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 and Barwood 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.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Time and Place: Tonight with Belafonte, The Mikado, And So We Come Forth

Harry Belafonte in Tonight with Belafonte (1959).

A friend who was trolling through YouTube this week came across something truly extraordinary: Tonight with Belafonte, an hour-long “special” (as they used to be called) from 1959 directed by Norman Jewison – who went on to make Fiddler on the Roof, among many other movies – and starring Harry Belafonte and Odetta. The Jamaican-American Belafonte was at the peak of his popularity: when I was a Montreal kid in the fifties, every family I knew stocked his albums, his rendition of “The Banana Boat Song” was a big hit, and he even made a pass at a movie career, though it didn’t pan out for him as it did for his buddy Sidney Poitier. (Belafonte made only a handful of movies, including Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanized version of the Bizet opera.) Staggeringly handsome and sexy – he had caramel skin and a taut, high-waisted frame – with a warm, dynamic presence and a magnificent vocal instrument, he was most famous for popularizing calypso in North America. But as charming as those sides were, I think he was at his best with ballads (like my childhood favorite “Scarlet Ribbons”), which he rendered with a focused emotional intensity that lit them up. Odetta was a folksinger with a deep contralto whose fame was eclipsed by the movement of folk to rock ‘n’ roll, but she had one of the great soulful voices of the twentieth century, phrasing of diamond-like purity and precision and a powerhouse delivery. (Think Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone.)

Monday, June 29, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part 2

Pamela Villoresi in Marco Bellocchio's adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) (1977).

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I was published here last week.

It seems strange to think of the iconoclastic, Godard-influenced Italian director Marco Bellocchio, who came into movies in the mid-sixties with the jagged, coruscating dark comedy Fists in the Pocket and the startling class satire China Is Near, settling on the idea of adapting Chekhov’s The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) to the screen. One can imagine Bellocchio identifying with the protagonist, the young tragic aspiring playwright and short-story writer Konstantin Treplev, when he protests, “We must have new forms!” before presenting his symbolist play to a small audience of family and friends that includes his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress. (When she refuses to take his efforts seriously, he rings down the curtain and goes off in a huff.) But The Seagull, first performed disastrously in 1896 and resurrected two years later by Stanislavski and the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre, is one of the signal works of theatrical realism, and Bellocchio plays it straight. This movie never opened in North America, hardly anyone on these shores has ever seen it (it’s available on an Italian DVD), and except for Laura Betti, who also worked with Fellini, Pasolini and Bertolucci, I didn’t recognize a single actor in the cast. But the ensemble is impeccable, and this is certainly the best movie anyone has made yet of The Seagull.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Potentially World-Destroying Virus: World on Fire

Zofia Wichlacz in World on Fire.

This review contains spoilers.

Watching the sprawling, emotionally gripping seven-part drama World on Fire on PBS Masterpiece Theatre has increased my frustration with those (mostly) policy-makers who draw analogies between the COVID-19 virus and World War Two. Boris Johnson has fantasized that he is the second coming of Churchill and Trump absurdly sees himself as a wartime president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a position that pundit Max Boot hilariously debunks in an acerbic column. In a more serious vein, an historian who has written a book about the politics of mourning wonders why Trump would urge the citizenry to see themselves as “warriors” and return to work even if it means sacrificing themselves, when there has not been even a hint about top-down national (as opposed to personal) mourning, given that, as of this writing, over one-hundred-thousand Americans have succumbed to this virus.

