Thursday, December 20, 2018

Cultural Offerings for the Holidays

Jonny Lee Miller, Jon Michael Hill and Lucy Liu CBS's Elementary.

It can be difficult to decide what to buy people for the holidays, what with so much stuff available out there. So here is my annual list of holiday suggestions, (hopefully) suitable presents for the film/book buff, music lover and TV aficionado in your circle.

Film Books: 
Adam Nayman happens to be a friend of mine, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from picking up The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together (Harry N. Abrams), his latest book on filmmaking duo The Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). It’s a humongous effort, rightfully compared in size by another local film critic to an atlas, that artfully weaves together Nayman’s trenchant commentary on the filmmakers, alongside coffee-table-sized photos, interviews with some of their collaborators and other esoteric bits of Coen lore. I’ve always had mixed feelings on these guys, having found too many of their movies (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, A Serious Man) to be redolent with contempt for most of their characters and others (True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis) to be awkwardly recreated period pieces; I was too conscious of the artifice in setting up those films. But the best Coen brother movies (their debut Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, their delightful remake of the 50s British comedy classic The Ladykillers) demonstrate a talented team behind quirkily drawn and amusingly outrageous protagonists and scenarios. It thus makes sense that, structurally, a book about them should be an offbeat creation, too. (Nayman credits our mutual friend, the late Critics At Large co-founder Kevin Courrier, whom he alludes to in the book’s first paragraph, for being a key inspiration in his writing it.) More to the point, Nayman makes his case for the consistent and very complex virtues of Joel and Ethan Coen’s oeuvre in the same way he did in his first book It Doesn’t Suck (ECW press, 2014), where he went to bat for Paul Verhoeven’s often reviled cult film Showgirls, with smarts, provocative analysis and deep enthusiasm for the subject matter. He's even caused me to reconsider my initial dismissal of the Coens' comic movie The Hudsucker Proxy, which I'd always thought one of their least distinguished films.  Maybe it's not so minor, after all.)And you can’t ask for more from a film critic than that.

Film critic Charles Taylor is also a friend, albeit only on Facebook, but his first collection, Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s (Bloomsbury USA) also made me think anew about films that I might have dismissed in the past. As a big fan of American cinema of the 1970s, I couldn’t imagine a new approach to that wonderfully creative decade but Taylor has offered just that. Without diminishing or dissing the masterpieces of the '70s – Nashville, the Godfather movies, Jaws, Carrie, etc. – he has chosen to focus on fifteen movies which might be titled B-list films, either because of lower budgets or because they were simply not given their proper due or even noticed much at the time, since the constant output of quality for the lucky critics of that time to concentrate on caused some smaller movies to get lost in the shuffle. Those movies made their own trenchant statements on the decade, he feels, and added to the mystique of a rich, thought-    provoking and anything-but-cookie-cutter national cinema. (Present-day American movies mostly are just that, Taylor argues. I agree.) I’m a big fan of many of Taylor’s choices: Jonathan Demme’s deft comedy Citizens Band, a.k.a. Handle with Care; Robert Aldrich’s powerfully revisionist Western Ulzana’s Raid; William Richert’s darkly satirical Winter’s Kill; Jack Hill’s clever blaxploitaition flick Foxy Brown; Walter Hill’s evocative depression era drama Hard Times. But I hadn’t seen some of the other movies before, and thoroughly enjoyed, for example, Michael Ritchie’s wry drama Prime Cut and Bill L. Norton’s effective drama Cisco Pike. Others I didn’t care for, such as Monte Hellman’s pretentious art house film Two-Lane Blacktop, and Richard C. Sarafian’s slight and too-obvious car chase movie Vanishing Point. Irvin Kershner’s horror thriller Eyes of Laura Mars didn’t work for me when I first saw it. Yet, and this is the main reason to pick up the book, Taylor made me reappraise many of these movies, or learn something new on how to perceive them, be it in his view of Eyes of Laura Mars as a clever time-capsule take on a slowly gentrifying New York City that pits classes against each other, high fashion versus grime and grunge; or in the case of the brilliant Ulzana’s Raid, as a strong riposte to those many westerns which idealized Native Americans in the most condescending way possible (e.g., Little Big Man). (Taylor, fortunately, is not one for political correctness, as his many Facebook friends know very well.)

