Saturday, July 25, 2015

Death and Rebirth: The Beatles, LSD, Brian Epstein and Transcendental Meditation

The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967.

On March 21, 1967, the same day The Beatles were recording the chorus of "Getting Better" on Sgt. Pepper, John Lennon left the vocal session while tripping on acid. Paul McCartney decided he had better get his writing partner home safely. Since it was too far to drive to John's home in Weybridge, Paul took Lennon to his place. After arriving, McCartney was curious to see if taking LSD would bring him closer to his currently distressed friend. Most of The Beatles had taken acid by the time they finished Sgt Pepper, but McCartney had earlier held out. Late in 1966, he finally dropped it with Tara Browne, but with mixed feelings. McCartney didn't enjoy losing control, or putting himself in a position where he couldn't find his way back home. A year later, McCartney actually caused some controversy when he admitted to the press that LSD had opened his eyes to new religious experiences. On that night he tried it with Lennon, he only wished to re-establish a bond they once had as songwriters, as brothers. "[Lennon's] rough edges and fuck-all personality only underscored Paul's pretensions, sparking a contrast that would haunt Paul for the rest of his life," wrote Bob Spitz in his biography, The Beatles. From evening until dawn, the two men hallucinated together, staring into each other's eyes, looking for the firm connection they had when they wrote "I Want to Hold Your Hand." McCartney would later refer to the experience with Lennon as communing with the unknown. He saw John as the Emperor of Eternity, a deity, while they both laughed and shared stories of past glories. For five hours, they communed deeply, barely moving, except for a short excursion taken into the garden. Throughout the evening, these two fractured geniuses briefly blended together as one. But what The Beatles and their fans didn't discover, until shortly after 1967, was that LSD had more troubling ramifications. It first gave credence to religious and political ideologues. When extremists like the Manson Family and the Weather Underground used it to further their apocalyptic agendas, The Beatles became unwitting champions of this new revolution. "The sad fact was that LSD could turn its users into anything from florally-bedecked peaceniks to gun-brandishing urban guerillas," critic Ian MacDonald explained in Revolution in the Head.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Olive Kitteridge: Portrait of a Marriage

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in the HBO miniseries, Olive Kitteridge.

Note: There are spoilers ahead in this review. 

The Maine coastal town where the sensational four-part HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, directed by Lisa Cholodenko and now on DVD, is set seems blighted by disaster and grief, but the story isn’t a Gothic. Jane Anderson’s screenplay, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 novel by Elizabeth Stout, puts the lives of the women and men who inhabit this community under a microscope to reveal how difficult the path is that all of us take through life, tortuous and stone-strewn and obscure. Some of the fates that befall subordinate characters are unusual. One is shot on a hunting foray by his best friend, who mistakes him for a deer. (Perhaps Stout was thinking of the plaintive reel “Molly Bán,” where a young man shoots his fiancée because, her apron up to shield her from a rainstorm in the forest, he takes her for a swan.) Another, whom we only hear about, becomes a psychotic killer. Most of the tragedies, though, are ordinary enough. The assistant to the local pharmacist, Henry Kitteridge (Richard Jenkins), collapses of a heart attack in the street outside the store and dies. Henry himself, in the middle of Part 3 (“A Different Road”), has a stroke and hangs on for four years, unable to communicate with his wife Olive (Frances McDormand), a retired math teacher.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tactile: Carlos Marques-Marcet's 10,000 km

In the opening moments of Carlos Marques-Marcet's remarkable film 10,000 km, Sergi (David Verdaguer) and Alexandra (Natalia Tena) are first seen making passionate love. As the camera fixes on their bodies, which are thrusting and swaying in motion to the erotic rhythms they both invent and discover, we can see how delicately intertwined their sexual and emotional lives are. They seem inseparable. But as inseparable as they might be, it's not a symbiotic partnership. Sergi and Alexandra still retain their individual selves as if sex for them wasn't about losing yourself in your partner, but about connecting at the most intimate and tactile place where you find out some great mystery about yourself. While Sergi is a music teacher in Barcelona who is seeking more secure work and Alexandra is a photographer trying to further her career, they both live together and desire a child. Before she can get pregnant, however, she gets an e-mail from Los Angeles offering her a one-year residency. Although Sergi is initially resistant to letting her go, he values her independence as much as he does his own and he relents. But the distance between them, which makes up the title of the picture, puts their relationship to the test. The ability to hold their connection close initially seems tangible because of Skype, Facebook and e-mail, but Marques-Marcet has fashioned a thoughtful and honestly probing examination of modern romance in the digital age. And it's a corker.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

So Thin: Amazon’s Transparent

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

It’s become an article of faith of late that pay television trumps network cable every time, mainly because of the former's gutsiness in tackling taboo subject matter and also because of its unfettered freedoms regarding the use of language and the depictions of nudity, sexual situations and violence. Obviously pay TV can be more adult than the network fare but just often it’s no better than any bad network show airing at any given hour. I long ago gave up on Mad Men, which after its promising first season, was content to stay in the shallow end of the dramatic pool. The first season of Orange is the New Black, which is the only one I’ve seen, was rife with crass characterization and pretentious, overwritten dialogue that rang false when it dripped from so many of the show’s character’s lips. Entourage, except for Jeremy Piven’s Hollywood super agent Ari Gold (and a few guest stars), was utterly unwatchable. Curb Your Enthusiasm, played out like the unfunny cousin of network TV’s Seinfeld, which was co-created by Curb’s star Larry David, but unlike Curb Your Enthusiasm, not afflicted with him in front of the camera. And I only lasted two episodes of Girls, which struck me as fake to the extreme.

