Saturday, September 28, 2013

Whistle Blowers: John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth

“What the gods and all reasonable human beings fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”
– Toby Bell in A Delicate Truth

After publishing two murder mysteries under a pseudonym, John le Carré wrote his acknowledged masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), set during the height of the Cold War only a few months after the Wall was erected, in which he constructed a bleak landscape of the shifting sands of counter-espionage in the secret intelligence world. What was so startling at the time was his challenge to the pasteboard heroes and villains exemplified in the James Bond highly romanticized espionage thrillers by Ian Fleming: that its agents did not stoop to amoral duplicity but promoted democratic values. In The Spy, loyalty was something transient while betrayal became more deeply entrenched. Even though preventing the spread of communism and the acquisition of its secrets were worthy goals, the murky double-dealings of British security increasingly resembled those of their Soviet enemy. Unsparing in its cynicism, the spymaster, Control, explains to the dispirited protagonist Alec Leamas: “We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive….We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night….Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.” The worst treachery in The Spy comes, not from the enemy, but from the British side. Leamas is sent, he believes, on an under-cover mission to avenge the death of his agents and to eliminate his East German counterpart, who is responsible for those deaths. But in fact Leamas is the unwitting tool of Control, who shows little more regard for human lives than the KGB in executing his machinations to recruit a ruthlessly efficient, anti-Semitic, ex-Nazi killer as a double agent. In the introduction to the fifth anniversary release of The Spy, le Carré, aka David Cornwell, remembers with revulsion these unsavoury characters: “former Nazis with attractive qualifications weren't just tolerated by the Allies; they were positively mollycoddled for their anti-communist credentials.” In the end, the Circus (le Carré’s nickname for MI6) betrays Leamas and Liz, his lover, an idealistic member of the British Communist Party, who is also brutally and pitilessly used by both sides. Yet given the repressive nature of the Communist system, le Carré seems to accept the view that collateral damage of the innocent was permitted so that British people can “sleep safely in their beds at night,” a worldview that is repeated more ruefully in the subsequent George Smiley espionage novels.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Fall Season 2013: A Look at Five New Sitcoms

Sean Giambrone and George Segal on The Goldbergs, now on ABC

Even in this era of cable television when a series can premiere at any point on the calendar, September, when the major networks premiere the majority of their new shows, remains a special time for TV viewers. Most of the shows you see this fall won't be here come January, but with a crop of almost 50 new shows coming your way in the next few weeks, it may be difficult to figure out which to check out and which to pass on. Today I'm looking at five new comedies which recently showed up on our airwaves, some more promising than others: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Trophy Wife (ABC), The Goldbergs (ABC), The Crazy Ones (CBS), and Dads (Fox).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Long May You Run: Vanishing Point (1971)

Barry Newman in Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point (1971)

The movie director Richard C. Sarafian, who died last week, was a fascinating, immensely likable man with a long, mostly unlucky career. In the late 1950s, after bumming around New York University (where, as a lark, he took a screenwriting course while flaming out as a pre-med/pre-law student) and the army, he wound up in Kansas City, where he met Robert Altman. The two became drinking buddies and worked together in the theater and on industrial films, and for a while Sarafian was married to Altman’s sister. While still in Kansas City, he directed a shoestring first feature, Terror at Black Falls, and in the early ‘60s, he followed Altman out to the west coast in search of TV work.

In 1965, he got the chance to make another feature, Andy – a low-budget, Neo-realist-style character study about a middle-aged, mentally disabled man that he shot on the streets of New York, using money he received as part of a program by Universal to encourage new talent. The movie won some praise at Cannes, but Universal was apparently so unimpressed with it that, decades later, they turned down a request to allow it to be aired on Turner Classic Movies. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Sarafian devoted most of his energies doing the best he could with various hopeless action-movie projects, including The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, The Next Man, the Farrah Fawcett vehicle Sunburn, and Eye of the Tiger (his final feature). The 1990 Solar Crisis, was officially credited to the notorious (and nonexistent) Alan Smithee. In the last twenty or so years of his career, he probably gave audiences most pleasure in his occasional acting appearances in other directors’ films. (His side career began in earnest when he played Willie Nelson’s brazenly crooked manager, Rodeo Rocky, who dresses like a stardust cowboy and talks like Brooklyn, in Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter. He also played the gangster whose violent degradation serves as an aphrodisiac to Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in Bugsy.)

