Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ghosts and the Past: James Lee Burke's Creole Belle

The past is never dead. It's not even past. – William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951).

In the epilogue of Crusader’s Cross, the tough but sympathetic Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, muses that “age brings few gifts, but one of them is the acceptance that the past is the past.” This comforting illusion belies James Lee Burke’s oeuvre in the hard-boiled Robicheaux novels set in the Louisiana bayous near New Orleans. This series is characterized by its vivid evocation of the region and its culture, deeply flawed individuals and institutions on both sides of the law, its gritty patois and philosophical reflections. From the first instalment  The Neon Rain, to his eighteenth and most recent, Creole Belle (Simon & Schuster, 2012), the past, both his personal and the country’s troubled history, not only informs his world view but fuels his daily reliance on instinct and his dogged pursuit of the purveyors of evil. The post-traumatic stress that Robicheaux experienced after Vietnam shadows every novel. The past revisits him through memory, dreams and spectral appearances that conflate his perception, real and imagined, and often serve his search for clarity. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, while investigating a murder spree of butchered young women, which in Robicheaux’s mind is connected to a 1957 murder of a black man, he converses in dream-like scenes with the ghost of General John Bell Hood, a battlefield officer during the Civil War who admits that he served “a repellent cause.” The officer serves as a spiritual mentor to advise Robicheaux that violence outside the law may only be justified if loved ones are endangered and to remind him that racially-motivated crimes are rooted in the catastrophic failure of Reconstruction.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Safe and Sound: Buddy and Jim

Buddy and Jim (New West, 2013) is a new album by Buddy Miller, guitarist and producer, and Jim Lauderdale, long time singer-songwriter, who’s less known in the mainstream of country music. They’ve been singing together for years but this is their first album; and although it's a solid piece of work, it’s also in pretty safe territory. Part of the weakness of the record is a certain “sameness” because Lauderdale sings harmony on every track with little opportunity to take the lead. While that choice makes this album a serious “duo” record, the music doesn’t provide enough variety to showcase such talented singers.

Jim Lauderdale has recorded 19 albums in his career, mostly bridging country and bluegrass music. In 2002, he was named Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year in the inaugural Americana Music Awards (AMA). Buddy Miller was honored with the same title in 2009. So, on one level, it makes musical sense for the talented pair to make their first record. Interestingly, this new release has little bluegrass music on it, as the duo has chosen to play straight-ahead country tunes with a few covers. The album kicks off with “I Lost My Job of Loving You” full of the bittersweet humour typical of a Miller song that makes a great sequel to “Love Match” from Cruel Moon (1999). It’s quickly followed up the by first of two traditional songs on the record, “The Train that Carried My Girl from Town.” This tune has the strongest bluegrass feel in the arrangement featuring some tasteful fills by Stuart Duncan on fiddle. This track is surpassed in tempo by the closer, “The Wobble,” a classic R&B number originally recorded by Jimmy McCracklin; one which really kicks in this rockabilly arrangement. One of the great talents of Buddy Miller is his ability to re-invent songs in a new style. This track counts as one of his finest.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Polemics and Action: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain  in Zero Dark Thirty (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures)

Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the “get Bin Laden” thriller Zero Dark Thirty, is – like Walter Hill and John Woo in their prime, and John Sturges and Don Siegel before them – a master action  film-maker. Period. It’s a highly specialized category, and one that far fewer directors fit into than you might expect, given the degree to which action films dominate the marketplace. Plenty of hacks, and any number of good directors trying to score a hit that might allow them to work on the films they care about, know how to stage gunfights and chases and explosions, or can at least cede control of a production to the stunt coordinators and pyrotechnics experts for a few days. Bigelow is one of those rare people who can stage figures in a composition and set them in motion in such a way that the release of kinetic energy is both exciting and aesthetically satisfying. It’s because of directors like Bigelow that some critics are able to get away with claiming that physical action caught on film is the true essence of “pure cinema.” 

