Monday, July 12, 2021

Random Notes on Recent Performances

Nina Hoss in The Audition (2019)

The focus of the German actress Nina Hoss is so precise and intense it’s almost freaky: when she levels her gaze at someone she’s a little like Sissy Spacek as Carrie choosing a victim for her revenge. That isn’t to say that Hoss brings a sinister quality to her performances, just that her concentration is so unencumbered that it can be unsettling. She burns holes in the screen. Hoss has mostly been associated with the director Christian Petzold, who directed her in Barbara (where she plays an East German doctor in the days before the Berlin Wall fell, sent to a remote rural village as punishment for her attempts to escape to the West) and Phoenix (where she’s a Jewish nightclub singer, a Holocaust survivor still in love with the non-Jewish husband who probably turned her in). North American viewers would recognize her from Homeland. In the recent German picture The Audition she’s a violin teacher at a conservatory whose determination to see a student she fought to get admitted shine in his probationary audition triggers all the troubled corners of her life – her own paralyzing perfectionism as a performer, her inability to make simple decisions, her relationships with her husband and her teenage son (who’s also a student at the conservatory). The movie, directed by Ina Weisse, is very good, despite an ending that seems to shift it into some other movie altogether. But Hoss is its undeniable raison d’être. She is a master of ambivalence: one of those laser looks can uncover two or three layers of meaning. Her scenes with Simon Abkarian as her husband, an instrument maker who either suspects or has worked out that she’s sleeping with a colleague (who’s also one of his customers), carry contradictions of meaning and intention like invisible splinters.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Drawings In Space: The Stitched Images of Gisoo Kim

Diary / Gisoo Kim, stitched yarn on photo-collage, 2020. (Gisoo Kim)
“Avant-garde art is yoga for the mind.” – Khang Kijarro Nguyen

Human consciousness is such a fragile and changeable thing. Being in the presence of provocative art can alter the entire field of our experience to a sometimes surprising degree. It’s almost as if the room temperature suddenly changes and our skin feels different, while our minds start racing in all kind of intriguing directions. This is also totally relative, since one person will react to one kind of work while another will respond to something utterly different, often even without either of them being able to quite grasp what the other is experiencing, unless they use their own experience of being transported as a kind of barometer. Then: ohhhh, you mean that when you listen to a Johannes Brahms symphony you feel the same kind of frisson as I do when I listen to a Miles Davis jazz solo? Now I get it. And the same is true of visual art, or design, or sculpture, or anything else. A Vermeer painted interior might have the identical impact as a Mark Rothko abstract, once two different viewers realize they’re both observing representations of the ineffable essence of perceptual majesty. The imagery only appears different on the surface, while the mechanics of reverie remain the same at the deeper internal level, where it matters. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Clare Peploe: All for Love

Mira Sorvino and Jay Rodan in The Triumph of Love (2001).

One can do almost anything for love,” the aging art historian Basil Sharp (Sebastian Shaw) tells his dearest friend, the émigré English photographer Katherine (Jacqueline Bisset), near the end of Clare Peploe’s 1987 film High Season. Katherine is living on a Greek island with her thirteen-year-old daughter Chloe (Ruby Baker), but she’s broke and in danger of losing her house. Her one chance of achieving solvency is to sell a vase Sharpie gave her some years ago to a Greco-English art dealer, Konstantinis (Robert Stephens), who knows he can sell it at an exorbitant price; the trick is to get it out of Greece, which has famously declared a moratorium on the removal of national treasures. So Katherine begs Sharpie to betray his professional ethics and certify the vase a fake. The line I’ve quoted above is his justification for agreeing to do so – though, as with everything else in this vibrant, hilarious farce (which Peploe wrote with her brother Mark), there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Roy Halston & Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor and Krysta Rodriguez in Halston, now streaming on Netflix.

Ewan McGregor does the finest work in his career in the title role of Halston, the absorbing five-episode Netflix series, created and directed by Daniel Minahan, about the multi-talented fashion designer who turned himself into a commodity, lost control of his brand and died of AIDS-related cancer, at 57, in 1990. McGregor became a star very early in his career, as a junkie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, where he combined an essential sweetness and earnestness with a punk bravado. You looked at those soft, pampered, boyish looks and that level gaze at the camera and you couldn’t figure out where the element of danger was coming from. But he’s been a reliable leading man for so many years now (Trainspotting is a quarter of a century old) that I’m not sure either audiences or critics still notice just how good he still is – in films like The Ghost Writer and Our Kind of Traitor and Christopher Robin. He’s always had impressive, sometimes startling, range, but what he pulls off in Halston is so dramatically different from anything he’s tried before that this time I think it’s impossible to miss the caliber of his acting. Roy Halston – he dropped the first name after he moved on from making hats (most famously the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to JFK’s inauguration) to designing dresses – is a kid from Iowa and Indiana who moved to New York City and built a persona for himself from the ground up, like Cary Grant or Truman Capote. He stopped sounding like a Midwesterner; he didn’t sound quite like anybody else. McGregor digs into Halston’s showmanship, his charisma and his imperiousness, but though he’s witty and sometimes hilarious, it’s not a campy performance.  You’re always aware of his reflectiveness – of the man who’s looking at himself in an invisible mirror – and of an undercurrent of loneliness and dissatisfaction. This is acting of genuine depth.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Fabula: Painting is a Permanent Language

New and recent works by Fabiana Salomao, featured in her studio solo exhibition at 468 Queen Street East in Toronto, June 10-30 2021.  (All images: Courtesy of Noah Lalonde)

“A pictorial element has no other meaning than itself, and thus the picture has no other meaning than itself.” – Theo Van Doesberg, 1930.

