Saturday, July 11, 2015

Salvation: Love & Mercy

"The Beach Boys propagated their own variant on the American dream, painting a dazzling picture of beaches, parties and endless summers, a paradise of escape into private as often as shared pleasures...Yet by the late Sixties, the band was articulating, with less success, a disenchantment with that suburban ethos, and a search for transcendence."
–  Jim Miller in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (Random House, 1980).

Is it any wonder that Los Angeles is known as "the City of Lost Angels"? It's the place where sellouts go to bask in the sun, and shady deals get made under palm trees. Never mind that L.A. was the corruptible home of Raymond Chandler's incorruptible detective Philip Marlowe, it was also where Annie Hall was seduced away from Alvy Singer in Woody Allen's hit comedy. Los Angeles may be a tinsel town, a superficial jewel and pleasure palace, but its endless summers hold out a paradoxical promise. Songwriter Brian Wilson successfully depicted the seductive charms of that promise in The Beach Boys' best early music ("I Get Around," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "California Girls"), but when he tried to grow past the adolescent whims of what Jim Miller called that "paradise of escape," even calling it into question in the aching "Don't Worry Baby," Wilson was unable to take the band successfully into adulthood. The hedonistic thrill of The Beach Boys would, by the end of the Sixties, ironically become associated with the apocalyptic horrors of Charles Manson.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Misery Loves Company: Shalom Auslander's Happyish

Steve Coogan in Showtime's Happyish.

"It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe."
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794)
"Damn it Bones, you're a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!"
James T. Kirk, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Last winter, Shalom Auslander's dark comedy Happyish had its tragic 15 minutes, as a minor footnote to the shocking death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just two weeks earlier, the Hoffman-starring Happyish had been picked up by Showtime for its 2015 season. Without its star, the new comedy's future was in question. Eight months later, it was announced that Steve Coogan (The Trip, the Oscar-nominated Philomena, and of course the BBC's "Alan Partridge") would replace Hoffman in the show's central role, and the series would be retooled around the British actor. On April 5th, the series premiered with a rewritten and reshot first episode to a decidedly lacklustre critical reception. I don't know how Hoffman would have inhabited the role, but Coogan is perfectly cast as the recently 44-year-old Thom Paine, a Manhattan ad man suffering overlapping midlife and existential crises, and depression. The first episode of the series also introduces us to the show's ensemble of unhappy and variably unlikeable characters, including Paine's equally depressed but more explosively angry wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn, Crossing Jordan, Parks and Recreation), Paine's resigned-yet-philosophical friend Dani (Ellen Barkin, The Big Easy), and his broken, alcoholic boss and best friend, Jonathan (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing).

If you are familiar with Auslander from his radio appearances on NPR's This American Life and CBC Radio's Wiretap, or his 2007 memoir Foreskin's Lament, you will not be surprised by the tone or content of Happyish. (If you haven't heard of Auslander, a brief peak at the landing page of his personal website will probably tell you all you need to know about his outlook.) Early episodes of the season were rather heavy on the "-ish" and rather short on the "Happy," and it is easy to appreciate the response they generated. In all truth, even with such a strong cast and with recurring appearances of persecuted Keebler elves in Paine's externalized unconscious, Happyish is not groundbreaking television, and its premiere episode had all of its failings on full display. But those charmed by Auslander's uniquely bitter voice (he penned all 10 of the season's episodes) and who survived until the season finale two weeks ago will have experienced an oftentimes poignant, always pointed, and regularly thoughtful reflection on modern malaise.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Simply Chronicling: The History of Canadian Rock by Bob Mersereau

Bob Mersereau is a producer with the CBC. Alongside thousands of reviews for various newspapers and magazines he has authored two of the most entertaining and informative books on Canadian Rock and Roll. The Top 100 Canadian Albums and The Top 100 Canadian Singles are must have volumes for the maple leaf music lover. They are smart, well designed, and just plain fun. Open either of them to any page and you’re drawn immediately into an argument about which single didn’t make the cut, which should have, why is Neil Young so heavily represented, where is Pagliaro in all this. I regularly return to these volumes to remind myself of albums or singles I bought, lost, traded, hated and loved. Unfortunately Mersereau’s new book, The History of Canadian Rock (Backbeat Books), is not the sequel I’d hoped it would be. It’s not his fault, though. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain that level of sport when you’re just chronologically reporting on act after act, single after single. The same is true of The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. It was called Rock of Ages and had three authors (Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker). It dealt with the whole international history of rock & roll (well, essentially American, including the British Invasion[s]), but suffered because you just can’t include everybody.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Misty Copeland's Swan Lake

Misty Copeland performing in Swan Lake (photo courtesy of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre)

