Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Bearable Darkness of Being: Teju Cole’s Words and Images

(University of Chicago Press)
“Objects have the longest memories of all. Beneath their stillness, they are alive with all the terrors they have ever witnessed.” – Teju Cole, New York Times, 2014

I – Setting the Stage

Teju Cole’s riveting new book of inspiring essays, Black Paper, published by the University of Chicago Press, is the latest gift from his fruitful and ever-accelerating career as one of our premiere culture critics. For several years he was the photography critic for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, a prestige posting from which he surveyed our world with sheer poetic clarity. Like many other people, one of the great joys in my life has been allotting a certain amount of time, variable depending on mood, to settling in for the duration needed to read the Sunday edition. Literally doing nothing for long enough to actually simply live, without any purpose at all other than traveling through the words and images elegantly and eloquently being presented in the frequently obscenely fat and multi-sectioned contents of the newspaper of record. Just lugging it home is enough to make me feel like I’ve won a survival contest whose reward is the pleasure of idleness for about two hours. The official word for this practice is, of course, reverie.

And each of us fortunate to be able to indulge in such relatively harmless pleasures has a certain strategic approach to reading it: how to begin, where to start, in what order, which section of which department, and so on. In my case, the first thing I separate out from the obese pile of newsprint (still such an analog joy in today’s gruesomely online digital world: news that actually comes off on your fingertips in vast dark smears) is the Sunday Magazine. There again, an opulent abundance awaits the reader, whether it be fashion, food or furniture. For me, it’s a seemingly humble little column in the up front section called “On Photography,” written by the breathtakingly gifted image maker and thinker Teju Cole. In my opinion, he is a national treasure. Unless you knew it was there, his regular column, which used the same name as a famous 1977 book of essays on photography by the great Susan Sontag, might be easy to glide right past in your search for end-of-week distraction. Once discovered, however, it was a must-see/read destination. It’s deceptively discreet presentation, generally a single quotidian image accompanied by about a page and a half of simmering type, also practiced a similar craft espoused by Sontag, that of ekphrasis, the poetic expression of emotive texts in direct personal response to works of visual art, in this case photographs.

His quietly poetic style was absolutely perfectly manifested to arrest the reader/viewer for far longer than you may have thought possible at first. The quote used above, for instance, has stayed with me on my writing desk for seven years and confronts me daily with an awareness that is nearly confounding in its emotive depths. The only other writers capable of achieving that kind of utter resistance to absorption are perhaps different in each of our lives, W.G Sebold and David Foster Wallace in mine, for instance, but the skilled surfing of the meanings hiding inside things is a shared ability you have to have been born with. Cole is so accomplished in both his chosen arts, images and words, that he’s overwhelming in a kind of shy and almost retiring, reticent way (he is what my late father used to call ‘scary brilliant’) and also so seductive that once you know he was there, embedded amongst the early ads in the magazine like a simmering bomb of beauty, you started to explore his other means of expression and find to your astonishment that he has also exhibited his own photographs with drastic success and written reflections on being absolutely alive in repeated forays into published essays that have created a formidable edifice.

Scary brilliant, and it is rare for a practitioner of an art such as fabricating the frozen music of images to also be so singularly adept at being a culture critic who can so fluidly explore the beauties or terrors of his peer photographers that one feels invited into a secret cult of sorts: the place where the rituals of aesthetic aura are being celebrated in ways that also bring us perilously close to actually understanding the meaning of such terms as affect, the power of emotional impact in action, and agency, the power of taking action in the world based on privately cultivated propulsion. Alas, Cole was the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine only from 2015 to 2019, and I’ve missed him every Sunday since. But he’s also, fortunately for me and his other followers, been very busy elsewhere, and now has the extra time away from a weekly column to exhibit his own work as well as dive deeper into our visual culture as an astute assessor of our precarious life in the 21st century.

In a review in Feature Shoot Magazine of a Cole solo exhibit, the critic Miss Rosen observed with an acute eye and mind just what makes him so special for so many of us:

The relationship between image and text is one of the most challenging pairings to exist. They demand complete attention and so one must choose: to look or to read—and in what order? Perhaps it seems deceptively simple: one simply does as they are inclined. Yet regardless of preference, they inform each other, infinitely. When we read, we see the picture in our mind. When we look, we write the words ourselves. Now we are asked to forgo our imagination and focus on the given context. Yet few can bridge the gap that exists between the linguistic and visual realms, the distinctive forms of intelligence that operate independently and interdependently at the same time. Most often, we simply opt out somewhere along the line, wanting to return to the freedom to imagine for ourselves rather than listen to what we are told. Writer Teju Cole understands this well. As photography critic for The New York Times Magazine, Cole mastered the painting of pictures with words that illuminate and elucidate in equal part, so that his words both add and peel back layers from that which appears before our eyes.

In his first solo show in 2017, Blind Spot and Black Paper, at Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, the writer brought us along for a journey around the world, looking at life not only through his eyes but experiencing it through his prose. The exhibition, which accompanied the publication of his fourth book, featured a selection of 30 color photographs accompanied by a single paragraph. Each piece of text is a beautifully encapsulated prose poem that draws us into uncharted depths, giving voice to the image that quietly beckons us with its simple, subtle lyricism of color, shape, and form.

And that insight of his into the stillness of objects and their memory that so impacted me, with places actually being just bigger objects, is richly evident in many of his ekphrastic experiments, as demonstrated so well when we travel through some of his powerful images and evocative words. 

Brienzerzee, from Fernweh (2014, Stephen Kasher Gallery, NY)

I opened my eyes. What lay before me looked like the sound of the alphorn at the beginning of the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony. This was the sound, this was the sound I saw.

Zurich, from Fernweh, (2014, Stephen Kasher Gallery, NY)

Stillness. In the interior, she reads with lowered eyes, unaware of what comes next. A presence made of absence.

