Saturday, November 19, 2011

Too Rich To Ignore: Randy Newman's Live in London

Quite a few artists have been revisiting their catalogues lately with new recordings, either in studio or live. Ray Davies recorded some oldies with a local choir, then redid some of the same tunes with special guest stars including Mumford and Sons and Bruce Springsteen. Guy Clark’s latest album is the all live Songs and Stories. And Randy Newman, who is neither dead, nor retired (more on that later) has recorded two volumes of new studio versions of classic tunes, and now presents us with Live in London (Nonesuch, 2011). a multimedia extravaganza of epic proportion. Okay, that may be hyperbole, but let’s call it irony since Mr. Newman is quite familiar with that.

The new set from Nonesuch Records includes a DVD of a live broadcast done for BBC television in June 2008, and a CD of the same show. The recording is beautifully done and the performance enhanced by the presence of the BBC Concert Orchestra under the direction of Robert Zeigler. Newman says he has worked with bad conductors (including himself) and good conductors, and that Zeigler is one of the good ones. The charts are sympathetic with Randy’s solo piano accompaniment, and watching him in shirtsleeves in front of the orchestra (all dressed in black) provides most of the video excitement in the programme.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Paradise Almost Lost: George Clooney Elevates a Mediocre Story

In The Descendants, fans of Alexander Payne may be hoping for the blackest of black comedy, the tone with which the director first made a name for himself. But the equal opportunity satire of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999) was already on the wane in About Schmidt (2002), a rather snide effort that simply belittled most of the characters. Despite admirably offbeat performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways (2004), too much sentimentality crept into a film that’s periodically lovely in other ways – especially if you’ve imbibed some of the Napa Valley wine that’s central to the plot. But the new project, set in Hawaii, offers a far more conventional story than all of Payne’s previous works put together.

That said, it’s not without charm, thanks to the almost always charming George Clooney in the lead role as a cuckolded husband and somewhat absentee father who must assume primary care of their two daughters when his wife goes into an irreversible coma after a boating accident. He is Matt King, a multicultural real estate attorney whose ancestor, King Kamehameha the Great, united all the islands of the archipelago under his rule in 1810. This contemporary man of royal lineage has trouble uniting with his children – 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a typically alienated teenager – so together they can endure the absence of a hospitalized mother who is unlikely to survive.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflections on Pauline Kael

The simultaneous publication of Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking) and The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, a Library of America anthology of her movie criticism edited by Sanford Schwartz, restores Pauline Kael's status as the most important film reviewer in the history of the medium. All thirteen of her books, including the last cross-section, For Keeps, which she assembled herself in 1994, are out of print; movies no longer generate the excitement, the intellectual debate and generational ownership, that they did while Kael held her post at The New Yorker – especially in the first decade (1967-1976) of her tenure, when the “Current Cinema” column passed back and forth at six-month intervals between her and Penelope Gilliatt. (Kael got it to herself when she returned to the magazine in 1980 after a brief stint in Hollywood; in the last few years before she retired in 1991, she shared it with Terrence Rafferty.) Reading Kellow’s book and dipping into the Library of America volume brings back some of the feeling of movie-going during the Vietnam era, when Hollywood was undergoing a renaissance no one could have anticipated and the latest imports from Europe enhanced the sense Kael had – and communicated eloquently to her readers – that we were living in a charmed period for the medium. Kael always acknowledged her luck at beginning to write regularly about movies (her appointment at The New Yorker, at the age of 48, was her first extended paying gig) just at the moment when old Hollywood was collapsing and younger, hip directors and screenwriters who sparked a connection with the new, counter-cultural audience were slipping into the crevasses. We were lucky because she understood the cultural significance of what she saw up on the screen and had the critical astuteness that allowed her to evaluate its quality.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beth Griffenhagen's Haiku for the Single Girl: For Those Who Can't Always Get What They Want (But Might Get What They Need)

“I’m sorry Laura,” my colleague sympathizes with me after I finish confiding in her about some romantic woes. It is 8pm on my evening without my daughter and I am, as usual, just hanging around the office. If this isn’t bad enough to begin with, she leans forward, lowers her voice, and says, “you’re going to have to Internet date.” So this is what it’s come to? Internet dating will be added to the certainties of death and taxes?

