Saturday, March 11, 2017

Mommy Issues: HBO’s Big Little Lies

Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman in HBO's Big Little Lies.

At first glance, the star power involved with David E. Kelley’s small-screen adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies is so dazzling that it’s easy to believe that this is like nothing you’ve ever seen on TV before. Keep looking, though, and you’ll be able to easily compare the show, which premiered February 19 and airs on Sunday nights on HBO, to other television offerings. That comparison, once made, isn’t always terribly flattering to the new arrival.

The marquee names attached to Big Little Lies include Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, and Reese Witherspoon, with the latter two also serving as executive producers. The show traces the disturbances caused by the arrival of Woodley’s Jane Chapman, an underemployed single mom, and her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) in the posh seaside neighborhood of Monterey, California. When Ziggy is accused of assaulting the daughter of the high-powered Renata Klein (Laura Dern), it pits Klein against Jane and her self-appointed champion Madeline (Witherspoon), setting in motion a series of events that culminate in a murder in the midst of a trivia night event. Kelley obscures the identity of both the victim and the perpetrator of that crime, giving us brief glimpses of the initial stages of the police investigation into the murder, as well as snippets of interviews with members of the community, in between longer scenes that slowly walk us through the backstory leading up to the killing.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Neglected Gem #98: Some Mother’s Son (1996)

Helen Mirren in Some Mother’s Son (1996). 

Some Mother’s Son proves that a movie doesn’t have to be well made to touch you – and that you can forgive a lot of mistakes when a filmmaker has both a sense of drama and an instinct for playing fair. The film is set is in Northern Ireland and built around the 1981 prison hunger strike by convicted IRA members that claimed the lives of its instigator, Bobby Sands, and nine other young men. It was co-written by Terry George and Jim Sheridan, who had collaborated on the script of In the Name of the Father three years earlier. But Sheridan, who’s a brilliant director, was also behind the camera on In the Name of the Father. Here the director is George, making his directorial debut, and he’s neither imaginative nor skillful: he makes sentimental choices, he uses close-ups like a crutch, and he lacks a sense of rhythm. There are many times in Some Mother’s Son when you wish Sheridan had taken over – scenes that call out for layering and nuance, moments that need to be framed and extended that George just bops past. What the picture has is a sensational story, and its vision is quintessentially humanist: it’s on the side of two grieving mothers whose sons are imperiled equally by Thatcher’s policies and by the pride and extremist stance of the IRA.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Obscure and Beautiful Facts: Paul La Farge's The Night Ocean

Paul La Farge. (Photo: Carol Shadford)

“The only real horror in most of these fictions,” Edmund Wilson wrote in The New Yorker in 1945, assessing the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft, “is the horror of bad taste and bad art. Lovecraft was not a good writer. The fact that his verbose and undistinguished style has been compared to Poe’s is only one of the many sad signs that almost nobody any more pays any real attention to writing. . . . The Lovecraft cult, I fear, is on even a more infantile level than the Baker Street Irregulars.” Like Wilson, I’ve given Lovecraft’s work an ample tryout; several over the years, in fact, always in the hope that this time something would click into place, and his vaunted visionary genius make itself known to me. Unlike Wilson, I’m actually a fan of horror and supernatural literature, and so more than averagely credulous in these things. Yet for all the dread I’d love to feel from Lovecraft’s interminable tales of New England backwaters beset with ancient curses, extraterrestrial miasmas, and subterranean succubi, I too find him turgid, absurd, and not the least bit unnerving.

I say all this not to slaughter a sacred cow, but to make it clear that an enjoyment of Paul La Farge’s new novel, The Night Ocean (Penguin, 389 pp.), does not depend on being an admirer of Lovecraft’s writing, let alone a member of his cult. Though Lovecraft is the novel’s gravitational center, it’s more the man than the writer who is on display  or who is refracted, rather, through the reverence, resentment, or obsessive curiosity of other characters. The narrator is Marina, a modern-day New York therapist. She’s married to Charlie, a journalist whose specialty is lovingly detailed stories about unknown but singular people. Dogged yet oddly fragile, gifted at “immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts,” Charlie is uniquely susceptible to the mystery that triggers the novel’s action.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What We've Got Here is Failure to Communicate...: Excerpt from The Johnson Era in Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors

