Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Best of Youth: In the Fullness of Time

Alessio Boni as Matteo Carati in Best of Youth. (Photo: IMDB)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Best of Youth.

The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù) was shot as a miniseries for Italian television, broadcast in 2003 and released in North America two years later in two parts, each a little over three hours in length. That’s the way to see it – if you can’t watch it all in a single sitting – because you want to be able to keep all the details in your head, as you can when you’ve got a novel going. And that’s what The Best of Youth is really like: a long novel that expands in your mind as you move through it and that wraps itself around you so that by the end you feel you know the characters the way you know the members of your own family and your closest friends. The material is an epic: the setting is Italy from 1966 to 2003, and the characters interact against the turbulent social and political landscape of one-third of a century. Yet the writers, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, and the director, Marco Tullio Giordana, approach it with extraordinary intimacy. Considering the length of the picture and of the period it portrays, it has a surprisingly compact cast of characters, and though the narrative sometimes leaps ahead several years, and regularly stretches back and forth across the country (even occasionally stepping outside it), when you look for literary comparisons you’re more likely to come up with Chekhov than with Tolstoy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Paul Schrader on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

A scene from Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1985, I sat down with film director Paul Schrader.

At the time of our conversation, Paul Schrader, the screenwriter behind Taxi Driver (1976) and writer/director of American Gigolo (1980), had just completed work on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, his biopic of Japanese author, playwright and filmmaker Yukio Mishima who had famously committed public seppuku in 1970. The film, which combines stories of Mishima's life with adaptations of some of his fictional works, was recently remastered and released by the Criterion Collection.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with  Paul Schrader as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Iceman Cometh: Whose Play is This?

The cast of George C. Wolfe's The Iceman Cometh with Denzel Washington (seated, centre) as Hickey. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Initially I’d planned on skipping George C. Wolfe’s Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh because Denzel Washington had been cast as Hickey, Eugene O’Neill’s archetypal salesman, and in my view the stage tends to bring out Washington’s showboating side – even when he’s not playing the lead in a four-hour play that climaxes with a roughly half-hour-long confession scene. But Washington did perhaps the finest work of his career in Dan Gilroy’s movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. last fall, so eventually I broke down and opted to check out what he was up to as Hickey. And I must say that he works very hard in the role and doesn’t succumb to the usual temptations – the ones that made him exasperating when he played Brutus in Julius Caesar and in both the recent stage and screen versions of August Wilson’s Fences. The problem turns out to be one I hadn’t anticipated: he’s simply miscast. You have to believe that Hickey – who shows up at Harry Hope’s saloon for an annual blow-out with his hopeless alcoholic pals (in honor of Hope’s birthday) but this time with the mission of saving them from their pipe dreams – could sell you water rights to a desert. As Washington plays him he seems more like a derailed executive.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Auto-Immune Imagination: Moving On from Dr. Hans Asperger

Dr. Hans Asperger in Vienna circa 1934-44. (Photo: Booksfeat)

A review of the new book by Edith Sheffer, Asperger’s Children: The Origin of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

Dear fellow oddballs: this man is not your friend, and never was.

One day recently I was minding my own business and planning to write either a long article or a short book about how many of our seismic shifts in art, science, or culture were brought about by people who could charitably be called "not exactly normal." It was not only obvious but even well known that figures ranging from Einstein to Tesla were, to say the least, operating off the beaten path, and also equally obvious that it was because they marched to a different drummer that they came up with such simple but earth-shattering notions such as alternating current engines and wireless data transmission, long before any normals dreamed they were possible.

It was going to be called "The Outsiders Club: How Visionary Eccentrics Transformed Our World and Why We Need Them to Do It Again." I even had a great epigram planned to start the ball rolling, one that originated with the somewhat quirky inventor of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, when he cheekily remarked, “There is no solution to the problem because there is no problem.” The basic premise was that there is a popular old adage that people who behave themselves rarely make history. We might add that people who don’t always play well with others sometimes come up with startling insights that help the rest of us while they’re in the midst of their secluded solitude.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Origin Story: The Legacy of King Solomon's Mines

Author H. Rider Haggard, often credited as a pioneer of the "lost world" fiction genre. (Photo: Getty)

A group of men take off on a quest into the unknown, seeking a potentially mythical MacGuffin and using their unique skills to get into and out of scrapes, with a few good-natured comic interludes thrown in along the way. That’s a setup of many popular films, and that’s part of why I found my recent experience reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines so interesting. Combined with a rediscovery of George Stevens’s 1939 film Gunga Din, which I hadn’t seen since childhood, catching up with Haggard’s classic adventure novel has provided some perspective on the origins of tropes that have begun to feel overly familiar after appearing in one franchise film after another.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Lean on Pete: A Boy and a Horse

