Saturday, September 16, 2017

Watching and Worrying – David Thomson's Television: A Biography

Television can’t be an easy thing to write a book about, given its rapid ongoing evolution into new forms – given, too, the sheer unconquerable volume of sound and image, brilliance and nonsense that have coursed from the small screen since it buzzed to something like life in the late 1930s. But David Thomson, one of our best historian-critics, is also one of our most ambitious writers. Among his more than 30 books are two major critical histories of film, one focusing on Hollywood (2004’s The Whole Equation), the other taking a more global vantage (2012’s The Big Screen). His mammoth Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975, is now in its sixth edition, and he writes a detailed, eccentric, irresistible “personal introduction to 1,000 films” (2008’s “Have You Seen … ?”) with the same bell-ringing ease that Johnny B. Goode brought to playing a guitar. So it’s with a rueful smile and admiring shake of the head that we who know Thomson’s tendencies to great scale and world-encompassing thought, as well as his vast knowledge and masterly ability to combine fact and reverie, regard his latest book and say that yes, of course he has the stuff to write a critical history of television, and he will earn the right, if anyone will, to give it a title as provocatively blunt and accurate as Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson; 412 pp.). 

Friday, September 15, 2017

See You At The Curtain Call: Twin Peaks – The Return (2017)

Despite my best efforts, there are a few unavoidable spoilers within

“'We are like the spider,' said the king. 'We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe. That is why it is said, "Having created the creation, the Creator entered into it.". This is true for us. We create our world, and then enter into that world. We live in the world we have created.'"
– Thomas Egenes & Kamuda Reddy, Eternal Stories from the Upanishads

"We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?” 
– David Lynch

I think it's safe to say that there hasn't been anything on television close to what director David Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost unleashed the last few months in their 18-part serial Twin Peaks – The Return. More than being simply a sequel to the original 1990 ABC series, Twin Peaks, which focused on the murder investigation of the high school senior Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) by FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), or a mere continuation of the follow-up 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which examined the circumstances leading to that murder, Showtime's Twin Peaks – The Return was an abstract murder mystery that resisted solutions and begged even more questions. It was like finding yourself seeped in a David Lynch compendium where you experienced the full body of his work – including Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – as one long amorphous trance as plot lines vanished, dramatic moments imploded, and nightmarish visions suddenly erupted and took hold. Twin Peaks – The Return was the source of much frustration because within that Lynchian theme park of devious delight were also hours of flattened-out kitschy comedy that not only tested your patience, but drew some of his worst instincts, those that had already been on display in Wild at Heart, and parts of Lost Highway. Yet the baggy unevenness of Twin Peaks – The Return wasn't simply a case of the director's intuition taking a holiday and intermittently going wrong. Lynch, who works almost entirely from his unconscious, seemed to be refusing to make any kind of conscious judgement over the material. It was as if he'd decided instead to run the table with whatever came into his mind (bad or startlingly good) to see where it might lead him – and also, of course, the viewer. Knowing that there was an audience out there both nostalgic and fiendishly curious to return to Twin Peaks after such a long hiatus, Lynch turned this epic tale into something more than a conclusion and resolution to the story. Twin Peaks – The Return was a turbulent meditation on the past, on the nature of nostalgia, on the tropes of television serial drama, and on death itself.      

Thursday, September 14, 2017

You'll Float Too: Andy Muschietti’s IT

Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, and Jack Dylan Grazer in IT.

I’m neither a Stephen King devotee nor a person who grew up with the 1990 TV movie based on his landmark novel It, so unlike many filmgoers who are bleating their nostalgic bias into any internet forum they can find, a new feature length film version appealed to me greatly. I love the creepy premise of a picturesque town in Maine that is besieged by an ancient evil that poses as a ghoulish clown in order to kidnap children. I generally admire the creativity and weirdness of King’s work, despite its inconsistency in quality. And as summer slowly transitions into autumn – the season of Halloween, the season of horror, my favourite season – my appetite for an entertaining horror film grows ever more fierce.

IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. The story of IT, about a group of young teens who call themselves “The Losers Club” discovering the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and fighting against It, only represents the first half of the novel. The second half portrays the same group of kids almost three decades later, as the evil force in their hometown of Derry re-emerges to feed once again. Muschietti made a conscious choice to split the story into two films, with the closing credits of IT listing the film as “Chapter One”. Since the 1990 film is criticized for attempting (and failing) to cram both halves of the novel into one made-for-TV movie, Muschietti has clearly made the right decision – especially since the pacing and structure of his adaptation feel spot-on. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Faith and Fury: The Strange Saga of Al Green

Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green by Jimmy McDonough was published by Da Capo Press on August 29th.

“Beware of men who speak well of you, my brother.” – Al Green

Music critic Jimmy McDonough seems to have taken that sage advice from Green to heart. Few people who personally encountered the great soul singer Al Green would be in danger of speaking very well of either him or their meeting. For the rest of us, safely at a distance and accessing his soul strictly through the remarkable records he created, he remains a towering figure in music for over the last five decades. From his first album, Back Up Train, in 1967 to his twenty-ninth release, Lay It Down, in 2008, he has traveled far from his gospel roots through the soul vibe, then suddenly back to gospel in the late '70s, and then just as suddenly back to soul again. All along the way, he’s been feverishly running away from something and passionately running towards something, and often those two were the same something.

