Saturday, February 28, 2015

Guts on the Page: Notes on the Absolute Unity of Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau. (Photo by Carola Dibbell)


The one time I broke bread with Robert Christgau, he told me a variant of the old joke equating opinions with assholes: “Everybody’s got one.” “Ah,” he grinned, “but not everybody has 10,000!” That joke turns up in the introduction to his new book, Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (Dey Street; 367 pp.), but it’s followed by the real zinger: “It distresses me that the wit of this riposte so often fails to impress the asshole I’m talking to.” Wondering if I laughed hard enough at the time to have eluded that tag, I bored into this mass of unadulterated Bob-ness and felt on every single one the pull of warmth and acuity against the push of bluster and bullying—the alternating currents that for me have always characterized Christgau’s criticism.

This applies to Going into the City as much as to any other thing he’s written. A partial list of words describing his work might include self-aggrandizing, pompous, invidious, overwritten, showoffy, superficial, and hipsterish. Among the things his work could never be accused of being are uninformed, ungenerous, humorless, evasive, snobbish, sluggish, falsely modest, and truly modest. That he lacks the latter has always made Christgau one of the few pop critics worth following; that he brandishes the former has meant that reading him is a conflicted, jittery experience, pleasurable and despairing both, in which a helpless and melting love for one so wise and wonderful is certain to be summarily smacked by an ego so unmediated one can scarcely countenance it in an adult old enough to get drugstore discounts.

Friday, February 27, 2015

American Dreams: ABC's Fresh Off the Boat

Randall Park and Constance Wu in ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.

Comedies are a tricky business: an always mysterious alchemy of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and like a good joke, possible to dissect but impossible to clearly explain. The family sitcom – from Family Ties to The Simpsons to Everybody Loves Raymond to Modern Family to this season's Black-ish – is perhaps a bit easier to break down. The family, like the workplace, is perhaps the closest thing to a universal experience we currently have. In the end if the relationships feel real and the comic nuances hit the right tone, it doesn't matter whether that workplace is a police station, a paper supply distributor, or a parks department in a small Midwestern town, nor if the family is white and upwardly mobile, Italian Catholic, Black, gay or straight, or even animated. Whatever their experience might be, viewers will find their own way into that world – and having done so hopefully laugh a little. But this balance between the known and the unknown is perhaps where most of the battles are won and lost. Err on the side of too familiar, and a new series simply feels unnecessary. Too unfamiliar, and well, even the most pointed and brilliant comedy will never find an audience to begin with.  

Earlier this month, ABC premiered Fresh Off the Boat, a new family comedy adapted from the 2013 bestselling memoir of the same name by restaurateur, and former Food Channel personality, Eddie Huang. The sitcom begins in 1995 – as 11-year-old Eddie, his parents, his Mandarin-speaking grandmother, and his two young brothers move from Washington D.C.'s Chinatown to sunny and suburban Orlando to follow his father's dream of opening a restaurant. Eddie's parents Louis and Jessica are Taiwanese born, but Eddie and his brothers are American, born and raised – albeit within the shelter of an urban Chinese enclave. The "boat" they are "fresh off " of is in fact a minivan, though Florida might as well be a new continent for the Huangs. In full on Wonder Years mode, the real-life 32-year-old Eddie Huang provides a voiceover to many of these early episodes, giving the series a recurrent taste of some of the bite of his memoir, while also providing some insight into the young Eddie's struggles in his new environment. ("Remember: this was 1995, before the Internet. I couldn't just search, 'Asian kids who like hip-hop.' I had to figure out a way to fit in.”)

To get a few things out of the way quickly: Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American network comedy since Margaret Cho's All-American Girl was aired and cancelled (also by ABC) in 1994, a full year before this nostalgic coming-of-age period comedy is actually set. On those terms, Fresh Off the Boat is both significant, and important. Those terms, however, don't tell us what perhaps is most urgent: is the new series funny, charming, and (apologies!) fresh enough to watch? Fortunately, the answer is a firm yes. Six episodes have already aired and all demonstrate that Fresh Off the Boat is likely the most promising new network comedy of 2015.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Neglected Gem #72: Funnyman (1967)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, which cleaned up at the Academy Awards this past weekend, is about an underappreciated actor’s struggle to break through a creative and personal block and redeem himself in his own eyes and those of his friends, colleagues, his audience, and his muse. Gonzalez Inerritu and his co-screenwriters, Nicolas Giacogone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, inflate their subject into a commentary on the current state of Western culture and a teasing reality-vs.-illusion game about the extent of the hero’s madness, dressed up in a sustained technical feat that must have demanded crack, to-the-second timing from everyone involved. John Korty’s obscure 1967 movie Funnyman, starring Peter Bonerz as an actor working in improvisational revue theater in San Francisco, offers the chance to see the same basic idea treated more modestly, in a casual, off-the-cuff manner. It makes for an interesting contrast, though that’s hardly the only reason to see Funnyman, if you ever have the chance. (Never released to home video, the movie recently turned up briefly on YouTube, and was included in a rare Korty retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Humour and Humanity in the Memoirs of Catherine Gildiner

Author Catherine Gildiner in Toronto (Photo by Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News)