What makes this book such an overall good read, though, is Taylor’s smart use of language, caustic, fearless opinions, backed up by knowledge – he’s not reticent about stating his views, as too many younger critics, who never want to offend, are – and often off-kilter looks at the movies he’s chosen to write about. I don’t necessarily see the pervasive presence/influence of Vietnam on Prime Cut but he convinced me that it could be there. And I’ll even consider revisiting Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which I thought simply awful; it struck me that all of the director’s flaws, such as his sometimes excessive use of violence, are evident but his virtues, like his more honest depiction of violence, are missing. I hadn’t read the chapter on that film until I watched the movie so as to avoid spoilers, but the fact that I can even think of going back to it again is testament to Taylor’s critical powers of persuasion. (He reminds his readers that this is the only film that came to fruition exactly as Peckinpah intended, without censorship or grief from the studios, which is a valid aspect of the movie to consider.) Like Adam Nayman, Charles Taylor is someone you should look out for. This book is a good start.

I discovered the CDs put out by British label Ace Records a few years back and quickly became hooked on the depth and thought brought to each of their releases. Some are very detailed examinations of the output of (mostly) American songwriters (Bert Berns, Jack Nitzsche, the Brill Building set). Others are themed discs, particularly those compiled by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of the British band Saint Etienne: Songs For The Carnegie Deli, Songs for the Dog & Duck, English Weather, Paris in the Spring, and their latest release, State Of The Union – The American Dream In Crisis -- which looks at American protest songs from 1967-73, often from artists, like Dean Martin, The Beach Boys, Bing Crosby, you wouldn’t expect would dip their toes into such turbulent waters. Those Saint Etienne CDs are remarkably pertinent and often of very high musical quality. I like the comment made by a critic from The Guardian, mentioned in the album’s liner notes, in reference to English Weather, that either the bar was set so high for these early English '70s tracks or the Ace Records compilers knew enough to pick the best cuts from each of the bands or singers featured on the disc. I’d say it’s likely both.

It’s actually not that odd that so many Ace Records CDs (the label also puts out the Kent and BGP labels) would be devoted to American music. England has always studied music in more depth than their American counterparts – witness the existence of so many British music magazines, for all musical tastes, from Uncut, Q and MOJO to Songlines, JazzTimes and BBC Music. It does make the Yanks, who should be doing these discs,     look like slackers or uninterested in their own musical heritage.

Also being released now by Ace is 1968: The Year The World Burned, the fourth album devoted to a specific year and compiled by fine music writer Jon Savage (England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock). That series began with 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, a double disc released in conjunction with his excellent 2015 book of the same time (another worthwhile holiday present, incidentally), which compared the significant cultural movements in England and the U.S. in that year. It was subsequently followed, in order, with CDs devoted to 1965:The Year The Sixties Ignited and 1967: The Year Pop Divided. Savage doesn’t go for the obvious choices (or always have the rights to some tracks like The Beatles' music, which, I suspect, is prohibitive) but he puts in enough familiar titles, alongside so many rarities, that you get a keen sense of each musical year he is prospecting.

I’m just scratching the surface of the vast Ace catalogue, which also includes specific albums and music devoted to genres, like Cajun music, soul and R & B, and also makes some albums available in vinyl. Beautifully packaged – and the CDs are still released in jewel cases, my personal esthetic preference – and with likely the best liner notes extant: you can’t go wrong with any number of discs from Ace. Check out its website for more info.

A scene from Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994).

As a film teacher, I remain frustrated when some of the best foreign-language movies (and some of the finest movies, period), are still unavailable for rent or purchase in North America. I’m still hoping for the release of Jacques Rivette’s sublime 1974 fantasia Celine and Julie Go Boating and Satyajit Ray’s ineffably moving Days and Nights in the Forest (1970). But one buried treasure, Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (L’eau froide) (1994), has finally seen the light of day here. This modern French coming-of-age classic, set in the 1970s, chronicles the fraught existence of young teenage lovers Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet). She’s mentally unstable; he’s not sure how involved he should get with her but as only young lovers can they throw caution to the wind and go for it,.  The film is propelled by the force of their deeply experienced, out-of-control emotions. Ravishingly shot (by Denis Lenoir) and boasting a killer rock soundtrack (Joplin, Dylan, CCR, Uriah Heap), Cold Water also boasts the most powerful scene of intense young feelings and love, as the pair sit in front of a roaring bonfire, that I’ve ever seen on screen. Even by the standards of Assayas’s high-quality oeuvre (Irma Vep, Summer Hours, Carlos), Cold Water is a standout. Thanks to the good folks at Criterion, who have released it in DVD and Blu-Ray, discerning filmgoers will now get to revel in it, too.

