Friday, October 11, 2019

The Cult of Rock and Roll: Six Degrees of Art, Poetry and Music

William S. Burroughs (right) with Jimmy Page, guitarist/composer of Led Zeppelin.

A writer with the incredibly apt but real name of Alexander Kafka, who frequently writes about literature for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune, penned what I’ve long felt was an ideal characterization of beat legend William S. Burroughs: “Burroughs was an ethereal intermediary between here and the fiery beyond, pausing to give us the purgatorial skinny.” That skinny was transmitted, of course, in haunting and disturbing novels such as Junky, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. However, it is through his influence on every other aspect of 20th-century culture in all media that his spectral presence as a witness was most perhaps most long-lasting.

Music for instance. What do Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Jim Carroll, Jerry Garcia and a few even more disparate musicians all have in common? William Burroughs. Kafka cleverly referred to them all as the writer’s amped-up apostles, and indeed they were, chiefly as a result of his outlaw status but also partly because of his unique and innovative literary techniques. All of the above musical artists, to one degree or another, were influenced by not just the Burroughs style and ethos but also the surreal potential to manufacture new and fresh meanings as the result of aleatory alignments of thought, image and text.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Judy: Finale

Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock in Judy.


Renée Zellweger gives a fierce, fearless performance as Judy Garland in the new film Judy. She’s the movie’s Atlas, carrying it on her back; it’s not much good otherwise but you wouldn’t want to miss what she does in it. Adapted by Tom Edge from a play by Peter Quilter and directed by Rupert Goold, Judy is set in 1969, at the twilight of Garland’s career – when, bankrupt in her mid-forties, notoriously unreliable and fighting her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their two kids, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she goes to London to perform at the nightclub Talk of the Town. At first you might think, as I did, that what Zellweger is offering up is a brilliant impersonation, that it lacks the spooky lived-in feeling of Judy Davis’s version of Garland in the 2001 TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. (If you haven’t seen it, I recommend tracking it down: it’s the most amazing thing Davis has ever done, which means that it’s one of the greatest pieces of acting on record.) But when she finally gets up to sing – Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s singular paean to the power of loneliness, “By Myself,” with the lyrics altered to give it a personal slant – Zellweger’s portrayal takes hold. She gets all the elements of the singer in those late, hanging-on-by-her-fingernails days: the ironic, is-that-all-you’ve-got tone, matched to a widening gaze, as if she’s daring whatever monster she’s confronting to do its worst; the broadening of the cheekbones and the space between her eyebrows and her eyelids as she rides a song like a rollercoaster that threatens to jump its track; the way she uses those fragile shoulder blades, the bones practically bursting through the skin, to express sadness and defiance, sometimes simultaneously; the stiff, stick-like left hand, chopping at the air; the reckless belt in her voice that uses the little bit she has left of her range for an assertive thrust; the slurred final consonants; the self-deprecating pout and the half-closing of the eyes to signal defeat and resignation; the tough-broad, take-it-or-leave-it finish as she takes that weird, marionette bow. Zellweger captures Garland’s sardonic quality – part of her survivor’s apparatus – and the gallantry that made diehard loyalists out of her fans (especially gay men, who identified with her).

Friday, October 4, 2019

A Living Cinematic Fossil: Angel Has Fallen (2019)

Gerard Butler in Angel Has Fallen (2019)

You don't need me to tell you that Angel Has Fallen (2019), directed by Ric Roman Waugh, is pretty shitty. The incoherent action sequences (edited by Gabriel Fleming), including one that's so underlit it’s literally incomprehensible (cinematography by Jules O'Loughlin), is par for the course in today's action blockbuster (or "blockbuster") landscape, but you know something's really wrong when even the dialogue scenes are confusingly shot. Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) returns for another round of mayhem in this third installment of a franchise whose first installment (Olympus Has Fallen) was already inferior to another film released around the same time and with the same premise, White House Down (2013). I wish Jamie Foxx had gotten the threepeat treatment instead.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Struggles and Thrills: What the Jews Believe and Passengers

