Thursday, April 26, 2018

Neglected Gem: Mondays in the Sun (2002)

Luis Tosar (left) and Javier Bardem (right) in Mondays in the Sun. (Photo: MUBI)

The title of the Spanish movie Mondays in the Sun sounds like a reference to people who live a life of ease. In fact, it’s ironic: the men whose stories comprise the narrative used to be co-workers at a portside dockyard until they were laid off, so now they spend weekdays lying in the sun because they have no jobs to go to. They are Santa (a thickly bearded Javier Bardem); José (Luis Tosar), whose wife Ana (Nieve de Medina) currently brings home the only household money; Lino (José Angel Egido), so scared he’s losing potential work to younger men that he dyes his hair when he goes down to the unemployment office; and Amador (Celso Bugallo), a drunk whose wife has left him, though he pretends she’s out of town visiting relatives. Rico (Joaquin Climent) and Reina (Enrique VIllén), who used to work alongside their friends, were laid off a year later, when the dockyard finally shut down. Rico took his severance pay and opened a bar, while Reina has managed to land work as a security guard, which makes him, relative to his companions, flush – at least, enough to buy them drinks. (Santa’s pride resents this gesture, just as he resents his former co-workers’ signing an agreement with their employers that he and others opposed.) Then there’s Sergei (Serge Riaboukine), a Russian who emigrated to Spain when the Soviet Union collapsed and his career as an astronaut came to an abrupt end. Now he’s among the Spanish unemployed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Steinbeck in Sunglasses: A Novelist Named Dylan

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Photo: CNN)

“Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody, when I paint my masterpiece…”
Robert Zimmerman, AKA Bob Dylan

In my 2008 book entitled Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer Songwriter, I had a chapter on Mr. Dylan, who apart from various differing personal tastes, most people can now agree is one of the pre-eminent artists of our era, of several eras in fact. His chapter opened the book for obvious reasons: he etched the template for what a singer-songwriter in the contemporary age is capable of achieving, assuming that songwriter lives long enough to become an elder statesman of his or her ancient craft, as he has done. The chapter on him was called "The Storyteller: To Be On Your Own", and it encapsulated for me, without my even realizing it ten years ago, what made him not just a pop/rock star but both a novelist and an island unto himself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Country, Traumatized: Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot

Lior Ashkenazi in Foxtrot. (Photo: TIFF)

Israeli culture minister Miri Regev’s recent attack on Samuel Maoz’s movie Foxtrot, on the grounds that it’s a slur on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is both misguided – only a very narrow reading of the film could come to that conclusion – and ominous in that it suggests that future government-funded movies may now be the possible victim of pre-censorship, if Regev decides to vet future projects on what she thinks they should or shouldn’t do. (She’s floated the idea of ‘loyalty’ oaths for artists.) Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to have put a dent in the success of Foxtrot, which cleaned up at the Ophirs (Israel’s Oscars) and is now wending its way through North America to almost entirely positive reviews. The movie deserves them, too, as it’s quite an impressive achievement.

Monday, April 23, 2018

New Plays by Major Playwrights: Good for Otto and Mlima's Tale

Ed Harris and Rileigh McDonald in David Rabe's Good for Otto. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

David Rabe’s Good for Otto premiered at the Gift Theatre in Chicago in 2015 but only now is it receiving a New York production, off Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center – and with an amazing cast that includes Ed Harris, F. Murray Abraham, Amy Madigan, Rhea Perlman, Mark Linn-Baker and Laura Esterman. Rabe’s 1971 The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is one of my favorite plays, and I love his screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), but his other well-known theatre pieces – In the Boom Boom Room, Hurlyburly, and the second and third parts of his Vietnam trilogy, Sticks and Bones and Streamers – feel rigged to me, and compulsively overwritten. He doesn’t get much attention these days, and I’m afraid I stopped following his work long ago. (The last play of his I saw was Those That River Keeps when American Repertory Theatre produced it in 1993 with Jack Willis and Paul Guilfoyle.) Clearly I should have been watching more closely. Good for Otto is messy and overlong – it runs just over three hours – but it’s a lovely, full-hearted play, and Scott Elliott’s vibrant, varied staging and the marvelous work of the actors showcase it affectionately.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Masculine Toxicity in Dirk Kurbjuweit's Fear