Bigelow can generate that kind of excitement even when her actors are confined to tight quarters, as in the tense, intelligent K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), about  a nuclear accident aboard a Soviet military submarine. Although K-19 was a box office disaster, it may have marked a significant turning point in Bigelow’s career.  Throughout the ‘90s, she turned out a string of ever gaudier failures (Blue Steel, Point BreakStrange Days) that showed a lot of confidence in her ambitious, high-decibel vision and not a lot of interest in narrative believability. Making a movie that was set among men who lived by a military code, with a story that had at least one foot in the real world, did wonders for her ability to focus. Her next film, The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner as a bomb-disposal expert in Iraq, was even better, a wartime character study that combined Hemingway’s romantic attitude about grace under pressure with the kind of gonzo vision of the absurdity of war that came out of the most original fiction and journalism about the Vietnam war.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Trouble with Hitch: Dueling Screen Sagas – Hitchcock & The Girl

Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

Was the Master of Suspense a confused cinematic guru who finally learned to appreciate his long-suffering wife or a sadistic predator forever tormenting the blonde actresses he couldn’t seduce? Two recent films, with acting talent that cannot overcome bloated plots, offer conflicting points of view. Hitchcock, a theatrical release by Sacha Gervasi, purportedly chronicles the creation of Psycho in late 1959. Broadcast on HBO, Julian Jarrold’s The Girl zeroes in on what supposedly took place in the spring of 1962 while shooting The Birds, adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story. Alfred Hitchcock is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins as a mischievous Peeping Tom in the former new production and by Toby Jones as a repulsive creep in the latter. Their so-so impersonations are undermined by the lack of much physical resemblance to a very distinctive-looking historical figure. Alma Reville, the screenwriter and editor to whom he was married for more than half a century, is alternately a spunky helpmate (Helen Mirren) or a sad-sack enabler (Imelda Staunton). The blondes – an ultimately appreciative Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) screaming in the shower for Psycho and a thoroughly terrorized Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) battling feathered attackers in The Birds – present vastly different accounts about experiencing “the dark side of genius,” to borrow the title of Donald Spoto’s 1983 biography of the director.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Paling Well: Interview with Henry Scott-Irvine (Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale)

Most groups would kill for a hit song that would define them and last the ages. But what about the hit songs that end up being the death of you? Procol Harum's 1967 milestone "A Whiter Shade of Pale," as seismic for its time as The Beatles Sgt Pepper was in that same year, is one such tune. With its elliptical images of "skipping the light fandango" and "vestal virgins," people have kept this song alive for years. It has been the choice to wed couples and it has graced funerals as well as appearing in dozens of movies. But the irony for Procol Harum remains that despite a long career of great, memorable records (Shine on Brightly, A Salty Dog, Grand Hotel), they can't seem to get beyond the pale.  

For over forty years, Procol Harum possessed a varied history that wedded rock, classical and blues based arrangements. With that classical baroque sound, their succession of albums were filled with cryptic tales of sea journeys, death knells and conquistadors. Being one of the few groups that had an in-house lyricist (Keith Reid), who wrote with keyboardist and singer Gary Brooker,  Procol Harum shaped their music along the piano/hammond organ tandem that Bob Dylan introduced into rock with both his Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) albums. (The Band would also continue that trend beginning with Music From Big Pink in 1968.) But Procol Harum remained more of a cult band throughout the Seventies and early Eighties (including when they reformed in the Nineties)The group has now become the subject of a fascinating book, Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale, written by Henry Scott-Irvine, where he examines the strange, troubled history of a band that began life as a short-lived R&B outfit (The Paramounts) during the British Invasion, and would go on to lose some of their members right after "A Whiter Shade of Pale" became a massive hit, and eventually would find themselves in 2008 in court in a lengthy law suit launched by the original organist Matthew Fisher who claimed that he should be considered a co-writer of this famous track.

