Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Dream Teller: Why Brian Wilson Might Be Our George Gershwin

Brian Wilson, 1966, the fragile reason why The Beach Boys matter.

A Review of Why The Beach Boys Matter, Tom Smucker’s new book from University of Texas Press.
Brian fought hard against the industry attitude that if it works, run it into the ground. Music meant much more to him than that. He was trying to do something so much bigger with his teenage symphonies to God. In the process, he really rocked the boat and changed the world.
– Lindsey Buckingham (ex-Fleetwood Mac, and hugely influenced by Wilson)
And that, my friends, as Lindsey Buckingham so eloquently described it, is exactly why The Beach Boys matter, and why I’m delighted to find a valid excuse, in the form of Tom Smucker’s concise new book on their cultural role (Why The Beach Boys Matter, from University of Texas Press), to wax rhapsodic on their true stature as serious artists concealed under the shiny veneer of pop music transience. Let me be even more blunt right up front: The Beach Boys matter because of their founder and resident singer-songwriting genius Brian Wilson, and Brian Wilson matters because he is Brian Wilson, and he also survived being Brian Wilson.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Neglected Gem: Enchanted April (1992)

Josie Lawrence and Joan Plowright in Enchanted April.

During World War II, two middle-aged women, fed up with their dreary marriages, answer an ad to rent a castle in the Italian countryside for a month; their lives – as well as the lives of two strangers who agree to share the rent – are magically altered. That’s the premise of Enchanted April. There have now been enough comedies of this forest-of-Arden variety to call it a genre – I Know Where I’m Going and Local Hero and High Season and, in a way, May Fools and Where the Heart Is (where the magic setting is a fantastical vision of New York). I’m not sure why, but this is one sort of movie that almost always seems to work: I loved all of those earlier pictures, and Enchanted April is a charmer. (The exception, ironically, is the 1935 movie version of the same material, a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim). Part of the charm lies in the fact that it’s as different from the other movies as they are from each other. The screenwriter, English playwright Peter Barnes, has a quirky turn of phrase, and he keeps throwing in twists and devices (like voice-overs transcribing the characters’ thoughts) that you didn’t anticipate – and often, as in the case of the voice-overs, that you would likely have predicted, wrongly, wouldn’t work. The film isn’t fluid or polished; it skips around a bit, as if the director, Mike Newell, were feeling his way through it. This tentativeness enhances a viewer’s enjoyment; you experience the movie as a series of delightful small discoveries.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Fear and Loathing in Outer Space: High Life

Robert Pattinson in High Life.
Despite having seen Trouble Every Day (2001), nothing could’ve prepared me for the savage nihilism of Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Set in a future when humanity sends its death row convicts into space for science, the film centers on the crew of ship #7, headed by de facto leader Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and ostensible moral leader Monte (Robert Pattinson). Their primary mission is to explore the possible use of black holes as an energy source, making it for all intents and purposes a suicide mission; a secondary objective is revealed when Dibs forcibly impregnates the women via artificial insemination with sperm donated by every man but Monte: to answer the question, "Can human life be created in space?" The answer is always no, because of irradiation – almost always.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sea Wall/A Life: Putting It Together

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sea Wall/A Life. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sea Wall and A Life are a pair of monologues, each about forty-five minutes in length, that form a double bill currently at the Public Theatre. The first, written by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), features the English actor Tom Sturridge as Alex, a photographer who loses his eight-year-old daughter Lucy during a family visits to father-in-law’s oceanside summer home in France. The second, written by Nick Payne (Constellations) and acted by Jake Gyllenhaal, links the deterioration and death of the father of the protagonist, Abe, to the birth of his child. Clearly a strenuous set of workouts for the two actors, they’re also an emotional endurance test for the audience. That they combine to form a satisfying evening in the theatre is less a result of the themes they have in common (loss and grief, the relationship between a parent and a child) than of the ways in which they contrast each other. (An incidental commonality between the two halves of the double bill: both reference the TV show ER.) One is set in Europe, the other – in this production, at least – in America; one is a spare single story, the other a cross-hatching of two stories; one is a portrait of the walking wounded, the other the attempt of a man to find meaning by connecting the two essential narratives of his adult life. So although A Life inevitably echoes Sea Wall, their distinctness from each other suggests the hugeness and variety of the experiences of death and of parenthood.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Rise of the Videogame Aesthetic in Cinema

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Serenity (2019).

This piece contains spoilers for Serenity and Aquaman.

When critics first saw Serenity (2019) they lost their minds. Charles Bramesco of The Guardian calls it a “zeppelin crash of a film”; and it broke Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, who wrote a conceptual review that sees it as a career rest stop for lead Matthew McConaughey. Everyone seems to agree that the acting is clichéd, the dialogue stilted, the style overwrought to the point of camp, and the camerawork just plain weird.

But as a counterpoint, I submit for your consideration the idea that writer-director Steven Knight is not introducing us to a guy named Baker Dill (McConaughey) who, asked by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) to kill her abusive current husband Frank (Jason Clarke), suddenly discovers that – spoiler! – he’s a character in a video game. Knight presents us with a video-game world called Plymouth Island whose player-avatar, Baker Dill, discovers the central game plot among the various mini-games.

The difference is subtle but important. If you viewed the movie as the former you invite a traditional critique, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls it “a high-level goof, a collection of clichés assembled as a meta-movie.” But view it first and foremost from the perspective of a video-game aesthetic and Serenity starts to make sense.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bruno and his Friend, the Future: The Collected Stories

Bruno Schulz, self-portrait, 1922.

Review of Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz, a new translation by Madeline Levine, released by Northwestern University Press.

Schulz (1892-1942) had very few friends. The future was one of them.

I suppose I first encountered the brilliant, mesmerizing, disturbing and delightful writing of the Polish genius Bruno Schulz on the installment plan. First, sometime as a teenager in the '60s while also bumping into the similarly magical writing of his contemporary and Czech counterpart Franz Kafka; second, by coming upon a 1977 article by Cynthia Ozick in The New York Times; third, by finding a dusty old bilingual English-Polish copy of two of his most famous collections, The Street of  Crocodiles (1934) and the fantastically titled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1935) in a used bookstore in about 1980; fourth, by watching a strange little 21-minute stop-action animated film by the Brothers Quay, loosely based on the aura and mood of Street of Crocodiles, in 1986; and fifth, when this new translation by Madeline Levine of his collected fiction was released late last year by Northwestern University Press.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts 1 & 2)

Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker, and Paul Thornley in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

I grew up reading Harry Potter. I can still remember the seismic event that was each new book release. When I demonstrated textual analysis to my students, it was my go-to source text for impromptu examples. So imagine how utterly disappointed I was when reading the text of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and realizing that it is, in fact, bad: sentimental, blunt, and (ironically) unrealistic. And diehard Potterheads hate it for breaking with canon at seemingly every turn. I asked a friend who had seen the show in London whether it fares better on stage, and (there was still hope!) she said it does.

Having finally seen it on Broadway, I can say with certainty that the story is still bad, even though the jokes land better. And yet, I still recommend it, because its presentation of magic is a capital “s” Spectacle.