Saturday, May 23, 2015

Heroes and Villains: Philip Kerr's The Lady From Zagreb, Donna Leon's Falling in Love and Steve Burrows' A Siege of Bitterns

Philip Kerr’s The Lady from Zagreb (Putnam) opens on the French Riviera, in 1956. But that’s just prologue; the story proper begins in the summer of 1942, in Berlin. Bernie Gunther, a captain in the SD (the Nazi security service, or Sicherheitdienst) has been assigned to the Berlin police, investigating homicides and other serious crimes. But Bernie, despite his barely veiled cynicism and smart mouth, has shown a useful talent for delicate inquiries and judicious solutions on behalf of his Nazi masters. Indeed, he has just returned from Prague, where he solved a murder at the villa of the late SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German security services, even as an assassination plot unfolded against Heydrich.

Back in Berlin, Bernie finds himself under the direct command of Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, also head of Germany’s gigantic UFA film studios, who has a personal assignment for him: track down the missing father of Croatian-German actress Dalia Dresner (Goebbels, a notorious womanizer, calls her “Germany’s Garbo”), neé Sofia Branković. Bernie falls hard for the beautiful Dalia, who returns his feelings, and sets off into the chaos of wartime Yugoslavia to find her missing parent. The passages set in war-torn Croatia are bone-chilling, not just because of the German SS troops, who routinely shoot first and ask questions later, but more especially because of the ultra-nationalist Ustaše militia, allies of the Nazis but unpredictably and prodigiously vicious. It is among these barely sane irregulars that Bernie finds Dalia’s father, once a priest, now a militia leader known as Colonel Dragan, famous for the speed with which he can slash Serbian necks. Goebbels and Bernie agree to lie to Dalia, telling the screen star that her father is dead.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Life Lessons - Willie Nelson (with David Ritz): It’s a Long Story (My Life)

Willie Nelson’s story has been told before, by Joe Nick Patoski in a book subtitled An Epic Life. Epic! A quick search for a definition of ‘epic’ leads you to this, in the Urban Dictionary “the most overused word ever, next to fail…use them together to form ‘epic fail…everything is epic now. epic car. epic haircut. epic movie. epic album…saying 'epic win' doesn't make you sound any better, either” and you have to agree with them. Everything is ‘epic’ these days, but in Willie’s case maybe Patoski has a point. Willie (and his co-author David Ritz) have opted for something a little simpler, not epic…but just the humble admission, It’s a Long Story. Not as long as when Patoski told it, but long nonetheless. The epic life took 576 pages, the long story only 392 and that includes the index and credits for quoting song lyrics. Willie is good at editing things to fit his own perspective of what’s important in his long life. The book sounds like Willie. It’s written in his voice. Ritz, from the look of it, organized, and provided structure but allowed Willie to be front and centre telling this story himself. You can almost feel him sitting across the room from you as you read. Some pages have the flow and poetry of his lyrics, others just sound like him, exhaling a puff of smoke and a gem of a remembrance.

“A song is a short story,” he begins, “It might have been my buddy Harlan Howard, a writer I met in Nashville in the sixties, who first said a song ain’t nothing but three chords and the truth…the truth should flow easy. Same for songs and stories…the way a mountain stream, bubbling with fresh clean water, keeps flowing…but what you’re holding in your hands is something more than a simple song or a short story. It’s a Long Story is the name of this enterprise…and I’ll need a lot more than three chords.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Big Picture: The Small Screen

Kevin Chapman as Det. Lionel Fusco on CBS's Person of Interest.

With the network TV season winding down, those critics who like to compile list of actors who ought to be nominated for Emmys but never are should set aside some space for Kevin Chapman. Chapman plays the New York City police detective Lionel Fusco on CBS’s Person of Interest, where he serves as sidekick to Jim Caviezel’s Reese. A former CIA assassin who broke down after he was set up for execution by his own people, Reese got a new lease on life courtesy of Finch (Michael Emerson), a computer genius who set up a comprehensive surveillance system, “The Machine,” for the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11. Finch – who, like Reese, got off the grid by bring mistaken for dead by the powers that be – now has second thoughts about building that system, and to atone for it, he has arranged for The Machine to feed him information about people who may be in danger but who are regarded as too insignificant by the government to be worthy of its concern, so that the super-capable violent operator Reese can help them out, Equalizer-style.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Imaging the Dance: Barbara Morgan Revisited

Totem Ancestor (1942).
A black-and-white photograph of Merce Cunningham depicts the dancer jumping high into the sky, his feet neatly tucked underneath his wiry body. It's a portrait of a body in motion, captured by the celebrated American photographer Barbara Morgan in the blink of an eye. Totem Ancestor, as the 1942 image is called, provides an exciting early glimpse of the dancer who would go on to define modernism in dance as an expression of concentrated clarity: movement as a meditation on the sublime. In this image, Cunningham looks exuberant as he catapults towards imminent greatness. Freed from gravity, he’s a ball of fire exploding in the air. This image of the dance artist who passed away in New York City in 2009 at the age of 90 is in the collection of Toronto’s Corkin Gallery in the Distillery District. I recently got to study it up close during a private viewing arranged for me by veteran art dealer Jane Corkin who has an important collection of historic dance images from the early 20th century. As I sat in a small upstairs room of the Corkin Gallery, one by one, Corkin brought out her dance photographs to show me. The lion's share were by Morgan, a photographer who more than anyone before her or since created an iconography of modern dance that has been widely disseminated around the world. What many people know of modern dance today they know from looking at Morgan's images. She was as much a modern dance pioneer as her subjects.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Vroom Vroom, Boom Boom – Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Smoke-spewing, diesel-gulping engines spit flame into the desert air and propel the world of Mad Max into perpetual motion: so it has always been, and so it is now with director George Miller’s triumphant return to the saga he invented as an independent Australian filmmaker in the late ‘70s, his dreams dominated by dust and oil and blood. With a budget that far surpasses his original efforts (and the cast to back it up) Fury Road is the realization of that dark dream – an orgy of insanity and fun. Buckle up: it’s a wild ride.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Life Is What You Do While You’re Waiting to Die: Wolf Hall, Part I and Zorba!

