Saturday, September 6, 2014

Musical Soap: ABC Television's Nashville

The ABC series Nashville – no relation to the great Robert Altman movie – weds melodrama to the best music to be heard consistently on TV since the HBO show Treme completed its tenure. Treme, set in New Orleans following Katrina, was something special: a wide, layered, variegated exploration of a society dealing with the aftermath of a geographical disaster that was also inescapably a political one. The show’s writers threaded half a dozen stories that exposed not only the challenges for New Orleans residents of putting their lives back together but also the ways in which the catastrophe knocked up against corruption in the government and police department both during and after the storm. And as a bonus that reflected the high content of music in the blood of the city of New Orleans, each week the audience got to hear extraordinary musicians perform – some famous, some known mostly to local aficionados, playing themselves, as well as actors playing musicians.

Nashville, which begins its third season this fall, is set in another American city that is defined by its music, but the series isn’t a serious examination of its milieu, nor does it share Treme’s documentary-realist style. It’s a glossy nighttime soap with exaggerated characters and a tortuous, often preposterous plot line. But it’s as entertaining as anything on TV: energetic, engrossing, with characters you keep in your head from week to week and songs you can’t wait to listen to over again. (Each season has produced two CDs; I’ve played all four soundtrack albums so often in my car that I know every tune by heart.) Nashville is the Grand Hotel of television, except that its pop-culture secret – the element that makes it addictive – isn’t star power as much as the power of its music.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Tainted Love: FX's You're the Worst

Chris Geere and Aya Cash star in You're the Worst, on FX.

The summer television season has come and gone, and it was a season of surprising, if ambitious misfires: Hollywood stars couldn't make Crossbones any less absurd or Extant any more compelling, and the less said about the return of Games of Thrones' much-lamented Sean Bean in TNT's painfully derivative Legends the better. But the show I'm already missing (even though it still has two episodes remaining of its 10-episode order) is the one I didn't see coming: FX's dark relationship comedy You're the Worst. Created by former Weeds writer Stephen Falk, the series doesn't come with any super-spies, worldwide apocalyptic events, or mysterious – possibly alien – pregnancies. What it does have is charm, humour, and a delightfully dark undercurrent that it plays without shame.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Allegories and Prophesies in Song: "The Beehive State" and "The Devil Came From Kansas"

Singer/Songwriter Randy Newman, in 1971 (Photo by Charles Seton)

Historian Constance Rourke once observed that Americans are "a people unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation." That particular kind of estrangement is rarely taken up in song, but listening the other day to Randy Newman's deceptively obscure "The Beehive State," from his 1968 debut album Something New Under the Sun, I caught some of the intriguing aloofness in the mystery she poses of what it means to actually be an American. "The Beehive State" begins with a delegate from Kansas taking the Senate floor, where he is asked to describe what his state is all about. But we don't find out very much from him. First, we discover that Kansas is for the farmer and "the little man." The representative then, with a persistence that suggests a declaration of war, tells the senators gathered that they all they need is a firehouse in Topeka. Hardly worth the trouble. Next, the senate calls to the floor a delegate from Utah. He steps forward with a desperate plea that is also rather opaque: he insists Utah needs water to irrigate their desert, but mostly he just urges everyone to tell this country about his state. Why? "'Cause nobody seems to know." But how much do we really know when the song – which is barely two minutes in length – is over? With a relentless staccato rhythm that he builds on the piano, Newman tells this story so swiftly that he barely gives you time to absorb what the song is actually saying (which could be nothing so urgent as a laundry list). But he gives the song all the immediacy of prophesied fact and portentous calamity. "It should be longer," Newman once told an interviewer. "But I couldn't think of more to say." So is less truly more?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

La Dolce Vita: The Trip to Italy

Movies like Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010) elude the reductive marketing categories of studio advertising. The trailer pitched the film as a buddy flick and a road movie, which was certainly true. But those qualities, and the loose-limbed improvisational humor from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, belied its directorial craftsmanship and thematic depth. Winterbottom put on this front intentionally, letting the easy pleasures of the comic structure seduce you into the serious philosophical question at play: Namely, what makes for the good life? Coogan and Brydon traipse around the countryside of northern England, taking in coldly beautiful vistas, fine French cuisine, and precious fraternal companionship. Yet only one of them, Mr. Brydon, actually enjoys the manifold pleasures surrounding them. Mr. Coogan can’t get out of his own egotism. He stumbles through the excursion in haze of pot, career ambitions, empty one-night stands, and narcissistic self-pity. Everything’s a competition with him, even their leisurely impersonations of Michael Caine and James Bond, and you winch at how he squanders relationships – including that with his good friend. For a moment, standing on a cliff of prehistoric rock formations, he steps outside himself and beholds the scene’s grandeur with wonder. But it’s short-lived and he quickly snaps back into his unhappy prison. Winterbottom contrasts him with Brydon’s simpleminded joviality and stable family life, and the picture ends with the question it secretly begins with: Why are some people blissfully content and others impossible to satisfy?

