Thursday, January 31, 2013

That's a Wrap: The Past and Present State of Post-Apocalyptic Cinema

Bruno Lawrence in The Quiet Earth (1985)

Last month, Turner Classic Movies – after almost 19 years on the air, still the best friend a movie freak with a cable box has ever had – had a witty idea for breaking up its holiday schedule of shoving candy canes into viewers’ stockings. On December 21, 2012, the date enshrined in urban myth as the Day of Judgment as predicted by the Mayan calendar, TCM filled its daytime schedule with movies about the threat of the end of the world, or its aftermath. Watching a slew of them served to underline how much the post-apocalypse genre has changed since it ceased to be a vehicle to address nuclear anxieties. Post-apocalyptic films and TV shows now have an angry, fatalistic, nihilist attitude, with costume and set designs out of a survivalist training manual. That may sound like a no-brainer, but during the Cold War, post-apocalyptic science fiction was largely a humanistic genre. The end of the world isn’t what it used to be.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Love in Excess: Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley stars in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina

If you’d asked me last year which contemporary director I’d most like to see adapt Anna Karenina, I would have named Joe Wright. David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies and directed the majestic BBC miniseries of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, would have been a close second. Yates has a magical feel for the epic scope of Victorian fiction – a quality he excavates out of J.K. Rowling’s already Dickensian material – and perhaps more than any other recent director he has succeeded in transmuting the addictive pacing of the capacious novel form to the seriality of television and the film series, capturing the velocity of the novels rather than trying to outdo them. But it’s Wright’s films that distill and remediate the pleasure that novel reading can give us. In Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), the experience of reading as both subject and visual motif suffuses the movies with a gently expressive awareness of the translation from page to screen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole: Welcome to Utopia

Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde, in Channel 4's Utopia

A mysterious and possibly prophetic graphic novel, two brightly-dressed killers armed with small gas canisters and bottles of bleach, the suggestion of an ever-diminishing global food supply, four unlikely allies thrust into a worldwide conspiracy because of an online comic book forum: welcome to Channel 4’s Utopia – a pre-apocalyptic conspiracy thriller from the pen of playwright and TV writer Dennis Kelly.

Writing about television comes with its own unique challenges: the best TV shows tell long, even open-ended stories, and it is often difficult to assess them while they’re still in progress.  As I sit down to write this, I’m still questioning whether it would perhaps be better to wait until Utopia’s full season has played out in its entirety. (It’s now aired only two of its promised six episodes, after all.) Waiting however comes with its own risks: I already regret, for example, not writing immediately about the first episode of ABC’s now-cancelled Last Resort. (To be candid, I have also regretted weighing in too soon. See A Gifted Man, where almost everything that was so impressed me in the pilot episode made the series frustrating and tedious by the middle of its first, and thankfully only, season.) Sometimes, as with Last Resort, a first episode is so unprecedented, so “fall off your seat” shocking, that you can’t stop talking about for the rest of the week. Visually arresting, unrepentantly violent, and darkly funny, Utopia is like nothing else currently on television. From its opening scene, you already know you’re seeing something entirely new.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Marry Me a Little: The Sondheim Jukebox Musical

Phil Tayler and Erica Spyres in Marry Me A Little at the New Repertory Theatre (Photo by Andrew Brilliant)

A jukebox musical is constructed around the pre-existing catalogue of a composer or a songwriting team or a musical group. The English phenomenon Mamma Mia! popularized the genre – and it remains the prime example of all that’s wrong with it. The plot, a loose reimagining of an Eduardo De Filippo comedy that also had a brief life as an Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane Broadway musical called Carmelina, is gathered around hit songs by the rock group ABBA; you could say the songs are thumbtacks holding up the story. But since they weren’t written to express the emotions of the characters or to define them – the two main purposes of songs in a conventional musical – the show lurches every time it comes to a stop at a number because the lyrics don’t really fit the dramatic situation. For that reason the most successful jukebox musicals are revues like Smoky Joe’s Café (which features the songs of Leiber and Stoller), where the book doesn’t have to justify the songs. (Jersey Boys has mistakenly been called a juxebox musical; in fact, it’s a particularly uninspired version of the musical biography that we’re familiar with mostly through movies like Lady Sings the Blues, The Buddy Holly Story and Ray. Musical bios are backstage musicals – that is, the songs are performed by characters who are professional musicians, so they aren’t meant to stylize the feelings of those characters.)

The little-known 1981 Marry Me a Little is the earliest jukebox musical I’m aware of, and its musical selection is unorthodox. So is its form: it’s a revue with a narrative; that is, there’s no dialogue. (You might also call it a through-sung jukebox musical.) Craig Lucas and Norman René raided Stephen Sondheim’s songbook for obscure tunes that had been cut from his shows or that he’d written for projects that never got off the ground, and split them between two characters (played by Lucas and Suzanne Henry) exploring their mostly romantic feelings as they sit alone in their separate Manhattan apartments. Revived off Broadway last fall with one new addition to the score – “Rainbows,” which Sondheim wrote for an intended movie version of Into the WoodsMarry Me a Little no longer had the cachet of bringing to light unknown Sondheim songs, since so many have been recorded since and included in revues; it’s safe to say that no musical theatre composer’s oeuvre has been so thoroughly mined for hidden treasures since Cole Porter’s or George Gershwin’s. And “Happily Ever After,” one of Sondheim’s two discarded efforts to find a finale for Company before he hit on “Being Alive” (the other being “Marry Me a Little”), has been restored to the score in recent revivals.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Inspired Flight: Cylla von Tiedemann's What Dances in Between

Fire Bird, by Cylla von Tiedemann (Ink Jet Print, 2012, 22” X 33” Dancer’s name: Anastasia Shivrina)

What Dances in Between, the title given to Toronto-based photographer Cylla von Tiedemann’s exhibition of dance images at the Al Green Gallery through February 9, captures the essence of the quasi-retrospective as having no strict beginning or end: a creative journey that, like the dancers in her kinetically charged photographs, is caught in mid-flight.