Zurich, from Fernweh (2015, Stephen Kasher Gallery, NY).

I sat there for hours and watched the sun slip across the landscape. Anything can happen. The point is to shatter serenity; the absurdity of contrast between before and after is the very point

Zurich, from Fernweh (2014, Stephen Kasher Gallery, NY).

You take around 7500 steps each day. If you live to eighty, that comes to 200 million steps over the course of your life, a hundred thousand miles. You don’t consider yourself a great walker, but you will have circumnavigated the globe on foot four times over.

II – Staging the Play

Teju Cole is as versatile as he is prolific. A novelist, photographer, critic, curator and the author of seven tantalizing books, among them Open City, Blind Spot, Golden Apple of the Sun, Fernweh, and his latest one, Black Paper, he was a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow, and is currently the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. Based on even that snapshot of his résumé, and my reading of his ruminations over the course of many rewarding years, one thing I know for certain is that it is virtually impossible for Professor Cole to teach any other living human being how to write the way he does. His style is so graceful, elliptical, digressive, entertaining and educational, even or especially for the average lay reader, that I’m pretty sure all his lucky students can really do is keep their mouths shut and hope to somehow soak up some of his splendour, perhaps by osmosis. And Black Paper feels like a little way station in a snowy niche on the way to the top of a mountain range where spookily gifted writers such as Walter Benjamin or Harold Rosenberg go on vacation. It is also almost a work of theatre, not because it is in any way theatrical, but rather because the scope of its sweep, into and out of a vertiginous array of subjects and themes, has an epic-tragedy kind of vibe about it.

Characterizing him as “a kind of realm” in The New York Review of Books, Norman Rush summed up Cole’s mission quite nicely: “Teju Cole is an emissary for our best selves. He is sampling himself for our benefit, hoping for enlightenment and seeking to provide pleasure to us through art.” The key notion here is that of sampling, usually a musical term for collaging different fragments of different musical sources into a unified score, frequently one with a hip-hop flavour. That active aspect of mixing, matching and merging is precisely what Cole does in most of his works, whether on images or on social and cultural issues, and especially as conducted in Black Paper, perhaps the most far-ranging, diverse and multi-faceted sampling of his acutely aware experiences of our postmodern world yet.

His bicultural origins – he was born in America in 1975, raised in Nigeria until he was 17 and brought back to America with his family to study art and then medicine, before returning abroad to study African art history and Northern Renaissance art at Columbia U. in New York, serving as writer-in-residence at Bard College and writing a flurry of novels – have all accumulated the perfect amount of intellectual gravitas and cosmopolitan charm to gracefully, i.e., effortlessly, startle us with a truly polyglot stew of knowledge. He stirs this dreamy stew ideally in Black Paper, where he declares, “Darkness is not empty.” as he proceeds to navigate his way through a variety of meditations on what it means to maintain our humanity in a time of darkness. One solution, he has suggested here, is to be intensely attentive to our experience, so much so that it’s not so much about seeing what’s going on, to take it all in, but also to consider what it is we’re not seeing and what is not happening, but which should be.

The essays in this new collection, ranging across five separate parts, commencing with a masterful consideration about what makes the Italian painter Caravaggio so important, through territories he calls “Elegies” (containing great insights into the image historian John Berger and cultural historian Edward Said), “Shadows” (containing clear glimpses into the work of artists Kerry James Marshall and Lorna Simpson), “Coming to Our Senses” (with skillfully clarifying approaches to ethics) “In a Dark Time” (with touching portraits of refusal, resistance, and cooperative living) and “Epilogue: Black Paper” (a stirring counterpoint to Caravaggio which abstractly explores the links between literature and activism while still remaining a deeply humanist document). Along the way, he also manages to make manifest the power of the colour black in the visual arts and the role of the shadow in photography. The last section also contains one of the most heart-wrenchingly simple observations about our shared harrowing time that I’ve read in ages: “An incalculable number of people cried themselves to sleep in those days.”

What’s a premiere photography critic doing writing about the painting of Caravaggio, you might well ask? Well, first of all, Cole is so eloquent that he could write about the history sheep farm fences and make it transformative and compelling, and after all, the subtitle of his new book is Writing in a Dark Time, which brings us to Caravaggio in the most logical of ways. Caravaggio, apart from leading a tragic life, dying young, influencing every painter after him, and in the cauldron of his own feverish brain practically inventing the Baroque style in art, was utterly immersive in a manner consistent with our present era. He was also among the first exponents of complete subjectivity in art, one of the hallmarks of our own age, and he skillfully indulged his own private obsessions practically to the exclusion of all else. Most importantly, perhaps, Caravaggio was photography. For the roughly 250 years from Caravaggio to the French invention of the camera in about 1840, his representational style was the main means of producing mimetic memorials to actuality.

Cole, an accomplished novelist as well as essayist, not only knows this but also acts upon it, by bookending his approach to Caravaggio with his appreciation of a contemporary such as Lorna Simpson, an American conceptual photographer and multimedia artist whose radical works on paper extended the exploration of representation, identity and history. In some strange ways, apart from the shift from painting to photography, she is examining the edges of perception in precisely the same way that Caravaggio did. Cole also reminds us of what the novelist Mary Gaitskill stressed so well: “Fiction is to literal representation what painting is to photography: it’s just not claiming to be ‘real’ in the same way at all.” And it is precisely because Cole himself blurs the arbitrary lines between fiction, essay, poem, elegy, document, social activist, artist and critic that he is able to stride so confidently across the landscape of subjects and themes in this new book. He thus approaches the drastically fractured moment in history we currently occupy via a stunning constellation strategy: discussing the confrontation with the parallel arcs of unsettling art in unsettling times from every possible angle.

