Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Facing History: The Human Countenance

“There are quantities of human beings, but there are even more faces, for each person has several.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Everybody has one – or even several, according to the poet Rilke. But how often do we actually contemplate not only the handsomeness or beauty of a face, but just what having a face at all means in the first place, and how a face communicates something about us to others long before we even open our mouths? Naturally every culture has differing definitions for what makes an agreeable face stylistically, but all cultures can tell an angry face from a happy one, a serene and comfortable face from one that connotes rage or fear. A face is the most central equipment for expressing feelings and character we have access to, one usually accepted as a means of signifying intelligence and power as well as an unavoidable “window into the soul.”

In the marvelous book The Face: Our Human Story, primarily an art book from Thames and Hudson and the British Museum following a landmark exhibition of facial representations, Debra Mancoff shows us how the changing face of our face is actually also the human story writ large, not with words but with emotional expressions we all apply by using exactly the same identical ingredients: two eyes, a nose, two ears, a mouth, and the landscape in which they are all situated. As the book illustrates, with captivating illustrations and sculptures from every culture and through every historical epoch, our face is totally central to our cultural identity, which can vary drastically, but also simply to our shared human identity, which never does or can.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Sadness and Joy: A Christmas Carol

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol, available for streaming until January 3. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

There have been dozens and dozens of straight dramatizations of Charles Dickens’s 1843 tale “A Christmas Carol” – on stage, on film, on radio and television, even more if we include novelties like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and the 2017 parody A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong by the English company Mischief Theatre. Scrooged, the updated 1988 version, written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue and directed by Richard Donner, with Bill Murray as the avaricious president of a TV network, is a special case: an imaginative retelling of the story that captures its spirit with astonishing precision, just as Glazer’s contemporary take on Great Expectations did a decade later. It is, I think, sublime – and the best thing Murray has ever done.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Mank: No High Comedy

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank. The film is now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Pauline Kael’s essay “Raising Kane” advanced the idea that Herman J. Mankiewicz had written the screenplay for Citizen Kane, for which he shared screen credit – and a screenwriting Oscar – with the film’s director, Orson Welles. By the time she wrote the piece (which was published in The New Yorker in 1971 and later released in The Citizen Kane Book, side by side with the shooting script), Welles was in the habit of appearing on TV talk shows and protesting that he was the real author of the script – that all Mankiewicz had come up with was the “Rosebud” mystery, which Welles claimed he’d never cared much for anyway. But though “Raising Kane” infuriated Welles enthusiasts who wanted to believe he was the hero of the project, especially those who subscribed to the auteur theory of film criticism that rejects the notion that movies are a collaborative art form, Kael didn’t write it simply out of a desire to correct the misperception about the importance of Mankiewicz’s role in the making of the movie – and she certainly didn’t write it, as the filmmaker and Welles idolater Peter Bogdanovich and other have insisted for years, to denigrate Welles. (Anyone who thinks so ought to check out her review of his 1967 Falstaff, a.k.a. Chimes at Midnight, in her collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) The essay, an astonishingly perceptive and densely detailed piece of film scholarship and film criticism, argues that Citizen Kane is the most enjoyable of all great American movies because of the collaboration of two sensational artists, an iconoclastic prodigy making his first picture and a witty veteran who were both liberated by the subject matter to do glittering, audacious work. (Welles was twenty-five, Mankiewicz forty-three.) Welles, who came from New York theatre and radio and didn’t know the rules for making a Hollywood movie, went right ahead and broke them gleefully, and with the help of another pro, the extraordinary cinematographer Gregg Toland, he came up with fresh, innovative ways of using the camera. Mankiewicz, one of the many gifted east-coast playwrights and fiction writers the studios imported when sound came in, wrote a script that, Kael argues, is the culmination of the era, roughly the first decade of talking pictures, when the funny, clever contributions of Mank’s circle -- which included many of the most brilliant New York transplants, like George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur -- flavored movies in every genre but especially those that were tailored specifically for the talkies, like the newspaper picture. (One of the first newspaper pictures adapted Hecht and MacArthur's fabulous hard-boiled stage comedy The Front Page.) That’s what Kane is, and its subject, the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, is transparently William Randolph Hearst, who began an empire by popularizing journalistic writing. Kane is a film à clef that everyone in America could unlock from the opening sequence, set on a Gothic southern-Californian estate called Xanadu that anybody who read the papers could identify as Hearst’s San Simeon. What made the movie even more daring was that, while Kane dies in the opening moments of the movie, Hearst was still very much alive.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Cultural Recommendations in this COVID Year

Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile was published by Crown Publishers in February. (Photo: Nina Subin)

Pandemic or not, culture continues on. Here are some recommended books, CDs, DVDs and magazines you might want to purchase for the holidays, as presents for others or just to treat yourself.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Democratic Muse: Invoking the Future

Invocation Democracy, a virtual exhibition Curated by Monet Clark for Pro Arts Commons in Oakland California. October 30, 2020 - January 20, 2021

Featured artists in this exhibition:
April Bey • Monet Clark • Karen Finley • Edgar Fabián Frías • Frightwig and Timothy Crandle • Guillermo Gómez-Peña • John DiLeva Halpern • Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds • Jamil Hellu • Dale Hoyt • Merritt Johnson • Facing West Shadows / Lydia Greer and Caryl Kientz • Minnette Lehmann • Sang Chi Liu • Jennifer Locke • Darrin Martin • Ann McCoy • Lady Monster • Linda Montano • Shalo P • Charles Schneider • Christine Shields • John Sims • Mariee Sioux and Kacey Johansing • Penny Slinger • Emily Harris and Dano Wall • Liz Walsh


“Art provides us with a liminal space wherein momentary suspensions from our patterned thoughts and identities can be experienced, allowing for us to align with new states of awareness.” – Monet Clark, curator.