Freedom from the inherent limits of realistic representation: that’s what concrete art, or concretism, was and still is all about. I’ve always had a deep fondness for the Dutch art movement De Stijl (The Style), founded in 1917 and lasting for about a decade, before morphing into what we now know as the international neo-plasticist style of the Concrete (Konkret). The most famous of these abstract purists was Piet Mondrian, but I’ve always leaned to the slightly more organic images of his compatriot Theo Van Doesberg, especially when one notes the amazing historical trajectory from his own early works all the way forward to some American 1960’s exponents of sheer rigor, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. One thing is held in common by all the aesthetically linked artists who explored the edges of pure abstraction, whether it be geometric or biomorphic in nature and tone: a love of the formal elements of balance, harmony, rhythm, and an affection for those chance constructions which seem to convey the spiritual aspects of our embodied condition, those encouraging transcendence.

Monday, June 21, 2021

In the Heights: Soft Soap

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights.

You know you’re in trouble at the opening of In the Heights, the new movie of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, which premiered in 2007 and moved to Broadway the following year. On an unidentified beach, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is entertaining four beautiful brown children with the story of his young adulthood in Washington Heights, where he ran a neighborhood bodega.  The kids have obviously been chosen for their adorableness quotient: they never stop smiling and their eyes twinkle. And the director, John M. Chu, lingers on every twinkle, as if he were shooting a video ad for a summer camp.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Off the Shelf: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kinuyo Tanaka in Sansho the Bailiff (1954).

“A slave becoming a governor, that’s a true fairy tale!” – Sansho to Zushio in Sansho the Bailiff

Of the three filmmakers I think of as the supreme masters of Japanese cinema – Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa – Mizoguchi arrived and departed earliest. But even though he died of leukemia in 1956, at the age of 58, he had an amazing career that began in the silent era and produced 86 movies. (Nearly two-thirds of them have been lost.) Among his late pictures are several that may have been Japan’s first feminist movies: The Life of O-haru, Street of Shame and A Geisha, which deal candidly with traditional options for women at different points in Japanese society. But his signal qualities are his painterly style – no Japanese director has approached more closely, or more poignantly, the enchanted delicacy of Japanese prints – and his narrative sweep. The Mizoguchi movies I love best are like tales from The Arabian Nights: the erotic ghost story Ugetsu (1953), the dark Cinderella story The Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955) and especially Sansho the Bailiff (1954), which is his masterpiece.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Pretension Wreckers: Peter Stanfield's A Band with Built-In Hate, The Who from Pop Art to Punk

Published by Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press.
“The Who began as a spectacle. Then they became spectacular. They asked: what were the limits of rock and rock? Could the power of music actually change the way you think and feel? The singer-songwriter-listener relationship has only gown deeper after all these years.” – Eddie Vedder

“Can You See the Real Me?” Pete Townshend opined in one of his signature songs of simultaneous self-revelation and concealment. It was an ironic question directed at the whole pop culture he had come to embody almost single-handedly. Things had become pretty fancy in the heady and hyper-stylized world of pop music, and a lot more Serious than its rocking progenitors – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – had probably ever intended. They had almost gotten out of hand and morphed it from pop into art, by way of The Beatles. Someone had to come along and return it to its raw roots, to shake up the pop party and storm the pretentious castle. But this being rock music, they had to do it in an even more bombastic and outrageously artful fashion than the very stylistic inflation whose seeming pretensions they were so avidly trying to wreck. Enter, stage far far left, The Who. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

New from Criterion: Masculine Féminin

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya in Masculine Féminin (1966).

Between 1960 and 1967 Jean-Luc Godard made fifteen features, all of them vibrant, provocative and almost impossibly innovative, many of them masterpieces. What filmmakers in the history of movies had streaks that were in any way comparable? I can think of only five: D.W. Griffith in the teens and early twenties, Buster Keaton in the twenties, Jean Renoir in the thirties, Satyajit Ray between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s (his lasted the longest) and Robert Altman between 1970 and 1975 (his was the most concentrated). Masculin Féminin, which Criterion has just released on Blu-Ray and DVD in an immaculately restored print, was the eleventh of these pictures; it came right after Pierrot le Fou (which is referenced in this movie) and before Made in U.S.A. It’s one of my favorite Godards but I realized as I sat down to watch the Blu-Ray that the last time I saw it was thirty years ago, on a drab videotape. Viewing it again with the black-and-white images returned to their original, tactile quality – showcasing Godard’s ability to make contemporary Paris look newly minted – is a revelation. He isn’t working here with his greatest cinematographer, Raoul Coutard; Willy Kurant’s lighting doesn’t knock your eye out the way Coutard’s does, but the movie still looks terrific.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Oslo, Stage to Screen

Salim Dau and Jeff Wilbusch in Oslo..

Given the peculiarly insulated nature of theatre, despite its success on Broadway too few people are familiar with J.T. Rogers’s play Oslo, which dramatizes the story of the Oslo Peace Accords that came heartbreakingly close to bringing an end to the bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians in 1993. (The play won the 2017 Tony Award.) So the HBO film version – directed, like the play, by Bartlett Sher – affords the opportunity for many more lovers of serious theatre to access what is, I believe, the best American play since Bruce Norris’s 2012 Clybourne Park. Oslo does, however, pose several daunting challenges to a filmmaker, especially one who is making his debut behind the camera. One can, as Rogers does in the screenplay, eliminate some of the more obvious theatrical touches, like the direct address to the audience and the elusive narrative structure of the first act: it begins with the allegedly accidental revelation of a secret and then flashes back to establish the necessity for the secret as well as the need to expose it and make the exposure look like an accident. (This trickery is highly pleasurable in the theatre, but on screen it would be more likely to clutter up the storytelling. Rogers was smart to get rid of it.) On the other hand, you can’t just place the actors in realist settings and pretend they’re speaking in realist prose. The language tends to be oratorical, in the manner of much historical drama: the characters often talk at each other, making political points, tossing gauntlets at each other and escalating to grandiloquent eruptions. This isn’t intended as a criticism – the dialogue is elegant and forceful and often quite beautiful. Either a director has to go for broke, throwing strict realism to the winds, or figure out how to make the language work on the screen so it doesn’t sound like posturing.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

How to Throw Your Voice Visually: Becoming Photography

Chuck Samuels: Becoming Photography (Kerber Verlag, 2021).
 
