Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Cultural Hodgepodge: The Attack, People Who Eat Darkness, The Mindy Project and Robyn Hitchcock In Concert

Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina on Fox's The Mindy Project, which returns for its second season on Sept 17

Choices, choices. These days there’s so much to watch, read and listen to that it’s pretty difficult to keep up with everything you’re interested in. There are eight network TV shows slated to begin their new seasons in the next couple of weeks which I will be watching, as well as a couple of television series either winding down (Under the Dome, Ray Donovan) or having just begun their new season (Copper). And that’s not including the new TV shows which I have yet to sample. Then there are three alternate history science fiction novels I am currently reading and one more which will be published in October, which will be the subject of a future post. Some new movies, by filmmakers I like – including Ron Howard (Rush), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Stephen Frears (Philomena) and Claire Denis (Bastards) – are coming out later in the year and there are still many CDs that I’ve purchased this summer which I have yet to listen to. Here is a small sample of what I’ve been into recently.

Ali Suliman in Ziad Doueiri's The Attack

Movies: Despite the peace agreements between Egypt and Jordan with Israel, Israeli subject matter or empathetic portraits remain a big taboo in Arab cultural circles, including, of course the countries (Lebanon, Syria) Israel is technically still at war with. The Cairo International Film Festival adamantly refuses to show Israeli films, even though its mandate proclaims an intent to “advance understanding through the language of art between all the peoples of the world." And Arab artists who have gone to Israel have faced boycotts by various film or writers’ organizations upon their return home. In that censorious light, the most courageous act of recent years may very well be Ziad Doueiri’s movie The Attack, which offers a sympathetic view of Israelis and their suffering under terrorism. For the first time that I know of, an Arab filmmaker has dared state that suicide bombings are immoral and not just, as in Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian film Paradise Now, something that is merely harmful to the Palestinian cause.

The film revolves around a noted and respected Arab Israeli surgeon, Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) working in a Tel Aviv hospital who, as the movie begins, is receiving a prestigious medical award from his peers; he’s the first Arab Israeli to win it and he couldn’t be happier. The only catch: his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem) isn’t there to share his special night. Later he is called in to work when a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv restaurant kills 19 Israelis, including many children. But his world is shattered when he finds out that Siham is among the dead, and even worse, that she is suspected of being the suicide bomber who set off the explosion. Amin refuses to believe this, despite the suspicions of his Israeli friends and the police, and later proof that she lied to him about her whereabouts prior to the bombing. Determined to clear his wife’s name, he heads off to the Palestinian territories to find out what she was up to there. What he discovers is life changing.

Reymond Amsalem on set with director Ziad Doueiri
The Lebanese-born Doueiri, who co-wrote the movie with his wife Joelle Touma, from Yasmina Khadra’s controversial novel (which I have not read), actually spent almost a year living in Israel in order to glean an understanding of his country’s ‘enemy’, an unprecedented action for any Arab filmmaker. He’s praised the Israelis he encountered for their kindness towards him but has paid a price for that opened-minded attitude. The Attack has been banned by the 22-member Arab League and Ms. Touma was threatened with arrest if she organized a screening of the film in Lebanon.

I wish therefore that I could say the movie is worthy of Doueiri’s courage but it falls far short of his previous films (West Beirut, Lila Says) which were raw, emotional, and complex depictions of young kids and teenagers growing up in Lebanon and France, respectively. The problem with The Attack is a simple one; once Amin sets out on his fateful journey, the movie can really only go in one of two directions. Either he finds out why Siham did what she did or he doesn’t. The latter would have made for better drama as an open-ended, ambiguous result is closer to the truth, I think. Often we don’t know why our loved ones, who have hidden so much from us, as Siham did from Amin, do what they do. But Doueiri chose to be more specific in explaining why she committed her heinous act (that may be based on the source material) and the result is facile. It’s also botched. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers but the reason Siham carried out her act of terrorism lies in an event whose truth has been interpreted entirely differently by the Israelis and Palestinians. But the way Doueiri showcases it, in a brief mention and one quick scan, will confuse anyone who doesn’t know what he is referring to. I don’t believe it’s an ideological mistake but rather a structural one. (Laudably, the movie doesn't hesitate to condemn those thugs who entice individuals like Siham to 'martyr' themselves.) The movie goes wobbly by the end, too, coming perilously close to not only justifying Siham’s actions by suggesting that Israeli policies helped radicalize her but also suggesting that, ultimately, Israeli Arabs are really just tolerated by their Israeli Jewish friends and co-workers. That’s hardly the norm in Israel. (Even, Captain Moshe, the angry cop, played by Uri Gavriel, who interrogates and mistreats Amin isn’t given his due; he may be an asshole but he does have legitimate reasons to suspect that the doctor may not have been in the dark about his wife’s movements. It’s hard to believe otherwise.) Again, I’m not sure if Doueiri and Touma mean to imply that but it’s how it comes across.

