Saturday, November 9, 2013

Method Acting: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period

Joni Mitchell is fond of describing songwriting and performing in theatrical terms. “Ella Fitzgerald was mostly just a singer; Billie Holiday was more than a singer; Frank Sinatra was more than a singer,” she told Michelle Mercer, author of Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period. “There were a lot that were Method actor singers. Etta James, you can’t beat her read on ‘At Last.’” Will You Take Me As I Am, which was released in paperback last year, looks at the series of magnificent albums Joni Mitchell made between 1971 and 1976 – Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, Miles of Aisles, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira, all of them masterpieces in the American popular music canon. The “Blue Period,” as Mercer calls it, brought a new subjectivity to pop music, all in the spirit of avant-garde experimentation that blended the musical, the literary and the visual. (The name “Blue Period” conjures up the synesthesia of the nineteenth century French poets, composers and artists like Mallarmé, Debussy and Bonnard.)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Kids at Risk: Short Term 12

The title Short Term 12 identifies the setting of Destin Daniel Cretton’s movie, his first full-length picture. It’s a short-term facility for troubled teenagers (most stay for less than a year, some longer, until the county can figure out what to do with them). The handful of young women and men who work there as counselors are responsible for creating a safe environment for the kids, not for policing them or acting as their therapists, though, caring and committed as they are, they inevitably go beyond their job description. And sometimes they don’t agree with the judgment of the professionals, who aren’t in the trenches with the kids the way they are. When his therapist determines that one of the boys, Sammy (Alex Calloway), should learn to let go of the collection of dolls he keeps in his room for comfort and takes them away from him, the counselors are upset because they’re sure he isn’t ready. And they’re right; Sammy becomes listless and can’t get off his bed. Nate (Rami Malek), the newest member of the staff, violates the therapist’s order and sneaks a small doll to Sammy. Nate is very green when he arrives, and he makes some basic (and rather stunning) errors of judgment, but in the movie’s terms this small act of rebellion marks his coming of age as a counselor at Short Term 12. Grace (Brie Larson) goes much farther. When a complicated fifteen-year-old named Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever) with a history of cutting and suicide attempts is sent home with her father, Grace, who has intuited from Jaden’s hints that he’s been abusing her, blows up at her supervisor and goes out to Jaden’s house in the middle of the night. Grace and Jaden end up smashing up her father’s car before Grace brings Jaden back to the facility, prepared at last to make the allegations against her father that will remove him permanently from her care.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lonely Outcasts: The Death of Lou Reed and Velvet Goldmine

The news that Lou Reed had died sent me back to his records – to his work with the Velvet Underground, which redefined the subject matter and artistic possibilities of rock music, and to personal favorites among his solo albums, from Berlin to Street Hassle to Ecstasy. But it also sent me back to the most memorable and affecting things written about Reed, especially the grappling that Lester Bangs did with him in the early seventies when Bangs was the marquee star and aesthetic and moral compass of the Detroit-based rock magazine Creem. (For the buoyant details, see Bangs’ posthumously assembled best-of collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.) Rock criticism was never more many-hued and exciting than in the late sixties and seventies that became Bangs’ heyday; it had the thrill of a field populated by young hotshot writers excited about something that was going through a metamorphosis and that hadn’t yet been written about to death.

Someone like Lou Reed, with his tear-it-down-and-start-again approach to the music and his combination of grand literary ambitions and simple diaristic writing style – what Bangs once referred to “the Lou Reed ‘I walked to the chair/ Then I sat in in’ school of lyrics”– made rock criticism necessary. It’s not just that someone needed to try to make sense of this work, but that someone needed to get the word out about it, and keep it alive until it could be properly discovered; in the case of the Velvets, the traditional ways of making sure that excellent work in popular music, such as the radio, weren’t doing their jobs. Reed, who started out as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, seems to have had, at best, mixed feelings about being written about by people who, as he scornfully put it, were “analyzing rock and roll!”

