Saturday, August 24, 2013

Looking Back Without Nostalgia: Joe Boyd's White Bicycles

Joe Boyd isn’t the most recognizable name in music to most people, yet he was responsible for some of the most important psychedelic folk music of the 1960s including Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. In Boyd’s charming and entertaining memoir White Bicycles, first published in 2006, he recounts his years as a producer and tour manager to many of these musical acts. The book not only offers keen insights into some of those unusual pop artists, it's also rich in anecdotal stories that illuminate the period. Boyd was born in Princeton, New Jersey to a middle-class family. As he reports, “When I was a eleven, we became the last family on our street…to get a TV set…in the autumn of 1954 my brother Warwick and I discovered the real reason we needed it: Bob Horn’s WFIL-TV Bandstand [that] beamed out of Philadelphia every afternoon after school.” The charisma of Horn as host and the vintage r&b and early rock ‘n roll to which Boyd was exposed via the daily high school dance program, changed his life.

Besides being inspired by a TV show, later hosted by Dick Clark, there was also a familial connection. His grandmother, Mary Boxall Boyd, was a concert pianist who taught him piano as a child. But Boyd preferred to place himself under the instrument and listen to his grandmother play Mozart. “I would sit under her grand piano while she practiced. She viewed me as a soul mate…I took lessons from her until I was thirteen, but never thought of myself as a musician. Listening…became a part of my being.” In his final push to a becoming a “producer”, Boyd read the exploits of Ralph Peer, a field-recording producer who was the first person to document blues and country artists for OKeh Records in the 1920s. Boyd goes on to describe his times during his Harvard University days booking Lonnie Johnson for a rare campus gig that launched the bluesman’s career in 1962 to a new audience. It was his love of rural blues music that put Boyd in the forefront of bringing white audiences in touch with virtually forgotten musicians such as, Sleepy John Estes, the Rev. Gary Davis and Doc Watson. As a concert producer and promoter, Boyd’s assertive personality eventually put him into the recording studio. But he spent most of youth travelling the southern U.S. with a major stop in New Orleans. Boyd writes, “As jazz moved from swing towards bebop in the late ‘30s, a group of white fanatics set about rescuing traditional New Orleans jazz from obscurity, much as we were trying to do blues…as the fashion shifts and the beat changes, the intellectuals and wallflowers who have admired the music’s vitality and originality move in to preserve or resurrect the form.” Such was the case in New Orleans, demonstrated by Alan and Sandy Jaffe who established Preservation Hall, and its world famous Jazz Band.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Neglected Gem #46: Chéri (2009)

Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend in Chéri

Brilliantly directed, ravishing to look at, and built around a stunning performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, Stephen Frears’s film of Chéri ought to have grabbed some attention in the midst of all the blockbusters the critics hadn’t been enthusing over in the summer of 2009, but it didn’t. Frears works from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton – his collaborator on his only previous period picture, 1989’s Dangerous Liaisons. The setting is once again France but the period is la belle époque, the years just before the First World War, perhaps the last era that still seems charmingly remote and pre-modern to us. The source is mostly Colette’s 1920 novel about a love affair between Léa, a cocotte nearing fifty and a young man half her age, nicknamed Chéri, the illegitimate son of an old friend from the Paris demi-monde. There’s an obscure 1950 French film of the material, and Kim Stanley played Léa in a Broadway adaptation back in 1959, so the story should be brand-new to audiences discovering it on DVD.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rainer on Film: An Actor's Critic

