Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tarzan in the 21st Century

Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgård in The Legend of Tarzan.

David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan is the latest in a long line of Tarzan pictures that goes back a century. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes in 1912 and it was such a sensation that he penned twenty-three subsequent Tarzan adventures, some of which were published considerably after his death in 1950. (There were also a couple of collaborations, which I take to mean that other writers completed narratives that Burroughs left unfinished.) Tarzan of the Apes tells the story of the protagonist’s being raised, after the deaths of his English parents in the African jungle, by an ape who has just lost her own baby; of his leaving the community of apes and teaching himself to read English (from the books in the hut where his parents died); of his falling in love with an Englishwoman, Jane Porter and then learning of his heritage – that he is John Clayton, the present Lord Greystoke. The first book ends with Tarzan’s keeping mum about his identity as an act of self-sacrifice – so that his cousin, whom Jane is set to marry, can continue to believe himself the rightful heir to that title. (You have to read the sequel, The Return of Tarzan, to get the happy ending to the Tarzan-Jane romance.) Tarzan of the Apes is a full-hearted, engrossing entertainment. It’s also ingenious: a pop-cultural gloss on the age-old nature versus nurture debate and a way of bringing a Romantic fable into the modern age. In the early chapters Burroughs keeps juxtaposing the African jungle with the England Tarzan belongs to by birthright but has never even seen, as in this passage:
With swelling breast, [Tarzan] placed a foot upon the body of his powerful enemy [a lioness], and throwing back his fine young head, roared out the awful challenge of the victorious bull ape. 
The forest echoed to the savage and triumphant paean. Birds fell still, and the larger animals and beasts of prey slunk stealthily away, for few there were of all the jungle who sought for trouble with the great anthropoids. 
And in London another Lord Greystoke was speaking to his kind in the House of Lords, but none trembled at the sound of his soft voice.
Throughout the novel Burroughs refers to his hero alternately by his jungle identity, Tarzan of the apes, and his civilized identity, Lord Greystoke, to remind us that in fact he is both these men in equal measure. He has the fighting strength and speed and survival instinct of a jungle animal (and the airborne flexibility of the particular genus of animal that brought him up) but the intellectual capacity of an exceptional human being and the character of an ideal Edwardian gentleman – which is the source of both his courtly treatment of Jane, though she’s thrilled by his jungle side, and his willingness to bow out in the competition for her love when he senses (incorrectly, as it turns out) that it’s his cousin she truly loves.

Friday, August 26, 2016

You Probably Don't Even Hear It When It Happens: The Sopranos & The Death of the Gangster Hero

“The way the thing builds with the music and everything. To me, it gets me and makes me want to cry,” creator David Chase said recently of the controversial scene which concluded HBO's The Sopranos after six seasons in 2007. That moment, which begins in a New Jersey diner with the pop horror of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”playing on the jukebox and ends with an abrupt cut to black, has been debated for years and continues to be. People still argue about whether mob boss Tony Soprano was whacked just before he could sink his teeth into some onion rings, or whether the quick shift to dark simply left his fate to our imagination. Whatever audiences chose to believe, David Chase's decision wasn't an arbitrary one. Which is partly why his emotional reaction to its conclusion is not as simple as waving goodbye to a successful franchise. “It’s not because, ‘Oh, there goes the show. There goes part of my life.’ It has nothing to do with that. It’s what’s on the screen.” What's on the screen is an assured understanding that viewers had been inside mob boss Tony Soprano's head for the full duration, just as audiences had once been in the heads of Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar, Cagney's Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, Muni and Pacino's Scarface and Brando's Godfather. But there's a significant difference this time around. Much had changed in both the gangster genre and our relationship to it.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vaulting Ambition: No Man's Sky

In the gaming industry, hype can be a deadly thing. As a developer you’re never going to please everyone, no matter how hard you try, but crystal-clear communication from the marketing side – about exactly what your game is, what players will be able to do, and how they will be able to go about it – has become an absolute necessity if you want to avoid the pitfalls of excessive player anticipation. Promise one thing and deliver another (or, god forbid, don’t deliver on it at all), and you’re sure to be crucified upon the hilltop of self-entitlement and petulant rage that is the gaming community. Indie developer Hello Games, known only for their sidescrolling racing games in the Joe Danger series, learned this lesson the hard way this month in the lead-up to the release of their hotly-anticipated spacefaring exploration survival game, No Man’s Sky. Their relative inexperience in the quote-unquote “big leagues” of the gaming market is being sorely tested now, as they scramble to repair one of the year’s more disastrous game launches.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Short Stories: Early Americans by Jane Ira Bloom

In talking about jazz nothing warms my heart more than hearing from a musician who says she loves the notion of being off balance, playing in the moment, and has a keen sense of rhythm. And so it goes for composer and soprano sax player Jane Ira Bloom and her marvelous new album Early Americans (Outline, 2016). The album features 13 tracks all less than six minutes, which is quite the feat for a group of musicians who love to improvise. On this record, Bloom’s 16th as a leader, she’s joined by Mark Helias, bass and Bobby Previte, drums yet it’s only her first trio album. To put out an album of soprano sax, bass and drums immediately tells you that Bloom and her band mates are fearless by not including a piano player or a guitar player to round out the chords that put music into harmonic context. By the same token Early Americans isn’t a wild and crazy record of free jazz that, unless you’re in the room, has a tendency to be self-indulgent. Bloom’s record is much more formal with 12 original compositions and one beautiful cover (“Somewhere” by Leonard Bernstein) gracing the disc. Each work has an emotional appeal and stands self-assured creating a short story aspect to the album.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fireball Career: Peter L. Winkler's The Real James Dean

Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in Giant (1956).

