Saturday, October 4, 2014

Separation and Deliverance: Revisiting Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000)

The horror of the Holocaust and the fate of its survivors has been depicted from just about every conceivable perspective, but Mark Jonathan Harris's Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000) found another story seldom heard. Harris had already been acclaimed previously for The Long Way Home (1997), which depicted the flight of Jewish refugees and how it lead to the state of Israel, but here he examines the fate of the children who were separated from their parents and sent into exile during the war, in many cases forever. For nine months, just before the Second World War, Britain organized an extraordinary mission of mercy. It transported and opened its doors to more than 10,000 Jewish and other children from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia. The children – or Kinder, as they came to be known – were placed in foster homes in the hope they would be reunited with their parents. Many of the children never saw their folks again. Amassing some stunning archival footage, Harris interviewed dozens of surviving Kinder where, now nearing the end of their lives, they finally got a chance to tell their story. In one scene, a woman recounts the moment she was torn from her mother at the train station, while another describes the dislocating estrangement of living in a foreign country and not knowing the language or customs. Into the Arms of Strangers provides numerous epiphanies that reverberate such as the story of the child who is questioned about his lofty position, because he owns a violin, but then surprises and moves his inquisitors by playing an impeccable version of "God Save the King."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dark City: FOX's Gotham

Donal Logue and Benjamin McKenzie star in Gotham, on FOX
"…with a very few examples of cruelty he will be more compassionate than those who, out of excessive mercy, permit disorders to continue, from which arise murders and plundering; for these usually harm the community at large, while the executions that come from the prince harm particular individuals." Machiavelli, The Prince

"You can't have organized crime without law and order." Don Falcone, Gotham 
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the premiere episode of Gotham. I had pre-set expectations for FOX's much publicized Batman-without-Batman prequel series, and they were mainly skeptical. Ten years of Smallville (especially the more tortured plot and character elements of its final season) loomed large in my mind as September approached. As fun as the notion of a story set in Gotham years before the arrival of its caped and cowled crusader might be in theory, Gotham seemed a project destined to be over-burdened by a famously established future continuity and a wealth of film and television adaptations of the Batman universe. Developed for television by Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, HBO's Rome), the show promises to tell the largely unwritten story of a young James Gordon, destined of course to become Police Commissioner Gordon and Batman's best official defender, but who for now is still a rookie detective finding his way in a thoroughly corrupt police department. However, if the pilot is any indication of its ambitions, Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie, Southland) is merely the face of the show's real main character, the city of Gotham itself.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Neglected Gems # 64 & # 65: Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (1999) and The Gift (2001)

Billy Bob Thornton in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan

The mournful opening shots of Sam Raimi’s devastating A Simple Plan display an almost other-worldly snowy expanse – a nature preserve where the story begins and ends. Along with Danny Elfman’s minor-key theme music and the voice-over by Bill Paxton’s Hank Mitchell – repeating his dad’s credo that what makes a man happy are “simple things, really: a wife he loves, a decent job, friends and neighbors who respect him” – these images are ominous: we understand immediately that we’re about to see Hank’s happiness come to an end. A Simple Plan is set in a Minnesota farming community, in a winter that seems to go on forever, like a season in hell. (The fine cinematography is by Alar Kivilo.) Hank is the orphan son of a failed farmer. He works as an accountant in a feed mill, while his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda), who’s about to give birth to their first child, has a job at the local library. His older brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) is an unsophisticated ne’er-do-well who spends his time hanging around with Lou Chambers (Brent Briscoe), a scrappy, sour alcoholic who can’t hold onto a job and whom Hank, a prime proponent of the Yankee work ethic, can’t abide. Lou’s marriage to a tough bird named Nancy (Becky Lou Baker) is one of those familiar embattled relationships that are bound by ties so deep you can’t see them. (They trade loud obscenities in public, but they’d never split up.) Nancy is really peripheral to the story, though, which for most of its duration has only four characters in it: Hank and Sarah, Jacob and Lou.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Good News X 3: Steph Cameron, Loudon Wainwright III & Jesse Winchester

With the recent news that Bob Dylan has two upcoming releases, The Complete Basement Tapes in November, and a new album for later this year, it's hard for me to contain my enthusiasm for the former and my interest in the latter. Dylan continues to be an important artist regardless of his failing voice. He writes, tours and reaches people through his songs no matter how jaded one might feel about the music business in general. Even at this stage in his career, some critics can dismiss Dylan, but he certainly cannot be ignored. Which brings me to a young singer-songwriter from Winlaw, British Columbia, by the name of Steph Cameron. Considering the thousands upon thousands of singers with guitars looking for the grail of artistic and financial success, she is a standout for her turns of phrase and first-rate guitar playing on her debut album, Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Counterscript: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

The best way I can think of to both summarize and recommend David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is to compare it to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Both are sublime fantasies that plumb the depths of human experience, encouraging our nascent desire to believe that there are worlds and powers unknown to us, hiding behind the curtain of everyday life. Both narratives swirl around the nexus of a girl, who perseveres through hardship and sacrifice to emerge as a woman on the other side. And both represent a level of skill and craft in storytelling that are, in my eyes, unrivaled in fiction.