Back in the good old days when American movie criticism was dominated by a few dozen intelligent people who could write and who were knowledgeable and really cared a lot about movies, plus Richard Schickel and even he could sometimes make sense so long as the movie he was weighing on in didn’t have a man with a gun riding a horsie in it the National Society of Film Critics used to publish these lively anthologies, bringing together previously published reviews and profiles and think pieces written by its members, organized around a theme. (One of them, the 1990 Produced and Abandoned, edited by Michael Sragow and devoted to celebrating worthy obscurities “the best films you’ve never seen”featured a cover illustration of a dusty-looking guy who looked as if he’d stepped out an Edward Hopper painting, leaning against an unoccupied ticket-taker’s booth, with a blissful smile suggesting that the promise of seeing something amazing made all the hungry suffering he had to bear seem worth it. That’s as good a way to describe what it felt like to be a hopeful movie freak in 1990.) In 1981, the Society put out a collection called The Movie Star, and that book was my introduction to Peter Rainer, whose essay “Acting in the Seventies” did a terrific job with a great subject. Rainer appreciated the value of “classic” movie-star acting, as demonstrated by a master like James Cagney or Cary Grant “I like Cary Grant in None but the Lonely Heart, his ‘best’ performance, but I love him in North by Northwest.” but he also grasped what had changed after Brando and the rise of the Method and then the counterculture, which led to a new generation of actors who thought of movie acting as a vehicle for true creative expression, and whoin the cases of actors such as Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, and the young Robert De Niro don’t “keep a respectful distance” from the characters they play.

And Rainer also recognized the importance of a parallel track of new hip comics Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, the Saturday Night Live crew who established themselves in nightclubs and concert stages and on record albums and on TV, and who were beginning to cross over into movies, often in dramatic parts: “They don’t even crack up in the middle of one of their own skits to show they’re only fooling. They’re too obsessed to crack up. They represent craziness without sentimentality. Their comic personalities are woven around the put-on, and improvisation becomes a way of scrounging up idiosyncrasies that will, hopefully, connect with the audience. Young people who don’t identify with these comics still connect with the craziness.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Performance, Perspective, Emotion: Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell

It’s a truism that when actors make a career shift into directing, the strength of the movies they make is usually in the performance factor. The most recent example is Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet from last Christmas, a silly, sentimental comedy about retirees at a home for aging musicians that manages to stay afloat through a combination of the actors in front of the camera and the musicians on the soundtrack. Sarah Polley is a beguiling case, though. The movies she’s directed, Away from Her and especially Take This Waltz, find not only their shape but also their meaning in the performing rhythms of their female stars, Julie Christie and Michelle Williams respectively. In Away from Her, the more conventional of the two pictures (though hardly conventional by comparison to anyone else’s movies), about a woman’s entering an Alzheimer’s facility and her husband’s learning to accept it, Polley, a gifted actor herself, seems at first to be surrendering the movie to Christie – a choice that only makes sense for a debut filmmaker working with one of the greatest instinctual camera performers in the history of the medium. But it’s not as simple as that. The way Polley gets at the character’s altered approach to ordering the world around her while retaining the essential mystery of what she’s going through – since the prevailing consciousness of the movie is really that of the husband (beautifully played by Gordon Pinsent), not the wife – shows the already considerable skill and dominant presence of a talented director. (The balance Polley achieves with the two principal characters recalls Richard Eyre’s work with Judi Dench as the Alzheimer’s-afflicted writer Iris Murdoch and Jim Broadbent as her husband in the unjustly ignored Iris.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Political Realism: The Thrillers of Alex Berenson

"There were some lines he could not cross. He couldn’t murder the people he had been charged with protecting. He couldn’t play God and sacrifice one of his countrymen in the hope of saving others.”
          -Alex Berenson, Faithful Spy

“After so much violence, killing came to him naturally. He always imagined that he could take off the killer’s mask as he wished. But he found the mask had become his face.”
          -Alex Berenson, The Secret Soldier

