Saturday, January 17, 2015

What's Up, Doc?: Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice


Like E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime (1975), Thomas Pynchon's 2009 detective pastiche Inherent Vice is a hip and hefty comic riff (only with a melancholic bedrock) that builds on pop connections and associations already alive in the reader's mind. In Ragtime, a parable of American lore in which the author performed masterful tricks with the history we thought we knew, Doctorow captured the spirit of America in the era at the turn of the twentieth century and World War One. But rather than write a realistic account of the period, Doctorow created a sumptuous crazy quilt, a flip-book chronicle that was, in many ways, already a movie before it became one. Inherent Vice is equally opulent, but given that it invokes America in the early Seventies when the heady counter-culture of the Sixties is decimated by assassinations, drugs, and the election of Richard Nixon as President, it is perfumed in regret and loss. There's also a sense of dread implored, too, as the story opens in Los Angeles on the eve of the Manson trials (where Charles Manson, a diabolical psychopathic drifter, who looked like a hippie, had colonized the same California girls Brian Wilson once wrote lovingly about a few years earlier and together Manson and those women committed mass murder). Inherent Vice is about the door starting to close on the communal utopia the Sixties promised.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Comedic Realism Redux: Togetherness and Man Seeking Woman

Jay Baruchel stars in Man Seeking Woman, a new comedy which premiered on FXX this week.

Cable television gave viewers two new comedy series this week: HBO's Togetherness (which debuted January 11) and FXX's Man Seeking Woman (which debuted on January 14). Individually, either would be worth your attention – each brings a fresh new voice and vision to TV, along with some familiar and welcome on-screen talent – but the serendipity of both shows arriving in the same week is notable in itself, especially if you watched them back-to-back as I did last night.

Both new comedies delve powerfully into the stuff of everyday passion and pain, our shared desires for intimacy and love, and the excruciating arcs that our stories of love and loss can take. Togetherness adopts a sincerely realistic tone, while Man Seeking Woman is impressionistic, unabashedly surreal and absurdist. The former is telling a long, slow-burning character-based story, driven by the everyday insecurity and tender anguish of aging and regret; the latter is a more episodic, almost cartoonish exploration of the neurotic inner, and outer, life of a new-single 20-something man struggling to make sense of himself as he searches for new love. From a formal standpoint, the two shows could not be more different, yet both not only demonstrate the rich potential of televisual story-telling, they also reflect a deeply human take on interhuman relations in our time.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lost in Music: Mozart in the Jungle

Gael Garcia Berna in Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle.

In most American popular culture, the stereotype of the arrogant, pompous classical-music conductor and his stuffed-shirt audience hasn’t changed much since the Marx Brothers’ day. In the Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle, Gael Garcia Bernal gets the chance to embody the contemporary, highly promotable image of the celebrity conductor in the age of Gustavo Dudamel as a young, swivel-hipped sex symbol with an ingenuous manner and the mane of a lion. Garcia Bernal plays Rodrigo De Souza, who, in a blaze of fund-raising hype, is brought in to take charge of the New York Philharmonic. (He’s greeted with a garish nightmare of a promotional campaign built around the slogan “Hear the Hair!”)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Art and Life: National Gallery and 20,000 Days on Earth

A scene from Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery (2014)

When it comes to documentary filmmaking, there is no one quite like Frederick Wiseman. For nearly fifty years, since Titicut Follies (1967), his controversial exposé of the terrible conditions at a Massachusetts correctional institution, he has been making an average of one doc a year on any number of varied subjects, documentaries like no others currently being made. Wiseman eschews all narration, never puts himself into the film (unlike a certain self-aggrandizing documentarian I could mention), and simply chooses extensive footage that doesn’t editorialize so much as depict – whether the subject is high school life (High School, 1968). Law enforcement (Law and Order, 1969) or various artistic institutions (La danse, 2009). (He is not the first documentary filmmaker to work like that but I’d argue he’s the most consistent, purest one ever to do so.) Wiseman's most recent film, National Gallery (2014), is par for the course – a fascinating and riveting inside look at Britain’s prestigious National Gallery in London, a movie which will make you look at your favourite art gallery in a whole new light.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Fearsome Female Protagonist Program: Marvel’s Agent Carter

Hayley Atwell stars as Peggy Carter in Marvels: Agent Carter on ABC.