Charley (Charlie Plummer) with his titular companion in Lean on Pete. (Photo: Scott Patrick Green)

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Lean on Pete belongs to a genre you wouldn’t expect Andrew Haigh, the gifted English writer-director of 45 Years and Looking, to be drawn to: that subcategory of coming-of-age movies in which the protagonist forms a strong emotional relationship with a special animal. Clarence Brown made the two classic Hollywood exemplars in the mid-forties, National Velvet and The Yearling, and Carroll Ballard directed the greatest of all of them, The Black Stallion, in 1979 (all three were adapted from beloved children’s volumes), using both National Velvet and the French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s incandescent short film White Mane (1953) for inspiration. Ballard made other splendid movies of this type – Fly Away Home in 1996 and Duma in 2005 – but The Black Stallion, with its dialogue-free desert-island second act and its horse-racing third act, its vibrant, painterly use of color (the film critic Pauline Kael wisely evoked the work of the American abstract expressionist Morris Louis by way of comparison), its juxtaposition of the archetypal and the elemental to explore the experience of an eight-year-old boy far beyond his ability to find verbal expression for, is indisputably the masterpiece of the genre. (Melissa Mathison, who wrote the script, also collaborated with Steven Spielberg on E.T., which substitutes a creature from another planet for the magical animal.)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Prose, Poem, & Power: Sony Santa Monica's God of War

Kratos (left) and his son Atreus (right) in Sony Santa Monica's God of War. (Photo: Sony)

Until this year, Sony Santa Monica’s God of War series was the 300 of popular games, like Clash of the Titans as envisioned by a drunk Michael Bay. Its focus on hyper-violent setpieces, which grew increasingly epic in scale as the series wore on, was appropriate for the time in which it was released, and for the audience that eagerly lapped it up. But in 2018, that kind of brainless uber-masculine power fantasy doesn’t really fly anymore. Despite its tendency to constantly shoot itself in the foot in terms of meaningful progress, the industry has indeed grown up a little bit, and so have the people who play – and who make – this sort of triple-A action-adventure fare. If it had any ambitions about competing critically and financially with the best we now have to offer, a new entry in the God of War series would be forced to grow up as well.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

World Mash-Ups: Valeria Matzner and Molly Tigre

South American songwriter Valeria Matzner. (Photo:

Two new releases have brought me great joy over the past couple of weeks for their excellent production values and spirited performances. Valeria Matzner’s album called Anima (Triplet) offers up some enthusiastic tracks with an eclectic music mix. New York’s Molly Tigre is an instrumental band with a difference: no guitar player. The band’s self-titled record on the VSR label is inspired by the desert blues entrails of Mali mixed with the street rhythms of New York City. While these two new releases won’t shatter the earth upon their release, they do inspire hope for the continual fusion of world music mashed-up with regional sounds.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Podcast: Don Shebib on Margot Kidder and Heartaches (1981)

Margot Kidder in Heartaches (1981)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1981, I sat down with Canadian film director Donald Shebib.

At the time of our conversation, Don Shebib, director of the Canadian classic Goin' Down the Road (1970), had just completed work on Heartaches (1981), written by playwright Terence Heffernan and starring Margot Kidder, Annie Potts and Robert Carradine. In this interview, Shebib speaks about his new film and what it was like to work with Kidder, at the time most famous for her work on the Superman movies and 1979's The Amityville Horror. Margot Kidder passed away on Monday, May 13, at the age of 69.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Don Shebib as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Monday, May 14, 2018

New Broadway Musicals: SpongeBob SquarePants & Mean Girls

Lilli Cooper, Ethan Slater, and Danny Skinner in SpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway. (Photo: Youtube)

The output of musicals in the current Broadway season seems leaner than it is coming after the unusually hefty 2016-17 roster. The reason last season was so heavy was that many companies had elected to delay for a year to avoid coming up against Hamilton in the 2016 Tony Awards race. And even with more shows to choose from, I would hardly call 2016-2017 a banner year for musicals: I loved Bandstand and Come from Away, and there were several reasons to see Dear Evan Hansen if you could ignore the nonsensical book, but that was about all. This season brought the transfer of The Band’s Visit, one of the best new musical shows of recent years, from its downtown venue at the Atlantic Stage Company to a Broadway house. Having opted to skip the two new jukebox musicals, Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville and Summer (a bio of Donna Summer), I checked out the only other offerings, SpongeBob SquarePants and Mean Girls, shortly after their official openings.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Moles in American & Russian Intelligence in Jason Matthews's The Kremlin's Candidate

