Saturday, May 31, 2014

Call and Response: Springsteen & I


A musician’s lifeblood is his audience. He depends upon their response for success in fragile ways. Movies keep the star at a remove – the actor embodies a different role in each film. Movie audiences will quickly forgive a flop and proffer another chance. The role will be different, the actor’s quality built around a new set of tones and narratives. But though an element of acting and performance informs the musician, she invests more of her naked self into the enterprise. It’s her sound, his voice. He puts it all out there and the response is immediate and visceral. The ability of an audience to doom a musical artist came home to me recently watching the 2013 documentary Searching For Sugar Man. In the early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez was a singer-songwriter with a ghostly tenor and gift for delicately embroidered lyricism. But despite industry backing, his records did nothing. It wasn’t until he found his audience decades later – in South Africa, of all places – that he claimed his cultural authority.

Friday, May 30, 2014

To Know an Author: The Salinger Perplex

J.D. Salinger in 1952. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society)

I.
  
Back in the late 1970s, after I’d first read The Catcher in the Rye and was getting seriously infatuated with the novel and its author, there was scant information to be found on the life and doings of J.D. Salinger. All that existed in the way of biographical sources on the “famously reclusive author” who lived on a New Hampshire hilltop and had once dispatched his long, Zen-drenched stories to The New Yorker from a paramilitary bunker were a few pieces from old news magazines – combinations of celebrity profile and journalistic stakeout that were tantalizing but at that time close to 20 years out of date. A few books of Salinger criticism existed; but criticism is structured opinion, and the new fan’s first hunger is for fact. (Even rumor will do, for rumor, as we know, is nothing but fact waiting for confirmation to catch up.)

Things have changed. Now there are more biographies, biographical studies, memoirs, parts of memoirs, and long and short magazine profile-stakeouts devoted to Salinger than to many authors who have not studiously repelled publicity and litigiously opposed the public’s right to know everything about them. I count, previous to last year, three biographies; two memoirs, one by Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, the other by his ex-lover, Joyce Maynard; and more magazine and newspaper articles than can be collected by any person not paid to do so full-time. Now there are two recent and important additions to the catalog. Salinger (Simon and Schuster; 698 pp.), by Shane Salerno and David Shields – textual companion to last fall’s documentary of that title, which was directed by Salerno and televised by American Masters – has major flaws, but is in every sense a major biography. Following it at a respectful distance is Thomas Beller’s upcoming J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (Amazon; 192 pp.), an entry in Amazon Publishing’s new “Icons” series of short biographies.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Off the Chain: Jim Mickle's Cold in July

Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard in Jim Mickle's Cold in July

The young neo-grindhouse filmmaker Jim Mickle attracted some underground attention with his first film, Mulberry Street (2006), which got away with using a virus that turns people into murderous humanoid rat creatures as a metaphor for gentrification, then attracted some more with his post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land (2010). (Last year, he released a “re-imagining” of the nifty Mexican cannibal-family movie We Are What We Are, which, while not in the same league as Let Me In, Matt Reeves’ remake of Let the Right One In, or David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is not half bad for a movie that would not exist were it not for American film distributors’ tender sensitivity toward the plight of those who would rather miss a good flick rather than attempt to read subtitles.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Ceptional – X-Men: Days of Future Past


In my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I made a point of mentioning I was a fan of the X-Men series, and it should also be noted that I’ve enjoyed the X-Men film franchise since its fresh-faced beginnings in 2000. It’s a series that seems to be improving with age, recovering from severe stumbles like X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) to finally hit its stride only, what – six, seven films in? Except for the excellent X-Men: First Class (2011), I think the strongest of the franchise were the original two films, both directed by Bryan Singer. Singer returns to the helm for the latest installment, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and I think with all this bearing in mind, it’s safe to say that on entirely its own merits, X-Men: DoFP is a fine superhero action film, and in the context of its own series, it’s nothing short of brilliant.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Harlan Ellison at 80: A Primer

Writer Harlan Ellison poses with his typewriter

"The only thing worth writing about is people. People. Human beings. Men and women whose individuality must be created, line by line, insight by insight. If you do not do it, the story is a failure. [...] There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the 'normal', the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us. Failing that, you have failed totally."
– Harlan Ellison

