Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Sheer Delight: Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes

Of late, Eytan Fox, Israel’s finest filmmaker (Yossi & Jagger, 2002), Walk on Water, 2004), seems to be juggling light and heavy topics in his work. His tragic love story The Bubble (2006), chronicling a fraught romance between two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, was followed by Mary Lou (2009), his made- for-TV frothy musical/drama about a lovelorn drag queen. And Yossi (2012), his sad but hopeful sequel to Yossi & Jagger precedes his latest movie Cupcakes (2013), a bouncy and utterly joyous film about an amateur group of singers who set out to win an international song contest with a simple tune crafted when one of their group has her husband leave her.
That aspect of the story sounds depressing but Cupcakes is deliberately staying away from a downbeat theme, or for that matter, from the political end of things – Israel, even now during its war with Hamas, cannot be defined solely by politics – in favour of a positive message about staying true to yourself and following your dreams. If this were an American movie, you can imagine how sentimental and predictable it might have turned out to be. But Israeli cinema does not traffic in such obvious formulas and Cupcakes never strikes a false or corny note. No surprise there as Fox remains one of the most consistent movie-makers around.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Marking Time: Richard Linklater's Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's Boyhood

In the opening scene of Richard Linklater's audaciously conceived memoir, Boyhood, the camera captures the dreamy face of six-year-old Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), lying on the grass and staring up at the scattered clouds, as if they could carry him past the temporal plane of his early childhood. The rest of the picture is, of course, about carrying Mason Jr. (as well as the audience) past our more conventional notions of temporal time. In Boyhood, Richard Linklater traces the early life of a young boy into adolescence, and he accomplished this by periodically shooting the movie over a twelve-year period, thus allowing us to literally follow his life (along with that of his family and friends) from the time he is six until he is eighteen. Being no stranger to the emotional struggles of adolescence (Dazed and Confused), or determining what's permanent and what's fleeting in time's passing (The Before Trilogy, Tape), Linklater also tries to find imaginative ways to dramatically render what's cerebral (as he once demonstrated in Waking Life). The full body of his work indeed gets effortlessly diffused throughout the two hours and forty-six minutes of Boyhood. But for all its daring originality, where Linklater introduces into film narrative a radical new approach to dramatic naturalism, the actual drama of Boyhood gets largely swallowed up by its concept. Boyhood ends up marking time rather than uncorking the ephemera of life that time marks.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Going Down Swinging: Remembering Charlie Haden 1937-2014

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)
The jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who died July 11, was an easy artist to pigeonhole. It pleases me to believe that, because I unfairly pigeonholed him for years, admiring his playing but thinking of him as a sidekick to the great saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. When Haden was twenty-two, he played on Coleman’s third album, the aptly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). Haden continued to play with Coleman on bandstands and on tour and on such albums as This Is Our Music (1960), Free Jazz (1961), Science Fiction (1971), In All Languages (1987), and the 1971 set of duets, Soapsuds, Soapsuds. He also came together with three other Coleman acolytes—Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, and Ed Blackwell—to form Old and New Dreams, a free-jazz super-group devoted to interpretations of the master’s early repertoire.

I discovered Coleman and Haden in my late teens, long after the revolution in sound that Coleman had begun in the 1950s had been won, or at least fought to a standstill. Moldy figs—a group that, in Coleman’s case, included such unlikely counter-revolutionaries as Miles Davis—no longer called the man a charlatan who was most likely insane, at least not out loud, where people could hear them. At the time, I didn’t know anything about jazz, old or new, and lacked easy access to the stuff. For myself and a lot of other people like me, who were into wild, abrasive rock, the electricity and crazy force of Coleman’s music, and the music of such disciples as the guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer and the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, provided the clearest gateway into the music. Both those guys would drop massive, album-length statements—in particular, Ulmer’s Odyssey (1983) and Jackson’s Red Warrior (1991)—that mesmerized listeners at the nexus point between rock and jazz like the Monolith from 2001. But neither demonstrated the range of interests and abilities that Haden displayed over the course of his career, until his shadow loomed almost as large as Coleman’s own. (Haden’s own connections to rock were also familial: he had four children, musicians all, including Petra and Rachel Haden of the great lost ‘90s indie band That Dog. Petra also recorded an awesomely weird “a cappella” version of the single greatest rock album of all time, The Who Sell Out.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Singing for the Love of Singing: Harry Dean Stanton's Partly Fiction

Director David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton.

