Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ghosts in Standalone Novels by Jo Nesbo and Peter Robinson

A scene from Headhunters (2011), based on Jo Nesbo's novel

Authors of a substantial corpus of popular police procedurals or featuring a homicide detective must relish the opportunity to leave the dictates of the genre and experiment with freestanding fiction. The internationally best-selling Norwegian crime writer, Jo Nesbo, who has churned out nine Harry Hole (pronounced Hurler) thrillers, has drawn upon some of his familiar trademarks – gruesome scenes, black humour, fast pacing and intricate plotting – to produce a pared down caper story Headhunters (2008, translated into English 2011, Vintage Canada). The British Canadian writer, Peter Robinson, best known for his successful nineteen novels about Chief Inspector Alan Banks of the Yorkshire police force, has recently released his third standalone, Before the Poison (McClelland & Stewart, 2011), a worthy winner of the 2013 Pilys Award for best mystery. Despite the vast differences in structure, style and narrative, what is similar about these novels is the function that ghosts play in propelling the narrative.

Friday, May 10, 2013

In My Humble Opinion: Competing Visions of the American Folk Music Scene

The Kingston Trio, performing in concert in 1965

The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel "Izzy" Young, edited by Scott Barretta (Scarecrow Press, 2013)
Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise of The Kingston Trio, by William J. Bush (Scarecrow Press, 2013)

These two books, published at the very same day, by the same publisher, continue Scarecrow Press’ extraordinary series entitled American Folk Music and Musicians.  I’ve read five of them so far, and each one has been well-researched, carefully written, illustrated with fascinating photos, all bound together in attractive covers.  The two titles under review today are interesting because they present opposing views of folk music, in general, and of the Kingston Trio in particular.  In order to try to understand both sides of the story, I began by reading half of Izzy Young’s writings, then read Greenback Dollar cover to cover, before going back and completing The Conscience of the Folk Revival.   Then I picked up a CD called The Best of the Kingston Trio put it all in musical context.  I played Kingston Trio tunes in the car during a long drive home from Ottawa.

Who wins?  We’ll get to that!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wild in the Country: Mud

Matthew McConaughey stars in Jeff Nichols' Mud

Jeff Nichols, the writer-director of Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), and the new Mud (which played at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but has only opened in theatres in the past few weeks), would have been called a “regional filmmaker” before 1989 or so, when “independent filmmaking” caught on as both shorthand for a movement and a marketing term. “Regional filmmaker,” a label that got stuck on directors as dissimilar as Richard Pearce (Heartland) and the late Eagle Pennell (The Whole Shootin’ Match), may have had its uses as a descriptive term for filmmakers working in parts of the country that weren’t often visited by film crews, but it was also a little condescending, based as it was on the assumption that any place outside Los Angeles or New York was the boondocks. (Being an independent filmmaker is more of a boast, since no one who’s ever been to a multiplex needs to be told what the indie filmmakers mean to be independent of.)

Still, it has a special resonance for someone like Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock, studied film in North Carolina, and whose early films came across as self-consciously, even ostentatiously about life as it’s lived far from the urban centers. I wasn’t as taken with Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter as much as some critics were, and I wonder how much that might have to do with the fact that I grew up in Mississippi and don’t see anything especially exotic about working-poor guys living in Arkansas. Nichols has talent, but in Shotgun Stories especially, he also had a beginner’s clumsiness, and just enough pretentiousness leaks through his film’s plain, rough-hewn surfaces to let the viewer see that he’s a conscious artist, not just some lug with a camera who won the service of Michael Shannon in a poker game. This is a combination that speaks directly to the kinds of critics who get very excited when they have the rare chance to acclaim a movie as a work of “folk art.” Mud has its clumsy moments, too, but I like it much more than Nichols’ earlier films. Part of that has to do with its being more alive visually; it was shot by his usual cinematographer, Adam Stone, but the camera work is more active than before, sometimes circling the action as if Stone had been binging on classic De Palma. A lot of it has to do with Matthew McConaughey.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Broadchurch: ITV's Answer to The Killing

David Tennant and Olivia Colman star in Broadchurch

We are very pleased to welcome a new critic, Sean Rasmussen, to our group.

From ITV, the network that produces Downton Abbey, comes Broadchurch, an eight-part crime drama/mystery. It is set in present-day (fictitious) Broadchurch, an English seaside tourist town nestled by a dramatic cliff on the Dorset coast. In the opening episode an 11-year-old boy is found dead on the beach, under mysterious circumstances. The series follows the investigation of the boy's murder through all eight episodes.
Two detectives are on the case:  Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Coleman (Rev.), and her superior, Alec Hardy, played by David Tenant (Doctor Who). Together they follow clues and turn over rocks around town – and in doing so uncover all manner of messy secrets in people's personal lives. The picturesque seaside town has drawn residents from all over the UK who want to escape their previous failures and start something new.  But, the investigation, the suspicion of fellow townspeople and the lust for vengeance starts to unravel the promise of the community.