Lydia Leonard (left) and Nathaniel Parker (right) in Wolf Hall. (Photo by Johan Persson)

Anticipation of a two-part, six-hour Royal Shakespeare Company spectacle based on the Hilary Mantel historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set during the reign of England’s Henry VIII, evoked happy thoughts of the RSC Nicholas Nickleby. But Wolf Hall, recently imported to Broadway from the West End, isn’t that. For one thing, Mantel is hardly Dickens. I plodded through the first of the two books, but her style is gluey and, oddly enough, most of the characters aren’t especially complex or colorful. Mantel provides a handful of ideas about, say, Sir Thomas More (a sadist motivated by as rigidly doctrinal a view of scripture as a Spanish Inquisitor’s) or Anne Boleyn (spoiled, vengeful and paranoid) or even Henry himself (a savage narcissist with debilitating insecurities), but instead of developing them she just keeps repeating them. And since some poor convicted heretic gets burned every twenty-five pages or so, after a few hundred pages the narrative becomes oppressive, a gray, grim mass. The RSC adaptation, written by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin, tones down the violence and softens More’s character – he’s now closer to the principled protagonist of Robert Bolt’s dully respectable play and screenplay A Man for All Seasons – so it’s certainly not unpleasant to endure. And it’s perfectly proficient. But nothing about it, not the script, not the direction, not the ensemble, is memorable in any way. I liked the staging of a bit where Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) – the hero of the story, a lawyer who begins as the right-hand man of Cardinal Wolsey (Peter Eyre) and then (after Wolsey falls from the king’s favor and dies) becomes an adviser to both Henry (Nathaniel Parker) and the newly crowned Anne (Lydia Leonard) – rides down the Thames in the wee hours with his son and servants after the king has called on him to interpret a scary dream. Herrin manages the death of Cromwell’s beloved wife Lizzie (Olivia Darnley) from the plague cleverly and poignantly: immediately after a jocular but fond conversation between them where he promises her faithfully not to die and abandon her, he reaches out to touch her and she slips lithely beyond his grasp and disappears. (Lizzie’s demise was the one scene in the novel that touched me.) Nothing else about the way the production looks or moves, except for Christopher Oram’s impressive abstract set, stands out.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Alan Furst: The Anti-Fascist Novelist

Novelist Alan Furst. (Photo by Rainer Hosch)

"… Don't tell the world, but Stalin's just as bad as Hitler."
"Why not tell the world?"
"Because they won't believe it, dear colonel."
- Alan Furst, Spies of Warsaw (2008) 
In 1984, Alan Furst, a journalist and author of four novels, travelled to the Soviet Union and it changed his life. As he noted later, he saw fear in the eyes of the people he met, and it shocked him. He decided that he would never again write a novel set in contemporary times, but that the threat posed by every expression of fascism between 1934 and 1945 would be his subject. To gain a greater grasp for the historical and geographical milieus, he and his wife relocated to Paris – the setting, at least in part, for almost all his subsequent novels. He purchased old books and maps to ensure greater verisimilitude. As a result, readers can be confident that the streets, restaurants and nightclubs are accurately depicted and that they are not likely to find anachronisms; any book or film that a character or the narrator cites could have been read or seen at the time of the novel’s setting. Influenced by espionage writers Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, the social novelist Anthony Powell, and perhaps by films such as Casablanca (1942) and the noirish, The Third Man (1947), Furst set out to create his own niche in the espionage literary domain and published the first of thirteen historical thrillers, Night Soldiers (1988), a set of novels that became known as the Night Soldiers Series.

Apart from his mastery of historical detail, the debut of Night Soldiers is an anomaly. It is the only panoramic entry which starts in Bulgaria in 1934 and ends on the West Side of Manhattan eleven years later. It, along with his next novel Dark Star (1991), is much longer than his later novels. By the time he published his fourth, The World at Night (1996), Furst had found his writing métier, a leaner style that produced tautly-written novels of just over two hundred and fifty pages that combine historical erudition with genuine humanity amidst terrifying inhumanity. He had also compressed his historical time span: his narratives covered the late 1930s before the war and ended with 1942-43 when the outcome of the war was much in doubt. Night Soldiers also does not contain the sustained erotic love interest that is prominent in the later novels where their protagonists are fortyish, male, single, and with few exceptions, civilians who are reluctantly drawn into the shadowy, gray world of espionage, not because of any natural inclination but because they feel that they have no choice given the monumental evil of Nazism. Nonetheless, the author’s signature trademarks are introduced in Night Soldiers. Some of his characters will reappear in later novels and his protagonists always manage to survive. More importantly, the author reveals his ability to deftly capture the historical ambience, a result of prodigious research that he has internalized. There is inevitably exposition, yet it rarely feels clunky because Furst’s priority is the subjective experience of individuals in the countries that were occupied, attacked or threatened by Hitler and Stalin. The global perspective that he provides is gracefully interwoven into the storylines that frequently detail the insidious effect of how war or the fear of war can disfigure, and sometimes ennoble, the lives of people who would rather pursue their quotidian activities.