Vice President Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on November 22, 1963

Back in 1994, when I was just beginning a free-lance career, I had an idea for a book about American movies. That year, I'd seen Ivan Reitman's sentimental comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a conservative President who falls into a coma and is replaced by a look-a-like (also played by Kline) so the public won't be sent into a panic. Of course, the new President is more liberal and ultimately alters the policies of the true President. To my mind, it was as if we were watching George H. Bush morph into Bill Clinton. From that comedy came the idea for Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

I wanted Reflections to examine how key American movies from the Kennedy era onward had soaked up the political and cultural ideals of the time in which they were made. By delving into the American experience from Kennedy to Clinton, I thought the book could capture, through a number of films, how the dashed hopes of the sixties were reflected back in the resurgence of liberal idealism in the Clinton nineties. After drawing up an outline, I sent the proposal off to publishers who all sent it back, saying that it would never sell. One Canadian press almost squeaked it through, but their marketing division headed them off at the pass. From there, I went on to co-write a book (with Critics at Large colleague and friend Susan Green) on the TV show, Law & Order, and later my own books about Frank ZappaRandy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, though, I kept updating Reflections, seeing my idea change in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 election of Bush, 9/11, and finally the rise of Barack Obama. For the past number of years, Reflections has also been a hugely successful lecture series.The following is an excerpt from the chapter on the key films of the Lyndon Johnson years, 1963-1968.  

At the 1964 Democratic National Convention that August in Atlantic City, the nomination of President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey to the party ticket was merely a formality. On the last day of the event, however, former Attorney General Robert Kennedy came onstage to introduce a short film made in tribute to his late brother. While the legacy of JFK filled the Boardwalk Hall, LBJ seethed at seeing his bid for a Great Society now being eclipsed by the grief and nostalgia the country still felt towards the former president who was gunned down a year earlier in Dallas. It didn't help either that as soon as Robert Kennedy appeared on the convention stage, the delegates erupted into an uninterrupted applause. It lasted nearly twenty minutes and left the sibling of the fallen leader almost in tears. When Robert Kennedy spoke about JFK's vision of the country, he also decided to quote significantly from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "When he shall die, take him and cut him out into the stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun." In that brief moment, there was no question in LBJ's mind that the country remained "in love with night" and that he was "the garish sun." The bigger irony, though, was the positioning of John Kennedy as the dashed liberal hope of the Party, especially when it was Johnson who would live up to that liberal banner by creating legislation that upheld Medicare, civil rights, aid to the arts, public broadcasting, urban and rural development, and his War on Poverty. But there was something of an unspoken need to position Kennedy to the left, even if in his short term as president he was more of a hawk. It wasn't so much a national conspiracy that made this transformation possible as it was an unconscious need to avoid a more troubling consideration.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Music As History: Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens at the 2015 Big Ears Festival Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo: Amos Perrine)

On the cover of Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), the new album by Rhiannon Giddens, the singer stands alone in a forlorn position, barefoot on a muddy country road. The colours are as subdued as the artist who graces the cover. Frank Zappa once said that album art is often a key to the music inside, yet one would be surprised by the music on Freedom Highway, a wide-ranging sequence of original songs, closing with the "Pops" Staples title track. For Giddens, who prides herself on being a student of African-American history, bowing one’s head in respect to past generations is the first order of the day. After that, a celebration the songs of which Freedom Highway are made.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wounded Souls at the Edge of a Rain Forest: The Night of the Iguana at ART

Amanda Plummer, Dana Delany and Bill Heck (centre) in The Night of the Iguana at the American Repertory Theatre.
(Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Amanda Plummer gives a wondrous performance as Hannah Jelkes in Michael Wilson’s new production of The Night of the Iguana at American Repertory Theatre. In Tennessee Williams’ 1961 play, set in a hotel at the edge of a Mexican rain forest in 1940, the protagonist, T. Lawrence Shannon – a southerner and one-time Episcopalian minister, now a tour guide for an American company – describes Hannah as a “thin-standing-up-Buddha.” In fact, she’s a Nantucket spinster who travels with her nearly-centenarian grandfather, a poet. He recites and she paints portraits; that’s how they live, traveling from hotel to hotel, though when they appear at the Costa Verde, run by Maxine Faulk, the recent widow of Shannon’s old friend and fishing buddy Fred, they’re distinctly on their uppers. Hannah possesses the sort of philosophical endurance that is indistinguishable from grace, though, she assures Shannon, who has worked himself up to a fine state of hysteria – he’s slept with a teenage girl on this latest tour, of Texan Baptists, and its supervisor, Miss Fellowes, is determined to get him fired – her serenity has come at a steep price. He is trailed by his “spook”; she fought a tense battle with her “blue devil,” defeating him at last because, she explains, she couldn’t afford to lose. Shannon finds an unexpected companion in Hannah, who is almost supernal in her perceptions and utterly non-judgmental of other people. (“Nothing human disgusts me,” she asserts.)

