Saturday, September 12, 2015

Still Crazy After All These Years: Revisiting Network (1976)

Peter Finch's Howard Beale is "mad as hell" in Network.

The last few months I've been noticing, especially in the news feed of Facebook, this continued reverence for Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network, his loud and abrasive adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's broad satire about the shift in television journalism from hard news to glib entertainment. The picture seems to be getting acclaimed all over again for its sheer prescience in revealing how the corporate control of television news has turned the sacred screeds of Edward R. Murrow into the boorish rantings of Bill O'Reilly. Whether talking about Donald Trump's candidacy for President, the shout-fests that litter the prime time broadcasts on Fox News, or more recently, the tragic shooting deaths of TV reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward live on morning television in Virginia (simply because the news anchor in Network is murdered on air due to poor ratings) folks online are revisiting the picture for clues to see how it all went wrong. You'd think that Lumet and Chayefsky were sages who saw it all coming. I've often made the case that Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), or Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant (1969), had their ear to the ground in anticipating the political and cultural changes taking place in the culture. But those films were pensive and elliptical works that called upon the audience to contemplate what some of those shifting dramatic themes were all about. Network doesn't allow you to think; it tells you emphatically (and with a tin ear) what to think. Network is a noisy collection of broadside rants that – seen today – are no more perceptive than one of Bill O'Reilly's nightly belches. Instead of being an outrageous and equal opportunity satire that spares nobody, Network is full of homilies that reveals more of Paddy Chayefsky's fortune cookie idea of humanism than it does leveling with the dumbing down of the glass teat.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Make Time for Some Other Space

The cast of Other Space, currently streaming on Yahoo! Screen.

"In 2054, to celebrate the end of the war between the United States and Switzerland, a multi-national corporate coalition created the Universal Mapping Project to explore the known universe for the purposes of scientific inquiry. The following is an account of the UMP Cruiser, an exploratory vessel that went missing in 2105."
– from the opening of Other Space
Other Space tells the story of a crew of inexperienced officers who set off on a routine exploratory space mission, only to find themselves sucked through a rift in space that thrusts them into another universe. Lost in space, with no way of getting home, they struggle for survival with no-one to depend upon but themselves. In others' hands, this would be the beginning of a traditional science-fiction story – and it has been. Variations on this story have been seen on television for over fifty years: from Lost in Space, to Buck Rogers, to Star Trek: Voyager, to Battlestar Galactica. (Not to mention Andromeda, Farscape, or SyFy's recent Dark Matter.) Other Space is not like any of those shows.

Back in March, Yahoo's online streaming channel, Yahoo! Screen, garnered a lot of attention by bringing back the NBC cult comedy Community for a sixth season. A month later, with far less fanfare, it added another comedy to its small line-up of original programming: Other Space, a science-fiction comedy in the vein of the BBC's long-running classic Red Dwarf. The animated (and often brilliant) Futurama notwithstanding, there have only ever been a handful of science fiction comedy shows on American television, perhaps the most popular being 3rd Rock from the Sun and, I suppose… Alf. (Red Dwarf had a famously failed attempt at an American adaptation for NBC back in 1992, when only a poorly-received pilot was filmed.) But, unless you count NBC's Quark – a one-season wonder from 1978 starring Richard Benjamin, which was Buck Henry's follow-up series to Get Smart – the output has been entirely earthbound. This year, with all the original television being produced, it is very possible this small comedy has escaped your notice. Fortunately we have a few weeks still before the new fall season begins, and you have more than enough time to flip your browser over to Yahoo and watch a new comedy that is at once unassuming and suprising.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crime Stopper's Textbook: Narcos

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, in Netflix's Narcos. (Photo: Daniel Daza/Netflix)

By the end of the 1980s, the Colombian cocaine lord Pablo Escobar was probably the richest criminal in the world, with a personal fortune estimated at three billion dollars by Forbes. During his lifetime, Escobar’s extraordinary wealth and power made him a living legend; he cultivated a popular image as a Robin Hood figure, funded Medellin’s celebrated football team, ran for political office, and, when the time came to cut a deal with the law-enforcement officials trying to bring him down, negotiated not only his surrender and a reduced sentence but persuaded the government to let him build his own prison, where he lived in comfort with a carefully selected posse of bodyguards while continuing to direct the workings of his empire.

