Saturday, March 9, 2013

Subterranean Mysteries: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Procedurals

Some feeling that had once between human and natural had twisted. Become grotesque. Had turned sour and corrosive until its container had eaten away. Until the human barely existed.

Louise Penny, The Cruellest Month.

Louise Penny is a master at articulating and exploring corrosive emotions – jealously, bitterness, hatred and revenge – as well as joy and grief. The resolution of a murder by Chief Inspector of Homicide, Armand Gamache and his team, which she expertly accomplishes, is what garners to Penny legions of readers. What I find most compelling about her work is not discovering the identity of the murderer but how she explores the range of emotions in the character of the empathetic Gamache. She goes even further in examining the emotional dynamics between him, his team and his superiors, and the captivating denizens of the hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern Townships. They feature in all of Penny’s eight novels except her most recent, The Beautiful Mystery (Minotaur, 2012).

In her debut novel, Still Life, Penny reveals a piece of information about Gamache that powerfully reverberates throughout the subsequent novels. He broke rank by investigating a senior officer in the Sûreté du Quebec who had ordered the murder of natives. The officer was convicted and he and his friends on the force are determined to destroy Gamache. Although Gamache has achieved an almost perfect record in solving homicides, he will never be promoted and has been excluded from the confidences of the top inner circle, something that Gamache fully understands given that actions have consequences. Nonetheless, he is a contented man, happily married and maintains a good relationship with his adult son and daughter. Penny hints in the first two novels that there may be agents de provocateurs in Gamache’s team who are working to undermine him. By the third novel, The Cruellest Month, I found the tension so gripping that I skipped ahead not to find out the identity of the killer but to those passages about how this subplot would play out. Then I was able to return my attention to murder investigation itself.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Being Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie gets a shoe shine, 1943 (Photo: Eric Schaal/Time & Life Pictures)

When I was a boy, I got a guitar. My Mom took me to Viola Music Centre and paid for lessons. They sold her a cheap acoustic sunburst that looked nice but had neck problems. No kid should ever have to learn on a guitar that would be better used in an archery competition. I think it was called a Capri. It may even still be in the basement of my Mom’s house, but it’s not good for much. I learned very little from the lessons. I wanted to play folk music, and they taught me “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along”. I wanted to sing Peter, Paul & Mary songs, and they taught me how to pick one-string melodies from a book that I don’t ever want to think about. I wanted to be Woody Guthrie, but I didn’t know it yet.

After hearing Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” we tracked down the original. I well recall stopping at a music store in some small Bruce County town and when we walked in, the song playing was “To Ramona” and Dylan’s voice disturbed my Grandfather: “Ramona / Come closer / Shut softly your watery eyes…” When he got back to the car he teased and mocked that voice. Little did he know that the LP he’d helped me pick out was by the same singer. He’d hear a lot of that voice for the next few years. I didn’t want to be Bob Dylan, but it turned out he just wanted to be Woody Guthrie too. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Getting Un-Surrounded: Glenn Frankel on The Searchers

Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne, in a scene from John Ford's The Searchers

Among the autuerist critics who re-evaluated the reputations of American studio directors in the 1960s, and the new generation of filmmakers who created a renaissance in American moviemaking in the 1970s, no Hollywood film casts a more intimidating shadow than John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers. Legend has it that the movie was overlooked in its time, only to be rediscovered by a discerning group of artists and movie lovers as, in the words of J. Hoberman, one of the “few Hollywood movies so thematically rich and so historically resonant they may be considered part of American literature.” As Glenn Frankel acknowledges in his fine new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, the mythology around the film’s rediscovery is a little overblown. No, it wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, if that’s your idea of the true credit due a work of film art. But it wasn’t a flop; it did pretty well at the box office, and the reviews were mostly good. If there’s anything scandalous about the response to the movie when it was new, it’s only that critics and audience seemed to regard it “merely” as another John Ford-John Wayne Western, albeit a good one with an epic scope. The general consensus among those who came along to acclaim the film ten or fifteen years after its initial release is that it is so much more.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ripper Street: A Fresh Take on Old Crimes

Jerome Flynn, Matthew Macfadyen and Adam Rothenberg star in Ripper Street

You can’t swing a remote control these days without hitting a period drama. From Downton Abbey, to Mad Men, to Copper, it seems that TV producers and TV audiences are interested in stories that happened ‘back then.’ The dividing line of these period offerings is whether the television produced mobilizes feelings of nostalgia and wants us to long for those times, or whether the stories are told precisely to disturb that warm and fuzzy feeling for the days of hats, cigars, and clear social structures. The new BBC/BBC America co-production, Ripper Street, falls firmly into this second category. The Victorian-era crime drama opens a door into a distinctly gruesome version of Conan Doyle’s London: a re-imagining which upsets and reconfigures our set notions of the past. It is easy to imagine Holmes and Watson moving about in hansom cabs, solving their own mysteries just five urban miles west of Ripper Street's Whitechapel district. Mind you, I was inadvertently well-prepared to imagine just that, having recently finished Anthony Horowitz’s novel The House of Silk, a faithful and gritty take on Conan Doyle’s characters and setting. Horowitz tells a dark story perfectly in sync with the spirit of Richard Warlow’s Ripper Street – both tell period stories geared towards an audience willing to glimpse just a little deeper in the depths of human depravity than previous generations.

It’s 1889, and London’s East End is still reeling from the effects of the grisly Jack the Ripper killings. Jack has gone silent, but the repercussions of those murders are still emerging: both for a traumatized population and for the policemen who failed to catch him. Such is the setting of Ripper Street. And it is gripping stuff.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bad Things Happen: Arnaldur Indridason’s Black Skies

Nothing comes without consequences - Charles Ferguson's 2010 Inside Job.