What World on Fire does is to put in perspective how our current crisis, even with an invisible enemy, pales in comparison (provided robust testing, contact tracing and isolation, social distancing and personal hygiene protocols remain in place) with a more lethal form of pestilence, World War Two. I say this with the caveat that the first season takes us only to the fall of France and the epic rescue of British troops from Dunkirk during the spring of 1940. Whereas most war dramas focus on leadership (Darkest Hour about Churchill), a specific episode (Dunkirk) or the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), Fire offers a larger canvas including Manchester, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw. Writer Peter Bowker, reflecting a modern sensibility, explores subjects that are usually passed over or given short shrift through the interlocking stories of ordinary people, their fears, the decisions they make and how the war changes them. What is noticeably missing are the usual nationalistic tropes – the flag waving, the inspirational speeches, the spotlight on masculine prowess – as the characters are primarily driven by personal motives.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I

A still from Three Sisters (1970).

The reason you can keep looking at productions of the four Chekhov masterpieces – The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – is that there’s so much there. A good director and a good cast illumine corners of the text that you haven’t paid attention to before, or shine an unfamiliar light on one of more of the characters, or put the parts of the play together a little differently from their predecessors. I had that experience recently with two little-known Chekhov movies from the seventies. One I was returning to: Laurence Olivier’s 1970 Three Sisters, which transcribed his stage production for the National Theatre. It’s modest – like the movies he starred in of Uncle Vanya in 1963 and Othello in 1965 (both directed for the screen by Stuart Burge), it feels, with the exception of a couple of self-consciously cinematic sequences, like a filmed play. It was released in England, but on this side of the ocean audiences only got to see it as part of an experiment in stage-to-screen translations called American Film Theatre, which visited only large cities for two-day engagements. The other I encountered for the first time: the 1977 adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) by the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio, which never opened in North America at all. Like Three Sisters, it’s available on DVD, but only from Europe. Both movies, I think, are wonderful. In this piece I want to talk about Three Sisters; I’ll deal with The Seagull next week.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Neglected Gem: The Russia House (1990)

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House (1990).

When Australian director Fred Schepisi’s 2001 film Last Orders came out, the best film of that year (yes, even better than the first installment of The Lord of the Rings), I read with astonishment a critic’s description of Schepisi as a “good, second-tier director.” The director of Barbarosa (1982), Roxanne (1987), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and Lost Orders a second-tier director? What the hell does a guy have to do to move into the first tier?

Monday, June 8, 2020

Forsterland: Howards End

Matthew Macfadyen and Hayley Atwell in the BBC's Howards End (2017).

I approached the 2017 BBC adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, which landed on Masterpiece Theatre last season, with some trepidation, just as I did the 1992 Merchant Ivory movie version. That’s because I’m in thrall to the book; which is one of my half-dozen favorite novels in the world. In it, as in his A Passage to India (published in 1924), the form of the Victorian novel collides, brilliantly but lingeringly, with the twentieth century. Howards End is beautifully constructed, but it isn’t a mechanical triumph like the great works of Forster’s predecessors (Dickens, Eliot, Hardy) that it takes off from. Forster gets himself into perilous territory – into issues he can’t bring into harmony in the final pages. And the book is, I think, more immense, more moving and of course more modern, because he can’t. It begins as a Jane Austenesque high comedy. Helen Schlegel, the impetuous younger daughter of a German-English family, goes off on a country weekend and falls in love with the younger son of her hosts, Ruth and Henry Wilcox. At least she thinks she has; in fact, it’s the whole Wilcox family she’s enamored with, and Paul, she realizes almost immediately, is just the convenient outlet for her unaccustomed feelings. Helen, her older sister Margaret and her kid brother Tibby – orphans – form a throbbing intellectual enclave that interacts with the world in an entirely different way from the Wilcoxes, who belong to the new business aristocracy, and Helen is fascinated by their style at first. Margaret explains the real difference to Helen:
The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one – there’s grit in it. It does breed character.
In the embarrassing aftermath of the momentary romantic tangle between Helen and Paul, Helen loses her quickly formed affection for the Wilcox world and shrinks in revulsion from their unpoetic pragmatism. But then, unexpectedly, Henry Wilcox rents the London house across the way from the Schlegels’, and Margaret finds herself drawn to the family – through Ruth, who, in her last months, forms an attachment to her that exerts an extraordinary influence on the younger woman.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fabula: Transgression and Transformation in the Work of Müller and Giradet

Contre-Jour (Backlight) 2009/Festival of Gijon, 2010.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in Arcade Project Magazine on May 25, 2020.

