicz and Robert Wieckiewicz in In Darkness

My mother and her closest kin came to America from Poland, a nation that was invaded a dozen years later by the Nazis. In 1942 virtually all Jewish residents in the shtetl of her little hometown, Goniadz, were killed outright or sent to the gas ovens of the Treblinka death camp. Their homes were ransacked by Catholic anti-Semites, who rejoiced with the local priest as they helped the Gestapo wipe out an entire community.

She’s not around any more but I wonder what her opinion would have been of In Darkness, about a sort of proletarian Polish version of Oskar Schindler named Leopold Socha. With his help, ten people survive for 14 months (beginning in May 1943) in the filthy, rat-infested sewers under Nazi-occupied Lvov, where fellow Jews are systematically obliterated by the Gestapo. This sort of topic was always raw for a woman who could never concede that there might conceivably be such a thing as a good Pole.