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
This apt epigraph opens Catherine Gildiner’s first volume, Too Close to the Falls (ECW Press, 1999), of a memoirs’ trilogy that was followed by After The Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009) and Coming Ashore (ECW 2014). Anecdotally, some readers have indicated that they prefer the first volume and I think I understand why. It has laugh-out-loud humour and describes, in the style befitting a young precocious Cathy McClure (her maiden name), life during the conservative 1950s in small-town Lewistown, New York, and a childhood that, though chock-a-block with incredible escapades, was a happy, secure one, albeit in some ways unconventional. (Cathy, for example,  has no memory of ever having eaten a dinner at home since her mother did not want to cook.) Perhaps most importantly, each of the thirteen chapters recounts a pivotal event or relationship that reverberates in the subsequent volumes, a pattern I noticed because I read the third volume first and read backward to the first. Arguably, After the Falls has a less sassy, more sombre tone than Too Close as she describes her activism in the civil rights movement after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and explores more fully her relationship with her parents. Nonetheless, that and the concluding volume, that narrates her time in Oxford, Cleveland and Toronto from 1968 until 1974, acquire greater depth and continue to demonstrate her strengths. She is a gifted story-teller who vividly evokes the cultural texture of the eras of her memoirs. She also reveals her humour, her vulnerabilities and above all her humanity, alongside a penchant for finding herself in bizarre and almost improbable circumstances.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Swan Song: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a documentary with an extraordinary sense of time and place. The turbulent period it captures within the walls of the secretive Studio Ghibli, Japan’s premier animation house and purveyor of inexhaustible whimsy, feels like the last deep breath before the end, chronicling the release of two animated feature films: studio director Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (the latter of which was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards). Like Miyazaki himself, it’s at once as melancholy and uplifting as all Ghibli films, and serves as not only a glimpse into one of the most reclusive film studios in the world, but as a lasting testament to the magic that lives there.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lady, Be Good!: Flapper-Era Gershwin

Tommy Tune in Lady, Be Good! at New York’s City Center. (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

George Gershwin wrote sixteen Broadway musical scores in the 1920s (two were shared with other composers), and though some of the early ones rendered up small treasures like “Drifting Along with the Tide,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Somebody Loves Me,” his first distinguished work was for Lady, Be Good! in 1924. It was his initial collaboration with his brother Ira, and the first he wrote for the peerless team of Fred and Adele Astaire, who later starred in the Gershwins’ Funny Face. (In Hollywood, at what turned out to be the final years of George’s far-too-short life, he and Ira wrote two fantastic movie scores for Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and one for Astaire without Rogers.) Adele never made a movie – she retired in 1932 to marry an English lord – but she was reportedly Fred’s most gifted dance partner, and if there is no visual record of the quality of her dancing, the recordings they did together preserve her quicksilver flapper personality. Several of the most charming ones are from Lady, Be Good!, including “Hang on to Me” and the ineffable “Fascinating Rhythm,” a syncopated tune that seems to embody an entire era.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Evolving Female Detective: Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc Novels

Novelist Cara Black (Photo by Michael Allen Jones)

From a doorway, Aimée saw the flic round the corner, then stop and question a woman with shopping bags. Quickly, Aimeé slipped inside the tattoo parlor. […] Seated before the mirror, a tanned, topless woman fanned herself with a Paris Match magazine. From the edge of her left shoulder to the top of her spine, an intricate lizard design was etched in green-blue. Fine droplets of blood beaded the edges. Hunched behind her, a man with a whirring instrument started intently at her back.
Aimée winced. The price of adornment was minimal to some.
Not to her.  
The coppery smell of blood made her uneasy.
Outside the curtain, she heard the flic questioning the makeup artist in the next room. No way she could go out there now.
The tattooist tapped his fingers on a Formica table lined with instruments. 
Footsteps approached.
“Go ahead.” She nodded, then put her head down. She covered her face with a towel and pulled a sheet over her leather skirt, praying it would be over quick. And that the flic would leave.
From Murder in the Sentier, the 4th book in the Aimée Leduc Investigations by Cara Black
If you are a voracious reader – and when I say voracious, I mean the sort of person who dives headlong into a new book full of hopes (often to be disappointed) – there are few things more satisfying that finding a genuinely rich and satisfying series character. While single works of literature often provide new best friends or lifelong influences (Pip, Elizabeth Bennet, Madame Defarge, Butt the Hoopoe…), our relationship to characters who we encounter in book after book may be less dramatic but far deeper. Granted, series’ characters are often less dramatic in their emotional impact – it is hard to imagine Oliver Twist retaining his impact if we were to follow him into middle age and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. But a good recurrent character, the kind that is hard to build and even harder to maintain, can impact the reader more softly, more slowly, the way that an old friend does. They may rarely surprise us, but they are a joy to be around, and when they do surprise us the revelation may be all the more shocking by virtue of its unexpectedness.

Recurrent characters are generally to be found in the mystery/detective/thriller genre of novels. One of the earliest paragons of this type is without a doubt Sherlock Holmes, who set a standard for recurrent detective fiction and actually introduced the idea of narrative continuity into the genre. The brilliant, addicted, and socially dysfunctional Holmes has been followed by a host of remarkable characters – among them Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey, Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot, Parker’s Spenser, Grafton’s Milhone, and Camilleri’s Montalbano. Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc is an important voice in this chorus, and it is through Aimée that Black’s books illustrate both how far the genre of the recurring detective has come, and how much room there still is for it to evolve.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Slap-Happy: NBC's The Slap

Zachary Quinto in The Slap.

