Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sherlock Holmes Redux: The Great Detective Lives On

Sherlock, the recent brilliant BBC-TV series re-imagining and updating of the Sherlock Holmes stories to the present day are, of course, not the only times The Great Detective has been re-worked for television, films and books. And as a long-time aficionado of the Holmes canon – and someone who had the privilege in 1987 of writing a tribute piece in The Toronto Star to Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal hero on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Holmes’ first appearance in print – I must confess I’ve more often than not been happy with how the adaptations of Holmes’ adventures have turned out in print and on screen. These include the distinguished Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies (14 movies made between 1939-46); Billy Wilder’s cynical, but entertaining The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970); and Murder by Decree (1979), which cast Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson, investigating the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. Two other productions feature men who think they’re Sherlock Holmes: the allegorical and moving 1971 movie They Might Be Giants, with George C. Scott, and The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective, a surprisingly decent 1976 TV movie with Larry Hagman. Interestingly, both of those featured a female Watson, thus anticipating this fall’s CBS series Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) as Holmes, and Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels) as Watson. The post Conan Doyle novels have also often been good, with Nicholas Meyer’s excellent Holmes’ pastiches, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) and The West End Horror (1976) at the top of the heap. (Meyer's third Holmes pastiche, The Canary Trainer: From the Memoirs of John H. Watson (1993), though worthwhile, isn't as inspired.) In fact, I can only think of a few duds (though I have studiously avoided most of the Holmes in America novels as that seems to me an attempt to pander to an audience that should be content with the London- or European-set adventures of the man). I’m  not enamored of a couple of films, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), nor of Caleb Carr’s 2005 novel, The Italian Secretary. (Carr, who wrote The Alienist, has always been better at the idea than the execution, which is a polite way of saying he’s not a very good writer.) Mostly, though, the results in bringing back Holmes and Watson have been pleasing to watch or read. The latest Holmes novel, Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, as well as the recent DVD release of a criminally underrated Holmes movie, the 1976 film adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, bear that out.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Neglected Gem #21: Death and the Maiden (1994)

Stuart Wilson, Ben Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver star in Death and the Maiden

In Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, set in an unidentified South American country after the fall of a dictatorship, a woman comes across the man who tortured and raped her, repeatedly, to the strains of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Paulina is now married to Gerardo Escobar, the man who recruited her to fight in the underground against the junta – caught and imprisoned, she endured the torture rather than reveal his name – and who has just been selected to chair the newly formed human rights commission, mandated to investigated the atrocities committed under the old government. But Paulina fears a whitewash, since the only cases the commission plans to investigate are the ones that ended in death. So when Escobar, stuck with a broken-down car in a fierce rainstorm, invites into their home the stranger who rescued him with a lift, and Paulina recognizes her rapist, Miranda, she ties him up, gags him, and initiates her own kangaroo court, seeking a justice she’s certain the commission will never exact.

This script, which was produced in London with Juliet Stevenson and on Broadway with Glenn Close (and Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss as the two men), is a particularly moronic example of the social-problem melodrama. A play of this kind – another, with a similar plot, is William Mastrosimone’s Extremities – uses simplistic, easily identifiable characters to pound out its thesis, reducing complex issues to neatly carved-out slabs of narrative information labeled with little tags to explain what they mean and how we’re intended to view them. The dramatic progression, which is supposed to feel inexorable, is exasperatingly predictable, since after the first half hour or so no one shows any new sides. A play like Death and the Maiden is a corruption of the social dramas Ibsen wrote at the end of the nineteenth century, which reimagined the well-made boulevard melodramas of Scribe and Sardou to land the Victorian audience, by the end, in strange, uncharted territory, without moorings. By contrast, a twelve-year-old could read the map of a play like Death and the Maiden. And maybe that’s why these bastard children of Ibsen and the socialist playwrights of the thirties are always so popular: audiences, and reviewers, too, feel safe basking in their confirmation of the currently accepted stands on a variety of political issues. (Angels in America is the most famous, and most overblown, American entry in this genre.)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What’s So Good about Feel-Bad TV

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston star in Breaking Bad on AMC

Television has a well-earned reputation for producing escapist fare. But the continuing popularity of shows like Grey's Anatomy, America’s Got Talent, and The Bachelorette doesn’t tell the whole story. Many of the best TV series in the past ten years – a decade of worldwide terror, multiple (and seemingly unending) wars, mortgage crises, and economic decline – are also the most challenging, darkest, and let’s just say it, depressing shows in the history of television.  While Hollywood is overrun with costumed heroes, romantic comedies, and vampire hunting U.S. Presidents, television (cable TV in particular) is taking up the social slack, addressing issues like racism, cancer, AIDS, drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, death, and dying. And its confrontation with these issues has met with both popular and critical success.

Rather than pander to a hypothetical population that wants to leave reality behind, shows like Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Dexter have found big audiences by telling difficult, uncomfortable stories, calling into question old assumptions about why and how people watch television. Notably, while there are few subjects as taboo as cancer, cable TV currently offers two shows with a lead character suffering from the disease: The Big C (Showtime’s comedy starring Laura Linney as a woman recently diagnosed with late stage melanoma), and Breaking Bad, which recently began its fifth and final season on AMC.