The dichotomies that link gospel, blues, soul and funk are never-ending. They are the living proof that coal becomes crystal under pressure. They are also, in their cores, different names for the same thing: a head-on collision course between faith and fury. And no one ever exemplified the paradox at the heart of these great African-American musical traditions quite as forcefully as the Reverend, revered and feared Al Green. He was both a gifted genius and a tortured psychopath who personified both the heights and depths of what it means to be a human being. Brilliant and besotted, he was, in the end, almost beyond the ability to grasp it with any real sense of clarity, since his mercurial personality shifted in and out of focus from moment to moment. And few books can qualify for the term “warts and all” quite as much as Jimmy McDonough’s new, breathtaking life of Green.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Neglected Gem # 107: They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

Sally Gray and Trevor Howard in They Made Me a Fugitive (1947).

Sometimes serendipity allows you to come across a movie you might otherwise never have known about. That was what happened earlier this year when I was doing some research for a class I was teaching on American film noir. One article I read mentioned significant noirs from other countries, including a 1947 British film I was utterly unfamiliar with entitled They Made Me a Fugitive. I didn’t use that movie for my lecture but shortly afterwards I came across a DVD of it at my local library and snapped it up, believing I was meant to see it. Good thing I did, because even among the generally high quality of the genre, They Made Me a Fugitive stands out.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Master Acting Classes: The Fisher King (1991)

Few would remember now, but the 1991 summer movie season was dominated by movies about thoughtless, self-absorbed yuppies who find redemption: Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, William Hurt in The Doctor. The only one of the these pictures that wasn’t fatuous, trite and infuriating was The Fisher King. In it, Jeff Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a smug, cynical New York talk-radio host with a habit of mocking his callers. When he lectures one of his regulars (Christian Clemenson) on the worthlessness of the yuppie scum who frequent a watering hole called Babbitt’s – the name is an allusion to Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel, a satirical portrait of a Yankee bourgeois – proclaiming that they deserve to be wiped out, the caller takes him at his word and unloads a rifle on the crowd at the bar before shooting himself. One of his victims is the wife of a Hunter College humanities prof named Henry Sagan (Robin Williams), who dies in his arms. The tragedy triggers a psychotic break in Sagan: after a year of catatonia, he holes up in a boiler room in his old apartment building, calling himself Parry and identifying himself as a knight in search of the Holy Grail (“Parry” for “Parsifal”). When Jack, whose role in the Babbitt’s slaughter shook him up so badly that he has been hiding out at his girl friend’s and mostly inside a bottle of Jack Daniels, is set upon by violent youths in Central Park on what used to be called a wilding spree, it’s Parry who rescues him. Jack finds out Parry’s history from the super in his building and decides that it can’t be a coincidence – that trying to help Parry is the only way he can get his own life back, “pay the fine and go home,” as he puts it to his girl friend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). At first he thinks a few bucks will do the trick, but all Parry does with the money he proffers is to hand it off to another homeless man. Then, with Anne’s help, Jack arranges for Parry to have a date with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a publishing-company employee whom Parry worships from afar. Bizarrely, the evening is a triumph: Parry and Lydia, a peerlessly awkward waif who inhabits her own universe, turn out to be a match made in romantic-comedy heaven. But the thought that he might find love again stirs up Parry’s repressed memories of the night he lost his wife, and his old enemy, the Red Knight, a personification of all his demons of guilt and grief that only he can see, intervenes. Parry winds up in a psychiatric ward, once again imprisoned in a catatonic state – and Jack still hasn’t earned his own redemption. So he does the only thing remaining to him: dressing up in Parry’s ragtag-knight outfit, he carries out the task Parry set him earlier in their acquaintance. He scales the wall of the Medieval castle-like Fifth Avenue residence of a wealthy recluse, swings through the window like a parody of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, and lifts a trophy Parry saw in a photo that he’s convinced is the Holy Grail.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Amazon's The Tick: Bigger, Bluer, Darker

Peter Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman in The Tick.

“Evil wears every possible mitten.” – The Tick
Ben Edlund’s “big blue bug” is back. Last seen in the very short-lived Fox live-action series back in 2001, The Tick is currently enjoying its third small-screen adaptation, proving the old adage that like Sherlock Holmes and Pride and Prejudice, every decade gets a Tick to call its own. The new series, created by Edlund, premiered on Amazon Video on August 25 with half of the 12-episode first season With a darker vision, bigger budget, and richer narrative canvas, Amazon’s The Tick fits more comfortably into our current television universe than either the still-classic 1994 Fox animated series or the ill-fated Patrick Warburton-helmed 2001 sitcom, but it also comes with enough of its signature energy to be a welcome new arrival.