Saturday, June 1, 2013

Climate of Fear: Two Post-9/11 Crime Novels

“I didn’t know what frightened me more, radical Muslims or radical Americans.”
       —Sara Paretsky, Blacklist

“‘Welcome to the police state,’ Rebus added. ‘They pulled that…stunt…because they could.’
‘You say “they” as if we are not on the same side.’
‘Remains to be seen, Siobhan.’”

       —Ian Rankin, The Naming of the Dead

When national security issues and protection of the privileged and powerful override constitutional protections and the rule of law, is that society in danger of becoming a proto-police state? This is the question raised in two excellent political crime novels by the Chicago writer Sara Paretsky and her Edinburgh counterpart Ian Rankin. Blacklist (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003), Paretsky’s eleventh outing of her feisty private investigator, Vicky Warshawski (V. I.), is set against the backdrop of post-9/11 America, when the Patriot Act provided overzealous officials with powers from Homeland Security that threatened civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Paretsky’s story spans over fifty years going back to the blacklist period of the 1950s, a broad tapestry which enables her to draw a direct line between the fear generated by the politics of McCarthyism and the politics of fear in an America traumatized by a major terrorist attack. One common link between the historical eras is race, and whether racial minorities – in this case, blacks and Muslims – receive justice in America. Rankin’s sixteenth John Rebus novel, The Naming of the Dead (Orion Books, 2006), is set in 2005, during the week of the G8 Gleneagles summit outside of Edinburgh and the London Tube bombings. The protection of the politically powerful meant that vast numbers of security forces invaded Edinburgh and were empowered to suspend the normal rule of law, which resulted in the flouting of their power and the intimidation of citizens, including, in Rankin’s novel, the truculent Rebus. Both novels question the balance between freedom and safety when the perpetrators of violent crimes are apparently able to elude justice by exploiting their privileged status and the fear of the time.

Blacklist kicks into action when Warshawski receives a telephone call from a well-heeled client asking her to investigate a complaint made by his ninety-year old mother that she has seen lights on in the attic of their former family estate from her nursing home window. When she arrives at night in New Solway, a gated retirement community outside of Chicago, she surprises a teenage girl and stumbles into a pond where she discovers the body of a black journalist. In the process of identifying the girl and the journalist, V. I. tangles with an old-moneyed set and discovers their bitter ideological rivalries and betrayals between the far right and far left that go back to the McCarthy era, specifically to the activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) who were hunting people they perceived to be communists. The journalist Marcus Whitby was a respected writer researching a story on a black dancer, who, after a period of fame, became a victim of the blacklist; she lost her teaching position and was forced to decamp to Africa in order to save her career. When Whitby travelled to the exclusive ultra-posh suburb to check on the veracity of what would be damaging revelations, he was killed. The local cops initially attributed his death to a misadventure or suicide, but V. I., hired by the Whitby family to find the truth, uses her resources, including an old friend of her late-father cop on the Chicago police force, to discredit this cover story.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Tabloid Treatment: Martin Himel’s New Documentary Series on Anti-Semitism

The inelegantly titled Jew Bashing: The New Anti-Semitism, Martin Himel’s four-part documentary series which ended on Vision TV on May 27, is certainly of vital import in terms of its relevant subject matter. But, regrettably, its execution, which often tended towards tabloid treatment and eschewing of nuance, rendered it too much of a sop to those who prefer dumbed-down, simple takes on important issues of the day. That’s not to say there’s not much of value in the series – there definitely is – but Himel, for a number of reasons, many having to do with the limitations and rules of commercial TV, didn’t do full justice to his subject.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Downey Softener: Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr. (right) as Tony Stark, in Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 is a pre-programmed summer blockbuster (of the sort that now opens in the middle of spring) and the second sequel in a comic-book movie franchise (that also ties into the Avengers mega-franchise), but it’s also a Robert Downey, Jr., so attention must be paid. For most of the past quarter of a century, Downey has been the most gifted and unpredictable American movie actor under fifty, which is an official-statistics-sounding way of saying that he’s the best actor in English-language movies who isn’t Morgan Freeman or Daniel Day-Lewis. Iron Man 3 represents a reunion for Downey and Shane Black, who directed the movie and is credited, along with Drew Pearce, with writing the screenplay.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

For Netflix Eyes Only: Arrested Development Returns

Jason Bateman returns as Michael Bluth in the new season of Arrested Development, now available on Netflix

Francine (to Stan): Are you still moping about Steve? Come on. He's just going through a phase. It's like Steve is America and you're Arrested Development. It doesn't mean you're bad, it just means he's not interested in you.
American Dad Season 2, Episode 15 (aired May 7, 2006, three months after Arrested Development’s cancellation)
What a difference seven years makes. Running for just three, ever-shortening seasons, Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-2006) was an innovative take on the traditional broadcast sitcom, finding a dedicated but too small audience when it first aired. The show was comedically loose and narratively tight: full of visual puns, interwoven storylines, deadpan deliveries and dark consequences, with many of its funniest gags taking weeks if not years to play out completely. The ensemble cast was pitch perfect, from the young Michael Cera as George Michael Bluth, to the veteran Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show) as his “Pop-Pop” George Sr. and Jessica Walter (Archer) as the passive and not so passive aggressive Bluth matriarch, to Tony Hale’s perennial man-child ‘Buster’.