“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1935.

“Your camera is the best critic there is. Critics never see as much as the camera does. The camera is more perceptive than the human eye.”  – Douglas Sirk, 1955.

The two members of this creative pair of collaborating film artists are also visual archaeologists, conducting a rich excavation at the site of cinematic mythology. Sometimes a meaning is lost in translation, other times its essence is found in translation. In the case of the contemplative film experiments of Matthias Müller and Christoph Giradet, the immediately familiar territory of conventional storytelling, the art of fabula, and those cinematic stereotypes most often utilized in order to register meaning and emotion, have been translated from pure entertainment into pure reverie. None of the unconscious content embedded in their sources, however, has been left behind. On the contrary, as they explore the virtual edges of our visual domain in their compelling and challenging works, we are thrust into a jarring juxtaposition of painting, photography, storytelling and dreaming with our eyes wide open.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Allen Garfield: A Fond Farewell

Allen Garfield and Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man (1980).

Allen Garfield died on April 7 at the age of eighty, one of the early COVID-19 casualties in the acting community. He was a fantastically vivid performer who managed to straddle the line between the old Hollywood and the new. He was a character actor who, like the most memorable big-studio stock-company players, could bring verve and wit to supporting roles that lit up the margins of the movies he appeared in, but his bristling, aggressive, off-center style was quintessentially modern. (He had attended the Actors Studio in New York.) He belonged in the American renaissance era; he would have been too daring, too subversive for the forties or the fifties.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Search for Human Connection in Songs for the End of the World

Saleema Nawaz, author of Songs for the End of the World. (Photo: Thomas Blanchard)
“Society is still worth protecting, don’t you think? Maybe now more than ever.”
– Saleema Nawaz, Songs for the End of the World
Over a month ago, the Montreal writer Saleema Nawaz received considerable attention in the Canadian media for her novel Songs for the End of the World, about a respiratory pandemic ravaging 2020 America that bears startling similarities to the current COVID-19 virus. Among them: the devastation of New York City from a mysterious infectious virus that originated in China; the inconvenience of self-quarantines; the individuals on the front lines – police and health-care workers – risking their lives to save the lives of individuals afflicted with this virulent pathogen; the need for personal protective gear; social distancing ordinances; conspiracy theories posted on social media; and anti-Asian hate crimes. The novel took six years to research and write, and Nawaz’s imagination, combined with her knowledge about previous pandemics from the Spanish flu (1918-1920) to SARS, is etched into her narrative. Still, given her prescience, it is unsurprising that Songs, scheduled to be published in late August, was rushed out as an e-book in early April.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Neglected Gem Double Bill: Slither (1973) and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975)

James Caan and Peter Boyle in Slither (1973)

When those of us who lived through the great renaissance of American movies – that magical era that was roughly bounded by Bonnie and Clyde (1967) at one end and Taxi Driver (1976) at the other – look back fondly on it, it’s not just the masterpieces that come to mind. After all, The Godfather I and II and The Conversation, The Wild Bunch, Cabaret, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville are as much in the DNA of American pictures as Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard or The Manchurian Candidate. What made the era unique, particularly the first half of the seventies, was the off-kilter, off-the-cuff sensibility that made going to movies, including many small ones that never really caught on and have been buried by the passing decades, a continually surprising and inspiriting experience. Many of these films seemed in the process of unspooling while you watched. You didn’t know where they were going to take you, because tones shifted and both the scripts and the direction seemed to have been set up like tiny fireworks displays showcasing the quirky, unpredictable talents of character actors, some of whom, flying in the face of Hollywood tradition, had become or were becoming stars.

