Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Unrepentant Leni Riefenstahl

“The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.”

– George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”

In 1974 Susan Sontag wrote a two-part widely read and controversial essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” that was prompted by the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic book about the Nubian people in the Sudan. Although acknowledging that the images were “ravishing,” Sontag was disturbed about the “disquieting lies” Riefenstahl was peddling about her life – some were included in the book’s dust jacket – at a time when her cinematic output was being de-contextualized at film festivals and museum retrospectives. The former Nazi propagandist was celebrated by some feminists – especially problematic since Riefenstahl had never been concerned about the condition of women, only her own career – and celebrities from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol who admired her creativity. Sontag set out to rebuke Riefenstahl’s rewriting of her personal history, and to define and condemn what she called “fascist aesthetics” arguing that her early mountain films, her documentaries made during the Third Reich, which Sontag acknowledged as “superb films,” and the Nuba photographs constituted a “triptych of fascist visuals.” My purpose is to critique what Sontag got right and to demonstrate that Ray Müller’s highly praised 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, rather than clarifying Riefenstahl’s misrepresentations, ends up largely affirming them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

If Dreams Were Wishes: The Young Rascals' Once Upon a Dream

The Young Rascals? I never would have dreamed it.  So how in the world did this happen?  These guys weren’t even speaking to one another for years, decades even. Felix Cavaliere played a short set of familiar tunes in front of a band of hired guns at last year’s Hippie-Fest.  Five or six songs was all, and he sounded in great voice.  YouTube videos showed Eddie Brigati re-tuning his vocal cords; and Dino Danelli together with Gene Cornish was on tour with The New Rascals. But this was the four guys together on one stage, like a real band, playing the hits (and the not-quite-hits) from fifty years ago. Felix, Eddie, Dino and Gene on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.  How in the world did this dream come true?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam: A Masterly Conclusion to her Trilogy

Margaret Atwood's new novel MaddAddam has just been published (Photo by Chris Young)
You may remember that Oryx and Crake, the first novel in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, is narrated by Snowman, a survivor – he thinks he may be the only human survivor – of the gruesome plague that has recently swept the Earth, leaving it deserted and ruined, inhabited by giant pigoons and wolvogs.

Snowman, who in the pre-Flood days was named Jimmy, tells the stories of Oryx, his great love, and Crake, his best friend. He interacts with the Children of Crake, bio-engineered, peaceable humanoids who lead simplified lives, don’t eat meat and have never felt greed (or clothing). He also recounts the events leading up to the pandemic, when the world was ruled by corporations and the population was divided into the privileged elite, corporate employees (and managers and scientists) who lived in strong-walled Compounds, and everyone else, the inhabitants of the pleeblands, the slums and suburbs outside the Compounds. The Corporate Security Corps, or CorpSeCorps, was the all-purpose police force, army and intelligence service. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

He's Not Dead Yet!: Harlan Ellison's 7 Against Chaos

Writer Harlan Ellison’s not dead yet. In a piece I wrote about Ellison last year in Critics at Large, and in reference to his statement in September 2010 that he was dying, I speculated, only half jokingly, that he was still alive because the Angel of Death was scared to try and take him. The truth, as indicated in a recent interview on the cultural Vulture web site, entitled "Harlan Ellison Isn't Dead Yet," turns out to be somewhat more prosaic. Harlan, who is now 79, has been suffering from some physical ailments and emotional ones, too, which had laid him low for a long while, with only the odd short story (the Nebula ward winning "How Interesting: A Tiny Man") to his credit. But fans of the man and his work can rejoice. His first full length work since his fine short story collection Slippage (1997) has surfaced, in the form of a graphic novel. Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos (DC Comics) is an often riveting tribute, in many ways, to his formative influences as a writer.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Artist as Apostate: Bob Dylan in 1966

The burning of Beatles records and magazines in the American South in 1966.