The Slap is a title that gets right to the point of a limited-run NBC series – only eight episodes – about the dysfunctional dynamic of several families gathered for a Brooklyn birthday party. Perhaps this new drama should be called The Blink, as in blink and you’ll miss it. Which would be a shame, given the stellar cast and a timely premise: In an age of permissive helicopter parents, what happens when a child of about six, still being breast-fed and bearing the burden of a name like Hugo, is disciplined by another kid’s father for unruly behavior? That slapper is Harry (the always fascinating Zachary Quinto), a working class guy with a short fuse. He’s the cousin of Hector (Peter Sarsgaard, also a gem of an actor), an urban planner who is turning 40, has not gotten an anticipated promotion and is experiencing a mid-life crisis mostly geared to fantasies about a flirtatious teenage babysitter, Connie (Makenzie Leigh, Gotham). His wife Aisha (Thandie Newton) is a doctor; they have two biracial children. Add to the mix a Greek immigrant generation, a paternal grandpa and grandma portrayed by Brian Cox and Maria Tucci, critical of their daughter-in-law’s 21st-century feminist ways. The slapped brat in question (Dylan Schombing) is coddled by his dad, Gary (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom), a struggling artist type resentful of Garry’s nouveau riche status thanks to a lucrative high-end car dealership. The nursing mom, Rosie (Melissa George, The Good Wife) seems to think of Hugo as a misunderstood genius.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My Brave Face: Interview with Luca Perasi (Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions, 1969-2013)

At the 2012 Grammy Awards, while young audiences were listening to Paul McCartney sing from his album of standards called Kisses on the Bottom, one person on Twitter later asked: "Who is the real Paul McCartney?" Whether that tweet was designed as a slight or an ironic crack, there's still no simple answer to that question. If you examine McCartney's full body of work, you find that he is more than the sum of his parts. In The Beatles, McCartney felt right at home whether he was doing a chamber work like "Eleanor Rigby," a rave-up like "I'm Down," a touching ballad like "I Will," the music hall vaudeville of "When I'm 64," the nostalgic impressionism of "Penny Lane," the Fifties doo-wop of "Oh Darling!," or a let's-top-The-Who hard rock of "Helter Skelter." His musical range in his years since The Beatles broke up has been no less adventurous. One year he can release an easy listening pop album like Kisses on the Bottom, or he might just unleash a record of pure rock and roll (Run Devil Run). He could put out a ballet score one moment (Ocean's Kingdom), and an oratorio (Liverpool Oratorio) the next, and then deliver another Fireman album like their last one in 2008 called Electric Arguments that combined both ambient music and actual songs.Whatever he does, and whether he signs his name to it (or does so under a pseudonym), Paul McCartney is totally free to do any form of music that moves him.

Luca Perasi, an Italian freelance journalist and writer, has spent ten years charting the path of Paul McCartney's richly eclectic solo years and written an exhaustive study of every recording session since he walked away from the other Fabs. Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013) (L.I.L.Y. Publishing, 2014) isn't just a chronology of facts, however; Perasi has also provided his own insights into the recordings from McCartney in 1969 to New in 2013 with the help of over 70 interviews with McCartney's many collaborators, who include guitarist Carlos Alomar, arranger Richard Hewson and conductor Carl Davis. His book has the alchemical ability to bring you right into the studio and witness how even a seemingly simple pop song like "Let 'Em In" has more going on than might otherwise be assumed. I spoke with Perasi from his home in Milan earlier this week.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XII

It would be tempting to call Hampton Sides' Hellhound On His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt In American History (Doubleday Anchor) a thriller – as many did in their reviews – but that assessment doesn't come close to describing its power. His 2011 account of the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, its investigation, and the assassin's escape and eventual capture, is what Sides calls a requiem for an era that's passed. But Hellhound on His Trail also opens up room for a more unnerving and contemporary context – a context that in the Obama era is unshakable even if the events he depicts happened almost fifty years ago. Borrowing his title from Robert Johnson's haunting "Hellhound on my Trail" (but written in the mood of "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day"), Sides illuminates the country that Johnson mapped out in his songs, a land that Greil Marcus called in his essay on Johnson in Mystery Train, "a world without salvation, redemption, or rest." It's a book where an assassin, James Earl Ray, passes (as most assassins do) into anonymity. He becomes a construct who continually recreates himself in a country that invites its citizens to do just that – only to eventually step into the light and snuff out a prophetic voice, a man who made demands on his country to live up to its founding ideals.

Sides deliberately borrows the fictional style of historian Shelby Foote who "employ[ed] the novelist's methods without his license." But unlike, for instance, the documentary films of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) that aestheticize reality, Sides enhances and enlarges the drama instead and makes the familiar seem strange, the obvious feel more mysterious, and the events of 1968 more vividly real and heartbreaking. Creating a number of narrative paths that begin with James Earl Ray (as alias Eric Starvo Galt) breaking out of a Missouri prison in 1967 that runs parallel to Martin Luther King, Jr. breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and planning a Poor People's March on Washington, Sides sets up a convergence that paves a road to King's inevitable and tragic death in Memphis. Yet even as we know the events to happen are inescapable and that history will change irrevocably that year, you're always at war with the chapters, with time itself, and with your desire to step back into history to alter its pull. Sides doesn't flinch from that pull either. Like a great detective, he realizes that looking for clues can uncover yet more mysteries, so he thankfully doesn't succumb to the helpless paranoia and safety of conspiracy theories, or take refuge in irony. Hellhound on His Trail takes stock of loss, and like Robert Johnson watching his baby's train disappear in the distance in "Love in Vain," considers its cost.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Long Day's Stay in Nothing: The Second Girl