“From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” – Michel Foucault

Much of what we now define as the poetics of images, the aesthetics of the camera, and the politics of photography comes to us from the thoughtful pens of cultural theorists such as the German critic Walter Benjamin, the French philosopher Roland Barthes, the American polemicist Susan Sontag, and the British art historian John Berger. Their speculations on what makes photography not only an art form but a special and privileged form of modernist consciousness have paved the way for a deep appreciation of both the magic potential and the seductive powers of technological reproduction. Our ways of seeing and thinking about seeing have often been guided by their ruminations on what happens when we photograph something or someone, and their penetrating analysis of the photographic arts has inspired and influenced generations of image-makers. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

New on Criterion: History Is Made at Night

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in History Is Made at Night (1937).

There are romantic comedies that veer into high comedy (like Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner) and movies that blur the line between high comedy and melodrama (like Dinner at Eight). History Is Made at Night, out in a sparkling new Blu-Ray from Criterion (also available on a standard DVD), is a mélange of the three. It’s finally rather lunatic but very entertaining.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Two Women, Two Windows

Amy Adams in The Woman in the Window (2021).

In Joe Wright’s creepy new chiller The Woman in the Window, Amy Adams gives a splendid, unsettling performance as Anna Fox, a child psychologist living alone in an old house in Upper Manhattan. She and her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) have separated, but she keeps in daily touch with him and their daughter (Mariah Bozeman); Anna is agoraphobic and Ed tries to talk her through her anxieties. Since she can’t make it out the door, she has a tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), a musician with handyman experience who checks in on her and does a variety of small jobs. But things turn sinister when the Russell family moves in across the street. First she meets Ethan (Fred Hechinger), a nervous teenage boy who brings over a lavender candle as a gift from his mother. Then the mother herself, Jane (Julianne Moore), appears. She’s a kind of free spirit with a wild laugh whose unfiltered conversation draws the lonely Anna in. Finally Anna meets the father, Alistair (Gary Oldman), who is abrupt and unpleasant; when he demands to know if any other members of his family have visited Anna, she instinctively lies about Jane – and she begins to suspect that Alistair is abusing one or both of the other two. Then she sees Jane being slashed by a knife in the Russell house, her attacker concealed from view. When she calls their home in a panic, Alistair shows up at her doorstep and warns her to leave his family alone. She calls the police, who arrive with the full Russell family in tow, claiming that nothing untoward has happened. But the woman who claims to be Jane Russell – and is now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh – doesn’t look remotely like the woman who came to visit Anna and introduced herself as Ethan’s mother.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

S O L A C E: The Art of Intimate Absence – Theme for an Imaginary Exhibition

Dreamwalk, Mimi Gellman, Edward Day Gallery, Giclee print, 2002. (Image courtesy of the artists)

Note: All images are courtesy of the artists.

“In dreams begin responsibilities . . . ”– Delmore Schwartz

In the museum of dreams, anything is possible. Perhaps prompted by viral circumstances, I imagined an installation of images, objects, films, videos and performances addressing social issues of import which impact everyone in today’s world: anyone who wonders how we maintain our mutual bond as people and cultures during a challenging time of collective isolation. The three well-known artists contemplated, Mimi Gellman, Vessna Perunovich and Nayra Martin Reyes, have a unique but shared interest in exploring isolation and identity politics, gender issues, exile and refuge, persona and displacement, and travel, in what I am designating as a post-proximity world. They express through their artifacts a transnational and humanist domain which is essential for us if we are all to survive the challenges facing our global cultures at this precarious moment in our common history. They each approach a new vista verging on the merger of safe place and secure shelter with vulnerable empathy and alienated exclusion.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Detective Story: C.B. Strike

Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke in C.B. Strike.

I fell for J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike detective novels at the beginning of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which she published in 2013. (She uses a nom de plume for these books, Robert Galbraith, but the beans were spilled after the first one was published.) As fans of the Harry Potter books might have expected, they’re intricately plotted, with wide-ranging, sharply drawn characters, and you wrap yourself up in them; once I start one I have to stave off the impulse to do absolutely nothing else until it’s done but turn the pages. She’s written five; the latest, Troubled Blood, came out last September. Her heroes, Strike and Robin Ellacott, run a successful London detective agency, though she starts, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as a temp who gets a gig at Strike’s ragtaggle business. In the course of solving the crime, the killing of a famous model that the cops have dismissed as a suicide, both Strike and Robin herself discover her gift for investigation; and by the end of the novel he’s agreed to make her his partner. 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Simple Joys: Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli in the Royal Opera House's 2017 production of  Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

One could spend years looking at all the dramatic adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense masterpiece Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His tale of a girl who’s either too big or too small, who tries to follow the rules even as they keep changing without reason or purpose, seems pretty much like childhood as I remember it (any kid who’s stood under an amusement park attraction’s height-limit sign only to be told they’re too short to ride knows exactly how Alice feels), so it’s no wonder this 150-year-old tale has remained a favorite of children and adults, and why it’s been retold in so many different renderings. Many also include elements of Carroll’s equally well-known sequel Through the Looking Glass, even though the only characters the two books have in common are Alice and her cat Dinah. Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land have separate denizens and different rules and guiding principles, as much as nonsense can be said to have such things. A deck of cards rules Wonderland while the game of chess and the mirror-inspired idea of oppositeness permeate Looking-Glass Land, but adaptors across the globe have felt free to mix and match elements from both. Some of these variations are abject failures; I would include the 1951 Disney cartoon, with its flat, unimaginative look and dull protagonist – Disney’s inadequacy at portraying young girls and women is one trend that’s lasted – and the 1933 Paramount Studios version, which features everyone who ever set foot on the lot and surprisingly ugly sets and costumes. Others are weird successes of a kind: the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s creepy and fascinating Alice from 1988; Tim Burton’s overblown 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which nevertheless has a distinctive look and very good performances from Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Crispin Glover. A surprisingly funny 1949 British movie with Carol Marsh as Alice and stop-motion puppets designed by Lou Bunin was suppressed for years in the U.S. by Disney, unsurprisingly. There have also been a number of television dramatizations, including a 1983 Great Performances broadcast that features a lovely performance by Richard Burton as the White Knight and a horrendous one by his daughter Kate as a bitter and sarcastic Alice, and a rather inert 1955 production with Elsa Lanchester and Eva Le Gallienne as the Red and White Queens. But I’ve never seen an adaptation that fully captures and expands upon the realms Carroll created. Until now. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