Benim Foster and Logan Weibrecht in What the Jews Believe. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Mark Harelik’s ambitious new play, What the Jews Believe (Berkshire Theatre Group), juxtaposes three religious positions. Dave (Benim Foster) insists that his twelve-year-old son Nathan (Logan Weibrecht) prep for his Bar Mitzvah, though they are the only Jewish family in a small Texas town and the nearest rabbi – Rabbi Bindler (Robert Zukerman), who married Dave and his wife Rachel (Emily Donahoe) – is in El Paso and can come to tutor the boy only infrequently. Dave has the cockeyed notion that somehow Nathan can learn his Torah portion from recordings made by Dave’s grandfather. His idea of Judaism is inextricably bound up with his feeling about family – his determination that the influence of his father shouldn’t die out, especially in a place where everybody else is Christian, even though (somewhat unconvincingly) the family doesn’t appear to observe any other Jewish customs. Dave’s holding onto this plan, despite the apparent hopelessness of the boy to learn the Hebrew, appears to be connected to the fact that Rachel is dying of cancer. She takes advantage of Bindler’s visit to express her despair over her condition and query him about its spiritual meaning. When he tries to present a Jewish philosophical stance on suffering and faith, Dave hustles him out of the house; his answer to her anguish is to comfort her with love – that is, again to substitute family for what a traditional Jew would see as faith. It’s her Aunt Sarah (Cynthia Mace), a convert to Christian Science in childhood as a result of, she believes, a miracle that saved her life, who offers Rachel an alternative, and overnight Rachel, too, becomes a Christian Scientist.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Redeeming the Past in Alexi Zentner's Copperhead and Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred

Author Alexi Zenter. (Photo: Laurie Willick, Viking)

Alexi Zentner's Copperhead, spins several threads that eventually knit together. Although the President's name is mentioned only twice, in reference to the Woman's March that occurred shortly after his inauguration, the novel is firmly ensconced in the Trump era where racial and class tensions have been exacerbated. The novel's incendiary language exploits these divisions mirroring the raw rhetoric the President deploys in his rallies and almost daily tweets. There is an incisive exploration of toxic race relations and the stigma associated with being labeled as so-called "white trash." It is also an investigation about the relationship between the alt-right and the religious right in America. Throughout, a teenager navigates through these treacherous landmines, makes a serious mistake and as an adult attempts to address it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Flaming Fist of Christ Compels You!: The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019)

Park Seo-joon in Saja (2019).

What if the titular protagonist of Constantine (2005) (Keanu Reeves) was a mixed-martial arts fighter? What if he was really, really good? What if he could burn demons with his bare hand? Writer-director Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019) answers these questions we never thought we had.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Song and Dance, Part IV: King of Jazz and Miscast

A scene from King of Jazz (1930).

In their efforts to find ways to showcase talkie performers, in the early days of sound film most of the major studios produced elaborate musical revues featuring their leading contract players. MGM released Hollywood Revue of 1929 (for which Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown furnished the song “Singin’ in the Rain”), Warner Brothers had Show of Shows (which included a speech from Richard III by John Barrymore), and Fox came up with Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 – all decidedly mixed bags, as one might imagine. The only one with an actual concept was Universal’s King of Jazz: it was a loving though tongue-in-cheek tribute to Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra staged and shot by the extravagant stage director John Murray Anderson. Anderson sent it flying madly over budget, and after it opened to terrible reviews, it sank quickly at the box office – and neither Anderson nor Whiteman wound up with a movie career. (Whiteman made sporadic appearances in movie musicals over the next two decades, most memorably in Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.) But Criterion’s lovingly restored DVD reveals a charming, inventive early musical in stunning two-tone Technicolor. The palette – pink and carmine and orange, silver and pearly white, eggshell blue bordering on turquoise (true blue wasn’t possible until three-tone Technicolor was developed) – is elegant, Gatsby-ish; Herman Rosse designed both sets and costumes. And the lighting by Hal Mohr, Jerry Ash and Ray Rennahan adds a touch of expressionism, with purplish shadows deepening the images.