Author and former CIA agent Jason Matthews. (Photo: Booktopia)

"The world would know that the secret services of Russia were omniscient apex predators that could penetrate the governments of his enemies, discover their secrets, and exert their will over them . . . His active measures were creating lasting discord in the West, at minimal cost, and if he wanted to unseat an American politician, he had only to release an embarrassing, unencrypted email through WikiLeaks run by the languid dupe hiding in that exiguous Latin embassy in London. Partisan political hysteria now gripping American society would do the rest."  – Jason Matthews, The Kremlin's Candidate
The Kremlin's Candidate (Scribner, 2018) is the third and most compelling novel in Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow trilogy, concluding the series that began with Red Sparrow and continued with Palace of Treason. The final novel picks up with a prologue set in 2005, in which Audrey Rowland, an American naval officer and a scientist on a brief assignment to Moscow, is lured into a honey trap for the purpose of blackmail by Dominika Egorova, a Russian spy. The former ballerina began her career as a trained seductress in Red Sparrow, in which her first major assignment was to seduce CIA spy Nate Nash, the handler for a Soviet mole, and secure his identity. Instead, she was turned by Nash into a CIA mole in the Kremlin and he became her handler and lover. Fortunately, she had the protective advantage of being a synesthete, able to judge the intentions of others by the colours she saw emanating from them.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Everything's Cheaper Than It Looks – Neil Young's ROXY: Tonight's the Night Live

Neil Young perfoming Tonight's the Night at the Roxy. (Photo: Getty Images)

Any worthy art stands on its own, as a formalized and unitary capture of experience, apart from the facts of how it was created or released into the world. To be overwhelmed by Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, for instance, you needn’t know a thing about the conditions of its making, its first release, its mutilation, or its eventual rediscovery in a janitor’s closet in an Oslo mental hospital. You needn’t have read a single book about Joan herself, or be aware of Dreyer’s other films. But some works – like, in fact, The Passion of Joan of Arc – are so informed by circumstance and so infused with the extraordinary that to regard them in isolation from their histories seems perverse, and not in the fun way. That applies to Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night as much as it does to any rock album. One loved it before ever knowing much about the deaths behind it, or the facts of how it came to be; but over time, as that knowing accumulated, the album inevitably took on whole new dimensions, haunted thoughts that are now inseparable from one’s experience of the music itself.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003)

The white colt in Davaa and Falorni's The Story of the Weeping Camel. (Photo: Getty) 

The utterly disarming film The Story of the Weeping Camel is a collaboration between Byambarsuren Davaa, who was trained in Mongolian television, and Luigi Falorni, a cinematographer turned filmmaker, each directing for only the second time. Adopting the celebrated working methods of the first documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, they put a family who live in the Gobi Desert on camera and have them enact their own story. Soft-faced Ikhee (Ikhbayar Amgaabazar) and his wife Ogdoo (Odgerel Ayusch) live in one yurt with their children – Dude (Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar), who is perhaps fourteen; Ugna (Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar), a little boy of six or seven; and a girl, Guntee (Guntbaatar Ikhbayar), a toddler. The two sets of grandparents live in adjacent yurts and help with the housekeeping, the children, and the animals – the family raises sheep and camels. Part of what marks the arc of the year for them is the births of the camel colts; the movie focuses on the consequences when a beautiful, rust-colored camel gives birth to a white colt after a hard two-day labor, and then rejects her baby.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sizzling Syncopation: Natasha Powell's Floor'd

The Holla Jazz ensemble performing Floor'd at Winchester Street Theatre (Photo: Tamara Romanchuk)