When Holly Sykes, introduced as a teenager in 1980s Britain, finally becomes a vessel for a supernatural war, it comes as no surprise. Her beginnings in Kent give no indication that she will be brought together in the Swiss Alps with Hugo Lamb, Cambridge “poshboy” and all-around cad, and go on to start a family with war correspondent Ed Brubeck, and a friendship with has-been novelist Crispin Hershey. None of these intricate inter-relationships suggest the larger story at play, but you – and Holly – know that it is waiting there at the edge of sight, burning slowly, biding its time. When it does arrive, and The Bone Clocks fully embraces its outlandish core narrative, it feels inevitable, and as natural as breathing. The characters are the true focus of Mitchell’s talent, the sentinels standing astride the story, and they are imbued with seductive power. Through Holly’s eyes, the world is bright and immediate and difficult, hard to trust and harder to love; through Hugo’s, it’s a panoply of charades and facades, of use and misuse, of Ayn Randian self-interest and unwelcome conscience; through Crispin’s, it’s humourous and self-obsessed and cynical, full of vanity, loneliness, and the cruelties of age. Any one of these perspectives would be enough to carry a solid novel – but Mitchell gives us these and more, and they never cloy or overstay their welcome. Each is a world that is delightful to inhabit, even in its darkest and ugliest moments, that feels so fantastical and real that it can only be true.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tragic Muse: Medea and A Streetcar Named Desire

Danny Sapani and Helen McCrory in Medea, at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The great Greek tragedies are as hard and piercing as flint, and they lead us into a terrible darkness. The best productions, like Carrie Cracknell’s of Euripides’s Medea at the National Theatre (featured a few weeks ago in the NT Live HD series), leave us feeling altered. Euripides was a master ironist and a master of language; he was also a brilliant psychologist, and never more so than in Medea, a witheringly complex and precise portrait of a woman who, cut to the bone by her husband Jason’s betrayal – he abandons her and their young sons to marry Glauce, the princess of Corinth – decides that the only way to get revenge is first to poison the bride and then murder her own boys. (She convinces herself that she’s somehow protecting the children by keeping them safe from their enemies.) Euripides doesn’t make it easy for his audience: he refuses to portray Medea as mad – to give us a way of understanding her behavior that distances her from us. The chorus of Corinthian women who interact only with her sympathizes with her anger, though it terrifies them. Her logic, ghastly as it is, is no less reasonable than Jason’s when he protests that she’s the problem, that her temper has made her her own worst enemy, and explains that marrying into the royal family will somehow benefit her and their sons.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

More than Just a New Perspective: Jo Baker's Longbourn

In the interest of full disclosure, a confession: I love Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceI loved it when I read it for the first time in fifth grade, I loved it even more when I understood it more fully in high school, and that love only grew deeper during re-readings in college and afterwards when I could reflect more consciously on the gender and class dynamics that the original novel depicts. And I will defend the novel, on literary and social grounds, before all comers. It is, for one, set in a remarkable context – the family at the center of the novel are not members of the 1%, where most of the novels of the period take place, but members of the 15% where the pressures from below and above are most keenly felt. Every devotee of Pride and Prejudice will tell you that it is Elizabeth Bennet who is the heroine of the story, despite the fact that the narratives of her older sister (Jane) and younger sister (Lydia) both follow the more standard trajectory of romantic and moral narratives. But the reason I, and generations of other women, love Elizabeth Bennet is because she is capable of saying ‘no’: without blushing, and without prevaricating, she is a wholly feminine, intelligent woman who has no qualms about refusing the narrative that has been laid out for her. And while her opposite number, Darcy, begins the book as a rude misogynist, he too is worthy of continuing affection, if only because he is a man who respects (or at least, learns to respect) a woman who says ‘no.’

Because I love Pride and Prejudice, I am wary of adaptations and spin-offs. I enjoyed the two most famous movie adaptations of the novel (1940 and 2005), and Melissa Nathan’s modern and layered retelling in Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field (HarperCollins, 2001). But I have not read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2009), and I feel no great urgency to do so. I’m sure it is, on its own terms, a remarkable book, but I have no particular desire to remake the world of the original. And this is the distinction for me between good and bad sequels or adaptations: does they break the original? Or do they widen the readers’ perspective on the original without resorting to interventions that undermine Austen’s text? It is in stretching the world of Pride and Prejudice without breaking it, in preserving the original in the service of creating something genuinely new, that Jo Baker's Longbourn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) excels.