MacKenzie Meehan, Kathleen McElfresh, & Christopher Donahue in The Second Girl. (All photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night may well be the greatest American tragedy ever written for the stage, so when I read the premise of The Second Girl at the Huntington Theatre Company, my curiosity was piqued. Irish playwright Ronan Noone has crafted a drama about the most unlikely of characters—the domestic help at the Tyrone household in Connecticut during the fateful day that O'Neill's autobiographical play chronicles. It takes a lot of balls to piggyback on O'Neill like this. How do you compete with the intensity and dramatic precision of the Tyrone tragedy? One successful approach would be to adopt a totally different style and genre, the way Christopher Durang parodies the play in his absurdist comedy The Idiots Karamazov. Another would be to siphon the tragic elements of O'Neill into the companion piece. Noone opts for neither approach, instead attempting a social commentary play that bears precisely no relation to the dramatic world it inhabits. The results are baffling.

If you're going to write a serious drama set in O'Neill's landscape, you have to follow the rules of engagement he sets down. Long Day's Journey is the archetypal family and barroom play, dramatizing with brutal honesty how relations simultaneously love and hate each other the most. During the titular day in the Tyrone house, Mary relapses into morphine addiction while her younger son, Edmund, is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Around and around the four Tyrones go in accusation and recrimination, dredging up old wounds and creating fresh ones in the process. The play's replete with symbolism—the fog off the Connecticut River, signifying illusion. Mary's misplaced wedding dress, representing the youthful happiness she's lost in her marriage to James. Mary herself, at once an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a drug-addled whore, at least in Jamie's mind. On that note, O'Neill employs his standard dramatic accouterments (booze, dope, whores, etc.) and themes: sin, nothingness, and man's inability to reconcile with himself and those around him so as to find peace.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bespoke Banality – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth and Taron Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service.

My issues with graphic novelist Mark Millar, creator of Kick-Ass, Wanted, and The Secret Service, usually also extend to the film adaptations of his work. Millar exhibits a highly questionable sense of morality (embodied in human form by Kick-Ass's Hit Girl, a foul-mouthed pre-teen assassin) and an extremely myopic view of societal class structure (exemplified by the "hero" of Wanted, who discards his desk job to inherit a career as a supervillainous mercenary). His ham-handed "self-awareness" exacerbates these problems, often underlining an amoral subversion of a typical hero character or genre without actually deconstructing or commenting on the thing he attempts to send up. Ordinarily, sticking as closely as possible to the source material would be cause for celebration in a film adaptation – but translating Millar's material, warts and all, to the big screen often results in movies that are slick and entertaining on a surface level, but which fall apart on close examination. Kingsman: The Secret Service – directed by (surprise!) Guy Ritchie protege Matthew Vaughn (of Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past fame) is a perfect example: for all appearances a flashy, energetic film, whose oddly disconcerting tone may leave you feeling confused or upset, without being able to pinpoint exactly why.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Merry Widow: Broadway at the Met

Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Franz Lehár’s 1905 Viennese operetta The Merry Widow has been filmed twice in English, three times if you count Erich von Stroheim’s perverse and entertaining silent version. But it isn’t revived very often on stage, so I anticipated the version in the Metropolitan Opera season, which the Met offered as part of its Live in HD series last month, with pleasure. This production cross-pollinates the worlds of the opera and the musical theatre. It stars opera diva Renée Fleming opposite Broadway leading lady Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn, an opera singer who sometimes appears in concert versions of musicals; the new translation is by Jeremy Sams, who furnished the best translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera that anyone has done to date; and the staging is by the explosively talented – and prolific - director-choreographer Susan Stroman. But though this Merry Widow has its points, it turns out to be something of a disappointment: tired and sagging in the middle, its fin-de-siècle exuberance strained, the farce strenuously overplayed. I couldn’t tell whether Stroman, whose recent stage work hasn’t garnered the enthusiastic reception she once drew, was trying too hard or whether she just wasn’t a match for the frothy, high-comic style of the material. I hope it’s the latter; I wouldn’t like to think that the ungenerous response to her dazzlingly inventive work on Bullets Over Broadway likely a ricochet effect from the way the culture lashed out at Woody Allen around that time – has shaken her confidence.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Two-Hander Text: Twisted at the Factory Theatre

Photo by Racheal McCaig

If it needed proving that Canadian culture no longer revolves around wilderness, forests and the snow-covered North, the gritty urban drama Twisted would be the proof. This two-hander from playwrights Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman (Scratch, Sudden Death) and Joseph Jomo Pierre (Who Knew Grannie, Shakespeare’s Nigga) is set in the heart of darkest Toronto, in the seldom-seen space populated by addicts, dealers and sex-trade workers. The show is said to be a reworking of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, but that seems like a bit of a reach. It’s true that the two main characters are named Nancy (Susanna Fournier) and Oliver (Ngabo Nabea), and that other characters, unseen, are named Sikes and Dodger. But that recycling of names is about as far as the similarities go. Furthermore, and more significantly, there is no redemptive plot line in Twisted, no kindly Mr. Brownlow coming to the rescue.