The stage is bare save for seven wooden chairs lining a back wall in addition to a makeshift bar to the left and an assemblage of musical instruments, including a large stand-up bass, to the right. James Kendal’s spare set design is meant to invoke a jook joint, originally a place where blacks in the American South would go to unwind after laboring all day in a cotton field. Over time, the jook joint evolved into a hotbed of drink, conversation and jazz. With the music came an improvisatory dance that moved in step with the syncopated rhythms. Jazz dance has since stag-leaped its way into Broadway and Hollywood musicals, Disney spectacles and cruise ships, dance schools and cheerleading squads across the continent. Today, it is a legitimate dance style with its own kick-ball-change vocabulary and formalized systems of technique. But at its essence it is a social dance rising like smoke from an unfiltered cigarette in the jook joints of popular song, a heritage choreographer Natasha Powell takes pains to honour in the aptly named Floor’d, her knock-out show of jazz music and dance which debuted at Toronto’s intimate Winchester Street Theatre with four sold-out performances, April 25 to 28.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Music as Primal Therapy: The Loud Memories of Chris Stamey

left: Chris Stamey. (Photo: Daniel Coston)

A Spy in the House of Loud is great title for Chris Stamey's personal memoir, as much about his times as his own role in them, and by way of two other great titles, one from the Anais Nin novel in 1954 and one from the Doors song in 1970. The book is Chris Stamey’s recollections of the cultural period during which music became louder, meaner and funnier: a wild ride by a wild child. After all, Stamey was the force behind the dB’s (both deciBels and decibel breakers, with a superfluous apostrophe) and he definitely knows whereof he speaks, or perhaps he screams.

In addition to borrowing from Anais and referencing Jim Morrison, the title of Stamey’s boldly maniacal yet quietly elegant stroll down memory lane also evokes one of his own songs with the dB’s “A Spy in the House of Love,” from their 1984 album Like This. It doesn’t actually contain any echo of either one, and it doesn’t need to, but what it does do is remind us of a time of phenomenal exuberance in the pop-rock music scene, a time when disco went to hell, at top speed and top volume. The new scene was in fact post-pop writ large. Hence, Stamey’s sonic notion of the "house of loud."

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Neglected Gem: Stormy Monday (1988)

Melanie Griffith and Sean Bean in Stormy Monday (1988).

Set in Newcastle, Stormy Monday is a cool, clean crime drama with an emotional authority that builds quietly and finally takes control. It begins like an Altman picture, but in lower key and smaller scale, with disorienting cuts between characters who don’t realize their fates are about to converge. Kate (Melanie Griffith) is an American woman kept in luxury by a crooked real estate developer who makes both private and public use of her; miserable with herself, she keeps a side job waiting tables, apparently so she can feel halfway honest. The developer, Frank Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones), a Texas Machiavelli, is sweeping into Newcastle in advance of “America Week,” a flag-festooned public-relations boondoggle meant to camouflage a fast, cheap buy-out of local businesses. The spanner in the works is Finney (Sting), a well-off but dissolute club owner smart enough to see what Cosmo is up to, and intransigent enough to resist selling. The relative innocent in this land of moral compromise is Brendan (Sean Bean), a rootless apartment sitter who answers a newspaper ad, orders a steak, and finds himself at the center of everyone else’s messes – all of which come to a head at the end of the movie’s three days and nights.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Musical Comedy Revivals: My Fair Lady and The Will Rogers Follies

Harry Haddon-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner in Bartlett Sher's My Fair Lady. (Photo: WNYC)

In Bartlett Sher’s lush, rewarding revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center, Lauren Ambrose gives the best portrayal I’ve ever seen of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower seller transformed into an Edwardian lady. Ambrose, best known as one of the co-stars of TV’s Six Feet Under, has only a smattering of theatrical experience (which includes a fine performance in Sher’s production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! in 2006) and no background at all in musicals, but she turns out to have a pellucid lyric soprano voice and an unerring sense of musical-comedy style.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Making a Killing in Hollywood: HBO's Barry

Bill Hader as the title character in HBO's Barry. (Photo: HBO)

The star-struck gangster isn’t exactly a new trope – think Cole Porter’s classic Kiss Me Kate or Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty – but there’s still something different about HBO’s new dark comedy Barry, which follows the title character (played by Bill Hader) as he becomes obsessed with dreams of stardom while trying to shed his former identity as a ruthlessly effective hit man. Perhaps that’s because it’s one of the first attempts (that I can think of, at any rate) to translate this idea to the medium of television.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Neglected Gem: Visions of Light (1992)

Greta Garbo, left, on the set of Romance (1930), as photographed by William Daniels, right. (Photo: Getty)

When Gordon Willis, dubbed by fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall “the prince of darkness,” shot The Godfather, he deliberately underlit Brando’s face to preserve Don Corleone’s mystery – so we couldn’t read his soul through his expressive eyes. Vilmos Zsigmond obtained the muted, textured look of McCabe & Mrs. Miller by flashing, i.e., overlaying fog on the film stock. Roman Polanski, working on his first American movie, Rosemary’s Baby, got William Fraker to shoot Ruth Gordon on a bedroom phone so a doorway cut off part of her profile, and Fraker reports that the audience tipped their heads collectively to try to see around that doorway.

