Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nerd Culture: HBO’s Silicon Valley

T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch in Silicon Valley on HBO.

As I wrote in my most recent review for Critics at Large, it seems these days as though the nerds have won. In both economic and cultural terms, many occupations and enthusiasms that would once have been looked down upon, or at least greeted with incomprehension, are now both mainstream and quite lucrative. In the TV world, the result has been a wave of new(ish) shows that reflect their cultural dominance, from the rapidly multiplying horde of superhero shows to darker fare like USA’s Mr. Robot. By contrast, a show like The Big Bang Theory feels almost quaint in its depiction of its nerdy protagonists as social outcasts whose goofily eccentric interests and behavior are virtually incomprehensible to the nice, normal Americans who watch network sitcoms.

However, not many shows have attempted to tackle the economic side of the rise of nerd-dom, at least not before the appearance of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which is about to wrap up its third season. Co-created by Mike Judge (of Office Space and Beavis and Butt-head fame), John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, it’s a remarkably funny and perceptive comedy that takes satiric aim at the industry that’s come to dominate so much of our daily lives.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Garage Freak: All the President's Men at 40

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President’s Men (1976).

Just recently, my wife and I took a road trip through Virginia, and on our itinerary was an outwardly unremarkable building in Arlington. Meaning to complete a kind of circle begun 15 years ago – when a friend who’d attended college in Washington D.C. took me over to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood to see the Watergate complex – I wanted to visit a parking garage at 1401 Wilson Boulevard. It was here, in 1972 and 1973, that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met the anonymous source who a Post editor called “Deep Throat,” after the Linda Lovelace porn movie then in circulation.

In a nutshell: On June 17, 1972, five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. From that starting point, over the next year, Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, assembled leads from hundreds of sources into an escalating, expanding narrative of corruption centered on the dark heart of Richard Nixon’s White House. “Woodstein” and the Post were not alone in doing heroic Watergate work, but they were the ones who kept the story going when everyone else assumed it was nothing but (in the words of Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler) “a third-rate burglary”; it was their tenacity that effected the slow public unraveling of Nixon’s black-souled presidency.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lost Man – O.J.: Made in America

O.J. Simpson with his award as college football's outstanding player of 1968, in Jan 1969. (Photo: Bill Ingraham)

If there's one prevailing image of O.J.Simpson – a leitmotif forever defining his life – it is of a man constantly on the run. It doesn't matter whether he rapidly escaped the projects of Potrero Hills, in San Fransisco, as an adolescent, or dazzled crowds with a game tying 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 1967 playoff between his team USC and UCLA (an unforgettable play that inspired Arnold Friberg's famous oil painting, O.J. Simpson Breaks for Daylight), Simpson is always seen in perfect flight. As a striving track athlete, he broke records with his speed at the NCAA track championships in Provo, Utah, in 1967. When he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the NFL in 1969, he would set new marks for rushing. (In 1973, he became the first player to break the 2,000-yard rushing mark in scoring 2,003 total yards with 12 touchdowns.) Because of his lightning reflexes, he even acquired the sobriquet 'Juice' because of the electricity he generated on the field. He was swift of feet moving through a brief film career that included clunkers like Capricorn One (1978) and the popular Naked Gun trilogy in the Eighties, just as he was rapidly bounding through airport departure lounges in numerous Hertz television ads. O.J. Simpson never seemed to stand still so we could get a fix on him. Not at least until he went on trial for murder in 1994 in the death of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