George Segal, 1934-2021

George Segal in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

When George Segal died at eighty-seven on March 23, most people would have recognized him as the co-star of the hit TV sitcoms The Goldbergs (which began in 2013 and is still running) and Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003). The long second act of his career, beginning around 1987, unfolded almost entirely on the small screen; his occasional movie appearances were in supporting roles in undistinguished pictures. But between the mid-sixties and the mid-seventies he was a force to be reckoned with. Strikingly handsome, charismatic, with an infectious warmth, he was groomed initially for romantic leading-man roles. The first picture he had a significant role in was Stanley Kramer’s 1965 Ship of Fools, though the movie was idiotic and the part – a painter chafing against the possessiveness of his well-heeled girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley) – was wan and underwritten. But in King Rat (released the same year), cast as Corporal King, a scavenger in the officers’ section of a Japanese POW camp, he commanded the screen, and it was obvious that he had far more to offer than looks and charm. King was the kind of part a young Clark Gable would have played, but Gable would have made sure to make the character likable; Segal doesn’t, and the writer-director, Bryan Forbes (adapting a James Clavell novel), allows him some complicated scenes and reserves of mystery. His exchanges with James Fox as a British officer who forges an unexpected friendship with King are the emotional core of the film.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Human Heart for Sale, Well Worn: Hemingway

Our erstwhile safari guide in 1954, appearing to contemplate checking out of the mortal hotel after being honoured with a Nobel Prize. (John F. Kennedy Archival Library)

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn." – Ernest Hemingway, ca. 1927.

The opening epigram pretty much perfectly sums up the essence of Ernest Hemingway’s strange magic. Ostensibly the result of a drunken wager between fellow writers about who could write the shortest story, but also based on an actual journalistic article about a tragic 1910 fire in the Spokane Press, this early example of flash fiction spookily captures some of the inherently sad ekphrasis that so saturated Hemingway’s heavy soul (even if the sodden tale might be slightly apocryphal). He was, of course, the winner of that bet, pocketing ten dollars for his effortless ease and demonstrating an uncanny skill at restrained understatement which surely must have originated in his own early jobs as a news reporter. Including for my hometown paper, The Toronto Star.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

French Exit: Guessing Game

Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Coyne in French Exit.

The Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt evades categories. I encountered his second book, The Sisters Brothers (2011), when Jacques Audiard made a beautiful movie of it three years ago; the source material, which I checked out afterwards, turned out to be beautiful, too – strange, poetic, unpredictable. It’s the story of a pair of brothers in California and Oregon at the time of the Gold Rush who are employed as hit men by the head of a syndicate; their latest target is a prospector and chemist who has invented a formula to locate gold nuggets in the water. (Their boss wants the brothers to torture him for the formula and then kill him.) But the inventor’s ingenuous personality has co-opted the tracker hired by the boss to find him, and the brothers wind up combining forces with them rather than discharging their professional obligation. It’s part fairy tale, part horror story, and it has the damnedest element of redemption embedded in it. French Exit, deWitt’s fourth (and latest) book, has nothing remotely in common with The Sisters Brothers except perhaps for its strangeness. Its heroine is Frances Price, a glamorous, self-willed widow who lives extravagantly with her unemployed mid-twenties son Malcolm in Manhattan. When her cash dwindles, she sells everything and moves them to Paris, where her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) owns a pied à terre that’s lying unused.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Love and Its Discontents: The Park (2016)

Naomie Vogt-Roby and Maxime Bachellerie in Damien Manivel’s The Park (Le parc, 2016).

Damien Manivel’s The Park (Le parc, 2016), co-written with cinematographer Isabel Pagliai, starts off nice and easy, but it quickly turns bonkers in the best way possible.

Naomie (Naomie Vogt-Roby, just 15 when she made the film) meets a boy (Maxime Bachellerie) at a large woodsy park on a first date. She’s short and sensible; he’s lanky and shy. The two teenagers sit together awkwardly, converse awkwardly, walk around awkwardly, and before you know it are kissing in a secluded spot. I’ve just praised another film for its naturalistic romance, but here the romance succeeds precisely because it’s so overdetermined. The transformation of two clumsy teenage strangers into a mutually attracted couple is a kind of magic that’s almost impossible to replicate onscreen, so the film doesn’t even try. Each scene is a vignette – they walk around, they look at squirrels, they discuss their families, she does a handstand – that, combined in the right order as they are here, sketch the development of a romance. But in true cinematic fashion, how we get from one vignette to another is hidden in the editing (by William Laboury), left as an exercise for the viewer, and whatever we can come up with is infinitely more convincing than what could have been put on the screen.

Monday, April 12, 2021

No Rock Bottom to the Life: Mark Harris’s Biography of Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols directs Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

Mark Harris wrote two of my favorite contemporary books about movies, Pictures at a Revolution (2008, about the transition from the old to the new Hollywood in the late 1960s) and Five Came Back (2014, about the five major Hollywood directors who made documentaries during the Second World War). But after reading his new 600-page biography of Mike Nichols, I can’t figure out why he the hell he wrote it.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Telling Stories: Tana Oshima’s Theater of Cruelty

Theater of Cruelty, by Tana Oshima.

