Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Ghost Story and Dunkirk: Failed Experiments

Casey Afflect and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story.

A Ghost Story is an experimental film embedded in a commercial feature. An unnamed couple (the credits list them as "C" and "M"), played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, lives in a house that appears to be haunted; as they’re about to move out, C (Affleck) dies suddenly. The rest of the picture is from the point of view of the ghost who rises from his body in the hospital morgue. The movie’s subject is time, and we experience it as the ghost does, hovering in the house (in the classic mode of a specter in a sheet with holes for eyes) as M grieves and then takes up her life again and departs; as another family – a Hispanic single mother and her two young children – move in and then, spooked by the ghost’s announcement of his presence, move out again; as the house becomes dilapidated and is razed to the ground (along with the one next door, inhabited by its own ghost); as the land is taken over by an office building and the neighborhood becomes a gleaming cityscape. Then time reverses itself, taking us, with the ghost, back to the first settlers in this (unspecified) area, a farmer and his family, who are killed by Native Americans. Eventually the movie catches up to itself and we return to the first scenes between C and M, only now we see them from the perspective of the ghost, who has been there all along. (The noise that alarmed them in bed and brought them into the living room at the beginning of the picture turns out to be the sound of the ghost plunking on their piano.)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Orthodox Views: Menashe, The Women’s Balcony and The Wedding Plan

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in Menashe.

It’s probably a bit ironic that, of late, movies about Orthodox Jewish communities in America and Israel (Holy Rollers, Ushpizin, Fill the Void) have been popping up on our movies screens, made by both secular and religious filmmakers. I say ironic because unless they get dispensation from their rabbis, Orthodox Jews won’t go see any of the movies even if they're interested in doing so. Yet their closed-off and rule-driven world will likely continue to be fodder for directors who find them to be fascinating subjects for the cinema. Three new movies offer proof positive of that curious view.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Like A Midnight Cowboy: Glen Campbell, 1936-2017

Glen Campbell performing on the BBC in 1970. (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty/Hulton Archive)

It wasn’t shocking to hear, two days ago, that Glen Campbell had died: for nearly a decade, he had been making highly public acknowledgements of his affliction with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than lachrymose interviews or TV appearances, these mostly took the form of actual work. A worldwide concert tour spanned August 2011 to November 2012; referred to variously as “Good Times – The Final Farewell Tour” and “The Goodbye Tour,” it couldn’t have been more upfront about its theme and raison d'être. I’ll Be Me, a documentary about the tour and about the disease, premiered on CNN in 2014. Campbell’s last three studio albums – 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas, 2013’s See You There, and this year’s Adiós – were concerned entirely or partially with the singer’s contemplation of his own looming mortality. These years and works amount to a concerted resistance against dissolution and death, and they comprise, whatever their artistic results, an exemplary final act.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Pink Floyd Redux: The Piper at The Gates of Dawn

Pink Floyd (left to right): Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, David Gilmour, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright.

Fifty years ago, Pink Floyd emerged from the underground music scene of London's Soho district and released their debut album, The Piper at The Gates of Dawn (Columbia/EMI). The band played the UFO club (pron. YOU-faux) under the steady guidance of Joe Boyd, the American owner of the venue, who said they “engrossed” the crowd every night, not by playing dance music or pop songs but adding a light show to complement their improvisational sets. It was a band trying to find their sound with a slightly flamboyant front man by the name of Roger “Syd” Barrett.

Listening again to this album I’m struck by its enthusiasm and promise, but it’s difficult to ignore the simple fact that this handsome lad from Cambridge, Barrett, who had taken his first LSD trip in 1965, eventually got lost in the shuffle because of his addiction. By the end of 1967, he was persona non grata in Pink Floyd since his habit made him too unreliable to the other members of the band. As Boyd reports in his autobiography, “One evening in May [1967] I ran into Syd and his girlfriend in Cambridge Circus . . . [He] was sprawled on the [curb], his velvet trousers torn and dirty, his eyes crazed. Lindsey told me he’d been taking acid for a week.” When the album was released and Pink Floyd had a gig at UFO, Boyd saw the band just before they went on stage: “Syd’s sparkling eyes had always been his most attractive feature but that night they were vacant, as if someone had reached inside his head and turned off a switch.”

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Recent Nordic Mysteries in Print and Television, Part I: Iceland

A scene from the Icelandic television series Trapped, currently streaming on Netflix.

