Saturday, February 22, 2014

Once Upon a Time: FX’s The Americans

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in FX's The Americans.

The last piece Critics at Large’s David Churchill was working on before he died was a post on the TV show The Americans. His ill health prevented him from finishing his post and I never did find out what he thought of the series. I’m sorry he never got to write on The Americans as I’m sure he would have had some interesting, provocative things to say about it. This post is dedicated to his memory. - ss

Note: this post also contains some spoilers.

When I first heard of the new FX series, The Americans, about a married couple, posing as Americans who are actually Soviet sleeper agents living undercover in the United States, I was worried. I thought that the series would traffic in moral equivalence, implying or stating outright that the two major opponents in the Cold War were somehow one and the same. I also remembered the outcry from the myopic left, back in 1987, when ABC aired the mini-series Amerika, detailing a future scenario wherein the Soviet Union took over the U.S. Their concerns were that the show would foment hatred against the Soviet Union, though of course, they would never have protested a Soviet TV show suggesting the reverse. This occurred during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and, of course, he was considered much more the villain than they were, though I know fear of a nuclear war between the Soviets and the U.S. also played a part in protesters’ worries that Amerika could somehow make the already tense situation between the two sides worse. In any case, the creatively uneven mini-series aired to mixed reviews and so-so ratings and pretty much vanished from the cultural radar (it’s never been released on DVD.) Fortunately, The Americans, from cable channel FX, which begins its second season on Feb. 26 – its first season is now out on DVD – is a much superior production and, equally as gratifying, functions as a timely reminder of how vicious and dangerous the Soviets actually were. (They weren’t far off the ‘evil empire’ mark Reagan said they were.) That’s not to say, The Americans is a black and white simplistic affair. It’s certainly not that. At its best, it is one of the better, more compelling cable shows of recent years.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Neglected Gem #51: Old Man (1997)

In a career spanning more than half a century, the unassuming workaholic southern writer Horton Foote turned out probably a hundred scripts for the stage, TV, and the movies. And of the many I’ve seen, the only one I’ve ever liked is his adaptation of William Faulkner’s story “Old Man,” which he did for the anthology series Playhouse 90 in 1958 and then refurbished (and improved upon) for a Hallmark Hall of Fame telecast in 1997. The old man in the story, which Faulkner interlaced with the tragic romantic main plot of his great 1931 novel Wild Palms, is the Mississippi River; the setting is the legendary flood of 1927. The two nameless main characters are a convict on rescue detail and a pregnant woman, abandoned by her husband, whom he’s sent, in a skiff with another prisoner, to round up from the tree she’s been clinging to since the water washed her home away. The convict’s companion, who lied about his skill with a boat because he had his eye on escaping under cover of the flood, doesn’t get very far; he and the protagonist are separated, and he ends up back in camp, with years added to his sentence for his effort. The protagonist, a laconic and unimaginative soul whose refusal to bend the rules of his assignment becomes a badge of honor, does indeed save the woman, sees her through her labor, keeps them both alive, and takes her back home, as he promised he would – though the process takes weeks and requires a detour through the Louisiana bayou.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Women in Trouble: Loves Her Gun & Raze

Trieste Kelly Dunn in Loves Her Gun

A couple of small pictures that have begun knocking around in recent weeks illustrate some of the possibilities that, for better or worse, are out there on the fringe for actresses. Loves Her Gun which is set mostly in Austin, was directed and co-written (with Lauren Modery) by Geoff Marslett, who teaches digital animation at the University of Texas. Trieste Kelly Dunn plays Allie, a young Brooklynite whose with an especially lame version of that movie stand-by—the boyfriend who exists to be dumped, like sandbags from a hot-air balloon, so that the story can begin. Not much else of a life can be discerned from what the movie shows. One night, after enjoying the musical stylings of a wacky combo who play dress in kung-fu gear with fake hands raised high above their heads, Allie is assaulted on the street by a couple of thugs in animal masks who might have stepped out of the slasher movie You’re Next. The encounter leaves her with a black eye and a case of PTSD that the hang-loose Austin kids—with whom she impulsively hitches a ride back to their home base—are especially well-equipped to mistake for a sort of spacy, zoned-out joie de vivre.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Eco-Gothic: Hilary Scharper's Perdita

“I do feel sometimes as if I lived next to some great, slumbering beast that lulls me into thinking of it as just rocks and water. And then, every once in a while, it awakens and I realize that it is alive and powerful and that I am a tiny, helpless creature next to it!”

– Hilary Scharper, Perdita.