Two movies that embody these qualities are the road comedies Slither, from 1973, written by W.D. Richter and directed by Howard Zieff, and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, from 1975, written by John Kaye and directed by Dick Richards. (Both are available on Prime and they would make an ideal double bill.) Road comedies, of course, by definition embrace the unexpected (whatever happens to lie ahead) and the open-ended. In a good road comedy, the spirit of improvisation and adaptability and the democratic impulse have prepared the characters to look at the rest of their lives as an unmapped journey and the people they’ll meet as unknown quantities, too complicated for easy judgments.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Artificial Paradise: How the End of the Beginning Sounded

The lads, from The Beatles’ last photo session, in August 1969. (Photo: Ethan Russell)
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
– Lennon/McCartney, “The End” (1969)

“Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah. When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band.”
– David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust (1972)

When The Beatles released the last great pop masterpiece of the 1960’s, they were bringing to a close a remarkable collective waking dream. If only they had allowed their Abbey Road album, possibly one of their three best recordings, to be the band’s final release instead of returning to an earlier fraught effort and letting it out of the studio vault. The self-produced and then Phil Spector-mutilated Let It Be was a mess mostly due to the absence of George Martin, their brilliant guiding light for eight astonishing years together, while Abbey Road had glistened due to his return to the fold as their producer. It also signaled the arrival of a new kind of recording technology, with EMI’s advanced solid-state transistor mixing desk, which would usher in a kind of immediacy the following musical decade would eventually take for granted.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Hollywood: Ryan Murphy’s Woke Fantasyland

Jeremy Pope, Darren Criss, and Laura Harrier in Hollywood. now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Ryan Murphy’s latest offering, the Netflix limited series Hollywood (co-created with Ian Brennan), is so flat-footed and dopey that you watch it with a sort of indolent fascination, as if you’d been brained with a frying pan just before turning on your television set. It should be a camp classic, but it isn’t quite; still, it’s too stupefying to be boring. Murphy has chosen Hollywood in 1947 as the locale for a woke fantasy – an alternate history in which people of color and women and gay men manage, in the course of just a few months, to liberate themselves and make Hollywood the forefront of a cultural revolution decades before America got around to it. Despite opposition from a crew of two-dimensional bigots, while the head of Ace Studios (Rob Reiner) is hovering near death after a heart attack his wife (Patti LuPone) takes over the reins and, stirred by the pleas of her friend Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris), lets a young director (Darren Criss) cast his African American girlfriend (Laura Harrier) in the lead of a movie called Meg written by a gay black writer (Jeremy Pope). The producer (Joe Mantello) invents wide distribution to get over the southern boycotts; the movie is an immediate hit and wins a raft of Oscars, including three for non-whites. At the ceremony the writer kisses his boyfriend – a young unknown named Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) – on the mouth before going up to accept his. Hollywood changes overnight. All it takes is a few courageous souls.

Monday, May 11, 2020

This Nutty World: The Triple Glories of Kaufman and Hart

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1937.

Moss Hart was an aspiring young playwright, still living in the Bronx with his family and working in the office of a theatrical agent, when he sent producer Sam Harris a copy of his satirical comedy about the talking-picture revolution. Harris liked it but thought it needed a veteran’s knowhow, so he teamed Hart up with George S. Kaufman, the author or co-author of many Broadway hits. The story of Once in a Lifetime, which underwent significant changes during an extended pre-New York tour, was rewritten over the summer and rewritten again before it opened to rave reviews at the end of September 1930, is well-known to theatre buffs because it forms the triumphant final section of Hart’s memoir, Act One. Act One is the best theatrical memoir I’ve ever read – and I’ve read it four times, twice when I staged my own productions of Once in a Lifetime. The play would be my choice for the finest comedy ever written by Americans, with the possible exception of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. Both are hard-boiled comedies, a genre that contemporary playwrights and screenwriters seldom attempt.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Plot Against America: Adapting a Novel for Television

Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, and Zoe Kazan in HBO's The Plot Against America. (Photo:Michele K. Short/HBO)

It's about: What if the magnetic forces at work in our country were just given a little push in one direction. What if a certain kind of intolerance was just given a slight nod from powers on high?
Zoe Kazan, actor on the HBO series, The Plot Against America
History is a nightmare from which none of us can wake.”
– James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This review contains spoilers.