Unsettling, yes. Here is why we need to nourish ourselves on Cole’s proteins, whose own images are strong but whose words are even stronger, once again reflecting on the traveling vitamin called Caravaggio:

Porto Ercole was the final unanticipated stop. He’s buried somewhere there. But his real body can be said to be elsewhere: the body, that is, of his painterly achievement. He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are, and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it has begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and its most grievously injured. I don’t have to know him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain. Loneliness, beauty, fear and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.
Caravaggio, Flagellation of Christ (1607, Naples).

See what I mean? Our own weird time often seems as dark of Caravaggio’s time was, which is why he still matters, since he seems to know us almost more than we know ourselves, and even at least as much as a contemporary artist such Kerry James Marshall does. They are both, as Cole so deftly demonstrates, about repentance, atonement, reconciliation and redemption. Caravaggio knew he needed to repent, in fact he was repenting almost every twenty minutes, and he especially repented in each painting, while Marshall masterfully reminds us, especially white culture, that it is high time for the rest of us to repent as well. In a hundred years, if there were to still exist an archive of memory such as the famed Encyclopedia Britannica, and that’s a big if, one can easily imagine a single entry capable of adequately covering and capturing the strange years between 2020 and 2022. And that entry would have been written by Teju Cole in Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time:

Many fell ill, illnesses that showed on the face and illnesses that didn’t. We knew and we didn’t know. Poverty began to burrow into those lives. Shame made a home in some people, some went hungry, hunger hollowed them out. The stock market was up, but many pockets were empty.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

West Side Story: Rumble in the Rubble

David Alvarez Ariana DeBose in West Side Story (2021).

The enthusiasm over Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, the street-gang retelling of Romeo and Juliet that opened on Broadway in 1957 and was first filmed by Robert Wise in 1961, reminds me of the outpouring of praise that greets Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 Carousel every time it generates another Broadway revival. Just imagine, runs the usual buzz, someone wrote this serious, important musical back in the dark ages when musicals were frivolous! How modern, how prescient! How daring to kill off the protagonist, to incorporate domestic abuse, to put disaffected youth on the stage! How fresh it still seems, how up-to-the-minute! Well, I see no reason to condescend to lighthearted musicals, especially when they come equipped with scores by Kern, the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin and Rodgers and Hart. But the truth is that the American musical took its first resounding step past frivolity when Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Show Boat, with its tragic racial subplot, exactly three decades before West Side Story. And that’s a good musical. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

A Marriage Inside a Marriage: Being the Ricardos

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos.

I’ve always thought that you can’t predict when the talented, wildly erratic Nicole Kidman will settle down in a role and truly make it her own. But, watching her as Lucille Ball in writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s smashing Being the Ricardos, I realized that there is one constant in her career: she’s always convincing when she plays a real-life character. Her portrayal of the journalist Martha Gellhorn in Philip Kaufman’s TV movie Hemingway and Gellhorn (with Clive Owen as Hemingway) was a revelation: she seemed to locate the Barbara Stanwyck side of herself. As the broadcaster Gretchen Carlson in Bombshell, she combined glamor, bristling intelligence and the sort of vulnerability you always expected in the sex-bomb roles she played early in her career but that came across only erratically. (Probably because she was miscast in them: her Marilyn Monroe-ish looks were deceptive – she was no wounded sex kitten. Thrown together, the parts came out wrong.) And in the overlooked Lion, based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir, she was heartbreaking as the white adoptive mother of Indian boys, one of them damaged, whose self-destructiveness drives her into her own psychic darkness.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Critique of a Critic’s Critic: Harold Rosenberg Looms Large

Harold Rosenberg: A Critic‘s Life by Debra Bricker Balken was published by University of Chicago Press in October.

“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act, rather than a space in which to reproduce or express an object. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” – Harold Rosenberg

Oh, how I wish that this splendid new biography of one of my favourite art critics had been subtitled A Critical Life, if only to emphasize that he was both a critical thinker on the arts but also of critical importance to our shared contemporary culture in all its facets. It’s still splendid anyway, and I hope more people begin to appreciate how important he was to the modernist art discourse and also how prophetic he was in the formation of what people now ironically refer to as the postmodernist discourse. Hint: modernism has not gone away, nor has it been eclipsed. Rather, as Rosenberg’s superb prose indicated so clearly, its chief tenet, that of deconstructing the historical purpose and social meaning of art and embracing aesthetics only in the actual language that it uses to dismantle its own history, is merely in its late and mature phase. In other words, postmodernism, as Rosenberg surveyed it so vividly from his lofty perch as The New Yorker magazine’s art critic from 1967 until his passing, is simply finally doing what modernism was always designed to do: render utter subjectivity as the sole arbiter of any expressive visual language. 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Kathleen Rea: A Life in Motion

Kathleen Rea in Five Angels on the Steps. (Photo: David Hou)

Toronto indie dancer Kathleen Rea has put her life – the good bits and the not-so-good – in a dance created for her by friend and choreographer Newton Moraes. He’s credited as the choreographer. But Five Angels on the Steps, as this visceral and enigmatic solo is named, is so rooted in the performer’s own autobiography that it might be fair to label it more of a collaborative effort. It’s one woman’s personal journey rendered as a dance.

