Friday, July 20, 2018

Acting Without Fear: First Reformed & A Very English Scandal

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. (Photo: IMDB)

The daring of Ethan Hawke’s recent movie performances – in Born to Be Blue, where he played the great, drug-addled jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker; in Maudie, where he played Everett, the difficult, armored fish vendor who employs the whimsical Nova Scotia artist Maudie Lewis as a housekeeper and winds up marrying her; and now in writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – is spellbinding. In his mid-forties, he’s become one of our greatest actors, consistently exploring territory beyond what he’s tried before. I voted for him as best actor in the Boston Society of Film Critics last year and the year before; every year brings its share of first-rate performances, but it seems to me that no one else is going as far or as deep as Hawke in inhabiting a set of utterly unalike personalities, and that his range expands each time out.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Striking the Right Notes: The Music Man Plays Stratford

Daren A. Herbert as Professor Harold Hill in Stratford's The Music Man. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Donna Feore’s jaunty new production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man (at Stratford’s Festival Theatre until Nov. 3) skirts the evangelical in telling the story of a salesman so good he sells a small town on the promise of a boy’s band without sounding a note to vouch for his musical credentials. Harold Hill, played by a supercharged Daren A. Herbert, making his Stratford debut, turns his sales pitch into a fiery sermon of shame that easily cows the residents of River City, Iowa, into buying his idea that music will be their salvation.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Purveyor of Thresholds: Joachim Waibel Shifts Gears

An untitled colour field from Waibel's Four Elements series.

Painters are people too. That’s what it sometimes comes down to. After producing an overwhelmingly captivating and almost spiritually compelling body of work such as The Stalingrad Series, one designed to stop us in our tracks with its emotional intensity, Joachim Waibel naturally felt the need to engage in something that offered some relief from the darkness. As much for himself as for us, the viewers, he needed to take a pause, collect his thoughts and feelings, go on a bit of a painterly vacation and, dare I say it, to relax.

But rather than do what most of us might do, travel to Cuba or Mexico for a couple of weeks on the beach, the artist’s idea of a break is to immediately commence a series of paintings that encompass a drastically different emotional palette. Waibel doesn’t make his art works for you or me, he makes them for himself, not unlike the way a bird sings to communicate with its own environment, not to entertain us with pretty music. For the painter, his studio is his beach.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Melody in the Machine: Beautiful Things (2017)

Andrea Pavoni Belli in his echoless chamber in Beautiful Things. (Photo: Giorgio Ferrero)

Beautiful Things (2017) is a musical of machinic assemblage and desire, a rapturous becoming-object, a euphoric celebration of accelerationism, and a vision of the role of the human in a world dominated by our technological children, who have dispensed with sentience, that cumbersome redundancy. Directed, produced, and edited by the two-man team of Giorgio Ferrero (who also wrote and helped with music and sound production) and Federico Biasin (who also shot it), this wondrous documentary exploration of how humans mesh with the machine order has impeccable production values, despite costing only 150,000 euros, employing only three other crew members, and spending only six months in production, one month of which was for editing – a process made possible wholly due to the Venice Biennale College workshop.

Monday, July 16, 2018

More New Plays: Consent, Artney Jackson, & Straight White Men

Sian Clifford in Consent. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Consent by Nina Raine (Tribes), a West End transplant that began at the National Theatre, is a thesis play with a thesis no one is likely to dispute: that the law reconfigures real life out of recognition. Raine has devised a series of clever dramatic strategies to work through this idea. The main characters are two couples, best of friends, with young children. Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a defense attorney; he and his wife Kitty (Claudie Blakley) have just had a baby, their first. Rachel (Sian Clifford) and Jake (I saw Pete Collis, standing in for Adam James) are both lawyers. The action begins at a dinner party that Ed and Kitty have staged partly to introduce her oldest friend, an actress named Zara (Clare Foster) who’s desperate to find a man to settle down with, to Tim (Lee Ingleby), a prosecutor. At first Raine draws our attention to the detached, dispassionate way in which the criminal lawyers discuss their cases, talking about their clients in the first person, as if they were playing the roles of the people they represent:

EDWARD: So what have you been up to, lately?
JAKE: Me? Oh, I’ve raping pensioners.
EDWARD: Charming.
JAKE: Yes, I tie them up, I fuck them, and then I nick their stuff.
RACHEL: Quite a few of them, apparently.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part I: Savagery and the Past

Author James Lee Burke. (Photo: Facebook)