In this presentation of both old and new images – 55 in total dating from the mid-1980s to the present day – the German-born von Tiedemann, a recipient of a Canada Council-issued Jacqueline Lemieux Prize for her contribution to dance in Canada, appears herself as an artist in flux. The work ranges from photography created from film and assiduously applied dark room techniques to imaginative experiments with digital photography and image manipulation using collage. One wall of the show which opened January 10 shows the now 59-year old photographer more recently pirouetting back to her roots, shooting dancers again with film in the outdoors. The energetic Fire Bird, a 2012 ink jet print showing the dancer Anastasia Shivrina looking as if she is leaping into the branches of a tree, is one of the most recent photographs in the show – a dancer, befitting the context of this show, captured between earth and sky.

Photographer Cylla von Tiedemann
Shooting dancers beyond the artificial setting of a theatre or studio is challenging because the backdrop itself becomes a moving target, changing focus and direction depending on shifting weather patterns and the transition of day into night. The resulting images represent a balancing act combining inspiration and a mastery of technique, two distinct prongs of the artistic process which this show, in its entirety, has brought to together in the work of a particular artist.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Twist and Churn: Rian Johnson's Looper


Looper certainly lives up to its title. It's a twisty time-travel extravaganza that moves swiftly while tying the viewer in knots as we try to puzzle it out. Director Rian Johnson hasn't taken much time to make sense out of this existential SF noir, but I will say that it has more of a pulse than his 2005 debut Brick (which was about as thick as one); and it's less irritating than his hyper-antic The Brothers Bloom (2008) which had a bad case of the tics. Nevertheless, having a motor still doesn't guarantee a fun ride. People will tell you that sometimes, with movies like Looper, you need to just suspend your disbelief. But how can you suspend disbelief if you don't believe in what you're seeing to begin with?

The action takes place largely in Kansas City in the year 2044 where the city seems to be completely run by hoodlums. (As usual with these tech-noirs, nobody feels any great need to tell us why.) Joseph (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young gangster who works for the 'company' as a 'looper' (essentially a staff employed hit-man). In the future, time-travel has been invented but it is illegal. So the criminal empire, which by 2074 is run from Shanghai, sends its victims back to Kansas City in 2044, to be shot and killed by the 'loopers' as a way to dispose of the evidence. The 'loopers' are then paid with bars of silver providing that their victim does not escape. (Are the Shanghai investigators of organized crime in 2074 really that dense that they never figure out the mob's little scheme?) Furthermore, when the Shanghai 'company' wants to 'close the loop,' they inform Abe (Jeff Daniels), an avuncular Don in Kansas City who believes in literally driving his points home with a ball-peen hammer, who then has the 'looper' kill the older version of himself when he is sent back. (Are the criminals as dense as the authorities? Why would you get the younger 'looper' to snuff out the older version of himself? Wouldn't he be the least likely candidate to hire? Or is this what Rian Johnson considers an expression of his character's existential angst?) Of course, Joseph ends up getting his 'loop' closed, but when he meets his older self (Bruce Willis), he turns out to be craftier than his younger counterpart and he escapes. Apparently, in the future Shanghai, Joseph is happily married until the mob boss, the Rainmaker, decides to close his 'loop' and murder his wife. The older Joseph comes back to the past to find the younger Rainmaker – a mere child – to kill him and then change the outcome of his future.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sometimes, There Are Happy Ending – Sylvie Simmons' I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

A very happy Leonard Cohen performing on stage in 2009

The news that novelist Philip Roth has retired seems to have shocked everyone. Late last fall, in the French culture magazine Inrockuptibles, he said he’d had enough of reading and writing fiction and felt he’d said everything he had to say within the pages of a book. Thus, Nemesis, his fifth novella in an unofficial series looking back at various aspects of American society, was, Roth insisted, his last book – ever! The problem with this is not Roth’s decision – why can’t he retire at nearly 80 years of age? – but the assumption that artists, unlike regular folk, don’t ever retire from their professions. Of course many don’t. The majority of writers seem to write until the end and many filmmakers, from Robert Altman to Sidney Lumet, Satyajit Ray to Eric Rohmer, regularly made movies until their deaths. But others do hang up their cameras. The great Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli, Three Brothers) hasn’t shot a movie since 1997’s (underwhelming) The Truce and he’s still alive at age 90. And talented Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Robin and Marion) stopped making films in 1991. And let’s not forget actor Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Under Fire) who, citing the strains of getting up really early for film shoots, decided to chuck it all in 2004 only to change careers and become a writer.

And then there’s the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who as Sylvie Simmons makes evident in her entertaining, breezy and very comprehensive Cohen biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (McClelland & Stewart), not only didn’t retire but upped the ante, going out on tour from 2008-2010 and keeping to a lengthy, rigorous schedule far more onerous than the tours he had done in his relative youth in the late 80s and early 90s. Not only that but he seems to have found only joy in writing songs and performing very late in life, beginning in his late sixties after a nearly six-year continuous stint in a Buddhist monastery (1993-99). Simmons’ very well written book covers the gamut, from Cohen’s birth in 1934 in the milieu of upper class Montreal through to his youthful Greek years of creativity on the island of Hydra to his sojourns in New York and L.A. Though Simmons answers pretty much any question you’ve ever had about the man, she could probably have delved into Leonard Cohen a little more vigorously and probingly than she actually does.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Night Music: The Quay Brothers at MOMA

Timothy and Stephen Quay shooting The Street of Crocodiles, 1985

The recent exhibition at MOMA dedicated to the work of the Quay Brothers (On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets) can be seen as Timothy and Stephen Quay’s official induction into the late-modernist pantheon. It comes a little late; the brothers – twins – are 65 and have been making films for more than thirty years. Though they were both in Pennsylvania, the Quays have been based in London for most of their professional lives, and they’ve drawn on a wide range of European influences, ranging from Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Robert Walser to the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer and the Russian puppeteer Wladyslaw Starewicz. But their most important influence may be composers, such as Leos Janacek, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and their frequent collaborator, Leszek Jankowski. Whatever ideas the Quays may bring to a project, they only begin filming once they have the score in place, and that helps to account for the way their films all bear visual similarities to each other but flow to their own rhythms – sometimes jagged sometimes antic, often eerie, sometimes weirdly sensual and romantic. In the catalog for their show, the Quays say that their films “obey musical laws” as opposed to “dramaturgical ones.” They’re makers of visual music – a common aim of non-narrative film-makers and one that usually yields soporific results. The Quays’ work isn’t soporific, but it is dreamlike, and it doesn’t seem to be taking place now. It’s as if someone uncorked a treasure trove of dreams from a earlier century.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Big Screen Tales of Big Business Targeting Little People: Local Hero and Promised Land

Frances McDormand and Matt Damon in Promised Land

A lone red telephone booth on the outskirts of a Scottish fishing village. Skype in a Pennsylvania farming town. Those diverse means of communication for the protagonists are among the distinctions between, respectively, 1983’s offbeat Local Hero and the more formulaic Promised Land now in theaters. But the two films have quite a lot in common. In both, corporate America descends on small, insular communities in hopes of reaping the riches that lie within the good earth. Some folks are seduced by the promise of easy money, especially in hardscrabble times; others want to protect the land and their homegrown traditions.