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Visitor: Bland Stand

Ahmad Maksoud, David Hyde Pierce and ensemble in The Visitor. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film The Visitor is focused on Walter, a middle-aged economics professor (played memorably by Richard Jenkins), who has withdrawn dramatically since the death of his wife. He teaches material by rote to students whose lack of engagement doesn’t concern him, and his rare personal interactions with them are cold and unsympathetic. (He’s so unengaged in the one course he’s currently teaching that, in mid-semester, he still hasn’t distributed a syllabus.) He secured a course reduction so he can work on a book but the truth is that he’s not writing either. When the chair of his department requires him to deliver a paper at a conference in New York, where he and his wife had a pied-à-terre that he hasn’t used since her passing, he discovers that a seedy agent has rented the space to a young couple, a Syrian drummer named Tarek and a Senegalese craft artist named Zainab. Unexpectedly stirred by their situation and reluctant to send them into the streets, he invites them to stay. Tarek befriends him and teaches him how to play the djembe. When the young man is picked up in the subway on a bogus charge, he’s identified as undocumented and sent to a facility where only Walter can visit him. (Zainab is also an illegal immigrant so her freedom would be endangered if she tried to see him.)

Thursday, December 2, 2021

One of the Best Music Videos Ever Made – All Too Well (Ten Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault): The Short Film (2021)

Sadie Sink and Dylan O'Brien in All Too Well: The Short Film (2021), directed by Taylor Swift.

That’s right – despite its name, All Too Well (Ten Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault): The Short Film (2021) belongs squarely in the genre of the music video. But that the level of craftsmanship and resources on display is on par with that of short films just serves to emphasize the significance of its achievement. In this sense, it’s a perfect synecdoche of Taylor Swift, the song’s singer and co-writer, and the music video’s writer-director and one of its actors.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Remembering Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, New York, July 10, 1961. (Photo: Richard Avedon)

Stephen Sondheim was ninety-one when he died on the day after Thanksgiving, yet it was a shock. Unreasonably, I thought he would live forever. For nearly three decades he’d been the sole surviving legendary songwriter from the golden age of musical theatre (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe left us in 1986 and 1988 respectively; Irving Berlin in 1989; Jule Styne in 1994) – for he was still in his twenties when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and with Styne on Gypsy. He was all of thirty-five when he worked with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz? (Arthur Laurents, who departed ten years ago, wrote the books for all three shows.) Sondheim hadn’t written a new musical since Road Show in 2003, though he was toiling for years on an adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s two final movies. But there were countless major revivals of his work – Company, with a female Bobby, is on Broadway at present – and he generally showed up for them. Revue after revue was constructed around his songs, and every milestone birthday prompted a star-studded event, all of them except his Covid-shrouded ninetieth televised on PBS. Movies were still being made of his musicals; still more are promised, even though none of them has been any good. (I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which is about to be released.) Sondheim was continually, tirelessly present, so who could ever imagine him gone?

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Passing: Objet d’Art

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing.

Making her directorial debut with an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, Rebecca Hall – whose father was the English stage director and longtime artistic director of the National Theatre – demonstrates both a gift for coaching complex, nuanced work out of her actors (not so surprising in an actress as splendid as she is) and a fine eye. Shot in black and white by Edu Grau, Passing has the free-style, immaculately composed look of photographs from its era.  It’s beautiful to watch, though its hushed pictorialism doesn’t quite capture the bustle of uptown Manhattan in the Harlem Renaissance period. Hall, at least at this point, isn’t especially comfortable with crowd scenes. (A densely populated dance party never comes to life.) She’s a chamber-piece filmmaker: what she’s great at is scenes with two and three characters, where she can focus on the details of their interactions and their emotional trajectories. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play Irene and Clare, high-school friends from Chicago who become reacquainted in New York, where Irene is a Harlem socialite married to a doctor (André Holland) and the light-skinned Clare to a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who doesn’t know she’s Black. Irene – or Renie, as Clare calls her – is both curious about and unsettled by their random meeting in a midtown hotel café. Clare has entered a strange, forbidden world that Renie has never desired; at least, she hasn’t owned up to desiring it. She’s been contented to live the life of a society queen whose milieu includes white visitors like the writer Hugh (Bill Camp), whom she can banter with as an equal because he’s elected to come up to her neighborhood. She sees Harlem, where she lives very well, as a cocoon that protects her two young boys; she doesn’t like it when her husband, John, who despises America and wants them to move to a less racist country, educates their sons about lynching, even though the eldest, Junior (Ethan Barrett), has already had the experience of being the recipient of racial insults. When Clare presses her friendship, Renie doesn’t understand it: if Clare sought white society so fervently that she’s lied about herself to obtain it, why does she long for reconnection with an old friend and a welcome into her world?

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Cracked Mirrors, Part Two: The Minstrel’s Dilemma

Don van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. (Photo: Andy Freeberg)

Part One of Cracked Mirrors was published on this site on October 27, 2021.

There should be a kind of periodic table for singer-songwriters, the way there is one for the elements and their interactive relationships. Maybe there is one, and we just haven’t noticed what it looks like. Does the table of their relative values and sonic weights as elements resemble the Grammy Awards? No, it couldn’t be, otherwise Don van Vliet would have won a Grammy years ago for his wonderful portrayal of Captain Beefheart before retiring to return to his first love of painting. If so, he would be Helium.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Raising the Curtain: The National Ballet of Canada Returns from Lockdown

Artists of the Ballet in Angels ’ Atlas. (Photo: Johan Persson, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Excitement surrounding the return of the National Ballet of Canada to the Toronto stage, following 18 months of pandemic-imposed lockdowns, swelled as soon as the doors reopened at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday night. “Welcome Back,” words writ large on the stage curtain, greeted the fully masked members of the audience as soon as they stepped into the theatre. The mood became immediately celebratory, jubilant, even festive, as if at any moment confetti would fall from the ceiling along with balloons.

Monday, November 15, 2021

No Time to Die: Bonding

Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux in No Time to Die.