"I became a cop in order to deal with a black lesion that had been growing on my brain, if not my soul, since I was a child." – James Lee Burke, Light of the World

It is unwise to pigeonhole a multiple-award-winning crime novelist like James Lee Burke as a genre writer. His detailed rendering of the Cajun culture, its food, music, and dialect, along with his gorgeous descriptions of the bayou in South Western Louisiana, particularly during rainstorms, is a distinguishing feature of the Robicheaux novels. Consider this lyrical passage from his most recent novel, Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 2018): "The flying fish broke the bay's surface and sailed above the water like pink gilded winged creatures, in defiance of evolutionary probability." (Burke's descriptive prowess is also present in his twentieth Robicheaux creation, Light of the World [Simon & Schuster, 2013], which is set in the mountainous region near Missoula, Montana.) The Globe and Mail critic, Margaret Cannon, offers high praise to Burke by comparing him to William Faulkner: his account of the bayous of Louisiana is similar to "what Faulkner did for backwoods Mississippi." Not surprisingly, Burke considers Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, to be a major influence.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Altered States: Danny Grossman Dances His Swan Song

Danny Grossman. (Photo: Liliana Reyes)

Nearly 20 years ago, the American-born dancer and choreographer Danny Grossman was in his 50s – then considered an ancient age for a dance artist – and had just had hip surgery to repair the damage brought on by his jumping, swirling, body-slamming profession. While he was recovering, I went to interview him in his Toronto home where I found him walking with the aid of crutches. But not even they could slow him down. Grossman had already – and likely against his doctor’s wishes – tried to dance again and the experience confirmed for him something he had long held true: that dance isn’t just steps set to music; it’s a process of transformation. “It’s a miracle!” Grossman said at the time, bursting out laughing as he threw his crutches to the floor to tentatively trace what looked like an old-fashioned waltz across his living room floor. “I feel no pain! I feel like a kid again!” Conversation grew somewhat more serious as the morning wore on. The operation had made him feel his mortality and looking back at the sizeable body of work he had created for his Danny Grossman Dance Company since its founding in Toronto in 1977 (the troupe stopped performing in 2008), he summed it up like this: “All my work has been about altered states. People are transformed by dance, some by just doing it, others by watching."

Friday, July 13, 2018

Don't Waste Your Time: Let the Sunshine In, You Were Never Really Here, & Disobedience

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In. (Photo: IMDB)

As a long-time film critic, I can confess to bringing expectations and biases to the films I see. But I also believe I can be honest in my reactions to preferred filmmakers when their films disappoint me and equally be pleasantly surprised by those directors whose movies I’ve never expected much from. Steven Spielberg is one of my favourite directors but his latest movie, Ready Player One, a loud, empty and dull SF dystopian drama, may be his worst  ever. On the other hand, while I've never been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, his Inglourious Basterds, a smart alternate-history World War Two drama, marked a leap into maturity and emotional depth for him -- albeit a short-lived one, as the films that followed, such as The Hateful Eight, fell back into his glib, gratuitously violent and profane modus operandi. Of three films I've seen recently, one filmmaker let me down, one encouraged me to come to a negative conclusion about its director, and one confirmed my suspicions about what its director is lacking.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Nothing's Scarier Than Family: Hereditary

Toni Collette in Ari Aster's Hereditary. (Photo: A24)

Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary is one of the few horror films that confronted me with the desire to literally escape the theatre. Hanging on through its teeth-grating suspense and frequent bone-jarring shock was an act of emotional fortitude that I’m still proud of, weeks after seeing the film, and though that description may make the film seem like an Eli Roth-style torture porn marathon (how long can you last??), Hereditary’s thrills are anything but cheap. It’s an amazingly smart and powerful debut from a filmmaker I’ll be excited to watch in the years to come, who walked a razor’s edge of tone and tension to craft one of the finest horror films of the past decade.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Missing Link: Both Directions At Once by John Coltrane

Cover art for John Coltrane's Both Directions At Once. (Photo: Impulse! Records)

After a long hiatus, John Coltrane is back on the jazz charts with a new album called Both Directions At Once (Impulse!). This exciting and previously unheard set of recordings will go down in jazz history as what I characterize as the missing link. It’s like discovering J.R.R. Tolkien wrote another book in the Lord of the Rings series that's meant to fit between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It’s the musical link of what had come before in Coltrane’s growth and where he and his band mates were going. The tracks on this album were done a couple of years before Crescent and A Love Supreme, two of the group’s seminal discs.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cloud Atlas: When the Film Is Better Than the Book

