Friday, October 30, 2020

In Memoriam: Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff Walker, 1942-2020. (Photo: Paul Natkin)

Jerry Jeff Walker, who succumbed on October 23, at seventy-eight, to the throat cancer that had been dogging him for three years, embodied Austin, Texas so perfectly that it was something of a shock to recall that he was actually a native New Yorker whose early days as a singer and songwriter were spent in the Greenwich Village of the mid-1960s. He moved to Austin in the early seventies, where he was a vital part of the outlaw country movement (“outlaw” because they weren’t mainstream enough to get played on conventional country-music stations), which also included Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle. These men loved Texas and they made music that sounded like it couldn’t have come from anywhere else. But like liberal Austin itself, they were wild cards – holdover hippies, exuberant free spirits. (Van Zandt, a drug addict who died at fifty-two, was the tragic figure of the group.) You can glimpse Walker in a party scene in James Szalapski’s affectionate 1981 documentary about the Austin outlaws, Heartworn Highways. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Unhappy Birthday: The Boys in the Band

Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells in The Boys in the Band (2020), now streaming on Netflix.

The Boys in the Band, if you need reminding, is a landmark 1968 play by Mart Crowley about eight gay men at a birthday party: Michael, the host, full of venom and self-hatred; his bookish ex-lover Donald; gentle, self-possessed Bernard; flamboyantly effeminate Emory; promiscuous Larry and stable Hank, a volatile couple; a dumb hustler called Cowboy; and Harold, the figure skater, pothead, and supercool “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” whose birthday it is. Emotional hostilities and histories emerge, with Michael finally forcing the others into a sadistic truth-telling game which involves saying “I love you” to someone over the phone. The same actors—Kenneth Nelson as Michael, Frederick Combs as Donald, Reuben Greene as Bernard, Cliff Gorman as Emory, Keith Prentice as Larry, Laurence Luckinbill as Hank, Peter White as Alan, Robert LeTourneaux as Cowboy, and Leonard Frey as Harold—played these roles off-Broadway, in the West End, and in the first film version, from 1970, produced by Dominick Dunne and directed by William Friedkin. The play didn’t reach Broadway until 2018, its fiftieth anniversary, when it was directed by Joe Mantello, produced by Ryan Murphy, and played by an all-gay cast: Jim Parsons as Michael, Matt Bomer as Donald, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, Robin de Jesús as Emory, Andrew Rannells as Larry, Tuc Watkins as Hank, Brian Hutchison as Alan, Charlie Carver as Cowboy, and Zachary Quinto as Harold. The same personnel return for a new film version, which began streaming on September 30 as part of Murphy’s multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Cinema Comes of Age: Two Books on the Early and Late Stages


“Filmmaking is more athletics than art and filmmaking comes from the thighs.” – Werner Herzog, 2011.

Yes, this is an art review, even though it’s about cinema, because although movies are magic, as Van Dyke Parks once sang, they are also the premier art form of the twentieth century. As a visual art critic, I often hasten to point out that from my perspective visual art, and the history of art writ large, must perforce contain not only the aesthetic by-products of the French invention of photography in about 1840 but also the captivating artifacts resulting from the invention of cinema roughly fifty years later. Joseph Niepce, and then later on the Lumière Brothers, who jointly ushered in a seismic shift in the radical creation and revolutionary distribution of images, were visionary frontiersmen inaugurating the dreamlike epoch of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Was it science, fashion novelty, documentary evidence, or artistic medium? Well, it was all of the above. The still camera and the movie camera are now of course considered among the most modern of all modernist devices, but in those early heady days it was unclear how to situate the new technology, what to call it or how to judge its artistic merits. Such questions have naturally fallen far by the wayside in the wake of remarkable photographic artists such as Stieglitz, Evans, Frank, Arbus, Callahan, and Winogrand (to name only a few) as well as the breathtakingly beautiful motion pictures of Keaton, Bresson, Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, Tarkovsky and Herzog (to mention some of my own personal favourites). 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Barbara Kopple's Desert One: Broken Wings

A scene from Barbara Kopple's Desert One.

Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted attempt by a Delta Force crew in April 1980 to rescue fifty-two U.S. hostages held in Tehran by revolutionary students in the thrall of Ayatollah Khomeini, doomed Jimmy Carter’s bid for re-election, sealing the popular impression, encouraged by Ronald Reagan’s campaign rhetoric, that he was a milky, ineffectual peacenik who had no idea what to do when faced with the radical aggression of a foreign nation. Four decades later Barbara Kopple’s somber, mournful documentary Desert One presents the mission not as a slip-up but as a tragedy – eight American military were killed when one of the helicopters, its pilot blinded in a sandstorm, collided with a transport in the desert before the rescue team could enter the city – with Carter, who owned the disaster and rode out of the White House on its broken wings, as its face. Interviewed now, he still looks scarred by it, not because of its political implications for him but because of its human cost. Here was a president who steadfastly refused to use the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of hostages as a provocation for a war with Iran but who arranged for a rescue attempt as a last-ditch solution if diplomacy proved to be futile (as of course it did), and who wound up with casualties incurred outside any field of battle.

Monday, October 12, 2020

City Hall: Frederick Wiseman in Boston

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Frederick Wiseman's City Hall.

Still turning out documentaries at ninety, Frederick Wiseman is one of the enduring treasures of American filmmaking. His early films, produced for PBS, dealt with thorny, troubled institutions, and half a dozen of them – High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975) – are classic works of non-fiction humanism, balanced mysteriously between the poignantly familiar and the utterly unpredictable. The greatest sequences in them are the ones that provide moving glimpses of how professionals engaged in the work of these places, which are blighted by deep-seated institutional flaws and misguided policies and decades of accumulated cobwebbed bureaucracy, try like hell to break through and help the ordinary people they’re supposed to serve. At some point, Wiseman’s explorations became less radical and focused on more localized settings – meticulous excavations of towns and neighborhoods, cultural and educational and recreational entities. But the approach he had famously pioneered, drawing viewers into the world of each of these places through sometimes extensive fragments of their daily interactions and eschewing all the elements that we’re still used to in documentaries (voice-over narration, on-camera interviews, intertitles) has remained his modus operandi.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elemental: New Glass/Metal Paintings by Michael Burges at Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto

No 2. (2020), acrylic, Plexiglas, goldleaf on aluminum, 8 x 8 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).
“If we keep our eyes open in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself, it retires into itself. That stimulating and grateful contact is wanting by means of which it is connected with the external world.”  – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810).

Some viewers and readers may recall earlier bodies of work by Michael Burges executed in reverse painting on glass, a resistant surface which allowed us to look through to get at, and an intriguing strategy devised to liberate the artist from the acres of textile and canvas customarily used by painters throughout art history, those who formally celebrated its absorbent and tactile qualities. With these new works, this painter continues to explore reverse glass painting mounted on aluminum, an equally resistant and reflective surface capable of carrying the subtle language of his images of time-soaked light as a most effective medium. Our eyes themselves are now the delicate textiles which absorb their fleeting messages, if we allow their mesmerizing gaze back at us. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Neglected Gem: Monsieur Vincent (1947)

Pierre Fresnay in Monsieur Vincent (1947).

Movies about men and women of faith are usually tepid and sentimental, but a few are extraordinary: Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Fred Zinnemann’s A Nun’s Story (1959) and more recently Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (2010) come to mind. Lesser known is Maurice Cloche’s 1947 Monsieur Vincent, which chronicles the religious vocation of Vincent de Paul (Pierre Fresnay) in seventeenth-century France, beginning with his leaving Paris, where he completed his education as a priest, to take over as curé in a small town in the countryside during the plague. His early life, when he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery, isn’t included in the film; Cloche and the screenwriters, Jean-Bernard Luc and the playwright Jean Anouilh, aren’t interested in the parts of Vincent’s life that qualify it as an adventure story; the entire focus of the picture is on his devotion to the poor, which culminated in his founding the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. (He died in 1660 and was canonized in 1737.) Cloche is a filmmaker from the cinéma de papa era in France – that often-derided period between the golden age of French cinema (the 1930s) and the French New Wave (beginning in 1959-1960) – with whose body of work I am otherwise unfamiliar, but Monsieur Vincent is a fine piece of work: intelligent, sensitive, understated, with a purity of narrative style that lends it a kind of poetry.