Saturday, January 5, 2013

Lars Kepler & the Swedish Procedural

Lars Kepler (aka Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandre Coelho)
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Bob Douglas, to our group.

Swedish mysteries/thrillers are currently enjoying exceptional popularity with international audiences. The trend began in the 1960s and 70s with the ten-novel Report of a Crime series by the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö who used the crime genre to undertake a forensic examination of the dream of social democracy in Swedish society. Henning Mankell, who has publicly acknowledged his debt to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, continued in that vein during the 1990s with his Kurt Wallander novels whereby he revealed Sweden to be increasingly racist, xenophobic and intolerant of immigrants. Building on his experience as a crusading journalist who exposed far right organizations in Swedish society, Stieg Larsson brought this tradition to fruition with his Millennium trilogy that laid bare the corrupt underpinnings of government agencies. In the process, he introduced a new type of character into crime fiction: a damaged, brutalized young woman with no social skills but who possessed extraordinary computer skills and knew how to exact revenge on those who perpetrated violence against women. Despite some turgid writing, much inferior to that of Mankell, he achieved vast commercial success with his three mass-market blockbuster thrillers that led to Swedish film adaptations and a superior American remake of the first novel. One result of the Larsson phenomenon is that other writers have abandoned the social criticism and returned to the police procedural with an eye to producing a book that can be adapted for an international audience.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Defiantly Good Read: The Oxford American

A few years back, while browsing at my local record shop, Soundscapes, I came across an interesting magazine I had never heard of before, called The Oxford American. The magazine, chronicling Southern music, was reasonably priced ($10.95 Canadian, it’s now $11.95 here in Canada and $10.95 U.S) and most intriguingly also contained a double CD celebrating the magazine’s 10th Annual Southern Music issue, which I've since learned always comes out at year’s end. (The magazine, founded in Oxford, Mississippi in 1992, is currently a quarterly published out of The University of Central Arkansas.) The CD contained 56 tracks, including a cool intro by Mississippi native, actor Morgan Freeman, and the music on it spanned the 1920s to the present with well known Southern artists (Lucinda Williams, Eartha Kitt, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Lee Lewis, R.E.M.) appearing alongside more obscure ones (The Insect Trust, Hampton Grease Band, Elton and Betty White). It was a terrific primer to the richness that is Southern music, with wonderfully evocative liner notes in the magazine as well as poems, fiction and some feature pieces on the great and unique variety of Southern life.

Since then I’ve regularly purchased that Southern Music Issue, and sought out back copies at the magazine's website ( The Southern Music issue is now in its 14th installment and began, starting with disc 11, a state by state compilation as opposed to an overall Southern musical gumbo. This 12-year project designed to represent all sixteen Southern states has so far resulted in discs specifically devoted to the music of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and in 2012, Louisiana.  (The Arkansas CD, the inaugural one in the series was actually a double CD, with one disc comprised of general Southern music but the subsequent editions have been single state specific discs.) Together, this detailed and complex musical offering and the accompanying stories and features on what is commonly called the New South go a long way to dispelling the widely held stereotypes of a backwards, inbred region of the U.S. (I confess that I sometimes share that myopic view when I see how overwhelmingly Republican the South is – despite liberal pockets in places like Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia and  Durham / Raleigh, North Carolina – and how gun ownership is highest in the Southern U.S. (and Alaska!))  Yes, I know the likes of crass Southern-set ‘reality TV’ shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and others also don’t help educate people on the matter, but it only makes The Oxford American, even though the literary magazine only reaches a fraction of the TV show’s audience, more important and significant than ever.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

That What Doesn't Kill You: The Buster Keaton DVD Box Set

In Billy Wilder’s Hollywood Gothic, Sunset Boulevard (1950), Buster Keaton puts in a brief appearance, alongside silent-film stars H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson, as one of Norma Desmond’s bridge partners. Keaton was only in his mid-fifties at the time, but he and the others are presented as has-beens who’ve survived their cultural moment, the silent era, and now dare not venture out into the sunlit world of teenagers and transistor radios, for fear of crumbling to ash; they’re unwrapped mummies, with bitter frozen faces and sawdust in their veins. A year earlier, James Agee’s famous Life magazine article about silent film comedy had begun to kick some life back into Keaton’s dozing reputation, a development that led to him appearing on such TV shows as Candid Camera and This Is Your Life, as well as an embarrassing Hollywood biopic, starring Donald O’Connor, purporting to tell what the ads called his “sad, happy, loving story.” (Short version: even the most caring and supporting studio boss in the world can only do so much to save you from yourself when you’re that big a drunk.)

