Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Fifth Beatle: Brian Epstein's Story Gets Its Due

“If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.” Paul McCartney

In 1965, the Beatles went to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs from Queen Elizabeth II.  That’s Member of the British Empire for those of you who came in late.  It’s the first level of awards, and had traditionally been given to businessfolk and supporters of the monarchy.  But in 1965 it went to John, Paul, George and Ringo.  McCartney and Harrison quipped, “Yeah, MBE stands for Mr. Brian Epstein!”  Eppy was the businessman.  Scion of a well-to-do store owner in Liverpool, he had drifted from school to school and job to job before moving into the family business managing the NEMS (North East Music Stores) record shop on Great Charlotte Street.  He had hopes of a career in design or theatre, having studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts alongside Peter O’Toole and Susannah York.  It was at the record shop, however, that his career was made.

Legend has it that a young fan dropped in one day looking for ‘that new record from The Beatles.’  It wasn’t in stock, so Epstein ordered it thinking the group was from Germany.  It turned out the band was from Liverpool and they were playing not far from the store.  Epstein stopped by for a listen, and ended up managing the biggest group the world had ever seen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Hannah Arendt: The Limits of Thinking

Barbara Sukowa stars in Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt (2013)

When the influential German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt reported on the 1961 trial of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, it caused an outrage. Its subsequent publication as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which included a provocative postscript wherein she commented on the implications of her report, only compounded the controversy. Arendt’s critics were most upset about her portrait of Eichmann and her views on the Jewish councils organized by the Nazis. She regarded Eichmann as a pathetic little pen-pusher, a hapless clown in a glass booth, and not as a fanatical ideologue who hated Jews. Although her material on Jewish councils was only about a dozen pages and threaded throughout the book, many of her critics took umbrage at her suggestion that Jewish leaders failed to use their power to protect Jews.

Given that Eichmann, in his shabby and insidious mediocrity, spoke in clichés and bureaucratic jargon during the trial, he was for Arendt representative the personification of true evil. As she remarked in her postscript, Eichmann “was not Iago and not Macbeth” – no villain doing evil out of villainy since “he never realized what he was doing.” (The italics are in the original.) Neither perverted nor sadistic,” was how Arendt described Eichmann, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Arendt argued that Eichmann was flawed because he could not think. Conversely, she implied that had he possessed that quality, he would never have committed barbarous acts, an implication that underestimates the torque of ideology, disregards history and ignores individual and collective psychopathology.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Red-Letter Day: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt

Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg

The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has proven his ability to play nice guys and even romantic leads, but with his heavy lids and puckered-up lips, on a large head riding atop an incongruously lumbering frame, he doesn’t have to work very hard to give audiences the impression that there may be something creepy and perverse about him. (Especially in the case of English-language audiences, who know him best for playing the villain in Daniel Craig’s first James Bond movie and Hannibal Lector on TV.) Mikkelsen is well-cast in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten, in Danish), about a divorced, fortyish kindergarten teacher who is accused of sexual assault by a little girl who’s the daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). Mikkelsen’s character, Lucas, is totally sympathetic, and there’s nothing ambiguous about his innocence. One day, the girl, carelessly jumbling together the events of a day that began with her brother showing her a pornographic photo, says the wrong thing to the women who work at the kindergarten, and that’s it: the snowball has started rolling. But with Mikkelsen in the role, Lucas doesn’t have to be guilty, or even act guilty, for it to be plausible that the media, and people’s lurid imaginations, would take one look at him and think, as they did with Richard Jewell and Liddy Chamberlain, “Yeah, we can work with this.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

In Secret: Lovers in Hell

Oscar Isaac and Elizabeth Olsen in In Secret

The new film In Secret has had a limited release and drawn very little notice, but it’s tense and intelligent and beautifully acted. The only generic thing about it, really, is its title. The writer-director, Charlie Stratton, has based it on Émile Zola’s harrowing 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. Zola’s Thérèse is a young woman brought up by her aunt, who marries her off to her weak, fever-prone son Camille, whose bed the girl shared when they were children. Having relocated to Paris from the country to please Camille, they live above Mme. Raquin’s shop in a glum alley. Thérèse helps out behind the counter during the day; in the evenings she has nothing to do but cook dinner and take care of Camille when he comes home from his shipping-office job. The only distraction in her dull life is the games of dominos they play with some friends one night a week. Mme. Raquin is contented by this bourgeois existence, but Thérèse is so bored that she generally sits in defeated silence as the others play. Then one evening Camille brings one of his co-workers, Laurent – who knew the family as a boy in the provinces – home for supper. He’s an aspiring painter who speaks openly of the free-spirited world of the artist – of the women who model nude – as he executes Camille’s portrait (really a way of endearing himself to the Raquins so that he can enjoy their hospitality on a daily basis). And though at first his sensuality unsettles Thérèse and makes him dislikable to her, when she finds herself alone with him for an hour and he scoops her up in a kiss, she allows him to make her his mistress. The affair transforms her from a virtual sleepwalker to an alert, voracious young animal who finds it surprisingly easy to deceive both her husband and her mother-in-law. Eventually she and Laurent both grow impatient with the restrictions on their life together – especially Laurent, a soft, indolent character who gave up studying the law because he found it too rigorous and would like someone to take care of him so that he could quit his job and go back to the studio (out of laziness, not out of dedication to art). So he takes Thérèse and Camille rowing and drowns his friend while she watches, horrified yet paralyzed by the recognition that he’s acting on their mutual desire. Both the lovers believe that this murder will liberate them, but instead it dooms them: the image of Camille’s sodden corpse haunts their dreams when they’re apart and even after they marry – after a respectable mourning period, and with the blessing of the ignorant Mme. Raquin, who thinks of Laurent as a second son – they see that image in their bed like a ghost. It drives a stake between them and inevitably causes them to turn on each other.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Exploding on the Launch Pad: Andy Weir’s The Martian