When the curtain rose on Misty Copeland’s recent performance of Swan Lake in New York on the afternoon of June 24 it was my intention that the first sentence of my review would contain the word historic because, besides the fact that the dancer was in command of her technique and had the capacity crowd of 4,000 cheering fans believing unreservedly in her ability to appear white swan vulnerable as much as black swan strong, that epoch-defining adjective would just about sum up the importance of the occasion. But in the two weeks since the 32-year old ballerina became the first dancer of colour to perform the dual role of Odette-Odile at the Metropolitan Opera House, more groundbreaking events have happened to the point that I will now need to be repeating myself. Call it a welcome burden.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Tyme Crysis – Terminator: Genisys

With Terminator: Genisys, the summer of 2015 continues its elongated nostalgia trip into the early ‘90s, hell-bent on reincarnating a series of lumbering CGI dinosaurs: first the battle-scarred T-Rex of Jurassic World, and now Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role that made him a superstar. The Terminator franchise has become as tortured as its time-jumping heroes, thanks to decades of convoluted plot rewrites and its inevitable failure at the impossible high-wire act of keeping multiple timelines and casts juggled in the air. Like Jurassic World, Genisys ignores its predecessors so it can curry favour with the more popular installments in the franchise, James Cameron’s original The Terminator (1984) and its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). But its frequent callbacks to these much stronger films only serve to show how diluted and messy it is by comparison.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hard Problems: Temple and The Hard Problem

Simon Russell Beale and Shereen Martin in Temple, at London's Donmar Warehouse. (Photo: Johan Persson)

American political plays tend to simplify the issues to the level of a high-school social studies class and rarely bother to dramatize them. (There are exceptions, of course, like Clybourne Park and Smart People, both satirical takes on race.) Steve Waters’ Temple, at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is the kind of political drama we go to the Brits for: a work of penetrating intelligence, sound dramatic structure and verbal wit that engages equally with ideas and characters. Temple is set in the Chapter House of St. Paul’s Cathedral during the 2011 Occupy protests, on the morning after the Chapter has voted – after a late, contentious meeting – to reopen the cathedral for the noon Eucharist service. The Dean (Simon Russell Beale) elected to close it after the protesters were routed from the London Stock Exchange into the courtyard of St. Paul’s two weeks earlier and decided to pitch their tents there. He was offended by their presence but felt there was no alternative but to close the doors, a decision he now regrets. His choice to reopen has provoked his younger, left-leaning Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins) to resign. He sees Occupy as an invigorating populist impulse akin to that of the early Christians and anticipates violence by the police against the protesters (as there has been in other cities) once the City of London has taken out an injunction against them, as it now seems inevitable they will. Moreover, he’s skeptical about the Chapter’s motives; after all, St. Paul’s, with an obviously expensive upkeep, is losing thousands of dollars in revenues every day it remains shut. (Anyone who’s visited the cathedral knows admission isn’t cheap.) The Dean receives a second resignation from his Virger (Anna Calder-Marshall), a woman in her sixties who’s been at her job through the tenure of two previous deans and whose devotion to St. Paul’s – she believes that Sir Christopher Wren shares with only Winston Churchill the distinction of being the greatest of all Englishmen – is a matter of family tradition: her father was in the Night Watch that protected it during the Blitz. Occupy has unseated her; St. Paul’s, she feels, has become a place she no longer recognizes.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Neglected Gem #78: Conrack (1974)

Most movies about the process of education tend to be fatuous, but there have been some notable exceptions. The subject has produced three masterpieces – Padre Padrone, Aparajito and The Wild Child – as well as The Miracle Worker, The Corn Is Green, the documentaries High School and To Be and to Have, and in recent years The History Boys, The Class and Monsieur Lazhar. Martin Ritt made two wonderful ones back to back: Sounder (1972), adapted from William H. Armstrong’s children’s book set among black sharecroppers in Depression-era Louisiana, and Conrack, which came out two years later. Sounder was acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, but not many people paid attention to Conrack, perhaps because Ritt and the screenwriters, his frequent collaborators Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch Jr., took such a leisurely approach to the material, Pat Conroy’s vivifying memoir The Water Is Wide, about the months he spent teaching elementary-school black kids on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The picture feels almost meandering, pleasantly so, because it borrows its rhythms from the pace of island life and from Conroy’s unruffled, experimental methodology when he discovers that the boys and girls in his class, criminally neglected by previous teachers who presumably substituted busy work for actual instruction, know virtually nothing. When he asks someone to identify the name of their country, not one hand goes up. The movie’s title comes from the name the students give Conroy because it’s the closest they can come to pronouncing his real one – an error that he bows to philosophically, gets used to, and finally is charmed by (as are we).