In Anti Social, a riveting account of the alt-right online trollers who elevate the persuasive narrative above any semblance of accuracy, evidence or fairness, Andrew Marantz interjects the wisdom of the philosopher, Richard Rorty, who contends that history is not preordained but is contingent and depends on the way people bend its arc. I thought about Rorty and Marantz’s far-right profiles as I reread The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and watched the six-part gripping HBO mostly-faithful television adaptation by creator David Simon and his collaborator Ed Burns, widely known for their productions among others of The Wire and Treme. I found the gradual slide into fascism in America more convincing in The Plot than I did when I first read it in 2004 – likely because of the current American political climate – and that the Simon’s and Burns’s rendition offers innovations that enhance the relevance of the novel by creatively blurring the distinction between the early 1940s setting and our time.

Monday, May 4, 2020

A Sad Tale’s Best for Winter: Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

 Orlando James and Natalie Radmall-Quirke in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Because The Winter’s Tale – one of the late glories of Shakespeare’s career – is a fairy tale, you accept the way Leontes, the king of Sicilia, turns abruptly on Hermione, his queen, and his childhood friend Polixenes, visiting from Bohemia, deciding on the impulse of a moment that they’re having an affair and that the child she’s carrying is his. It’s as if Leontes had been hit by a poison dart that chilled his heart and transformed the two people he loves most, aside from his son Mamillius, into sinister aliens. Declan Donnellan’s beautiful production of the play for Cheek by Jowl, which you can stream on the company’s website, is only the second one I’ve seen that attempts to give Leontes’ behavior a psychological reality. My first experience with the play was in Stratford, England, when I was twenty-five, and Ian McKellen played Leontes as psychotic. He was terrifying, and when he got to the “Too hot, too hot” soliloquy, where the character spins his crazy vision of his wife and his best friend as lovers, I had the sense that he was looking straight at me. (It was nightmarish.) McKellen was great, but the problem with playing Leontes that way was that when we got to the last act, after Leontes, under the guidance of his allegedly dead wife’s gentlewoman, Paulina, has spent sixteen years repenting for his actions, you just didn’t trust him; you kept waiting for him to turn again. In Donnellan’s Winter’s Tale, Orlando James’s Leontes seems to be in hyperdrive from the outset, and all his reactions to the people around him – his young prince (Tom Caute) as well as Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and Polixenes (Edward Sayer) – are worryingly intense, even his horseplay with his friend in the play’s opening minutes and the way he hugs Mamillius: with a kind of desperation, as if he were already working to persuade himself that this is truly his son. And mere moments later, when the boy picks the wrong time to approach him, Leontes knocks him down with his fist.  In “Too hot, too hot,” we see Hermione and Polixenes as he’s come to see them, in adulterous tableaux. It’s very creepy: the staging puts us in a madman’s head. When he orders his closest minister, Camillo (David Carr), to murder Polixenes and Camillo alludes to his “disease,” the description seems precise.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Portrait of a Survivor as a Young Man: When Time Stopped

“The past is intrinsic to the present, despite any attempts to dismiss it.” – Ariana Neumann
Ariana Neumann’s moving, beautifully-written memoir, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (Scribner 2020), chronicles her search to shed light on the early secretive life of her Czech-born father, Hans, whom she remembers as a successful, art-collecting, philanthropic businessman. But her account is as much a mystery as a memoir because she combines the tools of both a sleuth and historian to unearth her father’s life.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Journey Is the Reward: In Transit (2015)

A mother and daughter in Albert Maysles's In Transit (2015).

