Saturday, August 23, 2014

"There are Always Choices": Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace

Author and historian Margaret MacMillan (Photo by Brett Gundlock)

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Jessica L. Radin, to our group.

For those of us who love to read, finding a work of history that is that perfect combination of well written and well researched is something of a Holy Grail. Well-written histories often tend toward the personal, and, while such books are enjoyable, the knowledge that they yield is often at best sparse, and at worst dubious and ideologically inflected. Well-researched histories, full of information, can be so dry and so lacking in narrative that they suck the life out the stories that they (barely) tell. It is tempting to resort to summaries – and particular this month, with the world commemorating WWI, such summaries abound.

But, if you can find a history which is well written and well researched, there is almost nothing more satisfying – those are the texts which illuminate moments, facts, and people that perhaps we have heard of, have seen illustrated in photographs and paintings, but about which we know very little. Margaret MacMillan’s two books on WWI provide precisely that illumination and, with a light touch that always avoids pedantry, can remind readers of why the Great War still has lessons to teach us today. While Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (Random House, 2003) – MacMillan's award-winning account of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the war – is perhaps the more famous of the two, in this centenary year it serves us best to start at the beginning. In The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Random House, 2013), MacMillan provides a riveting account of how the world went to war.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Orson Welles: Modernist and Elegist

Orson Welles, on the set of Citizen Kane

There has been no one in the entire history of the American theatre quite like Orson Welles. Part prodigy, part carny spieler who rewrote his family history to such an extent over the course of his fabled career that he was largely self-invented, he talked his way onto the stage in his teens and by the mid-1930s had established himself as the most exciting young director in New York. This was at a time when FDR’s Works Progress Association had generated the Federal Theatre Project, the aim of which was to provide work for professional theatre folk and which, due to the convictions of its director, Hattie Flanagan, resided squarely in the left wing. Welles directed an all-black cast in a Haiti-set Macbeth that became popularly known as The Voodoo Macbeth; an up-to-the-minute Fascist Julius Caesar (with himself as Brutus); Marc Blitzstein’s satirical musical The Cradle Will Rock, which, locked out of its playhouse at the last minute, staged an opening night across town – without set, costumes or anything but the most rudimentary, off-the-cuff lighting – that was more dramatic and certainly more memorable than anything in the play itself.

At the same time Welles and his producing partner John Houseman brought live theatre to the air in a series of broadcasts called The Mercury Theatre that included the most famous – and infamous – of all radio programs, the 1938 Halloween dramatization of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. When he moved on to Hollywood, his debut was so eagerly anticipated that RKO Studios invited him to co-write, direct and star in his own project. That was Citizen Kane, released in 1941, when Welles was all of twenty-six years old. His directorial career, which lasted not quite three decades, was blighted by a chronic difficulty to get funding for his ventures – the consequence of a reputation as an unreliable spendthrift that was largely the fabrication of Louella Parsons, the powerful gossip columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper syndicate, whose boss was displeased with the way Kane had portrayed her boss (in a transparent fictional guise). But that career was also marked by some of the most staggering achievements in American cinema. Both as a director and as an actor Welles was a walking legend for the rest of his life, the definition of the theatrical enfant terrible and ego-driven multi-tasker. (The 1953 musical The Band Wagon, written by Comden and Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli, offers a light-hearted send-up of the Orson Welles of the popular imagination in the person of actor-director Jeffrey Cordova, played by Jack Buchanan.)

The virtual creator of conceptual directing, the first director to fit classic texts to modern settings, a conqueror of one twentieth-century technology (film) after another (radio), the first American filmmaker to make significant stylistic strides in the employment of sound (even though Kane came out fourteen years after the official birth of the talkies), one of the two American directors – the other was William Wyler – to import the deep focus lens that enabled the camera to show foreground, middle ground and background with equal clarity in the same frame, Welles was an embodiment of theatrical modernism. But he was a paradox. All of his best movies, beginning with Kane and ending with Chimes at Midnight, his last full-length dramatic feature, in 1967, in some way represent a conflict about the modern age wherein the boundless energy and hurdling drive of the new struggles with a longing for what it’s irrevocably replaced.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Pride of the Yankees: Derek Jeter's Final Bow

Derek Jeter in 2008, after his 1,270th hit at Yankee Stadium, breaking Lou Gehrig's record (Photo: Barton Silverman)