Humphrey Bogart once said of James Dean that he “died at just the right time,” explaining that “If he had lived, he'd never have been able to live up to his publicity." Bogart makes a cameo appearance in Peter L. Winkler’s The Real James Dean (Chicago Review Press, 2016), trying to “carry on a gentleman’s conversation” with the new kid in town while the shy, “starstruck” Dean stares at his feet and mumbles. According to Merv Griffin, Bogart finally grabbed Dean by the lapels and called him “a little punk” and a “two-bit nothing” for being so discourteous as not to look him in the eye when spoken to. Given the generational divide as well as the differences in personality between the two men, it’s possible that Bogart thought he was being patronized when he complimented Dean on his technique and got back the response, “Yeah? That’s okay by me.” Their mutual friend Joe Hyams points out that Bogart, having become Bogart by this point, kept his “insecurities” to himself, while Dean, the Method man, wore his on his sleeve, the better to keep them handy for when he needed them to fuel his work. The Real James Dean (subtitled “Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best”) makes two things very clear: Dean, however much he may have flirted with exhibitionism and self-indulgence onscreen and enjoyed the rewards of success and celebrity off it, was a heroically committed actor who saw himself as an artist, and that side of him is only part—maybe not even the biggest part—of the reason for the impact he made on the culture, and why it continues to reverberate. This isn’t a biography or a critical study but a smartly chosen selection of things written and said about Dean by those who knew him, worked with him, loved him, revered him, are still conflicted about him. It’s fascinating to take in Dean’s life and career through the eyes of so many people who knew him at different times in his life.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Crooked Timber of Humanity: J.T. Rogers’ Oslo

Jennifer Ehle, T. Ryder Smith, Jefferson Mays and Henny Russell in Oslo. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

True political theatre – in which issues are dramatized rather than just personified by characters embodying contrasting views and the text explores a political subject rather than proselytizing - doesn’t come naturally to American playwrights. We tend to look to the Brits for this kind of writing, which is why J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, which recently completed a run in the intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, in a gripping and poignant production staged with masterly resourcefulness by Bartlett Sher, feels like a particular triumph. (The play will transfer to Lincoln Center’s large space, the Vivian Beaumont, in the spring; the Beaumont is a Broadway house, so the play will be eligible for Tony Award nominations next season.) Rogers’ Rwanda play, The Overwhelming, is modest but effective, at least on the page (I haven’t seen it performed); its virtue lies in its restraint, its refusal to fall into melodrama, and to that end he places an American family transplanted to Rwanda in the center of the play and filters the horrors of the genocide through their response to it. Rogers has written two plays about Afghanistan; the one I’ve seen, Blood and Gifts, which Sher also directed at the Newhouse, is set between 1981 and 1991, and its historical focus is part of what makes it so unusual and intriguing. Rogers is clearly interested in boiling-point locations, but he’s a humanist, not a polemicist, and I think he keeps getting better as a playwright.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Long Shadow: Carol Anderson's White Rage (Part Two)

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.

Carol Anderson’s examination of the backlash against the 1960s Civil Rights legislative achievements during the Nixon and Reagan eras constitutes perhaps the most controversial sections of White Rage. It is no exaggeration to assert that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, initiated by Lyndon Johnson – whom Anderson rightly acknowledges as an enlightened figure even before he became President – facilitated seismic changes. The new laws did much to curb overt discrimination, open up job opportunities, close the racial gap by the doubling of college enrollment for blacks, and exponentially increase black suffrage. Consider that before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, only six percent of blacks could vote; within three years that jumped to sixty percent. It is significant that these gains rekindled white resentment, and the courts and the governments at the federal and state level found ways to exploit that sense of grievance. Nixon was able to appoint four new Supreme Court judges who reflected his conservative philosophy. The Court continued to undercut the 1954 Brown vs The Board of Education decision by arguing that vast disparity in public funding between white schools and inner city minority schools did not constitute racial discrimination and that the constitution did not guarantee education. State governments found ways to dilute the power of the black vote through gerrymandering, a process in which city, county, or state officials redraw district lines to ensure that Republican candidates are elected. All levels of government slashed the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. Republican administrations sullied African Americans by linking them with drugs and crime. In a recent article in Salon, Anderson cites a 1994 Harpers’ article in which Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, cynically acknowledged the race baiting deployed by the Nixon administration: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against black[s], but by getting the public to associate. . .blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing” the drug “we could disrupt those communities, We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” This is an example of white rage writ large.