For one glorious week, the last film by documentarian and pioneer of direct cinema Albert Maysles, the posthumously released In Transit (2015), was free to watch online. In a fine bit of irony, it was Maysles’s death that threw the film’s distribution into limbo. Co-directed with Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu (everyone also shared cinematography duties, except True, who edited), the film boards the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis-Spokane-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, the busiest cross-country train in the U.S., in search of passengers’ stories. You think you know where this is going (sorry), and you do – but knowing is one thing, experiencing another.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Take Me to the World: Sondheim, Off the Cuff

Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration is currently streaming at Broadway.com.

After technical screw-ups that delayed the show for a little more than an hour, last night Broadway.com carried a virtual concert in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday to benefit Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP). A plethora of (practically all) Broadway performers, most of whom have Sondheim shows on their résumés, sent him birthday wishes, conveyed their gratitude, and performed his songs from their living rooms – or, in the bizarre case of Mandy Patinkin, outdoors, a capella, with his dog in tow. (His choice of song was “Lesson #8” from Sunday in the Park with George: he was the original Georges Seurat, in 1984. It sounded awful.) The title of the improvised revue, cleverly alluding to the circumstances that made its catch-as-catch-can circumstances necessary, was Take Me to the World, from one of the handful of tunes Sondheim wrote for an obscure 1966 television musical, Evening Primrose. Well, relatively obscure, since in the world of Sondheim lovers no treasure remains to be unearthed; you can watch the DVD of Evening Primrose (which is based on a story by John Collier), and many people have recorded both this song and the other rapturous ballad from it, “I Remember.”

Monday, April 20, 2020

Stunner: The Metamorphosis at the Royal Opera House

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis at London’s Royal Opera House. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

For the next month, Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which premiered at London’s Royal Opera House in 2011, can be streamed on Youtube – and you don’t want to miss it. I think it’s one of the most astonishing pieces of theatre or dance that I’ve ever seen. Baryshnikov starred in a stage version, directed by Steven Berkoff, in 1989, that I thought was fake and repetitive; Baryshnikov was the only reason to see it, but it didn’t serve him especially well. Pita made this adaptation for Edward Watson, one of the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers, who has a narrow, geometric face that matches his marvelously elongated frame – the perfect physical equipment to play Gregor Samsa, the Czech bourgeois who awakes one day to find he’s been transformed into an insect.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Elegant 1940s Thrillers: The Spiral Staircase and Laura

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1946).

Two of the most enjoyable and elegantly appointed thrillers of the Hollywood big-studio era came out two years apart – Laura in 1944 and The Spiral Staircase in 1946. Actually they belong to different genres. Laura is a murder mystery; The Spiral Staircase is a psycho-killer movie, one of the few classic examples from that period that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t direct. (Hitch turned out Shadow of a Doubt in 1943 with Joseph Cotten as Charlie Oakley, the “Merry Widow murderer” who provokes the fall from innocence of his small-town niece, played by Teresa Wright, who shares his name; and Strangers on a Train in 1951, wherein Robert Walker tries to crisscross murders with a handsome tennis champ played by Farley Granger.)

Friday, April 10, 2020

Living With Limits: Dancing With Rita Hayworth

Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs . . . Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. (J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World, 1962, p. 41)
The recent passing of my friend, the writer, broadcaster and co-founder of Critics At Large Kevin Courrier, prompted me to engage in some spontaneous and unexpected speculations about mortality and the finite nature of our charming little sojourns here on this odd earth.

Westerners who live in either Europe or North America don’t really like to talk about death, or even to think about it if possible. It’s a foreboding subject that fills us with fear and dread, probably as a result of our trained expectation of punishment for sins of one kind or another, of retribution in hell rather than a blissed-out vacation in Shangri-La heaven. This is unlike Easterners from any numbers of places, such as India, Japan or Tibet, let’s say, who don’t follow the same template of a deity, or a messiah, or some supernatural figure sitting on a throne in space who resembles Charlton Heston handing out post-mortem candies.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Off the Minnesota Strip: Searching for Reality

Mare Winningham in Off the Minnesota Strip (1980).