I have to say, as a culture critic who writes about visual art in all its manifestations, whether painted, photographed, filmed or performed, this curatorial definition of what an artifact is or might be strikes me as being among the most prescient I’ve encountered. It brings to mind one of Hannah Arendt’s insights into the nature of the art making process and its objects. It is central to what Arendt referred to as “The Life of the Mind”: “What are we ‘doing’ when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow men, are together with no one but ourselves? It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose ... the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art ... ”

Monday, December 14, 2020

Hollywood Hill People: Hillbilly Elegy

Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy. (Photo: Lacey Terrell/Netflix)

It’s hard to believe that Ron Howard, the skillful technician and entertainer who directed Frost/Nixon and Rush and In the Heart of the Sea, could also have turned out the new Hillbilly Elegy. But in a sense he didn’t. It was made by that other Ron Howard, the one who gave us A Beautiful Mind, which turned Sylvia Nasar’s brilliant biography of the mathematician John Nash into a fairy tale and was about as profound an exploration of mental illness as The Snake Pit, and Cinderella Man, which turned an exciting boxing narrative into an emotionally manipulative David-and-Goliath story pumped out of a Depression-era tearjerker, and Apollo 13, which felt like a promo for the NASA space program. All seven of these movies are based on real-life stories, so why are some of them so convincing and the others so hopelessly phony?

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Deirdre Kelly Wins 2020 Nathan Cohen Award for Performing Arts Criticism

Critics At Large's Deirdre Kelly wins the 2020 Nathan Cohen Award for Outstanding Review. (Photo: McKenzie James)

The Canadian Theatre Critics Association has chosen Toronto dance critic Deirdre Kelly as the winner of the 2020 Nathan Cohen Award for Outstanding Review. 

Ms. Kelly won for "Danse Macabre: Three Works by the National Ballet of Canada,” her review of one of the classical dance company’s final performances in Toronto before the lockdowns in early March.

Evoking the vulnerability and ephemerality of the body, a theme whose resonance is amplified within the context of the global pandemic, the piece was published by the independent Canadian digital arts publication Critics At Large:

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Sean Connery: Larger Than Life

Sean Connery (1930-2020) in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Everyone knows that Sean Connery, who died on Halloween at the age of ninety, became a movie star the moment he stepped before the camera as James Bond, Ian Fleming’s Agent 007, in Dr. No in 1963. And for most of us who saw the early Bond pictures in the theatre as they appeared – I was thirteen when I was initiated, with the second of the series, From Russia with Love – all the subsequent Bonds, at least until Daniel Craig stepped up in 2006, always seemed like pretenders to a throne Connery had abdicated after the 1971 Diamonds Are Forever. Not that you could blame the guy. Very few of his fans took him seriously as an actor until he’d freed himself from the shackles of the leading role in the most beloved (and longest-lasting) series in movie history. He gave splendid performances as the life-embracing poet who can’t be slowed down even by a lobotomy in the 1966 comedy A Fine Madness and as the émigré Irish miner who leads a crew of violent rebels against the Pennsylvania coal barons in 1970’s The Molly Maguires – both fine movies but audiences failed to show up for them. (On the other hand, neither Woman of Straw with Gina Lollobrigida nor Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, both released in 1964, the same year as Goldfinger, did much for him. Marnie contains one of his rare bad performances – he looks befuddled, which seems like a fair response to what’s going on around him.)

Friday, December 4, 2020

Checkered: The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit. (Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix)

At first, maybe even second, the hit new Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit seems fresh and exciting. The somber fairy-tale atmosphere of its early episodes portends something new, something important. The late 50s through the 60s settings are impeccably art-directed and handsomely shot (by Kai Koch and Steven Meisler, respectively); the soundtrack skillfully employs obscure, yet still familiar, pop music, with the odd classical composition (e.g., Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1”) thrown in for sophistication; and the creators make the shrewd choice of having their protagonist become a clothes horse as she ages, allowing for smashing retro fashions to be on display. (Hey, it worked like gangbusters for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

But The Queen’s Gambit isn’t content to be a fairy tale. Its story of an orphaned, institutionalized young girl from Kentucky who discovers a proclivity for the game of chess soon becomes mired in feminist clichés, and worse yet, turns into triumph-of-the-spirit sentimentality as our spunky young heroine, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy of Emma and The Witch), overcomes addiction and her own narcissism to succeed where no woman (and very few men) has succeeded before. Yawn.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sunyata Writ Large: Time Shadow

Migrant (Pythalo Blue Green) (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 20 x 16 inches.

The Ambient Paintings of Bernadette Jiyong Frank, July 9-August 29, 2020, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco.

 “According to Sunyata, the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like Time, are devoid of any objective, independent existence separate from the perceiver. Things and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute being that affords independence from all and everything.” – 14th Dalai Lama

Needless to say, the state of mind and perception referred to by Lhamo Thondup, better known globally as the Dalai Lama, is by its very nature so subtle and ineffable that words naturally fail to adequately grasp or convey it at all. Indeed, such a balanced frame of reference, one which includes everything and excludes nothing, might perhaps only be captured and communicated by utterly non-verbal means of expression, mediums as amorphous and flexible as the meditative mood itself: those emotive modes such as music or visual art. Even better to my mind are those exotic hybrid forms of visual art, such as the ethereal and hovering paintings of Bernadette Jiyong Frank, which almost perfectly approximate a unique and seductive kind of optical song or chant. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

A Life for a Life: Antigone

Nahéma Ricci and Rachida Oussaada in Antigone (2019).

In 1944, occupied Paris saw the premiere of Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, which in Anouilh’s hands became a Resistance play, a not-so-coded critique of Nazi authority. The broad conflicting moral worldviews of the Greek tragedy were sharpened into personal either/or dilemmas, and by ending on a purely subjective justification, the adaptation got itself inducted into the (quite extraordinary) existentialist dramatic canon. It was made into a cinematically inert TV film in 1974 directed by Stellio Lorenzi and starring Marie-Hélène Breillat as Antigone. Now, thanks to Québécois writer-director-cinematographer Sophie Deraspe (she also co-edited with Geoffrey Boulangé), we finally have the film that Anouilh deserves.

Monday, November 23, 2020

In Memoriam: Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020)

Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata (1964).