The Martian is Andy Weir’s writing debut, marketed as “a truly remarkable thriller” and “an impossible-to-put-down suspense novel.” Like all dust jacket claims, these brandings are boilerplate, easily dismissed, and normally you’d have no reason to dispute them (or even think about them), regardless of the novel’s quality. But The Martian calls even these most basic descriptions into question, and what began in my mind as niggling doubts became full-bore distaste by story’s end. The premise – an astronaut named Mark Watney is stranded alone on a distant planet and must figure out a way to survive – is as old as the Martian hills, tracing its SF roots all the way back to Bradbury, and even Jules Verne before him. There’s no promise of supernatural or fantastic elements, because the book is “grounded in real, present-day science”. So with a tired conceit and an inauspicious focus on technical accuracy, the question is, what’s left to intrigue us? The answer, unfortunately, is: not much.

I was alternately bored, frustrated, and apathetic while reading The Martian, none of which are feelings I imagine Weir wanted to engender. Worse, I don’t think they are simply a result of personal subjectivity – I think the awful dialogue, clumsy story construction, and inane characterization will be obvious to any attentive reader. The focus of the novel is also its most glaring flaw by far: believability, or the utter lack thereof. Because the author has done his homework and presents us with many realistic space survival scenarios, we’re meant to buy into Mark Watney’s struggle. The problem is, I don’t believe that someone who talks and thinks like Watney would ever have been selected for a dangerous, expensive, and highly difficult mission to a distant planet. We’re told he’s the best botanist on Earth, and he does prove to be highly resourceful at growing food for himself, but what expert-level botanist talks like a frat boy? High academia has a way of smoothing out juvenile character traits like these, and when you’re ready to represent the best our planet has to offer in your field of study, you’re going to take it seriously. Watney doesn’t take anything seriously, and I don’t buy it for a second.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Two Classic Texts, Modernized

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (Photo by Johan Persson)

Like Timon of Athens, Shakespeare’s late Roman tragedy Coriolanus is getting more attention these days than it did for years, though, like their title characters, both plays are perhaps too unyielding to make it into anybody’s list of favorite Shakespeares. Ralph Fiennes made an intelligent attempt at filming it in 2011 with himself in the title role, the warrior who wins a major victory for Rome but whose patrician pride prevents him from winning the favor of the fickle (and easily manipulated) citizens; he winds up being exiled, turning his back on Rome and allying himself with the enemy he defeated. (The bankrupt Timon turns his back on Athens when his fair-weather friends won’t lift a finger to help him and goes to live in a cave.) In Josie Rourke’s economically staged production of Coriolanus for London’s Donmar Warehouse – recently transmitted on HD in the NT Live series – the protagonist is played by Tom Hiddleston, and his performance, which grows in depth and stature as the evening wears on, is the best reason to see the show. Toward the end of the second half Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay), who has come with his wife Virgilia (Brigitte Hjort Sørensen) and their little boy (Joe Willis) to beg him to reconsider his abandonment of Rome, makes a long speech to which Coriolanus listens without answering her or even moving from his spot. Findlay, whose performance is so hambone it verges on camp, wails and whines; after a while I stopped paying attention to her and focused entirely on Hiddleston, who conveys the influence of her pleas in the tension of his body and the way his face struggles to remain taut and unmoved while his tears betray him. It’s a small but potent acting lesson in the effectiveness of stillness and understatement.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

And the Oscar Doesn’t Go To…: Ten Snubs by the Academy

I've long made my peace with the Academy Awards, although I do still remember being pretty infuriated in 1980 when Milo Forman’s Hair wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Instead of watching the Oscar telecast, I went off and saw the movie again that night. Since then I’ve calmed down and stopped taking the show so seriously: partly because there is a rough justice in the winners. Most good actors do win an Oscar but usually not for the right film. Despite the show’s frequent dull bits, I also enjoy many parts of the ceremony. I like seeing the movie stars, the moving ‘In Memoriam’ tribute to the industry folk who have passed away in the last year and I revel in the excitement of those winners. They're usually from outside the U.S. and they are absolutely thrilled to get one of the gold statues, a testimony to how much Hollywood accolades still mean to so many people who make movies. You’re also guaranteed to hear at least a couple of great speeches from the winners, particularly from the British contingent.