The James Bond pictures that Daniel Craig has starred in over the past decade and a half – Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre and the new No Time to Die – are not equally good, but they’re unified by a sense of melancholy and an elegiac quality. The painful past gets revisited; characters we care about die – significantly, of course, M, played by Judi Dench, in Skyfall, the high point of the nearly sixty-year-old series. In that sublime film, Bond returns to his childhood home on the Scottish coast to battle a villain who was once a double agent himself, using his mastery of old-school warrior skills to hobble a computer wizard representing a merciless contemporary world. No Time to Die resurrects the past in its opening section. It begins with a flashback: a child whose father is an assassin watches as the only survivor of a family he wiped out shoots her mother, and then, mysteriously, saves her (as we later learn) when, running away from him, she falls through the ice. After the credits (and a standout theme song, written by Billie Eilish and Finneas and performed by Eilish), that child grows up to become the therapist Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who appeared in Spectre. In the present she’s happily married to a retired Bond, who assures her as they drive through the Italian countryside, “We have all the time in the world.” Bond aficionados will recognize the ominous allusion. At the end of the 1969 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond (played in that film by George Lazenby) utters the same promise to his bride (Diana Rigg) as they begin their honeymoon, but the movie ends moments later with her murder – the first downbeat finale of any Bond picture, and the most affecting scene in the series until M’s demise in Skyfall. The echo in No Time to Die is a reminder, of course, that no one has all the time in the world, and that the clock is ticking.

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain: Victorian Surrealist

Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which had a brief life in art houses and is now available on Amazon Prime, evokes the great Victorian and Edwardian children’s stories, like the Alice books and the Mary Poppins books, though it’s mostly for adults (children who aren’t knocked off kilter by sad tales will love it, too), and in other ways it recalls the nutcake Ealing comedies of the fifties. It tells the true story of a Victorian eccentric, the illustrator Louis Wain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), whose whimsical, proto-surrealist sketches of cats – initially inspired by a stray he and his wife Emily (Claire Foy) discover in their garden in the rain, adopt and fall in love with – alter the perceptions of English people when they began to appear in The Illustrated London News in the 1880s. (Strange as it seems, felines have not always been cherished as household pets.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Cracked Mirrors, Part One: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Singer-Songwriter

Brian Wilson in action, 1966.

“The men and women who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror.” Marcel Proust

The inimitable Elvis Costello once remarked, with his typical sarcastic bravado, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. Now, far be it from me to contradict one of our greatest singer-songwriters, as well as one so prominently featured as a prominent Island in my own musical criticism over the years. However, some exception must be taken to the talented Mr. Costello’s observation. First of all, let’s readily admit that he is utterly correct, in so far as music, and especially the songs that it conveys to us, are both best appreciated in the temporal immediacy of the listening experience itself. But reflecting on their origins, their blueprint, so to speak, can often clarify how such songs so powerfully occupy the landscape of both our overall culture and our own personal lives. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Panem et Circenses: Town Bloody Hall

 Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall (1979).

Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (1979) is an unauthorized record of a public “Debate on Women’s Liberation” held in Manhattan in 1971. I say unauthorized because the venue prohibited filming, but the filmmakers came anyway at the behest of Norman Mailer, moderator and author of the anti-feminist essay “The Positive Sex,” which served as the excuse for the event. Four prominent feminists take the stage with him, and the audience is a Who’s Who of the New York literati. You can read here about the fascinating background of the event and the film’s production history.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Criterion Release of Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960)

Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore (foreground) in Devi (1960).

By the nineties, the films of the great Indian director Satyajit Ray were in a shocking state of disrepair. Merchant Ivory re-released eight of them to arthouses in 1995, but the company didn’t make any attempt to restore them to their former glory; it simply found the best prints available, and I guess that was better than nothing. But the wizardry performed by the Criterion Collection and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna on The Apu Trilogy, which collaborated to reconstruct negatives burned in a fire at a London laboratory, resurrected three premier masterpieces of world cinema. (They were returned to theatres six years ago; a thrilling documentary on the Criterion Channel details the process by which they were rebuilt.) Now you can access seventeen Ray pictures on Criterion, including his documentary about the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, and Three Daughters, the complete short-story film anthology previously unavailable in North America: when I was introduced to it in my twenties – in the years when I discovered Ray and fell deeply in love with his work, it was called Two Daughters. The Ray collection is a treasure trove. A realist-humanist on the order of Jean Renoir, who was his chief influence, Ray ought to be essential viewing for anyone who reveres the art of filmmaking.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Cinematic Grammar of Prophecy – Dune: Part One

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune (2021).

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One, co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, has many shortcomings. But it succeeds nevertheless because it gets the most important thing right: the mood. Namely, the mood of prophesied destiny. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting adaptation.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Moral Poetry: Mr. Jones

James Norton in Mr. Jones (2019).

Since most new movies since the lockdown have shown up on the ever-expanding list of streaming platforms rather than as theatrical releases, it has been even more difficult for film buffs to locate good work that is off the beaten path. I’ve tried to cover some interesting new pictures over the last year and a half like The Traitor, Martin Eden, The Jesus Rolls and Miss Juneteenth, but I missed Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones, which is truly remarkable. Its protagonist is the Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton), who, having been let go from his position as foreign advisor (on Russia) to the Liberal Party leader and former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), pursued a career as a journalist, acquiring press credentials in Moscow and breaking the story of Stalin’s hushed-up man-made famine in the Ukraine. Among the plethora of newsworthy stories from this dense, dynamic era, the Holodomor (or Terror-Famine) in the Ukraine is still one of the least known. (A 2017 film, Bitter Harvest, by the German director George Mendeluk covers the event but is really a romantic melodrama with the famine as its setting.) And Jones’s dangerous pursuit of a most inconvenient truth while much of the liberal world was still in thrall to the great socialist experiment is a tale of heroism with which most people aren’t familiar. En route to the Ukraine, Jones slipped away from his Soviet caretaker to investigate on his own; the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), had been covering up the true state of affairs in order to ingratiate himself with Stalin, and according to Andrea Chalupa’s screenplay the reporter who put Jones onto the story (Marcin Czarnik) was murdered. Jones, whose mother had worked as a tutor in the Ukraine before marrying his father, embedded himself among the desperate population and saw their suffering first-hand, but the imprisonment and threatened execution of six innocent English engineers was Stalin’s means of extorting his silence. Eventually – after the engineers were freed – he managed to publish the story, against tremendous opposition, in the Hearst papers, and died under mysterious circumstances while working on another story a couple of years later. (He’s thought to have been murdered by Russian spies as an act of retaliation.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Right Touch: Guillaume Côté’s Immersive Dance Thrills the Senses