Arnaldur Indridason is one of the most acclaimed Icelandic writers of police procedurals for his novels about Detective Erlendur, a brooding, lonely officer who is tormented by ghosts from his past: the disappearance of his younger brother, a failed marriage and two children whose lives have been scarred by drugs. Fittingly, he investigates a number of cold cases. One of the best Erlendur books, The Draining Lake (2009), begins with a discovery of a corpse that has a bullet in his head in a lake where the water level has dropped in the wake of an earthquake. Erlendur’s investigation takes him back to the time of the Cold War when bright, left-wing students would be sent from Iceland to study in the “heavenly state” of Communist East Germany.

Indridason has recently decided to put the Erlendur series in a deep freeze while he pursues another project. Making connections between the past and the present is a driving impulse of The Shadow District (Harvill Secker, 2017), the first of a projected trilogy that is set in wartime Iceland after the war, and in the present. A young girl is found murdered by an Icelandic young woman and her American beau behind the National Theatre in Reykjavík in 1944, a frequent site for trysts between local girls and foreign troops when the country was occupied by British and American forces. Two officers investigate: the more experienced Flovent and his young partner, Thorson, a Canadian with Icelandic roots. The two officers are conscientious investigators who ultimately arrest a student of Icelandic folklore for her murder and the disappearance of another young woman three years earlier who may have been driven to her death by a local folklore story. Unfortunately they botch the case when the accused is under their care, and that and external pressure cause the investigation to be officially closed. But the case shadows the two men for the rest of their lives. Thorson is so dissatisfied that he returns to Iceland after the Second World War, hoping that some new clue will turn up.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Fresh Prince: Robert Icke’s Hamlet

Andrew Scott as Hamlet in Robert Icke's production of Hamlet. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Robert Icke’s new Hamlet, which began at London's Almeida Theatre (where he is artistic director) and moved to the West End in June, is elegiac, cerebral, mysterious. The designer Hildegard Bechtler’s palette is understated – blacks and whites and browns, silvers and grays. During the wedding party Claudius (Angus Wright) and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) dance among their guests beyond an upstage scrim that simultaneously reflects Hamlet (Andrew Scott) approaching Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) downstage: as anyone who was lucky enough to see Icke’s 2015 Agamemnon (with Wright as Agamemnon) knows, he loves doubling and echoes, and throughout this production he juxtaposes the two couples, both passionate, in suggestive, surprising ways. Bob Dylan’s voice murmurs on the soundtrack, his deceptively monochromatic drone veiling delicate whorls of phrasing and depth of feeling. (The play begins and ends with “One More Cup of Coffee.”)  In this contemporary setting, Elsinore Castle is lined with video monitors; the motif of electronic visuals – the Ghost (David Rintoul) makes his first appearance on one, spotted by Horatio (Joshua Higgott) and the palace guards in the control room; Fortinbras (Nikesh Patel) communes with the king through an exterior video camera; Hamlet and Horatio shoot “The Mousetrap” so that they can review it afterwards for signs of Claudius’s guilt – is, of course, partly about the omnipresence of surveillance. Other twenty-first-century Hamlets have explored this theme (Michael Almereyda’s 2000 movie version with Ethan Hawke, to pick one particularly effective example) but Icke is more concerned with the ghostliness of digital imagery, which builds on the doubling motif to investigate the idea of meanings hidden beneath the surface of the everyday. It’s this supernal quality that especially distinguishes Icke’s from other modern approaches to the play: there are hints of surrealism and neo-romanticism.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Music to the Ears: Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005), The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), Festival Express (2003) and Be Here to Love Me (2004)

Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005)

Since it's summer, and the sound of live music is always in the air, my mind immediately turned to some music docs that might add some flavour to the outdoor festivities. Cutting through any preconceived notions of (or prejudices toward) heavy metal music, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is a pretty informative and entertaining crash course in the genre. Co-director Sam Dunn, who first got his eardrums thundering when he was a high school student, took his passion for hard rock into an anthropological field study of the dark lords of mayhem. Along with co-directors Scot McFadyen and Jessica Joy Wise, Dunn lays out the roots of the music, which he connects to a series of influences: the theatrical and romantic bombast of grand opera, the blues, and the very insolent, nose-thumbing qualities of rock itself. The filmmakers travel through America and Europe, following tours and talking to metal heroes from Rob Zombie to Black Sabbath lead guitarist Tony Iommi. They also examine the darker metal bands in Europe that deliberately play into parents' worst nightmares of hard rock as the product of Satan. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey tries to go further and explore why heavy metal is held in such disrepute, but here it fails: the filmmakers are fans before they are critics. To bring more depth to the subject, they would have to call into question some of their own darker impulses and attractions. Nevertheless, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is an intelligent historical study of rock's loudest spectacle. (In 2007, they followed up with the more ambitious Global Metal, which showed the impact globalization had on the heavy metal underground.)