It is abundantly clear that Hilary Scharper’s fine debut novel Perdita (Simon & Schuster, 2013) has been inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. These classics are suffused with Gothic inflections: the desolate landscapes which can be powerful and cruel, the suggestion of a supernatural or preternatural presence, buried secrets in ancestral homes, unrequited love, and what may be most relevant for the novel under review, the sense of a soul trapped in a human body. In addition to these elements, Perdita is populated with malevolent villains and attractive characters with demons that haunt them. The novel also represents an emerging literary form, something Scharper terms the “eco-gothic,” in which nature does not serve as a backdrop, but as a central character in the novel. (Scharper also teaches cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto and has written a well-received collection of short stories, Dream Dresses (2009), about the aspirations of women and the clothes they wear.) Even though she combines elements of the historical novel and magic realism, Perdita’s setting in the tempestuous wilderness of the northern Bruce Peninsula, an area she knows intimately since she has spent many summers there, underpins her decision to allocate human-nature relations a central role in her multi-layered narrative. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #50: Dredd (2012)

Karl Urban & Olivia Thirlby in Dredd
Based on the trailer, you could be forgiven for dismissing Dredd as a low-rent, forgettable action feature, or at best a disposable reboot of a franchise nobody really liked in the first place (1995’s Judge Dredd). I certainly did, and even as an action movie fan I turned up my nose. I am happy to report that I was wrong: Dredd is one of the most finely-crafted action pictures of the last five years, and a necessary addition to any action junkie’s collection.

The plot is superbly straightforward: a species of super-cop called "Judges" patrol the streets of a post-apocalyptic East Coast, acting as judge, jury, and executioner for criminals whom they sentence on the spot. This rather drastic legal system is employed in an effort to combat the excessive amounts of crime committed in the overcrowded, polluted Mega-City One. One such lawman, the titular Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), is escorting a rookie Judge (Olivia Thirlby) on her first assignment. They are called to a 200-storey block of flats called Peach Trees, when the resident matriarch – a terrifying drug lord named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) – locks down the complex and demands the death of the interfering Judges. Dredd and the rookie must fight their way through legions of henchmen to execute Ma-Ma and seize their chance at escape. Dredd takes notes from the leanest and meanest of action screenplays, combining the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, one-man-army, "fly in the ointment" premise of Die Hard with the "fight your way to the top" video game style action of The Raid: Redemption. In a sea of films where the whole world (or indeed, the very universe itself) is often in jeopardy, an action flick with such a narrow focus is like a breath of fresh air. The all-consuming destruction that takes place in films such as Man of Steel is too shocking and visually exhausting to bear its own emotional weight; I much prefer stakes on a smaller scale. Dredd feels like just another day in the hellscape of Mega-City One, where stories like this are playing out all the time. This also makes the possibility of sequels (which Dredd is unlikely to get based on its middling box office performance, despite strong fan support) much more enticing, as the filmmakers haven't already shot their proverbial wad on an excessively "epic" storyline.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Roundabout’s Machinal

Rebecca Hall & Morgan Spector in Machinal (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Before it was rediscovered in the early nineties – it was produced at the Public in New York in 1990 and three years later at the National Theatre in London – Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal was a forgotten artifact of the experimental American theatre of the twenties. (There was a TV adaptation in the mid-fifties and a short-lived off-Broadway revival in 1960.) The script was out of print for decades; when I wanted to teach it, I had to rely on an old anthology of early American plays. Now the play pops up occasionally on college campuses – my own department has mounted it – though Lyndsey Turner’s production at the Roundabout Theatre marks the first time it’s appeared on Broadway since its 1928 premiere. Treadwell adapted the generic German Expressionist protest drama (the protagonist moves through one episode after another, on a journey of self-discovery that leads inevitably to disaster) most famously developed by Georg Kaiser in From Morn to Midnight. She wasn’t the first American writer to do so – O’Neill had got there before her with The Hairy Ape, and Elmer Rice with The Adding Machine – but to the usual themes of this kind of play (the soulless mechanization of modern society, the restrictions of class, the grim triumph of materialism) she added a specifically feminist orientation. She wasn’t the only playwright working to take this genre in new directions: the first American Expressionist drama I know of, O’Neill’s 1920 The Emperor Jones, was about race. But she and Susan Glaspell, whose 1916 Trifles was in last summer’s season at the Shaw Festival, were pioneers, since hardly any women were getting plays of any description produced in the early decades of the twentieth century, let alone feminist ones.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Termite in the Wood: Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica (1969)

Not every record is for its time. Some don't even care about time. In the case of the strange masterpiece, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica, it doesn't even pretend to keep time. In the summer of 1969, Trout Mask came out as an abstract sound collage that followed no trend, or provided even a hint to what was dominating the rock airwaves. Rather than build on what was popular then, it seemed to anticipate the rude gesture of punk almost a decade later. But it did it without the artists involved wanting to upset, or alienate anyone. Walt Whitman wrote about the spirit that Trout Mask inherited some seventy years before it was made. "A perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do any thing, that man or woman or the natural powers can do," Whitman wrote in An American Primer. Trout Mask dances and weeps and bleeds and sacks cities by integrating free form verse, the urban blues of Howlin' Wolf, the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. The record was so dissonantly original that it annoyed more people than it attracted. People even heard it in records that weren't Trout Mask. A friend of mine once bought one of John Coltrane's more wildly improvisational records (John Coltrane in Seattle) only to call me later to complain, "This isn't Coltrane. It's Beefheart!" But to understand the shock and disbelief surrounding the release of this 1969 landmark, a wildly original (and unsurpassed) experimental leap in popular music, one that defied all the reasons why we listen to popular music, you have to first consider the music already on the airwaves, or perhaps about to arrive there.