“At first I thought my work was about desecration, but instead it became a more complex landscape of human relationships. I hope to put something of these feelings into the portraits that I made of the characters, which were all landscapes in themselves.” – Ralph Steadman

Both English artist William Hogarth in the 1750’s with his Harlot’s Progress and Gin Alley series of lithographs and Thomas Nast, the American cartoonist, in the 1850’s with his biting caricatures of politician Boss Tweed in The Atlantic Monthly were notable and notorious early exponents of using graphic art as a weapon of social commentary. Paradoxically, both of their stellar careers raise an initial question about the popular mode of utilizing incisive graphics to address pertinent issues in a mass marker mode. Why, though, we might ask, is Hogarth considered a great artist while Nast, though highly acclaimed for his depictions that eventually even defeated a corrupt political figure, is still considered a “cartoonist”? 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Neglected Gem: Heart of a Dog (2015)

One of Laurie Anderson's paintings of Lolabelle.

The avant-garde artist and composer Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog belongs in the special group of movies that defy categorization, like Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 Menilmontant, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 Le mystère Picasso (wherein Picasso creates paintings directly on the screen), and Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi short La jetée (which is made up almost entirely of still shots). The ones Anderson approaches more closely are Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey (2001), essays written on film that shift, with the flickering fluidity of dreams, from one topic to another and that seem to redefine cinema as a variant of collage. (Anderson employs actual collage in some scenes, in the way Godard does in his 1960s movies.) Comparing Heart of a Dog to Chop Suey and especially to Sans Soleil is meant to be very high praise. Anderson’s film didn’t attract much attention when it was released in 2015, but Criterion put out a gorgeous disc of it and I’d say it’s indispensable viewing for anyone who cares to see what an artist with a breathtaking imagination and visual gifts can do with the art of film.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Tom Hanks Double Bill: News of the World and Greyhound

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World.

When movie lovers look for a studio-era comparison to Tom Hanks, the star who crops up most often is Jimmy Stewart: the folksy charm, the avuncular warmth. You certainly wouldn’t imagine anyone else being cast as Walt Disney (in Saving Mr. Banks, which didn’t do much for Hanks) or Fred Rogers (in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was worth watching for Hanks alone). But just as often I find myself thinking of Gregory Peck, though Peck was a terribly dull actor and Hanks is a superlative one. Audiences responded to what they perceived as a core of decency in Peck; in Barbara Kopple’s 1999 documentary A Conversation with Gregory Peck, the educated, articulate Angelenos, most of whom had grown up with Peck’s movies, spoke to him from their seats as if they were questioning Atticus Finch. Hanks has the same quality, but he doesn’t shy away from interior conflict – Peck was hopelessly fake whenever he was called on to play darker notes – and he conveys decency dramatically. That’s what he does as Fred Rogers, and the intricacy and subtlety of his acting transcend the ridiculous script, which swallows up poor Matthew Rhys as the main character, a cynical journalist Rogers is called on to rescue.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Time Will Tell: Julian Barbour's The Janus Point

Julian Barbour is the author of The Janus Point: A New Theory of Time (Basic Books, 2020).

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. But if I wish to explain it to him who asks the question, I do not know.”
– Saint Augustine, ca. 399 CE.

I’ve always been fascinated with time and the concept of time’s passage. Who isn’t? All right, I’ll even admit to being obsessed with time, but not in any detrimental or depressing way, just as on ongoing subject of dreams, contemplation, speculation, wonderment, awe, and as perhaps the most ideal subject for so many kinds of art, music and poetry. It’s at the very beating aesthetic heart of what the French critic Gaston Bachelard called the dialectics of duration. As a kid, I recall being quite certain that time doesn’t really move forward at all, from past to present to future, but rather backwards, filling the present with potential energy and emptying itself out in the past as the expended kinetic energy of history. Every kid knows that time must work backwards until it stops, since otherwise we’d be trapped in an endless loop going nowhere. Most kids, however, tend to grow up, I suppose.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Two Women: Promising Young Woman and I’m Your Woman

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman begins as a black comedy-horror picture about the revenge that Cassie (Carey Mulligan) takes on young men who see a single woman drunk off her ass in a bar as an opportunity to get laid. It turns out that she’s motivated by the suicide of her best friend Nina, who was raped at a med-school party and couldn’t get justice because of the callousness of their social group, the indifference of the administration and the brutality of the rapist’s expensive lawyer. The movie, which was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, is so single-minded – wasn’t there one woman who viewed the video the rapist’s best pal circulated of Nina’s humiliation who didn’t find it hilarious? – that its opportunistic manipulation of the audience in the #MeToo era might have been infuriating. But it’s such a wretched, inept piece of rabble-rousing that what it mostly demonstrates is how little you have to exert yourself, apparently, to get a rise out of viewers. Thelma and Louise looks sophisticated by comparison.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Few Brief Thoughts on Some Interesting Short Films

James Baldwin in Terence Dixon’s Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970).

It’s been a year now since the pandemic officially began, and from the rate of vaccination it looks like it’ll be another year yet before it’s under control. Taiwan, from where I’m writing, wasn’t hit as hard, but we still had our moments, and in any case the fragmentation of time and attention span seems to be one of those things that are in the air (or the zeitgeist). For this reason, and others – I finally got my PhD in English – I saw vastly fewer films these 366 days than the last 365, despite being recently added to Rotten Tomatoes; and I saw more short films than I’ve seen in the previous years combined. The coronavirus death tally has also impressed upon me the fleetingness of life and the value of time, so I declined to finish films that didn’t engage me (“engage” is of course different from “entertain”). From the short films I did finish, here are those I think most noteworthy, in chronological order of premiere date, with one exception that I will explain below. If I don’t provide a YouTube link, I saw it on MUBI

Monday, March 15, 2021

The United States vs. Billie Holiday: Billie’s Blues

Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

What is it about Billie Holiday that brings out the twenty-four-carat fakery in dramatists? The 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues was a manufactured pop romance built around the various appeals of Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor; luckily they were considerable, and Ross, in her dramatic debut, gave such an enchanting performance as Holiday that you could forgive the fatuous screenplay and the sometimes outrageous factual inaccuracies, like turning Holiday’s abusive last husband, the mobster Louis McKay (played by Williams), into a devoted champion who struggles manfully but in vain to keep her off heroin. Lanie Robertson’s play Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill, set a few months before Holiday’s death in 1959, is a series of musical performances linked by melodramatic monologues. (The last time around Audra McDonald played it on Broadway, in 2014, in a display of scenery chewing that I wouldn’t have thought her capable of.) Now we’ve got the glum, self-serious The United States vs. Billie Holiday (available on Hulu) starring the singer Andra Day. The director is Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), but to put it kindly he’s not at his best because he’s chained to a screenplay by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks that’s a real stinker.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Found in Translation: Across a Bridge of Words

left: Marina Tsvetaeva, 1925. (Photo: Roger Viollet); right: Nina Kossman (Photo: courtesy of American Pushkin Society)

“A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” – Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” 1921.

