Saturday, November 17, 2012

Critic's Notes & Frames

I was rather late joining the Facebook revolution (which seems to have now been passed on to Twitter). There was nothing personal in my decision to resist. I welcome innovative technological changes providing we use our powers of discrimination in using them so that we become accountable rather than blind consumers. For me, however, I discovered that what worked best was creating a virtual salon, an ongoing soiree where all my 'friends' could be part of a never-ending discussion on a variety of subjects. Sometimes these items were created by me. At other times, I shared items posted by others. On occassion, it's a quick review of a movie, a song, or a book. It can also be a cartoon, a painting, or a photo with a short comment. Here is a sampling:

Friday, November 16, 2012

History as Soporific: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's new Lincoln movie isn't going to help any teachers convince their students that American history is actually exciting or interesting. In fact, the movie is so stupefyingly dull that it will remind you  if you've been unlucky enough to have lousy history teachers (I had a few good ones, fortunately, which is one reason I like history)  of those tiresome hours whiled away in the classroom just waiting for the bell to ring, and thus end your misery, while the teacher droned on. Luckily, with Lincoln, you have the option of leaving the cinema anytime you want to and without getting into trouble for vacating the premises. I suspect many audience members will feel like doing just that.

Instead of trying to capture the sprawling and tumultuous life of one of America's greatest Presidents, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, utilizing a relatively small part of Doris Kearn Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, concentrate on the last few months of Lincoln's life, in early 1865, when the just re-elected Commander-in-Chief (Daniel Day-Lewis) sets out to ensure that the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, will finally pass, a daunting task as a significant number of Democrats would have to be convinced to jump aboard the anti-slavery bandwagon. The film's focus is on his mission, as he and various minions cajole, threaten, beg and even bribe their opponents to switch sides and do what is morally right.

Granted, it can be rather difficult to capture the to and fro of political deal making, which can be dry material and make it seem interesting and compelling, though TV's The West Wing did do it on a weekly basis. And at least Lincoln isn't as tedious as Ken Loach's turgid 1995 film Land and Freedom, which was overly invested in the dull minutiae of communist political debates and wrangling. Nevertheless, Spielberg's would-be opus is still a remarkably static affair, certainly for him, and a film that, ultimately, undermines and lessens the gripping nature and lasting impact of Lincoln's stupendous feat.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lost in Translation (Part Two): Bernard Malamud's The Natural

Yesterday I wrote about how some terrific novels sometimes get lost in their translation into film, in particular, E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and the subsequent botched effort of Milos Forman's film adaptation. If Ragtime was a case of the wrong man hired for the wrong job, however, The Natural (1984) was an example of smart and talented people dropping the ball. Bernard Malamud's first novel was a canny parable written with true American gusto in which the author digs into the spirit of one of Ted Williams' famous declarations. Looking back on his storied career with the Boston Red Sox, the baseball great once remarked, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" Malamud asks the question: If you were the greatest ball player who ever lived, blessed with extraordinary athletic gifts, could you just as easily piss it all away?

Malamud's 1952 novel The Natural is a vivaciously entertaining story of a thirty-four-year-old rookie named Roy Hobbs who gets a second shot at becoming a baseball star – and then blows it. Fifteen years earlier, as a can't-miss-prospect, Hobbs is almost killed by Harriett Bird, a disturbed baseball groupie who seduces and shoots him. Years later, and recovered from his injuries, Hobbs gets a new contract and arrives at the dugout of New York Knights' manager Pop Fisher to join the team. Given Hobbs' age, Pop is initially reluctant to bring him on board. His corrupt partner, Judge Goodwill Banner, has also been dumping lousy players on him all year with the purpose of decimating the team; he figures if the team finishes last, Pop will give up and sell him his share of the franchise. Hobbs changes all that by leading the Knights to a league pennant. But he's also an unbridled hedonist. When he gets involved with Pop's niece, Memo, he's distracted from his quest to be the best, just as he was earlier by Harriett, once again betraying his natural gifts. He may be a natural, Malamud reminds us, but he's still human.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lost in Translation (Part One): E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime

Ask anyone who loves to read books and they'll tell you that there is nothing worse than seeing a good book badly mangled on the screen. I'm not talking about the literary fetishists, either – the ones who want to see every little detail of the book translated faithfully. (Those folks are already predisposed to disparage movies as a lesser art. They're prepared to hate the adaptation because films, especially if they come from Hollywood, are already guaranteed to desecrate the source material.) Nevertheless, there are books that have indeed been ruined, if not rendered unrecognizable by filmmakers – those who appear either incapable of understanding the text, or are willfully misreading it.

