Saturday, October 20, 2012

Frustrating & Fascinating: Pete Townshend’s Who Am I

It all started when I was about 14 or 15. My grandmother would travel to the USA for a couple of days to a bowling tournament, and upon her return would bring me a souvenir. This time, she arrived with an LP. It was called Happy Jack and it advertised on the back, “If you like this record you’re sure to enjoy these other Decca artists,” with pictures of Len Barry and Rick Nelson. Now, I mean no disrespect to the singers of “1, 2, 3” and “Traveling Man,” but they were no match for “A Quick One While He’s Away.” I became a fan of the Who immediately. They sang about stuff that mattered to me. They weren’t the walrus, they had “Pictures of Lily” under their bed. Me too! He spoke for my generation. I bought everything The Who released: singles, albums, rock operas, movie soundtracks, and books. I read Pete Townshend’s book of short stories, Horse’s Neck, and the interviews he gave to Rolling Stone (when it was the only place to find interviews with musicians). Now, years later, I awaited the arrival of Townshend’s autobiography with fierce anticipation. He had announced that he was writing it nearly twenty years ago. Could it possibly have taken that long? “It will have all the answers,” I thought. It doesn’t. But it sure asks a lot of questions.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Flights of Fancy – Flight: Volume One

A panel from "Maiden Voyage" by Kazu Kibuishi (collected in Flight, Volume One)

One of the greatest joys of the web is that it provides unprecedented access to art. The range and scale of projects online grows daily, and artists who might otherwise have been unable or unwilling to start out in print now have new options. Some seem content to stay and play in the digital space, while others can build their online reputation into a means to rise in the print world. Such was the case for the artists and writers of Flight: Volume One. Editor Kazu Kibuishi has amassed a wide range of art styles, stories, and characters, if a slightly smaller range of quality. The volume showcases twenty-two young comic artists, all early in their careers in 2004 when it went to print. While 'flight' is not always explicitly featured in the stories, themes of childhood, adventure, and fantastical whimsy pervade each one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hallucinatory Suspense: Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma is hands down the most disreputable great American director. Sam Peckinpah got his due after he died; the movies that earned him the sobriquet “Bloody Sam” – not meant as a compliment – are now recognized as the work of a genius. But De Palma has always worked very differently from Peckinpah, burrowing slyly beneath the bristling, profane surface of pop. When he found his style in the late seventies and early eighties in movies like Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, his brash, dirty humor and his fascination with the tools of film exploitation alienated people (critics more than audiences: Carrie and Dressed to Kill were big hits) who couldn’t see that he was using those tools as a starting-off point. They missed it even when he announced his intentions at the outset of Blow Out: filming a parody of a sexy teen horror movie, a more sexually explicit version of something like Halloween, to fake out audiences and then cutting it off to segue into a political conspiracy thriller with the film-within-the-film’s sound man (John Travolta) as the protagonist. I think Blow Out is a masterpiece, but it wasn’t just misunderstood when it came out in 1981; it was willfully misunderstood. When I wrote in The Stanford Daily that it was one of the best political movies ever made by an American, I got incredulous letters from readers who denied there was a shred of politics in it – even though it’s about the assassination of a gubernatorial candidate, it contains allusions to Chappaquiddick and a character modeled on G. Gordon Liddy, it climaxes on an invented Philadelphia holiday called Liberty Day, and it’s color-coded in red, white and blue

You’d think that in an era when Quentin Tarantino and Sam Raimi are taken seriously as filmmakers, De Palma might catch a break for his pop sensibility, but Tarantino and Raimi don’t operate in the most dangerous area of violence, where it intersects with sexuality. Even Hitchcock didn’t. Except in Vertigo, which is a romantic melodrama – a genre De Palma essayed only once, in Obsession, and couldn’t get into – the sexual material in his movies is only there to play with us, lure us in so he can swap it for violence: Robert Walker coming on to Farley Granger in the opening scene of Strangers on a Train, Tony Perkins peeping at Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho. (Spielberg takes a leaf from Hitchcock’s book, of course, in the opening of Jaws, where we’re led to think that the wasted kid on the beach is going to get laid in the water by the girl with the come-hither eyes, but the only orgasm is the bloody thrashing in the water as she’s scissored by the shark.) De Palma’s bravado in taking Hitchcock tropes into the truly forbidden places Hitchcock wasn’t interested in – the way he riffs on the Psycho shower scene as a way of exploring adolescent sexuality in the opening minutes of Carrie and middle-aged sexual longing and disappointment in the first scene of Dressed to Kill – branded him as everything from a misogynist to a plagiarist. It was fruitless to point out that artists have always built on each other’s work and that there are fewer portraits of female sexuality more sympathetic than these two pictures. In 1987, when he filmed David Rabe’s dramatization of the Daniel Lang New Yorker article, “Casualties of War,” about the rape and murder of a Vietnamese teenager by some American G.I.s, he came up with perhaps the most compassionate and devastating movie ever made about what happens to women in a war zone. His detractors, apparently confusing the film with its subject matter, called it pornographic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Setting the Barre High: Ballet Jörgen's Swan Lake

Ballet Jörgen's Swan Lake (Photo: Kevin Vagg)
Bengt Jörgen has done a good thing. His new production of Swan Lake represents a breakthrough for his tiny Ballet Jörgen classical dance company, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. The story, presenting some novel twists on the original 19th century plot involving a maiden transformed at night into a swan, flows seamlessly from start to finish. The choreography – using a traditional vocabulary stripped of pretence to allow for heightened clarity of movement – simply sparkles. By tackling Swan Lake – the soufflé of the ballet world – the Swedish-born ex National Ballet of Canada dancer shows with justifiable pride just how far his Toronto-based troupe has progressed since its origins in 1987 as an outlet for his dance-making talents.