In Ezra Edelman's riveting five-part ESPN documentary, O.J.: Made in America, we get a penetrating examination of a star athlete who captured the public's imagination with the swiftness of his charm. But behind that mask of winsomeness was a lost man and a cipher who became a tragic projection of America's greatest stain – racism – where through his veil of celebrity, he could manipulate his image (and, in turn, be manipulated by others) into anything he needed it to be. O.J.: Made in America is a searing piece of political journalism and it has some of the runaway stature of Norman Mailer's best work and maybe Randy Shilt's ...And The Band Played On, where the larger social themes emerge out of the drama and with a startling immediacy. Although it was purely coincidental that O.J.: Made in America premiered on television days after the death of Muhammad Ali, you can't separate one from the other. If Muhammad Ali was a powerful and discomfiting figure who dramatically brought the issues of racism and celebrity into the forefront of popular culture (and even rubbed our faces in it while boasting about his strength and beauty as he knocked out Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson), O.J. Simpson in Edelman's work becomes the anti-Ali, a star who desperately chose to become the invisible servant of a nation that offered him celebrity success if he could be a black man who wished to be white. At Ali's funeral, there were many who preferred to remember him as floating like a butterfly rather than stinging like a bee. That's possibly because he not only – as Cassius Clay – took on the religion of segregation, the Nation of Islam, and changed his name, but he also stood up to the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted. As a proud black man, he wouldn't go fight in a country where "they didn't call me nigger." Ali relinquished his championship title, and urged other black athletes to stand up for their rights (as John Carlos and Tommie Smith did when they raised their black-gloved fists at the award-winning ceremony of the 1968 Mexico Olympics). He even risked going to jail for his actions. The celebrity of Muhammad Ali was borne out of the defiance of one man holding America accountable for its broken promises. But O.J. Simpson, who sped through the doors that Ali opened, ignored the country's dashed ideals and went for the gold. Unlike Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, where the author visibly railed against being both ignored and turned into an expedient symbol, in O.J.: Made in America, we see the reverse happening. O.J. Simpson is a visible celebrity athlete who turns into an invisible man by allowing himself to become an expedient symbol for whatever and whoever will make him accepted and loved.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

For the Horde!: Warcraft

The world of (Duncan Jones') Warcraft.

It’s been common in recent years for big blockbuster films to enlist low-budget directors whose indie cred can ensure the success of a new franchise, which is a trend I find sort of fascinating. Disney, in particular, has proved itself fond of this tactic: Colin Trevorrow and Rian Johnson both only had a small feature or two to their names when they were scouted for the second and third films in the new Star Wars trilogy; James Gunn’s IMDB page boasted only a few forgotten genre titles like Slither (2006) and Super (2010) until he launched a global phenomenon with Guardians of the Galaxy; and Joss Whedon stepped up to the plate for The Avengers with nothing but some beloved cult TV shows and a few screenwriting credits under his belt (and managed to hit a total home run, not only making that film a box office smash, but defining the tone and style of most Marvel titles to follow). At this point, I’m fully expecting to see Alex Garland direct a reboot of Masters of the Universe or something.

The latest addition to this club is Duncan Jones, whose expertise at crafting smart, intimate, independent sci-fi films like Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) has somehow qualified him to direct a $160 million fantasy epic based on Blizzard’s Warcraft series of computer games. I’m not complaining, because the formula continues to work in his (and our) favour: while Warcraft is big and loud and heavily plotted, with cringeworthy dialogue and limited characterization, it’s also shot through with the passionate, quietly surprising intelligence that typifies Jones’ work. It’s a crazy mess of a film, but I kind of adored it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Robert MacNeil (1986)

Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil (right) in 1973.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields.

Montreal-born Robert MacNeil is probably still most well known for the two decades he spent alongside Jim Lehrer as co-anchor of PBS's The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. When I sat down with him in 1986, however, he was also co-writer of the soon-to-be Emmy awarding-winning documentary series The Story of English, then airing on PBS and BBC. He, with co-authors Robert McCrum and William Cran, had also co-written an accompanying book of the same name.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with  Robert MacNeil as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Broken Couples: This Is Living and Elegy

Tamla Kari and Michael Socha (right) in This Is Living, at London's Trafalgar Studios. (Photo: Alex Harvey Brown)