These anecdotes are part of the fun of seeing Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, a documentary by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels that operates like an enthralling ninety-minute course in the history and techniques of photographing movies. McCarthy, who compiled the script, interviews some two dozen cinematographers, including many of the major American and émigré European ones who were still around in the early nineties (the movie’s focus is almost exclusively on Hollywood), whose impressions of the work of their precursors shape the film’s historical perspective and whose reminiscences bring it into the modern era. This personal-history approach, and the precision and articulateness of the commentary by, among others, Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, The Day of the Locust), Allen Daviau (E.T.), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) gives Visions of Light a dynamism and integrity that compilation documentaries – movies about movies – almost never have. The talk doesn’t feel like filler between the fabulous clips; the clips are actually in the service of the arguments the photographers want to make.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Podcast: Interview with R. Lee Ermey (1987)

R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Ermey passed away on April 15 at the age of 74.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1987, I sat down with Full Metal Jacket actor R. Lee Ermey.

A former United States Marine Corps staff sergeant, drill instructor, and honorary gunnery sergeant, Ermey spent 14 months on the ground in Vietnam before being medically discharged in 1972 due to injuries sustained in the field. He parlayed this first-hand military experience into a career as an actor and technical advisor, spanning over thirty years of iconic film and television roles. He is still remembered best for his performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Ermey passed away on April 15, 2018, at the age of 74.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with R. Lee Ermey as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Grand Experiment – Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War

Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.

In the production logos that precede Disney and Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, the “io” in “Marvel Studios” slowly morphs into the number 10, signifying the real-life decade that has passed since Iron Man was released in 2008, when this whole “cinematic universe” experiment began in earnest. It is not overstating things to say that this process, whether or not you’ve enjoyed following its peaks and valleys, is unprecedented in cinematic history, and that fact in itself anchors Infinity War in a sense of tangible accomplishment. Much ballyhoo has been made about the fact that the film doesn’t make a lick of sense if you haven’t seen the Marvel movies leading up to this (and if you haven’t, then what exactly is driving you to buy a ticket for this one?), but that attitude belies the mind-boggling time and effort that has gone into setting up these dominoes, so that this film can concern itself primarily with knocking them down. Experiencing the setup is worth it, because Infinity War is nearly three hours of pure payoff.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Context Matters: David Byrne's American Utopia

David Byrne, photographed by Ian Gavan, prior to the announcement of American Utopia.

To fully appreciate the music of David Byrne one has to consider all the elements he delivers that are adjacent to his music. Byrne’s holistic approach asks his audience to participate in his constituent parts, be they music, lyrics, liner notes, cover art, design or concerts (which usually include choreography). For his new American Utopia (Nonesuch), Byrne’s first album of solo compositions since 2008, he brings all of these aforementioned elements to bear akin to Frank Zappa’s MOFO Project/Object. In other words, Byrne provides his own context to each element while elaborating on the larger concept or point that he’s trying to make. It was the case for his last record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo) and it’s definitely the case for American Utopia. Taken separately, Byrne’s thesis adds up to some very thoughtful art.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Imagining the Unimaginable: Crystal Pite's Betroffenheit

The cast of Betroffenheit. (Photo: Wendy D. Photography)

In Betroffenheit, the award-winning dance/theatre piece choreographed by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, co-creator and writer Jonathon Young, who plays a central role, reappears in a long brown hair wig and a shiny blue suit in a scene replicating the lurid non-reality of a chemical high. He is the star of an interim lounge lizard act, surrounded by preening fan dancers fronting an aggressive ballroom duo, and partnered by his doppelgänger, the spindly and rubbery Jeremy Spivey. Wearing a painted-on smile, he is black where Young is white. But this isn’t an instance of colourblind casting.