Jörgen’s economically minded production – 23 dancers as opposed to more than double the bodies that usually make up a ballet company – benefits not just his Toronto-based dance troupe, the small ballet company that could, but also Canada as a whole, at least where classical dance is concerned. 
Featuring a multitasking set design by Cammelia Koo, and no-frill white Swan costumes by Robert Doyle, this Swan Lake is meant to continue that company tradition. It has been designed to travel. In November, the company launches a gruelling cross-Canada tour that will take Swan Lake to both major and minor cities across the country for the rest of this year, and well into next. (Go to for the touring schedule.) Jörgen’s version of the dance classic is the one many Canadians will now be exposed to – another good thing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Play, Unwind and Repeat: Elizabeth Shepherd’s Rewind

Before anyone carps about my lack of credentials, let me be explicit: I have no formal musical knowledge. I simply like what I like and appreciate what brings pleasure to my ears. Any attempts to impress on the basis of harmony, composition and clever arrangement are generally lost on me. What authority have I to review a jazz album, then? Ostensibly, I have none. But I’m remarkably similar to many of the consumers browsing HMV or surfing iTunes; I’m looking for an opportunity to escape the banality of life through something beautiful. So I hope most readers will find value in the words that follow. To you true jazz connoisseurs, I do apologize.

In the world of popular music, it seems all you need is a pretty face, appealing voice and good connections to be successful. Here, Elizabeth Shepherd’s handsome looks, classic voice and original recordings are an anomaly. Many fans were surprised to hear that her most recent album Rewind is, according to Shepherd herself, a collection of “songs that I have learned and loved and [that have] grown with me over the years.” In other words, it’s a cover album. However, Shepherd also promises to “treat them with my own sound to make them fully mine.” She succeeds.

Monday, October 15, 2012

New American Plays: Good People and The Motherfucker with the Hat

Nancy E. Carroll, Karen MacDonald, and Johanna Day in Good People (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In their Boston premieres I caught up to two worthwhile American plays I missed last season in New York. Good People is the latest by David Lindsay-Abaire, best known for Rabbit Hole – to date the only one of his works that has been made into a movie. Rabbit Hole focuses on a couple who are trying to handle life after the death, in a car accident, of their little boy. It’s one of those dramas (the Barbara Hershey-Geoffrey Rush plot in the fine Australian film Lantana is another) about the tension that the loss of a child creates between parents who mourn differently. (Both plays owe a debt to the great Robert Frost poem “Home Burial.”) I thought the play was banal but effective, and it felt authentic – as if it had come out of someone’s actual experience. The most surprising development, the friendship that grows up between the child’s mother and the teenager who, through no fault of his own, killed the boy on the road was the aspect of the narrative that worked the best, though in truth I believed in all of the relationships. But on stage the real show was Cynthia Nixon, who used that razor’s-edge anger she’s so brilliant at to illuminate the way a perceptive, intelligent woman deals with an unimaginable loss. The movie version was well done, too, but if you’d seen Nixon on stage you felt a void in the center because Nicole Kidman, who has a tendency to soften her characters, took over the part.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It’s Mourning in America (Again): Matthew Perry’s Go On

Matthew Perry stars in Go On, a new comedy series on NBC

“It was a car accident. She was texting. Janie …. was driving – not fast – but at that moment, and it couldn’t wait, she needed to tell me to buy a bag of coffee. So at least it was important.”
             – Ryan King (Matthew Perry), describing his wife’s death in the pilot episode of Go On

Last spring, NBC aired Awake, a fantasy-crime drama with a protagonist struggling with an almost unimaginable loss. As I wrote at the time, Awake’s rich ambitions and complicated narrative technique came as close to anything I’d ever seen on television to telling a sustained story from a mourner’s perspective. One reason was that the fantasy situation itself (its conceit that Det. Britten would effectively alternate one day to the next between two separate realities – one in which his wife had died, and another in which his teenage son had) gave weight and reality to the resistance one often feels in ‘moving on’ after suffering a comparable loss. Though Awake was unfortunately not renewed for a second season, its 13-episode first season still succeeds in telling a powerful, if prematurely abbreviated, story, and it is well worth seeking out.

What was so unique about Awake was that surviving the death of his family member wasn’t simply the situation that set the larger story in motion: it was essentially the substance of the story itself. Though Awake didn’t survive into this new season, it has a surprisingly inheritor in a new series on NBC, in of all things the new Matthew Perry comic vehicle, Go On. In Go On, Perry plays Ryan King, a minor local celebrity with his own sports radio talk show forced against his will into group therapy after the death of his wife Janie, where he finds a mismatched collection of others also trying to live on and survive their own stories of pain and loss. In character-driven sitcoms it is often the details that matter most, and even so early in the season, Go On has exhibited a knack for getting them precisely right. Among the otherwise underwhelming batch of new network comedies this fall, NBC’s Go On is one of the few bright spots.