Three decades ago, writer-director Bill Forsyth set Local Hero the west coast of his native Scotland and hired the great cinematographer Chris Menges to do it justice. In the fictitious hamlet of Ferness, life goes on much as it ever has until the arrival of Macintyre or “Mac” (Peter Riegert) and Danny (Peter Capaldi), advance men for a Texas oil company called Knox. Their boss (Burt Lancaster) has instructed them to buy up all the real estate so he can build a refinery. Although many people are happy to sell, an old coot (Fulton Mackay) who owns the valuable beachfront property refuses to budge. Promised Land – coauthored by two of its stars, Matt Damon and John Krasinski – had Gus Van Sant at the helm. In rural McKinley, the advance team for a natural gas conglomerate called Global is comprised of Steve (Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand). Their boss (Terry Kinney) has instructed them to buy up all the real estate so he can begin to drill, using a controversial process known as fracking. Although many citizens are happy to sell, an old coot (Hal Holbrook) makes a persuasive case against the takeover.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Polite Roar: John Cale at BAM (January 19, 2013)

John Cale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

Though I’m a John Cale fan, and have a special fondness for his detours from contemporary classical and avant-rock exploration into melody and assonance, I’ve always found the “masterwork” attributes of Paris 1919  his third solo album, from 1973 – elusive.The record is mostly harmonious and lush.The lyrics, perversely cryptic if taken line by line, altogether comprise a dream voyage through foreign lands and bygone eras, the romance of the far-distant against fading memories of home. I ought to love it. Yet most of Paris 1919 goes through me like water. Cale’s voice – so harsh and commanding, yet with reserves of grave tenderness – comes from a muffled distance; pillowy production cushions the edges and angles that are so essential to his dynamic language. And the songs themselves don’t stick to me – save for “The Endless Plain of Fortune,” that powerfully orchestrated yet modestly worded epic of man and war, desert and bones which, to complicate matters, happens to be my favorite Cale song. So last Saturday night, when Cale played the second of two shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and devoted the first half to performing Paris 1919 in toto, it was mainly – only – “Endless Plain” that I looked forward to hearing. And it was indeed the highlight of the first act. The star was supported by a Brooklyn-based group of classically trained horn and string players called the Wordless Music Orchestra, as well as by the three-piece rock combo that is Cale’s longtime touring band; all did justice to the song’s epic climaxes and stirring sturm und drang. Yet even here, something was undeniably missing.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ellison’s Invisible Man on Stage

Teagle F. Bougere and members of the cast of Invisible Man (Photo by Astrid Reiken)

No one has tried to make a movie of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and until now – an adaptation by Oren Jacoby, directed by Christopher McElroen, is currently playing at Boston’s Huntington Theatre – no one, to my knowledge, has tried to put it on the stage either. It’s easy to see why. The staggering 1952 novel is as dense and highly conceptual as a Kafka story, its tone is satirical and its style is surrealistic. It imagines the radicalization of a bright, sensitive young black man (the nameless narrator), who wins a scholarship to a Negro college, as they were then called, by making a valedictory speech at his high school that enthusiastically promotes compliance as a means of bettering the position of the black race. The club that sponsors him is made up of prominent white men who first require him and other promising young African Americans to box blindfolded for the entertainment of the membership. At college, he idolizes the president, Bledsoe, who assigns him the job of chauffeuring an aging white benefactor. At the request of the curious guest, the narrator takes him off the grounds to a nearby black neighborhood, with disastrous results. Bledsoe suspends the narrator, sending him to New York with letters that he says will recommend him to various white members of the college’s board for jobs; having earned his fees for the fall, he’ll be allowed to return to school. The truth, as the narrator learns, is that he’s been expelled, and the letters are condemnatory. He finds work at a symbolic white paint factory, but an explosion sends him to the hospital. He rents a room in Harlem, where he observes an eviction that brings out the orator in him once again. His impromptu speech is so rousing that he finds himself picked up by socialists who give him a generous salary to make use of his talents. Their opposite number is a black extremist named Ras the Destroyer who preaches complete segregation of the races and targets the narrator for his special disdain. The book is a flashback: when it begins, the narrator has finally reached the conclusion that as a black man he’s invisible in white society and that the only way he can live in it (and not be wrecked by it) is to embrace his invisibility.

Author Ralph Ellison
The novel is one of the signal achievements in twentieth-century American literature – it may be the greatest American book of the mid-century – but its tortuous narrative is a catalogue of ideas about race. It lacks dramatic shape – not a problem for a book but certainly a challenge for a dramatist. Honestly, I’m not sure how the hell you’d turn it into a workable play, but Jacoby hasn’t really tried. Invisible Man at the Huntington is a Reader’s Theatre version of the classic text. The Invisible Man (played by a young actor of tremendous stamina, Teagle F. Bougere) is still the narrator, and he recites massive, unwieldy chunks of Ellison’s prose while around him nine other earnest performers in a variety of supporting roles reproduce episode after episode, almost exactly as each appears in the book. Jacoby has transferred almost every major development onto the stage. (Perhaps the only significant omission is the one in which the Invisible Man dons shades and is confused by a number of Harlem residents for a notorious local pimp who is juggling as many identities simultaneously as the narrator has tried on sequentially.) Clocking in at nearly three hours, including two intermissions, the production is recitation, not dramatization.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Pulped Fiction: William Friedkin's Killer Joe

There's no written rule on what makes the best film noir. But you could say that its enduring appeal isn't simply in watching the downward spiral of desperate characters. Its attraction also lies in sharing the horror of that trip down the road to perdition. For all of Fred McMurray's tough-guy assertions in Double Indemnity (1944), for instance, we develop some empathy for him when we see that he's essentially the sap that Barbara Stanwyck takes him for. In The Grifters (1990), when Anjelica Huston chooses the money over the life of her own son, we understand in our bones her primal need to make that choice (while getting the cold shakes from knowing the death rattle chill she will forever carry within her). The darkness in film noir always works best when we can first see the light that's being snuffed out. If we can't perceive something of ourselves in its doomed characters then the genre simply becomes an empty exercise in nastiness.