Raevan Lee Hanan with Tom Hanks in the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas. (Photo: Lettrboxed)

Cloud Atlas is a film that the critic Roger Ebert had trouble getting, even after seeing it twice, and with good reason: it’s specifically for those who’ve read the book. How else is one supposed to follow the six interwoven plot strands? People often say that the book ruins the movie, that when we read a Harry Potter novel after seeing one of the movies we can't see Hermione Granger as anyone but Emma Watson, for instance. And unless the book offers a clear and distinctive description, that does tend to happen. But lately I’ve found that for books with a strong narrative, what can be worse is that knowing what’s going to happen can ruin the fun. The anticipation of what comes next, and curiosity about how it will be presented, can prevent one from focusing on the here and now.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Music Scenes: The Moderate Soprano, Coming Back Like a Song! & Mood Music

Roger Allam as John Christie in The Moderate Soprano. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano tells the story of the beginnings of the Glyndebourne Festival on the lawn of Captain John Christie’s Sussex estate in 1934. Christie (played by Roger Allam), a Wagner fanatic, is determined to use his fortune to make opera count in England, which has a paltry tradition of housing it and an almost nonexistent history of creating it. (The masterpieces of Benjamin Britten are still in the future.) Christie also wants to open a space for his wife, Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll) – the “moderate soprano” of the title, a decade and a half his junior – to perform. His dream is to see Parsifal on his newly erected stage in the first season; he envisions an English Bayreuth. It doesn’t happen. The experts he hires – two Germans, conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson) and stage director Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf), and an Austrian, impresario-in-the-making Rudolph Bing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who is Ebert’s right-hand man – patiently explain to him that the jewel box he’s built, seating about three hundred, is unsuitable for Wagner, unless, Ebert quips, he puts the audience on the stage and the singers in the auditorium. And, though their critical judgment is that his theatre is “completely unsuited to the serious production of opera” and that “the whole thing has the air of the amateur,” they finally agree to try to make it work because it’s their best option, the Nazis having made it impossible for all three of them to continue to work in Germany. But, to Christie’s irritation, they claim that the size of the theatre and Ebert’s special gift for staging Mozart make him the local composer for Glyndebourne’s debut season. Christie doesn’t get Mozart at all, but he capitulates. Glyndebourne opens with The Marriage of Figaro and CosÌ Fan Tutte, and it’s several years before his experts permit any other composer to be sung there.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Incredibles 2: Elastic Boogaloo

Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen Parr with Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr (and Eli Fucile's Jack-Jack). (Photo: IMDB)

It’s strange to think that The Incredibles (2004) isn’t usually included in discussions about the re-emergence of the superhero genre, despite the fact that it predated Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins by a year (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe by a full four years). It falls, somehow, into the no man’s land between Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy – the awkward years, so to speak, before the long-term financial viability of the genre had been established, and before anyone had really figured out how the hell to make these things. You can argue until you’re blue in the face about the relative success of superhero films between the 1970s and now, but the truth is that Brad Bird, writing and directing The Incredibles for Pixar, was the first person to really nail it since Richard Donner’s Superman in ‘78 – creating a film about a superhero family that worked on every level, as emotionally resonant as it was exciting and fun.

It’s even stranger to think that the bias that excludes the movie when we talk about this stuff is probably towards its format as an animated film, despite the fact that the superhero genre’s history rests in the colourful, hyper-stylized pages of comic books. Today, the mega-success of the Marvel films has trained most audiences to expect a certain level of real-life fidelity from the genre, so The Incredibles can still feel like an anomaly – even though it’s much closer in style, theme, and execution to a classic superhero tale than anything Kevin Feige has presided over. Incredibles 2, though, probably has a better shot at mainstream success: 14 years after the original, it’s arriving at a time when audiences are much better equipped to appreciate what it has to offer.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dammit, Janet – The Rocky Horror Show Penetrates Stratford

Dan Chameroy as the incomparable Dr. Frank N. Furter. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Corsets and garters and ripped fishnets, oh my! The Rocky Horror Show bursts at the seams and not just on the Stratford stage, where the scantily clad rock musical – making its festival debut – will be in a permanent state of dishabille at the Avon Theatre until Nov. 11. Cross-dressers, latex-glove lovers, falsies-wearing wannabes, all the freaks are out in force at late-night presentations of the 1973 cult classic where audience participation is not only a given, it’s a main component of this uproariously ribald show. (Viewer discretion strongly advised.)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Journey's End: Battle Scars

Asa Butterfield in Journey's End (2017). (Photo: IMDB)