Back in 1966, John Lennon was worried about whether he'd be killed as The Beatles criss-crossed America in a summer filled with race riots and a heated controversy over a comment he made about the group being more popular than Jesus Christ. But there was another performer, one who was confused with being a prophet, having similar qualms that summer: Bob Dylan. Not only did the events in that season of hate alter the path of Dylan's career, it dramatically transformed the artist himself. He went from being a man making history to one who feared becoming its pawn. That summer determined not only his retreat from pop stardom, where a reluctant avatar suddenly saw the possibilities of betrayal, it also changed the game. With Dylan's Another Self Portrait, which contains unreleased sessions of music that make up two albums (Self PortraitNew Morning) during his retreat from his audience between 1969 and 1971, and on sale in stores today, you can hear in many of its songs the desire for solace. But the quiet in their sound, the soft beauty of "Pretty Saro," the contemplative quest in "Went to See the Gypsy," is deceptive. Another Self Portrait also has room for the tragic seduction of "House Carpenter," and the plaintive account of brutal murder in the traditional "Little Sadie." What all these songs have in common is that they portray a man seeking refuge in the more subtle confinements of the chamber room. But he couldn't hide from a world he helped create.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Shaw Musicals 2013: Guys and Dolls & The Light in the Piazza

Everyone knows that Guys and Dolls is a great American musical, but more often than not productions of it are disappointing – cartoonishly overstated, terminally cute, or generally misguided (which is the word I’d use to describe Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1955 movie version). The 1992 Broadway revival was a popular and critical hit, but I didn’t derive much pleasure from it: the cast, headed by Nathan Lane and Faith Prince, seemed to be working way too hard, the staging was uninventive, and the tempo of Frank Loesser’s songs was slowed down, as if on the assumption that the audience couldn’t otherwise keep up with the witty lyrics. Oddly, amateur mountings of the show often locate its vaudevillian spirit and its robust style – phantasmagorical (the Damon Runyonland milieu) but with a strong underpinning of romantic feeling – better than professional ones, which tend to substitute slickness for charm. But Tadeusz Bradecki’s production at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is expertly staged and choreographed (by Parker Esse) and vastly entertaining. It gets the balance right: it’s raffish without pandering, open-hearted but not sentimental.

The show takes a little while to kick in. “Runyonland,” the instrumental ensemble number that Loesser supplied in place of an overture, begins intriguingly with silhouettes behind the scrim, but when that scrim flies up to reveal Peter Hartwell’s set, a semi-abstract black-and-white cityscape of midtown Manhattan, your heart sinks – not because it’s monochromatic (Sue LePage’s colorful costumes play vibrantly against it) but because it’s ugly. And, as usual, the company isn’t large enough to fill the huge Festival stage, so the number doesn’t do what it was written to do, set the mood and style of Runyon’s bustling, eccentric world of gamblers and minor-league show-biz pros and street hustlers (as adapted by book writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) – even with Shaw veteran Guy Bannerman exiting as a gesticulating blind man and then reappearing a moment later as a pretzel vendor. In the first dialogue exchange, among the goofball gamblers Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Thom Allison) and Benny Southstreet (Billy Lake) and the vigilant cop Lieutenant Brannigan (Bannerman again), the actors seem to have been directed to act like Loony Tunes figures.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Renaissance Man: Andrew Vaughn's Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-plain

It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk/That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and tucked behind your couch/And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line/That keeps you on the back roads by the rivers of my memory/That keeps you ever gentle on my mind.

- Glen Campbell, "Gentle on My Mind."

Sure, it was Glen Campbell who made the song famous. But it was John Hartford who wrote those words and the music that made them memorable. He was the tall, lean banjo player with the grin and the easy-going personality that backed Glen up on Campbell’s summer replacement show. Hartford had recorded his own version of the song which Campbell heard on the radio and decided to try his luck with a cover version. In 1967, they both won Grammy Awards, two each; Hartford for writing and for his own recording, Campbell for Best Country & Western Recording and Best Male C&W Vocal Performance. Hartford always said that “Gentle On My Mind” bought his freedom. He was more than a one hit wonder though, and not because he wrote dozens of hit songs. Hartford was a renaissance man in his own way; musician, songwriter, steamboat pilot, author, artist, disc jockey, dancer, folklorist, historian, and probably a handful of things we don’t know about. He had a comic side, although writing comic sketches for the Smothers Brothers wasn’t his forte, they kept him around for his razor sharp wit.