Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rob Lowe and Robert Wagner, Looking Backward

Rob Lowe’s second book of memoirs, Love Life (Simon & Schuster, 2014), has an affable rambling quality. He told his story in a linear fashion in his earlier book, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, and this time he elects to linger on a few select items loosely gathered around the title, which he translates broadly. Much of the book focuses on the things he loves: his wife of nearly a quarter of a century, Cheryl; his two sons, Matthew and John Owen; acting. But he also talks about sex, and about alcoholism, as a way, both for him and for the people he met when he went into treatment, of recovering lost life. (Lowe stopped drinking in 1990.) It’s a lovely little book – much better, I think, than the conventional Stories I Only Tell My Friends, which isn’t terrible by any means but has a sanctimonious side and (perhaps inevitably) a starry side, and practically drowns in superlatives. Love Life feels more relaxed, and the qualities in Lowe that come through in the first volume – his intelligence, his down-to-earth-ness, and his willingness to own up to his own follies – anchor the second one. Liking and trusting the author’s voice are key when you settle down with a memoir; I was utterly charmed by Diane Keaton’s in Then Again, and I became very fond of Lowe’s in Love Life, though God knows he’s not the person I’d consult for movie or TV recommendations. (In both Lowe’s and Keaton’s books the process was underscored by the fact that I listened to them on CD read by the authors.)

Friday, June 27, 2014

As the Spirit Moves You: Interview with Bobby McFerrin

Photo by Carol Friedman

Bobby McFerrin is performing at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival tonight (June 27) and what a gift that is. The singer of the hit single, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," has fans around the world. And justifiably so. McFerrin is a unique vocalist. He uses his voice to create its own music, using a range of octave-climbing sound to hit his audience where it matters most – way deep, in the verdant valley of the soul. Born in New York City in 1950, the son of classical singers, McFerrin, grew up surrounded by all types of music, from gospel to Sly and the Family Stone. But no matter the source, for McFerrin music uplifts. It inspires, bringing listeners closer to an understanding of what it means to be alive. It's a belief born of belief. A devout Christian, Even when whistling a happy tune McFerrin he thinks of music as a conduit to the spiritual life. That's the gift of song, he explains in an interview  one of the few he grants  touching on God and good vibrations. Here's more of that conversation:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Magnolia: The Celluloid Ghosts of Mississippi

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

August is the Mississippi of the calendar. It's beastly hot and muggy. It has a dismal history. Nothing good ever happens in it. And the United States would be better off without it.
– David Plotz, Slate

I grew up in Mississippi. When people who come from other parts of the United States hear that their old stomping grounds are in the news, they may feel a twinge of nostalgia and even pride.When Mississippi is in the news, as it’s been this past week, due to a high-profile Senate race, exiles from the Magnolia state are more likely to cringe. (The election in question pitted a long-time pork-barrel conservative hack against an unhinged Tea Party challenger who, in order to clarify the difference between himself and the old-style Republican who had sent barrels of government money home to rebuild after Katrina devastated the area, promised crowds that, once elected, “I’m not going to do anything for you!”) There was a time when the name “Mississippi” was connected to carefree rural pleasures—mint julips, ridin’ the steamboat down the Big River, that sort of thing—as typified in the 1935 movie Mississippi, starring W. C. Fields and Bing Crosby, and boasting a score by Rodgers and Hart. A hugely entertaining movie, Mississippi had never been officially released on home video in America until it became available through one of those online DVD-R services last year. Is it paranoid of me to suspect that the big companies didn’t want to touch it because they figured most people would assume from the title that it showed Larson E. Whipsnade and Der Bingle hanging African-Americans up by the their feet and roasting them alive?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Costly Grace: The Immigrant

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

In director James Gray’s previous full-length feature film, 2008’s Two Lovers, a dejected, thirty-year old, bipolar Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) comes home one night to his parents’ Coney Island apartment after a failed date with his shiksa goddess neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). But his evening takes a surprising turn when Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father’s business partner, shows up unexpectedly. They share some nervous tension and giggles over his family’s ancestral photos at first. Yet their initial tentative kiss soon turns soft, and they make love in his bedroom until morning. Gray underscores the entire scene with arias from a CD of Leonard’s, the Puccini beautifully matching the rhythms of the lovers: Crescendo, climax, diminuendo. The operatic current runs strong in this director. Even his 2007 crime drama, We Own the Night, with its ‘80s club scene and Russian Mafia, had a redemptive arc to it right out of classical melodrama. The Immigrant, the new film he also wrote (with Ric Menello), brings that operatic impulse unabashedly to the fore. And the result is as luminous and affecting as its imitated art form.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Extra Lives: Four Documentaries on Gaming