Following a single crime for an entire series is a growing trend that has caught on with TV audiences, particularly in the UK. This spring three notable British series took this approach: Mayday (six parts), Top of the Lake (eight parts), and Broadchurch. They have a lot of similarities: they are set in small towns and all have strong female leads. And, all of them are worth watching. Mayday and Broadchurch were ratings-successes, too, followed and talked about by millions in the UK.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Recent French Cinema: On Jean Renoir, Woody Allen and Jews in the Garment Industry

Vincent Rottier and Christa Theret in Renoir

No matter the quality of French cinema, I always feel like their movies are pitched towards adults and, even at their most formulaic, attempt to get at an honest depiction of the world around them. Even when they fail to fully succeed as art, their movies almost always assume intelligence on the part of the filmgoer and usually offer something of value. Here are three recent French movies, running the gamut from art house to comedy, both character-based and geared towards broader humour.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Constructs: The Nance and The Assembled Parties

Nathan Lane in The Nance, at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre (All photos by Joan Marcus)

Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance (at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre), set in late-Depression New York, invents a burlesque performer named Chauncey Miles (played by Nathan Lane) whose onstage persona, the “nance” or sissy in a series of revue sketches, is a way of hiding in plain sight for a gay man. Chauncey quips that “a pansy doing a pansy act is like a Negro doing blackface”; though many famous nances, like Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, were straight in real life, many were not. The play covers the demise of burlesque on the watch of New York’s puritanical, family-values mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and his vigilant D.A., Paul Ross. It’s also about Chauncey’s inability to accept the love of a younger man, Ned (Jonny Orsini), whom he picks up at Horn & Hardart’s automat, where closeted gay men – there was effectively no other kind in 1937 – cruise, at the risk of being caught by the cops, beaten up and jailed for lewd and lascivious conduct.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Looking Back on an Era: Peter Collier and David Horowitz's Destructive Generation (1997) & Paul Berman's A Tale of Two Utopias (1997)

In a 1994 episode of Law & Order called "White Rabbit," assistant D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is prosecuting a political fugitive from the Sixties who is found guilty in the murder of a policeman years earlier. When he shortly after reflects on the sentencing deal he offers her, he becomes rather wistful. "She'll be in jail until 2003," he comments to his younger assistant Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy). "I think the Sixties should be over by then." Now ten years after that former fugitive presumably won her freedom, it's doubtful that Jack McCoy got his wish. The decade turns out not to be so easily put to rest. Most of what we experience today politically, socially and culturally is still being measured by the turbulence of that decade. I'm not suggesting this in any paternal way to those in the present, as if it's just too bad that you weren't there. It's simply that it's hard to think of any other decade (aside from perhaps the Thirties) that has divided as many people as the Sixties did. (A new film from Robert Redford, The Company You Keep, proves the point by continuing to stir up the pot with a story about a contemporary journalist who is on the trail of a Sixties anti-war fugitive.) Nobody ever argues with any passion about the Eighties or Nineties, just as nobody really argued about the Forties and Fifties. (Although many said they were glad to have survived them.) And though history has wrought numerous contentious periods, no other decade this century seems as alive with prickly debate as the Sixties. The decade may be a half century behind us, but it isn't dead and buried as Jack McCoy had hoped.

The continued life of the Sixties is not just a matter of seeing ongoing baby boom nostalgia for oldies tunes, or occasionally seeing John Sebastian on television in a cardigan encouraging us to remember Woodstock; there are real political issues that haven't gone away. Every decade since then has seemed more like a reaction to it. Considering the current agenda of the Tea Party and its right-wing constituents, they have gained their momentum by attacking any issue that had its roots in the Sixties. Their idea of progress is the opposite of the Sixties: they choose to slash, rather than build on what came before. What I suspect also makes the Sixties so volatile a subject, even today, is that it was the last decade in which people felt the urgent promise of possibility. They had a feeling of boundaries being stretched, history being made, wrongs being addressed, and alternatives being tried. And these possibilities were being shared by diverse groups who also shared a utopian vision. It was a time, as critic Greil Marcus once said (in writing about The Beatles), when you could join a group and find your individuality.

But this period also had its shadow side. The utopian promise of The Beatles was soon blighted by the Manson Family. The militant non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. was transformed into the violent revolt of The Black Panther Party. The Students for a Democratic Society ultimately abandoned democracy, and embraced bombs, as the Weathermen. And Woodstock's peace and love would be shattered by the violence and death months later at Altamont. Promises were broken and promises were dashed. Two books from the late Nineties, Paul Berman's A Tale of Two Utopias (1997) and Peter Collier and David Horowitz's Destructive Generation (1997), are impassioned attempts to come terms with those broken promises. Both books, in their radically different ways, are important works in understanding why the decade lingered.