From these epigraphs, it might appear that John Wells, a sometimes CIA operative, sometimes a freelancer, a Special Ops soldier and the chief protagonist in Alex Berenson’s seven thrillers from 2006 to 2013 (with another to be released in 2014), is a close cousin to Jack Bauer, the antihero of the television series 24. In reality, Wells is a much more complicated and layered character. We first encounter him in Faithful Spy (2006, published like all of his novels by G. P. Putnam’s & Sons) as a deep cover jihadist who has spent ten years in Afghanistan, speaks perfect Arabic and Pashtun, has endured privations and the cold, and has converted to Islam in order to become the first (and only) CIA mole to penetrate Al Qaeda. It is 2001 and he is fighting American troops. To establish contact with them for the first time, he kills fellow jihadists and has an American officer shoot him in the arm so that his story as the sole survivor of an American attack will have credibility with Al Qaeda. Ayman-al-Zawahiri, the then No. 2, trusts him enough to send him to the States to assist a master spy who is putting together plans for a massive attack. As he doesn't know any of the details, the rest of the novel recounts how he uncovers this plot and prevents a plague bacterium and “dirty” nuclear device from exploding, a potential catastrophe that would have been far more devastating than 9/11. Yet because of his extensive training and lethal instincts he is able to accomplish these Herculean feats, despite serious assaults on his own body; assistances comes only from his handler and love interest, Jennifer Exley, who works in the CIA. The bureaucrats in the organization mistrust Wells because he is at best a loose cannon, at worst a turncoat, a Kurtz-like figure who has gone over to the heart of darkness. They feel that if he was that close to Al-Qaeda, he should have provided the intelligence that might have averted the 9/11 attacks. His determination to redeem himself for that failure is chiefly what motivates his derring-do deeds.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bridges of Madison County: Indistinct

Elena Shaddow and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County

Last year the Williamstown Theatre Festival premiered a new musical based on Todd Haynes’s movie Far from Heaven – a perplexing choice, since the material (whatever one thinks of it) is so rarefied and dependent on cinematic reference points that transposing it could only alter the meaning, or at least reduce it to a series of social-problem-melodrama clichés. This year WTF mounted another new musical, based on Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, and that’s puzzling too, though for a different reason. Waller’s novel about a short-lived affair between a married Iowa farm woman who’s an Italian émigré and an itinerant photographer is basically a Harlequin romance for the women’s-book-club set, with sufficiently self-conscious style to make readers believe that it should be taken seriously. It’s a suffocatingly bland volume, with characters who are barely more than ciphers, and the only thing that makes the 1995 movie version more distinctive is the miscasting of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in the two principal roles. (Eastwood directed the picture.) So why bother turn this story into a musical?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Nobody Home: The Absence of Dramatic Realism in World War Z, Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Blue Jasmine and In a World...

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.

You can see the pervasive impact of marketing on contemporary movies today simply by observing just how many pictures are driven more by their advertising concept than the actual drama itself. In the big budget apocalyptic picture World War Z, for instance, where zombies are overtaking humans, the undead have more dramatic motivation than the people trying to stay alive. In one scene, Brad Pitt plays a father desperately attempting to get medicine for his asthmatic daughter who is suffering from an attack. But as soon as he finds a pharmacy, not only does he forget to administer the medicine, her attack magically disappears and the movie forgets all about it. The audience hardly notices though since they are eagerly awaiting the next zombie attack. But this kind of dramatic deficiency isn't just the domain of the Hollywood blockbuster, where the sheer size and spectacle becomes the only form of engagement the mass audience seems to want from movies. This lack of realism is also germane to the success of many independent and art house features.

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is a picture of human behaviour – adult and child alike – that one might have perceived at the age of ten, but the film isn't actually an examination of that behaviour. Anderson's idea of whimsy is to enshrine the sort of adolescent narcissism that most of us learn to outgrow. All of his films (with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) avoid confronting the pains of moving into adulthood because they are about protecting the tender preciousness of staying young. In other words, his pictures are a treacly tribute to arrested development. Yet when I hear audience and critics applauding Moonrise Kingdom for its charm, I can only guess they are responding to its quirky solipsism, where the characters don't so much reveal themselves in the dialogue, but rather the dialogue comes to define their quirkiness. People may want to see their own preciousness celebrated rather than examined through drama. This could explain why Wes Anderson's work, over the years, has become a successful commodity that marketing executives can sell as 'unique.'