Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Power of Art in Fear and the Muse Kept Watch

In the introduction of Fear and the Muse Kept Watch: The Russian Masters – from Akhmatova and Pasternak to Shostakovich and Eisenstein – Under Stalin (The New Press, 2015), journalist Andy McSmith, reminds us that the purpose of George Orwell’s classic 1984 was to demonstrate how the creative life was crushed out of the people, leaving them incapable of free thought and acting like robots. By contrast, McSmith argues that Soviet citizens, who absorbed great drama, music, film, novels and poetry, could not be turned into robots even under the machinery of Stalin’s terror. They would outwardly conform but they remained sentient beings who needed and appreciated great art. As a result of the Revolution, a vast more number of Soviet citizens were exposed to the arts, especially theatre, because of that hunger. This is an intriguing thesis, one that I agree with, though I am not certain that the author has proven it. At times he does provide convincing evidence, but he leaves it to the reader to make the connections.

I do not want to suggest that Fear and the Muse is devoid of intellectual pleasures. On the contrary, one of its great strengths is that it comfortably shoehorns these artists and their art into one book. Too often, cultural life is relegated to a single chapter in Soviet histories, confined to biographies or specialized monographs on one of the arts. Instead, McSmith combines astute biographical profiles with perceptive insights into their art and how both were related to the larger cultural and political climate of the time, especially given that Stalin paid considerable attention to the arts. There is not much that is new here, and he ignores the role of the visual arts, but McSmith’s major accomplishment has been to synthesize in lucid prose a great amount of material from secondary sources and translated Russian correspondence. One bonus is that he is self-taught in Russian, and some of his more memorable quotations occur when he quotes from untranslated Russian correspondence.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Recent Cinema – Wild Tales, Leviathan, Félix et Meira and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A scene from Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales.

Non-American films might not show up as often on Toronto movie screens as I would like. but when they do, they usually offer an adult, different point of view, whether the subjects they raise are unique to their country or share affinities with my own. Here are four recent examples; none of them masterpieces but all well worth your time.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Truer Detective: Revisiting Miami Blues (1990)

Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues.

Why are so many popular film noirs and hard-boiled TV dramas these days so fucking solemn? In the HBO series True Detective, which is about as brooding and humourless as television gets, there's enough lugubrious dialogue to sink David Fincher's Se7en. (Maybe True Detective is supposed be a straight-faced parody of James Ellroy's or James.M.Cain's pulpy prose. But I doubt it.) The writing is actually literary in the worst way – self-conscious neurosis always reflecting back on itself even as it wallows in its existential darkness.When Vince Vaughn's Frank remarked a couple of episodes ago that “there’s a certain stridency at work here,” I howled at the TV screen. He could be speaking for the series itself. True Detective strives for importance by layering on the dread and critics and viewers seem enthralled by all the tortured somnambulism. Could it be the tough-guy dialogue that tries to be smart, or is it possibly the story which affirms some knowing cynicism about the nature of corruption and our acquiescence towards it? Who knows? It could make for perfectly viable dramatic material if it were done without this ennui-on-the-sleeve pretension – in fact, Netflix's Bloodline does do corruption well, but nobody's writing about it. So despite the strong presence of a lot of good actors on True Detective, to paraphrase critic Paul Coates, they all end up moving like the drowned under water.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Born Again: Catastrophe

Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe, originally on UK's Channel 4 and now on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

Since Cheers set the standard for romantic comedy on TV, the most popular template for the form has been the Sam-and-Diane-style “will they are won’t they?” set-up: viewers are introduced to two characters who have good reason to be attracted to each other but also have reasons to resist acting on that attraction, and the audience is expected, like kids in science class observing a pair of caged hamsters, to hang on their every twitch and hot look and wait to see if they’ll get it on. The new series Catastrophe (which aired on Britain’s Channel 4 earlier this year and is now available for streaming at Amazon Prime Instant Video) announces from the start that it is following a different path. Sharon (Sharon Hogan), a forty-one-year-old London schoolteacher and aspiring writer, meets Rob (Rob Delaney), a thirty-eight-year-old visiting American, in a bar; after exchanging a few pleasantries, the two fall into bed together and proceed to have a series of hookups and marathon sex for the rest of the week, until he returns to America.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Old Habits Die Hard: Red Dead Redemption

I don’t know or care when summer actually begins proper. To me, it isn’t summer until several things happen: I pop on my shorts for the first time, I listen to N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton all the way through, I crack the season’s first icy smooth Arizona Green Tea, and – a more recent addition to the ever-growing list – I dust off the Xbox 360, slip in Red Dead Redemption, and dive into the frontier life, free and easy on the open plains of the Wild West.There are far too many games across far too many platforms from far too wide a spectrum of years, genres, and styles for me to choose a favourite, or even approach a Top Ten. But I know this: Red Dead would be a strong contender for that lofty first place podium.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Williamstown Season Openers: Off the Main Road and Legacy

Kyra Sedgwick and Howard W. Overshown in Off the Main Road. (All photos by T .Charles Erickson)

William Inge had four Broadway hits in the 1950s and won an Academy Award for his 1961 screenplay Splendor in the Grass. But then his star faded, and when he killed himself in 1973 his contributions to the American theatre had been relegated to second-tier status. Over the past decade, though, there has been a renewal of interest in his work. Picnic, Bus Stop and Come Back, Little Sheba are now revived with relative regularity, and one of his last plays, Natural Affection, got a fine production off Broadway a couple of seasons ago. And now the Williamstown Theatre Festival has chosen for its mainstage season opener a previously unproduced Inge drama called Off the Main Road from the early sixties. (Reconfigured for television in 1964 under the title Out on the Outskirts of Town, it co-starred Anne Bancroft and Jack Warden.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

When Fiction Fails Badly: Dan Simmons' The Fifth Heart

I am not sure I have ever heard of a more brilliant idea for a book than Dan Simmons' The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown and Company), the latest Sherlock Holmes pastiche to reach the bookshelves. In a nutshell, Simmons has the writer Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady) meet up with The Great Detective while contemplating suicide in Paris and then getting involved with Holmes’ latest case. The twist: an increasingly distraught Holmes has deduced that there is a strong likelihood that he is actually a fictional character. But let’s stop here. The Fifth Heart is essentially a complete botch, a sloppily written; indifferently (for the most part) characterized and not especially interesting adventure that pretty much drops the ball concerning its initial conceit. It’s almost as if Simmons had mostly forgotten his idea of Holmes’ possibly not being real – it’s barely alluded to – or even that when he decided upon writing the novel that the concept wasn’t that compelling after all. In any case, the follow through on the original idea is so thinly realized as to be almost non-existent.