Saturday, November 18, 2017

Temporal Things and a Creeping Sense of Dread: The Fiction of John Darnielle

Author and musician John Darnielle

Paper-based role-playing games and video rental stores in rural Iowa might seem unlikely subjects for a 21st-century novel. Both provide amusements rooted in a past that is simultaneously too recent to have yet become a part of history and too distant to be clearly remembered by just about anyone under 40. Yet the obscurity of these subjects lends them to Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, two novels by John Darnielle.

Darnielle is best known as the founding and primary member of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, a group which has effectively consisted of him and a changing cast of musicians with whom he collaborates (when he doesn’t simply play solo). Darnielle’s garnered a well-deserved reputation for crafting off-kilter but deeply absorbing songs about everything from his troubled childhood to small-time professional wrestling. Those songs have gradually become more lavish in terms of their instrumentation, but Darnielle’s keen eye for characterization and narrative remains.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Living with Regret: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

In the last few years, beginning with Frances Ha in 2012, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s comedies have felt like latter-day adaptations of the sensibility I always associated with Paul Mazursky’s in the 1970s and 80s: satirical yet compassionate, hip yet skeptical, partly hopeful and partly rueful. And like Mazursky, he’s become the master of the mixed tone. Frances Ha, whose hapless heroine (played by Greta Gerwig) goes to Paris for a weekend and doesn’t know what to do once she arrives, is hilarious and poignant in equal measure; she evokes our exasperation but also our protectiveness. The paralyzed documentary filmmaker Ben Stiller portrays in While We’re Young (2015) can’t separate out his bid for artistic independence from his own ego, and he falls into one trap after another of his own making, but his efforts, increasingly desperate, to stay on his own wavelength – and to prevent himself from turning into a middle-aged cliché – are touching somehow. As with Mazursky, it’s not necessarily that you recognize these characters from your own life; both men work in very distinct, almost rarefied, narrative realms. It’s that you can see that Baumbach recognizes them – that they represent parts of himself, and his willingness to identify with him even when they’re being ridiculous is the mark of a great humanistic spirit. Pauline Kael called Mazursky a hip Chekhov, and that’s the territory where Baumbach, too, hangs his hat.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hyde and C.K.

Louis C.K. performing on-stage in 2015. (Photo: Charles Sykes)

The current explosion of allegations of sexual abuse and predatory behavior by powerful men in the entertainment industry is a sign of health. A year after a solid minority of the American electorate chose as our president a man who sees women as accessory items to be bought, used, and judged on their looks – and who has sought to empower and has surrounded himself with misogynists, homophobes, and racists – people with stories to tell are coming forward, in some cases after decades of fearful silence, and exposing rich, influential, deeply entrenched power players as monsters. It's clear by now that a seismic shift in public perception and a redefinition of what's acceptable behavior – and not just the behavior of the predators themselves, but those who become complicit in their actions by keeping their secrets and giving them cover – is necessary if the toxic slime infecting the culture and impacting people's careers is going to be cleared away. Some of the ugliest behavior has been on the part of men who've been shaping the culture for more than a generation, like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. But those two are also past their prime as movers and shakers and had plenty of enemies who were happy to see them fall. When it became general knowledge that Cosby is a serial rapist, the news had a special shock built into it because of the millions of TV viewers who, having first discovered him at the midpoint of his career, thought of him as a dispenser of paternal wisdom and family values, both in real life and as the star of The Cosby Show. And Weinstein worked hard at molding his sham image as a nurturer of talent and the businessman hero who made independent American cinema possible and popular. But did anyone in the year of our lord 2017 actually like them?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Soundtrack for the Imagination: Small Town by Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan. (Photo: John Rogers)

The art of the duet is on full display on the recent ECM release by guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. The album is called Small Town yet the music is often larger than life, containing a pallette of places big and small. It hits so many imaginative and emotional notes that I consider it the best album of 2017.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok – What Were You The God Of, Again?

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok.

“I don’t hang with the Avengers any more. It all got too corporate.” – Thor, Thor: Ragnarok
You’d be justified in thinking I’ve been too kind to Marvel’s most recent films. They really are singularly excellent at the art of seduction; of presenting you with dazzling visual spectacle anchored by just enough plot and character coherence that you leave the theatre feeling satisfied, even if their appeal begins to wither once you’re back outside. I really have no desire to ever watch Doctor Strange again, even though I gave it a glowing review. I can understand the shame that sometimes follows, where you feel you’ve somehow been duped. But I don’t ever feel taken advantage of, personally. Disposable, enjoyable, escapist chicanery on the silver screen is as much an essential part of a balanced cinematic diet as anything else. It’s quite enough for me that Marvel’s legion of technicians, production designers, digital artists, costumers, and stunt performers work their asses off to deliver what most moviegoers see as exciting one-off experiences (especially since the sequel is already coming down the pike right behind the one you just saw, guaranteeing that these talented people are still getting work). I don’t hate the formula. The formula works.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The State of Siege: Fascism Dramatized

Members of Troupe du Théâtre de la Ville perform The State of Siege. (Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

It was brave of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and his Paris-based Troupe du Théâtre de la Ville to take on The State of Siege (L’État de siège), a play by Albert Camus that was roundly panned in its original production in 1948 and has pretty much stayed on the shelf ever since. That Demarcy-Mota and his ensemble of thirteen actors have been able to make so much of the play – the production, which Arts Emerson brought into Boston for four performances, is wonderful – is almost miraculous. Theatre students don’t study the dramatic works of Camus and Sartre these days, but when I was in university in the late sixties and early seventies Sartre’s The Flies and Camus’s Caligula were staples on any modern drama syllabus, along with other now-forgotten mid-century French playwrights like Anouilh, Giraudoux and Cocteau. I remember finding The Flies (a version of The Oresteia) intriguing and I’ve always been curious to see the 1951 movie version, but no one gets excited about the existentialist writers any more, and Camus was never much of a dramatist. (His novel The Stranger, the most famous fictional work he ever penned, holds up.) The State of Siege isn’t even striking as an existential work, though it does bring back the era when French theatre was the playground for intellectuals who delighted in defying the reign of realism. It’s a symbolist drama that begins when a passing comet brings a plague to a seacoast city and fascists take advantage of the fear of the citizens and the resulting chaos to impose a severe, repressive rule of order. This is the second time Camus used the idea of a plague as a premise and a symbol; the previous year he had written his novel The Plague.  (The State of Siege is not an adaptation.)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reconstruction and Deconstruction: Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Photo: Stephen Voss)

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”
– Thomas Miller, South Carolina Congressman, 1895
“The beauty in his [Baldwin’s] writing wasn’t just style or ornament but an unparalleled ability to see what was before him clearly and then lay that vision, with that same clarity, before the world.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

The Congressman quoted in the first epigraph was an African-American who, in a futile effort, was attempting to make the case that blacks in the legislature had provided competent government, so why should whites attempt to disenfranchise blacks with poll taxes and literacy tests? It was not necessary for him to add the terrorist attacks from the Klan against blacks who attempted to vote. A few years later the civil rights icon, W.E.B. Du Bois, offered an insightful response: “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.’’ These two quotations provide the title and the thesis of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest offering, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (One World, 2017). The good government that Obama provided generated a racist backlash in which Donald Trump was the major beneficiary. Coates’s book is structured around eight essays, one for each year of the Obama presidency, written originally for The Atlantic, for which he is a national correspondent, and concludes with a blistering epilogue on the white supremacist ideology of Trump in all its “truculent and sanctimonious power.”