My favourite writer Harlan Ellison turns 80 today, a milestone for anyone but, in light of his health issues – serious heart problems, necessitating an angioplasty, and recently diagnosed clinical depression – and his general tumultuous existence, perhaps more of an unexpected one for him. He’s not nearly as well known as he should be, despite writing the single best episode of the original Star Trek TV series ("The City on the Edge of Forever"), but of late he seems to have crept into the mainstream. The Big Bang Theory referenced him recently as the writer ripped off by director James Cameron, who stole the idea for The Terminator from Ellison's script for the Outer Limits episode "Soldier." And, earlier this season, he showed up as his own cranky (animated) self on The Simpsons, dissing the younger generation while in line for a new comic book release. He also wrote a graphic novel last year, Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos, which generated some buzz and made it to The New York Times bestseller list. And he’s embraced the internet in a way he hasn’t before – he’s famously known for typing out his stories – announcing new projects, including previously unpublished teleplays, on HarlanEllisonBooks.com. He’s also a regular on YouTube and the like, offering his strong opinions on any number of subjects, all smartly and wittily addressed. But if you’re not familiar with his stuff, it’s difficult to know where to start since his output is so tremendous and diverse, totaling some 1,700+ published stories, screenplays, reviews and essays, and nearly three dozen collections and novels in varied genres. So here are my picks for Harlan Ellison’s must-reads, in fiction, non-fiction and the two groundbreaking anthologies he edited. If you just want a generous overview of his career, check out The Essential Ellison (1987/2001), either the 35th or 50th anniversary editions. (They’re likely not in print but can be found in used bookstores, I’m sure.) Otherwise, you’ll want a more concentrated dose of the man in the following works. Note: Ellison has a habit of tinkering with his short story collections, removing some tales from subsequent editions of his works, when they’ve appeared elsewhere in print in the interim, and often adding new works as recompense. (He’s nothing if not considerate of his readers and their pocketbooks.) I’ll try to indicate where possible which edition you should look for, but realistically the later editions are the ones you’re more likely to stumble across. (Most of Ellison's books are also available in e-book format, through Open Road Integrated Media.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Bob Hoskins: The Thrill of Acting

Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)
Bob Hoskins, who died at the end of April at the age of seventy-one, was known as The Cockney Cagney, and it’s easy to see why. He’s compact like Cagney, a little man with a loud voice, but both men aren’t merely flamboyant: their front-and-centre, pop-up quality reveals an alertness to the world and an intensely emotional interaction with it. They leap out of the gate like champion racehorses because their characters are bursting at the seams. Like Cagney’s, Hoskins’s trademark performances are about class, though in a more explicit and more complex way. Cagney’s characters didn’t generally talk about their working-class roots but they didn’t have to – the proletarian essence was in his somewhat stylized New York accent, his hoofer’s nimbleness, as assertively masculine as Gene Kelly’s, his take-no-prisoners aggressiveness, and in the fact that the actor’s home studio was Warner Brothers, which catered to the working-class neighborhoods that housed many of the theatres Warners owned. Hoskins’s characters have the same qualities (Cockney subbing for New Yorkese), but they address the issue of class all the time. Well, that’s the Brit in them; they’re fighting the battle of the classes that’s at the heart of English drama from the middle of the twentieth century onward. There’s more overlap, too, between these two marvelous actors. Both men’s acting is centered as much in their eyes as in their tight, dukes-up, punching-the-air bodies, though whereas Cagney famously had soft bedroom eyes – Olivier eyes – Hoskins’s eyes had the quality of blazing neon or exploding firecrackers. Both had a depth of feeling that, set against their missile-force immediacy, had the ability to poeticize their acting. And they both acted as if they thought it was the most thrilling job in the world. They got gloriously, extravagantly drunk on it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Taste of Sicily: Italian Television's Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti as Salvo Montalbano in Inspector Montalbano

For any fan of crime fiction, finding a new detective series is an exciting experience. I recently discovered Salvo Montalbano, a police detective in the fictional island town of Vigàta, Sicily. Inspector Montalbano is the creation of Italian novelist Andrea Camilleri, whose first Montalbano novel was published in Italian in 1994. While Camilleri has enjoyed success with other books, his twenty-one Montalbano novels (the most recent was published in 2013) have earned him and his irascible protagonist a special place in the hearts of Italian readers, making Salvo Montalbano easily Italy's most famous fictional crime-fighter. (So famous in fact that Camilleri's hometown of Porto Empedocle, which was the basis for the fictional setting of the novels, officially changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta in 2003!) Since 2002 the novels have been steadily making their way into English – translator Stephen Sartarelli's version of the 17th novel Angelica's Smile will be available later this June – but for the telephiles out there, there is also an alternative way to enjoy Montalbano’s grumpy charm.  In 1999, Italy's RAI television network began airing Il commissario Montalbano, feature-length television adaptations of Camilleri's Montalbano stories. The series, which is still in production, now boasts 9 seasons and 26 individual episodes – some with original teleplays but most using scripts adapted directly from the novels and short stories. An English-subtitled version appeared in 2012 for British audience on BBC as Inspector Montalbano, and the same episodes aired on the MHz WorldView network in the U.S., under the title Detective Montalbano. The show deserves a wider North American viewership, and fortunately, all 26 existing episodes are available on DVD. If you are a fan of crime dramas, and detective fiction in particular, you should seek them out.