Harry Dean Stanton? He’s that actor right? (Yes, over 200 movies.) And now they’ve made a documentary about him. It’s called Partly Fiction because Kris Kristofferson wrote this lyric, and maybe it’s about Stanton. It certainly seems to describe him:

He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

I watched the trailer for the film, and when asked by David Lynch how he would describe himself, Stanton replies, “As nothing. There is no self.” Lynch presses, “How would you like to be remembered?” and Stanton says, “Doesn’t matter.” Throughout the trailer, and I assume the rest of the film, Harry Dean Stanton maintains the same attitude. He does the least possible in his films and perhaps in his life. I saw him on a TV special one time, I think it might have been a tribute to Jack Nicholson, and he sang with Art Garfunkel. I remember the event, vaguely, but I recall no specifics. Just that I watched it. I remembered it, but not well. I think Stanton would be pleased.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Restart Last Checkpoint: How Nintendo Surprised The World at E3 2014

In January, I wrote in the voice of a bruised and battered soldier who was tired of fighting a war in which he had no stake. This was an accurate (if slightly hyperbolic) way to describe how many people felt towards Japanese video game giant Nintendo, and the way that, in the past several years, the company had seemingly lost its way, abandoning both the fundamental creative ideals that made them famous, and the demographic of young, wide-eyed dreamers who helped them do it. In 2013 Nintendo reported appalling sales figures for their latest gaming console, the Wii U, and company president Satoru Iwata took a massive pay cut. Many were worried that this heralded the beginning of the end, but I had a feeling that Nintendo would persevere – they’ve always been insular enough (and wealthy enough) to weather even the stormiest of markets. What I didn’t expect, and what Nintendo delivered to a world of shocked and smiling consumers at this year’s E3 event, was a company that, even from the lofty peak of success upon which they nest, had been listening and learning all along.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Classic Musical and a Comedy About Musicians: Fiddler on the Roof and Living on Love

Fiddler on the Roof (Photo by Diane Sobolewski).

Working on one of those Goodspeed Opera House sets (designed by Michael Schweikardt) that are small miracles of permutation and economy, Rob Ruggiero’s production of Fiddler on the Roof refurbishes the great Broadway show for a more intimate space without sacrificing its dramatic power, the musicality of its Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score, or the breadth of Joseph Stein’s book. (Parker Esse has reproduced the Jerome Robbins choreography – which, given its distinctness and celebrity, is probably the best idea. I assume it’s also a copyright requirement.) With Adam Heller giving a superb performance as Tevye the dairyman, who carries on informal conversations with God as he hauls his cart through the streets of the Russian town of Anatevka, the Goodspeed Fiddler is all that one might hope.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Repercussions of Violence: Joyce Carol Oates' Carthage

The first thing that I noticed about Joyce Carol Oates’ gripping, almost visceral novel, Carthage (HarperCollins, 2014) is that the title resonates with associations from the ancient world. There is Virgil’s jilted Dido, queen of Carthage, spurned by Aeneas, who put service to nation above love. Carthage is also the city state in North Africa where the Romans soundly thrashed the Carthaginians and then covered the area with salt so that nothing could grow. Both of these associations reverberate throughout the novel which is mainly set in the small town of Carthage in upper state New York. It is about the damage individuals inflict on one another and the toxic repercussions of war in a small American town. The individuals most affected are either forcibly relocated or move away so that they can get on with their lives. Metaphorically, Carthage has become covered with salt.

Structured in three parts, Carthage begins with Zeno Mayfield and a search party who are on the hunt for Mayfield’s missing nineteen-year-old daughter, Cressida, in the Adirondack woods. The first part chronicles in 2005 the mysterious circumstances leading up to and surrounding the girl’s assumed murder. The night before, Cressida – a spiky, brainy and troubled loner – had uncharacteristically gone to a rowdy lakeside tavern, where she met and left with her older sister Juliet’s ex-fiancé, Brett Kincaid, a onetime Carthage High football star, now a decorated Iraqi War hero. Suspicion falls upon him the morning after Cressida’s disappearance when he is discovered passed out in his pickup in a nature preserve and her blood is found in the truck. Given that her body is not found, the legal procedures and the grieving process in her family become more complicated. What begins as both a carefully crafted suspense thriller and family drama expands into a layered exploration individual culpability and how violence affects families, especially women. Oates suspends judgement by letting her characters provide their own perspectives in alternating passages and sometimes whole chapters.