Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fake it So Real: The Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ

Roland Barthes famously adjudged professional wrestling to be the “great spectacle of suffering, defeat and justice.” One of the many delights of the Mountain Goats’ new album Beat the Champ is that how it collapses the intellectual gap between the author of Mythologies and a ten-year old kid in central California watching lucha libre with his face pressed up against the screen. “The telecast’s in Spanish, I can understand some/I need justice in my life – here it comes” sings John Darnielle on lead single “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” casting himself back once again to the unhappy childhood he’s been mining for material over twenty-five years as the Mountain Goats’ songwriter and principal musician. But the tone is less petulant or melancholy than exuberant. It’s the sound of a boy in happy thrall to a hero whom he believes can right the world’s wrongs simply by dropping a well-placed elbow off the top rope.

Issues of autobiography aside, Darnielle specializes in characters like the narrator of “the Legend of Chavo Guerrero:” marginalized young men living vicariously through macho role models. These include the wannabe metal gods of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton,” and the disfigured, Robert E. Howard-worshipping protagonist of Darnielle’s eerie and justly acclaimed 2014 novel Wolf in White Van – a psychologically astute portrait of a potentially dangerous lone wolf. The personalities are dark, but Darnielle’s approach to them is illuminating. In both his lyrics and his prose, he has the ability to plunge the listener inside a character’s headspace – so deeply that you can feel the residue when you exit a few minutes later.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Come Back, Little Sheba at the Huntington: An Elusive Balance

Adrianne Krstansky and Derek Hasenstab in Come Back, Little Sheba. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Come Back, Little Sheba is the drama that put playwright William Inge on the map when it was produced on Broadway in 1950. Shirley Booth created the role of Lola, the slovenly, nostalgic wife of Doc Delaney, a chiropractor in a small Midwestern college town. (Her legendary performance is preserved in the 1952 movie version.) The play, which David Cromer has staged for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in its South End space at the Calderwood Pavilion, is about two people who have, in different ways, failed to accept the passing of their youth. Doc impregnated Lola when he was a medical student; he dropped out to marry her, they lost the baby, and he’s lived in regret for the sexual indiscretion that resulted in the loss of the life he’d planned for himself. Alcohol fueled that regret and disappointment; it also ate up his inheritance. When the play begins he’s been sober for a year, attending AA meetings regularly. Lola, lonely at home while Doc is seeing his patients, luxuriates in her memories of the youthful amorousness he’s trying to forget. (Her lost puppy, Little Sheba, is a rather obvious symbol of her vanished youth.) Their distinctive attitudes toward the past are illuminated by their reaction to their boarder, Marie, a coed with a serious boyfriend back home in Cincinnati who is carrying on a casual affair with a football player named Turk. Lola is touched by their lovemaking; it reminds her of her own romance with Doc, when she was young and pretty. Doc prefers to think of Marie as pure; he doesn’t like Turk, who he thinks isn’t good enough for her. The truth is that Turk’s sexuality recalls his own twenty years ago. The incontrovertible evidence that Turk and Marie are sleeping together forces a confrontation with his own past that knocks him for a loop – and right off the wagon.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Varieties of Romance: Spring, The Duke of Burgundy, and Accidental Love

Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker star in Spring.

We’re almost a quarter of the way into what has so far been a pretty quiet year for movies, with signs of life visible mostly in some small, out-of-the-way places. One of the most distinctive (and least-heralded) of recent small movies is the appropriately titled Spring, which at first seems to follow a familiar template for horror movies: a sweet-natured, emotionally volatile young American played by Lou Taylor Pucci who’s at the end of his rope takes off for Italy to try to get his head together in unfamiliar surroundings. He winds up courting a beautiful, mysterious woman (Nadia Hilker) who may just be entrancingly, frustratingly hard to read, or who harbor some dark secret that makes emotional intimacy impossible and physical intimacy even scarier than usual.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Record Store Day: Yea or Nay?

We just celebrated Record Store Day 2015, and for a couple weeks on both sides there have been arguments about whether the concept is serving or hurting the people it’s designed for. The local independent record store and smaller labels. The question from the labels side is whether or not they can get vinyl records produced in time, because the pressing plants are so bogged down pressing bigger orders for the major labels. One might also wonder who actually needs a vinyl copy of the soundtrack for The Darjeerling Limited? For the record stores across the world (yes…Record Store Day is celebrated in other countries too, with appropriate product) the problem is how much stock to bring in, and what to do with whatever you get. The stores can order specific titles but may not receive what they order, due to limited quantities, and arbitrary decisions.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Off The Shelf: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)

Johnny Depp in Ed Wood (1994).

