Monday, June 5, 2023

Water in the Desert: Summer, 1976 and Good Night, Oscar

Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht in Summer, 1976. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Almost every straight play I’ve seen in the last two years has either infuriated me or made me feel desperate about the state of the American theatre. It’s partly the result of the Covid shutdown, partly the elevation of identity politics as subject matter, partly the pushback against the old priorities, like structure and narrative logic and character development – which is, of course, a form of the rejection of professional expertise, now considered a cover for racism or sexism or homophobia. But after you’ve sat through Fairview, POTUS, The Minutes, Straight Line Crazy and A Prayer for the French Republic (some of which were written by playwrights with some talent), you might long for a display of skill the way a stranded traveler in the Gobi Desert longs for water.

Monday, May 29, 2023

New York, New York: Stepping Around the Heart of Scorsese’s Movie Musical

 The wonderful "Wine and Peaches" number in New York, New York. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Martin Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York, perhaps the only Big Band musical film after the collapse of the Big Band era, is about the meeting – collision is more accurate – of two young musical hopefuls in Manhattan on V-J Day, both newly out of the service. Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro, at the end of his astonishing early career – the year after Taxi Driver) is a relentlessly confident saxophonist and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli, in her least-known great performance) is a vocalist. He keeps asking her out; she keeps telling him no. But his persistence, obnoxious as it sometimes gets, is inseparable from his charm, and though she tries to resist she ends up acceding to every one of his demands. She does go out with him, she lands him a job by performing a duet with him at an audition – it’s “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” and they’re a knockout together (Georgie Auld, who plays a supporting role, dubs Jimmy’s sax) – and they become lovers, then husband and wife. You’d have to be De Niro to pull off this part. The marriage is a disaster, because Jimmy is demonically focused on his career and professionally competitive, and when Francine doesn’t – or can’t – do exactly what he demands of her, he steams. And he cheats on her. The divergence in their careers – she becomes a star of stage and movie musicals, he becomes one of the inventors of bop – operates as a symbol for all the ways in which their relationship is unworkable.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Tina Bids Farewell: The Exuberant Buddhism of the Late Tina Turner

Tina Turner, in 2018. (Photo: Charles Gates)

“The Buddhist concept of changing poison into medicine works. My life has proven it."  – Tina Turner, Living Buddhism, July 2018.

As a Buddhist, I don’t, of course, believe in the customary concepts of heaven or hell, since as fellow practitioners well know, we humans do a pretty good job of manufacturing our own versions of those two domains right here on earth while we’re alive in this material world. Like many of you, though, I do, however, believe in reincarnation, and that’s where my mind first went when I learned of the passing of the great Tina Turner at the age of 83 at her home in Switzerland on May 23, 2023, with her beloved second husband Erwin Bach at her side. Her first husband, the notoriously abusive Ike Turner, whose sole role in history has become his introduction of a shy sixteen-year-old girl named Anna Mae Bullock to the recording industry and his transformation of that girl into Tina, the larger-than-life talent we all came to adore, has drifted off into whatever hellish domain awaits the cruel and inhuman among us. But Tina, she might well have gone elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Making the Myth True: The Fisher King on Criterion

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King.

Around the turn of the millennium, the director Terry Gilliam struggled to bring an updated Don Quixote to the screen; the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) chronicles the breakdown of the project after bad weather and the illness of his Quixote, the French actor Jean Rochefort, threw it into financing hell. When he finally released a version of it called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2018, he’d lost the momentum. Really, though, he’d already made his Don Quixote, back in 1991. In his best movie, The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, two men strangely bonded by a tragedy heal each other through a crackpot mission to locate the Holy Grail, devised by one of them, a schizophrenic (Robin Williams) who used to be a Hunter College English professor named Henry Sagan, and carried through by the other, a one-time radio talk host named Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) whose life has become meaningless. The tragedy is a mass shooting at a popular bar called Babbitt’s perpetrated by a lunatic who has received encouragement for his paranoia by Jack, whose favorite targets is the yuppies who frequent Babbitt’s. Jack’s spleen isn’t real; his diatribes are cynical inventions to entertain his listeners and fuel his career. Until the killer strikes, it never occurs to him that there might be consequences to his habit of revving them up. Afterwards, shattered by what he’s brought into being, Jack goes into retreat, drinking and hiding from the world while his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) shelters him and lets him help her manage the video shop below her apartment.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Gypsy at the Goodspeed: The Vaudeville Spirit