Since Escobar was killed in a 1993 shootout with police after “escaping” from his prison-fortress, an effort has been made to construct a counter-legend refuting the idea that there was anything glamorous or exciting about him. According to this line of thinking, the real Pablo, who looks pudgy and plodding in the photographs from his later years that tend to appear in articles about him, was a middle-class dullard whose groveling for public approval and doomed efforts to be accepted as a legitimate leader by the landed gentry disqualified him from the role of noble outlaw as defined by Bob Dylan: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” There’s a good moral message attached to this view of Pablo, and there may be a lot of truth to it. It’s pretty much the view endorsed by the ten-episode Netflix series Narcos, which tells Pablo’s story from the founding of the Medellin cartel to the prison escape that would lead to the manhunt that ended with his death, but a single image embedded in the show suggests that it may not be the whole truth.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

When You Speak Love: Christian Petzold's Phoenix

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss

The German director Christian Petzold garnered some deserved attention for his 2012 movie Barbara, which told the story of an East German doctor (Nina Hoss) in the 1980s, banished to a country hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa, who plots to defect but is sidelined by her emotional involvement in the case of a female patient. As a chronicle of life in East Germany in the years before the Berlin Wall came down, Barbara is smaller-scale than The Lives of Others – one of a small handful of movies since the millennium that truly deserve to be called masterpieces – but it demonstrates a piecing intelligence, a gift for working with actors (Hoss gives a superlative performance), and an easy mastery of film vocabulary. It’s an elegant and fiercely compelling piece of moviemaking, and I think that Phoenix, his new picture, is even better.

Petzold is again working with his co-writer on Barbara, Harun Farocki, and again features Hoss opposite the fine actor Ronald Zehrfeld, who played the head of the clinic Barbara is exiled to. In Phoenix Hoss, in a performance of profound tremulous feeling, plays Nelly Lenz, a Jewish cabaret singer who returns from the camps at the end of the Second World War so badly disfigured that she hides her face under a bandage. Her experience has left her so fragile that she barely seems able to function. She arrives back in Berlin under the care of another woman, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), who seems to have an administrative job that gives her access to government documents. (I think we’re meant to assume that Lene and Nelly met in the camps, but the movie is rather mysterious on the source of their association.) Lene guides her through reconstructive surgery that leaves her looking somewhat but not exactly like the woman she was before she was taken by the Nazis, and Lene makes plans for the two of them to emigrate to Israel. But Nelly didn’t think of herself as a Jew in the days before the Holocaust, and she still doesn’t. And what she wants is to find her Gentile husband Johnny, a pianist who hid her from the Gestapo in a boat until they finally caught up with her. Lene is convinced that it was Johnny who turned Nelly in at the end, but Nelly is still crazy about him and doesn’t believe her friend’s version of events. Haunting the seedier clubs, she locates Johnny (Zehrfeld), working not as a musician but as a waiter, and of course he doesn’t recognize her. But he notes her resemblance to his wife, who, he is certain, died during the war.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Slacker Central : American Ultra

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in American Ultra. (Photo: Alan Markfield/AP/Lionsgate)

In American Ultra, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star as Mike and Phoebe: two West Virginian stoners with dead-end jobs and a happy, if troubled, relationship. Mike’s panic attacks prevent them from going on vacation, and his absent-mindedness ensures he almost burns down their house every time he tries to cook. Phoebe has a lot on her plate in taking care of him, but she soon has much more when a CIA operative named Lasseter (Connie Britton) reveals that Mike is a sleeper agent whose deadly skills at hand-to-hand combat have been locked inside his mind, lying dormant. His (mostly) blissful life is a sham, and CIA honcho Yates (Topher Grace) has targeted him for elimination. Stoner laughs and blockbuster action (supposedly) ensue, in the tradition of films like Pineapple Express (2008).

Monday, September 7, 2015

Heigh-Ho, the Glamourous Life: Light Up the Sky at the Shaw

Charlie Gallant, Claire Jullien and Thom Marriott in Light Up the Sky at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

Light Up the Sky is one of Moss Hart’s solo comic efforts; he wrote it in 1948, long after his collaboration with George S. Kaufman had petered out. It’s about the Boston tryout of a debut play by a young greenhorn named Peter Sloan, the only person involved in the project who isn’t a seasoned veteran. The narcissistic star, Irene Livingston, the lachrymose director, Carleton Fitzgerald, and the cutthroat producer, Sidney Black, have all worked together before, but they’ve been at their best for some reason during rehearsals for Sloan’s show, a post-apocalyptic allegory that opens in the ruins of Radio City Music Hall. Consequently Peter has been deluded into thinking that they’re pure-hearted professionals who think with their hearts and sacrifice themselves for their art. However, when the opening-night audience laughs at the seriousness of their combined efforts, they revert to form, and Sloan, the most vulnerable of them, becomes their pet punching bag.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XV


In the recent issue of Pitchfork, Dhani Harrison describes a conversation he had with his late father about his guitar playing. “My father once said to me, ‘I play the notes you never hear,’” he remembers. “He focused on touch and control partly because he never thought he was any good, really. He knew he was good at smaller things: not hitting any off notes, not making strings buzz, not playing anything that would jar you. ‘Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,’ he would say. ‘I just play what's left.’”



I started to think about what song might illustrate best for me the notion of playing 'what's left.' On Beatles for Sale (or Beatles VI  if you grew up like me in North America), "What You're Doing" has a solo that's quite economical in that George Harrison style. The notes he plays (over-top George Martin's rumbling piano) are picked at with a brightness that gives the song some of its shimmering texture. Yet it still harmonizes with the song's melodic line even when it briefly breaks free from it. Heard here best in mono, rather than stereo, the pieces are always designed to fit the whole.