Saturday, September 15, 2018

Honey at the Spencer Fair

A stand showing some of the honey entries at this year's Spencer Fair. (Photo: Ellen Perry)

Every year at the Spencer Fair, the Worcester County (Massachusetts) Beekeepers Association puts on an educational display that includes candle-rolling and an observation hive  the latter basically a couple of hive frames covered with honeybees and encased in glass so that people can see the insects at work. The observation hive is extremely popular with children, who focus intently on locating the queen bee and almost always shout with delight when they find her. (This year, she was marked with a red dot on her back, which made her a lot easier to find and also indicated that she was born in 2018.) The children were mesmerized by the hive right up until somebody delivered a couple of two-week-old baby goats to a nearby display, at which point they drifted  or, in some cases, raced  away.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Neglected Gem: Ransom (1996)

Mel Gibson (with Brawley Nolte) in Ron Howard's 1996 version of Ransom. (Photo: IMDB)

Ransom was one of the few exciting American movies released in 1996 – not just gripping but conceptually exciting. And it was the first genuinely adult movie made by Ron Howard. The script, by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, adapts a long-forgotten picture from 1956 starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed as a wealthy young couple whose little boy is kidnapped. (This version, which has an exclamation point at the end of the one-word title, shows up occasionally on TCM.) In the original, Ford is about to fork over the half a million dollars demanded by the kidnapper when a newsman covering the story (Leslie Nielsen) persuades him that he’s just as likely to get his son back without it, and – though the script never clarifies this thinking – that in fact the boy is in less danger if Ford doesn’t deliver the ransom. So Ford gets on TV – on the weekly show his vacuum-cleaner company sponsors – and announces that the half million is going on the head of the kidnapper if he harms the boy in any way. Eventually everyone turns against Ford for making this stand, except for the reporter and a loyal servant (Juano Hernandez) and the chief of police; even Reed, who’s doped up on sedatives, deserts him. But in the movie’s point of view, Ford has a superior take on the situation, and he turns out to be right when, in the final scene, the boy wanders in, completely unharmed. This Ransom! (which was released to theatres but feels like it was made for a TV anthology series like Playhouse 90) is a pure-fifties social problem picture, and its theme is straight out of the Arthur Miller translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People: the strong must learn to be lonely.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Photo Finish: A Conversation with William Ewing

Curator and author William Ewing, shown here at his exhibit called Edward Steichen: In High Fashion. (Photo: Youtube)

Without ever having clicked a shutter, Canada’s William Ewing has earned an international reputation as one of the great luminaries of modern photography. In the more than four decades since opening his first gallery in his native Montreal, the now-74-year old photography expert has created exhibitions, written books – including an international bestseller – and directed a prestigious Swiss museum, all devoted to the ephemeral art of photography. That's right, ephemeral.

"I think it would shock most people to know that 80 per cent of photographs disappear," said Ewing, speaking by phone on a fast-moving European train in between assignments. "People feel that because they are so ubiquitous that they will go on and on. But most are destroyed or are lost or are torn up by one's kids. And few photographs are documented. And usually little is written about them."

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

M*A*S*H: Novel into Film into Sitcom, and Notes on the Long Run

The cast of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. (Photo: IMDB)

“Richard Hooker,” whose real name was Richard Hornberger, had been a surgeon in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH unit, during the Korean War. Failing to interest a dozen or so publishers in his sheaf of random anecdotes about cutting soldiers and cutting up in America’s least-understood modern conflict, he partnered with sportswriter W.C. Heinz, who took a hired gun’s silent pay to whip the sheaf into shape. It was published, in 1968, as MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors, and a few days ago – for no reason other than that an episode of the associated sitcom was on television, and that I was eager to avoid doing some actual work – I retrieved the paperback of the novel that I’d had since high school. I remembered some things about the book and had forgotten others. Remembered: the characters, while similar to those who populate Robert Altman’s 1970 film adaptation, bear almost no resemblance to those of the long-running (1972-83) TV version. Forgotten: the style and matter of the novel are cool and mordant in a mostly appealing way – albeit with much of the sexism that makes the Altman film offensive, but without a hint of the sanctimony that so defined the series in its last several seasons.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Art of War: Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his cavalry charge into battle in Apocalypse Now Redux. (Photo: Getty)

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a film that needs no introduction. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War, had a legendary troubled production history of this Francis Ford Coppola, documented in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness. The film features only the second leading performance by Martin Sheen (after 1973's Badlands) while also including known commodities such as Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. It’s a lush piece of episodic cinema (shot by Vittorio Storaro) that ends in a world even more surreal than the build-up, or even the novella, could prepare us for. Captain Willard (Sheen) takes on a mission to find and kill super-soldier Colonel Kurtz (Brando) deep in the Southeast Asian jungle, and his numerous and wide-ranging but almost always antagonistic encounters along the way show him and us the true face of the Vietnam War. In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch released an extended and re-edited version called Apocalypse Now Redux, and that’s the one I saw.