Natasha Poon Woo and Larkin Miller in Touch. (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Physical contact – what we all once took for granted – has become a precious commodity in the pandemic. Social distancing, lockdowns and the wearing of masks have frustrated a basic need for human contact, compelling choreographer Guillaume Côté, a long-time National Ballet of Canada principal dancer, to delve deep into what it means to form a human bond. Touch, whose world premiere took place last week (and which will run until November 7) at what is left of the Toronto Star’s former printing press at One Yonge Street, explores the powerful dynamics arising from a close encounter between two people. But it’s much more than that. Billed as an immersive dance show, Touch harnesses laser mapping, light art technology and video integration to create an all-enveloping 3D-world where the quest for forging connections is not just a theme. It’s a stunning achievement.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Great Feats of Recitation: Cosmopolis (2012)

Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis (2012).

Fresh off filming the final Twilight film (2012), Robert Pattinson jumped straight into portraying yet another nearly affectless, pale leading man with stylish hair in Cosmopolis (2012), adapted by director David Cronenberg from the Don DeLillo novel. Rarely have I encountered a film with such single-minded focus: everything here, from production design to camera angles to score, is in service to the dialogue. As it should be.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Respect: Jennifer Hudson, in Fragments; with an Afterword about Dear Evan Hansen

Jennifer Hudson in Respect.

Jennifer Hudson is probably giving a truly great performance as Aretha Franklin in Respect, but the movie is so badly written and so wretchedly cut together that you get it only in bits and pieces. Hudson is ideally cast, and she has the character down: the alternating currents of sassiness and fierceness; the transported Baptist fervor and the clotheshorse flamboyance; the witty, plain-spoken common-sense core and the distant, untouchable edges; the ego and the warmth; the moments where her focus is almost frighteningly precise and intense, as if she were piercing down a steel door with a laser gaze. It’s all there, yet the movie almost never pauses long enough for a scene with any substance, so it’s as if were watching two and a half hours of trailers. The performance only settles in when Hudson sings – gloriously – and even then, maybe half the time, Liesl Tommy, a stage director who has done some TV but whose first feature this is, cuts away in the middle of her numbers. She has Jennifer Hudson singing Aretha Franklin’s ethereal songbook and she thinks there’s something else we’d rather watch?

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Saddest Singer on Earth: Amy Winehouse and The Blues

Introduction:  Welcome to My World

“When I’m singing, I’m happy. I’m doing what I can do, and this is my contribution to life . . .”
– Anita O’Day (an early incarnation of Amy)

Incredibly enough, Amy Winehouse passed away ten years ago this summer. But this is a story about her sad music and the sad music that inspired it, not a story about her problems or the flaws that caused them. Born September 14, 1983 and died July 23, 2011. That’s her biography, plain and simple. Her own autobiography, however, is mostly embedded in her two releases while still vibrantly alive and brazenly sashaying, her debutante surprise Frank in 2003 and her surprisingly mature masterpiece Back to Black in 2006, and that autobiography is considerably more complicated than her actual personal history. They are the light and the dark sides of both her real character and her chosen edgy persona, as well as of her deeply impressive musical artistry, the first one inspired by her love of Sinatra (or rather his ring a ding-ding Rat Pack spirit), the second one inspired by her love of oblivion (or rather by its lack of awareness).

Monday, September 20, 2021

Neglected Gem: Take This Waltz (2011)

Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz (2011).

The opening and closing images of Take This Waltz, of Margot (Michelle Williams) baking muffins, work in tandem with the folk music on the soundtrack (written by Jonathan Goldsmith) to evoke a melancholy, pensive mood. The writer-director, Sarah Polley, is a master of moods. Take This Waltz was her second film. Her first, Away from Her (2006), was an impressive debut. Adapted from the lovely Alice Munro story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” it told the story of a man (Gordon Pinsent) whose wife (Julie Christie) persuades him to put her in a home when her Alzheimer’s worsens. Polley, one of the most talented of her generation of Canadian actresses and perhaps the brainiest – lovers of the marvelous TV series Slings and Arrows will remember her as Cordelia, opposite William Hutt’s Lear, in the show’s final season – convinced Christie, whom she’d befriended on the set of The Secret Life of Words, to delay retirement to play the ailing heroine. Christie was wonderful – hardly a surprise. And I think you can see, when you watch Take This Waltz, why she let Polley talk her into doing Away from Her. Polley thinks like an actress and a filmmaker; her directorial style comes directly out of her ability to think through a character. What Christie and Michelle Williams have in common is that you can’t tell where intuition takes over from intelligence. The work that the Australian director Gillian Armstrong did with actresses in the 1980s represented a kind of women’s collaboration that generated a more delicately shifting depiction of female characters than you got in other movies. Polley doesn’t have Armstrong’s technical expertise but what she gets from Williams in Take This Waltz (the title comes from a Leonard Cohen song) is comparable to what Armstrong accomplished with Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel and Judy Davis in High Tide.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Macroscope: Synchronicity in the Work of Goldner Ildiko and Carrie Meijer

Goldner Ildiko (left) ; Carrie Meijer (right)

“Paintings are music you can look at. Music is painting you can listen to.” – Miles Davis.