If you want to understand the current appeal of Feel-Bad TV, Breaking Bad is perhaps the ideal place to start. The show stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, joins forces with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his former student turned drug dealer, and begins to cook crystal meth. The recipe for Breaking Bad’s success lies in its unflinching realism and its refusal to pull any punches: the very same ingredients which often make the show so difficult to watch are also why it is such compelling viewing. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Masters of Surface: Roy Lichtenstein in Chicago, Mad Men on TV

“Masterpiece,” Roy Lichtenstein, 1962. Oil on canvas

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Anna-Claire Stinebring, to our group.

Viewing Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective now up at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 3, I had the distinct sense that Lichtenstein’s art has, in some sense, come full circle. The AIC has chosen to primarily advertise with the cartoon strip and ad-inspired paintings (distressed blondes, impossibly serene explosions) that make “Lichtenstein” and “Pop” seem synonymous, but which are only one subset of the artist’s prolific career, as a visit to the galleries reveals. This publicity choice is reasonable – these paintings, all from the 1960s, are iconic and captivating. But it raises this question: by being inundated with reproductions of Lichtenstein’s images until they resemble their slick source material, do we now see Lichtenstein’s paintings through that snazzy consumer lens? What lesson are we as viewers taking away from the retrospective if, drawn in by the AIC banners of stunned and stunning women, we take pictures of his comic strip beauties and make them the wallpaper on our iPhones?

Maybe the simple contours of his women meet a current desire for simplicity, something vaguely recession-related. But reproducing Lichtenstein in this way diminishes the power of the way he’s laboriously and shrewdly reworked these pop-culture images. This body of work, completed in the 1960s, blew open modern art by rejecting the premium placed on originality and instead taking advertisements and comic strip frames as his starting point. Lichtenstein tweaked them and repainted them on a larger-than-life scale, in a flat, droll style without commentary. He recreated the comic-book coloring technique of Ben-Day dots by hand – a laborious undertaking – and worked to conceal his brushstrokes. It’s important to separate a museum’s publicity department from curatorial, of course. This fetishizing of the comic book material goes beyond the ad campaign and museum store. It’s in evidence in the galleries, where, when I visited, a preponderance of young women in polka-dotted dresses (some even with cat-eye glasses or cherry-red lipstick) ogled Lichtenstein’s pretty women with their Ben-Day dot polka-dotted faces.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Neglected Gem #20: Facing Windows (2003)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002)  failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and LucyBallast) have acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Screen to Stage: Newsies and Dogfight

Jeremy Jordan (centre-top) and company in Newsies (Photo by Deen van Meer)

The latest Broadway hit musical from Disney is Newsies, which transfers the 1992 movie musical to the stage of the Nederlander, and the news is mostly pretty good. Kenny Ortega’s 1992 picture has a juicy plot premise: the 1899 strike of newsboys (“newsies”) peddling The New York Herald, after its publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, opts to elevate his profits by raising the price of the paper – but only to the newsies, not to the paying customers. (The newsies have to buy their papers, or “papes,” outright, and eat the cost of any copies that are left at the end of the day.) The movie has considerable period personality – the story begins in the third week of a trolley workers’ strike and contains a memorable image of a blazing trolley shooting down a Manhattan street – and Ortega and his co-choreographer, Peggy Holmes, picked a fine model, Carol Reed’s 1968 Oliver!, one of the best film musicals ever made. Newsies isn’t at the level of Oliver!, but it’s great fun, with rousing anthems by Alan Mencken (music) and Jack Friedman (lyrics), wonderful high-stepping dances, and tough, nimble-witted newsboys (led by a young Christian Bale, just five years after Empire of the Sun, as the charismatic Jack Kelly and David Moscow as David, the brains of the gang) with plenty of attitude and thick, stylized New York accents that make them sound like the Dead End Kids. The Bob Tzudiker-Noni White screenplay is crowded with incident; the movie is a very speedy two-hour ride.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Raising the Mercury on Summer Reading: The Walrus July/August 2012

Maybe we can blame the summer reading frenzy on John Keats when he said “give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors.” Never mind that for most people it’s now magazines, junk food, beer, scorching humidity and Top 40 radio on the beach; the sentiment remains. Summer is a time to relax with your literature and libation of choice. What defines ‘summer reading’ or ‘beach reads’ – is it content, style, or context? We could ask the same question of Canadian Literature (CanLit). For most definitions of both summer reading and CanLit, The Walrus July/August 2012 issue, the ‘summer reading’ edition, lives up to expectations.

Although summer reading is notoriously light and easy, The Atlantic and The Huffington Post have recently put out articles disputing this assumption. And they’re right. Why should our brains shut down just because it’s hot out? But it’s also true that although we still want to be challenged, it’s not fun reading doom and gloom with the sand between your toes. Filled with short stories by talented Canadian writers, The Walrus summer reading issue is always the perfect balance, and this year is no exception. Heather O’Neill, Joseph Boyden and Margaret Atwood all treat us to an inside glimpse into well-remembered characters from their novels. That’s not to say if you haven’t read the novels you won’t understand the stories. I’ve not read Boyden’s Three Day Road, but I was still able to appreciate the true Canadian-north setting and pitting of characters against the elements. In fact, both these things were a refreshing antidote to lying docile in a pool of sweat on the beach.