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.