Monday, November 18, 2019

New Works for the Theatre: The Michaels, The Height of the Storm and Admissions

Brenda Wehle and Charlotte Bydwell in The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is Richard Nelson’s first play since he directed his own translation, with the wizardly translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, of Uncle Ványa in the Hunter Theatre Project a year ago. Now he’s back at the Public, where he presented (also as both playwright and director) his tetralogy The Apple Family Plays and his trilogy The Gabriels, and like those plays – and like Uncle Ványa – the style is what you might call conversational realism. The venue is LuEsther Hall, the smallest space at the Public, and those of us who didn’t obtain a listening device in the lobby leaned in to listen as soon as the actors had created the set out of piled-up tables, chairs and benches, rolled-up rugs and props laid out in trays. Then the lights come up and Jay O. Sanders, as David Michael, a producer and arts manager, tells the assembled kitchen in his ex-wife Rose’s Rhinebeck house about having to appear in place of an ailing actor in his latest show. He describes what it was like to experience the sacred performance space actors and dancers claim that isn’t normally open to mere producers. (Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, is also the setting of The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels.)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Colson Whitehead: Shredder of Illusions

Author Colson Whitehead. (Photo: Chris Close)

Most of us do not harbour a benign view of slavery, namely the belief that the owners of slaves were reluctant masters who generally cared for the well-being of their human property. There are, however, egregious exceptions. In 2016 a curious children's book appeared, A Birthday Cake for George Washington , that portrayed happy slave children baking a cake for the first president; it was a whitewash of slavery that produced a swift and sharp backlash, prompting the publisher to withdraw it. More disturbing is that Roy Moore , the Republican Senate candidate for Alabama in the 2018 election – who subsequently lost in one of the America's reddest states – publicly stated that America was great when slavery prevailed because black families were kept together, a grotesque misrepresentation of the historical reality, which was that slave families were frequently and viciously torn apart.

Instead, we are likely to view slavery as harsh, ruthless, even tragic, though these adjectives do not fully capture the systemic cruelty visited upon slaves by sadistic overseers and psychopathic owners. That gritty reality is viscerally evoked in Colson Whitehead's 2014 The Underground Railway, which earned both the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, and Esi Edugyan's 2018 Washington Black, which won the Scotiabank Giller award. The trajectories of the two novels are vastly different but the opening chapters bear a striking resemblance: a harrowing captivity narrative illustrating the Hobbesian adage that life (in this case on a slave plantation) was "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short."

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Light and Sound: Image Makers and The Magic Flute

William H. Daniels, with Greta Garbo, on the set of Romance (1930).

The best time I’ve had at the movies so far this year was watching Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, which TCM ran over the weekend. It’s catnip for film buffs. Written by film critic Michael Sragow and directed and edited by Daniel Raim, Image Makers zeroes in on seven groundbreaking artists – Billy Bitzer, Rollie Totheroh, Charles Rosher, William Daniels, Karl Struss, Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe. It combines historical and biographical material; precise, razor-sharp film analysis; interviews with a crew of extraordinarily knowledgeable scholars, a few contemporary DPs and a couple of relations; invaluable voice interviews conducted at the American Society of Cinematographers while Rosher and Daniels were still alive; brightly-colored comic-strip frames (by Patrick Mate) to illustrate some of the stories; and, naturally, clips from these men’s movies and in some cases the ones that influenced them.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Banality of Evil: Notes on an Appearance

Bingham Bryant in Notes on an Appearance (2018).

Notes on an Appearance (2018), writer-director-editor Ricky D'Ambrose's no-budget feature debut, runs an hour long but feels much longer, in both good ways and bad (the good and bad are mutually constitutive). D'Ambrose has made two previous shorts, using them as experiments to prepare for Notes, and the thought and consideration that went into this film shine through.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The King: Get Me Rewrite!

Timothée Chalamet in The King (2019).

This review contains spoilers.
In a capsule review of a 1932 straight-dramatic movie of Madame Butterfly, the critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Is there someone out there who has always wanted to know what the opera was about, without being distracted from the plot by the music?” The new film The King (which was in some theatres in October and is currently streaming on Netflix) sets out on an equally dunderheaded mission: rewriting Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V without the distractions of, you know, the verse and the humor and the greatest coming-of-age narrative ever written and the most complex treatment of war ever put on a stage.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Living in the Future: Aaron Cohen's Move On Up

The Impressions in 1970: Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden (Phoyo: Giles Petard)

“They were living in the future, those artists. You have to live tomorrow, you can’t think of today. The real beauty is not the music but the reflection of what it shows us. I’m ready to get back to the future.”  – Rhymefest
I first encountered the fine writing of Aaron Cohen in his marvelous little book on Aretha Franklin’s magnificent 1973 live-concert gospel record Amazing Grace. His book with the same title was released by Bloomsbury’s 33-1/3 series focusing on individual albums and their influences on music and pop culture. I use the word “little” in reference not to its content, which is huge, but only to its diminutive format: the series takes short but penetrating looks (and listens) at frequently landmark recordings in an attempt to deeply explore the album as a work of art along the lines of a great painting or compelling novel. I was also fortunate enough to glean some insights from him for my own upcoming book on Tina Turner, and was grateful for the clarity of his grasp of soul music as an expression of black culture in general and Turner’s role in the first wave of popularizing its style with white audiences.

In this new book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, Cohen stretches out for a longer and in-depth appreciation of soul music in its city-specific relationship to his hometown of Chicago, where he teaches humanities, journalism and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and received a Public Scholar fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016. Cohen's articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, The Washington Post and The Nation and he is the two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). I like the way author Jonathan Eig characterized Cohen’s heartfelt study of the city and the army of talented musicians who gave it a distinct tone and vibe, one so different from Aretha’s Detroit or Tina’s St. Louis/Los Angeles: “An extraordinary achievement, cue up The Chi-Lites, open this book and enjoy.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An Appreciation of Philip Kerr's Final Novel Metropolis

Metropolis by Otto DIx (1927-1928).

When the Scottish-born author, Philip Kerr, died of cancer last year at the age of 62, he left behind the manuscript of Metropolis which turned out to be the 14th novel in the Bernie Gunther series. Although he wrote several standalone novels and a children's fantasy series, he will probably best be remembered for the hard-boiled, iconoclastic Berlin detective turned private investigator.

The Weimar Republic, specifically 1928 Berlin, is the locale of Metropolis. The novel is a prequel to the series that began thirty years ago with the publication of March Violets set in 1936 Nazi Germany at the time of the Olympics. Interestingly, that time-span roughly matches the aging of the novels' cynical protagonist since Kerr's penultimate novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts takes place in 1957.