Monday, September 17, 2018

A Note Regarding Scheduling at Critics at Large

Dear reader,

This note is to let you know that after nearly nine years of daily publication, Critics at Large will be moving to a more relaxed publishing schedule.

This is a necessary choice not just to maintain the health and sanity of our volunteer workforce, upon whom the operation and maintenance of this site depends, but also to help enhance the quality of writing that we publish. Our writers can now take the time they need to choose topics that inspire them, and can feel free to write to their fullest potential.

We feel strongly that the quality of the content we produce is paramount. That much we vow to maintain, no matter the frequency of postings. And it goes without saying that none of this would be possible without you, the reader  so please accept our heartfelt thanks for your years of dedicated support, and your continued interest.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us.

-The Critics at Large Team

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Contemporary Relevance of Jake Tapper's The Hellfire Club

Jake Tapper signing copies of his new thriller, The Hellfire Club. (Photo: Harrison Jones/GW Today)

Jake Tapper's debut historical political thriller, The Hellfire Club (Little, Brown & Company 2018), opens at dawn on March 5, 1954 with an echo of the Chappaquiddick incident reset in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. A rookie congressman, Charlie Marder, wakes up from a drunken stupor after a car accident. The body of a young cocktail waitress lies nearby in a ditch. As he tries to make sense of what has happened, an influential lobbyist known to Marder passes by, incinerates the evidence and whisks Charlie away.

With this harrowing start, before Marder or the reader can figure out whether he has been set up, Tapper backtracks three months to when Marder, a Columbia University professor with a well-connected New York GOP lawyer for a father, is chosen to fill a seat left vacant by the mysterious death of a congressman. Initially, Marder appears to demonstrate the idealism of the eponymous character in the Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as he questions on the House floor whether an appropriation earmarked for a big tire company is ethical given that it manufactured defective gas masks that Charlie witnessed first-hand when he served in the war overseas. But he does not have the mettle, the will or, to be fair, the allies to resist a powerful committee chairman who humiliates him, forcing him into a series of compromises of backroom deals which lead to Marder's     actually voting for a bill that will enable that company to produce something decidedly toxic.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Honey at the Spencer Fair

A stand showing some of the honey entries at this year's Spencer Fair. (Photo: Ellen Perry)

Every year at the Spencer Fair, the Worcester County (Massachusetts) Beekeepers Association puts on an educational display that includes candle-rolling and an observation hive  the latter basically a couple of hive frames covered with honeybees and encased in glass so that people can see the insects at work. The observation hive is extremely popular with children, who focus intently on locating the queen bee and almost always shout with delight when they find her. (This year, she was marked with a red dot on her back, which made her a lot easier to find and also indicated that she was born in 2018.) The children were mesmerized by the hive right up until somebody delivered a couple of two-week-old baby goats to a nearby display, at which point they drifted  or, in some cases, raced  away.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Neglected Gem: Ransom (1996)

Mel Gibson (with Brawley Nolte) in Ron Howard's 1996 version of Ransom. (Photo: IMDB)

Ransom was one of the few exciting American movies released in 1996 – not just gripping but conceptually exciting. And it was the first genuinely adult movie made by Ron Howard. The script, by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, adapts a long-forgotten picture from 1956 starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed as a wealthy young couple whose little boy is kidnapped. (This version, which has an exclamation point at the end of the one-word title, shows up occasionally on TCM.) In the original, Ford is about to fork over the half a million dollars demanded by the kidnapper when a newsman covering the story (Leslie Nielsen) persuades him that he’s just as likely to get his son back without it, and – though the script never clarifies this thinking – that in fact the boy is in less danger if Ford doesn’t deliver the ransom. So Ford gets on TV – on the weekly show his vacuum-cleaner company sponsors – and announces that the half million is going on the head of the kidnapper if he hires the boy in any way. Eventually everyone turns against Ford for making this stand, except for the reporter and a loyal servant (Juano Hernandez) and the chief of police; even Reed, who’s doped up on sedatives, deserts him. But in the movie’s point of view, Ford has a superior take on the situation, and he turns out to be right when, in the final scene, the boy wanders in, completely unharmed. This Ransom! (which was released to theatres but feels like it was made for a TV anthology series like Playhouse 90) is a pure-fifties social problem picture, and its theme is straight out of the Arthur Miller translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People: the strong must learn to be lonely.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Photo Finish: A Conversation with William Ewing

Curator and author William Ewing, shown here at his exhibit called Edward Steichen: In High Fashion. (Photo: Youtube)

Without ever having clicked a shutter, Canada’s William Ewing has earned an international reputation as one of the great luminaries of modern photography. In the more than four decades since opening his first gallery in his native Montreal, the now-74-year old photography expert has created exhibitions, written books – including an international bestseller – and directed a prestigious Swiss museum, all devoted to the ephemeral art of photography. That's right, ephemeral.

"I think it would shock most people to know that 80 per cent of photographs disappear," said Ewing, speaking by phone on a fast-moving European train in between assignments. "People feel that because they are so ubiquitous that they will go on and on. But most are destroyed or are lost or are torn up by one's kids. And few photographs are documented. And usually little is written about them."

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

M*A*S*H: Novel into Film into Sitcom, and Notes on the Long Run

The cast of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. (Photo: IMDB)

“Richard Hooker,” whose real name was Richard Hornberger, had been a surgeon in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH unit, during the Korean War. Failing to interest a dozen or so publishers in his sheaf of random anecdotes about cutting soldiers and cutting up in America’s least-understood modern conflict, he partnered with sportswriter W.C. Heinz, who took a hired gun’s silent pay to whip the sheaf into shape. It was published, in 1968, as MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors, and a few days ago – for no reason other than that an episode of the associated sitcom was on television, and that I was eager to avoid doing some actual work – I retrieved the paperback of the novel that I’d had, but not read, since high school. I remembered some things about the book and had forgotten others. Remembered: the characters, while similar to those who populate Robert Altman’s 1970 film adaptation, bear almost no resemblance to those of the long-running (1972-83) TV version. Forgotten: the style and matter of the novel are cool and mordant in a mostly appealing way – albeit with much of the sexism that makes the Altman film offensive, but without a hint of the sanctimony that so defined the series in its last several seasons.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Art of War: Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his cavalry charge into battle in Apocalypse Now Redux. (Photo: Getty)

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a film that needs no introduction. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War, had a legendary troubled production history of this Francis Ford Coppola, documented in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness. The film features only the second leading performance by Martin Sheen (after 1973's Badlands) while also including known commodities such as Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. It’s a lush piece of episodic cinema (shot by Vittorio Storaro) that ends in a world even more surreal than the build-up, or even the novella, could prepare us for. Captain Willard (Sheen) takes on a mission to find and kill super-soldier Colonel Kurtz (Brando) deep in the Southeast Asian jungle, and his numerous and wide-ranging but almost always antagonistic encounters along the way show him and us the true face of the Vietnam War. In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch released an extended and re-edited version called Apocalypse Now Redux, and that’s the one I saw.

It struck me about midway through that, in contrast to most war films, which glorify war, unveil its brutal realities, or glorify the brutality itself (as in the case of Hacksaw Ridge in 2016), Apocalypse Now isn’t actually about war per se. It’s about the absurd tragedies that occur when a rational strategy or cultural institution is guided by humans and their inherent irrationalities. War is but the most extreme case.