The Poets & Traitors Press series "seeks to showcase authors who travel between writing and translation" and "views translation as forming part of a continuum with the creative writer’s work". This imprint series began in 2013 and arose from the New York New School's translation workshop readings, which explored a shared format: featuring the original poems of translators of major poets alongside their translations of writers with whom they share a deep poetic resonance. Other Shepherds is the fifth book from Poets & Traitors, an independent press which continues to offer intriguingly hybrid books of poetry in conversation by a single author-translator.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Older Women, Younger Men: Devil in the Flesh, A Cold Wind in August, The Stripper

Gérard Philipe and Micheline Presle in Devil in the Flesh (1947).

If you ask movie fans to come up with a classic drama about a romance between a young man and an older woman, the one they’re most likely to mention is The Graduate (1967), which, coming back to back with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, led Mike Nichols from celebrity as a Broadway director to (premature) celebrity as a moviemaker. But it wasn’t the first movie to dramatize this sort of relationship, and it’s far from the best. What keeps it in the memory is the interplay between Dustin Hoffman as the anxious, confused twenty-two-year-old Benjamin and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, whose pretty daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) he thinks he’s in love with but whose mother has already seduced him. Hoffman is hilarious and sympathetic, and despite the fact that Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s script can’t resist demonizing Mrs. Robinson, Bancroft is sensational. She was at the end of her too-brief great phase as a film actress, when she also starred in The Miracle Worker (opposite Patty Duke as Helen Keller) and The Pumpkin Eater (opposite Peter Finch). In the eighties and nineties, when she turned out one scenery-chewing performance after another, one wondered what the hell had happened to that complex, unpredictable actress, who could convey ferocious strength or fragility or a mixture of cynicism and melancholy with equal conviction.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Cobalt Reveries: Reflections on the Paintings of Michael Davidson

Magistrati show, 2016, Herringer Kiss Gallery, Calgary, Alberta.

All the photographs in this piece are courtesy of Michael Davidson.

 

"In the pandemonium of image, I present you with the universal blue. Blue is an open door to soul. An infinite possibility becoming tangible."
– Derek Jarman, 1993.

Loneliness is the cloak you wear
A deep shade of blue is always there
– Scott Walker, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, 1966.

Michael Davidson is a painter of atmospheres, of emotional weather, of liminal portals and of frozen music. Sometimes the interface of images, words and music becomes a very active one, a sort of chemical reaction which seems to occur in vivid immediacy, and also one which engages the eye and the brain in a new and novel mode of elevated or enhanced expression. The responses can be new but this intermedia mode is not; it is, in fact, quite ancient in origin and sends its shimmering shadow to us all the way from the long-lost classical world. The almost-forgotten tempus fugit before our civilization entered a state of collective amnesia known as the Medieval period, and prior to the rebirth of knowledge salvaged from the earlier thousand-year darkness. The word for this kind of interactive relationship between images and words is ekphrasis.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Nomadland and Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Small Potatoes

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020).

Fern (played by Frances McDormand), the protagonist of Nomadland, loses her job and her home in a Nevada company town after the 2008 financial downturn and takes to the road in an RV, traveling through the west to wherever she can find work. The writer-director Chloé Zhao, dramatizing a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder (its subtitle is Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century), initially presents the character’s itinerant lifestyle as an economic necessity that she makes the best of. But in the second half of the film, when we see her pass up two offers (of different kinds) to settle down, we learn that she’s always been resistant to staying in one place – that she only lived for years in tiny Empire, Nevada (which ceased to exist after the company shuttered), because her husband, now dead of cancer, loved it so much. The movie seems to be moving in two different directions at the same time – to be commenting on the way the downturn uprooted the lives of many working-class people and to be promoting the nomadic lifestyle as a viable choice. Dramatically it’s confused.

Monday, February 15, 2021

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you”: Our Town and Another Day’s Begun

Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller in Gregory Mosher's production of Our Town, 1989.

I’ve been living with Our Town for more than half a century, so I was startled to discover, in the interviews Howard Sherman conducted with (mostly) actors and directors for his new book Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century, that so many theatre people were unfamiliar with the play when they signed on to participate in contemporary productions of it. I encountered Our Town in a literature class during my senior year of high school, and I recall vividly sitting in the front row, rapt, as my teacher read the third act out loud – and struggling, probably pathetically, to hide my tears as Emily, who has just died in childbirth, returns to relive her twelfth birthday but, overcome with the anguish of seeing her precious past from the perspective of one who knows the future, begs the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave on the hill. I fell completely in love with the play – and with Thornton Wilder, who had recently published his penultimate novel, The Eighth Day, which I subsequently devoured. (I reread The Eighth Day a couple of years ago; it really is the masterpiece I took it for at seventeen.) Wilder won the National Book Award for that book, four decades after he’d taken the Pulitzer Prize for his second book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He also won Pulitzers for Our Town and for The Skin of Our Teeth, and he had considerable success with The Matchmaker, which most people know in its musical-comedy adaptation, Hello, Dolly!. Plus he penned the screenplay for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies, Shadow of a Doubt.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Strictly Conventional: Alex Winter's Disappointing New Zappa Documentary

Frank Zappa. (Photo: Roelof Kiers/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

I have been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa's music of late, everything from The MOFO Project/Object: The Making of Freakout! (2006), a double-CD documentary look at his first (1966) album (with The Mothers of Invention) to Make a Jazz Noise Here (1993), highlighting his 1988 band – one of the final discs to come out during his lifetime – the last group he toured with before he was diagnosed with cancer. (He passed away in 1993 at age 52). Most recently, I purchased and thoroughly enjoyed the posthumously released Halloween 81 highlights CD (2020), featuring Zappa at, perhaps, his live best. (The 6-CD box set of three 1981 New York concerts is too pricey, however.) So, being immersed in this genius's oeuvre, I was quite psyched to see Zappa (2020) the latest documentary on the man.