No start to a sporting season garners the kind of response from observers that baseball elicits. The 2014 contest is halfway over; back in April, commentators everywhere greeted the return of pitch and catch with the kind of paeans reserved for myth. The link between baseball, spring, and eternal youth is made much of, and that mysticism never fails to register in my heart at some level. It's impossible to grow up in Cooperstown, as I did, and not feel a spiritual connection to the game unique among Americans. But this season's especially poignant for me as Derek Jeter – captain of the Yankees, hero to legions of New Yorkers – bids baseball farewell. In the shadow of his retirement, this season's symbolized not just the rebirth of hope, but the ending of an era – for a city, for a team, for me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Don McKellar Hot and Cold: The Grand Seduction and Sensitive Skin

Brendon Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch in The Grand Seduction

Considering his myriad credits as actor, screenwriter, playwright and director, a true Renaissance man, it comes as something of a surprise when you realize that The Grand Seduction (2013) is only Don McKellar’s third film as a director. That’s all the more shocking when you take into account that his debut feature, the quietly powerful and moving apocalyptic science fiction movie Last Night (1998), was simply stunning. (I chose it as one of the best Canadian films of all time when polled by the Toronto International Film Festival.) But perhaps it’s due to the vagaries of a local film industry that has become more fixated on box office of late that when McKellar’s second movie Childstar (2004), an uneven but smart comedy about a spoiled American child actor on the loose in Toronto, did very badly commercially (I heard five figures in total box office) that it took nearly a decade for McKellar to get another cinematic shot behind the camera. Fortunately, if he needed an impressive calling card to remind people out there of how good he is then The Grand Seduction fits the bill nicely.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Golden Guys: The Expendables 3

I was tired of The Expendables (2010) before I even saw it. Who wants to watch two hours of senile old Grandpa waving his gun around, pretending the war’s still on? With their “we may be old, but we can still be badass” mentality, the first two Expendables films swung and missed spectacularly. This was especially offensive to me as a passionate fan of the films that Stallone and Schwarzenegger used to make. Here, in the twilight of blockbuster season, I found a film that neither satisfied nor subverted my expectations, but was content to provide a simple, entertaining experience, and to hell with everybody else’s opinions. The Expendables 3 is exactly what it aims to be, and thank God they’re finally aiming in the right direction.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Never, Never: Finding Neverland

Under Diane Paulus’ leadership, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater – once a bastion of the avant-garde – has become a clearing house for Broadway-bound shows. In the two years since she took over as artistic director, Paulus has sent five plays on to New York: her own revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin; Once (which began as a workshop at A.R.T.); the latest revival of The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones; and the first part of Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ biography, All the Way (which began its journey across the country at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). I saw all of them in their A.R.T. incarnations except for Once, and they were all sell-outs; Boston is evidently thrilled to be a tryout town once again, as it was for most of the last century. But even though I didn’t care for most of the productions I saw at A.R.T. in its old form, Paulus’ blatant commercialism is a little unsettling, especially since two of the shows bore her name as director.

Her latest is Finding Neverland, a musical adaptation of the 2004 movie that covers the period during which J.M. Barrie conceived his 1904 stage play Peter Pan. If you watched the Tony Awards this year you already know about the show, because – in that benighted telecast’s most bizarre moment – we were treated to a preview of the musical, which opens on Broadway next season: Jennifer Hudson sang one of the tunes to four little boys standing in for the Llewelyn-Davies brothers for whom Barrie becomes a surrogate father. Appearances notwithstanding, Hudson is not expected to take over the role of James Barrie, which is being played by Newsies star Jeremy Jordan.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Guns of August: 100 Years Later

The Flag by Byam Shaw (1919)

These reflections were inspired by the two-day conference “1914-1918 The Making of the Modern World” held at the Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs on July 30 and 31, 2014. Speakers presented papers on a wide variety of topics, both national and international, on military, political, social and artistic themes associated with the Great War and its legacy. The conference concluded with a visit to the residence of the Lieutenant Governor, David Onley, at Queens Park and later that evening with an emotional evening of military formations, music and speakers at Varsity Arena packed with 6000 people. I will not attempt to address all topics and speakers but will focus on one thread, albeit never explicitly stated: the frequent disconnect between how veterans and civilians experienced and recalled the war and the contemporary and later attempts to depict it in art and popular culture.

Apart from commemorations, my impression is that most public awareness about the Great War is derived from films – All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli to name just a few – or from novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. What they all have in common is their anti-war message, that this war, as opposed to the Second World War, was not only a tragedy but a waste. Even Margaret Macmillan in her masterfully-delivered keynote overview on the origins and legacy of the war used the word “waste” to signify the human losses and the problems that it created: among them, that without the war, Russia would have evolved into a constitutional monarchy and the Bolsheviks would have never come to power; without Germany’s defeat, Hitler and Nazism may not have occurred, and no Second World War. And the problems in the Middle East that continue to bedevil us are in part a legacy of the war.