This Is Living by Liam Borrett, a first play that began at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and wound up in the tiny space upstairs at London’s Trafalgar Studios, is a lovely two-hander about a young man, Michael (Michael Socha), who communes with Alice (Tamla Kari), the wife he adores, after she’s dead. The setting is the edge of the Thames, where she was drowned in an effort to rescue their three-year-old daughter; a passing couple pulled them both out and managed to save the child but not Alice. The time frame is the few days between her death and her funeral. In different ways the play, which intercuts the strange, haunted series of conversations between a living man and a dead woman with flashbacks to their relationship, recalls Brian Friel’s early one-act Winners (about a teenage couple in the hours before their deaths), Anthony Minghella’s movie Truly Madly Deeply (where a woman’s grief over her deceased lover brings him back to her) and certainly Nick Payne’s Constellations. This last presents a series of alternative scenes involving a couple whose relationship is about to be derailed by her untimely death from cancer. Borrett is certainly conversant with Constellations; if he knows the other two as well, then the wonder is that he’s absorbed them – as he’s absorbed the work of absurdist playwrights who pointed the way for him, Pinter especially – and then created something entirely original, with its own sort of mournfulness and its own bittersweet portrayal of the intimacies of young love and marriage. You have to listen carefully to pick up all the narrative details (and the two actors have thick Shropshire accents); I bought a copy of the script to double-check my first impressions, and it’s lucky I did. The difficulties the language poses – and this, I think, is where Borrett both derives from Pinter and diverges from him – remind us of the private space of any marriage that outsiders can’t infiltrate, the familiar games they play with tacit rules, the language that couples speak between themselves that doesn’t translate for anyone else.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Rolling With the Punches: Randy Newman's Land of Dreams (1988)

For many years, as a singer-songwriter, Randy Newman had avoided writing songs about himself. In the Eighties, he was also chiefly occupying his time composing scores for motion pictures, as his uncles had decades earlier. But, by 1988, Newman hadn't released a new album of pop songs since Born Again in 1979. What prompted the return to songwriting? Perhaps it was the innocuous Hollywood scores he was doing, music that faded with the pictures they accompanied. Or perhaps it was a need for a passionate reply to the conclusion of the Reagan era. In general, the Reagan years were a reaction to the dissipated idealism of the Sixties, which had given way to recession, Watergate and the Iran hostages in 1979. Ronald Reagan offered a quick remedy to America's sinking morale with eight years of cheap nostalgia. Public discourse couldn't have been more glib, poisoned by a new cynicism and cheap B-movie style dialogue that turned politics into an ugly game polarizing the saved from the damned. It was a spiritually unpleasant time concealed by a cheerful portrait of a false America that never was, and maybe never should be.

So, in 1988, after years of writing incongruently funny songs about the kind of country Reagan preferred to ignore, Newman constructed Land of Dreams, a new body about the America he himself was part of. Only this time, his real face began to peer through the veil of ambiguity he'd created for songs like "Sail Away" and "It's Money That I Love." For most of Randy Newman's career, we were used to hearing songs about a variety of American archetypal figures, but we rarely heard songs about him. The initial shock of Land of Dreams was that we were no longer hearing outrageous tales about slave traders, stalkers, Southern racists or demagogues. The album caught us up in Newman's own story by looking back to his birth in Los Angeles, the years later in New Orleans with his mother waiting for his father to return from the Second World War, and his problems at school. On the album, Newman draws on his own early life to address the prevailing themes of contemporary American culture – including racism, disenfranchisement and assimilation. What also changed was his voice, now less masked by his standard drawl. Newman sang in a cadence that was direct while simultaneously making the humour in some of the songs more cutting. There was less distance between the singer and his material. But Newman wasn't baring his soul in the way many pop singer-songwriters do, revealing their innermost traumas and longings. Land of Dreams instead implies a connection between the personal dreams of the artist, the dreams of the characters in his songs and the dreams of his country. The title didn't just refer to the American Dream, but more specifically to New Orleans, where Newman had spent his early childhood. Even the album cover, featuring a photo of Newman as a young child in his full Roy Rogers cowboy regalia, with two toy six-shooters in his hands, seems to be posing a challenge to that other cowboy in the White House who was taking the country through Death Valley Days.