Soumitra Chatterjee – the name of the Bengali actor who left us on November 15, at eighty-five, of complications from COVID-19 – will be unknown to you unless you’re fortunate enough to be familiar with the films of Satyajit Ray. Chatterjee starred in fifteen of them, a little less than half of Ray’s entire output; Ray (who died in 1992) was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and Chatterjee was his muse, just as Lillian Gish was D.W. Griffith’s. The critic Pauline Kael once referred to Chatterjee as Ray’s one-man stock company, and no phrase could be more apt, since he had such an astonishing range that it hardly seems plausible that one actor could have so many profoundly different characters in his repertoire. He wasn’t a physical chameleon. Olivier prided himself on changing his look so radically from one movie to another – a new face for Richard III, a new loping gait for Othello – that he was all but unrecognizable each time he stepped into part. With Chatterjee the alterations are entirely in the character, in the psychological profile, the emotional make-up, the way he is in the world. He’s buried so deep in each of the men he plays that the spirit that looks out at the camera through his handsome, elegant, movie-star face – the intelligence, the vision, the doubts and sorrows – seems to belong entirely to the character and never to the actor who has taken it on. You never say about a moment in a Chatterjee performance that it’s reminiscent of the way he played another revelation, another romantic scene, another betrayal.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Entwined: The Life and Art of Agnes Martin

Happy Holiday by Agnes Martin, 1999, oil and graphite on canvas, five feet square (Tate Gallery)

“I paint with my back to the world.” – Agnes Martin, interviewed by Mary Lance, 2003.

Agnes Martin, the hermetic artist and creator of hermetic paintings that invite us to enter their quiet domain without any preconceptions or conscious thoughts, was such an international figure in the visual cultural arena and so prominent a reclusive presence in her hermitage studio in the Southwest of America, that people are often surprised to learn that she’s in fact a Canadian, born in Saskatchewan in 1912. But once you register her point of origin, and also remember what the flat and spacious physical geography of Saskatchewan looks like, then the austere and serene paintings she sends us, which I maintain are actually pure landscapes devoid of topographical features, then her entire oeuvre, which dramatically anticipated minimalism yet continued the evolution of abstract expression at the same time, suddenly makes shocking sense. As does her somewhat outside-the-mainstream art-world status, earned by her hard-fought battles with psychological crisis, isolation and her seemingly monkish devotion to a solitary existence in New Mexico, one that makes Georgia O’Keeffe come across like a party girl by comparison.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Movie Romances

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks.

This article contains reviews of On the Rocks, A Rainy Day in New York, My Octopus Teacher and Love and Monsters.

Rashida Jones is very likable as Laura, a young Manhattanite wife and mother, in the new Sofia Coppola picture, On the Rocks, and the quiet scenes that focus on her emotional responses to situations, when she’s the only person on camera, showcase not just her but also Coppola’s gift for collaborating with her actors to capture quicksilver moods. And there are some very funny bits, somewhat reminiscent of old Paul Mazursky movies, built around Jenny Slate, who plays Vanessa, a friend of Laura’s through their middle-school daughters. Vanessa, a divorcee, chatters on, entirely uncensored, about her love life while she and Laura are ushering their daughters to various activities; it’s as if she weren’t aware that she’s trumpeting her troubles (which mostly concern her recent discovery that the man she’s been sleeping with is married) to the world.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Two Literary Adaptations: Martin Eden and Rebecca

Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden (2019).

Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden is the story of a Bay Area sailor who falls in love with an aristocrat and, simultaneously, with the life of the mind that she and her family prize. Initially out of love, he sets out to educate himself and in the course of doing so he discovers a bent for political philosophy and a passion for writing – and he dedicates himself to the latter, though he nearly starves himself to keep at it. Though in the early stages Martin’s plunge into intellectual waters impresses Ruth, her family’s conservatism – both social and political – weighs on their romance. They’re appalled at his background, his lack of pragmatism (a poor wordsmith who gets published here and there isn’t their ideal of a match for Ruth) and his refusal to censor himself at social gatherings, starting arguments that brands him in their eyes as a dangerous radical. And though Ruth professes undying love for him, the same qualities that alienate her parents unsettle her. In fact, Martin doesn’t fit in anywhere. His sister’s working-class husband, a supercilious bully, thinks he’s worthless. (When he returns from sea, he boards with them and has to put up with his brother-in-law’s insults.) He forms a profound friendship with Russ Brissenden, an alcoholic, tubercular poet whose writing he reveres, but Martin is ill at ease in the world of bohemian socialists Brissenden introduces him to; his own individualistic vision rejects the contradictions and what appear to him to be the easy solutions of socialism. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Harvest of Memory: The Multi-Faceted Art of Bea Nettles

Harvest of Memory, Bea Nettles (University of Texas Press)

“I see my career as a spiral with my ideas always circling and picking up reflections of earlier thoughts.”– Bea Nettles, Journal, 1990.

“There are parallels to making art and tending one’s garden . . . an image or an idea can be split up, shared, and even better yet, transplanted into someone else’s garden.”– Bea Nettles, Journal, 2011.

John Lennon once famously, and sarcastically, remarked to a journalist that his wife was the “most famous unknown artist in the world,” something that was true only in the sense that Yoko Ono’s serious art-world credentials (which pretty much disintegrated when she married him) were submerged in the notoriety that surrounded their alliance. But as an art historian I can tell you without a doubt that though I greatly admire Yoko’s prescient and poetic pre-John visual-object work (and her first three brilliant recordings), the actual title of Most Famous Unknown Artist really belongs to one Bea Nettles, whose radical work over fifty years is now being celebrated through major retrospective shows that clearly demonstrate how far ahead of her time she was. Only in the rarefied off-the-map art-world circles where true cultural revolution and evolution usually take place was she rightly famous.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7

Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alan Metoskie, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Sasha Baron Cohen and Noah Robbins in The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Tremendously entertaining and affecting, The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (and streaming on Netflix), is a first-rate crowd-pleasing zeitgeist picture like On the Waterfront and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There hasn’t been one of those in a long time – perhaps since The Social Network, which Sorkin wrote and David Fincher directed a decade ago. For all his gifts, Sorkin has a weakness for editorializing, but he didn’t indulge it in The Social Network and he doesn’t here either. He knows he doesn’t need to. The liberal audience can hardly watch this account of the 1969 trial of (originally) eight men, almost all of them young, accused of inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – a notorious travesty of the justice system presided over by a prejudiced, unethical, incompetent judge, Julius Hoffman, that became a signpost in the chronicle of anti-Vietnam protest – and not think of contemporary assaults on justice and ethics and contemporary protests. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is to our current political horror show what Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, set in a 1970 version of Korea, was to the culture of the Vietnam era, but Sorkin doesn’t even do as much as Altman did to forge the link between the two wars by piling on put-on comedy and slipping in a few seventies references (like a shot of the players in the centerpiece football game passing a joint). Sorkin plays it straight. That the movie is as funny as it is bubbles naturally out of the material, which had its own put-on clowns, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), two of the four co-founders of the Yippies (as the Youth International Party was popularly called). They make jokes throughout the trial, even showing up at one point in judicial robes; when the pissed-off judge demands that they remove them, they do so without a murmur, revealing cop uniforms underneath. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