Now don’t get wrong. I love my crazy little life. I am fully complete without a better half. I would also be perfectly content if I stayed away from the dating game for good. But, every now and then – especially around holidays or whenever I see a Norman Rockwell painting – I tend to feel as though something maybe missing.

Luckily I heard of a charming little publication called Haiku for the Single Girl (Penguin Group, 2011) to get me through the holiday season. (Well, at least until the winter solstice.) Haiku is a bittersweet collection of short poetic meditations, written by Beth Griffenhagen in the true haiku fashion of three lines and seventeen syllables. Each philosophy is accompanied by an illustration by Cynthia Vehslage Meyers. This witty and introspective book resembles a Cathy comic strip meets Sex and the City. (Except – spoiler alert – nobody gets married in the end.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Buried Face of an Age: Hugo Ball's Flight Out of Time (1916)

Hugo Ball
Written while sitting on my couch this morning watching TV as the Occupy protesters are being evacuated from various parks around the world.

On February 5, 1916, while a world war was raging around them, a group of artists had just landed in Zurich, Switzerland, to perform in a club called the Cabaret Voltaire. Hugo Ball was a twenty-nine-year-old German poet and Catholic mystic. With him were his lover, cabaret singer Emmy Hennings; Tristan Tzara, a poet from Romania; painter Marcel Janco, Tzara's countryman; Albanian artist Jean Arp; and a medical student named Richard Huelsenbeck, who just happened to have a thing for the drums.

Among the group, who would soon be reborn as Dadaists, Ball was devoted to Richard Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstewerk ("total work of art") which was a radical new philosophy whereby a one-dimensional society could be regenerated through a totality that combined all the arts. "Our debates are a burning speech, more blatant every day, for the specific rhythm and the buried face of this age," Ball would write in his riveting 1916 diary Flight Out of Time, which would be published by Viking in 1974. This search for a specific rhythm took form as a totality of political theater. While the owners of the cabaret looked for pleasing poems that could be read, music that could be performed and songs that could be sung all to boost what had become a sagging clientele at the cafe Ball and his clan had other ideas. He was looking instead for something more tantalizing: a new expressive art form that could put the shock into entertainment.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rattigan and Langella: Man and Boy

Virginia Kull, Frank Langella and Adam Driver in Man and Boy at New York’s Roundabout Theatre

The centenary of the British writer Terence Rattigan – one of the monarchs of the English stage before the “angry young man” movement made his approach to playwriting seem hopelessly old-fashioned in the mid-fifties and sixties – has brought several of his forgotten works to light. But Man and Boy, one of his last dramas, was rediscovered six years ago when Maria Aitken staged it in London. She has also helmed the current production at New York’s Roundabout Theatre. This is a fascinating play that doesn’t quite come off, but Frank Langella gives another in a string of tour de force stage and film performances in the starring role, which is written for a mesmerizing actor.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Profile of a Demagogue: J. Edgar Hoover for the Moviegoing Masses

Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar

It seems like a case of The Good, the Bad and the Really Awful Timing. Of all the weeks for Clint Eastwood to announce he’s supporting Herman Cain, this one began with the Republican presidential hopeful’s sexual harassment scandal and ended with the filmmaker’s debut of J. Edgar. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the late Federal Bureau of Investigation director, J. Edgar Hoover, still as controversial a figure four decades after his death as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza now running for the Oval Office. Both are examples of how powerful men can survive criticism of their misdeeds in a society that rewards ruthlessness. The question remains, though, has Eastwood created a smart work of art while demonstrating stupid political calculations?