Talia Suskauer and Laura Sky Herman in Gypsy. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know that Jenn Thompson, the director of the Goodspeed Opera House’s production of Gypsy, has a steady hand on the wheel right from the opening scene. It’s an audition for child acts in a dilapidated Seattle theatre in the grim last years of vaudeville, when the talkies dealt it a long, painful death that coincided with the Depression. The stage is crowded with kids in a variety of garish get-ups and their mothers until Uncle Jocko (Edward Juvier), the ulcerated, borderline creepy, far-from-unbiased comic hosting the variety show, banishes the latter. Then Rose (Judy McLane), who is promoting her little girl, Baby June (Emily Jewel Hoder), bulls her way down the aisle; the rules don’t apply to her. June has a head full of blonde curls and an affected squeal; she’s a nightmarish proto-Shirley Temple, flanked by her awkward older sister Louise (Cameron Blake Miller). Thompson’s staging picks up the show-biz chaos, its comedy and preposterousness and desperation, which finds its most feverish embodiment in Rose, the quintessential stage mother – perhaps the greatest and most original creation in the history of musical theatre.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Reveries Unlimited: The Razor’s Edge Stories of Karl Jirgens

Porcupine’s Quill Press, 2022.

"There is something missing . . . if I knew what it is then it wouldn't be so missing . . . " – Hans in The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955).

No, Reveries Unlimited is not the corporate name of a company specializing in providing services related to waking dreams, dreams we have with our eyes wide open while engaging in psychological wanderings. I’ve coined this hopefully supple phrase to encapsulate the kind of author who prompts, encourages, inspires and otherwise seduces us into sharing his or her narrative roamings through a past, present and future which collide, intersecting gently in a series of gently linked stories. Such is the service provided by Karl Jirgens in the recent collection called The Razor’s Edge, from Porcupine’s Quill Press, which subtly touches upon Maugham’s classic tale of a search for the meaning of life, in which we often feel as if we were walking on that precarious edge, posed between transcendence and a fall into oblivion.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Air: The Spirit That Moves a Business

Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) gives Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) a first look at the Air Jordan, in Air. (Photo: Ana Carballosa)

Ben Affleck’s roisterous comedy Air may be the most unconventional true-story sports movie ever made with the exception of Ron Shelton’s Cobb. (And Cobb is a masterpiece that transcends its genre.) Air’s focus isn’t exactly on a sport or a heroic player, but on the birth of a business decision and a company’s effort to turn it into reality. Moneyball veered off the genre’s beaten path by choosing a protagonist, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who made baseball history not by harnessing the spirit of a downtrodden team or devising a strategy to turn them into triumphant players but by choosing his recruits through computer-generated analysis. Its twenty-first century brand of pragmatism – the fact that it celebrated virtues that have nothing to do with the romantic vision baseball lovers cling to of their favorite sport – gave Moneyball a new kind of sharp edge. But the protagonist of Air, set in 1984, isn’t a professional athlete or someone whose job it is to make champions. It’s a businessman, Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon), who works as a talent scout for Nike, unearthing young players on the hopeful cusp of basketball careers whose endorsement of the company’s basketball sneakers might make it competitive with Converse – whose shoes carry the imprimatur of Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd – and Adidas. (Nike’s runaway success in selling sneakers has markedly failed to extend to the basketball market.) Air is about Vaccaro’s courtship, over the reluctance of the company’s CEO, Phil Knight (Affleck), of eighteen-year-old Michael Jordan and the creation of the Air Jordan.