Saturday, December 24, 2016

Showboating: Fences

Denzel Washington stars in and directs August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences.

When you watch Denzel Washington in the movie version of Fences, you don’t think, “This is a great actor”; you think, “This is an actor who wants to make sure you know how great he is.” In the mammoth role of Troy Maxson, the 1950s Pittsburgh sanitation worker who is the protagonist of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning 1987 play – and under his own direction – Washington yells and declaims, shambles and struts and puffs himself up. His recitations of the long, long speeches Wilson put in this character’s mouth are like tricky vocal exercises, and we have plenty of time to marvel at his mastery of modulation and tone, particularly since we’re not distracted by any emotional involvement in the performance. On human terms I didn’t believe a single word of it, at least until, late in the picture, Troy began to sing to himself while puttering around his yard building the symbolic fence we hear about in every damn scene. (It signifies, depending on the moment, Troy’s penchant for alienating the people closest to him, his refusal to let in the truth about himself, and his struggle, in the Edgar Allan Poe “Masque of the Red Death” sense, to keep death away from his door.) This song about an old dog named Blue feels genuine, as if for once in the movie Washington didn’t feel he had something to prove. Or maybe I was just relieved that the character had stopped talking.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Spy infiltrates ISIS in Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow

Author Daniel Silva. (Photo by Marco Grob, courtesy of HarperCollins)

The murder of civilians over the last couple of years in France and northern Europe to my knowledge has been portrayed in fiction at least twice, in Todd Babiak’s Son of France, and most recently in Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow (HarperCollins, 2016) – before the events occurred in reality, as both authors indicate. Silva has written sixteen novels in his Gabriel Allon spy series about an Israeli master spy, and on the basis of his current offering – the first that I have read – he is adept at rendering a gripping, page-turning thriller. There are sufficient backstories to inform new readers: Allon began his career as a spy and assassin when he tracked down the Palestinian terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; he lost a son to a terrorist car bomb, shattering his wife’s mental faculties and leaving her languishing in a care home. At this point in his career, his fieldwork appears over. Because of Allon's past record of derring-do exploits along with some mishaps, a fabricated story of his death has been circulated. He is actually living in Israel, virtually in hiding, in large part to protect his new family, and on the cusp of becoming security chief for “the Office,” known in real life as Mossad. His cover is that of an internationally recognized art restorer and we initially meet him in The Black Widow working on a Caravaggio at the Israel Museum.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Incidents of Travel in the Fourth Dimension: Phenomenological Drawings by Patricia Salen

All pieces imaged on this page are from an untitled drawing series by Patricia Salen, 2010.

“We must return to the Lebenswelt [life-world], the world in which we meet in the lived-in experience, our immediate experience of the world.” Maurice Merleau Ponty
It is entirely possible for drawings to explore time. In fact, time may be their primary content. The relationship between the cognitive and perceptual realms may also best be investigated through a conversation between the eye and the hand, mediated by the mind, as evidenced in the drawings of Quebec-born artist Patricia Salen. Following its inception by Edmund Husserl, the notions inherent to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty are perhaps an ideal vehicle for examining the artmaking impulse. Especially the Salen drawing impulse.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Gaming the System: HBO'S Westworld

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, in HBO's Westworld.

Note: This review contains spoilers for the first season of HBO’s Westworld.
The “Mystery Box” is empty.

That’s a revelation that took almost a decade to seep into my brain. J.J. Abrams, like all great storytellers, is a great liar. But, despite his skill as an emotional filmmaker, his personal storytelling technique of capturing audience interest by building mystique around insignificant things is fraudulent and false. He’s an actual liar. There has never been anything in the box. And getting me to care about it – the way he, and others who imitate him, were able to string me along for years on the promise that one day the box would open, and something fantastic would be inside, was little more than a nasty parlour trick. He did it with LOST; he did it with Star Trek Into Darkness; he did it with Cloverfield and Super 8 and arguably even Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But I’m wise to his game, and by this point most general audiences are, too. We’re sick of being told we must find something interesting just because it’s mysterious. And this impatience on our part changed the way that writers can approach material in this mystery genre, whether on film or in episodic form: they can’t be lazy anymore and assume their audience will stick around to find out what it all means. They know that we know that if the answer ever does come, it’s likely to be unsatisfying anyway. And so the smarter creators – like those behind HBO’s Westworld (including, yes, J.J. himself) – are starting to remember that quality storytelling spends its time engaging with character, theme, and semiotics, rather than hollow plot twists and empty reveals.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Tragedy in Time: Keith Maitland's Tower

Pregnant freshman Claire James and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, moments before they're shot in Tower

On August 1st 1966, after first murdering his mother and then his wife, Charles Whitman, a mentally ill 25-year-old engineering student, climbed to the top of the campus tower of the University of Texas and began shooting randomly, hitting 49 people and killing 17. Up until the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, this horrible tragedy was the deadliest school shooting in American history. Most of the accounts have focused primarily on the shooter, and how his father was a violent and abusive man who regularly beat his wife and son. There were also stories of Charles Whitman's fascination for guns from a very young age until, as an adult, he became a marine and learned how to use them effectively. Some reports even suggested that an undiagnosed brain tumour may have contributed to his deteriorating mental state. His story has been told in many true crime documentaries. He was the subject of James Jameson's drama The Deadly Tower (1975) with Kurt Russell in the role of Whitman. Singer/songwriter Harry Chapin ("Taxi," "Cats in the Cradle") wrote an epic folk tale, "Sniper," in 1972, which was loosely based on the killer. "[T]he earnestness with which Chapin imbued his folksy love songs serves this macabre subject well," wrote critic Sean T. Collins. "Chapin is no more able to hide behind irony or ambiguity here than he is in his more romantic work, forcing the audience to come directly to terms with the horror of the sniper attack, and the tortured character of the sniper himself." As with most mass murders, we remember the perpetrator of the crime, that "tortured character" Collins identifies – a nobody who through an act of horror becomes a somebody – but rarely do we remember the victims, who end up, ironically, as anonymous as the killer himself was before his shocking deed.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Band’s Visit: What We Share

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

Affably modest and utterly joyous, The Band’s Visit is the perfect ninety-minute musical – and the best new musical I’ve seen since 2012’s Dogfight, which was also a small-scale off-Broadway show. Dogfight played its limited run at Second Stage; The Band’s Visit will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea only until the end of the first week in January. (It’s been extended twice.) The source material is a film from 2007, written and directed by Eran Kolirin, a sweet morsel from Israel that attracted little notice; no one I’ve mentioned the musical to had heard of the film, let alone seen it. In it, a police band from Alexandria with a date to perform at the Arab Cultural Center in a tiny Israeli city finds itself stranded in another Israeli city, Bet Hatikva, with almost the same name. (They’re one consonant apart.) Dina, the café owner who informs them that they’re in the wrong place – and that no buses are expected until the next morning – feeds them and offers to put some a couple of them up at home and more at her restaurant, volunteering her unemployed pal Itzik to take in the remaining two musicians.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Culture for the Holidays: Some Suggestions

The complete four seasons of WKRP in Cincinnati (CBS, 1978-1982) are newly available on DVD.

With the holiday season fast approaching, there is no shortage of books, albums/CDs and DVDs to choose from. So to make it easier for you to pick, here are some recent offerings you might want to contemplate purchasing for your loves ones – or for yourself.