Friday, May 29, 2020

The Search for Human Connection in Songs for the End of the World

Saleema Nawaz, author of Songs for the End of the World. (Photo: Thomas Blanchard)
“Society is still worth protecting, don’t you think? Maybe now more than ever.”
– Saleema Nawaz, Songs for the End of the World
Over a month ago, the Montreal writer Saleema Nawaz received considerable attention in the Canadian media for her novel Songs for the End of the World, about a respiratory pandemic ravaging 2020 America that bears startling similarities to the current COVID-19 virus. Among them: the devastation of New York City from a mysterious infectious virus that originated in China; the inconvenience of self-quarantines; the individuals on the front lines – police and health-care workers – risking their lives to save the lives of individuals afflicted with this virulent pathogen; the need for personal protective gear; social distancing ordinances; conspiracy theories posted on social media; and anti-Asian hate crimes. The novel took six years to research and write, and Nawaz’s imagination, combined with her knowledge about previous pandemics from the Spanish flu (1918-1920) to SARS, is etched into her narrative. Still, given her prescience, it is unsurprising that Songs, scheduled to be published in late August, was rushed out as an e-book in early April.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Neglected Gem Double Bill: Slither (1973) and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975)

James Caan and Peter Boyle in Slither (1973)

When those of us who lived through the great renaissance of American movies – that magical era that was roughly bounded by Bonnie and Clyde (1967) at one end and Taxi Driver (1976) at the other – look back fondly on it, it’s not just the masterpieces that come to mind. After all, The Godfather I and II and The Conversation, The Wild Bunch, Cabaret, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville are as much in the DNA of American pictures as Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard or The Manchurian Candidate. What made the era unique, particularly the first half of the seventies, was the off-kilter, off-the-cuff sensibility that made going to movies, including many small ones that never really caught on and have been buried by the passing decades, a continually surprising and inspiriting experience. Many of these films seemed in the process of unspooling while you watched. You didn’t know where they were going to take you, because tones shifted and both the scripts and the direction seemed to have been set up like tiny fireworks displays showcasing the quirky, unpredictable talents of character actors, some of whom, flying in the face of Hollywood tradition, had become or were becoming stars.

Two movies that embody these qualities are the road comedies Slither, from 1973, written by W.D. Richter and directed by Howard Zieff, and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, from 1975, written by John Kaye and directed by Dick Richards. (Both are available on Prime and they would make an ideal double bill.) Road comedies, of course, by definition embrace the unexpected (whatever happens to lie ahead) and the open-ended. In a good road comedy, the spirit of improvisation and adaptability and the democratic impulse have prepared the characters to look at the rest of their lives as an unmapped journey and the people they’ll meet as unknown quantities, too complicated for easy judgments.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Artificial Paradise: How the End of the Beginning Sounded

The lads, from The Beatles’ last photo session, in August 1969. (Photo: Ethan Russell)
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
– Lennon/McCartney, “The End” (1969)

“Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah. When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band.”
– David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust (1972)

When The Beatles released the last great pop masterpiece of the 1960’s, they were bringing to a close a remarkable collective waking dream. If only they had allowed their Abbey Road album, possibly one of their three best recordings, to be the band’s final release instead of returning to an earlier fraught effort and letting it out of the studio vault. The self-produced and then Phil Spector-mutilated Let It Be was a mess mostly due to the absence of George Martin, their brilliant guiding light for eight astonishing years together, while Abbey Road had glistened due to his return to the fold as their producer. It also signaled the arrival of a new kind of recording technology, with EMI’s advanced solid-state transistor mixing desk, which would usher in a kind of immediacy the following musical decade would eventually take for granted.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Hollywood: Ryan Murphy’s Woke Fantasyland

Jeremy Pope, Darren Criss, and Laura Harrier in Hollywood. now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Ryan Murphy’s latest offering, the Netflix limited series Hollywood (co-created with Ian Brennan), is so flat-footed and dopey that you watch it with a sort of indolent fascination, as if you’d been brained with a frying pan just before turning on your television set. It should be a camp classic, but it isn’t quite; still, it’s too stupefying to be boring. Murphy has chosen Hollywood in 1947 as the locale for a woke fantasy – an alternate history in which people of color and women and gay men manage, in the course of just a few months, to liberate themselves and make Hollywood the forefront of a cultural revolution decades before America got around to it. Despite opposition from a crew of two-dimensional bigots, while the head of Ace Studios (Rob Reiner) is hovering near death after a heart attack his wife (Patti LuPone) takes over the reins and, stirred by the pleas of her friend Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris), lets a young director (Darren Criss) cast his African American girlfriend (Laura Harrier) in the lead of a movie called Meg written by a gay black writer (Jeremy Pope). The producer (Joe Mantello) invents wide distribution to get over the southern boycotts; the movie is an immediate hit and wins a raft of Oscars, including three for non-whites. At the ceremony the writer kisses his boyfriend – a young unknown named Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) – on the mouth before going up to accept his. Hollywood changes overnight. All it takes is a few courageous souls.