At the Star Wars Celebration press event this past weekend in Anaheim, a preteen kid stepped up to the mic to ask J.J. Abrams how to become a filmmaker. Abrams (doubtless sensing the same starry-eyed wonder in this kid that he must have felt while channeling his own idol, Spielberg, for his 2011 film Super 8) told him gently that he and his peers have access to technology and distribution platforms that never existed when he was that age, and that if you have a smartphone in your pocket then you already have far greater tools for moviemaking than he ever did. His advice was to use those tools, as often as possible, and to get your hands dirty making movies, no matter the result. Abrams’ apparent love for the art of spectacle – it’s what earned him a job directing a new Star Wars film, after all – would have made him right at home in cinema’s golden age, where he might have kept council with directors like Ed Wood. His advice certainly sounds like something straight from the famous cult filmmaker himself.

Best known for his 1959 disaster Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood was a miserable failure as a Hollywood filmmaker, earning neither critical acclaim nor significant box office returns. His legacy as one of the worst directors of all time has led to a posthumous cult following, thanks to film buffs coming together to celebrate the indomitable spirit that kept Wood in the movie business despite bomb after insufferable bomb. Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic, named for the man himself, is celebratory too: a joyous examination of the passion for spectacle and wonder that endures behind the money-grubbing cynicism of the Hollywood we know. Ed Wood never had a smartphone, but that sure didn’t stop him from making movies.

Monday, April 20, 2015

An American in Paris, Sans Alan Jay Lerner

Robert Fairchild, Brandon Uranowitz and Max Von Essen in An American in Paris (All photos by Angela Sterling)

Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 movie musical An American in Paris is simultaneously breezy and lush. With its smart, sometimes cheeky Alan Jay Lerner script, its Gershwin score and the ebullient choreography by its star, Gene Kelly, it’s one of the highlights of the golden age of M-G-M musicals. Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an American G.I. who sticks around Paris after the war to paint. He finds a patron, a wealthy émigré American socialite, Milo (Nina Foch), who wants to add him to her roster of bohemian lovers, but he falls in love with a shopgirl named Lise (Leslie Caron) whom he spots at a café. He courts her and wins her love, but just as he’s hampered by his attachment to Milo (he doesn’t reciprocate her sexual interest in him: these are still the days of the Hays Code), Lise also has other claims. She’s engaged to the affable music hall performer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), whom she doesn’t love but to whom she feels beholden, since he took care of her during the war when her parents, Resistance fighters, were captured by the Nazis. (Here Lerner reworks a plot strand from Casablanca.) To complicate matters further, Henri and Jerry have just become friends, through their mutual pal Adam (Oscar Levant), a struggling composer.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Conflict in Context: War on the Silver Screen

Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) is one of the many films profiled in War on the Silver Screen

Anyone looking for a history of film will find a plethora on the market. Among them are Norman Cousins’s compendium of world films Story of Film (published by Pavillion books in 2004, with a new edition in 2013), followed by his fifteen-hour mega-documentary of the same name, and The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) by film scholar and author of twenty books, David Thomson. Both volumes demonstrate the vast knowledge of their authors about films and filmmaking. Yet there is relatively little about the larger historical context within which the films were made. For example, in Thomson’s chapter on war, he does write a few insightful sentences on context but they are dwarfed by the dizzying array of films he mentions and only briefly comments upon. Looking for that context narrows the options. What I have found most valuable is Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (Henry Holt & Co, 1995), edited by Mark C. Carnes, that consists of sixty reviews of historical films by historians and other authorities in the field. I liked these reviews because most of them do not, in the words of one reviewer, “quibble about inaccuracies, simplifications, invented characters, imagined dialogue, anachronisms” but focus on whether the film is true to the spirit of the character or historical issue. The reviewer of the film, Malcolm X (1992) criticized director Spike Lee for underplaying the political evolution of the eponymous character, and the reviewer of All the President’s Men (1976) acknowledged that although the film was accurate, it was untrue because it misleads the audience into thinking that the revelations of two reporters were responsible for the downfall of Nixon even though the film ends with the re-election of Nixon. The actual history behind these films is largely confined to a sidebar on each page. Of the sixty entries, seven of them are on the subject of twentieth-century war films. More recently, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin Press, 2014) by Mark Harris is very good on how that war shaped the career of five Hollywood directors, but there hasn't been a book that provides an overview of how war films have shaped their audiences’ consciousness – until now. 

War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America’s Perception of History (Potomac Books, 2014), a crisply and accessibly written monograph by historian Glen Jeansonne and film critic David Luhrssen, is a welcome corrective. The authors combine their talents to argue that war films have done more than books or history lessons to influence people’s perception of war. Their thesis is bracing, perhaps even self-evident, but it is difficult to prove with empirical evidence. The book’s greatest strength is that it gives almost equal space to the historical context as it does to the films themselves. I do have some reservations about their treatment of the films they have chosen for major analysis and with certain key omissions.