This Nancy and Oliver are both pretty much doomed. Nancy is a 23-year-old webcam stripper (known online as NasstyFresh), working for the digital pimp Sikes and abusing Oxycontin, also known as “hillbilly heroin.” We learn of her loveless childhood in small-town Ontario through a series of angry, rancorous monologues on such subjects as school-yard bullies, playground design and Niagara Falls, and through text messages projected on the stage’s backdrop. These texts are mostly exchanged with 17-year-old Oliver – she calls him Ollie, he calls her Lady Porcelain – a product of Ontario’s foster-child system. Oliver’s monologues are something altogether different, delivered in hip-hop rhythms and poetic language, also angry and bitter, but without the drug sensibility. We learn of his upbringing in foster care and the maternal woman, “Big Bird” – he gives everyone nicknames, Nancy has told us – who raised him. Nancy is Sikes’ “bottom girl,” charged with running the other women in his stable of strippers. As such, one of her jobs is to meet the young girls when they arrive in Toronto, enticed by Sikes’ seductive descriptions of big-city life. She is to meet Rose at Dundas Square – “the only part of the city that made sense: concrete and pretense” – and turn her out into the sex-trade world. But in a development that turns the story sharply, Nancy has determined that she can’t go through with Sikes’ plan. She decides that Rose is “someone to save,” and enlists Ollie in a plan to set the youngster free: Nancy introduces Rose to him and he drives her out of the city to Big Bird’s place, where she will be safe and out of harm’s way. Afterward, Nancy and Ollie will flee the city, and Sikes. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ol’ Man River: A Song, a Drama and a Life

Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson. (Photo by Lexi Lewis)

"Nations go to war, but it’s always our culture that unites us.” – Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson.
Rarely do a song’s lyrics reflect the life of its singer, particularly one whose life is largely unknown today. Yet the African American, Paul Robeson, was possibly the most gifted artist – a polymath who could speak and sing in fourteen languages – and one of the most courageous activists of the twentieth century. Although he had appeared at the Cotton Club as a singer in Harlem in the early 1920s, Robeson’s career as an artist was inaugurated in 1928 when he performed the part of Joe in the London production of Show Boat (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), which had been a huge hit in New York. The musical chronicles the lives of people working on a Mississippi River showboat, and its black characters reflected the era’s stereotypes. Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” that was specifically written for him, was its most memorable number, no doubt enhanced by his rich baritone voice and large physical presence, and became one of his trademark songs whose lyrics evolved throughout his career. In the 2006 Criterion tribute to Robeson, Sydney Poitier narrates with illustrative visual clips how the words changed as Robeson and the world changed. Beginning with “Niggers all work on the Mississippi,” he altered the word “niggers” to “darkies” within a few years And when he made the film version in 1936, he transformed the opening line entirely to “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi; that’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.” He also eventually changed the defeatist line “I’m tired of livin’ and feared of dyin’” to the more political “We must keep fightin’ until we’re dying” that he first sang in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, a day that the war stopped so that both sides could hear the man sing. This last lyrical alteration signified his shift from subservience to militancy, and his capacity for seamlessly weaving his artistry with his politics. That trend accelerated after the Second World War in a concert in Warsaw: “The Mississippi was no longer the man I want to be.” From being the most famous black man in the world triumphing artistically and commercially in theatre, film and on the concert stage – and an icon to Welsh miners, anti-lynching marchers in the American south, and anti-fascists everywhere – he became one of the most reviled activists in his native country after the Second World War for his outspoken support for the Soviet Union and his scathing criticism of the United States.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Breaking Away: AMC's Better Call Saul

Bob Odenkirk stars in AMC's Better Call Saul.

"Wouldn't you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else's coattails?"
– Chuck McGill to his brother Jimmy (Better Call Saul, "Uno").
My first real introduction to Vince Gilligan's work (outside of the many episodes of The X-Files that bore his name) was The Lone Gunmen, a spin-off from a groundbreaking, blockbuster show – in that instance, The X-Files itself. That series premiered and disappeared in 2001, during its parent series' ever-weakening eighth and penultimate season. (In many ways, those last seasons of The X-Files felt like a pale spin-off of itself, with its signature stars becoming slowly reduced to near "guest star" status.) The Lone Gunman however took its trio of "not-ready-for-primetime" characters from the comic relief background of The X-Files, and built a story with and around them that had humour, poignancy, and most crucially an energy that seemed fundamentally lacking in The X-Files itself at the time. Along with fellow X-Files alums John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz, Gilligan penned most of the episodes. Despite positive reviews, the series suffered terrible ratings and was cancelled at the end of its brief first season. Last winter (not uncoincidentally in the months following the end of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad), I binge re-watched all 13 episodes The Lone Gunman (including its cliffhanger-resolving "14th episode" that ran as part of The X-Files' ninth season), and found it even more delightful, and addictively entertaining, than I'd remembered. The Lone Gunman succeeded precisely where many spin-off series fumble: it knew and loved its characters more than it wanted to woo its source series' coveted audience share. It was a show designed to reflect its offbeat and charming characters. The result was a series with a unique voice and tone – an especial challenge precisely for a spin-off to a beloved series – and one that could stand on its own. In short, The Lone Gunmen could justify its own existence.

This past Sunday and Monday, Vince Gilligan returned to the cable airwaves with another spin-off, this time to his critically and audience acclaimed series Breaking Bad.  Better Call Saul takes us half a decade back before the beginning of Breaking Bad and delves into the unwritten back-story of one of the series' most beloved secondary characters: Walter White's shady lawyer, Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk). So far, so good – but when the prequel series was first announced in the months prior to the airing of Breaking Bad's final episodes, I was definitely of two minds about its prospects. Spin-offs are risky propositions, not least of which because when they falter, they can retroactively diminish the show that inspired them. My concerns about the proposed new series were redoubled after Breaking Bad ended with near novelistic completeness in September 2013. (I'm not sure any television series has ever had so emphatically a beginning, middle, and end as Breaking Bad – and it seemed to me, as the credits rolled on its final episode, that anything added to that universe could only diminish it.) If I remained hopeful at all about the new series, it wasn't because Gilligan had created and helmed what turned out to one of the smartest and most powerful television series of the new millennium: it was because of The Lone Gunmen. And now that the first two episodes of Better Call Saul have aired, I am grateful to be able to say that my faith has been more than confirmed.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Listen to the Lyon: Empire

Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard co-star in Empire, on FOX.