In Memoriam: Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff Walker, 1942-2020. (Photo: Paul Natkin)

Jerry Jeff Walker, who succumbed on October 23, at seventy-eight, to the throat cancer that had been dogging him for three years, embodied Austin, Texas so perfectly that it was something of a shock to recall that he was actually a native New Yorker whose early days as a singer and songwriter were spent in the Greenwich Village of the mid-1960s. He moved to Austin in the early seventies, where he was a vital part of the outlaw country movement (“outlaw” because they weren’t mainstream enough to get played on conventional country-music stations), which also included Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle. These men loved Texas and they made music that sounded like it couldn’t have come from anywhere else. But like liberal Austin itself, they were wild cards – holdover hippies, exuberant free spirits. (Van Zandt, a drug addict who died at fifty-two, was the tragic figure of the group.) You can glimpse Walker in a party scene in James Szalapski’s affectionate 1981 documentary about the Austin outlaws, Heartworn Highways. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Unhappy Birthday: The Boys in the Band

Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells in The Boys in the Band (2020), now streaming on Netflix.

The Boys in the Band, if you need reminding, is a landmark 1968 play by Mart Crowley about eight gay men at a birthday party: Michael, the host, full of venom and self-hatred; his bookish ex-lover Donald; gentle, self-possessed Bernard; flamboyantly effeminate Emory; promiscuous Larry and stable Hank, a volatile couple; a dumb hustler called Cowboy; and Harold, the figure skater, pothead, and supercool “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” whose birthday it is. Emotional hostilities and histories emerge, with Michael finally forcing the others into a sadomasochistic truth-telling game which involves saying “I love you” to someone over the phone. The same actors—Kenneth Nelson as Michael, Frederick Combs as Donald, Reuben Greene as Bernard, Cliff Gorman as Emory, Keith Prentice as Larry, Laurence Luckinbill as Hank, Peter White as Alan, Robert LeTourneaux as Cowboy, and Leonard Frey as Harold—played these roles off-Broadway, in the West End, and in the first film version, from 1970, produced by Dominick Dunne and directed by William Friedkin. The play didn’t reach Broadway until 2018, its fiftieth anniversary, when it was directed by Joe Mantello, produced by Ryan Murphy, and played by an all-gay cast: Jim Parsons as Michael, Matt Bomer as Donald, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, Robin de Jesús as Emory, Andrew Rannells as Larry, Tuc Watkins as Hank, Brian Hutchison as Alan, Charlie Carver as Cowboy, and Zachary Quinto as Harold. The same personnel return for a new film version, which began streaming on September 30 as part of Murphy’s multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Cinema Comes of Age: Two Books on the Early and Late Stages


“Filmmaking is more athletics than art and filmmaking comes from the thighs.” – Werner Herzog, 2011.

Yes, this is an art review, even though it’s about cinema, because although movies are magic, as Van Dyke Parks once sang, they are also the premier art form of the twentieth century. As a visual art critic, I often hasten to point out that from my perspective visual art, and the history of art writ large, must perforce contain not only the aesthetic by-products of the French invention of photography in about 1840 but also the captivating artifacts resulting from the invention of cinema roughly fifty years later. Joseph Niepce, and then later on the Lumière Brothers, who jointly ushered in a seismic shift in the radical creation and revolutionary distribution of images, were visionary frontiersmen inaugurating the dreamlike epoch of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Was it science, fashion novelty, documentary evidence, or artistic medium? Well, it was all of the above. The still camera and the movie camera are now of course considered among the most modern of all modernist devices, but in those early heady days it was unclear how to situate the new technology, what to call it or how to judge its artistic merits. Such questions have naturally fallen far by the wayside in the wake of remarkable photographic artists such as Stieglitz, Evans, Frank, Arbus, Callahan, and Winogrand (to name only a few) as well as the breathtakingly beautiful motion pictures of Keaton, Bresson, Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, Tarkovsky and Herzog (to mention some of my own personal favourites). 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Barbara Kopple's Desert One: Broken Wings

A scene from Barbara Kopple's Desert One.

Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted attempt by a Delta Force crew in April 1980 to rescue fifty-two U.S. hostages held in Tehran by revolutionary students in the thrall of Ayatollah Khomeini, doomed Jimmy Carter’s bid for re-election, sealing the popular impression, encouraged by Ronald Reagan’s campaign rhetoric, that he was a milky, ineffectual peacenik who had no idea what to do when faced with the radical aggression of a foreign nation. Four decades later Barbara Kopple’s somber, mournful documentary Desert One presents the mission not as a slip-up but as a tragedy – eight American military were killed when one of the helicopters, its pilot blinded in a sandstorm, collided with a transport in the desert before the rescue team could enter the city – with Carter, who owned the disaster and rode out of the White House on its broken wings, as its face. Interviewed now, he still looks scarred by it, not because of its political implications for him but because of its human cost. Here was a president who steadfastly refused to use the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of hostages as a provocation for a war with Iran but who arranged for a rescue attempt as a last-ditch solution if diplomacy proved to be futile (as of course it did), and who wound up with casualties incurred outside any field of battle.

Monday, October 12, 2020

City Hall: Frederick Wiseman in Boston

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Frederick Wiseman's City Hall.