There wasn’t an ounce of pretense or melodrama in Mare Winningham’s portrayal of the sheriff’s wife in the recent HBO miniseries based on Stephen King’s supernatural thriller The Outsider. Winningham has stayed on the periphery of fame for four decades, but her work has been consistently superlative, whether in movies (like Georgia, where she’s a folksinger who has to deal with the neuroses of her sister, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), on television (she’s the rare touch of reality in Todd Haynes’s misbegotten adaptation of Mildred Pierce) or on stage (mostly recently in Girl from the North Country at the Public). You have to check Youtube to see how stunning she was even at twenty-one, when she starred in the 1980 TV movie Off the Minnesota Strip, as a girl from a small Minnesota town who runs away at fifteen and winds up hooking in New York City – until her insistence on pressing charges against the pimp who beat her up lands her back home in the untenable situation that made her flee to begin with.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

False Prophet: Corpus Christi

Bartosz Bielenia in Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo).

Did you know that Poland has a fake priest problem? You’d think parishioners would catch on pretty quickly, but apparently some of these impersonators are sincere in their ministries, lacking only the credentials. What would drive someone to be a sincere fake priest? How might they handle their duties? Corpus Christi (Boże Cialo), a religious high-wire act based on a true story, offers one tantalizing example.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Rolling Thunder Revue: Showmanship

Joan Baez  and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, now streaming on Netflix.

The Rolling Thunder Revue traveled around the U.S. and Canada in 1975 and 1976 in two long arcs with a brief respite in between. I saw it at the Montreal Forum when I was in my mid-twenties, and it was overwhelming – the musicality and the musical variety, the charisma of the performers, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the eccentric but undeniable communal spirit. It was different from the other great rock concerts I sat through around the same time (the best were Dylan’s Before the Flood tour with The Band and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run tour). It was a nutty collage with a rotating cast; performers would join the principals onstage when the show opened in their neck of the woods and then sometimes they’d extend their stay and travel around with it for a while. (That’s what happened when Joni Mitchell appeared in the concert during the Connecticut piece.)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Past and Present Collide in Poetry from the Future: Lorette C. Luzajic’s Pretty Time Machine

“I may lie a lot. But never in my lyrics.” – Courtney Love

Imagine receiving a postcard from a friend who claimed to be writing to you from the year 2120, describing their vacation there through a series of artworks to which they were responding with duende. El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to art. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. The poet Lorca stated, "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm . . . All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." The works of Lorette Luzajic, like those of Lorca himself, are utterly drenched in duende.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Group: Novel into Film

Shirley Knight and Hal Holbrook in Sidney Lumet's The Group (1966).

When Sidney Lumet made a movie of Mary McCarthy’s The Group in 1966, it was a major event. The 1963 book, about the intersecting lives of a group of Vassar graduates from the class of 1933 up to the end of the decade, had been a sensational bestseller, partly because of the notorious second chapter, where one of the characters loses her virginity to a married artist. The casting of the eight young women with mostly unknown actresses rather than movie stars was hotly debated; Shirley Knight, twice nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar, was the only one close to being a known quantity. Pauline Kael, two years away from beginning her tenure as The New Yorker’s film critic , wrote a long, fascinating piece about the shooting of the picture for a glossy magazine. (You can read it in her second collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Yet the film never won general approval – or a single Academy Award nomination. It was, perhaps, the wrong time for a movie adaptation of a novel that straddled the line between social commentary and potboiler. The movies that dominated the art houses in 1966 were, aside from Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, mostly British imports that were less daring – and way less substantial – than they purported to be but that featured the most exciting generation of English actors in movie history. And within a year the old Hollywood had begun to break apart while the new Hollywood was taking over. Next to a picture like Bonnie and Clyde, The Group felt old-fashioned, already a relic from the late big-studio era, and it was quickly forgotten. So was McCarthy herself, not long after. A witty, literate writer who had broken through with the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” in 1941 and the novel The Company She Keeps in 1942, who published one of the most devastating of all childhood memoirs, the Dickensian 1972 Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and who was as celebrated for her literary friendships and feuds (generally tinged with politics: though initially a member of the Partisan Review circle, she was, outspokenly, both liberal and anti-Communist), she was a culture hero for young women breaking away from conventional gender roles in the post-war era. But she didn’t class herself as a feminist, and the first wave of official feminists, in the early and mid-seventies, didn’t identify with her.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Danse Macabre: Three Works by the National Ballet of Canada