I have long thought about and written about paintings as what I call frozen music (a descriptor I borrowed from the great German poet Goethe’s characterization of architecture), so naturally I was delighted when one of my favourite musicians, the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis (who was also a nocturnal painter, as a matter of fact), chose to categorize these two overlapping forms of self-expression in this fashion. Music has always evoked for me a sequence of visual images somehow aligned with the notes at play, and paintings, or any visual images really, also seem to display a still document of rhythm and melody interacting with colour and form. It’s even been demonstrated that the harmonic scale in music follows, or perhaps echoes is a better word, almost precisely the shape and form of flower petals, seashells and bird feathers, all of which are powerful representations of the spiral growth pattern evident in nature. The proportional harmony and ratio of ingredients involved in organic life forms of all kinds exhibit the selfsame pattern, captured famously in the Fibonacci sequence and what is popularly known as the golden mean, where one small section of the pattern maintains the exact same relationship with the bigger portions as the bigger portions do with the whole.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Courier: The Art of Benedict Cumberbatch

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Courier.

Benedict Cumberbatch has one of his best roles in The Courier (available on Amazon Prime) as Greville Wynne, an English salesman of no great accomplishment who agrees to act as the middleman between MI6 and the CIA and a Russian bigwig named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who, in the cause of world peace, offers secrets to Britain and America during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Dominic Cooke’s taut thriller, with a precise, intelligent script by Tom O’Connor, is one of those irresistible stories about a mediocrity who surprises even himself by turning out a hero. And (much as I’ve enjoyed watching him as Doctor Strange) Cumberbatch shows more sides here than any movie has permitted him since he played Alan Turing in the immensely satisfying The Imitation Game – another true-life narrative – seven years ago. It’s admittedly a quirky performance, like one of those deep-cover period-piece portraits Laurence Olivier specialized in during the late phase of his career, when he all but disappeared into his wigs and prosthetics. Cumberbatch doesn’t exactly go in for that kind of physical transformation, but his vocal delivery almost makes a fetish out of Wynne’s Britishisms – his upper-class accent, his narrow vowels and his clipped, practiced aura of professionalism – and he conveys what he’s feeling through tight smiles. Greville’s business ventures take him around the world, but his skills are limited, and he drinks a little too much. The irony of his carrying off the part of a spy is that, according to his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), he’s incapable of hiding anything. Some time ago she figured out that he was cheating on her – it was his single marital indiscretion – so when he begins to act secretive again, and his trips to Moscow on an alleged business project take up more and more of his time, she assumes that he’s philandering once again.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Stabbed in the Heart: The Twilight Saga (2008-2012)

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight (2008).

I confess: I too used to shit freely on Twilight (2008). What started changing my mind is the excellent work of its two leads, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, in their work after Twilight, though never again together after their breakup. This, and not my internalized misogyny against media embraced by teenage girls, is the angle from which I have approached these films, based on the four novels by Stephenie Meyer. And they're fascinating.

Monday, September 6, 2021

CODA: Breaking into Something Real

Emilia Jones in CODA.

The last half hour of CODA (playing in theatres and on Apple TV+), about the hearing daughter of a deaf family of Gloucester fishermen who discovers a talent for singing, is sweet and affecting. The heroine, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who has been interpreting for her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) all of her life, struggles with her sense of obligation to them and her need to assert her independence and live the life she wants. (CODA is an acronym for “children of deaf adults.”) When the sympathetic choir director (Eugenio Derbez) encourages Ruby to apply to Berklee School of Music and she invites her family to watch her perform in the school concert, for the first time they begin to understand what singing means to her, and in a knockout climax they sneak into the balcony of the Berklee auditorium during her audition. With her beloved teacher at the piano, she sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and signs the lyrics for the benefit of her family. The scene sounds sentimental and obvious when you describe it, and it’s both of those things, but nothing in it seems pushed or tricked up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Mixed Bag

Jasna Djuricic in Quo Vadis, Aida?

This article contains reviews of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Uncle Frank and Georgetown.

Quo Vadis, Aida?, set at the end of the Bosnian War, is a remarkably taut piece of classical political filmmaking. The writer-director, Jasmila Zbanic, a Bosnian-Yugoslavian native residing in Berlin, has been working in film since 1998 and turning out features for a decade and a half, but I believe this is the first of her movies to open in North America, likely a happy side effect of its nomination for the Foreign Film Oscar. Zbanic’s subject is the series of events that led to the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre, where a combination of the hatred of the Serbs for the Muslims of the town of Srebrenica and the pathetic inadequacy of UNPROFOR, the peacekeeping force of the United Nations, to protect them led to the slaughter of the entire adult male population and the dispersion of the women and children. The Dutchbat peacekeepers established a UN enclave within the town but were too lightly armed to stave off the Bosnian Serb Army under Ratko Mladić’s command, which forced its way in, separated out the men, and bused them to their deaths. (Earlier they lacked the supplies to offer food and water to the Bosnians inside the gate, and lack of space obliged thousands of townspeople to wait outside; some, terrified of the arrival of Mladić’s soldiers, escaped to the woods.)

Monday, August 16, 2021

Stillwater Doesn’t Run Deep

Camille Cottin in Stillwater.