Still turning out documentaries at ninety, Frederick Wiseman is one of the enduring treasures of American filmmaking. His early films, produced for PBS, dealt with thorny, troubled institutions, and half a dozen of them – High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975) – are classic works of non-fiction humanism, balanced mysteriously between the poignantly familiar and the utterly unpredictable. The greatest sequences in them are the ones that provide moving glimpses of how professionals engaged in the work of these places, which are blighted by deep-seated institutional flaws and misguided policies and decades of accumulated cobwebbed bureaucracy, try like hell to break through and help the ordinary people they’re supposed to serve. At some point, Wiseman’s explorations became less radical and focused on more localized settings – meticulous excavations of towns and neighborhoods, cultural and educational and recreational entities. But the approach he had famously pioneered, drawing viewers into the world of each of these places through sometimes extensive fragments of their daily interactions and eschewing all the elements that we’re still used to in documentaries (voice-over narration, on-camera interviews, intertitles) has remained his modus operandi.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elemental: New Glass/Metal Paintings by Michael Burges at Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto

No 2. (2020), acrylic, Plexiglas, goldleaf on aluminum, 8 x 8 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).
“If we keep our eyes open in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself, it retires into itself. That stimulating and grateful contact is wanting by means of which it is connected with the external world.”  – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810).

Some viewers and readers may recall earlier bodies of work by Michael Burges executed in reverse painting on glass, a resistant surface which allowed us to look through to get at, and an intriguing strategy devised to liberate the artist from the acres of textile and canvas customarily used by painters throughout art history, those who formally celebrated its absorbent and tactile qualities. With these new works, this painter continues to explore reverse glass painting mounted on aluminum, an equally resistant and reflective surface capable of carrying the subtle language of his images of time-soaked light as a most effective medium. Our eyes themselves are now the delicate textiles which absorb their fleeting messages, if we allow their mesmerizing gaze back at us. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Neglected Gem: Monsieur Vincent (1947)

Pierre Fresnay in Monsieur Vincent (1947).

Movies about men and women of faith are usually tepid and sentimental, but a few are extraordinary: Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Fred Zinnemann’s A Nun’s Story (1959) and more recently Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (2010) come to mind. Lesser known is Maurice Cloche’s 1947 Monsieur Vincent, which chronicles the religious vocation of Vincent de Paul (Pierre Fresnay) in seventeenth-century France, beginning with his leaving Paris, where he completed his education as a priest, to take over as curé in a small town in the countryside during the plague. His early life, when he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery, isn’t included in the film; Cloche and the screenwriters, Jean-Bernard Luc and the playwright Jean Anouilh, aren’t interested in the parts of Vincent’s life that qualify it as an adventure story; the entire focus of the picture is on his devotion to the poor, which culminated in his founding the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. (He died in 1660 and was canonized in 1737.) Cloche is a filmmaker from the cinéma de papa era in France – that often-derided period between the golden age of French cinema (the 1930s) and the French New Wave (beginning in 1959-1960) – with whose body of work I am otherwise unfamiliar, but Monsieur Vincent is a fine piece of work: intelligent, sensitive, understated, with a purity of narrative style that lends it a kind of poetry.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Dishonour to Us All: Mulan

Liu Yifei in Mulan (2020).

It may look like a film and quack like a film, but something’s just not right with the new Mulan, based on the classic Chinese tale of a young woman who gets conscripted incognito in her disabled father’s place to fend off northern invaders, and gets exposed – yet saves the emperor anyway.

Niki Caro directs this live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animated film with a notable lack of vision. The placement of Mandy Walker’s camera is off and limiting, and we frequently wish for another angle, or a wider one. This is worsened by David Coulson’s slightly sluggish editing. Grant Major’s production design feels stagey: supposedly outdoor locations (excluding the battle scene) are obvious soundstages, and the phoenix that replaces Mushu, who was beloved even in China, looks like a kite. And American Humane wasn't able to say in the end credits that no animals were harmed. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Great Screen Matches: James Cagney and Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in He Was Her Man (1934).

This is the third in an ongoing series of discussions of classic pairings of screen performers who collaborated on several movies.  Steve Vineberg has also written about Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray and about James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

They were both made for Warner Brothers. In the big-studio era, before Truman broke up the motion picture monopolies following the Second World War, the studios owned theatres across the country, and their individual styles were linked to the kinds of audiences they attracted – that is, to the neighborhoods their movie houses served. Warners catered to working-class and lower-middle-class audiences, so they specialized in gritty films with proletarian heroes and heroines like gangster melodramas and social-problem pictures. Their roster of actors included Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney – and James Cagney and Joan Blondell. When Cagney played a tough, cocky gangster in William Wellman’s terrific The Public Enemy, he wound up a star. Blondell played leading roles some of the time but never quite made the leap to movie-star status. But she was fantastically likable and she had a long career, first in movies and then in TV: in 1979, the year she died at seventy-three, she made two movies and one TV movie and appeared in two series. Her last picture came out two years later.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Balls: The Criterion Collection Release of Town Bloody Hall (1979)

“It was a trivializing, peripheral, silly sort of event, in the best uptown tradition,” Germaine Greer said in 2004 of the panel discussion — or public forum, or celebrity sideshow, or one-off improvised sitcom episode — that was staged by the Theatre of Ideas at New York’s Town Hall on April 30, 1971, under the banner “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” In one respect at least, she wasn’t wrong: the event, which put Greer onstage with three other women representing a range of feminisms, plus Norman Mailer, was very much a production of and for the Manhattan intellectual elite. But the evening was also what it promised to be, a theater of ideas — ideas held up, tossed down, kicked about, laughed at, shouted over, defended, derided. It was raucous and suspenseful and dirty and funny and unsettling, and everything else we’d want theater to be.

It’s all there in Town Bloody Hall, which D.A. Pennebaker (along with two other cameramen) filmed on the night, and which Pennebaker’s creative partner and wife, Chris Hegedus, edited into shape in 1979. The film has now been restored and given its first DVD release by the Criterion Collection, with stellar extras including a new interview with Hegedus; years-later interviews with Greer and Mailer; a partial reunion panel convened in 2004; audio commentary from Hegedus and Greer; and the complete Dick Cavett Show of December 1, 1971, in which Mailer, his brow darkened by drink and professional resentment, took a combative posture toward guests Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner, Cavett, and finally the audience. The Criterion release is a nifty package, and the main attraction still packs a punch. Whatever evasions are attributable to the event or its participants, as a film and as a document Town Bloody Hall is nothing less than thrilling for anyone who cares about the people, the issues, or the history. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Ambience of Mind: Music and Meditation

Tony Scott's Music for Zen Meditation. (Verve Records, 1964)


“We ought to listen to music or sit and practice breathing at the beginning of every meeting or discussion.” – Thich Nhat Hanh,Vietnamese Zen Master and music lover (Plum Village Records).

