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.