The British director Saul Dibb’s World War I film Journey’s End is a fine, mournful piece of work, but it opened without fanfare early in the year and closed almost immediately. Dibb has made only a handful of movies; I don’t think his last one, an adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française, was released at all on this side of the ocean, though it has Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Margot Robbie in the cast. (It’s set in World War II.) In Journey’s End he’s working with a screenplay by Simon Reade based on the 1928 R.C. Sherriff play, one of the most downbeat of all war dramas. The major WWI play produced in America in the twenties was Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings’s What Price Glory?, which is raucous and funny – a hard-boiled comedy – except for the middle act, a poetic lament that takes place in the midst of a bloody battle. But in England it was Journey’s End, a relentlessly tragic glimpse of the war from the point of view of a doomed group of British officers in a trench in Aisne, France, just before Operation Michael (though it was warmly received when it moved to Broadway in 1929).

Allegory, Atmosphere, and Artifice in Damien Chazelle's La La Land

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land. (Photo: IMDB)

Richard Brody on his New Yorker blog has a problem with Damien Chazelle. He’s disconcerted at how tightly Chazelle frames and edits the spontaneity of jazz in Whiplash (2014), and, on the same theme, by the scene in La La Land (2016) where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring musician, bloviatingly mansplains jazz to Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actor he has fallen in love with, by talking over the live jazz. (The “very, very exciting” ending of that “speech” just adds insult to injury.) Brody also has complaints about the dance numbers, which, being tightly choreographed and rehearsed, for him belie the spontaneous joy that supposedly ignites dancing in the streets. Aside from the mansplaining, I think it’s fine. After all, we're here not to experience jazz but to enjoy a film. And Chazelle’s camerawork does an exhilarating job of guiding the audience’s gaze, transforming the spectacle before us from a stage performance to a cinematic one.

Besides, the opening dance number isn’t supposed to be realistic (it is a musical, after all). It sets the mood of the film, and it also sets the scene: Tinseltown, where dreams and their spectacle are in the air. But something strange is going on in this particular musical. At certain points throughout, the film seems to flicker in and out of realism, which is probably the root of the inorganic quality of the musical numbers noted by Steve Vineberg in his review on this website. Let's call the film's boundary between realism and fantasy an atmospheric framing device, i.e., it is devised to create the fantastical atmosphere of the musical, its hard boundaries, apart from the intermittent flickering, evident in the first and penultimate scenes. The function of the opening dance number, which initiates the frame, explains why Sebastian and Mia aren’t a part of it, even though they are the main characters. All the wondrous, fantastical parts of the film take place within this frame, and the movie's main "obstacle" (so artificial as to seem to have been thought up in some screenwriting workshop) must be imposed from outside, leading to two of three egregiously artificial plot points, which we’ll get to later. The flickering of the boundaries of the frame and its overlap with the boundaries of the leading couple’s relationship can be observed when Sebastian, singing “City of Stars” on a pier, starts dancing with an old lady. Her husband gets offended, because the device’s boundaries don’t extend to include the elderly couple; he reacts as one would in a realist film, whereas she's drawn into the fantasy.  The meta qualities of La La Land, which have led many to call it a love letter to classic musical films, owe a great deal to this device.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Eight Million DPM – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Director J.A. Bayona, contemplating his Trevorrow-esque career trajectory. (Photo: IMDB)

My initial impression of Jurassic World (2015) was largely positive; I saw it as a fun reworking of the franchise’s formula that succeeded in being entertaining even when it failed at being coherent. The bloom’s since come off the rose: with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see past the film’s cynical, calculated maneuverings, which aim to capitalize on the affection you might have felt for Spielberg’s dinosaur films without bothering to earn that affection itself. In that way, it’s a lot like John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), whom Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldbum) criticizes for the hubris of thoughtlessly “standing on the shoulders of geniuses.” Director/writer Colin Trevorrow doesn’t only show little respect for the material he’s in charge of – he also proves over and over again that he’s not very good at realizing it for the screen. His parks, like Hammond’s, have proven to be failures. Thankfully, though, nobody (in the real world, anyway) is being devoured as a result of his negligence.