William Friedkin's Killer Joe (which recently came out on DVD) is a perfect example of that kind of emptiness. This particularly vicious noir, an adaptation of Tracy Letts's celebrated 1991 play, and elegantly shot by Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Black Stallion), takes a particular glee in rubbing our nose in nastiness. (There are quite a few pretty good noirs that have a similar nasty and sadistic tinge, like Mike Figgis's 1990 Internal Affairs, but Killer Joe has no interest in psychological nuance and dramatic colour like Figgis's work which cleverly employs the theme of jealousy in Othello.) To compensate for the emotional distance Friedkin creates here, the director provides a hip and ironic comic tone that diffuses the power of the violence in the drama. Friedkin (who made his career with brutally basic entertainments like The French Connection and The Exorcist) adopts a clever pose instead, one that makes us feel superior to the people on the screen. In doing so, he invites us to enjoy the sadism when it gets predictably turned on them. Speaking as bluntly as the action itself: he makes them too dumb to live.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ghosts and the Past: James Lee Burke's Creole Belle

The past is never dead. It's not even past. – William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951).

In the epilogue of Crusader’s Cross, the tough but sympathetic Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, muses that “age brings few gifts, but one of them is the acceptance that the past is the past.” This comforting illusion belies James Lee Burke’s oeuvre in the hard-boiled Robicheaux novels set in the Louisiana bayous near New Orleans. This series is characterized by its vivid evocation of the region and its culture, deeply flawed individuals and institutions on both sides of the law, its gritty patois and philosophical reflections. From the first instalment  The Neon Rain, to his eighteenth and most recent, Creole Belle (Simon & Schuster, 2012), the past, both his personal and the country’s troubled history, not only informs his world view but fuels his daily reliance on instinct and his dogged pursuit of the purveyors of evil. The post-traumatic stress that Robicheaux experienced after Vietnam shadows every novel. The past revisits him through memory, dreams and spectral appearances that conflate his perception, real and imagined, and often serve his search for clarity. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, while investigating a murder spree of butchered young women, which in Robicheaux’s mind is connected to a 1957 murder of a black man, he converses in dream-like scenes with the ghost of General John Bell Hood, a battlefield officer during the Civil War who admits that he served “a repellent cause.” The officer serves as a spiritual mentor to advise Robicheaux that violence outside the law may only be justified if loved ones are endangered and to remind him that racially-motivated crimes are rooted in the catastrophic failure of Reconstruction.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Safe and Sound: Buddy and Jim

Buddy and Jim (New West, 2013) is a new album by Buddy Miller, guitarist and producer, and Jim Lauderdale, long time singer-songwriter, who’s less known in the mainstream of country music. They’ve been singing together for years but this is their first album; and although it's a solid piece of work, it’s also in pretty safe territory. Part of the weakness of the record is a certain “sameness” because Lauderdale sings harmony on every track with little opportunity to take the lead. While that choice makes this album a serious “duo” record, the music doesn’t provide enough variety to showcase such talented singers.

Jim Lauderdale has recorded 19 albums in his career, mostly bridging country and bluegrass music. In 2002, he was named Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year in the inaugural Americana Music Awards (AMA). Buddy Miller was honored with the same title in 2009. So, on one level, it makes musical sense for the talented pair to make their first record. Interestingly, this new release has little bluegrass music on it, as the duo has chosen to play straight-ahead country tunes with a few covers. The album kicks off with “I Lost My Job of Loving You” full of the bittersweet humour typical of a Miller song that makes a great sequel to “Love Match” from Cruel Moon (1999). It’s quickly followed up the by first of two traditional songs on the record, “The Train that Carried My Girl from Town.” This tune has the strongest bluegrass feel in the arrangement featuring some tasteful fills by Stuart Duncan on fiddle. This track is surpassed in tempo by the closer, “The Wobble,” a classic R&B number originally recorded by Jimmy McCracklin; one which really kicks in this rockabilly arrangement. One of the great talents of Buddy Miller is his ability to re-invent songs in a new style. This track counts as one of his finest.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Polemics and Action: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain  in Zero Dark Thirty (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures)

Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the “get Bin Laden” thriller Zero Dark Thirty, is – like Walter Hill and John Woo in their prime, and John Sturges and Don Siegel before them – a master action  film-maker. Period. It’s a highly specialized category, and one that far fewer directors fit into than you might expect, given the degree to which action films dominate the marketplace. Plenty of hacks, and any number of good directors trying to score a hit that might allow them to work on the films they care about, know how to stage gunfights and chases and explosions, or can at least cede control of a production to the stunt coordinators and pyrotechnics experts for a few days. Bigelow is one of those rare people who can stage figures in a composition and set them in motion in such a way that the release of kinetic energy is both exciting and aesthetically satisfying. It’s because of directors like Bigelow that some critics are able to get away with claiming that physical action caught on film is the true essence of “pure cinema.” 