Finally, what one takes from the movie is the haunted, memorable performance of Suliman (whose credits include such Israeli films as Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree, as well as Paradise Now), and the powerful, disturbing revelation that Amin will remain shell-shocked and unmoored for years to come. However, that’s not enough to salvage this dramatically muddled and narratively slack film.

Books: In the summer of 2000, Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old vivacious British woman, working as a hostess in a Tokyo bar, went off for a daylong jaunt with one of her clients. After leaving a phone message with her roommate, promising to return home in time for her shift that night, she was never seen again. Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: Murder, Grief and a Journey into Japan's Shadows (Vintage Books) chronicles the powerful, sad story of what happened to Lucie but it’s far from a tawdry or sensationalistic true crime novel. Parry, the British-born Asia Editor of The Times of London, has been long based in Tokyo and Lucie’s tragic fate spoke volumes to him about Japan, its often blinkered and prejudicial attitudes towards foreigners, especially women who work as hostesses, and, in the revelation of who was behind Lucie’s disappearance, also touched on the lowly position of Japan’s one major minority group.

Written in the vein of a thriller, with the events of Lucie’s disappearance, the long search for her, which attracted the concern and attention of then British Prime Minster Tony Blair, and the various suspects who popped up during the lengthy case viscerally brought to life, People Who Eat Darkness is a meticulous and gripping examination of cultural differences and, no less important, the easy assumptions made about the country by foreigners who go to visit and live there. Japan, viewed by many, including Lucie, as both exotic and quixotic, is also curiously seen as some sort of idealized theme park for Westerners to sample and enjoy without anything horrible ever happening to them. Much of that is true – Japan has a remarkably low violent crime rate, compared to Europe and North America – but it holds perils for impressionable, naive young women like Lucie, dangers not unique to Japan, of course, but filtered through the country’s cultural and social prism and point of view. In Lucie’s case, it also brought certain unsavoury, disturbing aspects of Japan’s recent history to vivid life.

Parry, a superb and sober journalist, indicts Japan primarily through its police force: mostly decent, hardworking men who view murder with abhorrence but nevertheless hold views that are quite antediluvian about women and foreigners, beliefs that got in the way of a quick, satisfactory resolution of Lucie’s case. Hostesses, incidentally, despite what the cops usually presume, are not prostitutes but young women, hired for their good looks, whose job is to be hospitable to the lonely Japanese men who come to the various clubs in Tokyo and elsewhere in the country each night to spend their money and pretend, for a while, at least, that they are the centre of attention in a pretty foreign girl’s life. They also are able to be sexually frank, and sometimes creepy, in a way they would not, could not, dare act with Japanese women. But they don’t usually harm them; as one feminist author who wrote a book about her experiences as a hostess in Japan, makes clear in People Who Eat Darkness, not once did she feel in danger from any of her clients, unlike women in similar circumstances who would no doubt, feel threatened in the West. (Only once does Parry take dramatic license with Lucie’s tale, at the book’s outset where he images a day in the life of Lucie Blackman, but that slightly fanciful element of People Who Eat Darkness helps clarify her particular plight and situation.)