Monday, May 11, 2020

This Nutty World: The Triple Glories of Kaufman and Hart

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1937.

Moss Hart was an aspiring young playwright, still living in the Bronx with his family and working in the office of a theatrical agent, when he sent producer Sam Harris a copy of his satirical comedy about the talking-picture revolution. Harris liked it but thought it needed a veteran’s knowhow, so he teamed Hart up with George S. Kaufman, the author or co-author of many Broadway hits. The story of Once in a Lifetime, which underwent significant changes during an extended pre-New York tour, was rewritten over the summer and rewritten again before it opened to rave reviews at the end of September 1930, is well-known to theatre buffs because it forms the triumphant final section of Hart’s memoir, Act One. Act One is the best theatrical memoir I’ve ever read – and I’ve read it four times, twice when I staged my own productions of Once in a Lifetime. The play would be my choice for the finest comedy ever written by Americans, with the possible exception of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. Both are hard-boiled comedies, a genre that contemporary playwrights and screenwriters seldom attempt.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Plot Against America: Adapting a Novel for Television

Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, and Zoe Kazan in HBO's The Plot Against America. (Photo:Michele K. Short/HBO)

It's about: What if the magnetic forces at work in our country were just given a little push in one direction. What if a certain kind of intolerance was just given a slight nod from powers on high?
Zoe Kazan, actor on the HBO series, The Plot Against America
History is a nightmare from which none of us can wake.”
– James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This review contains spoilers.

In Anti Social, a riveting account of the alt-right online trollers who elevate the persuasive narrative above any semblance of accuracy, evidence or fairness, Andrew Marantz interjects the wisdom of the philosopher, Richard Rorty, who contends that history is not preordained but is contingent and depends on the way people bend its arc. I thought about Rorty and Marantz’s far-right profiles as I reread The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and watched the six-part gripping HBO mostly-faithful television adaptation by creator David Simon and his collaborator Ed Burns, widely known for their productions among others of The Wire and Treme. I found the gradual slide into fascism in America more convincing in The Plot than I did when I first read it in 2004 – likely because of the current American political climate – and that the Simon’s and Burns’s rendition offers innovations that enhance the relevance of the novel by creatively blurring the distinction between the early 1940s setting and our time.

Monday, May 4, 2020

A Sad Tale’s Best for Winter: Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

 Orlando James and Natalie Radmall-Quirke in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Because The Winter’s Tale – one of the late glories of Shakespeare’s career – is a fairy tale, you accept the way Leontes, the king of Sicilia, turns abruptly on Hermione, his queen, and his childhood friend Polixenes, visiting from Bohemia, deciding on the impulse of a moment that they’re having an affair and that the child she’s carrying is his. It’s as if Leontes had been hit by a poison dart that chilled his heart and transformed the two people he loves most, aside from his son Mamillius, into sinister aliens. Declan Donnellan’s beautiful production of the play for Cheek by Jowl, which you can stream on the company’s website, is only the second one I’ve seen that attempts to give Leontes’ behavior a psychological reality. My first experience with the play was in Stratford, England, when I was twenty-five, and Ian McKellen played Leontes as psychotic. He was terrifying, and when he got to the “Too hot, too hot” soliloquy, where the character spins his crazy vision of his wife and his best friend as lovers, I had the sense that he was looking straight at me. (It was nightmarish.) McKellen was great, but the problem with playing Leontes that way was that when we got to the last act, after Leontes, under the guidance of his allegedly dead wife’s gentlewoman, Paulina, has spent sixteen years repenting for his actions, you just didn’t trust him; you kept waiting for him to turn again. In Donnellan’s Winter’s Tale, Orlando James’s Leontes seems to be in hyperdrive from the outset, and all his reactions to the people around him – his young prince (Tom Caute) as well as Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and Polixenes (Edward Sayer) – are worryingly intense, even his horseplay with his friend in the play’s opening minutes and the way he hugs Mamillius: with a kind of desperation, as if he were already working to persuade himself that this is truly his son. And mere moments later, when the boy picks the wrong time to approach him, Leontes knocks him down with his fist.  In “Too hot, too hot,” we see Hermione and Polixenes as he’s come to see them, in adulterous tableaux. It’s very creepy: the staging puts us in a madman’s head. When he orders his closest minister, Camillo (David Carr), to murder Polixenes and Camillo alludes to his “disease,” the description seems precise.