Saturday, November 30, 2013

Three Mysteries: John Sandford's Storm Front, Sue Grafton's W is for Wasted and Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In

While reading Storm Front (Putnam, 376 pages, $29.50), John Sandford’s seventh Virgil Flowers crime novel – there are 23 Prey novels and four in the Kidd and LuEllen series – I couldn’t help thinking of the term “MacGuffin,” popularized in the 1930s by Alfred Hitchcock, which can be loosely defined as the plot element that motivates a story’s characters. The "MacGuffin" in this novel is a stele, a fragment of a monument from Middle East antiquity, with inscriptions in Egyptian hieroglyphics and some form of primitive Hebrew. The novel opens with the piece of stone, a foot long by 10 or so inches across, being stolen by the archaeologist who discovered it, who then smuggles the fragment out of Israel and into the United States, specifically to Mankato, Minnesota. Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is in pursuit of fraudulent barn-wood dealer Florence “Ma” Nobles, a frisky thirty-something single mother of five “intra-ethnic fatherless boys.” Ma denies Virgil’s accusation, and is also, for her part, pursuing Virgil: " ‘Instead of talking about barn lumber we oughta talk about how to scratch my itch,’ Ma said, pushing out her lower lip. ‘Here it is July and I ain't been laid since March the eighteenth. You're just the boy to get ’er done, Virgie.’ ”

Friday, November 29, 2013

Miles in Mono: The Original Mono Recordings by Miles Davis

In 2009 when EMI/Apple released the complete mono recordings of The Beatles in a beautiful box set of miniatures, suddenly the dreaded sound mixes that were shelved for the better part of 40 years, were in demand as the old generation sought out a new way of hearing their favourite band. As a financial opportunity, record companies couldn’t resist the notion of re-selling the same music by the same artists to the same people. Since then, mono was the way to go and so far, at least for the music fan, it has been a godsend. At Columbia records, home of the great jazz and pop recordings of the last century, mono box sets have been remastered, usually with new scholarship and placed in miniature album jacket replicas, to great success. The mono version of Bob Dylan’s first six albums, for instance, was a triumph for fans new and old as I outlined in my critique three years ago.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hammer Time – Thor: The Dark World

Christopher Hemsworth as Thor.

The classic Marvel Thor comics were marvels of chutzpah, a land grab that extended the company’s brand into Norse mythology, and redefined little-g “gods” as just another species of superhero. And maybe because the first wave of creators who worked on the character – Stan Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, and, all-importantly, the artist Jack Kirby – got so high on their heady brew of mythic bombast and fake-Shakespearean diction, Thor had less truck with the self-pitying angst that was part of the defining character of Marvel Comics than any other major character this side of Nick Fury. The original conception in the comics was that Thor had been cast down to Earth by his father Odin, and trapped in the body of a crippled med student, so that he might learn “humility.” Stripped of his memories of his time in Asgard, “Donald Blake” discovered his true identity when he was reunited with his mighty hammer and transformed into Thor, who looked like a blond Hells Angel indulging his opera fetish on Halloween. The longer the comics went on, the less Thor was inclined to put his hammer back in his pocket and revert to his crippled-loser persona; can you blame him? In the movies, Thor (Christopher Hemsworth) has no Earthbound alter ego to avoid turning into, and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has no desire to banish him, let alone teach him humility. He’d probably stage an intervention if Thor started messing around with the stuff.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Harnessing the New: The National Ballet of Canada's Innovation

Innovation is the name of the program of new choreography that the National Ballet of Canada is presenting at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre and that concludes tomorrow evening. It more than lives up to its name. Each of the four works is daringly exploratory in its use of classical dance idioms and practices, resulting in an evening of dance that is refreshingly and rewardingly new. Three of the pieces are world premières – Watershed by the Montreal-based contemporary dance choreographer José Navas, Unearth by the 22-year old National Ballet School graduate Robert Binet and ... black night’s bright day ... by Canada’s internationally acclaimed James Kudelka. Being and Nothingness (Part 1), a seven-minute solo which principal dancer and company choreographic associate Guillaume Côté created earlier in the year for Greta Hodgkinson to perform in her native Rhode Island, is a Canadian première added to the program only recently. Set to a repetitive minimalistic piano score by Philip Glass – Metamorphosis 1-V (4th Movement) as performed by Edward Connell – and danced with raw, frenetic intensity by the brilliant ballerina at its centre, Being and Nothingness (Part 1) easily fits in with the longer works on the program, all of them ensemble pieces, in that, like the others, it pushes the borders of classical dance while also testing the physical limitations of the dancer. Hodgkinson moves insect-like in the light and shadow of a single, suspended bulb. Dressed in a simple paper-white thigh-length dress by National Ballet corps de ballet dancer and budding costume designer, Krista Dowson, she rapidly rubs and whirls her hands and forearms in a worrying manner, making her existential inquiry, her uncompromising self-examination, look like a descent into madness. Hodgkinson eventually moves quickly out of this straitjacketing movement sequence, flinging limbs outwards and pretzeling her legs upwards towards her open-eyed face. It truly is a tour de force performance, the choreography amply showcasing the ballerina's range as a theatrical artist. Ballet in this work, as in the other three, is not a static thing, hidebound to tradition. It is a living, breathing, highly adaptable art form, expressing an expanded range of motion while heightening emotion in the spectator.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Convergences: Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis's Dallas 1963