Author Dirk Kurbjuweit (Photo: Julian Nitzsche)

About halfway through Dirk Kurbjuweit's unsettling psychological thriller, Fear (translated from the German by Imogen Taylor and published by the House of Anansi Press, 2017) the narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a Berlin architect, recalls a Christmas dinner he and his wife, Rebecca, hosted for his extended family a few years earlier before the central narrative occurs. His sister was dating a Romanian, a supporter of the dictator, Ceausescu, who, having fled his country after the 1989 revolution, ended up in Berlin as the owner of a gym. As a supporter of self-justice, he dismissed Germans, declaring that their only interests were "stuffing their faces and watching their pensions," that there were no "real men" with "the guts to defend themselves." His bravado constitutes a litmus test for what defines manhood.  At the time, Randolph is silently contemptuous of this disdain for civility and of his "ignorant, brutish view of democracy."

On the surface this fascinating tableau is inconsequential as the Romanian exile never reappears, but it does highlight an important theme in the novel: the tension between the values of civility and the rule of law pitted against vigilante justice when there appears no other option for a family terrorized by a stalker. Kurbjuweit, the deputy editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, was inspired to write Fear based on his own experience of being stalked.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Somebody Needs a Hygge: ABC's Splitting Up Together

Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson in Splitting Up Together. (Photo: Eric McCandless)

“When did comedies become half-hour dramas?” complains Billy Eichner in the second season of Julie Klausner’s recently-canceled Hulu show Difficult People . It’s a question that tends to come up more often in the context of half-hour-long shows on cable and streaming services, which have long been outlets for writers and showrunners to test how much serious material, in terms of both content and tone, they can get away with incorporating into a format that’s traditionally skewed towards delivering relatively uncomplicated laughs. I’ve found myself thinking of that question a lot as I watch the early episodes of ABC’s new sitcom Splitting Up Together, a comedy (ostensibly) with a decidedly downbeat premise and some baffling tonal issues.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Me In Particular: The Reappearance of Oscar Z. Acosta

Oscar Z. Acosta, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

In his roughly 39 years of life, Oscar Zeta Acosta recreated himself more than once. From a typical barrio kid growing up in the working-class Mexican-American community of Riverbank, California, he became a clarinetist in the US Air Force marching band; a Baptist missionary in the jungles of Panama; a creative writing student in San Francisco, mentored by famed baseball novelist Mark Harris; a law-school graduate and member of the California bar; and a Legal Aid Society advocate for the impoverished of East Oakland. And that only takes him up to the beginning of his first book, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), which ends with his transformation into a budding Chicano militant. 

Most of us have known Acosta only as “Dr. Gonzo,” the fire-breathing, drug-scarfing, knife-wielding sidekick created by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), and portrayed by Benicio del Toro in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film of that book. Yet Acosta deserves to be remembered as more than a featured player in the Thompson legend; he left a legacy both historically important and all his own. That legacy is the subject of Phillip Rodriguez’s The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, an hour-long documentary which debuted last month on PBS as part of the VOCES series on Latino arts and culture. The film is a mishmash, frankly imaginative and affably unpretentious, in which the skimpy visual evidence of Acosta’s life (mostly candid photos and news clips) is fleshed out with scripted reenactments played in period costume against sets that suggest workshop theater. The first-person narration is derived from Acosta’s two books, and aside from the compelling footage of the subject addressing protest rallies or courthouse cameras, the documentary’s chief value is that it inspires – in a way that Thompson’s portraiture never did – a curiosity to read the man’s own words.