When Marvel pushes an agenda, it pushes hard. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can be called many things, but lazy generally isn’t one of them. And there’s quite a lot to prove with ABC's Agent Carter, their first miniseries, being both a continuation of an established Captain America storyline and a testing ground for the miniseries format (Marvel has plans for five more Netflix-based mini-shows, whose existence will largely depend on the success of this first effort).  Agent Carter is also a melting pot of proven talent, bringing in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, writers of both Captain America movies, and Joe Russo, who co-directed the excellent CA: The Winter Soldier, for the first two episodes. It’s hard to imagine such a strange, mutant project earning many accolades out of the gate, especially when it’s based on a character with so little audience recognition power outside of the comics-and-cosplay community – but if the MCU has taught us anything, it’s that Marvel will leverage all its power to see it succeed.

Well, if the pop culture press is to be believed, the show has done just that. Comparisons to The Rocketeer and – be still my heart – Indiana Jones are not misplaced. This “lesser-known” heroine everyone is suddenly taking notice of is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), agent of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (“SSR”), who has to keep up appearances at her mundane office job while secretly helping Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) keep the operatives of a shadowy organization called “Leviathan” at bay (and away from his dangerous technology, or as he calls his more deadly inventions, his “bad babies”). She also has to dodge the annoyances of a male-dominated 1940s workplace, all while mourning the loss of her lover, Steve Rogers, whose “death” from the first Captain America film is replayed at the beginning of Agent Carter’s premiere. Stark offers Carter the help of his persnickety butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), whose prim adherence to the rigid structures of genteel living grate on Peggy’s dynamic superspy sensibilities. Taken together, these elements make Agent Carter a funny, exciting adventure serial that revels in its period details, a striking retro world guided by an exceptionally strong lead.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Notes on the Method: Jane Fonda, 1969-1971, Part I

Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Dont They? (1969)

Jane Fonda entered movies in 1960 as a sex kitten with a killer instinct for comedy; in some of her early pictures, like Walk on the Wild Side and The Chapman Report (both from 1962), she played cleverly against her wide-eyed-innocent quality and her shimmering-starlet glamorousness. Her first husband, the French filmmaker Roger Vadim, used her wittily, especially in his soft-core sci-fi fantasy burlesque Barbarella (1968), where she was cast as a kind of female Candide – or Alice in a porno Wonderland. No one could have expected the cards she was holding close to her chest: that she had the gifts of a major Stanislavskian movie star. In 1969 she played Gloria in Sydney Pollack’s film of the 1935 Horace McCoy novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, set at a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier, and the next time out, two years later, in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, she was Bree Daniel, a high-class Manhattan call girl who, freaked by a stalker, looks to a transplanted Pennsylvania cop named John Klute (Donald Sutherland) for rescue. These performances conferred a distinction on Fonda (she won the Academy Award for the second) that have never deserted her, though in only a handful of subsequent pictures (Julia, The China Syndrome, The Morning After) has she scored roles that gave her comparable acting opportunities. In that tiny corner of time where the late sixties and early seventies overlapped, she was the best actress in America.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Age of Coming: The Criterion Blu-ray release of Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también (And Your Mama Too)

No one has ever fused the indissoluble relationship between sex and death in a coming of age story quite like the wildly gifted Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón does in his 2001 Y tu mamá también (And Your Mama Too). Recently re-released on DVD in a sparkling new Blu-ray print by the Criterion Collection, Y tu mamá también boldly plumbs the depths of adolescent eroticism, where sexual surrender brings one in touch with the primal terrors of loss and separation, with a refreshing and shocking candidness. It immediately calls up Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, which examined with equal frankness the turmoil of sex and death from the vantage point of middle age. After charming audiences with the sophisticated and lyrical fairytale A Little Princess (1995), and the sumptuously expressionistic and satisfying Great Expectations (1997), Cuarón returned to his Mexican homeland to make a sexually rowdy and wildly funny road movie, where two teenage boys, who are best friends in Mexico City, hit the road with the runaway wife of one of their cousins while their girlfriends are away in Italy. Armed with a juvenile code of conduct that is quickly undermined and rendered inadequate by the older woman they journey with, Cuarón unveils with buoyantly sportive humour the unacknowledged homoerotic bonds of male companionship – while also confronting the desperate need one has for sexual satisfaction when mortality looms large in the future. Y tu mamá también, which won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, has virtually nothing in common with the more conventional coming of age stories like Rob Reiner's Stand By Me (1986), which sentimentalizes death by using it to reinforce the dubious virtues of staying young, or the Harlequin romanticism of the early Seventies hit, Summer of '42, where sex becomes a tender awakening that makes one forget the finality of death. The more welcoming sensibility that informs Y tu mamá también is alive and anarchic, much like sex itself, and suggests a delinquent version of Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) coupled with the rough house friskiness of Bertrand Blier's Going Places (1974).