Bigelow can generate that kind of excitement even when her actors are confined to tight quarters, as in the tense, intelligent K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), about  a nuclear accident aboard a Soviet military submarine. Although K-19 was a box office disaster, it may have marked a significant turning point in Bigelow’s career.  Throughout the ‘90s, she turned out a string of ever gaudier failures (Blue Steel, Point BreakStrange Days) that showed a lot of confidence in her ambitious, high-decibel vision and not a lot of interest in narrative believability. Making a movie that was set among men who lived by a military code, with a story that had at least one foot in the real world, did wonders for her ability to focus. Her next film, The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner as a bomb-disposal expert in Iraq, was even better, a wartime character study that combined Hemingway’s romantic attitude about grace under pressure with the kind of gonzo vision of the absurdity of war that came out of the most original fiction and journalism about the Vietnam war.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Trouble with Hitch: Dueling Screen Sagas – Hitchcock & The Girl

Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

Was the Master of Suspense a confused cinematic guru who finally learned to appreciate his long-suffering wife or a sadistic predator forever tormenting the blonde actresses he couldn’t seduce? Two recent films, with acting talent that cannot overcome bloated plots, offer conflicting points of view. Hitchcock, a theatrical release by Sacha Gervasi, purportedly chronicles the creation of Psycho in late 1959. Broadcast on HBO, Julian Jarrold’s The Girl zeroes in on what supposedly took place in the spring of 1962 while shooting The Birds, adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story. Alfred Hitchcock is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins as a mischievous Peeping Tom in the former new production and by Toby Jones as a repulsive creep in the latter. Their so-so impersonations are undermined by the lack of much physical resemblance to a very distinctive-looking historical figure. Alma Reville, the screenwriter and editor to whom he was married for more than half a century, is alternately a spunky helpmate (Helen Mirren) or a sad-sack enabler (Imelda Staunton). The blondes – an ultimately appreciative Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) screaming in the shower for Psycho and a thoroughly terrorized Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) battling feathered attackers in The Birds – present vastly different accounts about experiencing “the dark side of genius,” to borrow the title of Donald Spoto’s 1983 biography of the director.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Paling Well: Interview with Henry Scott-Irvine (Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale)

Most groups would kill for a hit song that would define them and last the ages. But what about the hit songs that end up being the death of you? Procol Harum's 1967 milestone "A Whiter Shade of Pale," as seismic for its time as The Beatles Sgt Pepper was in that same year, is one such tune. With its elliptical images of "skipping the light fandango" and "vestal virgins," people have kept this song alive for years. It has been the choice to wed couples and it has graced funerals as well as appearing in dozens of movies. But the irony for Procol Harum remains that despite a long career of great, memorable records (Shine on Brightly, A Salty Dog, Grand Hotel), they can't seem to get beyond the pale.  

For over forty years, Procol Harum possessed a varied history that wedded rock, classical and blues based arrangements. With that classical baroque sound, their succession of albums were filled with cryptic tales of sea journeys, death knells and conquistadors. Being one of the few groups that had an in-house lyricist (Keith Reid), who wrote with keyboardist and singer Gary Brooker,  Procol Harum shaped their music along the piano/hammond organ tandem that Bob Dylan introduced into rock with both his Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) albums. (The Band would also continue that trend beginning with Music From Big Pink in 1968.) But Procol Harum remained more of a cult band throughout the Seventies and early Eighties (including when they reformed in the Nineties)The group has now become the subject of a fascinating book, Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale, written by Henry Scott-Irvine, where he examines the strange, troubled history of a band that began life as a short-lived R&B outfit (The Paramounts) during the British Invasion, and would go on to lose some of their members right after "A Whiter Shade of Pale" became a massive hit, and eventually would find themselves in 2008 in court in a lengthy law suit launched by the original organist Matthew Fisher who claimed that he should be considered a co-writer of this famous track.


Writing in the book's forward, film director Martin Scorsese (who used "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Conquistador" in his 1989 short film, 'Life Lessons,' from New York Stories) describes Procol Harum's music as a rich mystery. "The point was not so much what the songs were saying, specifically, as what they were suggesting to each of us, individually, where all those sounds and images would lead us, and leave us," he writes. "Procol Harum's music drew from so many deep wells – classical music, 19th Century literature, rhythm and blues, seaman's logs, concretist poetry – that each tune became a cross-cultural whirligig, a road trip through the pop subconscious."

Henry Scott-Irvine, who has written and produced his own weekly radio show on the 24-hour Music & Arts radio station, Resonance FM 104.4 in London, has been a long time fan of the group. In his book, he provides a clear definition of that trip Procol Harum took through the pop subconscious. We spoke recently about the fascinating genesis of this veteran ensemble.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Keeping It Real and Going for Broke: Notes on Recent Performances, Part II (The Women)

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down

Jessica Chastain’s Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty was predictable, given her rather baffling promotion over the last few years to everyone’s go-to character actress, and given the showcase role of the CIA agent who leads the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. And she gives a perfectly competent performance. Chastain’s always efficient; offhand I can’t think of a moment in any of her pictures that stands out as unconvincing. The trouble is that nothing she does stands out at all; she isn’t remotely interesting. By contrast, the performances of Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down have an explosive immediacy; the night I saw the movie, they seemed to alter the energy in the suburban cineplex. Won’t Back Down passed virtually unnoticed except for some nasty critical swipes, the kind that could have been written by reviewers after seeing the trailers. The actual movie, an unabashedly partisan drama – clearly inspired by the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ – about two mothers of learning-disabled kids, one of them a teacher herself, who struggle to take over a dismally stalled public elementary school, isn’t especially clever or complex; its approach to filmmaking is fairly basic. But it struck me as an honest piece of work; the fact that the scenes don’t feel rigged for easy emotional effects makes the film satisfying in a way that social problem pictures hardly ever are, and audiences evidently don’t expect them to be. The director (Daniel Barnz) and his co-writer (Brin Hill) get the temperature right in the exchanges between the teachers and parents, the teachers and the union officials, and the teachers on both sides of the issue. And the two actresses are, as always, marvelous to watch. (I wouldn’t have considered missing a movie with both of them in it.) Gyllenhaal is an unerringly fresh actress: she leaps off the screen even in tired, gray indie movies. Here she plays a young mother whose limited education and working-class, single-mother status haven’t spotlighted her natural leadership abilities before now, but who instinctually draws on her vivacity and humor and an apparently indefatigable optimism to rouse teachers and other parents to get worked up over what initially sound like impossibly far-fetched ambitions. Davis plays her first convert: Gyllenhaal’s character rescues her from cynicism and defeat.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mailer's Stage: The Criterion Collection of Norman Mailer's Films - Wild 90, Beyond the Law & Maidstone

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Devin McKinney, to our group.