But if the studio execs didn’t know what to make of this character study last time, they’ve got a second chance with the release of The Trip to Italy, Winterbottom’s follow-up (both began as BBC series before morphing into feature films). And he’s made it easier for them, requiring less critical thinking and more pleasurable imbibing. The director and his two actors cut right to the chase (or the road as it were) repeating the premise of the first installment: The pair are to review a series of meals they share on holiday, this time in Italy. In a flash, they’re cruising Piedmont mountain roads in a Mini Cooper and dining on the culinary delights of the Cinque Terre. The ribald banter is back, even more uproarious than before: Coogan and Brydon mind meld into a withering parody of The Dark Knight Rises, the latter yelling inaudibly into his mouth in mockery of Bain before switching to an absurdly hoarse Christian Bale. Coogan matches and even exceeds him later in Capri with an impossibly dead-on imitation of Brando’s Don Corleone. But his is done in reverence; their skewering of Christopher Nolan is mercilessly accurate. Winterbottom also quickly dispatches the question of what a second movie, using the same structure as its predecessor, could have left to say. The boys take jabs at bands who succumb to “second-album syndrome,” after a successful debut; the self-awareness here disarms you with ease.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Full Circle: Revisiting The Beatles' Revolver (1966)

In 1966  before The Beatles abandoned the stage for good with a show at Candlestick Park, in San Francisco, and where Paul McCartney would recently play before the former baseball park itself passed into history  the new studio music they released that summer brought the group full circle to their first session at EMI in 1962. As if to commemorate the concept of completing a circle, the record was called Revolver. Recorded from April through June 1966, Revolver was a rich panorama of musical and philosophical styles, a masterpiece of eclecticism. George Harrison's interest in Indian music and religion came full bloom. The fruit of McCartney's venture into the world of avant-garde theatre, visual art and music fully emerged. John Lennon's fascination with Eastern thoughts about mortality, brought on through chemical enhancement, reached its apex. Ringo Starr even decided to redefine the sound of his drums to provide yet more personality to the music. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sean O’Casey’s Tragicomedy at the Shaw: Juno and the Paycock

Corrine Kolso, Mary Haney, Jim Mezon and Benedict Campbell in Juno and the Paycock (Photo David Cooper)

My introduction to Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock came when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University through a memorable black-box production where the audience sat tennis court-style on either side of a long, rectangular playing area. I recall being continually caught up short by the tonal shifts and amazed by the depth of the tragedy undergirding the domestic comedy: the battles between the long-suffering working-class Dublin housewife Juno Boyle and her indolent husband – known as the Captain because of a brief stint he spent on a ship, which he’s fanned into a romantic tale of maritime adventure – who fakes pains in his legs whenever the chance of a job rears its ugly head, preferring to spend his hours tossing back pints at one of the local snugs with his neighbor Joxer. These two incorrigible codgers are the only ones left on stage at the end, when the Boyle family has been torn apart and the creditors have claimed the furniture; they stumble onstage drunk out of their minds and pass out, in a moment that looks forward to the final curtain of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (where the stage is littered with aging, hopeless dipsomaniacs). In the Brandeis production, one of the pair rolled a whiskey jar to the dead centre of the stage; for the final stage picture, the lights faded to a single special on the empty jar.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sober Realism: A Most Wanted Man – From Novel to Film

Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man
Forget blackmail, I said. Forget the macho. Forget sleep deprivation, locking people in boxes, simulated executions and other enhancements. The best agents, snitches, joes, informants or whatever you want to call them, I pontificated, needed patience, understanding and loving care.
– John le Carré, speaking to cast members of the film adaptation on the art of spycraft.

In John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, which addresses the war on terror and its attendant abuses, Gunther Bachmann, head of a semi-official, Hamburg-based anti-terrorism unit, has been whisked home after suffering a debacle in Beirut that still weighs heavily upon him. Hamburg, home to a large Islamic community and the city that played host to at least six of the 9/11 conspirators, is ten years later a source of angst and embarrassment to German and American intelligence officers. Given their failure to derail that catastrophic attack they are scrambling to disrupt any further terrorist operations. But their methods differ: Bachmann believes that rendition, waterboarding and extrajudicial killings should be jettisoned in favour of relentless surveillance, recruiting and running secret agents to ensure that the suspected targets are actually guilty – a process that takes time and patience. He might be described as a cynical idealist, a post–Cold War, post–9/11 George Smiley figure who understands that espionage often consists of performing the diligent, unheroic and often entirely pointless work of covert politics. His impatient German rivals and superiors, and their counterparts in the American and British secret services prefer to snatch-and-jail every low-level operative rather than wait-and-see in order to uncover a network of jihadists.