I wish that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, directed by J.A. Bayona, had found enjoyable ways to play with the dinosaur toys he and Trevorrow inherited from Spielberg. I’ve long since let go of any hope that the franchise will recapture the intelligence, tension, and dramatic stakes of the first film; that would require a full reset, a shift in tone or genre, and a filmmaker with a unique vision at the helm. Instead, all I want is for the Jurassic World films to become the shlocky, ridiculous creature features they clearly ought to be. But like its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom wants to have its cake and eat it too, attempting to deliver both exciting dinosaur action and dramatic sci-fi storytelling and succeeding at neither.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Fashion & Architecture, Redefined: Iris Van Herpen and Philip Beesley at the Royal Ontario Museum

Transforming fashion and space at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: PBAI/LAS)

Nature, fashion and technology fuse together in an innovative two-part exhibition showcasing the futuristic designs of Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen and the interactive architecture of Canada’s Philip Beesly. Parallel shows, Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion and Philip Beesley: Transforming Space, are at the Royal Ontario Museum until October 8 and are a must-see for anyone interested in conceptual design as it relates to the human form and its relationship with both man-made and natural environments.

Van Herpen and Beesley have partnered on a number of projects since 2012; the ROM presentation  consisting of a touring exhibition of Van Herpen’s avant-garde designs, organized and curated by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Groningen Museum in the Netherland,s and two sculptural “living labs” which Beesley created with a team of pioneering researchers – represents their 11th collaboration.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Remembering Harlan Ellison: What He Meant to Me

Author Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writer Harlan Ellison, who passed away at 84, either on June 27 or June 28 – reports differ – reportedly in his sleep. That means he died on my 59th birthday or shortly thereafter, thus allowing me to mark a milestone of another sort, a recognition that his presence, as a cultural and personal influence, has been with me for more than 40 years, my having discovered him at age 15 or 16, when I was still in high school. That’s longer than most of my friendships. (The only other writer I’ve read as deeply is Stephen King but it’s not the same type of relationship.) I am not sure exactly when I discovered him or which books of his I read first – though many of my copies of Ellison were the Pyramid editions with the artsy covers and his name in big bold letters at the top – but I know as soon as I did cotton onto Harlan Ellison, I almost became fixated on him. I picked up his collections, of course, but pretty much bought any magazine that featured his name on it or anthologies to which he contributed. I also tried to catch him on TV, NBC’s Tomorrow (with Tom Snyder) and CBC’s 90 Minutes Live in those days, ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher later on, where he was scintillating, and I still recall how excited I was when CBC’s flagship radio show As It Happens chose to interview Ellison when Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president in 1980. Harlan wasn’t too happy about that event, as you can imagine, notably having been on the wrong side of the president when he was governor of California and put Ellison on his enemies’ list. Hell, I even joined Harlan Ellison’s fan club, which sent out neat booklets, extolling his latest projects and the like, and which I still possess. I’ve never done that for anyone before or since.

I remember my first interview with the man (three in all) when I was in university, for The Loyola News at Concordia University, and being so intimidated by his voice (and reputation) on the other end of the telephone line that I only took five of my allotted ten interview minutes. (The ensuing interviews were for The Montreal Suburban weekly community newspaper and the Toronto-based daily paper The Financial Post, now The National Post.Once I got involved with Critics at Large, as co-founder of this nearly ten-year-old daily website, I penned three more pieces on Ellison, beginning with a very long one encapsulating everything I knew and wanted readers to know about why he was so important, fittingly titled "Writer Harlan Ellison: He Has a Mouth and He Must Scream" (a variation on one of his best known short stories, "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream"). I also reviewed his fine graphic novel Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos and, for his 80th birthday, put forth a primer to his work and what I felt you should read, in his fiction, non-fiction and editorial capacities. So when it came down to writing this tribute to such an important figure in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t have much left to say on the specifics of his life and work. I’ll speak therefore to why I feel he mattered so much to me.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Three New Works: The Sound Inside, The Closet, and Born for This

Will Hochman and Mary Louise Parker in Adam Rapp's The Sound Inside. (Photo: Carolyn Brown)

The Sound Inside, on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is a two-hander by Adam Rapp about the unexpected friendship between a middle-aged Yale creative writing professor and her most intriguing and perplexing student, a freshman who shows up at her office without an appointment and overcomes her irritation with his refusal to play by the rules by hooking her on an idea for a novel he’s writing. My response to the play while it was going on in a sense emulated the professor Bella Baird’s reaction to the student, Christopher Dunn: I was both fascinated and exasperated. Rapp has structured the piece as a narrative that Bella is relating to us; Rapp – or perhaps the director, David Cromer – underscores this idea, unnecessarily, by showing her putting sentences down in a notebook (at least, some of the time) after she speaks them, and the frame of the play, in which she describes herself in the third person as a woman facing an audience in an auditorium, suggests that her story about Christopher has been published and she’s reading it publicly. But in the opening scene especially, the storytelling keeps interrupting the drama, and the exchange between Bella and Christopher is more interesting than her report of it. I understand that the play is about writing: about the art of fiction that, when it’s really cooking, writes itself, transforming private emotion into prose, and about how personal experience gets converted into narrative. (Presumably the title alludes to both these ideas.) But what’s compelling on the stage is the conversion of narrative into drama. In The Sound Inside Rapp, searching for a way to show us how writing works – a noble mission, and God knows a difficult one – repeatedly forestalls the drama, though the play contains patches of beautiful writing.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