It’s admittedly old-fashioned, but CBS’s TV series Elementary, which just completed its sixth season, might just boast the best and most detailed character development of any show currently on air, and that includes cable. It’s another update of the Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson tales, set in New York City instead of London, and the doctor is portrayed as a female. We first met Joan Watson (Lucy Liu, from the movie version of Charlie’s Angels) when she was hired as a sober coach for an addicted British detective named Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting). They eventually bonded, though not without difficulty, and soon enough, she became his sleuthing sidekick as they investigated various murder and other crimes in Gotham, as special consultants to the NYPD, where they work with sympathetic Captain Thomas Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).

Unlike Sherlock, the tough-minded Benedict Cumberbatch-starred TV series, Elementary, which was created by Robert Doherty (Medium), offers a cozier but not necessarily soft vibe.  Familiar characters from Holmes’s life (and creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories) -- Moriarty, Mrs. Hudson, his brother Mycroft -- pop up, often in new guises. The show also introduces fresh characters, such as Sherlock’s imperious father Morland (John Noble from Fringe), as well as frequent numerous (but subtle) references to the canon. And while it is formulaic to a degree, and somewhat contrived in its plotting – it usually zigzags, the suspects often being unearthed after a few false leads are followed – one must admit that Conan Doyle's great stories could be described that way, too. The TV mysteries are still interesting, often fascinating ones, however, doing their level best to grab at any societal trends they can to move the stories along.

What makes Elementary sing creatively, in my estimation, is the wonderfully touching and illuminating relationship of Watson and Holmes, one of the most beautiful and authentic friendships ever depicted on the small screen. I don’t think an episode has gone by where some new detail or character wasn’t put out there, deepening their connections week by week. And the acting, by Liu and Miller, is delicate and affecting, too. You really care about those two and about Gregson and Bell as well. And as Joan contemplated, in the last season, adopting  a child and Homes discerned, under her prodding, that he was actually a lonely man, there was a suggestion – and it's only a possibility – that their relationship may be moving beyond the  platonic. (We'll see.)

Elementary can be best pegged as in the Columbo vein, albeit that rumpled detective never changed from episode to episode; that was another TV series that was impeccably acted and handsomely mounted, despite the predictable trajectory of its teleplays. You don’t have to break the bank with each TV show, as the critics seem to believe. Stellar acting and protagonists who grip your emotions, as this Holmes and Watson undoubtedly do, can make for great TV as well. And there are enough smart plot uses of technology, social media and the like for the series to still feel relevant in our complicated world.

For some reason, CBS moved the show from its traditional fall start to an April start this past season, running it through summer into the fall with only 21 episodes, instead of the usual 24. And now they’ve announced a shortened 13-episode seventh and final season, presumably set for airing in the spring. I don’t mind that as it’s been so consistent (unlike other series like ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, which five seasons in is showing signs of wear and tear,) that it’s a good idea for Elementary to go out on top. The show did introduce a new wrinkle in this season’s last episode, which may or may not be a permanent change. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but it’s a provocative outcome to the serial-killer story line with Holmes befriending Michael Rowan (a chilling Desmond Harrington) in one of his NA meetings during season six – a plot which was not at all predictable. In any case, I’ll be there for the finale. I think once you dip into the show, you’ll be there, too.  The first fise seasons are available in a box set.

Finally, I’ve recommended this one before: the annual Southern Music issue of the esteemed Oxford American magazine and its accompanying CD. The ninth of a planned 12-disc series, each focusing on a Southern state, 2018 brings us the North Carolina issue, with well-known musical star, James Taylor and Eartha Kitt placed alongside much lesser-known figures from the state’s musical history. Great music writing and terrific music make this a great stocking stuffer, even though the price ($16.95 U.S./$18.95 Canadian) has gone up a lot since I first discovered this magazine almost a decade ago. But whatever the cost, it’s still a great, satisfying deal.

Happy Holidays!

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching two courses, Altering Realities: As Society Evolves, So Do the Movies and American Cinema of the 70s: The Last Golden Age.

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