As seen in the Canadian Stage presentation of Betroffenheit that took place at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre on April 22 as part of the 2016 work’s ongoing world tour, Spivey, a member of Pite’s Kidd Pivot contemporary dance company, is Young’s shadow, literally his darker self, and the keeper of his tortured secrets. He echoes Young’s repetitive yelps of pain, and mirrors his contorted body language as he boomerangs across the stage clutching a microphone into which he spews one-liners wrapped in canned laughter – even though what Young is saying isn’t really funny. His antics might look comical, but they are rooted in tragedy.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Top Girls: Thatcher-Era Feminism

Sophia Ramos, Carmen Herlihy, Paula Plum, Carmen Zilles, and Vanessa Kai in Top Girls. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Thirty-six years after the original production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at London’s Royal Court, the play – a revival of which concludes the Huntington Theatre’s mainstage season – feels inescapably like a remnant from the Thatcher years. That’s particularly true of the second act, which culminates in a long quarrel between two sisters, Marlene (Carmen Zilles), a high-powered single woman who works in a London employment agency, and Joyce (Sophia Ramos), a divorcée who stayed behind in the dilapidated working-class exurb Marlene couldn’t wait to escape from. Marlene’s conservative politics are meant to suggest her emotional and moral limitations; this is, after all, a Caryl Churchill play. The playwright tips her hand when it becomes clear that Joyce has raised Marlene’s illegitimate child, Angie (Carmen M. Herlihy), now a developmentally-delayed sixteen-year-old who adores the aunt she seldom gets to see. (You’d think that Churchill might have come up with a more persuavive device than a revelation that seems to have come out of a Victorian melodrama.)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

In the Panel Colony: An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books

Cover art for We Told You So: An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books, by Daniel Clowe.

Fantagraphics, the most important American publisher specializing in comics for the past forty years, was founded in 1976 by Gary Groth, a 22-year-old fanzine publisher and convention organizer, and his business partner, Mark Catron. They were joined a year later by Kim Thompson, a comics enthusiast with a special interest in bringing the work of European creators to the attention of readers in the U.S. Thompson immediately demonstrated his devotion to this mission by reaching into his own pocket to save the company from bankruptcy before hardly anyone had ever heard of it. Soon, enough people had at least heard of it to get mad at it. For the first few years of its existence Fantagraphics didn’t publish its own comics; it didn't start until 1979, by which time Groth, Thompson, and company had cleared a beach head for themselves with The Comics Journal, which published industry news, reviews and critical essays, and long, often very long, interviews with star creators. It saw itself as the only serious magazine dealing with the art of comics, and it probably was the first such publication that has no interest in providing what’s now called fan service. The underground wave of the ‘60s had rolled back, ambitious attempts to restart a movement (Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s anthology series Arcade, Mike Friedrich’s “ground level” Star*Reach) had died or were circling the drain, and RAW and the rise of the direct market were not yet on the horizon. Arriving when the comics scene was at a low point, TCJ called out the big companies and the easily satisfied fans who it saw as conspiring to keep American comics in a glossy, four-color rut. The Journal’s tone was often combative, and it was downright apocalyptic in its exchanges with those rival publications, such as Don and Maggie Thompsons’ Comics Buyers’ Guide, that it saw as serving the status quo.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Sex, Hype, and Abstract Painting: The Secret Life of Willem de Kooning

Elaine and Willem de Kooning. (Photo: Rudy Burckhardt)

A married couple, the painters Willem and Elaine de Kooning had what might be called an open relationship. From their wedding in 1943 until Elaine's death by lung cancer in 1989, both de Koonings were known for their sexual promiscuity. He had several partners, but she had many, many more. Their bedroom was overcrowded, which is perhaps why author Lee Hall used a plural noun when she called her 1993 book about them Elaine and Bill, Portrait of a Marriage: The Lives of Willem and Elaine De Kooning.

As Hall details in her controversial but thought-provoking biography, Elaine’s conquests were as legendary as her drinking, and her gift for inspired
 – and inspiring – chatter. Said by all who knew her to have been a legendary beauty and feisty femme fatale, she had no trouble bedding whomever struck her fancy. But there was method to the sexual madness: Mrs. de Kooning slept primarily with men who would advance her husband's career. Elaine’s lovers included Harold Rosenberg, the influential art critic, Tom Hess, the trend-setting editor of Art News, and Charles Egan, a leading New York gallery owner. By sleeping with these men Elaine ensured that her husband was crowned the king of Abstract Expressionism. Merit seems to have been beside the point. In Portrait of a Marriage, Hall quotes an anonymous dealer that "if Elaine had slept with different people – or, God forbid, if she had remained faithful to Bill – the whole history of American art would be different."