Norman Mailer, who died in 2007 after a long reign as top dog among living American writers, was also a filmmaker, and he seems to have made films for two kinds of people – those who loved him, and those who hated him. In the first group is anyone sufficiently fascinated by the man’s literary output (The Naked and the Dead, Advertisements for Myself, An American Dream, The Armies of the Night, The Executioner’s Song, Harlot’s Ghost, etc.) and cultural presence (philosopher, debater, politician, provocateur) to find the films interesting as addenda to his larger accomplishment. In the second group are those whose aversion to Mailer’s macho pomp and alpha antics is so complete that it finds perverse gratification in the spectacle of, as he himself put it, “Mailer making an ass of himself.”

Is there a third audience for this work? It’s difficult to imagine that the three films recently released by the Criterion Collection in its Eclipse series will hold the least allure for a viewership indifferent to the encompassing phenomenon of Norman Mailer. Objectified, Wild 90 (1968), Beyond the Law (1968), and Maidstone (1970) are not disturbing, beautiful, corrosive, or innovative enough to captivate eyes not already looking to be turned on or off by Mailer’s charisma, obsessions, brilliance. If you don’t care about him, you probably won’t care about them.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Nuanced Noir: The Killing (The Danish Version)

Recently, an article in The New Yorker profiled the popularity of Danish television in the UK. They focused particularly on three programs: Borgen, a political thriller; The Bridge, a police procedural; and The Killing, a show that is both a political thriller and a police procedural. But The Killing also adds a third element which is domestic drama. The author, Lauren Collins, collectively describes them as “a minutely detailed diorama of urban life” comparable to The Wire. With respect to The Killing, the only Danish program that I have seen, the analogy seems apt given its multiple narratives, its town-hall corruption and its exploration of social tensions.

The popularity of The Killing (or Forbrydelsen) in the UK is undeniable. Over the course of the first season broadcast in the fall of 2011, audience ratings doubled. When the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall during their Scandinavian tour in March 2012 arrived in Copenhagen, the Duchess expressed a wish to visit the set of The Killing where she was received by both the cast and crew. Given that the American remake of the program, relocated to Seattle that resulted in at best mixed reviews (I have not seen this version), is the first season of the original series good enough to invest twenty hours of your time? I think a case can be made that The Killing is exceptional television and that viewers are richly rewarded.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Not Feeling the Love: Michael Haneke’s Amour

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star in Michael Haneke's Amour

There weren’t too many surprises in yesterday’s Oscar nominations with the predictable choices, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, leading the pack. I had assumed (hoped?) that The Master would be ignored but it wasn’t, grabbing acting (!) nominations for all three of its stars. The American independent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which got four key nominations was a bit unexpected, I guess, but to my mind it was Austrian director Michael Haneke’s undeserving Amour (Love), up for five awards in all, that came out of left field. It’s still rare for non-English language movies to be nominated in the main categories, but Amour snagged Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress nods as well as the obvious Best Foreign Language movie. Haneke is simply not a filmmaker you’d expect America to take notice of, no matter how ridiculously well reviewed Amour was but there he and the movie were, sharing the limelight with Hollywood’s biggest and (supposedly) brightest. And though Haneke’s become a much better filmmaker than when he began his feature film career over 20 years ago, his movies display no shortage of sadism, triteness and camera work so obtrusive that you can’t help but always be aware of someone being behind the camera. Amour isn’t as nasty or banal as his other films but it’s still a movie whose obviousness and lack of genuine interest in its subjects' pain and suffering is as off-putting as movies can get.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall: Christian Petzold's Barbara

Nina Hoss, who starred in Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008) and plays the title role in his new film, Barbara, knows how to forge a direct line of communication with the audience even when she’s convincingly playing a character who keeps everyone else at arm’s length. In Jerichow, she played a woman who loathed her husband, and whose feelings toward her lover, who she’s enlisted in a murder plot, couldn’t be clearly sorted out, maybe because she couldn’t fully sort them out herself. In Barbara, which is set in East Germany in 1980, nine years before the Wall came down, Hoss plays a gifted, dedicated doctor whose career in Berlin has been derailed after she requested an exit visa. Released from police custody and exiled to the provinces, she remains hard and unsmiling, doing her best to signal to the world around her that she isn’t happy about her changed circumstances but has resigned herself to her fate. Meanwhile, to the camera, her every fiery glance quietly sends the message that she’s bustin’ outta here.

At her new job, she meets Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a sweetly solicitous young doctor who is immediately drawn to her. Their scenes together dramatize the everyday sexual politics of life in a police state: he can scarcely help but be attracted to the intense, beautiful woman who’s become his professional colleague as a punishment, just as she can’t help but be suspicious of his motives – is he informing on her to the Stasi? Having tried every other way to break down her stony reserve, Reiser finally shares his own back story: he, too, was driven from Berlin, as the consequence of a horrible medical mishap for which he wasn’t directly responsible but for which he nobly feels he was to blame. Naturally, this only makes Barbara more suspicious of him. “Was my story too long?” he asks in frustration. Actually, the story is too damn good, too perfectly shaped to pull them closer together.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fading Fast: David Chase’s Not Fade Away

With The Sopranos, David Chase achieved an elusive feat: creating a television series that was not only a gripping new installment in American film’s much beloved gangster genre, but expanded on its conventions to reflect deep currents of the cultural mainstream. He tries to replicate this maneuver in Not Fade Away, using rock music as a lens to get at the social upheaval of the 60s, but to no avail. The movie is his first piece of work as a writer and director since his HBO mob hit, and it suffers most of all from a lack of what lay at the heart of The Sopranos: fascinatingly layered characters. It doesn’t help that the movie is overly self-conscious and convinced of its notion that rock n’ roll was America’s greatest achievement, as if just stating this thesis makes for an important film.

