Saturday, December 8, 2012

All Those Years Ago: Remembering John Lennon & Johnny Ace

Had John Lennon been killed in a car accident, suffered a heart attack, died of cancer, or simply passed away from old age, it would have been tragic, but somehow comprehensible. But when Mark David Chapman shot him dead in front of his home thirty-two years ago today, the cruel irony of events rippled back to our first discovery of The Beatles and why they mattered for so many of us. After all, Chapman wasn't just an aimless loner like Lee Harvey Oswald; like us, he was a fan of the group. His intent to commit murder grew out of an initial love he had for The Beatles. It was not simply a hatred borne out of social alienation. His act therefore touched disturbingly on what it truly means when our pop obsessions come to define our most private reality.

While fans tried to cope and wrestle with the loss of John Lennon, the surviving Beatles had an even more difficult time doing so. When it came to addressing the tragedy through their music, those problems often became self-evident. George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago" was the first attempt to comment on the murder and what it meant to someone who, indeed, shared all those years ago. Recorded in May 1981, for his Sometime in England album, the song's first problem was this inappropriately jaunty melody that you could have easily mistaken for "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The lyrics weren't much better. In the final verse, Harrison goes from chastising those who don't believe in God to condemning people who thought Lennon was "weird." It's as if he were saying that if only people believed in God then maybe Lennon would still be alive today ("They've forgotten all about God/He's the only reason we exist/ Yet you were the one that they said was so weird/All those years ago").

Friday, December 7, 2012

Failing to Hit the High Notes: A Late Quartet

Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet

There’s a significant difference between documentary and fictional films. Though both are constructed to tell stories, one has the advantage of truth, which can make your film more compelling if the story’s a real corker and if you’re a good director. The other must be rendered from life situations but play out convincingly on screen. But in terms of feeling, authenticity and emotion, the end result isn’t always equally effective. That’s certainly the case with A Late Quartet, a drama that doesn’t come close to reaching the impact of filmmaker Yaron Zilberman’s documentary debut Watermarks (2004).

Watermarks told the fascinating story of a champion Viennese Jewish swim team that was essentially exiled from the country by the Nazis in 1938 and what happened when they went back to Austria over sixty years later. It had it all: a little-known tale that dispelled stereotypes of Jews not being competent athletes, compelling subjects who riveted the screen, and a poignant resolution that reverberated after the credits were done. A Late Quartet has none of these welcome elements. In fact it’s a rather pedestrian, even simple story that isn’t elevated at all, despite its mostly top-notch cast.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Revolution Was Televised: Alan Sepinwall Takes On TV’s New Golden Age

David Milch (left) on the set of Deadwood

It has become almost cliché in some circles to proclaim that television – American television in particular – has never been better. Quality television is no longer, as it was for decades, confined to BBC adaptations of Jane Austen or Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. In the past fifteen years, television has grown into a genuinely popular art form, finally embracing all of its strengths as a medium: the ability to tell long, complicated stories rich in complex characters, compelling writing, and morally and narratively risky storylines. With new technological innovations (DVDs, Netflix, DirecTV) and the rise of the new business models that came with satellite TV and the ever-expanding cable universe, television is no longer a disposable medium. Shows are produced not only to be watched, but to be re-watched. We used to rent the shows we watched, but now we can literally own them. Television series like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Breaking Bad actually reward our attention, instead of discouraging it. The more you watch these shows, the richer they become. The impact of these shows successes – both artistically and commercially – is being felt across the whole television universe, and that story is far from over. That television has decidedly entered a new Golden Age is apparent to all of us who love the medium – what is less talked about is that TV criticism has grown up just as much in that same period. This new age of television has been paralleled by the rise of new and exciting forms of writing about television – and Alan Sepinwall is among the best of the new breed.

In his new book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, Sepinwall takes on the last fifteen years of television, and promises to tell “the story of that transformation in both the medium and how we saw it, through the prism of the best and/or most important shows of the era.” There are few people as perfectly situated to tell that story as Alan Sepinwall, and the book delivers what he promises and more. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Neglected Gem #34: Amos and Andrew (1993)

When it was released in 1993, Amos and Andrew got the kind of venomous reviews the press saves up for small-potatoes pictures the studios have already pretty much abandoned, and it vanished from theaters in a couple of weeks. It’s easy to see what infuriated the reviewers: E. Max Frye’s movie burlesques the social attitudes of affluent whites and affluent blacks. (Even the title, with its reference to the golden-age radio show Amos and Andy, is a racial gag: contemporary African-Americans tend to find the show, with its black vaudeville cast and passé black types, embarrassing or offensive.) The only character who escapes Frye’s satiric aim is Amos Odell (Nicolas Cage), a petty crook who gets picked up in a small New England island town – a summer haven for wealthy tourists who keep houses for the season – when, markedly deficient in geography, he thinks he’s cleared the Canadian border. Andrew is Andrew Sterling (Samuel L. Jackson), a celebrity – a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker – who has bought one of the houses on the island. But when his new neighbors, the Gillmans (Michael Lerner and Margaret Colin), out for an evening stroll, see him through his living-room window hooking up his stereo, they jump to the conclusion that he’s an intruder trying to steal it. They don’t know the house has been sold since last summer; they assume he’s holding one of the teenage sons of their former neighbors hostage.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Past Tense, Forever Present: Remembering 9/11 – C@L Books
The ramifications of 9/11 are still being felt today. And those ramifications will continue to be felt for generations to come. Everyone's world changed irrevocably on that morning. Eleven years later wars are still being fought as a result and nut cases who think it was an inside job continue to spout their poison. Twenty-five, fifty, one hundred years from now, someone will still be looking at the historical and political meaning of this tragedy.

