Saturday, September 22, 2012

Political Music: New CDs from Bill Bourne and Annabelle Chvostek

Just when you think you’re on top of all the stuff you need to review, the mailman arrives and drops a pile of CDs into the mailbox. I pile them up in front of my computer so I remember the order in which they arrived. I simply don’t have time to listen to all of them. I’ll pop one in to the CD player every once in awhile and try to work through it, but if it’s a good one I get distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing, and if it’s a bad one I may never give it another chance. And when I say a bad one, I don’t necessarily mean that the artist and his/her music has no redeeming qualities, I simply mean it didn’t grab me on first listen. The trouble with having so much to listen to is that you may never get back to something just because so much more has arrived in the meantime.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Neglected Gem #24: The Gingerbread Man (1998)

The Gingerbread Man, from 1998, is one of Robert Altman’s least known movies; even most of his fans probably don’t know it exists. Altman encountered a familiar problem with the screenwriter when he rewrote the script on the set, but the fact that this time the writer he alienated was John Grisham, adapting his own story, added up to lousy PR for Altman when Grisham had his name removed from the credits. (The listed screenwriter, Al Hayes, is an invention.) It didn’t help that the preview screenings were poorly received – and that the recut version, after the studio, Polygram, snatched the picture back from Altman, didn’t fare any better. At that point Altman got his movie back, but without the blessing of the distributor.Yet the movie is a sensationally effective off-center thriller.

Altman’s relationship to Grisham’s material parallels Sam Peckinpah’s to the dead-in-the-water Robert Ludlum plot he got saddled with in his last picture, The Osterman Weekend (1983): he doesn’t scuttle it, exactly, but he transforms it by discovering a theme for it (theme is almost as foreign a concept to Grisham as character), by marinating it in atmosphere, and by using it to set loose a truly dazzling exhibition of directorial technique. The Gingerbread Man is set in Savannah, and its hero is a glib, skillful lawyer, Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh, in a loose, energized performance), who’s just come off a controversial, high-profile case. The trial has made him the least popular citizen in the county in the eyes of the police community, because he got a criminal off and crucified a cop in the process (for shooting the perp). Magruder’s personal life is a shambles: his ex-wife Leeanne (Famke Janssen) is hot to gain full custody of their two kids, and she shows up at his firm’s celebration of his victory with her divorce lawyer on her arm, just to piss him off. Rick’s own behavior that night isn’t any cannier: he offers one of the waitresses (Embeth Davidtz) a lift home, after she tells him her car has been stolen, and winds up in bed with her. Everyone in the office sees him show up the next morning in the same suit he left in, and Leeanne, who’s hunting for ways to prove he’s an unfit parent, sizes up the situation correctly when he arrives late to pick up the kids. And when he tries to connect with the waitress again, calling up the catering service to obtain her home number, it suddenly occurs to him that he doesn’t even know her name.(Branagh does a lovely job with this small moment of recognition, when Rick suddenly sees in himself the immaturity and instability that others – especially Leeanne – have been accusing him of.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Invisible Men

Ralph Ellison
In 1952, black American author Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, a novel that addressed many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. The book, which Ellison began in the summer of 1945 in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont, while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine, became a passionate, angry declaration of independence. (Ellison had already asserted a bold independence when he wouldn't serve in the segregated army, but chose merchant marine service over the draft.) But Ellison's rage wasn't just directed towards the racist society that had rendered him invisible, but also his disillusionment with the Communist Party he had joined and supported in the mid-Thirties.

Ellison felt betrayed by Party leaders who he felt had treated the black civil rights struggle as merely an expedient symbol, a means to an end in the Marxist class struggle against capitalism. Culture critic Robert Warshow would accurately address this phenomenon, the Stalinist corruption of American intellectual life, a couple of years later in The Nation. "[I]n the '30s radicalism entered upon an age of organized disingenuousness, when every act and every idea had behind it some 'larger consideration' which destroyed its honesty and meaning," he wrote. "Everyone became a professional politician, acting within a framework of 'realism' that tended to make political activity an end in itself. The half-truth was elevated to the position of a principle, and in the end the half-truth, in itself, became more desirable than the whole-truth." For Ellison, this couldn't have been true when considering the non-aggression pact that was signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Prodigal Son: The Catholicism of Eugene O’Neill

Playwright Eugene O'Neill

A few years ago, filmmaker Ric Burns released a documentary on Eugene O’Neill for PBS that featured several notable screen actors performing excerpts from the playwright’s works. Among them was Christopher Plummer, who confesses to Burns onscreen that he hadn’t always had a passion for the writer. “I felt,” he explains, “that he enjoyed being indulgent – there’s a great indulgence in him.” Plummer felt drawn to the British playwrights instead, preferring their understated approach to O’Neill’s sturm und drang. But the latter bled Irish blood, and while the English may button down their emotions and their prose, the Irish are the people who throw back a Jameson, break into ebullient reels, and then slay you with a tragic ballad. Weighed down with collective psychic baggage accrued over centuries of suffering, they let alcohol uncork their pent up agony into an aesthetic emotional flood they’d readily drown in. Plummer’s observation is right on one level, and O’Neill did in part cultivate and relish his image as a tortured artist. But this truth, as Plummer himself admits, misses the bigger point: that O’Neill’s indulgence inevitably bowls you over, the way Plummer’s performance of James Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night does over the documentary’s next few minutes, or Jason Robard’s ones, or Vanessa Redgrave’s. O’Neill plumbed the depths of his haunted soul with a naked vulnerability that demands respect – it may be shameless, but it’s remarkably ambitious in its insistence to be heard. He single-handedly took American theater from the basement to the rafters, and grabs you by the throat in the process. When you listen to it, his language becomes, as Plummer put it, “uncannily one’s own.”