Not Fade Away opens with a brief black and white scene of a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meeting on a train before cutting, now in color, to its story of a group of high school guys in the New Jersey suburbs who form a band of their own at the same time. Doug, played by John Magaro, awakens to the power of rock when he hears The Beatles' first hit on the radio and yearns to join a band he sees at his high school because of the popularity (and girls) that come with performing. We’re told by a voice over narrator – his younger sister – from the get go that this is a story about the band, but the narrative doesn’t bear this out. It keeps dropping the band’s fate to follow Doug as he moves through and comes of age in the turbulent decade. It’s a relief that Chase drops the voice over for most of the movie – simply asserting, with old TV footage of The Rolling Stones, that rock music’s trajectory ran parallel to that of Doug’s band is didactic and unsubstantiated if you don’t actually show it. And the sister barely functions as a character in the story. Why is she the one guiding us through it? But when he brings it back at the end, it moves from annoying to simultaneously grating and silly.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stepping Forward into the Past: Safety Not Guaranteed

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza star in Safety Not Guaranteed

                                    “…. if there were a devil he would not be the one who decided against God, 
                                      but he that in all eternity came to no decision.”  
                                                                                                               – Martin Buber, I and Thou

Surprise, Joss Whedon once said, is “a holy emotion.” Surprise “makes you humble…shows you that you’re wrong, the world is bigger and more complicated than you’d imagined.” It is also becoming scarce on television (the subject Whedom was discussing) and even rarer in film. Every once in a while, however, a movie comes along and does just that. And Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t merely surprising: it is also, in a very real way, about surprise – about why we need it and about everything that conspires to make us unable to experience it.

Safety Not Guaranteed screened at Sundance last January, was in the theatres this past summer, and came out on DVD in the fall. I knew of it – mainly because of Susan Green’s interview with the film’s director Colin Trevorrow for Critics at Large in June – but I finally sat down to watch the film last week. Though I knew the plot’s launching points (a mysterious classified ad) and that it boasted the stars of two of my favourite sitcoms (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, and Jake Johnson from New Girl), I went in with few if any expectations. Three parts rom-com and one part science fiction, Safety Not Guaranteed starts small and grows, slowly and surely, through its 86-minute running time – ultimately telling a story that does justice to the intelligence of its characters and its audience. Neither sickly sweet nor mockingly cynical, the film is still sincerely romantic; for all its ambitions, it remains structurally and self-consciously informed by the established rules of romantic comedy. The first feature by independent filmmaker Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, Safety Not Guaranteed has three charming lead actors, a deceptively simple plot, and a marvelously constructed script. Even as the final credits were rolling, it made me want to generate a “Most Underrated Films of 2012” list just so I could put its name on it!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Actors and Movie Stars: Notes on Recent Performances, Part I (The Men)

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher
Fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher mystery novels have been irate over the casting of Tom Cruise as Child’s 6’3” brick wall of a shamus – a character a friend of mine who recommended the books to me described as “Sherlock Holmes plus brawn.” But the problem with Cruise in Jack Reacher isn’t that he’s wrong for the part; it’s that after three decades as a movie star, he still isn’t an actor. In middle age he’s less narcissistic on camera than he used to be: somewhere along the way he figured out how to listen to the other actors in a scene rather than interacting with some invisible mirror reflection of himself. But he still doesn’t play anything – an action, an objective; he’s nothing but attitude, and the attitude is always pretty much the same (brash, assertive, bullheaded). He can get by in certain kinds of action thrillers when the director is clever enough to use his physical fitness wittily, as Brian De Palma and Brad Bird did in the first and most recent entries in the Mission: Impossible series; De Palma even managed to get a degree of emotion out of him. But Cruise almost always seems miscast because he doesn’t fill in his characters, so you don’t believe in what Stanislavski called the “given circumstances” – that he is the people he professes to be. Reacher is a fiercely independent one-time army investigator with an instinctual sense of justice from which he’s incapable of straying. Watching Cruise in the part I didn’t buy any one of those descriptives, even though they completely inform the plot.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Just Plain People: Folk Music, in Fiction and Fact

Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger perform at the Woody Guthrie Tribute Concert in 1996 (Photo: Neal Preston)

What is folk music? You might well ask. Louis Armstrong is quoted as saying “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” Of course, even this well known quote has attribution questions. I’ve heard it attributed to Woody Guthrie, and a recent post on the web-site of The Fretboard Journal presents evidence that maybe it was Big Bill Broonzy who said it first.

Over the Christmas break I read a few books which asked the same question, and, not surprisingly, came up with similar answers. fRoots magazine, which proclaims itself “the essential folk, roots and world music guide” states in its reviewing policy that folk music “is music which has some roots in a tradition.” Tradition plays a large role in these books and the way tradition is dealt with by their protagonists is informative.

For over 20 years, Scott Alarik wrote about folk music in the Boston Globe, but he's also a singer-songwriter most notably seen on A Prairie Home Companion, as well as a familiar player on the national folk circuit. So he has first hand experience on both sides of the question. Revival is Alarik’s first novel, and it is a book deeply entrenched in tradition and community.

The story is a classic, a spin on A Star Is Born. The précis on the back cover explains it, “talented, charismatic songwriter Nathan Warren lost his chance at stardom years ago, and now sees his life as waste and ruin. Kit Palmer is young, beautiful, and explosively gifted, but her dreams are also doomed unless she can keep from falling apart on stage. They travel the Boston folk scene as lovers and artists, through basement clubs and funky jam sessions, rowdy open mikes and sprawling festivals, seeking stardom for one and redemption for the other.” And that just about tells it like it is. It’s a simple story, of love and redemption, success and failure, dreams, fantasies and realities.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Lars Kepler & the Swedish Procedural

Lars Kepler (aka Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandre Coelho)
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Bob Douglas, to our group.

Swedish mysteries/thrillers are currently enjoying exceptional popularity with international audiences. The trend began in the 1960s and 70s with the ten-novel Report of a Crime series by the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö who used the crime genre to undertake a forensic examination of the dream of social democracy in Swedish society. Henning Mankell, who has publicly acknowledged his debt to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, continued in that vein during the 1990s with his Kurt Wallander novels whereby he revealed Sweden to be increasingly racist, xenophobic and intolerant of immigrants. Building on his experience as a crusading journalist who exposed far right organizations in Swedish society, Stieg Larsson brought this tradition to fruition with his Millennium trilogy that laid bare the corrupt underpinnings of government agencies. In the process, he introduced a new type of character into crime fiction: a damaged, brutalized young woman with no social skills but who possessed extraordinary computer skills and knew how to exact revenge on those who perpetrated violence against women. Despite some turgid writing, much inferior to that of Mankell, he achieved vast commercial success with his three mass-market blockbuster thrillers that led to Swedish film adaptations and a superior American remake of the first novel. One result of the Larsson phenomenon is that other writers have abandoned the social criticism and returned to the police procedural with an eye to producing a book that can be adapted for an international audience.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Defiantly Good Read: The Oxford American