In a 2008 interview with the CBC’s Michael Enright, the Swedish novelist, Henning Mankell, commented that the vast majority of lawbreakers are not evil but that they get caught up in evil circumstances. I thought about Mankell’s musing while reading the Icelandic novelist, Arnaldur Indridason’s most recent police procedural (published in English) Black Skies (Harvill Secker, 2012) since greed, fear of public disgrace and revenge for a terrible injustice committed years earlier provide the motivation for the murders committed. In Arnaldur’s (in Iceland everyone is known by his first name) oeuvre, he is primarily concerned about domestic and social issues, and how the harsh Icelandic climate can affect people. Bad things happen when people make ill-considered decisions. He does feature psychopaths but they are frequently murdered, sometimes decades later, as a result of their incessant abuse of others.

From Jar City (2004) to Hypothermia (2009), Arnaldur’s brooding but resourceful loner, Erlander, is the senior member of the police investigation team. Burdened with guilt because of an incident in which he lost contact with his younger brother in a storm, compounded by having abandoned his wife and two young children years later, he tries in Silence of the Grave to explain to his almost comatose drug-addled daughter who has tracked him down after over twenty years that “he had been battling against that blizzard for all his life and all the passage of time did was to intensify it.” Yet in his professional life, Erlander draws upon that pain to crack open cases that were perpetrated years earlier in Silence and The Draining Lake or relive his personal tragedy in Voices so that he can salvage his daughter’s life in the present. He is assisted by the capable Elinborg, who successfully juggles her career with managing a family, and by Sigurdur Oli, a graduate of criminology from an American university, even though he is hampered by a stiff-necked personality with rigid attitudes. When Outrage begins with the murder of a young man with a rape drug in his possession, Erlander is on leave to wrestle with personal demons and the case is assigned to Elinborg, who is particularly astute in investigating cases of sexual abuse. At the same time that she is working on that investigation, Sigurdur Oli is at the centre of two cases that are the focus in Black Skies.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Puzzle of a Play: The Glass Menagerie at American Repertory Theater

Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, and Celia Keenan-Bolger in The Glass Menagerie (All photos by Michael J. Lutch)

The audience stood and cheered at the end of the performance I attended of The Glass Menagerie at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, and a few weeks later Ben Brantley in The New York Times made it sound like one for the ages. I wish I could echo that proclamation of greatness and the sentiments expressed in that ovation. This production of Tennessee Williams’ beloved play, directed by John Tiffany (represented on Broadway last season by Once, which began at A.R.T.), is performed with tremendous fervency by the four-person cast – Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger as her children, Tom and Laura, and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller. Nico Muhly has supplied lovely incidental piano music, Natasha Katz’s lighting is gorgeous, and the non-realist set design by Bob Crowley (who also did the costumes) is lyrical and evocative. An abstracted pyramid of scaffolding stands in for the fire escape attached to the Wingfields’ Depression-era St. Louis apartment, and a reflecting pool with a quarter-moon dipped in it provides a downstage frame for the action. I have no idea what that pool is supposed to signify (Brantley’s explanation, that it’s “the abyss of being lost,” doesn’t make sense to me in terms of the text, and it isn’t even good English), but every now and then one or another of the characters wanders to the edge and sways toward it, as if in danger of tumbling in. That’s one example of the movement provided by Steven Hoggett, who collaborated with Tiffany on Once as well. I loved the strangeness of the movement in Once, but it was really choreography; here it intrudes on the play, and the actors are so obviously not dancers that it feels awkward, even occasionally embarrassing. I felt the same way about some of the staging, too, like the way Laura enters at the top of the play and exits at the end through the back of the living-room couch, and the miming of the meals. It’s OK, I guess, that Tiffany wants to do without silverware, but it’s absurd to imagine Tom would eat with his fingers or lick up the last traces of food on his plate. This is nonsense of a specifically A.R.T. brand. And it’s less forgivable that there’s so little on stage in the way of furniture and props that we don’t get to see the photograph of the absent Mr. Wingfield that Tom repeatedly draws our attention to, or that all we’re shown of Laura’s titular glass collection is a single figure.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Love Letter to Days Gone By: Dave Grohl's Sound City

Sound City is a very sentimental look at one of L.A.’s most successful recording studios. It was established in 1969 and became famous for recording some of the best known and biggest selling albums in rock. For Director Dave Grohl it was his connection to the human-side of the recording process, a point that he repeatedly makes throughout the movie. In 1991, his band Nirvana made the trip from Seattle to Van Nuys, California, to record their second album, Nevermind, over a period of 16 days. The result was a smash hit for the band and the studio, which had fallen on tough financial times. For Grohl, who learned that the studio was closing in 2011, it was the last straw. Somebody had to tell the story of the studio and the people behind it, before it was permanently closed. The result is Sound City, a slick, yet informative documentary that covers everything you need to know about the recording business from the technical to the creative.

Sound City, the studio, ranks with some of the most important and beloved recording facilities in music. Considering the history of music, studios often take on a status of importance that is as significant as the music it documents. When you think of Sun Studios for instance, you think of Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins. When you think of Abbey Road in London, you automatically think of The Beatles or Pink Floyd who recorded their best work there. So it is with Sound City whose wide-ranging facility was the home of the Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled recording in 1975 with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. In fact, Mick Fleetwood met Buckingham just after the release of Buckingham Nicks their acclaimed debut.

For a list of Sound City recordings, click here.