Meanwhile, network TV boasts The Good Wife, still the best show on American TV (cable’s The Americans, in my estimation, is second best) and Elementary, which has the best character development of any currently running program (each episode adds another fascinating new layer to the characters of its Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.). There are also a number of new (and pleasingly renewed ) network TV shows from last season, including Gotham, Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder and Agent Carter, which either tweaked or upended formulaic TV tropes to fresh and welcome effect. In that light, I can’t help but be baffled why Amazon Instant Video’s streamed cable show Transparent is so popular (it’s already been renewed for a third season before the second one has even aired) and getting such good press. Other than for its basic original storyline, about elderly transgender senior Morty now Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) navigating the transition in the face of family and friends, the show doesn’t deserve the kudos. It’s the very definition of mediocre television.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Theatre Round-Up: The Berkshires, London, New York

Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat in Berkshire Theatre Group's Bells Are Ringing. (Photo by Michelle McGrady)

If Kate Baldwin had started her career during the golden age of Broadway musicals, composers and lyricists would have competed to write vehicles for her. That’s the first thought that crossed my mind after I left the Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Bells Are Ringing, in which she takes up the role Judy Holliday created in 1956 (and played subsequently in the charming 1960 Vincente Minnelli movie, opposite Dean Martin). The show, with its Jule Styne melodies – two of which, “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over,” belong in the show music pantheon – and the effervescent Betty Comden-Adolph Green book and lyrics, was a vehicle from the get-go. Holliday had won an Academy Award for bringing her star-making portrait of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday from Broadway to the screen, but her subsequent movie roles played up her stridency rather than the quality that made her unique, a dazed canniness. The joke at the heart of Born Yesterday is that Billie, the mistress of a junk tycoon who takes her to Washington and hires a journalist to give her a little cultivation, is a ditz who isn’t as dumb as she looks and sounds. Holliday’s other movies didn’t capitalize on that appealing contradiction, and they didn’t take advantage of all the other things she could do, like put over a number and knock a comedy routine out of the park (she and Comden and Green had started off in a nightclub act called The Revuers) and play the plaintiveness hiding underneath the humor. Bells Are Ringing allowed her to do all of it. She played Ella Peterson, who works for her cousin Sue’s phone service, where she’s made herself indispensable to the lives of customers she knows only by voice and for each of whom she’s developed a different personality. One of her clients is a hard-drinking playwright named Jeff Moss, one-half of a hit duo who’s operating solo for the first time and so terrified that he’s going to bomb that he’s paralyzed by writer’s block. Jeff knows Ella as Mom, the little old lady at the switchboard who hands out advice and encouragement; he has no idea that she’s a young woman who’s been fantasizing about him. When he gets drunk the night before a last-ditch meeting with his producer and unplugs his phone, Ella gets so desperate about saving his career that she sneaks into his apartment to wake him up. Improvising a new character for herself, Melisande Scott, she gets him writing again and he falls for her. But his faith in her (he tells her she’s the first honest person he’s ever known) makes her feel guilty for all the play-acting she’s been doing, and she doesn’t feel she can face him as Ella.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Lady Blue: What Happened, Miss Simone?

There's no question that it's been a pretty good period for music documentaries. Just when you thought that they were becoming more often than not tributes in granite, featuring little about the music and more about the artist's tenacity in surviving substance abuse and failure, a number of pictures have come along lately with real temperament and a sharp critical perspective on the work. Early on in the year, there was the engaging and informative The Wrecking Crew which may not have been strikingly innovative in its technique, but was touching in its generosity towards a group of musicians who had never really been publicly recognized before. Alex Gibney, who had already parted the curtain on the sinister machinations behind the Church of Scientology in his compelling and absorbing Going Clear, came up with two radically different musical portraits of James Brown (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) and Frank Sinatra (Sinatra: All or Nothing at All). In Mr. Dynamite, Gibney captured not only the thrilling showmanship in James Brown's music and the vibrant electricity of his live concerts, but in speaking to his band, the JB's, he was also able to plumb the strains and fragile bonds within the comradeship that fueled his meteoric rise to fame. By going to the roots of Brown's version of soul music, which combined funk with the ecstatic heights reached in the churches of black gospel, Gibney also made sense of Brown's complex connection to the black community. (Although he was a spiritual Godfather to dispossessed blacks, who felt even more disenfranchised after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he was also a self-made entrepreneur and an exponent of black capitalism that would lead him to later support Richard Nixon.)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Neglected Gem #79: Loss of Innocence (1961)

Loss of Innocence is an almost unknown coming-of-age picture made in England in 1961, when American moviegoers were rushing to see the latest British releases because they were starved for intelligent films that didn’t infantilize them. But unlike some of the imports from that period that attracted the attention of critics and art-house audiences, such as Room at the Top and The Entertainer and A Taste of Honey, this one never caught on. The screenwriter was an American, Howard Koch, who was most famous for co-writing Casablanca but who sometimes displayed a surprising European sensibility: he did the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter for William Wyler in 1940, and in 1948 he collaborated with the Austrian émigré Max Ophüls on the delicate high comedy Letter from an Unknown Woman, with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. In Loss of Innocence Koch adapted a novel by Rumer Godden, The Greengage Summer (the movie was released in England under that subtler title), about a sixteen-year-old English girl who grows up when she and her three younger siblings travel to the French countryside for a summer vacation with their mother but have to go on to the hotel by themselves after their mother falls seriously ill on the train and is hospitalized.