Writing in the book's forward, film director Martin Scorsese (who used "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Conquistador" in his 1989 short film, 'Life Lessons,' from New York Stories) describes Procol Harum's music as a rich mystery. "The point was not so much what the songs were saying, specifically, as what they were suggesting to each of us, individually, where all those sounds and images would lead us, and leave us," he writes. "Procol Harum's music drew from so many deep wells – classical music, 19th Century literature, rhythm and blues, seaman's logs, concretist poetry – that each tune became a cross-cultural whirligig, a road trip through the pop subconscious."

Henry Scott-Irvine, who has written and produced his own weekly radio show on the 24-hour Music & Arts radio station, Resonance FM 104.4 in London, has been a long time fan of the group. In his book, he provides a clear definition of that trip Procol Harum took through the pop subconscious. We spoke recently about the fascinating genesis of this veteran ensemble.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Keeping It Real and Going for Broke: Notes on Recent Performances, Part II (The Women)

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down

Jessica Chastain’s Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty was predictable, given her rather baffling promotion over the last few years to everyone’s go-to character actress, and given the showcase role of the CIA agent who leads the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. And she gives a perfectly competent performance. Chastain’s always efficient; offhand I can’t think of a moment in any of her pictures that stands out as unconvincing. The trouble is that nothing she does stands out at all; she isn’t remotely interesting. By contrast, the performances of Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down have an explosive immediacy; the night I saw the movie, they seemed to alter the energy in the suburban cineplex. Won’t Back Down passed virtually unnoticed except for some nasty critical swipes, the kind that could have been written by reviewers after seeing the trailers. The actual movie, an unabashedly partisan drama – clearly inspired by the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ – about two mothers of learning-disabled kids, one of them a teacher herself, who struggle to take over a dismally stalled public elementary school, isn’t especially clever or complex; its approach to filmmaking is fairly basic. But it struck me as an honest piece of work; the fact that the scenes don’t feel rigged for easy emotional effects makes the film satisfying in a way that social problem pictures hardly ever are, and audiences evidently don’t expect them to be. The director (Daniel Barnz) and his co-writer (Brin Hill) get the temperature right in the exchanges between the teachers and parents, the teachers and the union officials, and the teachers on both sides of the issue. And the two actresses are, as always, marvelous to watch. (I wouldn’t have considered missing a movie with both of them in it.) Gyllenhaal is an unerringly fresh actress: she leaps off the screen even in tired, gray indie movies. Here she plays a young mother whose limited education and working-class, single-mother status haven’t spotlighted her natural leadership abilities before now, but who instinctually draws on her vivacity and humor and an apparently indefatigable optimism to rouse teachers and other parents to get worked up over what initially sound like impossibly far-fetched ambitions. Davis plays her first convert: Gyllenhaal’s character rescues her from cynicism and defeat.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mailer's Stage: The Criterion Collection of Norman Mailer's Films - Wild 90, Beyond the Law & Maidstone

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Devin McKinney, to our group.

Norman Mailer, who died in 2007 after a long reign as top dog among living American writers, was also a filmmaker, and he seems to have made films for two kinds of people – those who loved him, and those who hated him. In the first group is anyone sufficiently fascinated by the man’s literary output (The Naked and the Dead, Advertisements for Myself, An American Dream, The Armies of the Night, The Executioner’s Song, Harlot’s Ghost, etc.) and cultural presence (philosopher, debater, politician, provocateur) to find the films interesting as addenda to his larger accomplishment. In the second group are those whose aversion to Mailer’s macho pomp and alpha antics is so complete that it finds perverse gratification in the spectacle of, as he himself put it, “Mailer making an ass of himself.”

Is there a third audience for this work? It’s difficult to imagine that the three films recently released by the Criterion Collection in its Eclipse series will hold the least allure for a viewership indifferent to the encompassing phenomenon of Norman Mailer. Objectified, Wild 90 (1968), Beyond the Law (1968), and Maidstone (1970) are not disturbing, beautiful, corrosive, or innovative enough to captivate eyes not already looking to be turned on or off by Mailer’s charisma, obsessions, brilliance. If you don’t care about him, you probably won’t care about them.