Arrested Development has long been for me the gold standard of our new era of “continuity comedy”, along with the early (and only the early) seasons of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. Like How I Met Your Mother, Arrested was a series that hit the ground running, absolutely confident of the rules of its narrative universe and the people that populated it. You can witness all of Arrested Development’s potential in its opening minutes, which lay out the tone and even some of the running jokes for years to come. Re-watching the original series is actually a special delight, as increased familiarity with the characters' past and future histories only deepens the enjoyment.

Critical acclaim couldn’t trump its struggling ratings however, and Fox pulled the plug on the show in 2006. But like many cancelled-too-soon shows in this age of DVD box sets and streaming channels, the years have been kind to the series, further expanding its audience and growing its reputation to near legendary proportions. A year after Fox cancelled the show, Time Magazine put it in its “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME" list. And in 2011, IGN named it the funniest television show of all time (edging out Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Seinfeld for the top spot). Rumours of a new season or even a reunion movie floated around for years, until November 2011, when Netflix and Arrested creator Mitch Hurwitz confirmed their intentions to bring the series back, along the entire original cast and crew, for a new, exclusive fourth season. These, to be sure, are very large shoes to fill (even if they are their own).

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Art Among the Ruins: Rodin by Russia’s Eifman Ballet

The Eifman Ballet performing Rodin (All photos by Gene Schiavone)

St. Petersburg’s Eifman Ballet’s international reputation as a potent example of contemporary classical dance was fully evident when the troupe, lead by celebrated choreographer Boris Eifman, made its Toronto debut at the Sony Centre last week. In performing Rodin, Eifman’s two-act narrative ballet based on the life of French sculptor Auguste Rodin and his tempestuous relationship with fellow artist Camille Claudel, the 55-member Russian ballet company flew across the stage with a power-surge of energy, carving the air with alternatively spasmodic and smooth gestures to tell a story of tortured artistic genius. It was visually and viscerally explosive.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Transplanted Russians: Nikolai and the Others

The cast of Nikolai and the Others, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in New York. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Richard Nelson’s new play, Nikolai and the Others, begins with deceptive casualness. The setting is a Westport, Connecticut farmhouse in 1948, whose owner, Lucia Davidova (Haviland Morris), is hosting a gathering of fellow émigré Russians in honor of the name-day of the set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein, in a touching portrayal). The cast of characters includes George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris) and Igor Stravinsky (John Glover), who are working on Orpheus for the New York City Ballet with Sudeikin’s nephew Kolya (Alan Schmuckler) as their rehearsal pianist; Stravinsky’s wife Vera (Blair Brown), who used to be married to Sudeikin; Natasha Nabokov (Kathryn Erbe) and her fiancé, Aleksi Karpov (Anthony Cochrane), a piano teacher; Evgenia (Katie Kreisler), who runs the NYCB school, and Natalia (Jennifer Grace), who works with her; the actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino) and his wife Lisa (Betsy Aidem), Vera’s best friend; and Natasha’s ex-husband Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a composer who now works for the American government as a kind of liaison to these Russian nationals.

The name-day celebration, of course, evokes the opening of Three Sisters, and Nelson has scattered other references to Chekhov through the play. Lucia’s niece Anna (Lauren Culpepper, who is studying to be a dancer, plays a game with Balanchine at one point, presenting herself as if she were Nina in The Sea Gull – a novice among these celebrities - and then pretending she’s never read it. (Nina is a vivid but not very talented actress who is given encouragement by the celebrities; by contrast Balanchine determines that Anna will never make a dancer, though he leaves it up to Lucia to break the news to her niece.) Stravinsky, joking to Balanchine, compares Aleksi to the hapless Yepihodov of The Cherry Orchard, and Nicky marvels that on a walk around the farm he thought he heard a Jewish band like the ones he recalls from his childhood, just as Ranevskaya in the same play is stirred by the sounds of a Jewish band across the water. The director, David Cromer, emulates a Chekhovian mood as these Russians talk and complain, wax nostalgic and insult each other (in varying degrees of good-heartedness and legitimate resentment), and the style is Stanislavkskian psychological realism. And by the end of the first act you realize that Nelson has pulled off the Chekhovian trick of infusing real substance into what seems like the engaging – and completely convincing – chatter of fascinating personalities thrown together for a social occasion.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

School Session: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Riz Ahmed (centre, in red) stars in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Whatever else I may say about director Mira Nair’s new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I have to give it credit for one fact: it is one of the few movies in recent years that attempts to take on some of the complex issues of the post-9/11 milieu. The past dozen years have witnessed some staggering events: terrorism in New York and Washington, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Yet for all that history, we have precious few films that capture the essence of the era. The best in my opinion all come from the same director, Britain’s Paul Greengrass. With United 93, the second two installments in the Jason Bourne franchise, and even Green Zone, Greengrass managed to keep his finger on the pulse of the times, mapping our moods and anxieties even as we lived through them (much the way the great directors did in the Vietnam era).

But Greengrass’s movies matched their seriousness of purpose with intelligent writing, which is where Nair’s fails. Even Green Zone, hampered by a clichéd script, was saved by Greengrass’s adrenaline-pumping, kinetic action directing. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by contrast, feels like a potted plant. The film comes from a novel of the same name by Moshin Hamid, and gets bogged down in the exposition of its source material. That material could work in the hands of the right adapters. But Nair and screenwriters Ami Boghani and Hamid haven’t figured out how to dramatize the various interchanges. The result is too much talk and too few thrills.