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. 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.