There are two terrific scenes early on in Stillwater, the new movie from director Tom McCarthy. Matt Damon plays Bill, an Oklahoma oil rigger and construction worker who takes periodic trips to Marseilles to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s in prison there for killing her female lover while Allison was a college student. Like Amanda Knox, whose story partly inspired the movie’s set-up, Allison has continuously proclaimed her innocence.  She’s sure that Lina’s murderer was a seedy young man, one of Lina’s assortment of lovers, whom the police were unable to track down. On this visit she hands her father a letter she’s written in French to her lawyer (Anne Le Ny), asking her to follow up on a young Arab woman who claims to have seen Allison’s suspect. The lawyer dismisses it as a dead end, but Bill doesn’t have the heart to disappoint his daughter – who’s already sat in a cell for five years – so he decides to do some checking of his own. He begins by asking Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French actress and single mother with whom he’s made a connection, to translate the letter for him, and as she does so she realizes with a shock that man she has just met is the father of the American college student who was the subject of the highest-profile local news story of recent years. You can see Virginie struggling to work through her own responses – mostly amazement and compassion. (Cottin is very good.)  When Bill opts to find the young woman Virginie agrees to come along to serve as translator. But the meeting, which takes place at a café deep in the heart of an Arab neighborhood, is a disaster: as soon as they start asking questions, the young woman’s friend warns her that she’s going to get herself in trouble and frightens her into walking out. Virginie has to explain to a frustrated, confused Bill that the issue is race – a white Marseillaise and a white American in territory where they don’t belong are trying to squeeze information out of an Arab – and the tensions resonate with the story of Allison’s court case, where she was portrayed as a white foreigner preying on an Arab woman.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

My Salinger Year: Coming of Age Among the New York Literati

Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year.

Margaret Qualley was frighteningly good as Pussycat, the Manson girl who hitches a ride with Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and she brought sweetness and steadiness to the role of Ann Reinking in the TV miniseries Fosse/Verdon. (A trained dancer before she switched to acting, she’s been cast opposite Jamie Bell in a new movie about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.) But her approach to the central role in My Salinger Year, based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working at the Manhattan literary agency Harold Ober Associates in the mid-1990s, doesn’t make sense. Joanna is an aspiring poet who leaves Berkeley (where she’s a graduate student) and a relationship with a gifted musician (Hamza Haq) to move in with a college pal (Seána Kerslake) and immerse herself in the New York literary world.  She’s fortunate enough to land a job as assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a formidable force and a relentless boss whose most famous client is J.D. Salinger. Joanna is enchanted: since Salinger has decided to put out his final published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a novella The New Yorker published in 1965, in hardback, the agency is a-twitter, and she even gets to speak to him on the phone – he’s unfailingly kind and encourages her writing. Besides typing letters from an ancient Dictaphone – Margaret isn’t on board with computer technology – the mainstay of her job is responding to the scads of letters from the notoriously reclusive Salinger’s fans and people who want things from him, like commencement addresses. (Tim Post plays Salinger, whose face we never see.) Joanna is whip-smart, imaginative and resourceful; she learns fast, she has a mind of her own and she isn’t cowed by Margaret. I haven’t read the book, but this version of the heroine – the screenplay was written by the film’s director, the Québecois Philippe Falardeau – comes across as a rather flattering presentation of its author in her twenties. Still, it’s a good part. But Qualley plays her as moony-eyed, desperate to please, with an appeasing smile plastered on her face and a tiny, blurry voice that almost makes her sound like she’s baby-talking.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Dolittle: Animal Magnetism

Robert Downey and Poly in Dolittle.

Dolittle received punitive reviews when it showed up on Prime last year, but I decided to check it out recently because I’ve always been partial to the material – the Hugh Lofting series of books, which came out between 1920 and 1948, were among my childhood favorites – and the thought of casting Robert Downey as the quirky Victorian veterinarian who can speak the languages of his patients sounded irresistible. Downey is the third cinematic Dolittle. Rex Harrison played him in the paralytic 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, which is now remembered only for the Oscar-winning song “Talk to the Animals.” (The fact that it was nominated for Best Picture, apparently just because 20th Century-Fox had squandered so much money on it, now seems perplexing, but in his essential book Pictures at a Revolution Mark Harris makes sense of it, uses the 1967 competition for the award as an emblem for the shift from the old Hollywood to the new Hollywood.) Eddie Murphy was the star of the 1998 movie of the same name, which was lamely plotted but the director, Betty Thomas, cleverly used the animals as an out-of-control vaudeville show. The idea of the Murphy version is that, learning of the doctor’s gift, animals show up at all hours to secure treatment for their ills (psychological as well as physical); he can’t tune them out, they never shut up, and their non-stop cacophony is often hilarious. So are the voice actors, like Chris Rock, Norm McDonald, Albert Brooks, John Leguizamo, Reni Santoni, Paul Reubens, Gilbert Gottfried, and Garry Shandling and Julie Kavner as a pair of squabbling pigeons with sex problems. And Murphy is a good sport:  he allows himself to be upstaged by every animal in the picture. (A sequel came out in 2001.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Whirlpool of Fate and Nana: Novice Renoir

Catherine Hessling and Harold Levingston in Whirlpool of Fate (1925).

Kino’s release of Whirlpool of Fate and Nana is a boon to Jean Renoir completists like me who have rarely had the chance to catch any of his silent movies. There were nine, including two shorts and one, Backbiters, that he co-directed with Albert Dieudonné, and most of them starred Catherine Hessling, his father Auguste Renoir’s last model, to whom he was married at the time. (They separated in 1930.) Until these Kino additions the only one I’d seen was The Little Match Girl (1928), in which Hessling plays Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic heroine – and though it was many years ago I remember how lovely it is.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Naturalism in Space: Stowaway

Shamier Anderson, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, and Toni Collette in Stowaway (2021).

“To Build a Fire,” Jack London’s most anthologized short story, follows a guy in the Yukon trying furiously to build a fire ahead of an oncoming blizzard. Each time he tries, something goes wrong. On the surface, the plot of Stowaway, written by director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, seems similar. Plotwise, all you really need to know is that it’s set on an unstoppable resource-limited spaceship, and it’s called StowawayOver the nearly two-hour running time, only one thing goes right, and it’s not enough.