Fifty years later and the assassination of President John Kennedy still hasn't been settled. Besides those who feel that there are questions remaining to be answered, people continuously reflect back to that November day as if they could change its outcome. Phil Dyess-Nugent suggested the other day in his sharply observed piece on JFK conspiracy films that our comfort zone gets severely rocked when a loner, a virtual nobody, can walk into history and completely alter it, as Lee Harvey Oswald most likely did. Yet the true mystery of the murder is that we can't resolve one simple question: How is it possible that our larger than life figures are never safe from the alienated souls who walk our city streets? Many of us found out on November 22, 1963 that they're not. These underground men and women who choose to change history by killing those who are making it go unnoticed, and they are lethal shadows we never see coming. Of course, political conspiracies do exist, but they operate more often in a chaotic world where plans are never so easily acted out. They emerge as much by accident as they do in the dark rooms where devious schemes get hatched. (Brian De Palma's 1981 conspiracy thriller Blow Out provides a perfect illustration of how happenstance undermines our ability to control and execute plans.) Nevertheless, Mark Lane, in his otherwise speculative JFK conspiracy book, Rush to Judgement, was correct in saying that the variables in the murder of JFK delve into the primal taboo of parricide, where the father is murdered and we need to seek closure. This desire for quick and easy resolution as a means to appease our guilt over this family crime can be just as applicable to those who insist there are shooters on the grassy knoll as it is to folks who exalt the Warren Commission's findings.

One lingering query that does still emerge out of the assassination – by those who believe Kennedy's death was part of a plot and also by those who didn't – is why did the murder happen in Dallas? Arthur Penn thought he answered it in his 1966 politically paranoid assassination thriller The Chase, which takes place in a corrupted Texas town (obviously standing in for Dallas) that's overrun by right-wing zealots and Klansmen and climaxes with a political murder. Film critic Pauline Kael, though, in seeing through the literal metaphor, dismissed that idea and panned the picture while saying, "Many people all over the world blame Texas for the assassination of Kennedy – as if the murder had boiled up out of the unconscious of the people there – and the film confirms this hysterical view." There's no doubt that The Chase, made three years after the Kennedy killing, wallows in delirium and self-hatred. Still, Texas scholars Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis in their new book, Dallas 1963 (Grand Central Publishing), suggest that there might be good reasons why the murder of the President boiled up in Dallas, where a fermenting climate of violent right-wing extremism was consuming the city.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Two Macbeths

The Manchester Theatre Festival production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes in at an hour and three-quarters without intermission; it moves like lightning. The show, which was broadcast worldwide in the National Theatre Live series and will make a New York appearance in the spring at the Park Avenue Armory, was staged by Kenneth Branagh and American director-choreographer Rob Ashford (who was responsible for the recent Broadway revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), and it has a glamorous duo at its center: Branagh and Alex Kingston, the English actress known to North American audiences for her work in the TV series ER. They make a charismatic couple and a sensuous one, and the setting, a deconsecrated church with an earthen floor, a candlelit altar at one end, and the audience seated in pews along two sides, tennis court style, gives the evening a rough-hewn medieval bigness and an experiential excitement even on the screen. That’s especially true in the vividly staged fight scenes (Branagh and Ashford have added the battle at the beginning of the narrative that is only reported in Shakespeare’s text) and whenever the Witches (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan) are hovering. You can’t always make out what they’re supposed to be enacting or even what they’re saying, but they’re effective in a primal, horror-movie way, and when they appear in the smoky archways of this church or when doorways close on them so they look like they’re disappearing into the side of a building, they’re genuinely creepy. And the scene where Macbeth returns to find them to conjure emanations of his future and the future of Scotland, first oozing out from under a sheet as if they were being birthed by a monster, is close to terrifying. (Branagh and Ashford’s inspiration here seems to be David Cronenberg.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Risk and Rapture: The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray DVD of The Earrings of Madame De…

Danielle Darrieux in The Earrings of Madame De...

Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame De is built around a pun. Madame De (or Madame De— as it is written in text) is also Madame Deux. Two men – her husband, Monsieur De—, and her lover, the Ambassador – divide her. She is a double woman in the sense that she is duplicitous, but even this is only one half of her character, for Madame De—’s coquettish charms belie her emotional depth. The story revolves around a pair of earrings the wealthy and elegant Madame De— sells back to the jeweler to pay off her debts. A wedding present from her husband, the earrings are returned by the jeweler to Monsieur De— who buys them a second time and gives them rather cavalierly as a parting gift to a mistress of whom he has begun to tire. The mistress pawns them at the gambling table overseas, and in a storefront window they catch the eye of a foreign diplomat. The Ambassador sails to the European country where he has just been stationed, and immediately encounters Monsieur and Madame De— in high society. Fascinated by her, he arouses her vanity, her passion and then her love; he gives her the precious earrings as a gift. Madame De— is astonished to see her jewels once again, and she deceives the Ambassador about their provenance to protect his pride; only when the Ambassador learns the truth, from Monsieur De— who sees the Ambassador as a harmless suitor and the gift of the earrings as a genial mistake, his love dries up. He suspects Madame De— of being as faithless and vacant as the jewels, an object of glittering beauty to be passed from owner to owner, just at the moment when the love she feels elevates her beyond her vanity. For the Ambassador, the charming innocence of Madame De— has vanished, but we begin to perceive that beneath her deceptions is the true innocence of a woman falling in love for the first time. Madame De— renounces the world and dies a martyr, a heart-shaped earring in each hand.