What kind of music, if any at all, serves the environmental purpose of establishing the equilibrium sought after by all meditators? Some teachers would suggest that music is in itself a distraction, and perhaps it is, but it’s one which I’ve always felt formed a core place in my own longtime practice. Mine is a kind of beat hybrid of Zen and Dzogchen, and I’ve long used sound as an ideal accompaniment to concentration on the breath, which is in itself a kind of reverberating music created by our own lungs. Putting on a piece of music in order to facilitate meditation also provides me with a set formality and a ritual pattern, within which one can briefly forget all limits.

Rather than calling it meditation music, however, composed or performed to aid in meditation or prayer in a literal religious or spiritual sense, I prefer calling it meditative music, almost as if it’s the music itself which is doing the meditating, through us. The approach of certain modern composers using meditational techniques in their creative practice, with or without application to or focus upon specific religious content, has long been recognized. Many notable examples have also combined concepts, meditation and music in their artistic work. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Diana Rigg: In Memoriam

Dame Diana Rigg (1938-2020) as Emma Peel in the 1960s TV series The Avengers. (Photo: Terry Disney)

Diana Rigg, who died on September 10 at the age of eighty-two, belonged to the first generation of classically trained English actresses who were permitted to be devastatingly sexy as well as brilliant (Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren). Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1959, she became an international sensation over her three seasons as Emma Peel on the television series The Avengers. Mrs. Peel, as her sleuthing partner John Steed (Patrick McNee) always called her, could down a villain with a kung-fu kick and then dispatch him once again with a wisecrack, delivered with the effortless dryness of a perfect martini. And she wore leather!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Barwood and Robbins

Mark Hamill in Corvette Summer (1978).

When TCM ran Corvette Summer not long ago, I decided to take another look at it. The last time I’d seen it was in a movie theatre in 1978 and I’d been surprised and delighted by it. It starred Mark Hamill – it was his first movie after the car accident that disfigured him during the shooting of Star Wars – as a graduating high-school senior from the suburbs of L.A. with a gift for auto mechanics (the auto shop teacher, played by Eugene Roche, is his hero) who is obsessed with a ’73 Corvette Stingray that he and his class rescued from a junkpile and reconstructed into a spangly, candy-apple, eye-popping gem. When it’s stolen and he learns that it’s been spotted in Las Vegas, he goes in search of it. The irresistible, uncategorizable Annie Potts – a wild card like Betty Hutton in her Preston Sturges comedies – plays the novice prostitute he meets when he arrives; eventually she overcomes his nervousness and gets him into bed, and then they become a couple. The movie turned out to be as much fun as I’d remembered, as great to look at, and as unusual in tone and texture. It was the first picture Matthew Robbins directed, and he inspired the usually lackluster cinematographer, Frank Stanley, to give it a rainbow palette and a neon glow. Corvette Summer is a road movie, a teen comedy and a coming-of-age movie, but it’s highly unconventional as an entry in all three of those genres. Yes, there’s a romance between Hamill’s Kenneth Dantley and Potts’s Vanessa (and a very satisfying one), but the real love story is between Kenneth and the Stingray. The story takes twists you don’t see coming, and not all of them work; neither do all the tonal shifts. But the movie’s charm never wears off, and more than four decades later it still feels fresh.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Memo from the Future: The Trans-Temporal Work of Kirk Tougas

A frame from Kirk Tougas' The Framing of Perception (1973). The monolith-like altar of ultra-consumption ironically reveals that we ourselves are the ones actually being consumed by a seemingly benevolent Moloch.  Image: Tougas.

This article first appeared in the Spanish film magazine Found Footage, March 2020.
“The assertion for an art released from images, not simply from old representation but from the new tension between naked presence and the writing of history on things; released at the same time from the tension between the operations of art and social forms of resemblance and recognition. An art entirely separate from the social commerce of imagery.”  – Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image (2003).

“When is appropriation appropriate?” – Kirk Tougas, 2019.
Every film is a tattoo etched on the surface of time, some more so than others. Certain filmmakers, however, eschew entirely the tradition of distracting the audience from awareness of the fact that they are watching and are customarily invited to submit to a wilful disappearance into a real or life-like story. These consummate others instead tend to invite the audience to relish and savour the viewing experience as a sequence of electric paintings, which may or may not contain a program beyond the temporary tattoo incised onto the dream space they occupy while in a theatre. Some of them, such as Kirk Tougas, go even further: they implore the viewer to actively engage in watching their own watching.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Jesus Rolls: Blier Country

Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou and John Turturro in The Jesus Rolls (2019).

It takes guts these days to remake Bertrand Blier’s freewheeling, anarchic 1974 screwball sex farce Going Places, and that’s what John Turturro has done in The Jesus Rolls (available on Prime). Blier ran afoul of feminist critics back in the seventies when he made Going Places and, four years later, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. Both films star Gérard Depardieu and the late Patrick Dewaere as stumblebum buddies whose chronic misunderstanding of women is at the heart of both the comedy (in both pictures) and the sadness (in the final scenes of Get Out Your Handkerchiefs). In Going Places, they play Jean-Claude and Pierrot, scruffy, hedonistic auto mechanics in their mid-twenties whose desire for instant gratification is as unmediated as it is in little boys. They pursue sexual pleasure with exactly the same heedlessness and inability to imagine the consequences as they display when they steal a car. The emblem of the movie is a motif of images in which they run for their lives – from the gun-toting owner of a beauty salon whose beloved vehicle they borrowed just for a little drive, from a revenge murder they unwittingly get involved in, and so on. They’re hopeless schlubs whose epic miscalculations trigger one fiasco after another while the universe laughs uproariously at their antics. They’re constantly on the move, but in this context “going places” means “going nowhere”; the movie ends with them (and the woman they share, played by Miou-Miou) relaxing in relative peace and enjoyment of life, but they’re wanted by the law and we know there’s no place they can escape to. The French title of both the movie and Blier’s novel, on which it’s based, is Les Valseuses, which means “balls” and makes it explicit that their relentless bumbling is linked inextricably to their gender. But it’s impossible to envision an audience that would welcome the film now, since Blier takes the prerogative of an artist and makes these morons likable. God preserve the writer or director (Blier co-wrote the screenplay with Philippe Dumarçay) who doesn’t wag a cautionary finger at ill-behaved characters to make sure we know we're supposed to disapprove of them.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Neglected Gem: American Hot Wax (1978)

Tim McIntire (seated) in American Hot Wax (1978).