Lucie Blackman
Thus, the conclusion of Lucie’s case manages to both absolve the clients who frequent clubs like the one where she worked and condemn them, too, since at least one of them posed a danger to Lucie and other young women, besides. (There is a half-hearted attempt on the part of the author at political correctness or moral equivalence when one club owner assails the ‘racism’ of girls like Lucie but it doesn’t take nor convince since Parry provides no evidence of that elsewhere in People Who Eat Darkness.) Yet, the book is also a scathing look at Lucie’s estranged, divorced parents, who held differing views on how to look for their missing daughter but whose deep mutual animosity, particularly on the part of her mother, Jane, also made for riveting drama. The openness of Lucie’s father Tim, who was not shy about expressing his views on the progress of the case but also prone to hiding his emotions, was especially discomfiting to the Japanese, including the press. They felt he was not behaving the way a bereaved father should; his refusal to show tears was particularly off-putting. (Parry, who befriended Tim, shows both sides but clearly feels closer to Lucie’s dad.) But People Who Eat Darkness, which took ten years to write – the case carried on for years – and was chosen as Time magazine’s Best Non-fiction Book of 2012, also has a supporting cast of odd characters, some of whom bring a light comic touch to the proceedings. They compel us, if we needed reminding, to recognize that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Ultimately, this profoundly sad book (which has several different surtitles in its various editions; I refer to the one from the Canadian edition of the book) does make clear that cultural anomalies and quirks still exist and that other people, whomever they are, are often different from us even if we think they’re cut from the same mould. What happened to Lucie, an ‘ordinary’ girl but a very likeable one, could have happened anywhere in the world but how it happened, and why, is unique to Japan. Parry doesn’t provide any easy answers or superficial philosophical bromides but the questions he raises in People Who Eat Darkness about the vagaries of life, fate and love, pack a powerful, memorable, punch.

Mindy Kaling: creator, head writer, and star of The Mindy Project

TV: I’m anticipating the return of last year’s best new network show The Mindy Project, whose second season begins on Fox on September 17, and I’m betting that the character portrayed by the show’s creator Mindy Kaling, obstetrician/gynecologist Mindy Lahiri, won’t be jetting off to Haiti with her do gooder minster boyfriend Casey (Anders Holm) to help the impoverished people of that country. (The season finale had her planning to do just that.) It wouldn’t be consistent with how her character has been portrayed so far on the series – Dr. Lahiri likes her creature comforts and roughing it in a tent for a year is not her idea of fun – and, obviously, it would risk the show getting into sensitive territory that might make light of the dire situation there. And The Mindy Project is not that kind of show. But even if the series has her go off to Haiti, it’s more than likely that it will stick with its New York City setting and vibe and the romantic and comedic misadventures of the doctor she plays, who runs a clinic with two other medical men – sardonic, cynical Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) and supercilious, womanizing British Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks). There’s also annoying male nurse (and ex-con) Morgan Tookers (Ike Barinholtz) to contend with, along with some other sundry office workers and friends.

When I first started watching The Mindy Project, whose first season is now out on DVD, I immediately thought of the classic 1970s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both sharply written shows featured a sweet single woman making her way in the big city, surrounded by quirky friends and co-workers (a TV newsroom in Minneapolis for Mary Richards, the character played by Mary Tyler Moore). But Mindy is far more assertive than Mary – her insecurity in standing up for herself was one of that show’s running jokes – and far more sexually active. It's 2013 and censorship has loosened considerably on network TV since Mary Tyler Moore’s heyday, which had to tread carefully in depicting Mary Richards' sex life.

Ed Weeks and Chris Messina
In other significant ways, though, The Mindy Project is unique. For one, Dr. Lahiri is of Indian descent (as is Mindy Kaling), a group rarely represented on American TV, except in the cancelled Outsourced, Parks and Recreation and, of course, Archie Panjabi's investigator, Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife. Dr. Lahiri not averse to making light of and referencing that fact, though she’s fairly assimilated, which makes for some good jokes about the ethnic stereotyping she’s saddled with and often imagines. For another, she’s a bit overweight - she refers to herself as chunky - a fact of life which is still extremely rare on U.S. network comedy which generally leans on and favours model-thin women in the lead roles, with a few notable exceptions, such as Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) on The Big Bang Theory and Gloria Pritchett (Sofia Vergara) on Modern Family. Weight, of course has nothing to do with sexiness, and Kaling, besides being a highly appealing performer, is a very attractive woman, with a refreshingly positive self-image. She occasionally and believably has body issues, usually when something goes wrong in a relationship but, truth be told, it’s her somewhat self-involved personality and reluctance to commit to love, as well as her lousy taste in men, excepting Casey, which kiboshes many of those.

None of this would matter much if The Mindy Project weren’t so damn funny – Kaling honed her skills as a head writer on the American edition of The Office and has written a semi-autobiographical  humour book (Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (2011) – and, just as important, if there was not such great comedic rapport between Kaling/Lahiri and her supporting cast, particularly Messina’s Dr. Castellano. There’s obviously a sexual attraction between him and Dr. Lahiri, evident especially in the season finale, but Kaling and company, I’m sure, are too smart have the pair consummate that, as relationships of that sort usually go south, in terms of being compelling, when that happens. (See Moonlighting and Cheers.) Messina, who played Ted Fairwell, the kind Republican lawyer Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) fell in love with on the last season of HBO’s superb Six Feet Under, is remarkably adept at not playing to the camera or being overly sentimental – he’s the gruff Lou Grant persona of The Mindy Project – and he keeps you watching. (Big Love's Chloe Sevigny, who appeared briefly in the show as his ex-wife, helped flesh him out; I hope she comes back for Season Two.) And I really like the fact that Kaling has the guts to play Dr. Lahiri, who doesn’t vote and is apolitical to a fault as such a narcissistic and self-absorbed (but still likeable) person She’s the most entertaining character of that sort since Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s portrayal of Christine in the CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006-2010).