Critics at Large (under the imprint C@L Books) is thrilled to announce the publication is our very first e-book single: Past Tense, Forever Present: Remembering 9/11. Edited by David Churchill, and with original water colours by Andrew Dupuis illustrating the collection's evocative themes, the book includes seven newly revised versions of essays first published on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and four entirely new pieces written specifically for this publication.

These eleven essays look at 9/11 from a cultural perspective, examining its impact on the arts, social media, and on our lives as arts journalists caught up in the horrible calamity of that day.

Authors include: David Churchill, Mark Clamen, John Corcelli, Kevin Courrier, Susan Green, Deirdre Kelly, Mari-Beth Slade, Andrew Dupuis, David Kidney, Shlomo Schwartzberg, and Steve Vineberg.

The e-book is now available on Kobo and on Amazon for immediate download to Kindle. Both are priced at only 99 cents.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Golden Boy: Art vs. Commerce

Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Michael Aronovin Golden Boy (Photo by Paul Kolnik)
When you read about the Group Theatre, the legendary company that introduced Stanislavskian acting to the American theatre in the 1930s, you can’t help wondering what their performances were really like. You can get some sense of this pioneering Method acting style when you watch John Garfield, the only one of the troupe who became a movie star, or Lee J. Cobb, who went on to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway (and revisited the role years later on television) and the gangster Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront, or the few remnants Morris Carnovsky, the Group’s master actor, has left us of his work, in featured movie roles and TV appearances. But the first time I really got a feel for the Group Theatre style was when a PBS documentary about them included a clip I’d had no idea even existed: Luther Adler’s screen test from the mid-thirties, which replicated a scene that he and Phoebe Brand had played together on stage in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! (Adler and his sister Stella, the children of the celebrated Yiddish Theatre star Jacob Adler, were two of the Group’s leading actors; Brand, who married Carnovsky, came out of retirement to play Nanny in Vanya on 42nd Street.) The clip is maybe two minutes long, and you can’t even see Brand’s face, yet it’s a revelation. Certainly the acting is grounded by a rock-bound naturalism, but it’s more heightened than I’d imagined, more theatrical – in the best way. The scene is between Moe Axelrod and Hennie Berger, one-time lovers who are still desperate for each other but so resentful and defensive that they circle each other warily like nervous animals, every now and then reaching out a paw to swipe one another; and the two actors aren’t afraid to go for broke. You can hear the stage training in the broad vocal palette, in Brand’s free use of tremolo (a more old-fashioned choice than I would have guessed, but extremely effective here) to underscore her character’s woefulness and in the nobility in Adler’s stature and in the way he holds his face to the light.  (Among the Method actors of the next generation of Method actors, Ben Gazzara notably retained that quality.) You believe fully that you’re watching the characters, yet you don’t forget you’re watching actors. Perhaps no Method actor could make you forget that until Marlon Brando.

I thought of Adler’s screen test during Golden Boy, Bartlett Sher’s magnificent new Broadway production of the 1937 Odets play that was the Group’s biggest hit. (Adler played the title role, Carnovsky was his father, and Cobb, Garfield and Brand were all in the company, as well as the Hollywood actress Frances Farmer and two future directors, Elia Kazan and Martin Ritt.) Odets trained as an actor with the Group but early on he began to write plays for them; seven were produced during the Group’s decade-long existence (it finally collapsed in 1941), including Waiting for Lefty, Paradise Lost and of course Odets’s masterpiece, Awake and Sing! He was the closest they had to an official playwright-in-residence, and Golden Boy is his most personal play. Before he wrote it, and again afterwards, he spent time in Hollywood, where he knew his talents were being squandered, as Hollywood squandered the gifts of so many of the great east-coast writers in the thirties and forties, but which offered him a luxurious lifestyle that, like so many others, he found hard to resist. The battle between what you do for your soul and what you do to make a buck is at the heart of Golden Boy, in which Joe Bonaparte, the working-class son of Italian immigrants, a talented violinist, becomes a boxer, a choice that breaks his own heart as well as his father’s and imperils his soul.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Monkees: The Revenge and Resurrection of Tin Pan Alley

There was a time when it was seen as cool, and definitely hip, to disparage The Monkees. Perceived by some as the Justin Biebers of their time, they were even called "The Pre-Fab Four," cheap imitations of The Beatles and defined as teeny-bopper fodder. Yet despite the crass commercial packaging and their faux A Hard Day's Night-style TV show, The Monkees (who early on had seasoned session men playing their instruments) were more than just a marketing executive's idea of a wet dream. They were used essentially as a volley shot, a cannon blast that reached back to the American Revolution and aimed towards a series of British Invasion bands, led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Were they simply a fad? Maybe they were conceived that way. But The Monkees turned out to be the revenge and resurrection of Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley was the name given to a publishing company located on West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. From 1880 to 1953, this block became something of an epicenter for both songwriting and music publishing in America; and it provided the foundation for what became the standards in American song penned by composers like Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser and Yip Harburg. Composers and lyricists were hired on a permanent basis to provide an industry for popular music. For until the emergence of Tin Pan Alley, European operettas had been the predominant norm and influence on American songs.