Keaton’s professional comeback – which, by the early ‘60s, included the lead in a short film written by Samuel Beckett and guest appearances on The Twilight Zone and Route 66, not to mention How to Stuff a Wild Bikini  might have ended there if he hadn’t formed a partnership with the film collector Raymond Rohauer, who had several of Keaton’s early films transferred from deteriorating nitrate stock and began re-releasing them to theaters, thus making it possible for audiences to see, for the first time in decades, the work of the lovable, glowering old coot they’d been nostalgically embracing. If some of the attention lavished on Keaton in his twilight years had been based on the sentimental feeling that he was a sad clown who’d fallen on hard times, exposure to any five minutes of The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr. or The Navigator or Our Hospitality tended to blow away any idea that the people paying attention to this man were doing him some kind of favor.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

This 'n That: Intriguing Discoveries Made in 2012

This isn't a top ten for 2012. Rather, it's an overview of things I discovered this year, one more than 45 years old, and some as current as last year. I thought about writing stories on all of the below, but never got around to it. They interested me anyway, so here they are, in short-form.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Singer of Songs: Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man
In his 2002 documentary, Stone Reader, director Mark Moskowitz, a dedicated life-long reader of novels his entire life, goes on a quest to find Dow Mossman, the author of a 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer. The work had come to possess him in his adult years. (After trying to read it as a young man, Moskowitz gave up after a few pages. Coming back to it years later, he couldn't put it down.) In searching for Mossman, who had disappeared from the literary landscape during the Seventies with no follow-up novel, Moskowitz used the same intuitive impulses that first lead him as a boy to become such a voracious reader. With the zeal of a modern day Huck Finn, Moskowitz took off on his own American sojourn to find Dow Mossman (while simultaneously deducing the clues to his disappearance in the manner of Sherlock Holmes). Stone Reader is about how a writer's voice can come to inhabit us; and the lingering pleasure of the film is in how it reinforces our own private communion with literature.

Though Stone Reader is certainly a one-of-a-kind story, it may well have found its perfect soul-mate in Searching for Sugar Man (which is coming out on DVD this month). This Swedish/British co-production, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, is also about a quest for an artist who has become lost in time. But unlike Mossman, who never caught the larger reading public's imagination, Sixto Rodriguez, an American pop artist unacknowledged in his homeland, became a near legendary figure miles away in South Africa where he turned out to be as big as Elvis. The rousing aspect of the picture comes in seeing just how Rodriguez's music unwittingly becomes part of the spirit of a people fighting for social and political justice against apartheid. What's curious, however, is that Rodriguez's work isn't the most obvious form of political agit-prop to be embraced by a cause. Instead he writes delicately poetic and engagingly impressionistic songs of social realism; tunes which stoke the imagination rather than tear down walls. Searching for Sugar Man follows the efforts of two Cape Town fans, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, who try to find him in the post-apartheid years.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Back to the 70s: Pippin and Annie

Patina Miller as Leading Player in Pippin
Pippin opened on Broadway in the fall of 1972, toward the end of what was unmistakably the Year of Bob Fosse. His film of Cabaret rethought the syntax of the movie musical, both stylistically (the numbers were Brechtian commentaries on theme, character and historical setting rather than expressions of emotion) and visually (he was the first director of film musicals to employ editing as a rhythmic element). On television he collaborated with his Cabaret star, Liza Minnelli, on an inventive, highly theatrical one-woman revue called Liza with a ‘Z’. And he returned to Broadway, where he’d received his training as a choreographer and then as a director, with Pippin. I saw it a few months after graduating from college and I recall it as the first truly schizoid experience I ever had at the theatre. The staging was mesmerizing, exactly the feat of wizardry that the opening number, “Magic to Do,” set the audience up to expect, but the material itself – Roger O. Hirson’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s songs – was threadbare. And since Fosse’s trademark theme, which he imposed on everything he worked on, was the discrepancy between the razzle-dazzle surface and the shoddy, corrupt underneath, the show seemed constantly to be commenting on its own inadequacies, reminding us that what we were watching was merely trompe l’oeil executed by a seasoned (and cynical) magician. It was a hell of a spectacle, and it wasn’t much fun.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Bodies Bible: A Revolutionary Book About Lady Parts

Vilunya Diskin & Jane Pincus
Good-bye 2012. Good riddance. In the United States, you’ve been the year of reprehensible ideas: mandated vaginal probes, outlawing contraceptives, “legitimate rape,” rape-generated pregnancies as something “God intended to happen.” You were the year of the War on Women. Those who struggled for equality and self-determination in past decades couldn’t believe so much darkness might now be encroaching on hard-fought enlightenment... 
Courtesy of the psychedelic zeitgeist, people in my generation explored the unknown depths and heights of our minds during the 1960s. But many women witnessed the doors of perception opening to reveal some truths elsewhere in the human anatomy. Feminism was busy being born, along with babies, for gals who previously had limited knowledge of their reproductive systems in a male-dominated society that would soon react to the shockwave of gender liberation. As a popular slogan of the era trumpeted, sisterhood is powerful. In December 1970, an iconic and inspiring work emerged that eventually would find its way into some four millions homes: Our Bodies, Ourselves, which covers a range of topics on women’s health, started out as a 193-page newsprint publication that was stapled together. It had been written by a dozen women, many of them moms, living in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. Their goal was to make information about about female anatomy, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and other related subjects accessible to everyone.