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Get Back: Paul McCartney's New

Considering all that he's accomplished in his long career, Paul McCartney's only competitor is himself. On New [Hear Music], his 16th solo album, Macca proves that he can still write the perfect pop song with lyrics and hooks that are irresistible. His volume of work can now be classified as a style, "McCartney" if you like, with compositions that are just sophisticated enough to keep our ears engaged while accessible enough to appeal to listeners of all ages. His style has proven strongly influential, too, as heard on the recent Mojo magazine CD release, Songs in the Key of Paul, that comes with the November 2013 issue. It is a really good mix of old and new songs featuring a variety of old and new artists. The CD features a collection of songs that best represents the "McCartney Sound", rich in vocal harmonies, interesting chord changes and song structures not far removed from Tin Pan Alley or Motown.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

French Dance in French Film: A Direct Translation

Vers Mathilde (2005), directed by Claire Denis

Vers Mathilde, the 2005 dance documentary by French filmmaker Claire Denis, is a stunning achievement. It takes as its subject Mathilde Monnier, the director of France’s Centre Chorégraphique National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon in Montpellier. She is the Mathilde in a title whose only other word translates as towards. There is no verb connecting the two words. The action is all in the film, an intimate look at how Monnier creates a dance quite literally out of thin air, propelled forward by her own winnowing body and the ideas that come swirling out and around it.

Denis, the subject of an ongoing retrospective of her films at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto, is clearly a fan. She allows Monnier to move unfettered by her roving camera which follows her unobtrusively even as it sometimes closes tightly in on her striking and chiseled fiftysomething face to capture the intelligence of the mind lying within. It is obvious that Denis has asked some questions about process, because Monnier speaks out loud to an invisible listener, describing, for instance, what warming up for one of her dances means to her (a heightened sense of being in the moment) and what it is she is trying to achieve (a theatrical creation where the unexpected is the only rule).

Director Claire Denis
The film screens tonight (Tuesday, November 5) at 6:30, and is a must-see both for lovers of Denis’s work and French avant-garde dance. Monnier's choreography is abstract, that is, not tied to narrative or an inspiring piece of music. One of the works seen in the film is a case in point. Originally created in 2002 and called Déroutes, a military term meaning total collapse, it is more influenced by concepts in visual art (the presence of absence) and by the collective assembled to perform it. The dancers are male and female, white and black, athletically built as well as plump and round. As part of the creation process, Monnier has asked each to interpret, in their own way, the idea of not walking. The results are sometimes explosive such as when one of her Asian dancers thumps the floor of the stage with an angry fist, and collapses in frustration after again and again pulling herself back up to her feet to march. Monnier’s whispered observations, heard as a voice-over, provide a running commentary. It is the whole of the Korean army. It is magnifique.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Obscure Inge, Mid-Range Rattigan: Natural Affection and The Winslow Boy

Alec Beard and Kathryn Erbe in Natural Affection

The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), in residence at Theater Row on 42nd Street, is one of several off-Broadway companies that make it a practice to resurrect forgotten American plays. Last season it produced a post-war Anita Loos play called Happy Birthday set in a New Jersey bar that contained a strange interlude in which the audience was put literally in the point of view of the protagonist, who is drunk for the first time in her life. When she burrowed under one of the tables, hiding from her fearful father, a piece of canvas flew out over the audience and there we were, camped out under the tablecloth alongside her. Happy Birthday isn’t much of a play, but this scene is a fascinating piece of homegrown Yankee expressionism, and I was grateful to TACT for offering a rare glimpse of it. And I was grateful again last month when it mounted a strikingly well-acted production of William Inge’s Natural Affection, which had the bad luck to open in 1973 during a newspaper strike, closed in a month, and hadn't been unearthed since. (It was the last Inge play produced in his lifetime; he killed himself late that year, days before his final work, The Last Pad, opened in Los Angeles.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Of Musical Divides and Exciting Television: Yemen Blues, Lou Reed, The Good Wife and Copper

Yemen Blues

One of the problems of the myriad choices in entertainment available to the public is that, increasingly, demographic divisions and attitudes divide us in our ability to share communally in the enjoyment of specific types of music, films or TV shows. (Novels have, for the most part, or at least for a few decades, always functioned that way, with the odd exceptions like the Stieg Larsson mysteries which people of all ages seemed to be reading. ) That was the unfortunate experience I recently had when I went to see a double bill of Israeli music at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.