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

Rosalind Bentley's Great Aunt Lucy and one of her cookbooks, featured in Gravy's "Hostesses of the Movement". (Photo: Gravy Archives)

Amer: So would you fast on Yom Kippur?
Lehmann: Yes.
Amer: And you’d break your fast with . . . 
Lehmann: Pork roast.
  Gravy, Episode 14: “The Last Jews of Natchez

Gravy is the name of a print publication and an affiliated podcast, both produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Gravy, the podcast, is actually not where you want to turn for recipes or cooking advice – though you might come away from the episode “Hostesses of the Movement” with an overpowering desire to make, or hunt down, lemon icebox cookies. (Here, let me help you with that.) Instead, Gravy is a collection of radio documentaries on the food culture of the American South. Episodes range from nineteen minutes to just over an hour long – with the vast majority coming in at under half an hour. Each is dedicated to a single topic, so it’s a cinch to select what interests you and to skip what doesn’t.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Neglected Gem: Panic (2000)

Tracy Ullman and William H. Macy in Henry Bromell's Panic.

In Panic, written and directed by the late Henry Bromell, William H. Macy plays Alex, a Los Angeles man who is unhappy with his life. By day, Alex sells mail-order junk (“lawn ornaments, kitchen geegaws, sexual aids”); but by nightor day, as the case may behe kills people for hire. He didn’t get into the assassination business by accident. He was recruited by his father, Michael (Donald Sutherland), who now spends his semi-retirement coordinating his son’s hits; even Alex’s mother, Deidre (Barbara Bain), has been, in some undefined way, instrumental to the development of the family business and consequent warping of her son. Though he shares a deep rapport with his own son, the inquisitive, gentle-souled Sammy (David Dorfman), Alex and his wife, Martha (Tracy Ullman), are on marital life-support, trading off unpredictably between the affectionate ease and ashen boredom that come with long familiarity. Rapidly approaching a point where he will no longer be able to tolerate his life, Alex takes a breath, finishes his cigarette, and walks in for his first appointment with a therapist (John Ritter), to whom he reveals his secret profession.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sonic Fantasies: The Incredible Future Music of Conlon Nancarrow

Conlan Nancarrow, composing in his Mexico City home. (Photo: John Fago)

Click here to experience the full Volumes I and II of Conlan Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano.

In 2015 Andrew Katzenstein created a grand profile of the marvelously obscure American composer Conlon Nancarrow for The New York Review of Books, one that firmly situated him where he certainly belonged: in the upper pantheon of experimental musicians and composers if the 20th century. The title he used (or perhaps his editors imposed), however, the Prince of the Player Piano, somehow struck me as diminishing his true stature by making his sound like a novelty (someone who wrote music to be played automatically like a toy) rather than what he, in my estimation, truly was (an avant-garde composer whose vision was so rigorous that live human beings couldn’t possibly reproduce his intentions).

Granted, the newly reopened Whitney Museum of Art in New York was then hosting an eleven-day festival celebrating the work of this stunning American expatriate (he fled to Mexico at one point to avoid the repercussions of his early Communist leanings) and Katzenstein also shared his appreciation for those innovative and complex “studies” for the pseudo-automated instrumentation which drew on “styles as disparate as jazz and serialism and made use of multiple tempos played simultaneously.” A slightly better title may have been that of the documentary film about Nancarow from 2012, Virtuoso of the Player Piano. But there we again get mired in pitfall which in my opinion mistakenly positions him as a novelty.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Odd One Out: To Kill a Mockingbird at Stratford

Matthew G. Brown as Tom Robinson in Stratford's production of To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo: David Hou)

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel about racial intolerance in the American South, is now a play at Canada’s Stratford Festival where so much of what is on the written page comes vividly to life. In this, Nigel Shawn Williams’s direction of Christopher Sergel’s 1970 stage adaptation, children play most of the central roles, and they are sensational. Chief among them is Clara Poppy Kushnir, the young girl who plays Scout.