Alex Winter's is actually the second documentary about Frank Zappa to reach our screens in the last five years. But whereas German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) was an effective, compelling look inside the world of Zappa, filtered solely through interviews given by Zappa himself, news accounts on him, and various of his musical performances around the world, Winter's Zappa is a more conventional affair that, at best, offers a glancing and superficial view of why Zappa mattered.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Divergent Genius Who Finds Without Seeking: Simon Baron-Cohen's The Pattern Seekers

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Pattern Seekers.

"Philosophers have long posited self-knowledge as a foundational necessity for a moral life. But what if that goal is not merely illusive but impossible? The very notion of a self may be a comforting fiction, a tale we tell to mitigate our fear of mutation, even dissolution. 'We are merely ashes,' Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, 'endowed with a soul, lacking any shape, not even that of water, which takes the shape of the glass containing it.'” – Nolan Kelly, Hyperallergic

Simon Baron-Cohen’s excellent new book, The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, is based on a shockingly simple premise. The reason we humans are unique among sentient beings and distinct from other creatures which lack (supposedly) language or intellect, is the prevalence in our consciousness of a single special trait: our ability to look for and discern, identify and widely co-distribute patterns. The most important pattern formation, for Baron-Cohen, is also the simplest one, what he calls the “if-and-then” pattern. This he considers the ability to surmise that if so and so might be true or possible, then such and such is the predictable result. This notion is so basic and elemental that it has the charm and beauty of being a revealed truth all on its own, especially since many such results are in fact inherently unpredictable.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Simply Sondheim: Breaking Through

Emily Skinner and Solea Pfeiffer performing "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" in Simply Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre has generated more musical revues than that of any other composer or lyricist in the history of the American theatre; I’ve seen at least eight of them. Simply Sondheim, which the Signature Theatre is streaming through the end of March, is the freshest, the most spirited and perhaps the best performed. Under the direction of Matthew Gardiner (who also choreographed), it’s presumably a necessarily pared-down version of a Signature production that Arlington, Virginia audiences saw in 2015, but it’s not on Zoom – it’s enacted on the Signature’s Manhattan stage, with musical director Jon Kalbfleisch conducting a small band behind a dozen singers. Its unadorned quality, in tandem with the presence of the camera, works to showcase the singers, not one of whom is less than admirable. Sondheim is famously demanding on vocalists, and a revue setting, where the numbers have been removed from their dramatic context, places an even tougher burden on them because of the complexity of the material and the intricacy of its link to its source. You don’t need to see South Pacific to understand the meaning of “This Nearly Was Mine”; it’s self-explanatory. But “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George or “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd doesn’t stand alone, so anyone who performs it in an evening of Sondheim selections needs considerable acting skill to make sense of either of these songs for theatregoers. The knowledge of the legion of loyal Sondheim fans can only extend so far – and of course everyone in the audience isn’t likely to be an aficionado.

Monday, February 1, 2021

One Night in Miami: Show, Don’t Tell

Leslie Odom Jr.as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami (2020).

Kemp Powers adapted the screenplay of One Night in Miami from his stage play, and though he and the director, Regina King, have tried to open it up – especially in the first half hour – it still feels like a play, essentially locked into its motel-room setting even when the camera ventures away from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem: the enforced insularity of the Sidney Lumet movie of Long Day’s Journey into Night enhances the intimacy, and the fact that we don’t leave the house where Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles takes place helps to escalate the dramatic power of the text (and of the performances). The problem is that One Night in Miami is a bad play.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Prescriptions for Melancholy: Rachel Blum and Paul Celan

Paul Celan (1920-1970).
“I can swim like everyone else, only I have a better memory than them. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, my ability to swim is of no avail and in the end I cannot swim.” – Franz Kafka, Notebook, 1920

One thing an art and literary critic, or any cogent observer really, never wants to do if they can help it is to compare a contemporary painter to Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, compare a contemporary musician to Brian Eno or Terry Riley, compare a contemporary playwright to Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, and especially not to compare a contemporary poet to Paul Celan or W.S. Merwin. Poets, and the rest, hate being compared to giants in their field, even if it’s meant in the most complimentary way, since it taints their work with unfairly gargantuan lauding, the weighty shadow of which might be too much for them to comfortably bear. And yet, that last poetic reference is exactly the aesthetic crime I’m compelled to commit in this assessment of two new and recent books, one by and the other about, two poets of sterling caliber. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Neglected Gem: Friends with Benefits (2011)

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in Friends with Benefits (2011). (Photo: David Giesbrecht)

The title is a cliché, and there are half a dozen other movies with the same one. But the movie itself, a romantic comedy co-starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, is a charmer with a distinctive voice. Will Gluck made it in 2011, the year after he released Easy A, a startlingly fresh teen comedy that featured one of Emma Stone’s first major roles. Stone plays Olive, a smart, imaginative young woman attending high school in Ojai, California who is overlooked by most of her peers until her best friend (Aly Michalka) insists that she must have lost her virginity while her parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) left her alone for the weekend and, weary of denying it, Olive pretends it’s true. The head of a Christian group (Amanda Bynes) dedicated to preserving their and their classmates’ chastity overhears the conversation and spreads it around, and suddenly Olive finds herself with a scandalous reputation she hasn’t earned. To complicate things, a gay male classmate (Dan Byrd) begs her to pretend she’s gone to bed with him, too, to put an end to the torment he puts up with at school.  Witty and savvy, Easy A is one of the best teen comedies of the last twenty years, and it feels as if Gluck and the screenwriter, Bert V. Royal, have shaped it around their charismatic star.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Master Acting Classes: The Right Stuff (1983)

Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Scott Paulin, Ed Harris, Charles Frank, Scott Glenn and Lance Henriksen in The Right Stuff (1983).