Sarafian did make one classic, though –  the “existential,” “psychedelic,” and generally weird road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a film that the white-trash singer-songwriter Mojo Nixon once proclaimed would be on permanent display, as part of a continuous triple bill with Thunder Road and Two-Lane Blacktop, at “the amusement park in my mind.” Febrile, rapturously beautiful to look at, and cheerfully disreputable, it is a movie spawned by a remarkable confluence of talents: the screenplay is credited to “Guillermo Cain,” who was actually the great Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante. The film was shot by John A. Alonzo, who later shot Sounder, Conrack, and Chinatown. (He and Sarafian went way back; Alonzo had an acting role in Terror at Black Falls.) 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Portrait of Blues in Canada: A Photo-Documentary

Colin Linden and Tom Wilson of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings (Photo by Randy MacNeil)

"What you see on this site [and in this book (ed.)] is a compilation of photographs taken over a 30 year period. Unlike most contemporary photographers, I have chosen to pursue film photography. While digital provides immediate access without the costs and time associated with developing, I prefer the latitude that film affords me. The bottom line for me is the quality."  – Randy MacNeil

A Portrait of Blues in Canada, a new coffee-table book by Randy MacNeil and Francine Aubrey, highlights the wonderful black and white photography of Randy McNeil. MacNeil is a firm believer in the use of film for his photographs, but apparently doesn’t mind using some digital techniques in the printing. There are several solarized photos spread throughout the book that take on an almost cartoony look when compared to the fine focus and contrast of the prints. But this is nit-picking. For the blues aficionado, especially one north of the 49th parallel, the book is a goldmine.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stations: The Espionage Novels of David Downing

Novelist and historian David Downing offers a powerful evocation of Berlin from 1939 to 1948 in six engrossing novels (each title the name of a continental train station) from the last year of peace before the outbreak of war to when the city became a flashpoint for the Cold War. Zoo Station (Soho Crime, 2007) introduces John Russell, a British citizen, who’s been living and working in Berlin for fifteen years as a freelance journalist. His life as a foreigner with strong German connections presents personal dilemmas. His son, Paul, by his German ex-wife (who went on to marry a Nazi), is an active member of the Hitler Youth, and his lover, Effi Koenen, is a talented young actress making a comfortable living appearing in state-sanctioned plays and films under the auspices of Joseph Goebbels which serve as a cover for her anti-Nazi beliefs.

Another conundrum that Russell faces is how to respond to Soviet overtures. While in Danzig (today’s Gdansk, Poland), Russell is approached by a mysterious Soviet agent, Shchepkin, who asks if Russell would be willing to write some pro-Nazi feature stories for the leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda since the Soviet leadership is interested in pursuing a non-aggression pact with the Führer, and these articles could help to prepare the Soviet citizenry for such an about-face alliance. This proposal is just one of the moral quandaries facing Russell given his awareness of the kindertransport of Jewish children, and the intimidation of Jewish citizens, the pillaging of their homes and the fatal beatings of their relatives in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp – as a journalist he visits the camp to briefly interview a badly beaten inmate – by Nazi thugs. Conflicted with being a well-paid propagandist for the Soviets – he was once a communist, and though he still retains his vision of a humane and more equitable world, he has long shed his illusions about the capacity of the Soviet Union to deliver it – and what he sees around him in Germany, Russell questions how he can maintain his integrity, keep his family safe from harm and provide humanitarian assistance to Jewish friends. His decision to work for the Soviets is a Faustian bargain that unfolds throughout the subsequent novels. A journalist, whose work can provide the cover for a spook, and his linguistic skills – he is fluent in German and Russian – render Russell an attractive recruiting target for the different national spy agencies. His response to these myriad pressures, that tests his courage, survival skills and his humanity, is a thick thread woven throughout the series.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Loosening the Stays: Enchanted April

Marla McLean as Lady Caroline Bramble in Enchanted April (photo by Emily Cooper)

Enchanted April, one of this Shaw Festival season’s audience pleasers, has a long and somewhat complicated lineage. This tale of four women whose lives turn around when they share an Italian castle for a month began in 1922 as a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim that became a play three years later and a (rather insipid) movie in 1935. Then the property was forgotten for more than half a century until, in 1991, Mike Newell remade it with Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence and Polly Walker as the ladies and Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent and Michael Kitchen in the male roles. This graceful comedy about the regenerative powers of sunshine and leisure prompted a second stage version by Matthew Barber, which appeared briefly on Broadway in 2003 with Molly Ringwald and Jayne Atkinson. It didn’t get much respect but it was quite pleasurable, and the two stars, playing the repressed Rose and the impulsive, determined Lotty (the roles given to Richardson and Lawrence in the film) – who secure the vacation house, advertise for companions, and become fast friends – were splendid. Jackie Maxwell’s production at the Shaw, where (like Guys and Dolls and Lady Windermere’s Fan) it’s filling the spacious Festival Theatre, is also a success.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Lasting Impact and Joy of Cross-Cultural Currents: Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie)

As long as there has been music there has been fertilization of different sounds and rhythms between musicians from various countries and continents. From African slaves bringing their music to America and giving birth to the blues and later jazz to the British, in turns, absorbing American tunes, and melding their essences to proffer their unique brand of rock and roll, music has functioned as one of the best ambassadors for cross-cultural connections and co-operation. Two new documentaries, Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie) attest to that fact, examining, in turn, a specific sound and one particular song, while offering some provocative theories as to why things turned out the way they did.