It struck me about midway through that, in contrast to most war films, which glorify war, unveil its brutal realities, or glorify the brutality itself (as in the case of Hacksaw Ridge in 2016), Apocalypse Now isn’t actually about war per se. It’s about the absurd tragedies that occur when a rational strategy or cultural institution is guided by humans and their inherent irrationalities. War is but the most extreme case.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Barbara Harris, Pixie Sorceress

Barbara Harris in 1967. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Barbara Harris, who died a few weeks ago, was an improviser down to her soul. A native Chicagoan, she was a founding member of the first improv troupe in America, The Compass Players, helmed by her then-husband Paul Sills in the mid-fifties; when the company morphed into The Second City she accompanied it on tour to Broadway. In New York she starred in Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad and in a pair of musicals for which she provided the raison d’ĂȘtre: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane in 1965 and the short-story anthology The Apple Tree by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in 1966. (She won the Tony Award – for which she had been nominated twice before – for The Apple Tree.) But she lost interest in stage work because, she said, it was really the exploration that takes place in rehearsal that excited her; she found repeating herself on stage every night stultifying. So, after playing opposite Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns in 1965 – where she’s the only actor who doesn’t succumb to the depressing inauthenticity of the material (she’s utterly charming) – and repeating her stage performance in Oh Dad, Poor Dad in 1967, she turned her attention full-time to movies. Her pixelated presence and off-the-beam focus and slightly dazed quality seemed perfect for the era. She was nominated for an Oscar for Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? in 1971, likely because of one scene, the audition that her character, Allison Densmore, gives for Dustin Hoffman. (It’s the only scene in the movie worth remembering.) And she landed some leading roles over the next decade, though the only picture most movie lovers have seen her in is Nashville (1975), where she plays Albuquerque, the loony-bird aspiring singer who saves the Parthenon show in the final reel with her rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” after the beloved country-western icon Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is shot. Her last starring part was in Hal Ashby’s disastrous Second Hand Hearts opposite Robert Blake in 1981. She made four more movies and retired from the screen in 1997, then moved to Scottsdale, Arizona to teach acting. She’d outlived the epoch she was made for, God knows she’d outlived Hollywood’s capacity for figuring out how to cast an actress who fit no known mold, and once again she’d run out of patience. If the game was no longer about keeping the spark of inspiration alive, Barbara Harris didn’t want to play.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Legal (and Moral) Battles Continue: The Good Fight

Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo in CBS's The Good Fight. (Photo: IMDB)

Note: This piece contains spoilers.

As we await the start of a new network fall season, it’s becoming clearer and clearer how entrenched the old school, non-cable channels have become. More doctor and cop shows (New Amsterdam, The Rookie) and reboots and updates of previous series (Magnum, P.I., Murphy Brown) are on the agenda and very few, if any, groundbreaking shows seem to be on the network horizon. In fact, except for the short-lived (one-season) Fox comedy The Grinder, my favourite network series have been the same for four seasons now. (They are ABC’s black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder and CBS’s Elementary). But this doesn’t mean that cable shows, despite freer use of explicit language, sex and violence, are necessarily better. I don’t, for example, get all the acclaim for BBC America’s Killing Eve, whose first eight-episode season centered around an MI–5 agent (Sandra Oh) hunting down a female assassin all over Europe. Oh is wonderful in the role but I don’t buy the series’ plotting and it comes perilously close to exaggerated theatrics even though it’s not trying to be satirical. FX’s Pose, which chronicles the intersection of big business and the Harlem drag-ball scene in New York City in the late eighties, boasted a large cast of (many) transsexual actors in key roles but dramatically was more than a little slack and nearly undone by the one-note performance of Evan Peters as a ‘straight’ man intrigued by one of the girls. Both those series got more ink and acclaim than comparatively better shows on cable, like The Good Fight, the nominal sequel to CBS’s The Good Wife, which turns out to be one of TV’s best current efforts.

I must admit I was reticent at first to watch the show, which has been on for two seasons now and been renewed for a third season for next spring, mainly because I never saw the point of a sequel to The Good Wife, which, to my mind, was for its seven-season run, the finest network show on the air. (It was a bit wobbly in its final season but quickly righted itself. And it ended on a satisfactory and not overdone final note, which simply left the characters continuing their lives without feeling the need to wrap everything up in one great big bow.) Yet The Good Fight, which brings significant regular and supporting characters from that series over to this one, manages to be fresh, funny and gripping in ways that differ from its nominal predecessor. It’s also very relevant to what’s going on in Trump’s divided America.