This memorable six-year-old character, familiar to us from required middle school readings of the book, is Lee’s alter ego in the novel. From a child’s straightforward perspective, Scout recounts events in her fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama, including the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man. Her older brother Jem, meanwhile, wonders aloud why his father, the town lawyer defending the black man in question, isn’t like other dads and not just because he takes the moral high ground. He won’t play sports and he downplays his proficiency with a gun. At Stratford, Jem is played with mounting grit and maturity by Jacob Skiba, who easily forms a sympathetic relationship with his onstage sister.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Music Memory: Steven Hyden's Twilight of the Gods

Author and classic rock aficionado Steven Hyden. (Photo: Uproxx)

Steven Hyden’s Twilight of The Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey St./Harper Collins) is one of the best books about a life in music from a non-musician that I’ve ever read. His short volume is a blend of memoir, music history and criticism that is so full of wit that it’s hard to resist laughing to oneself on every other page. Here’s the first line: “For as long as I can remember, classic rock has been there for me.” Classic rock? Really? By revealing his love for classic rock albums and its famous performers, Hyden’s book is really a long-winded yet fascinating story about his relationship with music from his early years until the present.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

From Somewhere in Asia with Love: Dancing Ninja (2010)

Lucas Grabeel as the titular "martial artist". (Photo: Filmovi s Ruba)

If you search for Dancing Ninja (2010) on YouTube, you'll find three kinds of video. First is the trailer. Second is the entire film, in poor quality, dubbed in French (which I don't speak), sans subtitles. Third is a video review by two people who spend five minutes dismissing the film and 25 minutes recounting its unusual production history. Granted, it really isn't for everyone, or for everytime: I happened to catch it on TV on a lazy Thursday afternoon. Yes, I still have a TV, precisely because I might stumble across films like this – and whaddaya know? I loved this film!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Genre Shift: The Royal Family of Broadway

The cast of John Rando's The Royal Family of Broadway. (Photo: Daniel Radler)

George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 The Royal Family is a high comedy classic about a celebrated family of narcissistic actors, three generations of them, whose lives are an ongoing melodrama. Fanny Cavendish, the crusty matriarch, performed for decades on the road with her late husband and is anxious to return and impatient with the health problems that have sidelined her. She views herself as a sort of pioneer, inured to the challenges of the frontier. Her daughter Julie is a Broadway queen, floating from vehicle to vehicle. Her son Tony is a movie star, a matinee idol whose outrageous behavior and sexual conquests have made him a favorite topic for the tabloids. Her brother Herbert has fallen on hard times, professionally speaking, because he refuses to acknowledge his age; rather than taking “gray parts,” he pursues the folly of attempting to beat actors twenty and thirty years his junior at their own game. Julie’s daughter Gwen is poised to follow in her mother and grandmother’s footsteps; she and Julie are about to begin rehearsals together for a new play. The family’s entourage includes their long-time producer and manager, Oscar Wolfe, who entered the business when Fanny’s star burned as brightly as Julie’s does now and who is devoted to all of them, and Bertie’s wife Kitty, a third-rate actress whom neither Fanny nor Julie has ever taken seriously. The play is premised on the struggle, for both Julie and Gwen, between the impulse to settle down with the men who want to marry them (Julie divorced Gwen’s father long ago; he’s barely even spoken of, except as a bad actor) – and their recognition that, finally, the theatre means more to them and they could never settle for ordinary lives.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Famous Ones, and Everyone Else: Gender & Class in the Novels of Meg Wolitzer

Author Meg Wolitzer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

"She understood that it had never been about talent; it had always been about money."
 – Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

“The people who change our lives . . . give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” – Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion

Recently, I discovered a major talent when I read The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Books, 2018). I was astonished that I had never heard of her before. I mentioned my enthusiasm for it to a friend who had a similar experience with her 2013 book The Interestings so I decided to read it as well. I still wondered why Wolitzer was unfamiliar to me until I read her 2012 essay in The New York TimesAlthough at that time she had published nine books, she lamented that few female writers of literary fiction are taken seriously by men unless their major protagonist is a male, they write short stories, or they embarked on their writing careers during the women's movement of the 1970s. Perhaps her piece had touched a collective literary nerve, since the publication the following year of The Interestings turned out for her to be a breakout novel, deservedly so, about the lives of both men and women.