By Wikipedia’s count, Empire is the fourth non-documentary TV series to be titled Empire, including a short-lived ‘60s Western featuring the young Ryan O’Neal, an even-shorter-lived ABC Roman Empire drama featuring the young Emily Blunt and James Frain, and a 1984 corporate sitcom that starred Dennis Dugan, on his way to becoming our leading director of feature films starring comedians whose careers were launched by Lorne Michaels after he just stopped caring. Network executives probably like the sound of that title for its blunt, straightforward grandiosity; it captures what they see themselves as controlling and embodying, and imagine that ordinary TV viewers will salivate at the prospect of being given a glimpse of life at the top. Amusingly, the male protagonist of the new Empire is a street artist turned multi-million-dollar mogul who has named his music company Empire Entertainment, which tells you everything you need to know about his taste for grandiosity.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Iris van Herpen: The Future of Fashion

Iris van Herpen holding a bottle of Dom Pérignon Vintage 2004.

Fashion is now. But not in the hands of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. She projects fashion into the future, re-interpreting couture through a visionary lens. Incorporating a wide range of outside influences, from dance to 3-D computer technology, her designs blur the boundaries between art and science: Clothing as material innovation. “Creation is about constant change and is never finished. I think that is very beautiful,” said the 30-year old fashion sensation during a recent interview in New York City. The occasion was the unveiling of the latest vintage by Dom Pérignon, the 2004 Metamorphosis, for which the former apprentice to the late Alexander McQueen had created a limited-edition champagne box and ferrofluid sculpture. The latter was an extension of research done for her latest Spring/Summer 2015 womenswear collection which was created using metal powder and magnets to move the fashion forward in a new, otherworldly direction. Think spiny carapaces for the body combined with flowing fabrics to get an idea of what it looked like. For Dom Pérignon, van Herpen took the idea of magnetic attraction and applied it to the concept of metamorphosis as well as to the concept of time, an ingredient integral to the making of champagne, in particular the fermentation and aging process.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hot Mess: Jupiter Ascending

Mila Kunis is Jupiter Jones, in Andy and Lana Wachowsk's Jupiter Ascending.

It’s often been said of Andy and Lana Wachowski that even when they fail, they do so in new and interesting ways with each new project. I think such a sentiment speaks more to the audience member than the artists, frankly – it sounds to me like that person thinks the Wachowskis do excellent work that they simply have trouble understanding, and I don’t count that as a fault. The veteran writing-directing duo have been unimpeachably fearless in their drive to create original, engaging film experiences, and for me their acceptance of risk, which often yields spectacular, visually-stunning, emotionally-challenging rewards, outweighs their occasional missteps in quality. One only needs browse their resume: from the gorgeous Lichtenstein-inspired pop cubism of the narratively-stunted Speed Racer to the beautiful but bloated Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis have been characterized by their inspired (if flawed) work, and moreover, their willingness to dust themselves off, go back to the drawing board, and try something new. They’re persistent, if nothing else.

It was really only a matter of time before this pattern coalesced into something like Jupiter Ascending – after the heavy century-spanning pseudo-philosophy of Cloud Atlas, it makes sense that the Wachowskis would indulge in some simple escapism. “Simple”, though, isn’t the best term to describe the extravagant, wild, convoluted, and gorgeous Jupiter. “Hot mess” might be more accurate.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Constellations: Love in the Multiverse

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Constellations. (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

In Nick Payne’s brainy, open-hearted two-hander Constellations, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson play an English couple – Marianne is a physicist, Roland a beekeeper – who meet at a barbecue, move in together, break up, rediscover each other and get married. It’s the arc of a love affair with a tragic ending, only it takes place, as the program informs us, in “the multiverse,” where, according to Marianne’s research, “at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously . . . [and] every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” So the fleet seventy-minute play (measured in conventional time, that is) consists of a series of short scenes that continually reimagine the scenario. In alternate versions of Roland and Marianne’s opening gambit, they fail to connect because he has a girl friend or is already married and her interest in him ricochets back on her. In alternate versions of their first date, she invites him in but reconsiders and sends him packing, which he understands or resents. The stop-and-start structure recalls David Ives’ comic one-act Sure Thing, an undergraduate directing-class perennial, but the tone is entirely different.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

I Kill Therefore I Am: Clint Eastwood's American Sniper

A number of the recent Academy Award-nominated films – all based on true stories – have come under a lot of heat regarding their historical inaccuracies. While the argument of fidelity goes without saying when it comes to documentaries, it's often understood, if not explicitly stated, that a good drama can be based on true events rather than literally depicting them. (Did anyone ever really quibble over whether The Life of Emile Zola or Lust for Life were truly accurate portraits of their subjects?) Most of the squabbling over the recent Selma, The Imitation Game, or Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, though, comes with more political baggage than the nature of Van Gogh's rivalry with Gauguin. This kind of partisan bickering also does more to obscure whether or not these movies are actually any good.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Neglected Gem #71 – Babe: Pig in the City