Friday, April 27, 2018

What to Listen to if You Like to Cook (and Eat) – Part I

Cherries! (Photo: Dean Morley)

I like to listen to food podcasts while I’m cooking and also – maybe this is ironic – while I’m exercising. And there are a lot of podcasts out there to choose from. The two described here are actually radio shows, but they’re available as podcasts, so you can download them and listen to them anytime, anywhere.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Neglected Gem: Mondays in the Sun (2002)

Luis Tosar (left) and Javier Bardem (right) in Mondays in the Sun. (Photo: MUBI)

The title of the Spanish movie Mondays in the Sun sounds like a reference to people who live a life of ease. In fact, it’s ironic: the men whose stories comprise the narrative used to be co-workers at a portside dockyard until they were laid off, so now they spend weekdays lying in the sun because they have no jobs to go to. They are Santa (a thickly bearded Javier Bardem); José (Luis Tosar), whose wife Ana (Nieve de Medina) currently brings home the only household money; Lino (José Angel Egido), so scared he’s losing potential work to younger men that he dyes his hair when he goes down to the unemployment office; and Amador (Celso Bugallo), a drunk whose wife has left him, though he pretends she’s out of town visiting relatives. Rico (Joaquin Climent) and Reina (Enrique VIllén), who used to work alongside their friends, were laid off a year later, when the dockyard finally shut down. Rico took his severance pay and opened a bar, while Reina has managed to land work as a security guard, which makes him, relative to his companions, flush – at least, enough to buy them drinks. (Santa’s pride resents this gesture, just as he resents his former co-workers’ signing an agreement with their employers that he and others opposed.) Then there’s Sergei (Serge Riaboukine), a Russian who emigrated to Spain when the Soviet Union collapsed and his career as an astronaut came to an abrupt end. Now he’s among the Spanish unemployed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Steinbeck in Sunglasses: A Novelist Named Dylan

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Photo: CNN)

“Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody, 
When I paint my masterpiece . . . "
Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan

In my 2008 book entitled Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer Songwriter, I had a chapter on Mr. Dylan, who, apart from various differing personal tastes, most people can now agree is one of the pre-eminent artists of our era, of several eras in fact. His chapter opened the book for obvious reasons: he etched the template for what a singer-songwriter in the contemporary age is capable of achieving, assuming that songwriter lives long enough to become an elder statesman of his or her ancient craft, as he has done. The chapter on him was called "The Storyteller: To Be On Your Own," and it encapsulated for me, without my even realizing it ten years ago, what made him not just a pop/rock star but also both a novelist and an island unto himself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Country, Traumatized: Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot

Lior Ashkenazi in Foxtrot. (Photo: TIFF)

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev’s recent attack on Samuel Maoz’s movie Foxtrot, on the grounds that it’s a slur on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is both misguided – only a very narrow reading of the film could come to that conclusion – and ominous in that it suggests that future government-funded movies may now be the possible victim of pre-censorship, if Regev decides to vet future projects on what she thinks they should or shouldn’t do. (She’s floated the idea of ‘loyalty’ oaths for artists.) Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to have put a dent in the success of Foxtrot, which cleaned up at the Ophirs (Israel’s Oscars) and is now wending its way through North America to almost entirely positive reviews. The movie deserves them, too, as it’s quite an impressive achievement.

Monday, April 23, 2018

New Plays by Major Playwrights: Good for Otto and Mlima's Tale

Ed Harris and Rileigh McDonald in David Rabe's Good for Otto. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

David Rabe’s Good for Otto premiered at the Gift Theatre in Chicago in 2015 but only now is it receiving a New York production, off Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center – and with an amazing cast that includes Ed Harris, F. Murray Abraham, Amy Madigan, Rhea Perlman, Mark Linn-Baker and Laura Esterman. Rabe’s 1971 The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is one of my favorite plays, and I love his screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), but his other well-known theatre pieces – In the Boom Boom Room, Hurlyburly, and the second and third parts of his Vietnam trilogy, Sticks and Bones and Streamers – feel rigged to me, and compulsively overwritten. He doesn’t get much attention these days, and I’m afraid I stopped following his work long ago. (The last play of his I saw was Those That River Keeps when American Repertory Theatre produced it in 1993 with Jack Willis and Paul Guilfoyle.) Clearly I should have been watching more closely. Good for Otto is messy and overlong – it runs just over three hours – but it’s a lovely, full-hearted play, and Scott Elliott’s vibrant, varied staging and the marvelous work of the actors showcase it affectionately.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Masculine Toxicity in Dirk Kurbjuweit's Fear

Author Dirk Kurbjuweit (Photo: Julian Nitzsche)

About halfway through Dirk Kurbjuweit's unsettling psychological thriller, Fear (translated from the German by Imogen Taylor and published by the House of Anansi Press, 2017) the narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a Berlin architect, recalls a Christmas dinner he and his wife, Rebecca, hosted for his extended family a few years earlier before the central narrative occurs. His sister was dating a Romanian, a supporter of the dictator, Ceausescu, who, having fled his country after the 1989 revolution, ended up in Berlin as the owner of a gym. As a supporter of self-justice, he dismissed Germans, declaring that their only interests were "stuffing their faces and watching their pensions," that there were no "real men" with "the guts to defend themselves." His bravado constitutes a litmus test for what defines manhood.  At the time, Randolph is silently contemptuous of this disdain for civility and of his "ignorant, brutish view of democracy."