Reading these two absorbing novels together has the benefit of revealing certain Wolitzer trademarks: her interest in exploring a broad range of relationships over a large span of time (romance, friendship, that between parents and their offspring, and that between mentors and acolytes); her penchant for fictionalizing a character or situation that will remind readers of real-life personalities or events; her ability to connect the lives of her characters to larger real-life issues such as presidential politics; her interest in the power of cults to prey upon the vulnerable; her fascination with the 1980s AIDS crisis and the 2008 financial crisis; and the fact that her writing is laced by turns with verbal brio, acerbic and funny lines, and astute observations. Above all her novels are character-driven and it would be hard to review them without familiarizing the reader with her characters  sometimes with more detail than I generally prefer  and the trajectory of their lives before addressing the issues that animate Wolitzer.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Women Who Write: Michelle Dean's Sharp

A close-up of the cover art for Michelle Dean's Sharp. (Photo: Amazon)

The incontestable assertion behind Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Grove Atlantic; 384 pp.) is that “the forward march of American literature is usually chronicled by way of its male novelists.” The book, whatever its minor shortcomings, is a witty, healthy corrective to a myopia that afflicts many of us. An obvious fact of American literature is that it has been overwhelmingly phallocentric in nature, from its romantic traditions to its symbology – not to mention the critical canon, erected by men, that has only in the last few decades begun to be meaningfully dismantled. Even, or especially, for a reader who loves the likes of Melville, Hemingway, and Mailer, the mighty winds of maleness can grow stale and suffocating. One tires of that world of suffering loners, bilious bromance, and bullet-headed misogyny; one needs to immerse oneself in other minds, hear other voices, be maddened and inspired by other egos. And so one falls gladly and hungrily upon the singular works of – oh, I don't know – Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, Vernon Lee, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mavis Gallant, Jane Austen, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Joyce Carol Oates, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alice Walker, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Alison Lurie, Grace Paley, Dawn Powell, and many others less famous.

If a few names are conspicuously missing from that list, it’s because they are present in Sharp. This critical history is a rogues’ gallery of literary femaleness – even though most of the women in it rightly bristled at being defined as “woman writers.” Dean’s exemplars are, in chapter if not birth order, Dorothy Parker; Rebecca West; Hannah Arendt; Mary McCarthy; Susan Sontag; Pauline Kael; Joan Didion; Nora Ephron; Renata Adler; and Janet Malcolm. Most have at least a few things in common. While some doubled as novelists, all are distinguished for their non-fiction, with fully half reaching eminence via The New Yorker. Several were at the center of at least one major literary controversy (e.g., McCarthy’s feud with Lillian Hellman; Adler’s New York Review of Books attack on Kael; the defamation suit brought by one of Malcolm’s subjects). Each was or is noted for, as Dean’s subtitle puts it, “having an opinion”: that is, a contentious opinion, boldly and unequivocally stated. Above and beyond these are other commonalities – of spirit, of temperament – which enabled the women to power through sexist barriers that limited, or shut out altogether, many of their contemporaries. “Through their exceptional talent,” Dean writes, “they were granted a kind of intellectual equality to men other women had no hope of.”

Friday, June 22, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

Wendell Burton and Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo. (Photo: Getty)

Alan J. Pakula’s first movie, before Klute and The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, was a small-scale adaptation of a first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo by John Nichols, written when the author was only twenty-three and published in 1965. It’s a touching chronicle of a college romance that gets crushed under the weight of passing time and shifting perspectives and the alcohol-soaked traditions of higher education; you feel the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the descriptions of party nights where things go wrong and can’t be put right. But even without the drinking, the relationship between Jerry Payne and Pookie Adams, the first real one for both, is too fragile to survive:

"It got so that we were always off balance together: one second I would love Pookie so much my intestines twinged, the next second I would dislike her intensely and sincerely wish that she would take herself and her wisecracks and go far away. It seemed that gradually our love affair was slipping out of our hands altogether, as if, while our backs had been turned... the magic had mysteriously drained out of it."

Pakula’s movie is a very different animal from Nichols’s book. The screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, reshaped the story to make Pookie – played by twenty-three-year-old Liza Minnelli, already a veteran of stage musicals but in only her second movie role – a freakishly unconventional and deeply neurotic young woman who inhabits her own private world and draws Jerry (Wendell Burton) into it, attempting to lock him inside it and everyone else out. Sargent had been writing for television for nearly a decade and a half, but The Sterile Cuckoo was only his third screenplay, and I think that the fact that the picture was put together by and with relative novices – Burton’s only previous movie role was a walk-on in The Gypsy Moths, though he’d played Charlie Brown on stage – contributes to its freshness, which it has maintained over half a century.