Those who went to Babe: Pig in the City in 1998 – George Miller’s sequel to his great 1995 Babe – to see another naturalist’s adventure set on the Hoggett farm had their expectations upended. Miller and his co-writers, Judy Morris and Mark Lamprell, clearly had no interest in repeating the achievement of the first film. Though Pig in the City begins with a farm-wide celebration of Babe’s sheep-herding triumphs, within the first few minutes Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) is confined to his bed in a cast and a neck brace following a nasty fall down a well – a consequence of a miscalculation on Babe’s part about how best to help “the boss.” Then the bank threatens to foreclose on his property and Hoggett’s beloved pig-faced wife Esmé (Magda Szubanski) hatches a plan to enter Babe in a fair, which requires an international plane trip, and takes Babe away from all of his farm companions, the familiar supporting cast of the first Babe (as well as, of course, Hoggett himself). Mrs. Hoggett’s scheme is set off course when a drug-sniffing customs hound at the airport decides to show off for Babe’s benefit and gets the boss’s wife detained for dope smuggling; by the time customs clears her she and Babe have missed their connections. With no imminent flight available to return them home, they trudge over to the only hotel in the vicinity that welcomes pets. But circumstances conspire to separate Esmé and Babe. First their suitcase and then Babe himself are kidnapped by a family of chimps on the floor below – and one solemn, laconic orangutan, their Uncle Thelonius. They perform with the concierge’s Uncle Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney, in a wondrous, absurdist Keatonesque cameo), a dilapidated vaudevillian who’s been reduced to entertaining in the children’s wards of hospitals. Then Esmé gets into more trouble with the law (don’t ask). Like Babe’s stint in Fugly’s act, it’s only temporary. But the separation is enough to throw Babe into the cold city of Metropolis, where animals who have been set loose by their humans are as likely to starve as not, and where the prevailing spirit is – if you’ll forgive me – dog eat dog.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Love and Libido: Showtime's The Affair

Fiona Apple’s ”Container” is as disturbing as any theme song ever heard over the opening credits of each episode in a TV series. In this case, it’s the musical coda for The Affair, the first season of which ran from October through December last year on the Showtime cable network. With a big dose of Celtic doom, the nominally simple yet anguished a cappella melody sets the mood for a complex drama about adultery. Apart from politics and religion, arguably there is no greater hypocrisy in many countries than when it comes to the subject of carnal pleasure. In terms of words and images, sex was just sex until the concept of pornography first surfaced during the Victorian era with England’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Never mind that prehistoric cave paintings depicted copulation up the ying-yang. And don’t even get me started about erotica in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian and Japanese cultures! The specific draw of in flagrante delicto – which Hank Williams so aptly defined in 1952 as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – must be powerful. More than half of all married couples in America are apparently unfaithful. That was even true when Mom and Dad slept in separated twin beds on mid-20th-century sitcoms. A society that holds monogamy up as an admirable virtue is a society probably fooling itself.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Canajan Boys

Last summer we were walking downtown in Charlottetown, my wife, my brother-in-law, his wife, and daughter. Just a block from Province House. It was evening, we’d been out for dinner, and to see Anne of Green Gables. We had parked on a side street and were returning to our car, when alongside the church beside which we were parked we saw, to our amazement, a fox. Not just any fox, but a black fox. None of us were ready, with a camera (or phone) so we didn’t get a picture…but all five of us gasped and said, “Look! A black fox!” A man was walking down the road towards us and he declared, “You must be tourists… we see them every day.” Oh sure…I know it’s officially called a ‘silver’ fox, and that they put money in the pockets of poor Islanders for years (and now it’s not politically correct to even suggest that there might be a market for fox pelts…) but, in 1939, 10% of the population of PEI kept foxes. Now the little critters run wild on the main street

Why all this talk about foxes? It’s because Michael Wrycraft’s lovely cover design for Jon Brooks’ new CD features a very distinguished looking fox, not a silver fox… a red one. And this one is not in a city, he’s roaming free in The Smiling & Beautiful Countryside. Brooks is a powerful singer-songwriter who has been well known for his political songs. Songs like “Fort McMurray,” “Hudson Girl,” “Son of Hamas” and “Cage Fighter” (all from 2012’s Delicate Cages CD) dealt with issues as wide ranging as the Alberta tar sands, Quebec language laws, Palestinian suicide bombers, and a mixed martial arts fighter who had been a Bosnian child soldier. The new album, which takes its title from a Sherlock Holmes quote, is something quite different. It’s a collection of murder ballads. Not Ozark murder ballads handed down from generation to generation, but Canadian murder ballads that Brooks has written. Gore, sex, killing, necrophilia: name your poison and it’s here. I saw Brooks play “Delia’s Gone,” another murder ballad, at a Johnny Cash Tribute Show a year or so ago and it gave me a clue as to what this CD would be like. Wrycraft told me then that Brooks wanted to “piss people off” with his new album. This might do it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Looking for Clues: Three New Mysteries by Alan Bradley,Thomas Perry and Becky Masterman