Like most debut comedies which take awhile to find their perfect footing, the first season of The Mindy Project is a bit uneven. It hasn’t been able yet to settle on a consistent supporting cast, outside of Doctors Castellano and Reed and nurse Morgan, though I expect that the obnoxious midwives who work upstairs from the clinic – irritatingly New Age (and real life) brothers Brendan (Mark Duplass) and Duncan Deslaurier (Jay Duplass) – will stick around. The decision to write out talented character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day) as Dr. Schulman, who owns the clinic where Dr. Lahiri works, early in the season, was not a smart one. But I have no doubts that like New Girl, which precedes it on the Fox schedule and which deepened its characters in its sophomore season, that The Mindy Project will go from strength to strength in its next season. I think it’s safe to say it will be around for years to come.

Singer/Songwriter Robyn Hitchcock (Photo by Alicia J. Rose)

Music: I had a terrific time at last week’s (September 3) Robyn Hitchcock performance at the Drake Underground in Toronto’s Drake Hotel. You may know of Hitchcock because of his 1989 radio hit "Balloon Man", a neat tune but not nearly one of his best. In fact, despite his decided lack of financial success, he’s been incredibly prolific over the years, having put out nearly 20 studio albums, solo or with his backing bands The Egyptians (now disbanded) and The Venus 3, ten live albums and more than a dozen compilations and box sets since his solo debut with 1981's Black Snake Dîamond Röle. He’s also on three albums as a member of  the late 70s, early 80s psychedelic band The Soft Boys, who reunited several times between 1994-2006. (He's also been the subject of two movies, Jonathan Demme's 1998 New York set concert film Storefront Hitchcock and John Edginton's 2007 documentary Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death...and Insects and appeared in Demme's acclaimed Rachel Getting Married (2008) as a wedding guest who sings a couple of (Hitchcock) songs.) I knew his music somewhat, mostly from listening to Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptian’s Perspex Island (1991), which I purchased a few days before the show and listened to almost obsessively, but seeing him live in a stripped down performance, guitar and harmonica only, and no backing band, made it quite apparent that he is a superb singer/songwriter, creatively on par with fellow Brits Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. He’s also terribly funny, almost Pythonesque in his presentation, quite eccentric, which is a good thing, and prone to engaging in all manner of inventive flights of fancy and deft verbal wordplay. (On the American penchant for happy endings, compared to the Brits who know life is dismal, he correctly points out that if the happy ending is death, then what came before it certainly sucked.)

His 80-minute set of wry and thoughtful songs ranged all over the place including title tracks from his albums Queen Elvis (1989, with The Egyptians) and The Venus 3 album Olé! Tarantula (2006), a Townes Van Zandt cover and a Dylan tribute song, as well as a very clever mash up which began with George McCrae’s disco hit "Rock Your Baby," stopped at Dr. Hook’s soulful/hokey "You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman" before ending with a cool, spot on rendition of David Bowie’s psychedelic "Sound and Vision". Hitchcock’s witty references to The Kinks, Madness and Morrissey proved he knows his musical stuff. His voice, too, was in perfect, magnificent form; at 60 years of age, he still has all his musical chops.

Kudos, too, to the Drakes’ underground venue, which is comfortably intimate – I’ve never sat on a cozy couch for a musical performance before – reminiscent of a beatnik bar of the 50s, minus the cigarette smoke, and possessing excellent sightlines and sound. (I even managed to get Perspex Island autographed.) The concert was also very inexpensively priced for a change, a welcome bonus. There was even a decent if unmemorable opening act (Katie Boothman and her duo) All in all, it was an intimate and enthralling evening listening to a great artist who ought to be much better known then he is.

Here’s the man performing live during Austin’s SXSW music festival last March.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on acting archetypes in the fall. He will also be giving two lectures on American film censorship on Tuesday September 3 and Tuesday September 10 from 10-11:30 am at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West).

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