Billy Mitchell in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

As a window into the fascination of global life and the odd and wonderful stories that course through it, documentaries are ideally suited to the subject of gaming. There are fewer subcultures more passionate, more insular, more enduring, and more compelling than “those who play games.” I view video game documentaries, whose numbers seem to have swelled considerably in the past five years, with twofold appreciation: I identify with the culture they depict, being a lifelong gamer myself, surrounding myself with other enthusiasts, and now working with those people to create games; and I believe they buzz with the same electric fascination for the casual viewer as, say, a documentary about tribal Amazonian natives. Gamers are imaginative, competitive, and wildly varied, so the scope of such a film can be as wide as human diversity itself. Simply put, video game documentaries can make for an enthralling watch, even if you’re not a gamer, and there are four I particularly recommend.

I can personally attest to the high-pressure atmosphere of game development. Games – especially those made with the technologically-staggering consumer hardware of the modern gaming age – are almost indecent in their complexity. Many work with all the intricacy of film, requiring scripts, directors, producers, actors, composers, technicians, etc, overlaid with the added architecture of interactivity. It should be fairly obvious that it’s monumentally more complicated to allow someone’s input to influence what happens on a screen than to charge them twelve bucks to sit down and be silent. But not all games are triple-A blockbusters. In fact, digital delivery has not only nearly rendered the physical game disc obsolete, but allowed an influx of independently-made games to flood the global market. Pretty much anyone can make a game these days. So what happens when an independent developer – usually one or two programmers, working from home – takes on the kind of challenge that a massive studio, with a thousand-strong staff, endures every day?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Songs from Dislocated Hearts

A scene from Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah (Tinghir-Jérusalem: Les échos du Mellah, 2013) is the first film by Moroccan-French filmmaker Kamal Hachkar, and seemingly a product of a journey he's been on for much of his adult life. In Tinghir-Jerusalem, we join Hachkar as he travels from the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, to Israel, and back again. Born in Tinghir, Morocco, of Muslim Berber descent, Hachkar emigrated to France with his parents at the age of 6 months. Growing up, mainly in France, he was inculcated with strong ties to his birth place, but when he sought to flesh out those stories himself, one recurring and unasked question haunted him: What, after millennia of living side-by-side, happened to the Jews of Tinghir? This is the question that drives him Рand the movie Рforward.

The film has been honoured at numerous film festivals, including winning Best Film at Morocco's Rabat International Film Festival for Human Rights and Best Documentary at Israel's Jewish Eye Festival, both in 2012. (This diversity of acclaim is the first and strongest indication of the sincerity of the young filmmaker's voice.) Armed with a cameraman, a book of published photos, and a seemingly uncharted wealth of natural charm, Hachkar knocks on doors and in minutes finds the kindred exiled hearts of his subjects. (One unplanned encounter with a Jewish Berber woman specifically will live long in your memory after viewing. Her pleasure, and her anguish, in recollecting her Muslim neigbours – from Casablanca in her case – is palpable and affecting.) Like the best film documentaries, Tinghir-Jerusalem paints a powerful portrait of a complicated historical and political moment, with humility and without didactism. Hachkar is as much a subject of his film as the numerous individuals he gathers together: a searching voice more interested in bringing people together than in resolving any big questions of history.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mothers and Sons: The Latest Wisdom on Gay Issues from Terrence McNally

Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Terrence McNally has written dozens of plays and musicals, four of which have won him Tony Awards, yet as a piece of dramaturgy, his latest, Mothers and Sons, is inept. For the first forty minutes or so the characters stand around and deliver exposition; then they stand around making angry speeches; then they go back to presenting exposition. The standing-around part can be blamed on the director, Sheryl Kaller – this is the most static Broadway play I’ve seen in years – but you’d have to be pretty inventive to create some forward movement in a play that’s almost nothing but speeches.