Fans of Canadian writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels – and I freely confess I am one of them – will remember that at the end of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the sixth in the series, 11-year-old heroine Flavia – poison aficionado, investigator extraordinaire – discovered that her late mother and her very much alive Aunt Felicity, were members of a shadowy group of secret agents known as the Nide. And furthermore, that she, Flavia, was destined to join them. To further this end, Flavia is sent – is “banished” for her sins, she feels – to Toronto, to enroll in Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the private school her mother attended as a girl. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Delacorte), Bradley’s seventh Flavia novel, chronicles our precocious preteen protagonist’s adventures in Canada. And you know there will be adventures. Sure enough, on Flavia’s first day at Miss Bodycote’s, a wrapped and mummified body falls out of the chimney into her room, ending up right at her feet. (Flavia has long demonstrated a world-class aptitude for finding dead bodies.) The Toronto police take charge of the body, of course, but that doesn’t stop Flavia from pursuing the identity of the victim and, of course, the murderer. And while she’s at it, she also looks into the ghost said to haunt Miss Bodycote’s and the rumours about girls disappearing over the years. Of course, she must also attend classes – including, much to her delight, a chemistry course taught by a woman acquitted of murder by poison – negotiate girls-boarding-school culture, investigate the school’s staff, and, not incidentally, deal with her training in the tradecraft of spying. It’s a charming jumble of clues, false trails and surprises, all narrated in Flavia’s droll, amusing voice. If I have a cavil, it’s that I miss the village of Bishop’s Lacey and its many delightful characters, the rambling, crumbling de Luce mansion Buckshaw, Flavia’s wicked older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, faithful family retainers Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, and even Flavia’s sturdy, reliable bicycle, Gladys. So frankly, I was delighted to find that, after solving the many mysteries of Miss Bodycote’s (no spoiler), Flavia is headed back to England.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Nerd's Work Is Never Done – Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie & The Legend of The Atari Burial

The Atari dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico, April 2014.

In 1983, Atari, Inc   the reigning monarch of the global video gaming market at the time   buried over 700,000 of its popular Atari 2600 game cartridges and consoles in a New Mexico landfill. This was the final act of a company which would shut its doors shortly afterward and fade into pop culture history, thanks to a massive industry blowout now known as the North American Video Game Crash of 1983. The one game which could be said to have caused this collapse was Atari's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a tie-in product based on the Steven Spielberg movie.

But how could a single title tank an entire home console empire? The answer is that due to negotiations to secure the film rights taking far longer than anticipated, Howard Scott Warshaw, the game's programmer and lead designer, was given only five weeks to complete the game for release in the 1982 Christmas season leading to one of the biggest commercial failures in video game history and a title that is frequently cited as one of the worst video games ever released: a cryptic, ugly, and incomprehensible adaptation of a beloved children's film. Burying the hundreds of thousands of worthless, unsold cartridges left over must have seemed like an excellent idea.

But the veracity surrounding the details of the story became unclear with time, and soon few were sure whether or not the infamous Atari burial ever actually took place. Investigations by fans of gaming history produced inconclusive results, and the story soon took on the spectre of an urban legend. Who really knows what lies out there in the New Mexico desert? This mystery resulted in existing copies of the game more than tripling their original value, collectors becoming desperate to own such a rare piece of gaming history even one so sordid as E.T..

Monday, February 2, 2015

Flesh and Soul: A Life of Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams at his desk in 1948. (Photo: W Eugene Smith/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which came out from W.W. Norton late last year, evolved in a curious fashion. In 1995 a San Francisco theatrical producer named Lyle Leverich with no other books to his credit published a very fine first volume of a Williams bio called Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams that took the playwright’s story up through the triumphant Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Lahr had an odd connection to Leverich’s book in a number of ways. Maria St. Just, Williams’ infamously possessive and tyrannical literary executor, had attempted to frighten Leverich off by asking Lahr to write an authorized biography (which he refused to do). Then, ironically, it was Lahr whose help Leverich and his publisher asked in getting St. Just off his back, after she had succeeded in holding up the publication of his book for five years, and Lahr ended up writing a profile on her in The New Yorker. Eventually Tom saw the light of day, but Leverich died four years later, before completing the second part of his project. He and Lahr had become friends, and he had asked Lahr if he would finish the biography if he proved unable to; he went so far as to put that request in his will. That’s how Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh came into being, nearly two decades later. Lahr claims in the preface that it didn’t turn out to be part two of Leverich’s bio but its own stand-alone bio. But though the writers’ styles and approaches are understandably different, there’s so little overlap in the stories they tell that effectively they are indeed two halves of a deeply engrossing story, and readers who want to learn as much as they can about Williams’ life and career are advised to read them back to back. (Each runs roughly 600 pages.)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Impossible Belonging: Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular

Writer Sayed Kashua (Photo courtesy of Die Welt)

The world of fiction is replete with novels about ‘identity’: sometimes it is about gender, sometimes about the place of a character in a family, or city, or even time period. In other texts the character is concerned with their religious, ethnic, or national identity. All such books point to the fact that our identity is fluid. How we define ourselves, and what content we give to those definitions, changes throughout our lives and is often very (if not wholly) dependent upon the situations in which we find ourselves and to which we must respond. Not only does our ‘identity’ change over time, but we contain multiple identities at any given moment – we dress, speak, and respond to other people differently depending on the context, we consider certain behaviors appropriate in one context and not in another… and this is not a demonstration of our hypocrisy (which would assume that there is some stable identity to which we are being unfaithful) but a demonstration of our multiplicity. Fictional works that focus on identity illuminate the extent to which we human beings, for all of our vaunted uniqueness, are rarely ever the ‘same’ person for two moments in a row.  Sayed Kashua’s most recent novel, Second Personal Singular (published in Hebrew by Keter Books as Guf sheni yaḥid in 2010, and in English by Grove Press in 2012), charts the permutations of his characters identities in a unique context, and with a unique style, that is all the author's own.