In The Right Stuff, writer-director Philip Kaufman pulls off the near-impossible. Not only does he find a deeply satisfying way to dramatize Tom Wolfe’s cheeky, novelistic non-fiction chronicle of the development of the NASA space program, but in the course of three hours and fifteen minutes he moves from satirizing it to celebrating it. He does it with the aid of his brilliant collaborator Caleb Deschanel, whose astonishingly varied cinematography moves from a replication of the velvety, myth-bound westerns of John Ford in the thirties and forties and George Stevens in the fifties through a wide, muted yet clear-eyed reflection of the late fifties and early sixties in New Mexico and Florida to a gloriously trippy depiction of John Glenn’s triple orbit around the earth in the Friendship Seven in 1962. And he does it with the aid of one of the most thrilling ensemble casts ever put together – almost all of whom were relative unknowns in 1983.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Denise LaSalle: The Other Queen


Faraway places with strange sounding names 
Far away over the sea
Those faraway places . . . are calling, calling to me.
They call me a dreamer, well, maybe I am
But I know that I’m burning to see
Those faraway places with the strange sounding names
Calling, calling to me . . .

– Joan Whitney Kramer

The struggle for the spotlight. It can be a perilous challenge in any business, but it’s especially precarious when there actually is a spotlight, but one mostly flooding a few entertainment titans with glory, while those talents mere inches away from its treacherous grasp are left to fend for themselves as best they can at the edges of that global stage dominated by figures such as Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. The Denise LaSalle story, billed as the autobiography of a southern soul superstar, is titled Always the Queen, but it could just as accurately be called Almost the Queen. “Missed it by that much,” as the old Maxwell Smart quip had it.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Traitor: The Best Movie of 2020

Pierfrancesco Favino in The Traitor (Il traditore), directed by Marco Bellocchio. (Photo: Laura Siervi/Sony Pictures Classics)

The Traitor is a lush, big-boned, two-and-a-half-hour Italian Mafia epic, dense with characters, that transpires over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century, with flashbacks to 1963 and 1974. It was released on this side of the Atlantic early last year and though it received good reviews, it didn’t make the splash it deserved to make, and by now it’s probably been largely forgotten. At least it opened here; the work of its director, Marco Bellocchio, often doesn’t. Bellocchio has been turning out movies since the mid-sixties, and often they’re astonishing, but outside Italy – or perhaps outside the European arthouse scene – he’s virtually unknown. He established a cerebral, visually daring, highly modernist style with his second and third feature-length pictures, Fists in the Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967), and his wit, his startlingly confident cinematic adventurousness and his left-wing politics begged comparisons with Godard, but he’s never received the recognition he’s earned. I adore those movies and the one that followed them, In the Name of the Father (1971). But after the iconoclastic bravado of those early efforts he didn’t exactly relax into bourgeois complacency; movies like Leap in the Void (1980) and The Eyes, the Mouth (1982) tease the brain and surprise the eye, and the performers – especially Michel Piccoli in the first and Angela Molina in the second – reach for complex emotional states, for effects that, perhaps, no one has caught on camera before. Since he hit his sixties (he turned eighty-one last November) it seems to me that he’s become, if anything, more ambitious and even more of a master. His 2003 Good Morning, Night, a dramatization of the Aldo Moro kidnapping by the Red Brigades (which is, for Italians, a historical black mark comparable to the JFK assassination for Americans), told from the point of view of one of the kidnappers, is one of the great political movies, and like Louis Malle’s 1974 Lacombe, Lucien, it transpires at the meeting point of history and philosophy. Vincere (2009), which focuses on Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s secret, abandoned wife (a magnificent performance by Giovanna Mezzogiorno), is as staggering a piece of expressionist filmmaking as anything that came out of Ufa Studios in Berlin in the 1920s.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Bad Date: The Prom

Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom, now streaming on Netflix.

Early on in The Prom, director Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix movie musical based on the modest Broadway hit, Andrew Rannells, playing a Juilliard-trained actor who bartends between gigs, hears a bunch of kids singing “Day by Day” from Godspell and promptly vomits into a bucket. I had a similar impulse throughout The Prom. It’s cheap, nasty, badly cast, assaultive in its songs, choreography, and camera work, and so awash in sentimentality you could fall into a glycemic coma. In other words, perfect fodder for Ryan Murphy, whose work (Glee, Hollywood, American Horror Story) revels in the mean and the sappy.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Stage to Screen: The Father and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.

Florian Zeller’s play The Father, about an aging man sinking into dementia, opened in Paris in 2012 and premiered in London at the Tricycle Theatre, in a Christopher Hampton translation, three years later. I saw it there and was impressed by it, and by Kenneth Cranham in the title role. The play is a tricky piece of work: it’s from the point of view of André, the father, whose daughter Anne is struggling to take care of him as he quarrels with one caregiver after another, so we experience the world as he does, even when he doesn’t recognize her or her husband (thus the actors who play these parts are sometimes replaced by other actors), even when the information she gives him seems contradictory because his memory is fading and time, as he perceives it, sometimes doubles back on itself. Yet the style isn’t expressionistic, as one might predict; it’s theatre of the absurd that presents itself as realism. That is, each scene plays as perfect realism; it’s the juxtaposition of scenes that doesn’t make realist sense. (Guy Hoare’s lighting, the only element of the Tricycle production I didn’t like, kept violating this idea by bridging the scenes with blinding flashes of light.)  Watching the play, which transferred to Broadway the following season with Frank Langella as the father, I thought of Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play Wings, which is from the point of view of a woman who has had a stroke, and also of fragments of old Twilight Zone episodes and of Pinter’s plays, especially the early ones. The difference between Zeller’s approach and Pinter’s is that Zeller isn’t reconfiguring banal conversation to reveal the cracks underneath in order to suggest the absurdity of human interaction; the cracks in The Father address a more essential – less manufactured – mystery, that of a consciousness coming apart.