On the surface this fascinating tableau is inconsequential as the Romanian exile never reappears, but it does highlight an important theme in the novel: the tension between the values of civility and the rule of law pitted against vigilante justice when there appears no other option for a family terrorized by a stalker. Kurbjuweit, the deputy editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, was inspired to write Fear based on his own experience of being stalked.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Somebody Needs a Hygge: ABC's Splitting Up Together

Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson in Splitting Up Together. (Photo: Eric McCandless)

“When did comedies become half-hour dramas?” complains Billy Eichner in the second season of Julie Klausner’s recently-canceled Hulu show Difficult People . It’s a question that tends to come up more often in the context of half-hour-long shows on cable and streaming services, which have long been outlets for writers and showrunners to test how much serious material, in terms of both content and tone, they can get away with incorporating into a format that’s traditionally skewed towards delivering relatively uncomplicated laughs. I’ve found myself thinking of that question a lot as I watch the early episodes of ABC’s new sitcom Splitting Up Together, a comedy (ostensibly) with a decidedly downbeat premise and some baffling tonal issues.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Me In Particular: The Reappearance of Oscar Z. Acosta

Oscar Z. Acosta, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

In his roughly 39 years of life, Oscar Zeta Acosta recreated himself more than once. From a typical barrio kid growing up in the working-class Mexican-American community of Riverbank, California, he became a clarinetist in the US Air Force marching band; a Baptist missionary in the jungles of Panama; a creative writing student in San Francisco, mentored by famed baseball novelist Mark Harris; a law-school graduate and member of the California bar; and a Legal Aid Society advocate for the impoverished of East Oakland. And that only takes him up to the beginning of his first book, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), which ends with his transformation into a budding Chicano militant. 

Most of us have known Acosta only as “Dr. Gonzo,” the fire-breathing, drug-scarfing, knife-wielding sidekick created by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), and portrayed by Benicio del Toro in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film of that book. Yet Acosta deserves to be remembered as more than a featured player in the Thompson legend; he left a legacy both historically important and all his own. That legacy is the subject of Phillip Rodriguez’s The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, an hour-long documentary which debuted last month on PBS as part of the VOCES series on Latino arts and culture. The film is a mishmash, frankly imaginative and affably unpretentious, in which the skimpy visual evidence of Acosta’s life (mostly candid photos and news clips) is fleshed out with scripted reenactments played in period costume against sets that suggest workshop theater. The first-person narration is derived from Acosta’s two books, and aside from the compelling footage of the subject addressing protest rallies or courthouse cameras, the documentary’s chief value is that it inspires – in a way that Thompson’s portraiture never did – a curiosity to read the man’s own words.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VIII: A Pirate's Life for Me!

Rare's Sea of Thieves, released in March 2018. (Photo: The Verge)

Sea of Thieves is the latest game from Rare, the developer formerly known as Rareware, who changed their name (and lost most of their intrepid founding members) when their company was absorbed by Microsoft Studios in 2002. Once the undisputed ruler of console gaming in the mid-to-late 1990s, with watershed titles like Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye 64, and Banjo-Kazooie to its name, Rare’s acquisition by MS cast a dark cloud over the future of the studio. A series of clunkers in the early 2000s (Grabbed By The Ghoulies, Kameo: Elements of Power, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts chief among them) followed their '90s hot streak, which tainted their legacy and spoiled the good will they’d earned among fans. (Several key developers responsible for those earlier, beloved titles would splinter off to form their own studios like Playtonic Games, which released the Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee in 2017 to decidedly mixed reviews.) The Rare logo on a product was once a symbol of definitive quality, a sign that no matter what genre or style the game was, it was sure to have been made with wit, care, and charm. That promise has since lost its credibility, and so Sea of Thieves, which was released in March for PC and Xbox One, had an uphill battle to fight before it even hit store shelves.