Greta Hodgkinson in Marguerite and Armand. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
Given that dance seasons usually are organized at least a year in advance, the National Ballet of Canada couldn’t have anticipated the uncanny timeliness of a mixed program highlighting the body’s fragility, ephemerality and resilience – themes now resonating with a public spooked by the global spread of the new coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has recently declared a pandemic. A sure case of art imitating life.
None of the three works the company presented two weeks ago at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for The Performing Arts simulated a contagion – nothing as obvious or as graphic as that. Featuring the world premiere of Angels’ Atlas by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, a remount of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and the Canadian debut of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, the two-hours-plus evening more explored momentum and transience – metaphors, if you will, for the human condition in the throes of an existential crisis.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Parodies: The Confession of Lily Dare and Little Shop of Horrors

Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch in The Confession of Lily Dare. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The last two shows I caught in New York before the theatre went dark were both lighthearted parodies, Charles Busch’s The Confession of Lily Dare (produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village) and the latest revival of Little Shop of Horrors (at the midtown off-Broadway house the Westside). Busch has chosen an obscure subject for a 2020 audience – the mother-love melodramas that were popular in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, the days just before the Hays (Production) Code went into effect in Hollywood, imposing decades of infantilizing self-censorship on filmmakers. But the matinee audience sitting around me, howling with delight, seemed to get the references. (They must have been devoted TCM viewers.) In Lily Dare, the closest pals and associates of a notorious San Francisco madam, a whore named Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and a gay honky-tonk pianist named Mickey (Kendal Sparks), meet at her grave and recall her meteoric rise and tragic downfall. Busch himself, a drag performer imbued with firecracker wit, hair-trigger timing and devastating charisma, played Lily in flashbacks.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Betraying Jane: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Many people love Jane Austen’s novels for the romance of them, and the romance is very good: unsentimental, clear-eyed, with endings and couplings that seem absolutely right. But it’s her wit that has made her greatest novels classics of English literature, and it’s rather astonishing how many people don’t seem to realize this, including many TV and movie adapters of her work. Andrew Davies, who seems to have made PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre his permanent employer, recently supplied the network with his rendering of Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Unfortunately, it was a melodramatic horror, devoid of humor, let alone wit. A local theatrical musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began with Elizabeth Bennet alone onstage reading out loud Austen’s famous first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The actress then looked up at the audience and said, “But I don’t think that’s true,” thus proving the playwright was unfamiliar with wit and irony and Jane Austen in general. Things went downhill from there.

It’s generally agreed that Austen’s two greatest novels are Pride and Prejudice and Emma, so it’s no surprise that each has generated close to a dozen television and movie versions. The 1996 film edition of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, features a very good script and a number of other pleasures, but Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam are rather uneven in their performances: Paltrow is sometimes stiff and stagey, and Northam’s Knightley is a little too wan and affable. I remember liking a little-seen 1996 TV version, shown on the A&E Network, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong and written by Davies, even though Davies made a great deal of the Gypsies who attack poor Harriet Smith and the turkey thieves who plunder Mrs. Weston’s coops, underscoring issues of class that needed none. And of course, the 1995 teen spoof Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, is great fun.