Aloha Bobby and Rose, about the doomed romance of a pair of Angelenos, a car mechanic and a young single mom – an earthbound beauty who might have stepped right out of a Bruce Springsteen ballad – slipped in and out of theatres in 1975 without attracting much notice.  But the writer-director, Floyd Mutrux, turning out only his second picture, is immensely talented. He shows an unerring instinct for the 1970s working-class milieu; the two lovers, on the run as a result of a convenience-store prank that goes disastrously wrong, are dreamers whose pragmatism, the bitter consequence of living in a world where the odds are always against you, keeps souring their reverie. The two actors – Paul Le Mat, riding a brief period of stardom after he walked away with George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and Dianne Hull, who went on to become a highly respected Hollywood acting coach – give offbeat, subtle, mood-inflected performances that should have become classics. And Mutrux stays on their wavelength, framing scene after scene to showcase the way their faces and bodies convey the quicksilver shift in their emotions. The soundtrack is heavy on early Elton John, and songs like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Tiny Dancer,” with their starstruck visions of rock ‘n’ roll glory, seem mysteriously, unexpectedly appropriate for Rose and Bobby’s road trip, which breaks our hearts because we want so badly for it to take them out of their lives and we know those lives are going to catch up to them by the final reel. And Mutrux and DP William A. Fraker’s soft-focus SoCal images of service stations and bus stops, bars and motels and endless freeways, are strangely magical. There’s a car-crash sequence that doesn’t look like any car crash you’ve ever seen in a movie; watching the picture again recently, I thought of the auto accident that opens Carroll Ballard’s 1996 Fly Away Home, which shares that distinction.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Immobile Flâneur: Motionless Travel and the Art of Xavier de Maistre

Engraving of Xavier de Maistre, by Cyprien Jacquemin, 1820.

“Imagination, realm of enchantment—which the most beneficent of beings bestowed upon us to console us for reality—I must quit you now.” – Xavier de Maistre, 1796.
My personal paradox is that though I greatly enjoy reading and writing about travel and the art of travel, especially in works by Bruce Chatwin, Lawrence Durrell or Paul Theroux, I do not myself actually enjoy travelling, other than in its psychological manifestation: the contemplation of the human condition. It’s fair to say that I might exhibit all the traits of long-term agoraphobia, with my daily trip a block away on the sidewalk to pick up my New York Times and morning tea and scones being a major achievement in the realm of geographical traversal. Leaving my front door affords me no particular charm or enchantment at all. And as for social distancing, well, that concept makes me smile, since all I needed to do during our present predicament was to extend my normal everyday six-foot-distance rule to an expanded nine feet of protective rapture. When it comes to going to the great outdoors, I am definitely at two with nature.

Monday, August 24, 2020

New Documentaries: Gordon Lightfoot, The Band, and Flannery O’Connor

Gordon Lightfoot in Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (2019)

The Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot attained fame in the mid-1960s and in his prime – that is, until 1973 or 1974 – he turned out an album every year. He had a sweet, silver-laced voice and he wrote evocative ballads with understated poetic lyrics (like “The Last Time I Saw Her Face” and “Affair on 8th Avenue”) and big-boned, bardic folk anthems that dramatized small and large historical topics, the most famous – and best – of which was “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” When I was in high school in Montreal in the early days of his celebrity and the late days of the folk movement, you couldn’t attend a party without someone showing up with a guitar, and you were dead certain to hear the trilogy or “Early Morning Rain,” or both. (The other guaranteed solo was “Suzanne” by that other Canadian musical legend, Leonard Cohen.) Before his writing lost its freshness and his voice wore down to a craggy thinness, I bought everything Lightfoot recorded, and I saw him in concert four times, once at Carnegie Hall.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Jewel in the Crown: This Is How It’s Done

Charles Dance and Geraldine James in The Jewel in the Crown (1984).

Many of us who have longed to see our favorite literary sagas rendered intelligently and comprehensively in dramatic form have hoped they’d wind up in good TV miniseries rather than truncated on the big screen.  (Everyone I know who thrilled to the Dickensian twists of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch felt let down when it was pared down to a two-and-a-half-hour movie last year – and apparently the film satisfied no one.) And for those of us who saw The Jewel in the Crown, Granada TV’s fourteen-part adaptation of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, when PBS ran it in 1984, it has been a model for three and a half decades of how to bring the pleasures of a complex, riveting historical narrative to the small screen. Written between 1965 and 1975, Scott’s tetralogy – The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils – is set in India in the final years of the British Raj, beginning in the midst of the Second World War and ending with independence and the splitting apart of India and Pakistan in 1947. It is, I think, a masterwork: though it hasn’t achieved the celebrity of Forster’s A Passage to India (published in 1924), they deserve to sit next to each other on any discerning reader’s bookshelf.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Time-Ghost: Art After Andy – The Biography of Andy Warhol by Blake Gopnik

Last Photo of Andy Warhol Alive (1987) by Peter Bellamy: “I was walking down Central Park West when I saw Andy Warhol being visited by the angel of death. She opened the door and got into the limo and they drove off, and the next day I read that he died.”

“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .”   

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. Which side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”
                                                                           – Dream Kitsch, Walter Benjamin ca. 1930.
Some artists loom so large on our cultural landscape that their shadow covers everyone who comes after them, and indeed, some heavyweights even obscure the very aesthetic horizon that they themselves helped to construct. The artists of the 20th century who can be said to be so influential and impactful, so important to the vernacular we use to even discuss art now, that their presence made possible the clearings in which whole clusters of others congregate stylistically can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. Naturally enough, which fingers depends on which hand, but after much consideration it seems plausible that a scant few were so gargantuan in their production of new visual values that one can literally trace the branches of the artistic family trees they planted.