A few years back, while browsing at my local record shop, Soundscapes, I came across an interesting magazine I had never heard of before, called The Oxford American. The magazine, chronicling Southern music, was reasonably priced ($10.95 Canadian, it’s now $11.95 here in Canada and $10.95 U.S) and most intriguingly also contained a double CD celebrating the magazine’s 10th Annual Southern Music issue, which I've since learned always comes out at year’s end. (The magazine, founded in Oxford, Mississippi in 1992, is currently a quarterly published out of The University of Central Arkansas.) The CD contained 56 tracks, including a cool intro by Mississippi native, actor Morgan Freeman, and the music on it spanned the 1920s to the present with well known Southern artists (Lucinda Williams, Eartha Kitt, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Lee Lewis, R.E.M.) appearing alongside more obscure ones (The Insect Trust, Hampton Grease Band, Elton and Betty White). It was a terrific primer to the richness that is Southern music, with wonderfully evocative liner notes in the magazine as well as poems, fiction and some feature pieces on the great and unique variety of Southern life.

Since then I’ve regularly purchased that Southern Music Issue, and sought out back copies at the magazine's website (http://www.oxfordamerican.org/). The Southern Music issue is now in its 14th installment and began, starting with disc 11, a state by state compilation as opposed to an overall Southern musical gumbo. This 12-year project designed to represent all sixteen Southern states has so far resulted in discs specifically devoted to the music of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and in 2012, Louisiana.  (The Arkansas CD, the inaugural one in the series was actually a double CD, with one disc comprised of general Southern music but the subsequent editions have been single state specific discs.) Together, this detailed and complex musical offering and the accompanying stories and features on what is commonly called the New South go a long way to dispelling the widely held stereotypes of a backwards, inbred region of the U.S. (I confess that I sometimes share that myopic view when I see how overwhelmingly Republican the South is – despite liberal pockets in places like Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia and  Durham / Raleigh, North Carolina – and how gun ownership is highest in the Southern U.S. (and Alaska!))  Yes, I know the likes of crass Southern-set ‘reality TV’ shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and others also don’t help educate people on the matter, but it only makes The Oxford American, even though the literary magazine only reaches a fraction of the TV show’s audience, more important and significant than ever.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

That What Doesn't Kill You: The Buster Keaton DVD Box Set

In Billy Wilder’s Hollywood Gothic, Sunset Boulevard (1950), Buster Keaton puts in a brief appearance, alongside silent-film stars H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson, as one of Norma Desmond’s bridge partners. Keaton was only in his mid-fifties at the time, but he and the others are presented as has-beens who’ve survived their cultural moment, the silent era, and now dare not venture out into the sunlit world of teenagers and transistor radios, for fear of crumbling to ash; they’re unwrapped mummies, with bitter frozen faces and sawdust in their veins. A year earlier, James Agee’s famous Life magazine article about silent film comedy had begun to kick some life back into Keaton’s dozing reputation, a development that led to him appearing on such TV shows as Candid Camera and This Is Your Life, as well as an embarrassing Hollywood biopic, starring Donald O’Connor, purporting to tell what the ads called his “sad, happy, loving story.” (Short version: even the most caring and supporting studio boss in the world can only do so much to save you from yourself when you’re that big a drunk.)

Keaton’s professional comeback – which, by the early ‘60s, included the lead in a short film written by Samuel Beckett and guest appearances on The Twilight Zone and Route 66, not to mention How to Stuff a Wild Bikini  might have ended there if he hadn’t formed a partnership with the film collector Raymond Rohauer, who had several of Keaton’s early films transferred from deteriorating nitrate stock and began re-releasing them to theaters, thus making it possible for audiences to see, for the first time in decades, the work of the lovable, glowering old coot they’d been nostalgically embracing. If some of the attention lavished on Keaton in his twilight years had been based on the sentimental feeling that he was a sad clown who’d fallen on hard times, exposure to any five minutes of The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr. or The Navigator or Our Hospitality tended to blow away any idea that the people paying attention to this man were doing him some kind of favor.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

This 'n That: Intriguing Discoveries Made in 2012

This isn't a top ten for 2012. Rather, it's an overview of things I discovered this year, one more than 45 years old, and some as current as last year. I thought about writing stories on all of the below, but never got around to it. They interested me anyway, so here they are, in short-form.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Singer of Songs: Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man
In his 2002 documentary, Stone Reader, director Mark Moskowitz, a dedicated life-long reader of novels his entire life, goes on a quest to find Dow Mossman, the author of a 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer. The work had come to possess him in his adult years. (After trying to read it as a young man, Moskowitz gave up after a few pages. Coming back to it years later, he couldn't put it down.) In searching for Mossman, who had disappeared from the literary landscape during the Seventies with no follow-up novel, Moskowitz used the same intuitive impulses that first lead him as a boy to become such a voracious reader. With the zeal of a modern day Huck Finn, Moskowitz took off on his own American sojourn to find Dow Mossman (while simultaneously deducing the clues to his disappearance in the manner of Sherlock Holmes). Stone Reader is about how a writer's voice can come to inhabit us; and the lingering pleasure of the film is in how it reinforces our own private communion with literature.

Though Stone Reader is certainly a one-of-a-kind story, it may well have found its perfect soul-mate in Searching for Sugar Man (which is coming out on DVD this month). This Swedish/British co-production, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, is also about a quest for an artist who has become lost in time. But unlike Mossman, who never caught the larger reading public's imagination, Sixto Rodriguez, an American pop artist unacknowledged in his homeland, became a near legendary figure miles away in South Africa where he turned out to be as big as Elvis. The rousing aspect of the picture comes in seeing just how Rodriguez's music unwittingly becomes part of the spirit of a people fighting for social and political justice against apartheid. What's curious, however, is that Rodriguez's work isn't the most obvious form of political agit-prop to be embraced by a cause. Instead he writes delicately poetic and engagingly impressionistic songs of social realism; tunes which stoke the imagination rather than tear down walls. Searching for Sugar Man follows the efforts of two Cape Town fans, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, who try to find him in the post-apartheid years.