Dorothy Day
And his anguish was real, after all. Scarred by his mother’s morphine addiction, he, like the other men in his family, struggled with severe alcoholism. Tuberculosis nearly killed him and he took to the seas to escape his inner demons. As a young man carousing about the bars of the Lower East Side, he would regale his friend and sometime-sweetheart Dorothy Day with drunken recitations of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” He “would sit there, black and dour,” she recalls in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, “his head sunk as he intoned, ‘And now my heart is as a broken fount, wherein tear drippings stagnate.’” The poem’s theme – of God’s ceaseless pursuit of the fleeing sinner – fascinated the (at the time) agnostic woman. Elsewhere she describes holding him in bed as he shivered into intoxicated sleep. He, in turn, urged her to read St. Augustine’s Confessions. The effect it had on her was undoubtedly more than he imagined – Day, of course, had a major conversion to Catholicism and became famous as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her communal life of prayer and works of mercy with the poor of New York – and the national movement it sparked – led historian David O’Brien to dub her “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism,” and the Vatican to open her cause for canonization.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Straight Talk: Elmore Leonard's Raylan

One of author Elmore Leonard's great gifts, as previously demonstrated in Maximum Bob and Get Shorty, is his unique ability to shape his characters specifically through their dialogue. In Raylan (HarperCollins, 2012), Leonard’s 30th novel, the story of a sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall, the author continues his talk-driven style in fine fashion. Raylan Givens, is the lead character in the FX series, Justified, that just ended its third season. (The series is based on the characters in Leonard’s short story, "Fire In The Hole," published in 2001. The first episode of the series is an adaptation of that story.) Justified stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, whose claim to fame was as the sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood, the superb, but short-lived HBO series. (Interesting how he went from a law enforcer in one era to a U.S. Marshall in the modern era)

The character of Raylan Givens often reads like the John Wayne of old: a man with grit and a moral code. For Leonard, whose characters are often flawed, that cliché isn’t celebrated. Givens is good, but he drinks too much, often gets into fights that he loses, and is often a little too flexible with the law. He wears a cowboy hat at all times, even though it’s not part of the uniform, and fancies himself a ladies' man. But most of all, he considers his actions in the light of criminal activity as “justified.” And the way Leonard shapes his stories the reader can’t help but agree. It’s Given’s strong moral code that engages you. Givens is a Marshall, after all, whose job is to collect felons on the lam and bring them to jail. It’s a job he does well even if he bends the rules from time-to-time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Overthinking Hedda: Hedda Gabler at the Shaw

Moya O'Connell as Hedda Gabler (Photo by Emily Cooper) 
More than any other playwright, Henrik Ibsen was responsible for bringing the theatre into the modern age, which is why his plays – not just the most frequently performed masterpieces, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, but also The Wild Duck, Ghosts, The Master Builder, Rosmersholm and Lady from the Sea – feel freshly startling, even devastating, when you pick them up again. (The Shaw Festival did a revelatory staging of the seldom performed Rosmersholm in 2006.) It’s one thing to talk about the modernist qualities of these works, however, and quite another to forget that Ibsen’s heroes and especially his heroines are trapped like flies in amber in the intractable mores of nineteenth-century Norway. A director who ignores the repressed Nordic Victorianism of Ibsen’s age does so at his or her peril. (Anyone remember the Joseph Losey movie of A Doll’s House, with Jane Fonda as a Nora who seemed to have sprung, consciousness fully raised, from the early 1970s?) Hedda Gabler’s sexual curiosity can’t be satisfied in drawing-room banter because she’s a woman; she has to get the information she craves through witty but decorous innuendo and delicately framed allusions. Yet in Martha Henry’s production at the Shaw, when Eilert Loevborg (Gray Powell), who once courted Hedda (Moya O’Connell), meets her at the house she has just moved into with her new husband, George Tesman (Patrick McManus), Eilert puts his hand unabashedly on Hedda’s leg while Tesman and family friend Judge Brack (Jim Mezon) are in another room drinking glasses of punch. When Hedda finally admits to her husband that she’s (unhappily) pregnant with his child, a subject discussed in polite Victorian society with only the most indirect phrasing, O’Connell thrusts his hand onto her belly. When the judge returns in the last act to bring the news that Loevborg has shot himself, Mezon’s gestures make it explicitly clear that the fatal bullet lodged in his groin. When he blackmails her by threatening to expose the fact that Hedda let him have one of her father’s pistols, this Brack practically forces himself on her (presumably in case we miss the aim of the blackmail).

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Playing It Real: Showcase and BBC America's Copper

Tom Weston-Jones in Copper

Whenever a television show set in a time period that is not present day comes on the air I'm always curious to see if the characters will be true to the era; or will they be so infected with 21st century sensibilities that, no matter how many period details they get right, the characters just don't ring true. That was in my mind when the first episode of the new series Copper on Showcase (in Canada) and BBC America (in the U.S.) hit the airwaves four weeks ago. So I could not have been more pleased when the pilot episode started with our ostensible hero, Irish-American Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) and his crew, stopping a bank robbery. This is what they did: They waited for the bank robbers to emerge from the bank with their ill-gotten gain (they had received a tip beforehand) and then they followed them. When the robbers entered a secluded alleyway, Corky (as he's called) and his men bushwhacked them. They basically killed the men in cold blood and, before the chief detective can arrive, they pocketed half the money.