Plummer has been one of my favorite actresses since Lamont Johnson’s lovely, too-little-known 1981 western Cattle Annie and Little Britches, where, at twenty-four, she and sixteen-year-old Diane Lane played a pair of orphans who join Burt Lancaster’s gang of outlaws. Around the same time she took up the role of Jo in a rare New York stage revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, and in both projects she demonstrated a poetic ferocity and gallantry that weren’t quite like anything I’d seen before. (God knows she came by her talent honestly – she’s the daughter of Christopher Plummer and Tammy Grimes.) Those qualities ought to be a perfect match for Tennessee Williams’ heroines, but the first time I saw her attempt one, Alma in Summer and Smoke at Hartford Stage in 2006 (under Wilson’s direction), oddly enough she couldn’t seem to get her mouth around the poetry – at least not until the epilogue, where Alma, once the eccentric of her small southern town, has become its scandal, picking up salesmen in the square. Plummer had been off track since the opening scene, but in that last five minutes she was exquisite; I couldn’t help thinking it a pity that she couldn’t start her performance all over again. But she did some fantastic work opposite Brad Dourif in Williams’ The Two-Character Play four years ago, and her line readings in this Night of the Iguana are quicksilver and often very funny and always, always unpredictable. And she’s radiant – a kind of earth angel with a sometimes unsettlingly level gaze.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Nineteen Eighty-Four Revisited

One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
 George Orwell, “The Politics of the English Language”
With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth...
 George Orwell, in a letter from 1944 (collected in George Orwell: A Life in Letters)
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

My first impression after rereading George Orwell’s harrowing dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is how much it reminded me of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. In this bleak, repressive country named Oceania people's lives are constantly on public display through the ubiquitous two-way telescreens. The protagonist, Winston Smith, seeks privacy, itself suspicious, and keeps a diary, a transgressive act deemed by the Party as intolerable because it suggests that a person can think for himself. Add in his decision to develop a sexual relationship and soon agents of the Thought Police are dispatched to hustle him away at night to the Ministry of Love. As a political prisoner, Winston is at the whim not only of the guards, but also of the privileged criminals. He, along with other captives, is disoriented, not knowing whether it is day or night, and is subjected to excruciatingly painful interrogation inflicted with truncheons, electricity, and the victim's greatest fear -- in Winston’s case, rats. No one is ever really free again. Even prisoners who have been released will eventually be re-arrested and “vaporized.” They will become “unpersons," every record of their existence obliterated in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, which sends all relevant documents down a “memory hole,” a job that Winston once performed. Substitute the Lubyanka in then-Leningrad for Orwell’s doublespeak euphemism and we have almost identical conditions to those that existed in the Soviet Union. Even the Thought Police are based on the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), which actually used riled-up rats in their interrogations.

A renewed interest in the Soviet Union, of course, cannot explain the surging popularity of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The election of Donald Trump has been an impetus, yet I do not think that anyone can reasonably suggest that Americans are about to descend into the totalitarian conditions limned in the novel. But we are living in a time that does summon up ominous features that derive from the novel and the former Soviet Union. Consider President Trump’s almost daily “fake news” accusations against The New York Times, his counselor Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of “alternative facts,” echoing the linguistic inventions of Orwell's Ministry of Truth and by implication Trump’s blatant contempt for objective truth, and his -- along with his aides’ -- cascade of lies – from false accusations that journalists invented a rift between him and the intelligence community (when he compared the intelligence agencies to Nazis) to debunked claims that millions of unauthorized immigrants robbed him of a popular-vote majority.