On my own hand there are five such titans: Cézanne, Picasso, Duchamp, Giacometti and Warhol. I realize they all happen to be white male artists, but I can’t help that, even though I can with absolute confidence also proffer Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Louise Nevelson, Eva Hesse and Judy Chicago as exemplary exponents of a feminist ethos of nearly equivalent prowess. But they, like many other practitioners in either gender, tend to work in fields originally germinated by those first five I mentioned. So I apologize in advance to all my many feminist friends and accept full responsibility for the personal biases of my own critical judgments. We do what we can within the limited scope of our own frail faculties and hope to be forgiven for unintended oversights.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Harry Clarke: Breaking the Ice

Barrington Stage Company artistic director Julianne Boyd (left) with Mark H. Dold during rehearsal for Harry Clarke. (Courtesy Barrington Stage Company)

The mood at the Barrington Stage Company production of the solo performance Harry Clarke, which I saw over the weekend, was cautiously jubilant. As the ad campaign reminds us, this is the first live production in the United States since March, performed under a tent down the street from BSC’s home space in Pittsfield to a restricted, socially distanced audience that was ushered in slowly, temperatures taken at the door. The only unmasked people in the arena were on the stage: the artistic director, Julianne Boyd (who also directed the play), when she introduced the show with a speech – expected but not unwelcome – about the need for art in challenging times and reported that the company had put up the tent during the hurricane, and the actor, Mark H. Dold. I won’t underestimate how great it felt to be seeing live theatre again, whatever the special conditions may be under which it must be purveyed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The How to Train Your Dragon Series: A Well-Kept Secret

Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

This review contains spoilers.

The How to Train Your Dragon animated trilogy – How to Train Your Dragon (2010), How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – have all been box-office hits, but critics have mostly ignored them, and I suspect that the only other adults who know about them discovered them along with their children. One colleague reported that when he sat down to watch the first one with his little boy, he was thoroughly delighted to find a treasure after all the animated crap he’d had to endure, and I imagine that many other parents have been similarly – and happily – caught off guard. I came to them through the good offices of one perspicacious critic, Michael Sragow, who praised the latest one, released a year ago, in his column in Film CommentOnce I saw the first one I was hooked. The forces behind them are the Young Adult author Cressida Cowell, who has written a dozen How to Train Your Dragon books, beginning in 2003, and Dean DeBlois, who co-wrote and co-directed the first of the movies, with Chris Sanders, and went it alone on the two sequels.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Newfangled, Old-Fashioned: Hamilton and Funny Girl, Streaming

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Philippa Sooi n Hamilton.

Like at least half of my friends, I bought a subscription to Disney+ so I could watch Hamilton. Thomas Kail, who staged it on Broadway (and, in its earlier incarnation, downtown at the Public Theatre), filmed it in 2016, and the original plan was to release it to theatres. When Covid put paid to those plans, Disney picked it up, and though one misses the effect of the big screen – and though the handful of fucks are muted – it seems like a reasonable trade-off. I caught Hamilton with the London cast two years ago, and they were admirable. But, captured just before they dispersed, the original ensemble, headed by book writer-composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, is so electric that I actually found the show even more exciting and affecting on my home screen.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Emotional Storytelling: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Jane Levy in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
This review contains spoilers.

Listen. You know how sometimes a song pops into your head that embodies exactly the emotion you’re feeling at that moment? Well, if you happened to be standing next to the titular protagonist of the NBC musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, she might be able to hear it. In this show, music isn’t just a gimmick. It channels the emotions that are the main driver of this uncommonly empathetic show.

Zoey’s was marketed as a high-concept show, and that, plus the somewhat uneven first three episodes, probably led to the generally mediocre reviews. But the back half of the season’s dozen episodes are much, much more heartfelt and sincere.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Good Fight, and The Old Guard

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne in The Old Guard (2020), now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Following up on the movie recommendations of friends during the pandemic has kept me merrily occupied, especially when art houses are offering such interesting streaming options (like the Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet movies on tap at Film Forum) and Met Opera digs into its archives for a different production every twenty-four hours. I urge those of you who have been enjoying these and other treasures to show your appreciation by making donations to help keep these vital institutions alive. That list should also include San Francisco Opera, which has shared some truly dazzling work; San Francisco Ballet, which streamed a short piece every week until the conclusion of its official season; and Mint Theatre Company. Manhattan’s repository for obscure American and English plays, which is currently running three of its recent revivals. My normal New York theatregoing excursions don’t include visits to the Mint; based on the quality of the productions I’ve streamed over this weekend, that’s a mistake I hope to rectify when live theatre has finally shaken free of the shackles of Covid-19.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Further Adventures of Ornette: The Biography of Ornette Coleman by Maria Golia

Ornette Coleman performing at The Hague in 1994 in 1994. (Photo: Geert Vandepoele)
“Music, faces worn by time, want to tell us something, or are about to tell us something: that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.” – Jorges Luis Borges, 1959.
When I first heard the music of Charlie Parker, especially his Savoy recordings while I was still a teenager, my concept of what music was or could be changed forever. A sudden joy escaped from its cage and flew around the room in dizzying circles. Shortly afterward, when I first heard John Coltrane, especially with the magical Miles Davis Quartet and then flying solo on his own, my life changed again, those emotions leaving the room altogether and reaching out for the sky. The same kind of radical transformation occurred when I first encountered the raw music of Ornette Coleman, when the bird was let out forever from its cage and soared off into space.

His album The Shape of Jazz to Come, from the same year when Borges was writing about a revelation as yet unproduced, caused a rupture in musical expectation, not just for me but also for all the most advanced post-bop players then on the scene. They found him, at first, primitive, untutored and almost insanely formless in his quest for a freedom too beautiful to be contained by any customary notation. Now, of course, everyone recognizes that he was indeed foretelling the shape of a music that was, as yet, unproduced, even as he was simultaneously, and spontaneously, producing it before our eyes and ears. He was seriously cooking up music, but also still leaving it mostly raw. It felt, weirdly enough, like the sushi form of jazz.