E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime could well be a victim of both a misunderstanding and a willful misreading. Ragtime is a richly textured parable of American lore in which the author performs masterful tricks with the history we thought we knew. Some historical figures are disguised, others are merely alluded to, while a few others are used by name – popping up in the narrative in the most colourful way. In Ragtime, Doctorow captures the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the twentieth century and World War One. But rather than write a realistic account of the period, he creates a sumptuous pastiche, a flip-book chronicle that is, in many ways, already a movie. "[It was] an extravaganza about the cardboard cutouts in our minds – figures from the movies, newsreels, the popular press, dreams and history, all tossed together," wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. "Doctorow played virtuoso games with this mixture – games that depended on the reader's having roughly the same store of imagery in his head that the author did." In calling the novel an "elegant gagster's book," Kael underlined how Doctorow cleverly portrayed American history as a confidence game that tested our ability to separate fact from fiction. As Voltaire once remarked, "History is a game we play with the dead."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Myth and Man

Who was Abraham Lincoln? Americans have mined that question since the moment he died from an assassin’s bullet on Saturday, April 15, 1865 at 7:22am. They’d wondered about it long before that tragic day, in fact, ever since he stepped out from prairie obscurity onto the national political scene in the late 1850s. Proffering the answer has yielded prodigious results: the number of books written about Lincoln and the Civil War now equals the amount of days that have passed since Lee surrendered to Grant. A museum attached to Ford’s Theatre recently stacked a pile of Lincoln biographies into a 35-foot tower for display. Writers have spilled more ink about the sixteenth president than any historical figure save Jesus of Nazareth; he lays claim to a similar global appeal. No less than Leo Tolstoy ranked him as the greatest leader in history, dwarfing the Napoleons and Caesars. “His example is universal and will last thousands of years,” the novelist predicted. “He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”

But despite the insatiable digging, Lincoln still eludes our grasp. As with Christ, we can’t ever seem to exhaust the mystery of his being. When you read material about or even from him, you get the sense that the true man, unlike other historical figures, floats in a realm impossible to pierce. Albert Schweitzer famously characterized 19th-century theologians’ quest for the historical Jesus as akin to looking into a deep well and seeing their own reflection in the water. We’ve done the same with Lincoln, constantly remaking him in our own image. Indeed, from the beginning people have compared him to Christ, and it’s difficult to resist the temptation. After all, he bore the name of a biblical patriarch, liberated millions from slavery, and was shot on Good Friday. I mean, really.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shakespeare by the Brits: Timon of Athens and Hamlet

Simon Russell Beale as Timon in Timon of Athens (Photo: Johan Persson)

Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare‘s most intriguing tragedies; he never wrote anything else quite like it. (Scholars believe that he may have collaborated with Thomas Middleton, the co-writer of The Changeling.) In the first half, the title character extends himself without limit to his friends, staging extravagant banquets, showering them with expensive gifts, bailing out one young man when he runs afoul of the law. But when his generosity bankrupts him and he’s forced to call on the same friends for loans, they make up excuses. At this juncture Timon’s kindness turns to acid; he invites them to one last feast to mock them and erupt in fury at their betrayal, then leaves Athens to live in a cave. Up to this point the play seems to share a dramatic trajectory with Coriolanus – in both the protagonists are provoked into turning their backs on their cities – but in the second half Timon is truly unorthodox. The action all but stops dead. Timon discovers gold in his cave, but it’s ceased to have any meaning for him (he observes sardonically that he can’t eat it). He’s visited by a series of men – his devoted steward Flavius (who’d tried unsuccessfully to warn him that he was blowing through his funds), Athenians on various self-interested missions, but most memorably the cynical philosopher Apemantus, an unwilling guest at Timon’s parties whose truth-telling now provides a kind of humanity for him in his reduced – and newly conscious – state. Their long interchange, which is undeniably the highlight of the second half of the play, is either, depending on how a director chooses to interpret it, a Beckettian encounter in the wilderness or a means of exploring Timon’s psychic journey into darkness.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hope Versus Despair: The Uninhabitable House We Live In

The recent presidential campaign dredged up a barely-hidden reserve of bigotry in America. That doesn’t seem surprising, of course, but maybe it’s something to sing about. Two lefties, Abe Meeropol and Earl Robinson, composed “The House I Live In,” a 1943 tune about their progressive yet patriotic vision for a country mired in hatred. The lyrics convey faith in our better natures, sort of like the dialogue in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Neil Diamond each recorded the anthem for tolerance. Also Frank Sinatra, whose neutered version was delivered in a November 1945 short movie with the same title that denounced anti-Semitism. But he angered Meeropol – who had penned “Strange Fruit” to decry lynching almost a decade earlier – by deleting lines such as “my neighbors white and black.”

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki offers a sharp focus on neighbors white and black with The House I Live In, a wrenching documentary that won the top prize at January’s Sundance festival and has been released theatrically in time for possible Oscar consideration. Robeson’s sonorous bass-baritone is heard over closing credits, after 108 minutes of searing cinematic testimony that points out how far we are from the song’s plea for “a land of wealth and beauty with enough for all to share.”